Serj Tankian is the Lebanese-born, Armenian-American singer and keyboard player from metal band System of a Down who recently released his first solo album, “Elect the Dead.” In addition to being a political activist — he and former Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello co-founded a non-profit organization, Axis of Justice, in 2002 — Tankian’s also a poet and essayist. Six Questions caught up with him recently to talk about life.
Doug Miller: You own a second home in New Zealand, and there’s a rumor going around that you will live there until the war in Iraq is over. Say it ain’t so.
Serj Tankian: That’s not true at all. I have no idea where it came from. Maybe a lot of Americans think that because I had the audacity to buy a house in another country that it was a political move, but it wasn’t. I’d love to spend more time there, but because of family and my work, I end up spending more time here.
The bottom line is New Zealand is just a great place. It’s a non-nuclear country with non-genetically modified foods, and it’s gorgeous. It’s also very politically neutral, underdeveloped and very green. Ecologically it’s one of the most developed nations you’ll find. I went there a few times and just felt really comfortable there. Then I researched it and traveled around and discovered more about it. I definitely see myself spending a lot more time there later in my life. I mean, where I live there’s one small grocery store, and it’s open until 5 p.m.
Miller: Shania Twain has a huge compound there. Is your place as big as hers?
Tankian: (Laughs) It’s probably as big as her little tool shed. Mine’s a small house. I don’t have a “station,” which is a huge land block with thousands of acres, which is what she has. She built that house and a lot of people rejected that the government allowed her to do that. There was a strong backlash by New Zealand’s government to allowing major construction projects like that from overseas. They started an overseas investment council. Good on her, as they say down there, but it did make it tougher for the rest of us.
Miller: So how’s life on your own after all those years in System?
Tankian: Not as different as you might think. I’ve toured a lot for last 10 years and been on a lot of the same stages. It’s very organic and natural going up and doing solo shows, but I’m comfortable and confident. The people are coming out because there’s a new record out and there’s new music and it’s exiting. They want to see it.
Miller: And the new material?
Tankian: Instead of writing and recording with a band, I wrote on my own and composed it. It’s very much piano- and strings-based, more so than System, which is mostly guitar-based. It’s classical and has operatic dynamics; it’s more dramatic. There are also acoustic guitar songs that have a Spanish, gypsy kind of vibe and a certain swing. Lyrically, it’s a lot more intimate. It’s only me that I’m representing.
There are more personal stories on this record than anything I’ve ever done. It was a joy making it myself, mixing it myself in my own studio, and it was an amazing feeling doing it all and doing it successfully. As far as the stage show, it’s a lot more vaudevillian, more dramatic and humorous than System is on stage. It still has heavy influxes of politics and serious stuff, but it’s still funny, too. It’s a real show.
Miller: What’s the most ridiculous thing that’s happened on tour so far?
Tankian: I don’t know about ridiculous, but we have fun every day with each other cracking silly jokes before we get on stage. Some people hype themselves up. I like to relax and I like to laugh. So we do a little huddle, and whoever’s got a good joke tells it, and you get up on stage in a funny mood with a positive vibe and have a great show. One good story from the tour is that one of our tech guys almost burned down the hotel in Manchester, England. He loves candles, and I think he blew it out, but it hadn’t totally blown out. Nothing burned, but it was getting close. So we were calling him “Candlebox,” and when he brought out the guitar in front of 10,000 or 15,000 people, I said, “Everyone say hi to Candlebox.”
Miller: When reporters ask you if System is going to get back together, do you just roll your eyes or do you actually answer them at this point?
Tankian: What I do is I’ve taken the top 20 questions I’ve ever been asked and made cue cards with my answers. I just show them the cards, and it makes the whole process a lot easier.
And here’s System question No. 1: “What is the status and future of System of a Down? Do you have plans to record another album with SOAD in the future?” So the answer to that question is also on my FAQ on my Web site (The answer: “SOAD is currently on an indefinite hiatus after 10+ years of being a touring and recording band. SOAD is not a corporation that needs to put out a product every year to sustain. We’re a group of artists and we create music together when we want to. We are enjoying prioritizing other artistic and personal efforts. We're all friends and supportive of each other’s art. If and when we need to speak as one to the world, the world will be aware.”).
It’s great to do it that way. When you’ve answered the question perfectly at least a couple of times out of the 700 or 800 you’re asked, you just want to capture that moment.