Serj Tankian, who is best known as the spasmodic vocalist and surrealistic lyricist for art-metal group System of a Down, has always held a deep respect for film soundtracks. “When I’m exercising or driving, a lot of what I listen to is soundtracks,” he says. “I think it’s great that people are paying attention to the value of scores. It’s very important.”
He finally got the chance to write a soundtrack of his own last year for a film that addressed a subject near to him, the Armenian genocide. It’s a topic that Tankian has sung about going back to System of a Down’s first LP, on the song “P.L.U.C.K.” During World War I, Ottoman Turks executed some 1.5 million Armenians, an event that Turkey and several other countries refuse to acknowledge. The band played in Armenia for the first time ever last year to mark the genocide’s centenary.
The movie, 1915, takes place in the present as a theater director attempts to stage a play about the genocide, and the actors begin feeling a visceral, realistic connection to those who died a century earlier. Its tagline is “You can’t escape the past,” and it takes surrealistic turns accordingly. The music that Tankian composed is at once traditional, otherworldly and urgent. A soundtrack album, which contains bonus tracks and extended versions of the music, came out late last month around the 101st anniversary of the day the genocide began.
Tankian has spent a good portion of the past decade writing classical and classical-inspired music, when he wasn’t writing rock or jazz albums. He turned his 2007 solo debut, Elect the Dead, into the orchestral Elect the Dead Symphony and his 2013 release, Orca Symphony No. 1, was wholly classical. He scored the video game Midnight Star and now he has begun work on another score for a film called The Last Inhabitant, slated to come out in Armenia this year. It’s a discipline he says, during a lively interview with Rolling Stone, that has come naturally to him.
You’ve made rock, classical and jazz albums. Is making a soundtrack more challenging than your other albums?
No, it’s neither harder nor challenging. I’ve worked all my life, musically, on an open palette, on which I can create things from scratch, whether it’s writing rock songs or classical or jazz. You’re writing for yourself in a way. If you’re writing a rock record, you’re starting from the inspiration of a thought, a poem, an emotion or a political event that you’re inspired by. And you have to draw upon that and see where your hands go on the guitar or piano or whatever. You can go in any direction. Having a film to work with actually makes it easier, because you know what you’re going to use, whether it’s ethnic instruments or creepy sound design. Most film composers I know usually end up writing way more music than is actually used in a film, and that’s typical.
That makes sense. Angelo Badalamenti once told me how happy he was that he wrote long versions of his music for Twin Peaks so it could come out as a soundtrack.
That’s genius. Man, working with David Lynch, that must have been crazy. I would love to work with him. That’s the kind of director I think any composer wants to work with because even though he has a lot of vision, he’s experimental. Like with Mulholland Drive and that crazy fucking trumpet solo. It’s just total crazy jazz fusion. I’d love to work with a director like that, who’s got that kind of experimental vision, but I do like working on traditional films, dramas and what not. Anything that moves me.
Why did you want to do the 1915 soundtrack?
I relate to the subject matter deeply, and I thought it had a unique, modern, artistic twist to what it was trying to portray in dealing with loss, both personal and national. It’s humanitarian loss. So it’s a unique film.
Before we go on, I wanted to tell you that the last time you did an interview with me about the Armenian genocide, which Turkey refuses to acknowledge, a Turkish group in Washington, D.C., sent me a pile of expensive-looking books about Turkey in the early 1900s.
Oh, very typical. Did they send you Turkish delights as well?
No. Just books.
Wow. They act quickly. A friend of mine, Tony Wright, is a TV producer in New Zealand. He did a piece on the Armenian genocide and its connection with Anzac Day, which honors the military from Australia and New Zealand who fought in Gallipoli against the [Turkish] Ottoman Empire in World War I. He had footage of New Zealander soldiers helping refugees and putting their lives on the line.
He hit me up a week after it ran and was like, “I got a box from the Turkish Embassy in New Zealand, and it was full of books and had a box of Turkish delights.” Like, “They were yummy Turkish delights, so thank you!” And all of the books contain information trying to say that the genocide didn’t occur.” He’s like, “I can’t believe how fast they got it to me. One of my cameramen was standing next to me when I opened the box, and I was actually afraid!” [Laughs]
Apparently, I was not delights-worthy.
