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Serj Tankian Talks About Music And Art With TV3

By David Farrier

Tomorrow night, Serj Tankian is playing a one-off show at Christchurch's CBS Arena.
Known to many as the frontman of System of a Down, for many this concert will show a different side to the Grammy-award winning musician.

He'll be joined on stage by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, who will perform some of Serj's symphony found on his recent Orca album.

He'll also be performing with them as they rock through his Elect the Dead record.
Serj doesn't perform these shows often, so it seemed like a good opportunity for me to sit down with the musician in New Zealand to talk about what he's up to.

For video of the interview, check out this link: TV3 Video Interview

Are you looking forward to the Christchurch show?

I am looking forward to it very much. In fact, we've been planning on having a show with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra for many years. My friend Hamish McKeich, who conducted our APO show years ago in 2009 in Auckland, he's the one who called the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and they were keen on working with us. So we've been trying to plan this for a few years, and we've had very busy schedules, and touring elsewhere, so this year knowing I am going to be spending a nice chunk of time in New Zealand I decided let's definitely go ahead and do the show.

You've been touring a lot with System - is it hard to get your head into another space with the orchestral music, or is it quite organic?

It's not really difficult jumping from one band or musical project to the other. In fact in Europe and Russia I went from doing three weeks with System, to doing three weeks with an orchestra. It's actually really great. It's kind of like going to the gym: With System, you are getting your cardio, because you are just running, jumping and doing these crazy acrobatics both vocally and physically. And with the orchestra you are sitting there and it's more of a spiritual, emotional, intimate connection musically. And it's a different value in terms of the connectivity with the audience. One is a huge festival type of audience with System, and the other is a beautiful theatre, like the Auckland Town Hall, or as it will be in Christchurch. I like the diversity.
Well it's exciting for Christchurch, too.

I am really excited about going there, in fact we've been looking at a number of non-profits to work with there as well, and we will donate the net proceeds of the show actually. There's a lot of great work happening there, it's really interesting. Obviously the effects of the earthquake and everything else that's happened since then have been devastating - [but] it's created all these spaces, because all these people have moved and gone away. So it's a city with a lot of spaces, which is something we're not used to, as most areas are so concentrated. So the creatives of the city have been trying to see how they can take advantage of those spaces, in a creative and positive way. So there are these organizations doing some really out-of-the-box thinking. There are instruments set up in a park for example, and random people can go up and play them. There's areas where people can go and dance and put in their CD, and it's all set up with a little PA system. Just creative spaces that would not otherwise exist in a city. So I guess these are some of the good things that we can say have come out of this experience.

For someone that wasn't at your Auckland Town Hall show, what can people expect from your show?

Since the Auckland Town Hall show in 2009, we've done 26 orchestral shows, throughout Europe and Russia and Ukraine and all these countries. And it's been incredible, with all these different sorts of orchestras. So Auckland was the first to kind of put us on that road. So the show we are going to do in Christchurch is similar to what we did last year in Europe and Russia. It's a hybrid show between the Elect the Dead Symphony, which are my orchestral pieces that I did with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 2009, and also Orca, my new symphony. Orca is a traditional symphony. It's instrumental - it's not rock songs with symphonic variations. So it's actually a beautiful show. A very unique show, and a way of showing off the dynamics of an orchestra: Playing almost very heavy rock kind of orientated moments and coming down and playing really beautiful, intimate pieces from Orca. We have a duduk player, an Armenian reed instrument player, from Armenia, coming. He is just stunning, and plays on movement four of Orca, as well as a few other songs. So it's quite a joy putting on these shows. And so far every audience we've interacted with have been quite moved by it.

It must be nice to play with different energy levels; the rock, through to the orchestral stuff.

People are so used to musical segmentation. With a rock show everyone is on their feet, yelling, screaming, and having beers. With a classical show, everyone is sitting down, well-dressed and quiet. Now - we're breaking those barriers. So we're not going to have the typical classical setting. Yes, you will have to sit down. For most of the show you will have to be quiet, because they're acoustic instruments, they're not electric instruments. However, the attitude, the dress code, the way we interact with the audience and have them get up at the end of the show and go wild, that is not typical of the classical world. And the orchestras we've worked with really seem to enjoy that kind of attention and outpouring of emotion from audiences. And vice versa!

What do rock journos think of your classical stuff, and what does the classical world think of your rock stuff?

I would bet that rock critics wouldn't love a symphony record, I would bet classical critics are not going to love someone coming from the rock world and doing a symphony record. I would bet that jazz purists writers, in fact I know jazz purist writers, are not into my Jazz-Is-Christ record. But hey, that's okay! Because I am making the music that is coming to me from the universe, and I am presenting it the best way I can. And I am putting a spin on it that is uniquely what I do. And as long as my fans and people who are following me like it, I'm happy with it and thankful for it.
And obviously people like John Psathas are along for the ride!

We're actually working together now in doing a new piece, it's called '100 Years', and we will have it out next year. It will be about genocide and holocaust. It's a heavy topic. The piece is a beautiful piece, that goes from ethnic to orchestral to many different things, and we're having friends from all over the world participate by playing on it. And we're going to be showing them on videos, as well as recording their audio, and basically having their own emotional, spiritual stamp on the piece. And we're going to be displaying it at festivals, as well as probably on YouTube and whatnot.

That's a pretty heavy topic to focus on.

