Interview: Serj Tankian on 'Harakiri'
The System of a Down frontman talks politics, songwriting and his new album, Harakiri.
"If Nixon were running for president today, he would be seen as a 'liberal" candidate,' and he would probably win," wrote Hunter S. Thompson in 2004.
It was a telling statement coming from a man who was watching from the sidelines as Nixon defeated Democratic hopeful George McGovern in the 1972 Presidential election before being practically run out of town following the Watergate Scandal.
What the Good Doctor was alluding to was the tragic state of U.S. politics in the new millennium, which he saw as being overrun by crooks and criminals that made old Tricky Dick look like a mischievous scamp in comparison.
For better or worse, rock and roll has been intertwined with politics since, well, before Nixon, and there have always been those outspoken few who have seen rock music not only as a means of escapism, but as a powerful vehicle for combating corruption and injustice through education.
And it's education that System of a Down vocalist Serj Tankian seems most interested in talking about when it comes to his new solo album, Harakiri.
"Sometimes it's better to have a benign dictator than a dumb democracy, to be honest," he says, referring to to the strong need for the better education and heightened awareness he feels is necessary to enact change. Not to be misconstrued, he adds, "But I think I would always err on the side of democracy, even with an uneducated democracy."
Since his last proper solo album, 2010's Imperfect Harmonies, the world has been through its share of growing pains. In Tunisia, Egypt and Lybia, the Arab Spring ushered in drastic changes in government via grassroots revolutions. Here in the U.S., the Occupy Movement mobilized everyone from students to union workers in an effort to bring awareness to a whole range of plights
With song titles like "Occupied Tears" and "Uneducated Democracy," it'd be easy to assume Tankian's new album is written just for all those engaged in the struggle for freedom around the world. But ask Tankian, and he'll tell you Harakiri is for the birds.
"If you remember In Arkansas there were around 25,000 blackbirds falling from the sky," he says, referring to just one case of a sudden, mass animal death in early 2011.
"There was something ominous about the whole thing and it really, really strongly affected me, more than anything else that was going on, enough to make me go, OK, this is a huge fucking sign but I don't know what it means. But it was a huge sign, and to try and decipher what it could mean — psychologically, spiritually — and asking these major questions ... "
When painted like that, the signs are hard to ignore. I recently sat down with Tankian to sort through the mess and try to figure it out.
GUITAR WORLD: Since your last proper solo outing, 2010's Imperfect Harmonies, a lot has been going on in the world, the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement to name a couple. How much of that fed into the writing of Harakiri?
SERJ TANKIAN: I think everything that was going on in 2011 and prior, based on experience, was probably feeding into everything I was doing from Harakiri to all the other projects that I was doing. But because it's probably the most lyrically viable record — because some of the others are instrumental — it probably fed in a good amount.
If you listen to "Fuck Let's Figure It Out" — which is now just called "Figure It Out," thanks to iTunes — it kind of comedically tells the story of CEOs being the problem. I say comedically because it focuses on one little aspect of the whole complex problem of inbalance, injustice and inequality, and it does it in a funny way.
As you mentioned, "Figure It Out" really goes after CEOs, who are taking a lot of the blame for the financial crisis in 2008. A lot of that, from my perspective, stems from a shift in management culture in which CEOs are given incentives to maximize shareholder revenues by any means necessary, including outsourcing, layoffs, cutting corners, etc. I think that's led to a lot of anti-capitalism sentiments, but is capitalism really not a viable system or have we just gotten off track a bit in the U.S.?
I think anytime that you go to the extreme of any mode of economics, be it capitalism or communism, you have these feedback mechanisms that make the system turn in on itself. If you allow for a purely capitalistic society, without any type of regulation at all, you will get one monopoly that will eat all of the smaller fish and own everything, and then you'll have zero capitalism, zero competition — it would just be one giant company. So I think we have to be careful how we associate ourselves with different economic structures.
You know, to me, as much as we're a capitalistic society, we have to have these built in security nets for the public for the sake of democracy. Capitalism unchecked is not a democratic system. And I think we should be more on the side of democracy, rather than waving the capitalism flag as a nation. I don't think we should be married to an economic system unless it's good for all of our people. It just makes more sense to me.
You touched on the idea of the "social safety net," which is suffering a bit as there's a push to privatize things like prisons and education, and obviously a push to keep health care private.
