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Serj Tankian, ‘Harakiri’: System of a Down Singer Goes Solo, Talks Dead Birds, Occupy and the iPad

Stefan Gosatti, Getty

Back in 2011, when thousands of birds fell from the sky and millions of fish washed up on shore in freak die-offs across North America, most people were happy to accept the media’s flimsy scientific explanations.

Serj Tankian, the Lebanese-born Armenian-American solo artist and frontman for Grammy-Award winning hard rock band System of a Down, didn’t take these events lightly.

The ominous incidents moved him, so he did what songwriters do; he wrote a song.

That track “Harakiri,” the Japanese word for ritual suicide, is the title track from his third solo release out July 10 on Reprise Records.

Tankian is an interesting guy. While most hard rockers are content to swill beer and flip devil horns, he spends his down time writing books of poetry, meeting with the heads of state, and promoting social justice via the Axis of Justice, the non-for profit organization he co-founded with Rage Against the Machine‘s Tom Morello.

When Spinner got Tankian on the horn to chat about his new record, he didn’t stick to a script. Rather, he waxed poetic about the unexplained die-offs of animal species, the irony of using an iPad to write songs condemning consumerism, the Occupy movement, and how he just might be becoming a hard-rocking Bono.

You wrote the title cut from Harakiri after birds and fish started dying by the millions. Why did those events move you?

It was such an ominous event. A million fish and birds decided to leave the planet, but what was it that made them go? They are such intuitive beings, and they are better connected with disturbances in nature than we are, so there must have been something.

Remember, this is a month before a tsunami damaged that Japanese nuclear reactor and now water across the globe is showing signs of increased radioactivity. That might have something to do with it, I don’t know, but it was definitely a powerful harbinger of times to come.

Most people seemed happy to accept the scientific explanations, but you’re not buying it. Why?

All the scientific explanations were pretty far fetched — fireworks in one case, or not enough oxygen in the bay in another case. The logical mind can’t comprehend the alternative. That’s what is so haunting and powerful about it.

You wrote songs for Harakiri using readily available apps and your iPad. Can you explain that process?

I took tracks from my previous records, made loops out of them, and used these loops as construction material to design new songs. It was musical recycling if you will. The iPad is such a great musical tool. I was just messing around and came up with sketches for three of the songs: “Reality TV,” “Ching Chime” and “Deafening Silence.”

Consumerism is a theme that pops up in many of your songs. Do you see the irony in using an iPad — one of the most coveted electronic devices ever created — as a production tool?

If you’re looking for irony, you can find it anywhere [laughs]. Utilizing an iPad to write a song is no different from using acoustic guitar or piano. As a songwriter, you always want to change and progress, and while I’m not endorsing the Apple corporation in any way, it is a useful tool. Consumerism is part of our life; there’s blind consumerism, and then there’s consumer awareness. They are very different things.

In 2011, after an appearance in Yerevan, Armenia, you met with the country’s heads of state. You often use your music and celebrity to highlight and further social justice causes, but most rock musicians don’t take time off from touring to visit political leaders. Do you see yourself becoming more involved in politics, perhaps like U2‘s Bono, who is almost as active as a political figure as he is as a rock star?

I hate injustice, and I can’t help but to speak against it, but I don’t want to get involved in politics, because I have a more direct avenue to expression as an artist than I ever would as a politician. As an artist or an activist, I hope I always continue doing what my heart tells me to do.

With the recent Occupy movements and student protests — like the ongoing ones in Montreal — people are letting governments know they’re fed up with the status quo. Do you think regular people have the power to change a political system?

The Occupy movement is here to stay, and I’m proud that people have stopped putting up with abusive capitalism and the injustice of the economic and globalist systems.

All around the world, in North America, Europe, and South America where students have been fighting for their rights for more than a year and a half on the streets of Santiago, people are getting out on the street and making themselves heard. At first the media tried to demonize it, but it’s a truly democratic movement and I think there has been an impact.

Over the last year you’ve played gigs across three continents with System of a Down, but the band has yet to recorded new material. So, what’s standing in the way of a full-scale reunion?

There is nothing standing in the way. When the time is right for us to get back in the studio and do a record together we will. Until then, we’ll continue doing what we do on our own. Truth is, these reunion dates have been incredibly fun and we are performing better than we ever had. It’s very positive.


Watch Serj Tankian’s “Empty Walls” Video

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