Through the Eyes of Music: An Interview with Serj Tankian

On Feb. 22, the Armenian Weekly conducted an interview with Serj Tankian, singer and songwriter of the Grammy Award-winning rock band System of a Down, who’s in the Boston area for the opening of “Prometheus Bound,” a musical.

The American Repertory Theater’s Diane Paulus directs Prometheus Bound. Tony and Grammy Award-winning writer Steven Sater wrote the script and lyrics (original by Aeschylus), while Tankian composed the music. The play tells the myth of Prometheus, a Titan who gave fire to mankind, and was punished for it by Zeus. He was chained to a rock, where day after day an eagle feasted on his ever-regenerating liver.

The Weekly’s interview with Tankian took place in one of OBERON’s empty halls (2 Arrow St., Cambridge, Mass.), adjacent to the theater hall where the play’s premiere was held on Feb. 25. (Click here for more info on show dates and times)

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Tankian walked in, coffee in hand, with a light bounce in his step. Flashing a warm disarming smile, he greeted those present, and—for the subsequent 30 minutes—humored the variety of questions that bounced his way.

Taking off from Prometheus Bound, the discussion took many turns, making detours at Egypt, Wikileaks, God, and Yerevan.

Tankian spoke about current and upcoming projects, including a newly published book of poetry, a new solo album still in the works, and an accidental soon-to-premiere symphony he composed.

Tankian during the interview with the Armenian Weekly (photo by Aaron Spagnolo)

Nanore Barsoumian—How did you and Steven Sater come to work together on this project?

Serj Tankian—A mutual friend of ours in the publishing world connected us. Steven had heard my music and they—him and Diane—were talking about Prometheus and doing something over the top with it. Something rock-related, and they thought of me. I got to meet Steven, have lunch with him, and we really hit it off on different points—political, artistic, civilization. And I’m not a big fan of musicals and I told him from the first day. I’m like, “Eh, musicals…eh.” I’ve walked out of more musicals than I’ve stayed in. But if it’s done well it could be awesome. Like the “Sound of Music” growing up, or “Grease.” It could be really good.

 

N.B.—Like “Les Miserables”?

S.T.—Les Miserables is amazing, yeah, yeah. If it’s done really well, I think it could be phenomenal, otherwise it could be really cheesy. So we’re talking about that and he said OK, and I—sorry, my mind just woke up [laughs]—so he said, “Let me give you the script, check out the script.” So he gave me the script, and I thought it was going to be really heavy Greek mythology—like going back to Armenian school, when we were kids [laughs]—but it was actually really really modern, the interpretation and the way that it was…it was really well done. The language was very concise, and yet at the same time very detailed. And there were a lot of truths in there. So I kept underlining one-liners: “A tyrant never trusts his friends.” Just underlining all these truths. And I emailed it to Steven and said, “This is really awesome, bro. You have something here that is filled with profundities that I’m really into.” He said, “Cool, cool.” And so our next talk was, “Look, if I’m going to do anything to this, it’s going to be nuts. Don’t expect ‘Lalalalala’ musical stuff. It’s going to be crazy.” He said “Great! That’s why I want to work with you.” So we started working. He sent me a lyric. I sent him a song back, and we both have a very strong work ethic. He works fast, I work fast, so things just got done really quickly between us. And then we got Diane into the framework, and she just—as we’re doing our readings in New York, she got the gig at ART, and that’s how we’re here.

 

N.B.—The emotions that run through the play, how did you enhance them with the music? Was it totally up to you?

S.T.—It all converges, I think. For the emotion to be specifically powerful in any part of any theatrical composition, everything’s got to converge. So the actors—what they’re doing and what they’re feeling—the music, the text, the space in between the words, everything has to be just perfect for that moment to feel that energy. I have to say, being here for the last week and working on these rehearsals—it’s really getting there! If I watch a full run of the show, there are two or three times where I’m having to hold back tears, and this is something that I’ve been working on for a while. In other words, I’m not very—how do I put this—I know what’s going to happen next and it’s still surprising me.

 

N.B.—Yeah, you said that in an interview, actually. You said something like, for the first time, unlike any of your other work, this really depresses you when listening to it afterwards… Does it still do that?

S.T.—Not depresses you, no. But there’s moments where I’m laughing my ass off, and there’s moments where I’m about to cry. So it’s got the dynamic range of emotions that I like in a—whether it’s a film or a record, or whatever piece of art. And so I’m really impressed that it really came together in those moments. There are moments where you’re watching, literally, torture. It’s really heavy and you go, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m watching this.” It resonates with our pain bodies of today. So we feel it as modern beings, even though the story’s Greek text from long ago.