They've done the experiments with prisons over the years and the results have been horrible. And same with education. There's a lot of private education already, so to a certain point that works, but I don't think they should privatize all public education. They should put more money into it so that we're not number 30 on the educational scale on the planet. You know?
As far as medical, I wish that Obama had pushed for the public option even though he couldn't, based on the Republicans. He got whatever he could pass and now they're trying to fight it as a Constitutional thing. I can't believe this country, honestly. It's so fucking backwards sometimes that it pisses me off.
I don't get it. I don't understand. You see people that are really suffering and they don't have health care, their kids don't have health care, and they're asked why they don't support Obama's healthcare plan and they say, "Well, we want freedom." And I'm like, "Fuck you!"
I think that's why education is so important. To have an uneducated democracy ... sometimes it's better to have a benign dictator than a dumb democracy, to be honest with you.
And that poses a dilemma that seems almost counter-intuitive to the principle of democracy. You see how a majority of people vote, then you start thinking that maybe the majority shouldn't be able to vote on things like, say, the rights of minorities.
I think part of it is also structural. But I think I would always err on the side of democracy, even with an uneducated democracy — and I don't mean traditional education, I mean ignorance.
For years I've been talking about the electorate system. Campaign financing and the lobbying firms coupled with our electorate have made our system not a real democracy anyway. We're not a democracy; we're a republic, or a representational democracy.
Those factors plus the Supreme Court giving Citizens United the go-ahead to put as much money freely into our campaign system as they want has changed the rules. Corporations — and in certain cases foreign governments — have more power in our government than you and I do as citizens, and that's not fucking cool. That's what we first have to strip and make it a true representational democracy before we can even move on further.
But I think education plays a big part in this because we are easily led if we're gullible. Why else would we be led into a war with false reasons a ramifications?
And that's a problem, no matter what side on the aisle you're on. Both sides tend to get caught up it their own political dogma without really being able to tell you why they think that way.
Right, I fully agree with you there. It is dogma. People get so attached to a position which they identify themselves with that they just spurt it out, but they can't really give you a viable reason why they feel that way.
So the first thing most people encountered from the album was the teaser video to "Figure It Out," which featured the mail box ...
Aside from just looking like it would have been really fun to do, I'm curious about the message behind it. I think it's funny that it came out right about the same time Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece about saving the Post Office came out. Is it safe to say you disagree?
No. Funny enough, it's not. And that's kind of what I was going through. There was a lot of talk about cutting postal workers jobs and mail delivery. I mean, you could make a very strong argument for most our interaction being digital, but I did the mailbox thing mainly because I had an extra mailbox and I wanted to make a funny video. That literally is my reasoning. [laughs]
I think there's definitely a subtle ecological message there, which is something I noticed is all over the album as well. The title track, for instance, definitely carries a strong environmental theme.
The inspiration behind the title track was this: Early in 2011, all around the world we had these birds and fish dying everywhere. If you remember In Arkansas there were around 25,000 blackbirds falling from the sky. In Maryland there were like half a million crabs that just washed up dead. It was in Italy, Sweden, New Zealand, South America, all over the U.S. It happened in Southern California, down here in Redondo Beach, where about a hundred thousand sardines washed up dead in one of the bays.
And the reasons at the time, if you read up on them — firecrackers, not enough oxygen in the bay — it's like a 7-year-old was writing the scientific reasoning for them. It just didn't make any sense.
There was something ominous about the whole thing and it really, really strongly affected me, more than anything else that was going on, enough to make me go, OK, this is a huge fucking sign but I don't know what it means. But it was a huge sign, and to try and decipher what it could mean — psychologically, spiritually — and asking these major questions ...
I mean, I'm well aware that fish are very intuitive as far as environmental changes. If you're about to get an earthquake, fish will jump out of the aquarium, for example, before our early warning systems inform us. So these animals that are way more connected to nature than we are as humans, why did they decide to go? There must be some kind of reasoning or some kind of signal, and what does that mean for us? Is it environmental degradation? Is it the polar caps reversing polarity? What is the reasoning behind it?
I was really trying to understand this, and that's when I wrote the first song, "Harakiri." And every song on the album, even though it's not a concept album, kind of talks about the times that we're living in, either from a political angle, a social angle, environmental angle, personal angle — even humorous. "Reality TV," for example, is like a verbal tongue-lashing at the common-denominator state of our television world. A journalist called it "cultural harakiri." [laughs]
Talk a bit about your songwriting process. At what point after Imperfect Harmonies did you begin writing these songs?
