In Conversation: Serj Tankian on His Vision for the “Elasticity” EP
The System of a Down frontman discusses the making of the EP, the Armenian conflict, and the future of his band.
Whether it’s with System of a Down or as a solo artist, Serj Tankian is always making music with a message. It could be commentary on the political structure of the United States, the conflict in Armenia, or more personal outlooks and reflections, delivering these messages with his trademark intensely operatic voice that fuels his artistic identity. Tankian runs the gamut on these topics with his new Elasticity EP, released via Alchemy Recordings and BMG Rights Management earlier this month. Along with the new record, he’s been working on film and video game soundtracks—adding to his work on the 2016 film 1915 about the Armenian genocide, the 2017 documentary Intent to Destroy, and the first-person shooter video game Midnight Star that came out in 2019—and a film he co-produced that’ll be out later this year.
We recently talked about the making of the EP, his love of creating soundtracks, a 2020 Armenian war that you might not know about, and the possibility of System of a Down releasing their long awaited and highly anticipated sixth album.
What’s the story behind the Elasticity EP? Were these songs originally supposed to be part of a new System of a Down album?
The songs came to me five or six years ago. We were having constructive conversations with each other regarding collaborating, and we even started playing around with each other’s music. Some of it was [guitarist Daron Malakian’s] music, and my music with these songs, but we couldn’t philosophically see eye to eye in terms of where the band should be in the future, both creatively and philosophically. I then decided to finish the songs as I originally intended and release them as an EP.
There’s pianos and acoustic guitars intertwining with hard rock tones—did you envision having a distinct variety of sounds going into writing and recording the songs, or did it just come out this way as the songs evolved?
In some cases I write on electric guitar. I think I wrote “Electric Yerevan” on electric guitar, along with “Elasticity,” but most of the time I write music on acoustic piano or acoustic guitar. Then I build up the rock instruments thereafter.
You’ve also been doing film and video game soundtracks over the past few years—have you always been a fan of film and video games? Did someone approach you about getting into soundtracking?
In terms of genre, my music has always been more diverse than rock or whatever people want to call it. I’ve always looked for opportunities to engage with different people, to work on different musical projects. Years ago I decided to do film composing and it started with 1915, since then I’ve composed for a dozen more films and video games. I’m working on a crime series for a major streamer right now. I did an action series and a bunch of documentaries, some of which I co-produced as well. I just enjoy it—I enjoy working with directors and I enjoy creating a different tone for each film that I’m working on. It gives me the ability to exercise my diverse musical interests while working on different films. I love it.
“In terms of genre, my music has always been more diverse than rock or whatever people want to call it. I’ve always looked for opportunities to engage with different people, to work on different musical projects.”
The music video for the title track depicts a weird game of musical chairs in a spiral-like asylum, and you show up on a tattoo on a lady’s arm. The one for “Electric Yerevan” shows footage from the 2015 protests in the Armenian capital against utility hikes. Vlad Kaptur directed the one for “Elasticity”—did you have any direct collaboration with him?
A very good friend of mine is a producer named Ilya Naishuller, and we’ve collaborated before on various projects. When I needed to make this video we were in COVID-19 lockdown, and no one was shooting anything, so I reached out to Ilya for his help to see if he could do something in Russia. He galvanized some people and he made the whole thing happen, and it was really their concept. He checked in with me to ask for my thoughts and my only requirement was that I didn’t want the song to be on the nose. I wanted it to be almost like a short film of a separate interpretation of what it could be and I was extremely surprised and happy with the results.
As far as “Electric Yerevan” goes, that video was directed by another good friend of mine, Garin Hovannisian, who directed Truth to Power, which is a documentary about my activism that came out last April. He also directed I Am Not Alone, a film we made about the 2018 peaceful Velvet Revolution in Armenia that we’re releasing this year. It’s an award-winning film that I also co-produced and composed music for.
Speaking of Armenia, there’s a lot going on in the country—there are other countries trying to take over disputed areas. What are your opinions of what’s been happening over there, and for those who don’t know, what exactly has been going on?
On September 27, 2020, the combined forces of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and 2,000 Syrian mercenaries attacked the peaceful people of Nagorno-Karabakh. They were basically living their lives, going to school and going to work, and these forces attacked with impunity while bombing civilian areas and committing war crimes. These bombings have included churches from the 12th and 13th century with precision guided missiles multiple times, for example. They basically wanted the Armenians to leave those lands that Armenians have been living on for 2,500 years, which had declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 along with Azerbaijan.
“I think the world community was very silent, and they didn’t protect a fledgling democracy against horrible dictators attacking it, ruining it, and creating a humanitarian catastrophe. Constructively, nations need to recognize the Armenian people’s self-determination there and they need to sanction Azerbaijan for committing these atrocities.”
Some of those areas were security buffers that were owned by Azerbaijan before, and when Armenia won the war in 1994 the Armenian Defense Forces kept certain areas as security buffers so future attacks wouldn’t happen. There was a negotiation process that Azerbaijan was never fully committed to because they never wanted to allow the Armenians in that area, have their own independence. Instead they just wanted all the lands back along with the Armenians living under their dictatorial oil regime, which is impossible because Armenia is a democracy and they can’t live under dictators—especially ones that cut off the heads of their soldiers.
As far as my opinion goes, I think the world community was very silent, and they didn’t protect a fledgling democracy against horrible dictators attacking it, ruining it, and creating a humanitarian catastrophe. Constructively, nations need to recognize the Armenian people’s self-determination there and they need to sanction Azerbaijan for committing these atrocities. They knew they were attacking at a time then the presidential election was happening in the United States, so everyone was distracted—along with the COVID-19 pandemic, obviously. It was really hard to get into the news cycle for something happening around the world in a small country.
In response to the Nagorno-Karabakh War, System of a Down released their first songs in 15 years with “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz,” with all the proceeds benefiting the Armenia Fund to help displaced families from the war. This has sparked talks of the band possibly releasing a sixth album. Have there been any developments going towards it becoming a reality?
All I can say is that I’m extremely proud of my brothers and sisters for galvanizing together to put out those two songs along with the videos. They served an incredibly important purpose, to fight Azerbaijan’s disinformation and social media block campaign during the war and raising much needed funds for humanitarian aid. It really left a great impression on me personally in terms of our interaction and whatnot. We’re all friends and family and we all communicate—[drummer John Dolmayan] is my brother-in-law, so we don’t keep distant from each other. At this point there isn’t anything going on, but I think time will tell. FL