Serj Tankian reveals his creative urges

By Scott Kara

Tankian says his time in New Zealand 'has been really helpful in terms of putting everything behind me'. Photo / Supplied
Tankian says his time in New Zealand 'has been really helpful in terms of putting everything behind me'. Photo / Supplied

As you would expect from someone whose conversation swings easily from harakiri, the Japanese term for ritualistic suicide after which he named his latest solo album, to the Armenian genocide of nearly a century ago, Serj Tankian comes across as intense.

And not even his time living by the beach in New Zealand has chilled him out any.

As the frontman of System of a Down, the Lebanese-born Armenian-American has become a high-profile mouthpiece for Armenians wanting official recognition of genocide committed by Turkey during World War I. The historic issue has shaped his world view and his music, whether with SOAD, one of mainstream rock's heaviest outfits, or on his solo forays.

"I think my activism and politicisation came from the hypocrisy of the denial in the US of the Armenian genocide - and then realising how many other causes, be it human rights or environmentally oriented causes, are suppressed for political capital and gain," he says on the phone from Los Angeles.

Still, Tankian, a bloke who loved New Zealand so much he took up residency here in the mid-2000s and bought a house in Piha, is as affable as he is earnest.

Though he divides his time between New Zealand, Los Angeles and tour commitments, he really does love this place, and has done ever since he first visited in 1999.

"There was an intuitive sense of belonging that I had never felt anywhere else on the planet, and I have travelled extensively. It's the best country on the planet. I'm not saying that because you are on the phone to me. That's what I say to friends who ask me why I live in New Zealand," he says.

As the singer in System, his ballistic vocal style and politically charged and often hilarious lyrics helped make them the formidable band they are today. However, they went on hiatus in 2006 - they got back together in 2011 and played a fiery show in Auckland earlier this year - and during that lay-off Tankian's solo career has been prolific and diverse.

In this time, among many other things, he released his solo debut Elect the Dead in 2007, collaborated with the Auckland Philharmonia on an orchestral version of the album; his second solo album, Imperfect Harmonies (2010), fused live orchestra and electronic sounds and rock instruments, and in the past year he decided to do four separate albums. He is also working on film scores, soundtracks to video games and last year his second poetry book was released.

This creative burst is something he partly attributes to living in Piha.

"My time in New Zealand has been really helpful in terms of putting everything behind me, and it's been a great way of being able to write new music because when you have peace in your life you tend to be more creative because you have room to be creative. It's given me way more scope and depth to do what I do which is probably why I've made four records in one year."

A jazz album, an electronic one he wrote with music-making mate Jimmy Urine, and a classical symphony entitled Orca are yet to be released, but yesterday Harakiri came out, a trademark mix of agitating, poignant, and raging rock.

The album title suggests a powerful yet doomed image but the song Harakiri itself has an uplifting feel and mood to it.

"I was in New Zealand when I penned the song, back in January 2011, and it was around the time we were experiencing the death of birds, and there were even some [bird] deaths in Coromandel."

Tankian is referring to a spate of occurences where birds were falling from the sky in different parts of the world at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011.

"It was shocking and I saw it as a very obvious omen, although I didn't know what to make of it. So I wrote the song to try to understand it more than anything. How is it that large amounts of birds and fish would pretty much kill themselves? What do they know that we don't know? We know that animals are pretty intuitive. So all these questions started haunting me.

"And us, as humans, you could easily say we are committing suicide on a grand scale on this planet based on our lifestyle. So there are many ways to interpret the song but it's a pretty deep emotional and pyschological one for me."

Lowdown

Who: Serj Tankian, Kiwi resident, System of a Down frontman, and solo artist
New solo album: Harakiri, out now
Past solo albums: Elect The Dead (2007); Imperfect Harmonies (2010)
Also listen to: System of a Down - Toxicity (2001); Mezmerize (2005); Hypnotize (2005)

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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