Yeah [laughs]. Well, maybe they didn’t have as many good ones in the U.S. But wow, dude. That’s pretty crazy.
Some of the music on the 1915 soundtrack sounds like traditional Armenian music, specifically the first track, “Ar Im Sokhag With Guitar.”
The director had sent me an old Armenian lullaby that [singer] Larisa Ryan had sung a cappella, so I took that as my guiding core principles, and started structuring themes from it and being influenced by it. I also expounded on it and made it a full theme with vocals. So that was cool. The version of the song that opens the soundtrack is a variation that we actually didn’t even use in the film, so I put it as a bonus on the soundtrack.
I’m not an Armeno-ethnic musical-expert musicologist either, but it is my culture, so it definitely has that vibe. It has the melancholy and kind of traditional nuances and chord progressions.
Some of the instrumentation is unique. What is the futuristic synthy sound on “Angela’s Dreams (Alternative)”?
Believe it or not, I wrote that on piano and then I tripped it out using effects and layered sounds, like trumpet, under it. The whole idea was to trip out that moment where she runs down the corridor and tries to go through these drapes, down the stairs of her past, of her pain. She turns back and she’s lost. It’s this David Lynch type of moment in the film that’s more straightforward. I had it tripped out way more [laughs]. The directors said, “Wow, that’s fucking acid, dude. Bring it back a little.” That aspect of making soundtracks, trying new directions, is fun.
“Everything’s an instrument. Everything’s a tool.”
On your past solo records, you used iPad apps as instruments. Did you do that on this, too?
Right. I wrote three songs on my last solo record, [2012’s] Harakiri, with the iPad. Shit, I may have even used it on this track you just mentioned. One of the sounds sounds like an Animoog. [Synthesizer company] Moog has a badass app on the iPad called the Animoog, where you can take the key and kind of go up with it and it modulates and distorts differently. I love combining sounds. Everything’s an instrument. Everything’s a tool.
Which film composers do you look up to?
At the top of the list would probably be Ennio Morricone, because he’s done a lot of different things. His scores are always emotional, whether they’re for [director] Sergio Leone and funny [whistles central The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly motif] or memorable, emotional. He does a lot of fusion stuff, too. His Seventies scores not only have orchestra but a live band and all this electronics stuff going on. He worked recently with Quentin Tarantino.
I also really like Philip Glass. I love his arpeggiated minimalism. He’s amazing. There’s incredible composers: Jerry Goldsmith, Alexandre Desplat, Junkie XL, Hans Zimmer, Ramin Djawadi. Ramin is a friend of mine; he did Game of Thrones. I’m surrounded by amazing composer friends. There’s so many amazing composers.
What are you working on now?
I just wrote the song about “Artsakh.” I’ve written a bunch of rock songs. We’ll see where they end up. I leave that vague on purpose because I don’t know what’s going to happen with them. Whether they become System or solo or whatever, we’ll see. Time will tell. And I’m waiting for a couple of friends of mine who have films that just got financing, so I’m waiting for them to shoot their film so I can start working on the soundtracks. Maybe I’ll do some video game soundtracks. And I’ve got my Elect the Dead Symphony/Orca show in November at the Valley Performing Arts Center, which is Cal State Northridge’s beautiful theater. I got my bachelor’s from there. They’re also going to display my artwork, because they have an art gallery.
Watch Serj Tankian sing his new political song, “Artsakh”:
What’s going on with System of a Down these days?
We’re communicating and trying to see if we can bring our material together. There’s definitely a lot of communication going on, a lot of back and forth. I can’t make a statement in terms of whether we’re going to have a record or not, because we haven’t gone into the studio and done it. But there’s definitely communication going on, songs being played to each other and all that stuff, so it’s good. We’ll see what happens.
I’ve got my fingers crossed.
Yeah, me too. I think it would be great to create something brand new in a new direction. It would be very exciting, but everyone’s got to be on board, on the same page, and it’s got to be done in a way so that everyone is happy. If we can do that, we’ll do it.