Serj Tankian's deep fascination with orchestral music is just one indication that the rock singer's focus has evolved significantly since his band, System of a Down, released their most recent album 11 years ago.
“My take on art is that an artist needs to do different things," Tankian explains."They need to follow their vision, otherwise they’re just regurgitating, and that’s not art.”
Not that System of a Down could ever be accused of regurgitating. One of the biggest and arguably best of the nu-metal bands of the late ’90s and early ’00s, System stood out in ways that still resonate. They ticked off prison statistics in the middle of their songs; they composed mini-operas that hinted at Queen-level ambition; they were unabashedly non-Anglo in a lily-white milieu otherwise ruled by the likes of Fred Durst.
With forebears in Rage Against the Machine, they railed against war, the police state and American materialism. On summer festival stages, Tankian talked to audiences about the Armenian genocide — a conversation you could bet Papa Roach weren’t having with their fans.
Now, on a recent early-autumn afternoon in Los Angeles, Tankian — as politically passionate as ever — is explaining the symbolism in his Orca Symphony No. 1, which he will present on Nov. 10 and 12 at Valley Performing Arts Center, performed by the CSUN Symphony Orchestra. The symphony is a long way from the terse, manic snap of System of a Down albums such as Toxicity or Mezmerize, and that’s where Tankian wants to be — for the moment, at least.
Orca Symphony's first movement, Tankian says, is a kind of survey of the spoils of humankind’s selfishness. “We’ve done our things in life, we’ve destroyed things, we've conquered … we’ve built all these monuments and temples to ourselves,” he explains.
The second movement, called "Oceanic Subterfuge," is a bit more meditative. Tankian says it’s meant to evoke taking in the complexity of human life in all its positives and negatives. “[It’s] where you go deep and try to realize who you are. Who am I? What is all this materialism?"
It’s a question Tankian has strived to answer himself as both his music and his activism have developed since the release of System's last album, 2005’s Hypnotize. In 2006, he self-produced and self-released his solo debut, Elect the Dead, a rock album in which he envisions the world upending itself. Tankian will perform a symphonic arrangement of Elect the Dead alongside Orca Symphony at the VPAC shows.
When not preparing to perform with orchestras, Tankian divides his time between other symphonic projects, including scoring films like 1915, a thriller that addresses the Armenian genocide; a sci-fi game called Midnight Star and its sequel, Renegade; and Prometheus Bound, a musical production of the ancient Greek tragedy. In 2013, he released two records: Orca Symphony No. 1 and a jazz-rock hybrid called Jazz-Iz-Christ featuring ace pianist Tigran Hamasyan.
Whatever his musical endeavors, Tankian remains a man deeply preoccupied with the state of the world. When the conversation turns to the themes in Elect the Dead — the absurdity of our politics, the feeling that the apocalypse may be right around the corner — his tone becomes bitter.
“The world is not a more peaceful place [since Elect the Dead] and it’s — fuck, man,” he says with a sigh. “The U.S. and Russia agreed on a ceasefire in Syria, what, two days ago? And now 20 dead today, and more bombings. It’s like nothing is stopping anything. The fire and the embers are burning continually at this point, and I don’t know if it’s going to stop. It’s a pretty shitty time in history."
Does he ever feel, then, like he’s wasting his breath? "There are times you get hopeless,” Tankian admits. But he says getting personally involved makes a tangible difference. "I spend a good amount of my time dealing with issues of social justice. Before, it used to be more through music — the band touring and this and that. Now I’m just personally involved. It's the next stage. We raised awareness, now I’ll donate or I’ll go in — I like seeing actual impact on movements. There’s only so much you can do by talking about shit in this world."
The freedom that comes with no longer having to adhere to rigid recording and tour schedules has largely facilitated Tankian’s activism. On the other hand, his old band continues to push him toward some of the most significant moments in his life. The massive show System of a Down played in Yerevan, Armenia, last year to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide "was probably my spiritual and musical climax of a lifetime,” he says, remembering “inspiring kids to get out on the street in droves, and seeing their smiling faces and their hope and possibility."
The question of System of a Down is, of course, a timely one. In October, the band announced a handful of 2017 tour dates. And Instagram photos posted by other members of the band hinted that they could be gathering in the studio to put together new material.
Tankian, however, essentially addresses the possibility with a shrug, saying the band members have worked on some music separately. “We’re going to get together and see if that’s going to be System music or not. And who the fuck knows? If it is, great, and if it’s not, then great."
But whatever happens with the band, it's clear the rock format is no longer Tankian’s only muse. With a world nearly spinning off its axis, and more scores and symphonies to be written, his focus seems elsewhere.
"Some people are like, 'Stop it, fuckhead, go make another record with System and stop talking politics and stop doing your art,'" he says. "There are always those boneheads — and obviously they deserve oxygen as well," he adds, chuckling.
“If you enjoy making the same rock record for the rest of your life, keep making the same rock record for the rest of your life," he says. "But I don’t."