With big league label heads flocking to capitalize on the latest aural trend, it's rare these days to find and band that stands behind a unique sound, let alone one that has found commercial success without wavering from their convictions. But Serj Tankian's System of a Down has done just that, putting its own spin on dark, neo-gothic alternative thrash metal with its eponymous debut in 1998, Toxicity in 2001 and Steal This Album last year. More recently, Tankian is feeling even more eclectic, exploring his Armenian roots with a new project, called Serart, which sounds almost nothing like System and was put out on Serjical Strike Records, a record label he started in 2001. Serart, a collaborative project between Tankian and fellow-Armenian folk percussionist and vocalist Arto Tuncboyaciyan, is cross-cultural and hard to define and was recorded, according to Tankian, almost completely spontaneously. Prefix Magazine caught up with Tankian recently to discuss Serjical Strike and Serart.
Prefix Magazine: What have you been up to lately?
Serj Tankian : I've been in the studio producing a band on my label. They're called Slow Motion Reign. I think we're going to release them early next year. They're an amazing rock band with Beatles, Zepplin, Pink Floyd, Jeff Buckley, Coldplay -- that kind of vibe. Really great singer/songwriters with harmony. Really cool stuff. PM: And they will the second release on your label then?
Serj Tankian : They might be the third or fourth release on the label. The second release is Kittens for Christian. They're this art-rock band, '80s sounding, kind of reminiscent of Jesus Lizard. PM: Serart is going to be the first release on the label? Did you want it to be the first since it's your label?
Serj Tankian : Not really. It happened to be the first release that was ready. PM: What's the goal for the label?
Serj Tankian : The goal for the label is to expose original artists and original projects that are not genre specific that may not of otherwise been exposed to commercial culture. PM: So with your label you definitely try to expose music that otherwise may not have gotten the exposure?
Serj Tankian : Yeah, trying to expose original artists that are hardworking. They're good people. They have to be good people or else it's hard to work with people you don't like even if they're good artists. PM: Due to your success with System of a Down, do you think your involvement people will give the artists on your label more of a chance?
Serj Tankian : The possibility is there, but ultimately it'll depend on whether or not they actually like the music. We have four different projects that are four different tastes. Who knows? PM: How did you go about finding these different artists?
Serj Tankian : The process surprisingly has been very organic. It hasn't been me going to showcases where other labels are and liking a band and trying to get them over other labels, which currently happens with a lot of new stuff. It was more like of you have a friend in another band and you've seen them through the years and they've progressed. And it comes to the point where you're like, That's really cool, I wouldn't mind working with you guys on it. We're not really competing over bands, just seeing how different bands have progressed and just trying to help them out. That's how it should be in the music industry. PM: On the Serart project, there seems to be a great deal of press about the different instruments used on the album. What are some of the things that you'll hear on the album?
Serj Tankian : There were a lot of different instruments used. Some traditional, some not. When you listen to it, you're going to try to pick out what's a real instrument and what's a sample or electronic. There's no dividing line. Sometimes you don't know whether something is a clay drum or whether it's something else being played on the spot. Arto is a multi-instrumentalist and percussionist and I play a bunch of different instruments as well. So, it's really fun. That kind of dividing line between analog and digital or electronic instruments versus acoustic stuff. Different genres, different cultural vibes. It was a fun little, ecletic project to be a part of. PM: I read how you met him at the Armenian Awards show out in L.A. Did you just instantly hit it off?
Serj Tankian : Actually, barely said hi to him when I first saw him and met him. But I had him in mind because I was so into what he was doing. I picked up a few of his records and then just saw what he was all about. I showed a small video clip of him to the guys from System when we were doing Toxicity and they were like yeah we'd totally want to have him here. So I invited him to come and do some sessions with us. He did the outro after PM: Do you plan to go on tour to support this project?
Serj Tankian : Not currently. We don't have any immediate plans, but it's something that we'll be open to do if we have the time. Also, the whole project was so organically based that I would be hard set to pick out musicians to play all the different parts with us. It's better for me to put the album out there and over time if there are people that are really passionate about that music and they want to be a part of it, then one day we can take all those people and do some live shows. Not the other way around. Let the passion grab the performers. A necessity for the performance. PM: Are there other artists out there that you haven't worked with yet that you'd like to work with in the future? Serj Tankian : There's plenty of them. A bunch of them. To me it's not about what type of musical territory they're in or whether they're popular or not. To me it's more about people that are really good at what they do, masters of what they do and people that are unattached to what they do, so that they can just do it and be cool about it. Both vibes are important to me. PM: You've been very open to new ideas and music that's very experimental. Did you ever hesitate or worry about alienating fans of System of a Down? Has that ever crossed your mind?
Serj Tankian : And it's not something that we ever had in mind and it's not something I ever personally have in mind. As long as I'm happy making the record with people I enjoy, it's cool with me. Each project is a different animal. Serart to me is a very special record, it's not a commercial record. It's like an art project in a way and I present it as such. PM: I hate to go back to System, but along the lines of the last response, Toxicity sold so many records. As a fan of music, I was amazed at how well the album sold given how different it was from the other records out there. There are not too many bands that have been able to do that. What do you attribute to the album's success?
Serj Tankian : I'm not really sure what the formula is, if there is one. I think as artists we're grateful that we can live off the fruits of our art and I'm grateful to be in that position. And I want to encourage other artists through my album to be able to do the same. A lot of people like pizza; not everyone likes extraordinary dishes that may also be amazing. But a good chef should be able to make both what most people like and what very few people may like. But both dishes have to be well done if it's a good chef. PM: The DVD that comes with the record. Do you feel you can listen to the album without the DVD or is that part of the experience?
Serj Tankian : You can definitely listen to the record without the DVD because the record itself brings about a lot of visuals for the listener. The DVD is kind of an enhancement and brings one interpretation of the visuals. It's 13 minutes. It's called the Sun Angle Calculator. PM: Did you guys both come up with the idea?
Serj Tankian : No, actually it was suggested by some friends that I am working with. Then we went out and found a director/editor that would be really good at doing this. Then I worked closely with him. PM: Along the lines of directors/filmmakers, you worked with Michael Moore on the video for "Boom." What was that like? I assume you're a big fan.
Serj Tankian : Michael is amazing. I would describe Mike as bold and very funny. He was really great to work with and very focused. Although he was really busy and inundated with work and press, but he still made time because he believed in what we were doing and he was a fan of the music. And I'm a fan of his films, like Bowling for Columbine. So it worked out really well. PM: How did it come about? Had you met prior to that?
Serj Tankian : No, we hadn't met. We thought of doing "Boom" as a video instead of doing a commercial single with a video and radio play and stuff like that. We just thought the times were so desperate that we needed to do something as a statement and at the time "Boom" lent itself to the situation pretty well. I couldn't think of anyone else but Michael Moore directing "Boom" so we contacted him.