By Kory Grow
Over the past decade and a half, System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian has consistently defied the norms of writing and recording hard rock. Whether adding syncopated call-and-response vocals to metal songs like System's hit "Chop Suey!" or recording an entire solo album with a symphony, the singer and multi-instrumentalist has worked outside the box.
When it came to composing his latest solo record, Harakiri – which was released last week – Tankian took to crafting tunes with an unlikely instrument: his iPad. Using programs designed by savageApps like iAmBeatBox, he sequenced loops and built the frameworks of tracks like the frenetic, hip-hop-leaning "Ching Chime" and polemical dance-rock track "Reality TV."
"It's almost like writing electronic music with rock elements, and using that as a way of designing a song," Tankian tells Rolling Stone. "It's a different way of approaching music than you would by grabbing a guitar or jumping on the piano. It makes things quick." He was so excited about the experience that about four months ago, he offered to collaborate with savageApps on his own tablet and smartphone program, dubbed I Am Serj, which came out last week.
The I Am Serj app allows iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch users to drag "gems" onto different places on a grid, which determines the loop that will play. The ones that come with the initial download are all savageApps-created samples that Tankian used while writing Harakiri, but the app also offers pay-per-download packages of instrumental samples from the singer's first two solo albums, Elect the Dead and the symphonic Imperfect Harmonies, as well as vocal tracks from Harakiri. After composing a sequence with the gems and mixing it to their satisfaction, users are then able to create ringtones of the music. They also have the option of recording mixes in real-time and exporting them to Facebook and SoundCloud.
What appeals most to Tankian about the program, though, is that users don't have to be professional musicians to use it. "It's designed for anybody," he explains. "People could make their own remix record using this app in a day, but most of what people will create will be their own original music. There are so many variations of bass, strings, pianos and guitars, it's quite interesting. There's even an oud [a lute-like Middle Eastern instrument] and some ethnic instruments on there that we used on the record. There are a billion possible combinations."
These permutations are still inspiring Tankian, who has been creating his own mixes using the app. "I'm kind of getting off on the electro aspect of it," he says, adding that he's planning on posting "my own little new song" to his Facebook when he completes it. In the meantime, he's also been thinking about how the app could be used in a live setting, since he'll be embarking on a solo tour with his group the FCC in September after a short run with System of a Down in August. "The FCC guys were like, 'Hey we should just bring the iPad onstage and start a song using one of the loops and the band will join in,'" Tankian says. "We may or may not do that, but there are definitely live applications to it. DJs can go crazy with it, too, since it has beat-matching capabilities. You can change the tempo of the app and mix things on the fly."
Because I Am Serj offers so many capabilities, Tankian says that his musician friends, including composers, have been enthusiastic about it. He hopes to develop similar apps for them in the future. But until then, he's happy with the feedback he's been getting from non-musicians. "I tried it out on my friend's kids," he says. "They're nine years old. I pulled out my iPad and opened up the app. They were going off with it. It's awesome. Anyone can use it."