Serj Tankian remains one of the most compelling singers of hard rock, best-known for his soaring, emotional vocals within the complex noise and melody of System of a Down. But he had another dream, which finally came true last year when he was invited to reinterpret his 2007 solo debut, Elect the Dead, in concert with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in New Zealand.
"In some cases, the reinterpretation into orchestral form made way more sense than the rock versions ever did," says Tankian, who lives in New Zealand part of the year. "Some of the songs came out more alive."
The lasting result of that performance is his Elect the Dead Symphony, a live recording set for release March 9th on DVD/CD, with sound mixed by Junkie XL. The filmed concert will also see limited release in nationwide screenings in theaters beginning February 19th in Portland, Oregon. "Redoing everything with a full orchestra was obviously a lot more work," he explains. "I had to strip everything down back to basics, back to vocal and piano, and then start building it up with cello and viola, violin, horns and whatnot, and substitute electric guitars with brass and violin. That was really exciting."
While leaving off the faster, punk-paced "Unthinking Majority" and other material he thought ill-fitting for orchestra, Tankian included two previously unreleased songs in the concert: "Charade," originally written nearly seven years ago for System of a Down; and "Gate 21," which will appear on his next solo album.
"It's about loss and gain in terms of love," Tankian says of "Gate 21," which he performs on solo piano for the live recording. "It's about the dynamics of love and modern relationships, push and pull, ying and yang."
One Elect the Dead song that did make it to the symphony orchestra was "Beethoven's Cunt," which he insisted that conductor John Ure introduce to the audience. "I couldn't wait to hear him say that," says Tankian with a laugh. "I think the musicians were as surprised as the audience. We got a big laugh, so that was really cool."
Tankian's new comfort with orchestral sounds plays an increased role on his next solo album, tentatively titled Music Without Borders (a nod to Doctors Without Borders). Just two weeks ago, Tankian was in the studio recording a 25-piece string section and a seven-piece brass section, mixed with electronics and jazz and rock — "a new sound I've developed for myself."
"I created this bridge between the synthetic and the organic, between the electronic and the orchestral, that made total sense," Tankian says. "I mix everything up the way I always do. So the formula hasn't changed, but the sound is drastically different. It was a little challenging."
He's been working on a musical interpretation of the ancient Greek play Prometheus Bound, set to open on Broadway in March 2011. And he produced the debut album from his father, Khatchadour Tankian, a lifelong musician. His father's collection of Armenian songs, Inchbes Moranank (translated as "How Can We Forget?") was released this month on Tankian's Serjical Strike label.
All that has kept Tankian busy, with still no plans to reconvene the multi-platinum System of a Down anytime in the near future. But they are in touch. "We always get offers to do shows, which is great," he says. "There's rumors every week about us doing this or the other. But we haven't really made a decision — an inclusive, cooperative decision to play a particular show or do anything as of now. The possibility is there — maybe next year, maybe the year after. The communication is there so we will see."
Check out "The Forest Project," photographer Greg Watermann's collage of images set to SOAD music: