Sauntering back from a morning hike with his husky, Serj Tankian greets me on the doorstep of his immaculate, chalet-ish home in a leafy fold of the Calabasas hills. His Prius is parked out front, though the singer’s exaggerated features, bygone beard and disarming default half-smile lend him a sagely, Tolkienesque air, as though he might actually just wander about with a wooden staff. When he looks me in the eye, which he does often, and asks, “How are you?” he appears genuinely concerned for my welfare.
Settling onto a sofa to discuss, among other things, his debut solo album, Elect the Dead,the Beirut-born singer, 40, seems more scholar than rock star — he fronts L.A.’s multiplatinum art-metal juggernaut System of a Down. He greets each question with an expression that momentarily opens to a boyish blank, as if his responses are built from scratch with, literally, all things considered.
“The accelerated rate of population growth meshed with the accelerated rate of destruction of our natural resources on the planet makes civilization unsustainable,” Tankian announces in an Armenian-American lilt more soothing than his subject matter. “My ultimate message on the record is: Civilization is over — let’s face it. What are we going to do next?”
The previous day Tankian’s publicist sent me this note: “Serj requests that all writers interviewing him provide their thoughts (in any form such as poem, drawing, etc.) on the following: ‘Define what civilization means to you and what would its ending bring to our world.’?” I kid you not. (I offered some hurried prose defining civilization as “Doing what we’re not compelled to do; not doing what we feel compelled to do.”)
Yet while he may be the first songwriter to use the words “postindustrial society” as a hook (in “The Unthinking Majority”) and is known for his sociopolitical rantings with System of a Down, his own album reveals more of the man behind the manifesto. “Two or three of the songs are more personal — love, pain — but they also transcend into universal, and some are blatantly political like ‘The Unthinking Majority,’?” explains Tankian. “Some are in-between — social messages — some are funny, some are art for the sake of art, very Zappaesque. There’s a lot of songs that are very vulnerable and very much more personal than anything I’ve done with System .?.?. because it’s easier when you’re doing it by yourself to be more intimate.”
System of a Down, four musicians of Armenian descent from Glendale and Hollywood (completed by guitarist Daron Malakian, drummer John Dolmayan and bassist Shavo Odadjian), formed in 1995. Honed by überproducer/rock guru Rick Rubin, SOAD’s perverse and progressive mutant-metal — churning guitars, untamed vocal interplay, irreverent structural spasms and button-pushing lyrics — ambushed the head-bangin’ world when their eponymous debut appeared in 1998. The even more ambitious follow-up, ’01’s Toxicity, was a megaselling monster that gate crashed the mainstream, and in 2005 they went still further with the staggered release of their double Mesmerize/Hypnotize epic. After the accompanying world tour ended last August, System went on open-ended hiatus.
Knowing Tankian’s worldly influences and spiritual sensibilities, one would suspect his album — which he wrote, produced, played most of the instruments on and released on his own Serjical Strike label — would be all arcane arrangements and ethnic incantations. Instead, Elect the Dead is a cultured rock record, more self-expressive than self-indulgent: robust refrains, gruff guitars and unabashed beats tempered with orchestral and exotic subplots; pearls of piano and oddly intervalled (to Western ears) Indo-European harmonies. But it’s Tankian’s voice — an instrument capable of Old World candlelit warmth, trapped-beast wrath and a wrinkled vaudeville tenor — that defines Elect the Dead. He’s retained System’s ADHD dynamics, his drill sergeant eighth-note rants and educated vitriol, but overall Elect is less serrated than the music that made him rich.
At its most moving — the tragic, ecstatic choruses of “Saving Us,” “Money” and the first single, “Empty Walls” — Elect triggers cinematic, extremes-of-the-human-condition montages: black-clad widows at Balkan gravesides; life-changing long goodbyes; hands-round-the-throat revenge. Quiet bit/loud bit ballad “Baby” (which Tankian says came to him in a dream) is almost disappointingly lyrically and melodically direct. Surprisingly, not until track 10, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” does Tankian explore experimental, esoteric avenues.