We want to bring awareness to the fact that there are still - even with the genocide convention at the UN, and all these different committees and sub committees designed to tackle genocide - genocide is still a modern human disease that's not fully looked after by the international community. We saw in Darfur for example the Chinese had economic ties they wouldn't back off from. So we need to have some kind framework that makes genocide, or holocaust, a kind of 'no-fly zone': Anytime that is happening, all nations break immediate ties, they get together and discuss humanitarian aid etcetera. We're seeing with Syria as well - I don't necessarily call that a genocide - but we're seeing with the Syrian civil war how confusing it is for the international community. Nations don't know what side to support. You know, you've got a tyrant on one side, and then you've got terrorist groups on the other side, along with a truly rebellious part of the population, you've got sectarian violence, you've got religious factions… it's difficult, you know? But we have to take a stand against this modern disease called 'genocide'.

Do you find it refreshing to be in New Zealand where I guess politically we're a bit more - I suppose the issues are a bit smaller here. Do you find that an encouraging thing?

I do. I mean obviously New Zealand has its own issues that we grapple with here, but yeah the geo-political issues are way more tame. The semi-neutrality of the country is definitely very progressive outlook. Many nations can benefit from that kind of perspective. And kiwis are quite wise politically, in terms of international politics, because they read. Most people in America don't read! And the education system is great. I think it's not just enough to have a democracy, it's important to have an educated democracy, because without an educated, literate democracy, you can have a George Bush as your leader. And that can be maybe as dangerous as having Assad as your leader in some cases! [laughter]. Coming to New Zealand it's refreshing, every year I live between here and Los Angeles and it slows things down on a beautiful level, and increases the lifestyle for me. The quality of the lifestyle, the people I interact with and the relationships that I develop. And it's a different world and I'd love it to stay like that forever.

Totally changing track - you've been painting, right?

I've been doing art for the first time! I've been painting and creating these musically linked paintings. And we've developed an app called "Eye for Sound" that lets you take your smart phone and through optical recognition, allows you to play music while viewing a painting or piece of sculpture. So we have a number of artist friends who have joined into this Eye for Sound community. We're doing a multi-artist, multi-media exhibition. We're looking to do something in Los Angeles this year and we're also looking at doing something major at a museum in Auckland early next year. It's exciting and very unique because the same artist is doing both the visual and the musical piece. So they both complete the picture together. And we're also talking to visual artists here in New Zealand who have musical ability, who play the piano and do other things, so we want to incorporate their talent into it as well.

You are basically incapable of taking time off, right?

No look at me man, I am chilling. I'm on a farm, relaxing, doing a little work. I am travelling less. I've slowed down this year. I'm spending more time on the farm here in New Zealand and enjoying my life, and growing veggies and beautiful orchards. Compose and compost. That's my new thing. Composting and composing, all in the same day. I swear, going out and working on a farm for two to three hours, getting your sweat on and your body going, and physically feeling the difference you make on the land, and then coming in - showering [laughs] - and starting to work on music and do something creative. Music or painting. They're both the same, really. It's a continuation, one to the other.

Are you glad you moved to New Zealand?

I'm more than glad, I am ecstatic. It's my haven. And it's also a place where I feel more creative. And I feel more at home in myself to be honest with you. And I have lived in LA since 1975, which is a lot of years. And I have a lot of friends there, and family there, and it's difficult to move away. My work is mostly there, the entertainment industry is there, and I've been scoring for films and video games, and the music industry is based there in the world. And to have that excitement and working there is great. But when I get off tour, I don't think of going to my place in LA, I think of coming to New Zealand as home. Because I feel more at home here.

You must be glad it all worked out. I mean, you could have moved here and found it to be terrible!

It wasn't an experiment for me, it was more of… 'This is where I know I have to be, how do I make this happen realistically?' And obviously that takes time, whether it's residency or purchasing a place. But it's been the most rewarding experience. And everyone always asks me about New Zealand. I had a friend of mine call me the other day and he's like, 'Alright, tell me about New Zealand!' and I'm like 'Woah! You should just come down first!' And I've spoken to many people from famous directors to different people about New Zealand because there's a lot of interest, especially from creative people who can afford to make the change in their lives, and I think that's wonderful. And I think the government's policy of actually helping be a catalyst for that change and bringing in creative people, people with vision, is a great thing. It's a beautiful thing. I think it will pay off.

I bet you find a lot of musicians who come through town probably want to hang out with you! Like you were on stage with Tool at the Big Day Out.

It's been amazing, it's cool having friends come to play a show in Auckland and me saying, 'Hey come out to the farm and let's hang out, and go to the beach and chill out' and give them a day off from the tour, away from their camp. It's a beautiful thing. We did that with Tom Morello who was here with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and before the show he came up to me and was like, 'So, what are you going to sing with us tonight?' And I was like 'Ah, nothing! I am a viewer in the audience, I will drink with you and watch your show and congratulate you after, but I do not have the guts to get up with you on a Bruce Springsteen stage!' I'll be the first to say it, I was scared. That time I went up with Tool [at the 2007 Big Day Out], I was like, "I don't know the song by heart" and he was like "Just do whatever you want to do" - but I was nervous as f--! Look, I look at it this way: These people have tens of thousands of fans that know that music, like the back of their hands, and here I am about to jam on it, and you know, it's a bit gratuitous!

Serj Tankian performs at Christchurch's CBS Canterbury Arena on Saturday, March 29, at 7:30pm. More information is available on the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra website.

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