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Serj Tankian Talks New Film Scores, Chris Cornell, What’s Next For System of a Down

Singer-composer on his music for action movie ‘Furious’ and doc ‘Intent to Destroy,’ and why his “screw vocals” comment was taken way out of context

Serj Tankian Talks System of a Down, New Film Scores, Chris Cornell

Shayan Asgharnia

Reports of Serj Tankian never wanting to sing again are greatly exaggerated. Earlier this month, news spread that the System of a Down frontman was interested only in instrumental music now and that in an interview he’d even said, “Screw vocals.” When he thinks about that story now, he laughs.

“That was from an interview I’d done, like, five or six months ago when I was in Moscow doing press for the movie Furious – The Legend of Kolovrat, which I did the score for,” he says. “I don’t remember saying ‘screw vocals,’ but it may have been when they were showing the film and someone was asking me about vocals, and I said something like, ‘Screw the vocals, look at the screen.’ What’s funny is I’m doing all these vocal sessions this week. How about that?”

The day before speaking with Rolling Stone, the singer recorded vocals for a track on Mindless Self Indulgence frontman Jimmy Urine’s upcoming solo album. On the night of the chat, he’s singing a song for System of a Down drummer (and Tankian’s brother-in-law) John Dolmayan’s These Grey Men side project. “It’s like vocal week for me,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not that I don’t ever want to sing. It’s just that I’m focused on doing film music more than anything right now. It’s where I’m really feeling the muse come.”

This year, Tankian scored two films and released soundtrack albums for each. The documentary Intent to Destroy explores how for more than a century the Turkish government has denied that the Armenian Genocide ever took place, and it features a shadowy, nuanced score. Meanwhile, the Russian-language Furious is an action film about a 13th-century battle, which allowed Tankian to create majestic tapestries of choirs, symphony, electric guitar and Tuvan throat singing. He’s currently working on music for Spitak, a Russian-Armenian co-production about the Armenian earthquake of 1988. “It’s a really heavy film,” he says. “I’m writing a modern-sounding score with very light pianos and ethereal soundscapes for this one. It’s very dreamy, sometimes dark, sometimes bright. I’m halfway through it.” Tankian has a few others on the docket for the coming year too.

“It’s easy to write a rock song for me because I’ve done it for 25 fucking years,” he explains. “And if something comes up and I feel like it needs a rock instrumentation for the emotions to be conveyed, I’ll write another rock song, but if that’s not what I’m feeling, then I’m not.”

Despite feeling some annoyance about how his previous interview was taken out of context, Tankian is in good spirits when he speaks with RS. “I’m a little nervous but good,” says the singer, who is at home in California. “There are fucking fires everywhere.” Nevertheless, he says he’s carrying out his day-to-day routines as usual, which of course is centered around writing music.

Is composing your full-time musical endeavor these days?
Mostly, yeah. It’s vocal week for me now, but mostly I’ve been scoring and doing back-to-back films. And it’s been great, because each film is a completely different type of music, depending on the type of film it is with the tempo and the emotion. So you end up making something more diverse than you would if you were making records.

What is your process with film soundtracks?
I get as much information as possible about a project. I’ll look at a script and get the vibe of it and chat with the director, so I know what’s in his or her mind in terms of music and instrumentation, as well as the emotional impact of what they’re trying to achieve. After I talk to the director, I set up a huge template of sample instruments so I know what colors I’m going to use. There’s a lot of preparation before I write a single note, but if you do all that, it takes way less time to do a full film than you would imagine.

How was it working on Furious – The Legend of Kolovrat, since that’s a big, action-packed period piece?
It was a green-screen film, where they had the producer run the show, and a lot of the action was done in postproduction with digital animation. I was working with one of the producers named Dzhanik Fayziev, and we’d have conversations on Skype. We did live instrumentation, which made the music even more powerful.

What did Dzhanik ask you for with this one?
He kept on saying, “More guitars, more guitars.” I was like, “You don’t have to say that twice. You want more guitars? I’ve been doing guitars for fucking 25 years. That’s easy.” He wanted to push the envelope, and I liked that after scoring Intent to Destroy with Joe Berlinger.

That film [Intent to Destroy] is this incredible documentary about genocide denial. It was so close to home, and with my grandparents being genocide survivors and spending my whole career talking about the need to be aware of the Armenian Genocide and how it connects with today, it was emotionally tough scoring that film. I put a lot of emotion into it, and Joe was extremely happy with how it made you feel everything that was going on. So after working on such a serious film, a film where you could just go fucking epic and over the top with Tuvan singing and more guitars was fun. It lightened it up.

I imagine that’s not you doing throat singing.
No, it’s not. I originally used samples and then we had an actual Tuvan singer overlay as a soloist on top of the sample and we mixed it together.

What did you ask of the Tuvan singers?
We sent them certain spot tracks and picked four or five spots and [asked them to] sing Tuvan in this key in whatever variation that you want in a long period of time and we’ll cut it together. It added some live breath on top of the samples.

