|System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian 'wakes up every day with five new ideas.' (Photo courtesy of Robert Sebree)
If Serj Tankian ever does himself in, it will likely be from overwork.
Downtime hasn't exactly been part of the System of a Down frontman's repertoire lately. Over the past year or so, he's co-written a musical called Prometheus Bound, published a collection of poetry titled Glaring Through Oblivion, toured with SOAD, gigged with orchestras and worked on a trio of new albums — including his third studio effort Harakiri, a hard-hitting, topical work that arrives online and in stores July 10. And oh yeah, he just got married.
"It was just a massively busy year and it kept getting busier and busier," the 44-year-old multi-tasker admits over a cellphone — en route to a video shoot in the Salton Sea, naturally. "But the beautiful thing for me is that working on music is all the same.
Whether it's Harakiri, which is a rock record, or whether it's Orca, which is my upcoming symphony, or Jazz-Is-Christ, which is a jazz record, it's all music. I like doing a lot of things at once and being inspired. I don't like doing one project at a time. It's f---ing boring."
He isn't about to lose interest anytime soon: Along with completing two more albums, he's also scoring a video game and a movie, hitting the road again with both his own band the FCC and with System — the latter will be playing the Heavy festivals in Toronto and Montreal in August — and trying to find some time for a honeymoon.
Somehow, Tankian also found time to chat about returning to rock, changing the world and reworking the System.
Harakiri is something of a return to rock for you. How did that happen?
That's a good question. I was not intending on making another rock record last year. But in January of 2011, there was a massive species- wide death of birds and fish. I was in New Zealand at the time and I was really moved by it. It was such an ominous event that I could not overlook it. So I started writing the song which ended up being the title track for Harakiri. And then all the other songs came to me within a few months time. The muse was forcing me to write a rock record; it's the only thing I can tell you. And it was the easiest record I've ever written in my life. It's very truthful, it's very in your face, I guess. It's probably the most upbeat, punk rock record I've ever made in my life as well.
The album sounds the alarm about several issues, from abusive capitalism to environmental collapse to reality TV. What are some solutions to these problems?
Well, obviously awareness is the first step. But beyond that, I think we have to change our lifestyle. We have to live in a different way than we do. We have to be cognizant of the environmental changes around us. Political change is very minute compared to environmental change on the planet — and most political change has now become a reaction to climate change. There's a lot of different schools of thinking as to what we do next and how we deal with this. But we have to realize, first of all, that we can't continue to live this lifestyle we have. The resources on the planet cannot co-exist with our expansion in population. Everything is just really connected.
Would you call yourself a pessimist or an optimist person? Because the lyrics seem fairly pessimistic?
Are they? I mean, I'm talking about environmental change. I'm talking about political strife. I'm talking about a reaction to a lot of the policies that have been in place that have left people falling through the cracks. All of this is reality, it's not pessimism. I'm truly an optimist. I wake up every day with a smile and have faith in the human spirit conquering its challenges, fingers crossed. But the reality of the ecological and political drama around the world is purely scientific at this point. It's not to be argued.
Do you have political aspirations?
Absolutely not. I would never want to be in a position where I would have to negotiate the truth. In art, we have total freedom of expression. I would never want to hinder that for any reason. That's what happens in politics overall, is what I've realized.
As a guy who's obviously keen to move forward, what's the appeal of returning to System of a Down and can it be artistically valid without new material?
You know, we've just been enjoying doing the reunion shows together.
We've had a blast. And I am really just enjoying doing everything, as you can tell. I like doing my own records, I like working with an orchestra, I like working with The FCC, I like working with System.
Having all of that in my life has been very enriching. As far as whether interest may die down in the band if we don't put out a record, I don't know. Those aren't things I grapple with, to be honest. When it's the right time to do another System record, we'll do it.
With all these projects, are you just a guy who can't say no or a guy who wakes up every day with five new ideas?
The last one. I love creating stuff. I love coming up with great ideas that I can implement. And I'm one of those people that literally implements all the ideas and doesn't fall behind because there's too much going on. I'll work on all of them and make it happen.