Rocker Serj Tankian from System of a Down calls NZ home, Discusses Art Exhibit in Auckland


By Matthew Theunissen

A sleepy town north of Auckland doesn't fit the typical rock 'n' roll lifestyle but Serj Tankian has always defied convention.

The frontman of System of a Down now calls New Zealand home, and lives on a rural property about an hour's drive north of the City of Sails.

His love affair with Aotearoa began 13 years ago after his Grammy Award-winning band performed at the Big Day Out.

"I had an intuitive connection, a feeling of belonging that I never felt elsewhere," he told the Herald on Sunday.

Tankian is revered in hard-rock circles. His chart-topping band has been nominated for four Grammy Awards - winning the gong for best hard rock performance in 2006 - and sold 12 million copies of its 2001 breakthrough album, Toxicity.

Life could be "pretty full-on" in the sprawling mass of Los Angeles, which is part of the reason the 47-year-old moved to New Zealand.

Tankian won't reveal the location of his bolthole for fear of being hounded by fans, as Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman has been at his Great Barrier Island hideaway. But he is more than happy talking about why he ditched California.

"Kiwis are calm and diplomatic. No one jumps on you and tries to take your head off. It makes you feel comfortable," he said.

The list of musicians who have popped in for a visit would make any self-respecting rock fan green with envy. "[Rage Against the Machine guitarist] Tom Morello was here last year to play with Bruce Springsteen. He came up and we went for a nice swim and got some fish," Tankian said. "Maynard [James Keenan of Tool] came over to our place a couple of years ago. I met Trent Reznor [of Nine Inch Nails] last year after his show."

Tankian said New Zealand allowed him space that spurred his creativity. He wrote much of his latest solo material here and collaborated with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

"I like to be in a more isolated environment. Auckland's pretty busy, obviously, but I just need a calmer setting to create."

Tankian is also a talented artist and is behind the Asahi Eye For Sound exhibition, which ends a two-week season at Auckland's Silo 6 today.

 Serj Tankian from System of a Down at the Big Day Out 2005. Photo / Richard Robinson
Serj Tankian from System of a Down at the Big Day Out 2005. Photo / Richard Robinson

Eye For Sound is a fusion of art, music and technology, with paintings accompanied by a piece of music accessed on a smartphone app.

"I've always wondered about the link between visuals and music. I was curious to see how this would work, and the realisation was that the multisensory experience is more powerful than a single-sensory experience in art and music."

While Tankian is now a proud New Zealand resident, his music still takes him away from his scenic paradise, including on upcoming System of a Down tours of Europe, Canada and South America.

He's not the only prominent star to have fallen in love with New Zealand. This week, Eagles' guitarist Joe Walsh returned to Hawke's Bay, the scene of a 1989 life-changing "epiphany" which he credits with helping him quit booze and drugs.

He said the area, especially Otatara Pa, was one of his most cherished spots.