You sang a song for the Furious soundtrack, “A Fine Morning to Die,” which is a duet with a Belarusian singer, Katya Ivanchikova. How did that come together?
I’d done a cue and one of the producers said, “No pressure, but if something pops up where you want to use it for end credits and happen to want to sing on it, we would be incredibly happy.” I was working on that theme in New Zealand, and I thought, “Wow, there’s something about this that requires a voice.” So I started singing on it and I used the words out of that exact scene from the English subtitles, and it made sense. They wanted me to sing in Russian, and I said, “Absolutely not. I just don’t know Russian.” You don’t want to sing a language you’re not confident in because then you’re doing a disservice to that language and your performance. So I said, “Let me sing in English,” and we found this really amazing young Russian singer, Katya, and she did the vocals. We talked about it over the phone and she sent some comments back, and she nailed it. So it turned out to be the theme song.

Let’s talk about Intent to Destroy. How did you handle working on a project that was so close to you personally?
You go through the emotions. There were times where I was sitting alone in the studio, scoring in the middle of the night fucking bawling my eyes out watching a scene while trying to write music for it. Joe is an amazing documentarian and he always includes the opposing opinion. He included a genocide denier in the film, and it’s a horrific thing. Watching a genocide denier speaking in my studio, while I’m trying to score under them was really difficult. I told Joe I was throwing up in my mouth every day doing those scenes. It’s not easy. As a composer, though, you shouldn’t necessarily be emotionally connected to every film. I think you should understand it and bring out the emotions of the characters and the script. You shouldn’t necessarily cry while you’re doing it on every film, but when it does, it means it’s a powerful film.

You got some interesting sounds for Intent to Destroy. On “Table Read” and “Hanging Village,” there are some ghostlike effects. How did you get those?
I used a lot of really cool, organic, arpeggiated, hybridized instruments on the bottoms of a lot of scenes to keep the bottom alive and moving and I would bring in solo instruments on top. With “Table Read,” there’s a piano and a music box together playing arpeggiated and then there’s strings that come on top that swell. I used that theme over and over again at different tempos, throughout the end because I found it very moving and beautiful. Every time it went back to the film, it became like the musical theme of [the Armenian Genocide–themed movie] The Promise to me, but within Intent to Destroy. In The Promise, it comes in at the end as well when Christian Bale comes into the hotel and makes a big statement saying that they’re killing men and banishing women and children into the desert. It’s one of the most powerful statements from The Promise. I actually told Christian Bale, that statement makes the film. It’s fucking 15 seconds, but it’s so powerful.

Since you mentioned The Promise, I wanted to tell you that when I interviewed Chris Cornell about his song for the film shortly before his death, he said he consulted you to make sure he got the tone right. What do you remember about that?
We were both friends with [producer] Eric Esrailian, and we were both giving him advice on the music. He was asking for support. So Chris and I became closer as friends because of The Promise. At one point, I think they wanted us to do the main theme music together, and then they realized they were going to need two end tracks. So he did the title track, and I did this beautiful, classical-jazz rendition of an old Armenian folk song called “Sari Siroun Yar.” But he sent me an email and he goes, “What do you think?” And I loved it. I told him, “It’s really emotional and you’re bringing everything out.” He made a great connection in the song. The most important thing to realize about the Armenian Genocide is not just what happened 100 years ago, but how it’s relevant today, because that shit’s happening now. That’s what he did with the song; he made that connection. I was really grateful for that.

And I’m a huge fan of Soundgarden and Chris Cornell, growing up. And he knows that [laughs]. We became friends, but I’ve still always been his fan, you know? So his support on the film was incredibly important.

It struck me when he and I talked that he wanted to think about the bigger picture.
He was like that, man. He was very gracious with his emotions, his time. He was careful and conscientious. He did a great job in not just the music but supporting it, whether it’s interviews or TV specials with the song and talking about it and the need to take care of survivors that are around today in Syria and around the world. Him and his wife Vicky have a charity, and I had the honor a few weeks back of giving Vicky, in Chris’ name, a human rights award from Human Rights Watch at their yearly gala in Los Angeles. Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil were there. It was very special.

It’s very tough, man. I still can’t get over [his death]. I can’t get over how it happened. I still don’t understand, and I don’t think I ever will. And that’s the truth.

I wasn’t even trying to go there.
I wasn’t either, but I can’t help it. I don’t get it.

Have you been working on much music other than composing?
I have a bunch of rock songs I’ve been sitting on. I’m still trying to decide what to do with them [laughs]. Maybe I’ll put out an EP or something. Having a young family, I really enjoy being home with my kid. When you put out a proper record with a band, you’re doing videos and press and touring, and you’re dedicating a few years to marketing your record. I’m at a point where that’s not what I want to do. I’m happy to sit down have a few chats about a film score that I’m doing, because that’s easy, but dedicating two years to one project like that is difficult. That’s why I’m afraid of putting out my own record – not afraid, but don’t want to make that time dedication right now. So I might just put it out as an EP on iTunes and Spotify and do a few interviews and just let it be.

