In the 13 years since System of a Down last released an album of skittery punk-metal, frontman Serj Tankian has challenged himself creatively with orchestral compositions, jazz records and rock outings. Lately, though, he’s found the most gratification in scoring movies. In the past five years, he’s written music for six films and a video game. His latest is a delicate, otherworldly mood piece for Spitak, a disaster film about the immediate aftermath of the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that crumpled northern Armenia in 1988, claiming deaths in the range of 25,000 to 50,000 people and up to 130,000 injuries.
“It was a difficult film to do, because of the heavy topic and trying not to have the music be too heavy,” Tankian says. “The director, Aleksandr Kott, said, ‘I want requiem music.’ And I said, ‘Wow, that’s heavy. You’re talking about funeral music.’ But at the same time, we wanted to have hope for a little girl in the film who survives and is trapped. Her world needed to be more magical, so there’s that ethereal quality to some of the score, then the heavy scenes of the devastation of the city needed music that was darker in tone. It was an interesting balance.”
He settled on a blend of synthesized sounds and bell-like instruments, as well as live piano, strings, woodwinds and brass. He released a score album in November, and the film got a U.S. premiere earlier in December in Glendale, California. It’s one of many projects Tankian has been working on lately — including touring with System of a Down and producing a couple of films himself — but, he tells Rolling Stone, it’s the challenge of dreaming up music for a film like this that keeps him composing.
How hard is it for you, emotionally, to write what you describe as funereal music?
I’ve cried numerous times watching the footage of people trapped, and the death and destruction and hopelessness. But then trying to come up with a cue for it, you’re already there emotionally. Whatever you create is going to be emotionally entangling. Sometimes it’s the opposite: You have to step away and go, “This is too dark for this.” My problem is not adding emotion; it’s taking emotion away.
Do you have a personal connection to the earthquake?
My wife actually lived through the earthquake. She was in school when it happened, and luckily their building didn’t collapse. They were pretty close to the epicenter.
The years after the earthquake were the darkest days that Armenia had seen for a long time, because they were without power through heavy, cold winters. She’s told me stories of how they lit fires at school just to stay warm. Right after the earthquake, there were a lot of robberies, so crime went up. She has all these horrific stories of living without water or using only one hour of water a day. People would go, “Oh, shit, we just found out we’re going to have water in 20 minutes. Everyone run home.” You had to learn how to connect batteries so you could watch something on TV, ’cause there’s no power. My wife’s generation is unique. They know how to do everything.
What about for you personally?
I was in the U.S., and I remember going around door-to-door trying to fund-raise to send money to Armenia.
If you go to Armenia now and go to Spitak, the city where the epicenter of the earthquake in ’88 was, you’ll see it’s such a unique city because each block, each street has completely different architecture, because one is built by the U.S., one by the Swedes, one by the Italians and another by the Germans. It is such a beautiful scene in that way. It’s really, really very emotional seeing that because it shows you what collective, progressive beautiful things humanity can do.
You were on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown about Armenia, and you met with a family there that spoke about dealing with having electricity for only an hour or two a day.
I remember that. That’s our friend Mariam [Movsisyan]. And the grandma was really cool too. Tony had a cold, and the grandmother was like, “No, you should shoot some of this vodka and have some tea to get over your cold.”
It was tough losing Tony. Really, really tough. I just knew him for that week and a few calls and e-mails, but fuck — I had no idea. Then Chris Cornell the same year and the same method. It threw me out of my orbit.
It was shocking. The episode you made with him, though, probably introduced a lot of people to Armenia who were unaware of its culture and history.
He was amazing. He was always trying to understand the culture, the geopolitics, the societal effects. He’s like, “What’s really happening here?” He was talking to young and old people, getting multiple opinions. He became a staunch activist for recognition of the Armenian genocide. We mentioned it to him, but it wasn’t the core of our conversation. I remember the night before the show, he sat down with Anderson Cooper on CNN, and Tony was just like, “How is this possible that we’re in this kind of country and we’re denying this genocide that the whole world knows about? I cannot believe this is happening.”
That blew me away: his hate of injustice and hypocrisy. I loved that about him. He was so fucking ballsy. That’s why I reached out to him in the first place and wanted him to go to Armenia. I knew that that’s how he was and I was not disappointed. We had a great time.