 

N.B.—I don’t know if you were involved with Amnesty International, but how did their partnership with Prometheus Bound come about?

S.T.—I’ve been working with Amnesty International for many years. I’ve been a member for probably 10-15 years at least, and have worked with them on [penal code] Article 301 in Turkey, getting rid of Article 301 in Turkey, and with Darfur, recognition of what’s going on in Darfur and trying to motivate governments and the UN agencies to do more. I’ve worked with them on freedom of speech issues. I’ve worked with them on “Screamers” in London, the movie we did about the Armenian Genocide. So I’ve had a long standing, really close relationship, with Amnesty.

So when I started working on this, we started looking at Prometheus as the first prisoner of conscience. We’re like, wait a minute, this guy was this god, this demi-god—whatever you want to call him—punished for his beliefs and he’s the only one that stood for humanity. And all the gods were against him, and he was punished for doing something good. It really really felt like, OK yeah, that’s really what a prisoner of conscience is—someone who stands up for liberty or justice—and he’s doing it for other people not just himself. And he’s being severely and ruthlessly punished for it. The whole story of tyranny and injustice really fit a lot of what’s going on in the world. It’s quite modern. Steven calls it “an indictment of civilization at the beginning of democracy,” which is quite interesting.

 

N.B.—So Diane said this about you: “When you listen to Serj’s music, he has that kind of anarchy and that rebelliousness and defiance, cause it’s rough and it’s aggressive. And then the genius for me of him is that it flips to this incredible, like, wailing and kind of pain and cry. It’s very, very ancient. As much as he’s a modern rock star, he has a cry in his voice that feels like [it’s] from another time.”

S.T.—I just read that too. It was in the Boston Globe, or…

 

N.B.—Yeah, the Globe. What do you think of that?

S.T.—I think she hit it on the head. I think—I don’t know, I mean it’s hard for me to talk about myself in that way. I could talk about my music cause I could detach myself from it and talk about it, but—I think she hit it on the head.

 

N.B.—Had you heard that before, that your voice is coming through time?

photo by Alik Eleyjian

S.T.—I’ve heard that my voice reminds people of ancient times, or that kind of a thing, but not as eloquently put as how Diane put it.

 

N.B.—She said it beautifully. So how many projects do you usually work on at the same time? In 2009, you mentioned that you’d been working on this for about a year. It’s been three years now. I don’t know if you’ve been working on this for that long?

S.T.—I have, yeah. We started in 200-, God, we started in 2008 may be? So it’s been a while. But with musicals, I’ve noticed it’s not like you start something and you’re not doing anything else, and all year you’re working on that. It’s just the opposite. You spend a few days writing songs together, or sending songs back and forth, and getting stuff, and then you don’t work on it for three months. You don’t even think about it for three months. And then you get together and do a reading for a week, and you get all this done in a quick week, then you don’t do anything for two months. Then you get together for 10 days, and you do this crazy crazy session of workshops, and things happen, and all this stuff happens and you don’t think about it for three to four months.

 

N.B.—You also came out with two albums in the meantime.

S.T.—Yeah, yeah. Well, I had written “Elect the Dead” before… So what I’m saying is the musical hasn’t taken that much of my time except for when it started to really really—in December. I was doing a 10-day, 2-week workshop in New York, then I was here, now I’m back here until the opening. So that’s the biggest chunk of continuous time. I like doing a lot of stuff. I’ve got my second poetry book coming out on the 22nd [of March] through Harper Collins. It’s called Glaring Through Oblivion. I’m doing a bunch of dates with System, obviously, over the summer, and got some rehearsal stuff for that. I’ve got some orchestral shows. I got invited to Hayasdan [Armenia] again to perform with an orchestra, and Lipanan [Lebanon] to perform with an orchestra, and a bunch of places in Eastern Europe. So we’re trying to put that together for August-September. And then in October-November, I’m premiering my first symphony, my first classical symphony that I wrote. It’s going to be called “Orca,” like the whale.

 

N.B.—Is it going to be crazy?