It’s not like you have to tour. You did a run with System of a Down this year, but you haven’t done a solo run in a while.
Oh, yeah, not since 2013. I’ve done orchestral shows, but not that many of those either since 2013. For years, I’ve been really focused on doing the scoring thing, and it’s the next phase of my artistry. And of course I get shit for it, too. “Hey, go make me a System record. What the hell are you doing with all of these scores?” You’re going to get all of that because people want what they want, but as an artist you’ve got to give them what comes to you. It’s from a higher source somewhere [laughs].

“Everyone’s looking for headlines. I hate that.”

Has System attempted to make an album at all?
We have. We’ve discussed it and we’ve played each other songs, but we still haven’t come eye to eye on how things should be done for us to be able to move forward with it. And that’s where it’s been.

You all seem to be having fun touring though.
That’s the funny thing. When people don’t see a record, they assume the worst about your internal relationship. But the truth is we’re actually better friends – at least I’m better friends with everyone than I’ve ever been. John’s my brother-in-law; he’s in my family. We have a great time together touring. But sometimes putting together a record, and that creative output and how things should be done, is different in four people’s heads and it doesn’t always come together. Fortunate or unfortunate, however you want to call it, that’s the truth. But touring is easy, because you’ve done all these songs. You have fun, you go out and tour, and that’s it.

You must have gotten a real kick then out of the way the Internet picked up the “Screw vocals” story then, as if you were quitting System.
Everyone’s looking for headlines. I hate that. I hate when they take something and they just go with it. If you’re going to print that, at least send us an email asking, “Hey, did you say this?” And I’d say, “I probably did, but it was in this context.” At least check with me. Don’t take an interview that was translated from Russian from five months ago on the set of a film without checking. Everyone’s picking it up and going, “Oh, my God, that means he’s not doing System again?” It’s kind of funny. You want to negate all these things, but then you’re like, “Well, I didn’t start it in the first place.” Why do I have to put out fires every two weeks? I’ve got shit to do. I’m working on music [laughs].

You’re doing what they’re reporting you’re not doing.
Yeah, exactly. I’m actually even doing vocals, funny enough.

And you’re writing your own music, too.
Yeah. I was writing this one song a couple of months ago that is piano-based with orchestral strings, and I was like, “Wow, I need to sing this because it requires vocals,” and the words came to me in Armenian. I did it because it came to me; I don’t even know where to place it but it’s one of my favorite new songs I’ve written. Is it a System song? No. Is it a Serj Tankian solo song? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe I’ll put it at the end of a soundtrack somewhere. I write the music that comes to me. I don’t predict what I’m going to do.

For me as an artist, it also speaks to the need to not be repetitive. I started out doing music more as a lyricist and as a poet. I put out two poetry books, and I was mostly a lyricist when I started. I played some guitar and piano but I wasn’t a phenomenal songwriter when I first started. Throughout the years I learned my trade, as we all do, and now I think I’ve gone there beyond songwriting and into composing.

Do you still write poetry?
I haven’t in a while. For a while, I literally wrote every night. I had my notebook next to my bed and I would write. But for a number of years, I haven’t. I can’t explain it. The words are eluding me, I guess. I think at different times in life, you’re excited about different things, but I’ve always wanted to write an interesting book so one day I will go back to the word.

Part of it is also reading. When you read, you write more. I haven’t been reading a lot because I’ve just been doing a lot of music so I haven’t had a lot of time, and when you have a kid, you have less time for everything. By the way when I say, “I don’t read,” I don’t mean I don’t read anything. I read a lot of news. I read a lot of current events. I just don’t read as many books as I used to. And when you’re writing, you should always be reading, because it replenishes your armory of words.

I found my headline: “Serj doesn’t read!”
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. You can do this, too. Everyone can do this. “Serj doesn’t do vocals and he doesn’t read. What the fuck?” [Laughs]

Since you are as busy as you are, how do you split up your creative life and home life? What is an average day like for you?
My priority is my family. Take this morning. I got up and was like, “Phew, the fire hasn’t hit us, thank God.” My wife had some stuff to do this morning, and my son was home from school because the air is pretty horrid outside. A lot of the schools are closed. So we played around and played outside on the trampoline and playhouse and sand and we did drawing and played with cars, building little garages out of blocks, and then my wife came. I went downstairs, did a little exercise then took a shower came to my first phone call then I’ll be hitting the studio later tonight. It’s a typical day. It’s three or four hours of watching the kid.

But if I had a career where I’d have to take off in the morning and I was just gonna see him for a few hours and then see my wife for a few hours, I don’t want that. I didn’t work this hard to do that. I worked this hard so I can create my own destiny and do what I wanna do and when I wanna do it. Everyone deserves that really. Fuck it.

In This Article: Serj Tankian, System of a Down

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