At West Hollywood’s House of Blues on Saturday, Tankian and his five-man band (including Primus guitarist Larry LaLonde) lent Elect’s material an inclusive carnival air well suited to the costumed “KROQ Kreep Show” occasion. In white top hat and jacket, he gyrated and finger-clicked like a beaming father at his daughter’s wedding as an adoring capacity crowd sang along word-perfectly with songs released all of four days prior. In fine voice and lost in his own creations, Tankian imbued his set with a something-really-special-is-happening-here realization, barely dented by a misfiring, proggy midsection and a superfluous cover of the Dead Kennedys chestnut “Holiday in Cambodia.” No one in earshot was yelling for System of a Down songs.
Tankian commissioned videos for all 12 of Dead’s tracks, offering small budgets to artists and directors he’s admired and trusting them absolutely (not even asking to see a storyboard) to interpret what they heard. One of the joys of having total control is the option to abandon it.
“To me it’s very important to multiply the artistic factor of this record, not just put out a record and sell it. Lyrics and music should never be completely explained by the artist or songwriter, because people should internalize them .?.?. I know that music comes from the universe, through all of us, and the difference between a songwriter or an artist and a nonsongwriter/artist is that skill to present.”
Elect the Dead’s gorgeous melancholy, ancient ache and very contemporary rage is the product of a psyche both utterly of its time (Tankian previously ran his own software company) and steeped in the past (he has an acute knowledge of history). He deals with interpersonal dramas and, say, U.S. foreign policy, with equal eloquence.
Tankian says that living through civil war in Lebanon as a child probably affected his worldview. “And the whole Armenian genocide issue and growing up with that as a story — my grandfather’s story, my grandmother’s story — has made me very aware of activism of other issues.” (From 1915 to 1917 up to 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of forcible deportations and massacres by forces of the Ottoman Empire — a genocide not recognized by the U.S. government.) In 2002 Tankian formed Axis of Justice, a nonprofit organization fighting for social equality, with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. Last year he and Dolmayan (who also played drums on some of Elect the Dead) met with members of Congress to campaign for support for the Armenian Genocide Recognition Bill.
Elect the Dead artfully embraces Tankian’s many vocations: music, poetry (his Cool Gardens collection was self-published in 2001), his record label and activism. The commonality among these disciplines: Each requires an audience. Ego or accident?
“If you feel like everything’s ?connected then there is no micro/macro,” Tankian mulls. “It’s not a conscious thing that I do. Like when I’m working on a record, or when I’m doing work with Axis of Justice, or I’m writing poetry. I’m not thinking of anyone else.”
Fair enough, but Axis of Justice, as an organization campaigning for social justice, exists only in the context of society. And while Tankian says he has hundreds of diverse songs archived, most of which will never be heard, he appears palpably aware (and appreciative) of the commerciality of what he does and how this allows him to keep on doing it (while discussing his imminent touring plans he mentions “primary markets,” then almost catches himself).
Apparently his multiple public faces are all Serj Tankian. While he has more questions than answers, there’s tangible conviction there. Drawn to New Zealand’s progressive attitudes, he recently gained residency status there, and his controversial essay “Understanding Oil,” posted on System’s Web site two days after 9/11, earned him death threats and cost his band airplay.
Yet far from retreating to some solar-powered sanctuary, Tankian opts for all-mod-cons, ultracivilized Calabasas. And hybrid car or not, as recently as last year he was crisscrossing the globe in System of a Down’s extremely eco-unfriendly private jet. But in these Paris-and-Lindsay celebrity Dark Ages, at least ol’ Serj makes us think.
So when civilization does crumble (Calabasas and all), as Tankian expects, his little legacy may be one that survives in the rubble.
Elect the Dead is available on Serjical Strike/Reprise Records.