S.T.—It’s how I would write classical music. [Laughs] So I think there’s the dynamics of it—the [inhales intensely] to the [exhales softly]. The dynamics are pretty wide. But it’s quite interesting… I ran into it by accident doing all these orchestrations for my own rock songs, and working on “Imperfect Harmonies,” which has a definite orchestral tinge. But I never thought about writing my own symphony. And I wrote it by accident, I say, because I was trying to write songs for a record and they ended up being 9-10 minute pieces and way too many things going on for them to have vocals. So I just left them and a friend of mine was listening to them and said, “Ah, dude, that’s your first act of your symphony.” And I’m like, Wikipedia: symphony. [Laughs] How many of these f—ers do I need!

 

N.B.—Do you think it’s evolving right now, your music? Do you think it’s going somewhere…?

S.T.—I mean, I’m always doing new stuff. I’m always learning, experimenting, and doing new things. I don’t want to just do one thing—that’s boring. I’m writing another record, too. I’ve got another solo record, a book, two different types of tours, and a symphony. And a musical—oh yeah, right here!

[monoslideshow id=29]

Photos by Aaron Spagnolo (AaronSpagnolo.net)

 

N.B.—You were in Yerevan. How was that?

S.T.—Yeah, it was awesome. I was only there for 30 hours…

 

N.B.—Really?

S.T.—Yeah, this last time, but I’ve been there three times. Cause it was just on a tour, like you go from city to city… I think we went from Bulgaria, or we went to Bulgaria afterwards, I can’t remember. It was 20 days or something. So we got into Yerevan, it was a warm summer night. It was beautiful, like 90 degrees. Looking at the square, people outside singing, there was this music on the speakers, and the water-fountain going up with lights, there were apricots in the room and they smelled so lovely, so lovely. It was amazing, yeah. And we had a great show. It was a little funny, cause playing a modern rock show in Yerevan is rare, I guess. I mean, the closest thing I can think of is the dude from “Deep Purple.” He’s played big shows there. But a modern rock show? [Laughs] Interesting things, but it was really exciting. I felt new energy this time, when I was there in Yerevan—something different, something more positive than I had felt the last time I was there in 2005, and that was inspiring.

 

N.B.—I know a convoy of bikes met you there, right? With watermelons, and you had some?

S.T.—My peeps! [Laughs] Yeah, the Teghut Forest activists. They’re just a handful of activist kids, but to me it’s really really encouraging for Armenia or any post-Soviet republic to have any type of environmental awareness, cause it feels like it was the last thing on their mind. It was always about economic stability and progression. But having that be a part of it is really important. So seeing that is quite encouraging. And I think that the youth right now, from what I saw, like the really young people in Hayasdan, they’re detached from their parents’ generation and they’re detached from, or way detached from, Soviet times… And it’s their parents’ generation that were the first republic, that reawakened Armenians, I guess. But it’s also the generation that had to do with all the corruption and cronyism, and all of that is still continuing. But the youth that’s growing up now—that’s also dealing with Diasporan-Armenians going and working there, that’s dealing with Facebook, the modern social networking, the internet world—they’re good. I like it. It’s new energy.

 

N.B.—So, if you had to play with someone, with a musician, who would you choose?

S.T.—A lot of different ones actually. Dead or alive?

 

N.B.—Either.

S.T.—Well, that’s difficult, cause that would make it more difficult and lengthy. Alive? I like artists that have a specific, unique expression. If I’ve heard it before, it’s not interesting. There’s plenty of people that I’d love to work with. But I don’t wake up going, “Ah, I want to work with this person.” It’s got to happen naturally. For example, Shirley Manson from “Garbage.” I had met her years ago on a Big Day Out tour in Australia. We had communicated a few times and I’d seen Butch Vig, the producer’s also in the band and stuff. And when we were looking for a female vocalist to sing “The Hunger,” one of the songs in the musical, and we wanted to dedicate it to Amnesty International, donate the proceeds, etc., Shirley’s name came up and through a friend we got in touch with her, and because she knew me and she had heard of Steven, and she wanted to work with Amnesty obviously, she did this song. And I talked to her and I was like, “Wow! This is incredible!” So here she is singing this song that I wrote and sounding gorgeous on it. It’s coming out on iTunes this week—or next week, March 1. So there you go, it’s got to be organic. I’ve worked with a number of different artists like Wyclef Jean to “Les Rita Mitsouko” from France—it’s a cool French band. Yeah, it just depends.

 

N.B.—Can I throw a few words at you, and you can tell what they make you think of?

S.T.—Are you going to be a psychiatrist now? [Laughs] Um, butterfly! Death!

 

N.B.—Sort of. [Laughs] Well, the first one is “home.”

S.T.—Home is a place you can’t walk away from in the end. That’s in my book [laughs]. Yeah, I got one-liners in this one too, like poems [motions to an imaginary page in a book] and you switch the page and this beautiful artwork with just one line…

 

N.B.—Your art?

