Remember back in early 2011, when birds plummeted from the sky, and fish died en masse? These dead critters are at the heart of System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian's new album Harakiri, which is out today. Inspired by what he sees as a Cassandric clarion call of nature, he assembled this record at his home studio in Calabasas. “Do [animals] know something we don't about the coming times or the sustainability of the environment?” he posits.
Tankian's been at the helm of Glendale multi-platinum art-metal band System of a Down since their inception in 1994. Their 2001 album Toxicity graced the CD racks of millions of Hot Topic shoppers, and has been both derided as awful nu-metal and begrudgingly praised for a contrarian style; think of it as Fugazi being violated by Dream Theater.
Born in Beirut and raised in L.A., Tankian has an extensive C.V. beyond the band that made him famous. He's been honored for his genocide-awareness campaigns in his parents' native Armenia, he's written plays and poetry books, and he's founded nonprofits. Musically, besides the rock-oriented Harakiri, he's recorded a symphony, a jazz record (called Jazz-Iz-Christ) and an electronic album, though none of them have confirmed release dates yet.
The relentless 44-year-old songsmith gives us the skinny on all of them at his woodsy Calabasas lair, which is hidden in the canyons above Malibu. His vibe is more “perpetual grad student” than “professor.” Dressed in a loose red T-shirt and sporting an overgrown soul patch, his slight salting of gray belies his youthful appearance; his slightly accented “dude” and “man” betray his non-American upbringing.
Reclining in his cluttered studio, he's eager to chat, and also wants to listen to music — his music. “You wanna hear my symphony, man? I just finished demo-ing it with synth strings on my iPad,” he says. “We're looking for an orchestra right now to record it. I'm thinking the Bruckner [from Linz, Austria], since their space is all set up to record.”
A symphony, really? Actually, it's not his first. The Auckland Orchestra supported his 2009 Elect the Dead solo tour. He calls this one Orca, and it's kind of cool and epic-sounding, actually.
When asked if he gets flak for genre-hopping, he laughs and gets mildly defensive. “It's stupid. Almost every interview, they ask this. I've got my response locked down now. I ask them, 'Do you only interview musicians? Are you afraid to talk to politicians? Or artists?' They say, 'No … .' Great. Next question.” Just as a reporter might have different beats, Tankian prefers to use many different styles at once.
“We spent months mixing Harakiri … and part of it was that I wanted to learn how to mix better, y'know? What am I learning about this process is important to me. Which is why I do a symphony, a jazz record, an electronic record. So, they all kind of interact with each other. … Each is a different form of communication.
“What you can do with an orchestra in the sad moments — that vulnerability,” he adds. “You can't do that with jazz or rock — they each have their own kind of expressions that are unique to them, and I like having all of those tools and palettes.”
Sure, we'll buy that. Wait a minute, though — what about all those dead birds?
“Dude, I was reading the news in 2011, and I saw all of these mass fish and bird suicides, like those 25,000 birds in Alabama, remember that? And it all happened right before the Japanese earthquake. And I was like, 'What the fuck, man,' so I started writing the album right then.”
Harakiri sounds like Tankian's doing his best Zappa update, with mixed results. He's got the disjointed, multi-instrumental rock orchestrations down pat, adding his own jarring, frenetic punkiness with a dash of Euro-pop hooks for good measure. Lyrically, he's all over the place. At his best: “The daughters of the evolution weave on.” At his worst: “Super Bowl halftime, sucking on a lime.” It's never entirely clear when he's kidding. Although the name of his touring band — Flying Cunts of Chaos — is definitely worthy of a guffaw or two.
In any case, there's definitely a method to this madness, among his orchestra stuff especially. For his, let's just hope that Orca comes out before the animals fulfill their apocalyptic prophecy.
System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian's new album Harakiri is out today.