Interview: Serj Tankian Talks ‘Harakiri,’ Obama and More

CraveOnline sits down withe the System of a Down frontman to discuss his new album.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson


Political activist, composer, singer, writer, and general artistic man about town. That’s Serj Tankian in a nutshell. Though most famously known for being the frontman of System Of A Down, Tankian is never at a loss for projects. His most recent one is the solo album Harikiri (read our review), a musical gumbo of world music and heavy metal held together by Tankian’s unique pitch and bizarre lyrical style.

I’ve known Tankian for a long time – he was one of the only people I met during my time at MTV who stayed my friend once the lights went out. Getting a few minutes to talk to him is always a treat and while he was tight lipped about the future of System Of A Down, Tankian had more than enough to say about Harikiri, politics, the state of the Earth and his always growing number of side projects.


CRAVEONLINE: What's behind the album name Harikiri?

SERJ: ‘Harakiri’ is a Japanese term signifying ritualistic suicide, the cutting of the abdomen.  Similar to the term‘Seppuku’, a ritual suicide by self-disembowelment on a sword.

The first song I wrote for the record was the title track Harakiri, which refers to the ominous events of early 2011 when close to a million species of bird and fish died, without much satisfactory scientific explanation. The omen was not lost on me.  Varied creatures on earth were committing massive hara-kiri or were being given a sign to leave this place. Why would these intuitive beings closely knit in the fabric of nature leave? What does that mean for us in terms of environmental degradation, events to come, etc?

CRAVEONLINE: Is there a thematic idea behind the record? Are the songs connected? If so, how?

SERJ: Harakiri is not really a concept record, although the idea of harakiri as it relates to death is a central theme.  Everything else on the album captures the same time period of life in these times: political and social events, personal stories, humorous interpretations. It tries to convey the massive upheaval of our global life today ripe with injustice, economic inequities, the failing of the massive globalist agenda, and of course revolt.  

CRAVEONLINE: You wrote the record on an IPad. How was that and why do it that way?

SERJ: I used my iPad as another songwriting tool.  I love the music applications that they make, and I was playing around with these programs and used them to sketch out ideas for 3 of the songs on the record.  As an artist, you never want to write the same song again, you always want to challenge yourself to writing in a different way.   The best way to do that is to pick up a new instrument or an instrument that you don’t typically write on and see where it takes you.  Whether it’s using an acoustic guitar, or piano, or electronics as tools, all of these lead to creating different types of songs and I used all of these methods for this record.

We're actually putting out our own Music app called I Am Serj featuring loops from all 3 solo records including Harakiri giving people the ability to make their own songs, remixes, ringtones, etc. It will launch Tuesday July 10th with Harakiri the record.


CRAVEONLINE: Your lyrics are usually complex in their word play. How do you write them?

SERJ: I focus on a theme that I want to express myself about and find the best way to fit those thoughts into the musical stanza. Sometimes I use my poetry from Cool Gardens or Glaring Through Oblivion as a starting point for them.


CRAVEONLINE: How do you think Obama has done as a president?

SERJ: Loaded question: I think he's the best President we've had since Jimmy Carter in terms of his populism and caring for the average American. His Healthcare legislation, though not perfect, due to its lack of the public option, is a step forward for taking care of Americans. His obstructionist opposition party, The Republicans, have made it difficult for him to work with Congress so I'm glad he's finally realized he should come to the people while handing down Presidential decrees, as he has done recently with the Gay marriage issue and Immigration. He has not made the right decision by serving as an apologist for Turkey in terms of not using the word Genocide when referring to the Armenian Genocide. He has replaced all the business goons that ran our multiple federal agencies with career watchdogs and whistleblowers. The current alternative is unthinkable.


CRAVEONLINE: Do you think the political system is too fractured to fix? How would you do it?

SERJ: 1) Take the money out completely. Get rid of the electorate, K street lobbying firms, overturn Citizens United.

2) Create Direct Democracy like Switzerland. No middleman, and no one that could be corrupted.

3) Before any of this, dramatically increase spending on education. Dumb people make for a stupid democracy as we've seen before.

CRAVEONLINE: How much has corporatization effected the world in your opinion?

SERJ: Corporatization is the descendent of industrialization. Unions were created to reverse the affects of industrial (factory workers') abuse, and the globalist corporate environment has instead shipped those jobs offshore. Citizens United has made Coke our God. Adelson can outspend anyone and influence vote. This is no longer a fucking democracy people. Wake the fuck up.

CRAVEONLINE: How can people bring about real change?

SERJ: Occupy, write, read, awareness, activism. Awareness in our society has flipped all types of injustice on its head. 


CRAVEONLINE: Do you think the earth itself is finally revolting?

SERJ: Us Puny Humans (to quote your old band's name) cannot affect the long-term health of the earth, but in the short term we have done a horrible job at adding to climate change and poisoning our own environment. What all this means is that we will get shook off till we're at the right population size, and living a respectably sustainable lifestyle.


CRAVEONLINE: Opinion on the Occupy movement.

SERJ: It's great. Finally. People speaking out about the cracks in this WTO sponsored globalist fiasco of abusive capitalism. As much as people discount the movement in the press and government, I for one know that it's had a tremendous impact on slightly ever so softly nudging the Democrats a bit back to the left from their Clintonian middle. More wider movements can cause larger positive change.

CRAVEONLINE: So how did System start playing together again?

SERJ: Sharing studio space in the (San Fernando) Valley. Old story.

CRAVEONLINE: Any plans for a new record?

SERJ: We have not made any plans to do so as of yet. I think it’s something that we’ll get together and work on at the right time, when we’re all in that headspace. It hasn’t been that time yet. It’s as simple as that.


CRAVEONLINE: What other projects do you have going on?

SERJ: Composing is what I love most from what I do. Each genre has a unique expression that you cannot supplant with another. All the records co-inspire each other though they are not tied conceptually in any way to another.

The jazz record is called Jazz-iz Christ.  I had written a lot of jazz tracks already and I was able to collaborate with some amazing jazz musicians such as Tigran Hamasyan (pianist signed to Verve), Tom Duprey (trumpet, who also performed in the rock musical I composed for, Prometheus Bound ), Valery Tolstoy (flutist) and David Alpay (violinist).  We sent the songs around and everyone contributed and we finished it this year. 

The orchestral album is called ORCA, which is my first classical symphony (Elect the Dead symphony was a re-interpretation of my rock record Elect the Dead with vocals so technically it was a symphonic arrangement but not a classical symphony).  I started writing ORCA when I was writing my last solo release, Imperfect Harmonies.  We are working on plans for live performances in 2013.

The electronic project is a collaboration with Jimmy Urine of the band Mindless Self Indulgence and is called Fuktronic.  The album is kind of like a concept British gangster film without the film, if that makes any sense.  There are actors and a lot of cussing and killing and over-the-top hilarious stuff.

Harikiri is out Tuesday July 10th