S.T.—No, not my art, Roger Kupelian—I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. Roger is an amazing artist. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s a phenomenal digital painter. He’s worked on all three “Lord of the Rings.” He used to work at Weta in New Zealand, at Peter Jackson’s company that did all the effects stuff for all these films. And he does a lot of really great films and he’s done a number of my videos, like “Honking Antelope” and “Reconstructive Demonstration,” which we just posted this last month. He’s phenomenal, and his artwork is just stunning. So it’s a little coffee table book with his artwork in my book. Anyway, I wasn’t meaning to talk about that. Home, that was my answer.

 

N.B.—Next one is “Egypt.”

S.T.—Egypt’s quite interesting. I read up on a lot of what’s going on all over the world, and I think this wave of… You know, I’m trying to find the cynic in me, the geopolitical cynic in me is trying to find if there’s any ruthless power behind all of this, besides voices of democracy, but I really think that this is an opening to voices of democracy. I think whoever might be wanting to pull the strings don’t know where the strings are even going at this point. I think it’s about time that the Arab world got rid of its dictators. Here we are, and the U.S. is responsible for propping up some of these tyrants, which is why al-Qaeda got—and I was reading about that, how al-Qaeda is affected by all of these movements in Egypt and Tunisia, and everywhere… Yes, fundamental Islam was part of it but I think the reason people tend to radicalize themselves is usually injustice, economic injustice mostly…coupled with social injustice and political repression. Anytime you live in that state of being, a state of life, then you are going to want to lash out… I was reading one of the posts, and I read a comment, “You won’t be seeing anymore jihadists from Egypt cause we’re going to have our freedom.” I thought that was quite an interesting statement to make for an Egyptian. And the U.S. and the West being responsible for helping prop up, if not continue, some of those regimes, sometimes blindly, sometimes knowingly and willingly—knowing that they were repressive, like Mubarak had tortured a number of people in the last 30 years. Everyone deserves freedom, everyone deserves democracy, everyone deserves opportunity, and it’s about time the Arab world got it and stood on its feet, with pride, and followed their vision.

 

N.B.—“Wikileaks.”

S.T.—Wikileaks. I love Assange… There are critics because there might be a foreign power or intelligence behind [Wikileaks], and there’s a lot of theories to that end… I never rule anything out because it’s hard…But I would say that Wikileaks has had a phenomenal impact. It’s like this: You and your girlfriends get in a room and you talk shit, right? But it’s the truth of what you feel about someone, and that someone finds out. Now it’s painful when they find out, but at least they know the truth about your conversations— and that’s exactly what Wikileaks did. For people that were geopolitically interested and knew the details of what was going on around the world…Wikileaks didn’t reveal anything in that sense. I wasn’t shocked reading any of it. But I think for the general populace that did not follow these trends and geopolitical underpinnings, it was a revelation: “Wow, they really think our dictator’s a d–k!” And it brought things to the surface, I thought it was very interesting, and I think it’s interesting that they’re trying to pin him with the rape charges on the one hand, and then trying to give him the Nobel Peace Prize on the other hand, like it’s…

 

N.B.—I think it was “sex by surprise,” actually.

S.T.—Sex by surprise? First of all they were two consenting adults… The funny thing is, if that was around before the leaks, that would be one thing. But the fact that there was so much international pressure to find something on this guy to incriminate him… But he seems to be a smart Aussie: “Hey mate! Hey!” He’s a smart Aussie. I like him.

 

Photo by Alik Eleyjian

N.B.—This one’s a random one: “spaceships.”

S.T.—A lot of theories about the beginning of Homo sapiens having to do with space, cause there’s a huge gap between modern man and hairy man Neanderthals [laughs], and a lot of people relate it to that. I’m not sure that that’s the case. One thing I have read is that a lot of cave drawings from early civilization times and also indigenous times show people flying. That’s quite interesting. And there are all these theories, mostly unsubstantiated. I think for me, what I’m always interested in is not the story of civilization so much, but the story before civilization… We’re so focused on this last 10,000 years, but man has been on this planet according to archaeologists for millions of years. So this last 10,000 years compared to millions of years is like this last five minutes of our interview. Imagine if we based our whole life on these last five minutes—whole life, just on these last five minutes. Nothing we know before: That’s exactly how we’re living our lives. We’ve lost the intuitive kind of strength and achievements of our indigenous times and have reveled in our left brain—reason, logic, science, technology—and have taken that to its height. But one without the other is like the yin without the yang; the positive without the negative; the female without the male. It’s only half. So we’ll never figure out who God is by using our minds.

