Serj Tankian on ‘Harakiri,’ the environment, and the Occupy movement

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If you asked Serj Tankian about how he made his newest solo album, Harakiri, he could explain to you how he composed all of the parts on every song on the 11-track record. But he could also tell you about the part fiber, part postconsumer recycled, part flax seed and part hemp paper the album is pressed on, because, as he puts it, “You want to remember everything you did was associated with not only the environment but with the whole sense of being.”

Tankian is that kind of guy. But the man who rose to fame with hard rockers System of a Down is also the kind of guy who appreciates jazz and classical music, believes in the Occupy movement and sometimes mismanages his time. The latter isn’t too surprising, given his penchant for constantly working on multiple projects — since the band’s recording hiatus began in 2006, Tankian has released three albums of his own and is currently working on a symphony, Orca, as well as the aptly named Jazz-Iz-Christ and Fuktronic, an electronic music soundtrack that he and Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence plan on syncing to interactive visuals.

“There are times I’m completely overwhelmed,” he admits. “There’s too much fucking shit going on, and you’ve got to just kind of go, ‘Okay … it’s all going to be okay, and it’s all going to be done.’”

Despite this, the 45-year-old Lebanon native of Armenian descent has managed to get plenty done over his long-spanning run in the industry. On top of his three solo albums, Tankian recorded five with System and picked up a Grammy along the way for the once-ubiquitous hit “B.Y.O.B.” (“Bring Your Own Bombs”). For anyone needing an introduction to the band’s discography, that song is a good start — the title alone evidences Tankian’s tendency for the political, an affinity of his that has remained constant throughout his nearly 20-year career.

A glimpse into his most recent work, released in July, showcases songs aimed at corporations, CEOs and even reality television. But the album’s central theme is one closer to home. Inspired by the events of early 2011 in which birds and fish seemingly randomly died off around the country, Tankian explores the interconnectivity of all things in Harakiri, a word that refers to a form of the ancient Japanese ritual of seppuku, or suicide by sword.

“From the Arab spring to the Occupy movement to the Euro crisis to you name it, all this ties in to environmental change,” Tankian explains. “I think environmental change precipitates change in economics, change in politics, change in society en masse.”

The album’s crunchy guitars, paired with Tankian’s soaring wail and often Eastern-inspired sound, are reminiscent of System’s characteristics but decidedly more alt-rock punk than hard-rock prog. Since working separately from the band, Tankian has dabbled in everything from symphonics to electronics, experiments he partly attributes to his growing affection for film music. Inspired by composers like Ennio Morricone and Philip Glass, the upcoming Orca will be entirely instrumental, a symphony composed by Tankian alone.

“I didn’t really grow up with a giant fondness for classical music,” Tankian recalls of his influences. “However, I’ve always enjoyed film music and the moving aspect — the emotional strings that film music is really great at playing — so over the years, I’ve started listening to it more and more.”

Just because his newest work won’t feature his bitingly satirical lyrics doesn’t mean that Tankian’s gone soft. Always active in politics and current events, the singer cofounded Axis of Justice, a non-profit organization for social justice, with fellow politically charged musician Tom Morello in 2003. On its radio show, the organization has featured guests such as political filmmaker Michael Moore and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. For Tankian, one of the rare breed of successful rock stars with a college degree, education and getting the word out has always been a priority: “It’ll be harder for someone like Bush Jr. to take a ride to Iraq or anywhere else in the world if we know our own history of that.”

Which is one of the reasons Tankian is so excited about the Occupy movement. Tankian can’t understand why Jay-Z — or anyone, for that matter — wouldn’t understand what the movement is about. “When it first started, the first thought in my mind was, ‘Finally.’”
Tankian attributes his worldview to his unique set of experiences. For him, the opportunity to grow up as a young immigrant in the United States (Tankian’s family hails from the ashes of the Armenian genocide) and travel while touring led him to understand the world from multiple perspectives. Music is his way of sharing them — especially his political ideology.

“The opportunity in the American enterprise is phenomenal, and the political system is a great system.” But Tankian warns, “The American dream could turn into an American nightmare if people get taken for a ride, as we have been in the last number of years.”

Damian Ortellado is the assistant Arts & Entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]