I started in January of 2011. I may have started late in 2010 just getting ideas together, but not really thinking about a record. See, I always write. For me, having three or four hours a week at the least, just to kind of get away from everything and enjoy what I do and just artistically for the hell of it. It's how I've compiled a large archive of music over the years.
I have to say though, I wasn't really intending to write another rock record in 2011. I had plenty of project in my head: three different records, to a film idea, all the touring I was doing with System and the orchestra, a book release. I was fucking booked, you know?
But these songs just came to me so naturally, so easily, and there's something to be said for that in terms of a truthful expression. It's the easiest record I've ever written in my life, I'm not going to lie. Maybe because I've been doing rock for a while now, or whatever the case is.
Getting involved in all of these other projects, from film music to jazz to working with an orchestra, all seem like a way to push yourself further as an artist. Would you say rock and roll comes easy to you now?
It does. And I don't mean that in any negative way. It's a positive thing. I love rock and it comes easy, it's truthful and it's expressive.
The reason I feel like I've gone into these other genres of music is that I feel like there's only so much one express through one form of music. There are points in the symphony Orca that get so tender and so sad that there's just no way I could do that with hard music. No way.
With rock music, the amount of power that you can generate, the intensity behind the intentions of your lyrics that you can really reflect through rock music — you can't do that in jazz. You can't do that with classical.
So each is a completely different form of expression for me emotionally, so that's why I really enjoy all of them.
Were you working on these other records as you were writing songs for Harakiri?
I was working on songs for all four records at the same time.
[laughs] Yeah. So I went from complete classical to jazz to electronic, British gangster soundtrack shit to Harakiri, sometimes all in one day. It really works well. One project inspires another, in some ways. The rock gives you the energy to sort of upbeat everything, the jazz gives you this kind of multiple color palette that lets you see things in different ways.
But really it's not so different. We pay too much attention to genres. Music is music.
How much guitar are you playing on the record? Does the instrument factor much into your writing process?
I played guitar on pretty much every song on the new record. In fact, the way that I wrote this record was three different methods. Number one was on piano. "Harakiri" was written on piano. It starts and ends on piano, but I switched it around so you only hear it end on piano, actually.
I played guitars on every song, I played bass on every song. I used loops to mock up all my drums on every song. I played piano on whatever songs that have piano, keyboards on whatever songs that have keyboards. So the way I do it is I play everything, put it in ProTools, have it all laid back and then I go, "OK, what do I need?"
The first thing I want to do is thicken up my guitars. Dan Monti, who co-engineers with me, comes in and he'll add his own guitar parts, awesome highs and solos that I love. He's also a great engineer, so he'll take my guitars, reprocess them and then add his guitars. I'll replay some parts, he'll replay some parts and then we'll have the guitars for that song.
I had Mario [Pagliarulo] come in and redo all my bass parts, which I had written on bass. But he's a way better bass player than I'll ever be in my whole fucking life! So he came in and recorded the parts and added these great improvisational fills which I love from his playing.
We've also been playing with these guys for five years, so they kind of know what I want and they're in the pocket with it.
And of course Troy [Zeigler] replaced all of my drum loops with live drums. But they were all rock drum loops which I had designed for how I wanted the song to go, so he stayed within that framework while obviously adding his own fills and accenting things the way he accents things. So it has that live record flavor, but it was written in a completely different sphere.
There are also songs that I started on the iPad, for fun. There are all these fun music apps and I was fucking around with them making beats, doing these sample arrangements, and I'm like, "Wow, this is really fun!" And then one day, for the fuck of it, I decided to throw one of them in ProTools and see what I can add to it. so I added some guitar and some bass and I thought, "Dude, this is a song! I can hear a melody in my head and I think I have some lyrics." And that ended up being three songs on the record.
It sounds like you've really expanded your songwriting methods. Were there any other ways you experimented on the record?
You'll like this! There's also another way which I wrote where I took the first two records — Elect the Dead and Imperfect Harmonies — and I chopped all the different elements into loops. And I took it as my own loop library. So almost like an electronic musician, I put all of that into ProTools within the same key and same BPM and I would almost electronically write my rock songs using previous loops, just to have something to go off of — like a sketch pad.
It's pretty cool. I use other royalty-free loops in the process, but I like using my own because no one else has those. It's pretty unique. It's kind of ecological, musical recycling, if you will!
Serj Tankian's new album, Harakiri, is out July 10 via Reprise Records. You can pre-order the album now at SerjTankian.com.
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