How did you come up with the sound palette for your Spitak score?
I tried keeping it in a soundscape where it’s ambient piano and pads with piano, strings and bells. There are some instruments just to create tension.
How was it working with the director on this one?
He kind of played musical chairs with a lot of my cues, and I had to end up redoing some of them. It was quite challenging, actually, but it was still amazing, and as a process, I learned a lot because it was different. There are a lot of cues on there that I love, such as when he’s walking through the streets, seeing the devastation, and he runs up to an ambulance, which takes off, and he sees an old man. I also love the cue for the girl who’s trapped in her magical world, and there are bells going on and these beautiful strings. I expanded on that in a number of ways.
Now that this is done, what are you working on?
We have a few other soundtracks we’re going to release for films that we did a while back but never put out soundtracks for, such as The Last Inhabitant and Midnight Star, which is a video game. But I am working on a number of things right now, including Kavat Coffee, and I’m executive-producing two documentaries.
One is a film, I Am Not Alone, about the Armenian revolution. I met with the prime minister now and said, “We have to make a film about this. No one is going to believe that in 40 days, a post-oligarchic, monopolistic, corrupt regime has been replaced by a modern, progressive, democratic, true society without one person dying. No one’s going to believe that.” I’m going to compose for it as well.
I also have a music documentary I’m doing that’s tentatively called Truth to Power, looking through my eyes at how message becomes reality through the arts. Instead of focusing on me as an artist, it asks, how does one’s message come to fruition? Can music change the world? We’re shopping that and looking for co-production partners. We’re hoping it will be done by next year as well.
You’re also touring with System of a Down next year. You and Daron Malakian had a bit of a back-and-forth in the press this year about why the band hasn’t made a new record. What happened after that?
We got together to rehearse, said hi and had a conversation and just carried things forward as we’ve always done. We’ve been friends and together for 25 to 30 years. That’s a long time. The difference between business and bands are people know when they’re working within a business, but when they’re in a band, it’s confusing because you’re also very close friends. There are times when you have to say, “OK, this is not working on the business end but I love you.” With bands, you rarely see that happening.
The reason I posted what I did is because I didn’t want any negative security threats against any of us, in terms of, “Fuck you. You’re the reason that no System record’s being made.” For me, it was just saying, “Look. I’ve tried. We’ve tried. We just haven’t been able to see eye to eye. It’s not because we’re lazy. We’re still friends. We still tour.” This is the truth.
Did the back-and-forth open up any more conversations about the band’s future?
No, it didn’t really. I think it released a lot of tension and negativity. Everything became more public and open, and that was that. There were no further discussions.
One thing I was curious about specifically is that you said you wanted to make a “full experience” or concept record. What do you mean by that?
I just feel like music has been commoditized. If I were to do an orchestral show, I’d also want to do an art show. So it’s using multiple senses, doing experiential events. Music is music: You’re ultimately going to release it and people are going to listen to it, but I thought it would be great if we created some type of event or set of events that stem out thematically from the music that can encapsulate whatever new record or sound we’re propagating. In other news, we’d not just release a record, but do something more grand around it.
Another thing Daron said was that you were never really a “heavy metal” or “rock” guy. What does that mean to you?
I think what he meant was the heavier elements of the band come from him and Shavo, which is true. Growing up, I did listen to heavy music, but my background was all sorts of world music, if you will. I grew up listening to a lot of Armenian, Arabic and European music — all types of music. In the Seventies, I listened to disco and funk.
My brother introduced me to a lot of heavy metal. The first time I heard Slayer, my brother played it in the house and I became a fan. I was more of a binge-and-purge music listener. I would listen to death metal for three months — the best of any death metal I could find — and then the next three months I’d listen to hip-hop. Then punk for three months. I didn’t have the same heavy rock roots as Shavo and Daron.
Incidentally, have you been working on any new rock music?
I have. I recently finished mixing a lot of the songs I was hoping we could do with System. I want them to be part of my music film, so I’m waiting for that. I have finished five rock songs. I just did a rock remix yesterday, actually, of one of the revolutionary songs for the Armenian film. It’s a rock song in Armenian, and I did a heavier mix.
But obviously I write in orchestral music, jazz and rock. One reason I like composing for films is because every director wants something different, genre-wise, sound-wise, emotion-wise. It’s fun. I get to make a different-sounding record every time.