 

N.B.—So you believe there’s a God?

S.T.—I prefer to use the term “spirit that moves through all things.” “God” is too easily interchanged with “dog.” I’ve never liked the word “god.” Plus, it’s been abused and wars and this-that.

 

N.B.—I think it conjures up an image of an old man sitting up there [points up].

S.T.—When you look at the word “god,” it has zero definition. If you look at the statement “spirit that moves through all things,” that means something. But it’s not just “spirit that moves through…” What we call “god,” Native Americans divide into a creator and a spirit that moves through all things. It’s a spirit, and also the one that creates.

 

N.B.—An author you would recommend?

S.T.—Regarding what topic?

 

N.B.—Whatever topic. Something that’s had a deep impact on you.

S.T.—I’m reading a book right now by this guy named Hazrat Inayat Khan who’s an Indian Sufi. He was a master musician and a spiritualist. He wrote a book called The Music of Life. He basically defines the whole universe through the eyes of music, which is really interesting. All of string theory and vibratory reality is defined as music. And he defines relationships in terms of harmony, dissonant harmonies or perfect harmonies. It’s an amazing kind of perspective looking-glass that really resonates with me—not just because I’m a musician, but because we are vibratory reality. It totally mixes to just call it music. But I like a lot of different kinds of books. I like a lot of the old texts, like Rumi, Kabir and Hafiz, and Lao Tzu, Emerson and Thoreau—anything from the spiritual Western text to Eastern poetry, all over the place.

 

N.B.—What you said about Inayat Khan’s Music of Life, it reminds me of what Kepler had said. One of his first theories was about the harmony of the universe, and musical vibrations…

S.T.—That’s what I was saying earlier. That I think our science is starting to catch up to our intuition, but it’s not there yet. I mean quantum theory, string theory—all of these are the openings to the things that basically negate a lot of things we thought in science, basic sciences. Like matter can’t exist in two places at the same time: Yes, it can! [Laughs] According to quantum theory, it can. The observer has as much to do with the experiment as the experiment—No one ever said that in science when I was going to school. But I still think we need to learn about our indigenous past. That’s the key to understanding our current drama.

 

N.B.—One last question before we go. Where do you want music to take people? Your music.

S.T.—Wherever it’s supposed to take them. I’m not a devising type of artist. I don’t go, “This is what I want to make her feel by doing this.” Just whatever comes, just throw it there. And then, just like everyone else, go, “Wow, what is that?” Just stare at it detached, see how it affects me. I’ve never written an album that I knew was going to be one theme. Everyone’s like, “How did you devise the score for Prometheus, knowing the story?” I don’t f—ing know. I threw things at it, and whatever worked I kept, basically. And that’s how I do everything. Pretty random, but it’s pretty on I think, cause when you’re focused on that one thing everything seems to connect, click with it, when you’re focusing on that one thing. Whatever belongs there comes in. When you’re not focused on that one thing, then it’s kind of like “pfft.” The French say, “pfft.” It’s my favorite French word, “pfft.”

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Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk, and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in political science and English from the University of Massachusetts (Boston), where she is currently continuing her graduate studies. Email Nanore Barsoumian at writenanore@gmail.com, or follow her on Twitter (@NanoreB).

6 Comments

  1. Hye, Serge and Nanoor, great interview!  As a medz myrig my son had suggested that the music of SYSTEM OF A DOWN would not be ‘my cup of tea’…
    Today, you filled my cup of tea… an interview worthy of translations for all the world to know Serge, and so much more.  Abrees!  Manooshag

  2. Serj has been blessed with a platform that few of us ever achieve.  I love when he uses it to demand honesty from those in power.  Hope he isn’t losing his edge.

  3. Hye, so often talented persons have so much of their convoluted lives displayed before the public – leading one to think, well, their private lives aside, their talents shown before the world have won them their fame.  At times I feel for them… Too, the publicity of their private lives have become another industry from and for Hollywood – at times outdoing the news of world events.
    And yet there are great talents who choose to live their lives privately, and are respected more for this, who enjoy sharing their great talents.  Too, then there are those greatly talented, who beyond sharing their talents with their followers who enjoy their abilities – These, who go further, and offer to give of themselves, in so many other ways to better our world… are known for these efforts – of ways in which is needed in our world today.
    Thank you, Serj.  Manooshag

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