By Steve Baltin
On stage with System of a Down, Serj Tankian is the frontman for one of the most blistering and frenetic aural assaults in all of rock, leading a frenzied mix of speeds that sends thousands into mosh pit mayhem. Offstage, however, he could not be further from the fury of that music, delivering his words with a thoughtfulness that makes him seem more like a professor than the lead singer of a multi-platinum hard rock band.
For those who have had the opportunity to meet Tankian, it is not surprising at all he would wind his way into classical music and symphonies, as he did with solo albums Orca and Elect the Dead. Film scoring is a natural progression for the frontman, who is embracing his role as composer in a big way.
April 22 will see the release of Tankian’s first full film score, the soundtrack to the film 1915, a project released last year to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. As Tankian explains, the directors waited to release the album to ensure talk of the genocide would continue and also raise awareness for the film (click here for more information). Tankian also spoke with Billboard about upcoming projects, this year’s presidential election and his most important role, being a father.
It must be nice for you to go back to the orchestral side after quite a few System shows in last few years.
Absolutely, I’ve been enjoying doing scoring a lot. I also just finished another film called the Last Inhabitant that I did the score for. I’ve also been doing some orchestral work for other events as well.
Was 1915 your first full score?
It was, yeah. I’ve done parts of films; I’ve done a few dozen soundtracks and ending credits and all sorts of stuff. And I’ve done a video game before, but this would be my first full film score, first full featured movie film score A-Z kind of done by me.
It is different doing a full score versus doing a partial thing because you get a sense of the whole film. What were the things you learned that you put toward the Last Inhabitant or towards other work?
The most important thing I learned is communication with the director, because before you write a single note of music, that’s the most important part. Unless you know what palate they want to use, then you’re just wasting a lot of time doing things that may not work for the film. So the first thing I wanted to do was get a sense of what’s the sound you’re looking for, what are the emotions you’re trying to portray, what’s the story you’re trying to tell? Once I got that down and we agreed on the instrumental elements, then I was able to explore in detail that world; it was orchestral, but it was heavily piano-based in this case. I also had a lot of moody kind of weird music in there. It’s haunting, dark, beautiful -- the film and the accompanying music, I think.
Who are one or two of the directors you’d like to work with?
[Quentin] Tarantino, because he likes being dangerous and he’s used before, obviously, Ennio Morricone, who is, if I have a top film composer that I love and enjoy, it’s probably him at the top of the list. And his films go over all the place musically and that’s kind of fun to do. I’ll work with any great director that gives me the f---ing time of day right now. There are some cool people, I have a lot of friends that are getting funding on some cool mid-budget films that I’m looking forward to scoring.
What is one film you wish you could’ve done the score for?
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I think the score was amazing and I love Michel Gondry, he’s someone that I would love to work with. Julian Schnabel, I’d love to work with as well as a director. He makes incredible films. There are so many great filmmakers and I’d love to work with all of them.
Because you paint as well, do you feel you bring a stronger visual sense to scoring?
When I watch something I really feel the music for it, even if there is no music for it, which is why watching Ben Hur, which was originally a silent film, and having Stewart Copeland do the score for it, was pretty interesting, because you’re creating something where there was no music. I just love it, I really enjoy scoring a lot right now and now I’m doing this other piece that I was hired to do for an organization called 100 Lives. It gives a prize every year of a million dollars to a hero, someone who’s kind of saved people from holocaust or genocide. So I’m writing music for a live presentation and, also, for all of their media. I have to call you back because my son is up.
Do you become more responsible as a parent?
You do become more responsible because, as a man, I’ve become way better at handling multiple things, which women are really good at. Yesterday we were at a friend’s house having a deep political serious conversation with one eye on my kid, and going, “So we need to discuss it at a different level.” Then turning around and going, “No, no, don’t go there.” Your mind is working in all these different ways, it’s hilarious.
Is one of the things you enjoy so much about scoring that it allows you more time at home?
Absolutely, no question about that, I’m enjoying being home more and spending time with him. The scoring thing is easy because I get to do it out of my studio. The orchestral shows are shorter, I haven’t even done those since he’s been born. I think that does play into it obviously, but I’ve been touring for 20 years, so it’s alright.
And eventually you’ll get to the point you miss it.
Yeah, and when that happens you go out and do again and enjoy it, it’s all good.
How old is he now?
He is a year and a half now. It’s beautiful.
I remember your kid loving piano when we did a TV show taping. Does he have favorite piano sounds at this point?
He likes getting on the piano with me and banging away. He has pretty incredible rhythm. And I could swear that he always gravitates toward D sharp anytime he hits the keys. It’s quite interesting. I don’t know how that happens, but it’s interesting. But in terms of influence I’ve also written a few songs influenced by him, one kind of an ode to him and the other holding the guitar and making him laugh and that turned into a song.
Do you think having a child allows you to tap into a deeper emotional place to write a score where there are less vocals?
Possibly. Emotionally, I haven’t really assessed that in myself. One thing I can tell you is your time management skills become incredible, because [before] you had a musical idea and you had the luxury of spending a beautiful afternoon with coffee in your hand developing this musical idea and now you’re like, “I have an idea, fiik, I’ve got 15 minutes.” You just land it like a plane, there’s no f---ing around. A friend of mine told me that years ago and now I get what he means, your focus becomes super sensitive.
I saw that 1915 won a special jury prize in Turkey, which was very interesting.
I heard about that, it was last year. That is interesting, the area is primarily Kurdish, which may explain why they would be a bit more sensitive or supportive of the genocide or the film.
The film obviously has strong political leanings, as System of a Down always has. It’s such an interesting time, and not in the best way, to be politically aware.
When you have TV personalities running for office, then it becomes a bit surreal, doesn’t it? I think Bernie [Sanders] is the most human out of them, seems like his personal and voting record as a senator have been well aligned. So that is a good thing. But the rest of them are not very inspiring, as an American, in terms of politics or as a musician, in terms of creating. There’s a lot of stupidity, a lot of playing to the lowest common denominator that we’ve seen. You would think that with the advent of communication via the Internet, social media, that our populous would be getting smarter and that our leaders would be getting smarter and that our communique and our foreign policy and the way that we deal with the world is getting smarter. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case and that makes the lineup of the presidential elections extra disappointing.
It’s scary because these elections are not just watched by us in the U.S., but by the world. When I was in New Zealand people would always come and ask me. For them our elections are like a visit to the zoo, they’re so curious. “Why are they being this way? That’s so interesting.” And non-offensive at all, very curious. But people are like, “Wow, your politics are really very dramatic and very interesting.”