A big metal leap

By Scott Kara

One's a Kiwi resident, the other is a workaholic, but they're both mad musical scientists from metal backgrounds. Scott Kara talks to System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian and Fantomas' leader Mike Patton about the art of menacing music

For someone who has been outspoken, and some might say militant, in his criticism of George Bush, Serj Tankian reveals a surprising respect for the outgoing US President over the way he dealt with the shoe-throwing incident in Iraq last month.

"He told his security to back off, he didn't get mad, and when asked about it right on the spot he said, 'He was just protesting like anyone else does'. I thought that was interesting, and he definitely does have a sense of humour."

But never fear, the Beirut-born musician, System of a Down frontman, and bloke who loved New Zealand so much he took residency and bought a house here, is not a Bush convert.

"I think he knows he's disliked. He's not very liked in his own country, let alone in the country he invaded."

Tankian's first solo album, Elect the Dead, from 2007 - following System's decision to go on an extended hiatus in 2006 - was a politically charged beast with the war in Iraq a popular topic.

So how does he think the album, and songs like lead single The Unthinking Majority, stand up now that the Bush administration is
on the way out?

"That song itself, although written at a time of protest against a lot of injustices committed by the Bush administration, like the invasion of Iraq and all sorts of things, it wasn't strictly to do with that.
There have been a lot of invasions and interventions in imperial policy by nations in the past that that song would apply to and in the future I'm sure."

Musically Elect the Dead retained System Of A Down's rampant and propulsive metal staccato, but it also allowed Tankian the freedom to incorporate everything from opera to instruments like synthesiser, piano and strings.

And he decided right from the start that he wouldn't play System songs in his sets even though he admits he would have a bigger following if he did.

"That's not what it's about for me. It's about doing different things as an artist and learning and growing and challenging myself."

Apart from the Big Day Out, his next challenge is a collaboration with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra playing songs from Elect The Dead on March 16 at the Auckland Town Hall.

"It's going to be an adventure for me. I've been doing string arrangements for it, and writing new melodies for the songs using strings and brass and what not. And working with John Psathas [the NZ composer who, among other things, wrote the music for the Athens Olympics] is quite an adventure."

While it's too early to say whether the APO will be involved in Tankian's next album, tipped to be a "jazz orchestral record", he views the concert as a first step towards seeing how his songs might sound orchestrally.

"I've done strings for years and have been doing more composing for film but it's always got buried in the rock, as they say. But I love writing for multiple pieces, not just traditional rock instruments."

Although, at 6pm on the main stage tomorrow it will be all about rock'n'roll.

Fantomas are possibly the sickest sounding band to ever grace the Big Day Out. The likes of Slipknot, Marilyn Manson and Rammstein have nothing on the twisted terror and genre-destroying sound of the supergroup lead by Mike Patton - former Faith No More singer and man behind many musical projects like the musical carnage of Tomahawk and the wonky pop of Peeping Tom where he collaborated with artists like Norah Jones and Massive Attack.

And just for something different, Fantomas are coming to the Big Day Out to play the entirety of their 2001 album The Director's Cut, which consists of covers of soundtracks to movies like The Godfather, Cape Fear and Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer.

The band, also made up of guitarist Buzz Osborne (the Melvins), bass player Trevor Dunn (Mr Bungle) and drummer Dale Crover (also from the Melvins who sits in for usual sticksman Dave Lombardo of Slayer), have not played together since 2006.

However, they reconvened last month when Patton and Osborne were co-curating the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Britain, where bands play their classic albums from start to finish.

The organisers of the shows insisted one of Patton's projects also play.

"So it was like, 'Okay, what one would you like?' and Fantomas is what they chose. I'd never done anything like that before, played one record top to bottom, so I thought it was a cool thematic train of thought," says Patton from Los Angeles where he has been working on the
soundtrack to action film Crank 2 and is also co-founder of record label Ipecac, a community he describes as a "nice little home for musical misfits".

"And The Director's Cut is some of our more user-friendly material so it works well in a live environment."

Still, the album is not for the faint-hearted and the band's renditions of music to movies like The Omen (which is given an operatic death-metal remix) are twisted beyond belief and sometimes beyond recognition.

And Patton admits some of the music, like the frenzied and scary One Step Beyond, is difficult to play live and they had to go back and re-learn them.

"Here we were in the rehearsal room listening to the CD we made," he laughs. "So if we don't concentrate then [One Step Beyond] turns into a heinous train wreck. [Fantomas] is a tough project in general and that's just the nature of it but because of the way I constructed the tunes, it's not something you can have a few beers before the show, go up there, close your eyes and jam. It's music that is really dense and all about the little details."

Patton always has multiple projects on the go - a new Fantomas album, "that's still in my head at the moment", is due sometime this year and will be entirely electronic - and he has a manic work ethic to match his equally crazed music.

"I'm just here to do as much as I can before I kick the bucket. The best way to explain it is it's not really work to me. It's a combination of things: work, vacation, torture, and it's a mistress and a life."

Who: Serj Tankian, former System of a Down frontman, now solo; Mike Patton, man of many bands and leader of Fantomas
Where & when: Serj Tankian, 6pm-6.55pm, Orange stage (main
stadium); Fantomas, 9.35pm-10.30pm, Essential stage (top field)
Key albums: Serj Tankian - Elect the Dead (2007); Fantomas - The Director's Cut (2001)
Trivia: Tankian and Patton recently did a duet called Bird's Eye for the film Body Of Lies

- NZ Herald

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