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System of an Up

Serj Tankian has energy to spare




T he L.A. quartet System of a Down stuck out from the nĂ¼ metal pack like a sore thumb with their 2001 breakthrough release Toxicity . The vigorous album contained dizzying tempo shifts, funk, humor and a worldliness to accentuate the obligatory Metallica riffs and periodic rebel yell. Much of the credit goes to lead singer Serj Tankian, who plays a solo gig at the Warfield on March 8. With tender Middle Eastern inflections and biting socially and politically conscious lyrics, Tankian is an original, and despite a band hiatus, he's relishing his solo debut, last year's Elect the Dead .

"I felt the exact same energy as I did recording System's debut in 1998," he writes in an email interview from his hotel room in Norfolk, Va., on the morning of a gig headling with the Foo Fighters. "That sense of open experimentation—it's liberating because all the choices are mine." Recorded in Tankian's home studio, the album stays true to the System sound, as in the thoughtful yet abrasive "The Unthinking Majority," but veers excitedly off course with strings and a guest spot from 25-year-old opera soprano Ani Maldjian. His lyrics even delve inward, as with the powerful account of romantic discord "Saving Us."

"Elect the Dead is definitely a more personal album for me lyrically, and musically more progressive," he says. "My next solo work will go further into the orchestral and jazz vibes."

It's always just a matter of time before the creatively restless Tankian immerses himself into the next project. In just the past few years, he's released the bestselling poetry collection Cool Gardens and launched his Serjical Strike record label. His vigorous work ethic isn't new. Prior to becoming a metal god, he earned degrees in marketing and business, and ran his own company developing accounting software. Whew. "It taught me how to be organized and efficient," he says. "Now I apply that knowledge to running Serjical Strike and my other ventures."

Far and way the most admirable of his projects is the Axis of Justice, a nonprofit political-action organization he formed with fellow musician-activist Tom Morello. The election year will bring some interesting events, including a new website ( rallying support for the abolition of the Electoral College and lobbying firms, and capping donations by corporations, among other domestic concerns.

Sitting on the sidelines has never been an option for the Lebanon-born Tankian, whose Armenian family's stories of genocide were a part of his upbringing. "The world still prefers profits over people," he says. "Sudan is a good modern case study for this and, unlike during the earlier part of the century when the Armenian genocide occurred, we have more immediate knowledge and facts on the ground about it hourly. We cannot afford to deny a known genocide for political expediency or any other reason."

His family also informed his musical aspirations, particularly his father who sang traditional Armenian songs around the house. "Lucky enough for me, he does really enjoy my music and is one of my most trusted critics," Tankian says proudly. "He himself is getting ready to write and record an album of songs in Armenian, which I intend to release."

To the disappointment of their fans, Tankian and the rest of System of a Down have been vague at best about the implications and length of their current hiatus. Onstage, Tankian steers clear of System's songs and usual performance style. "We have a more vaudevillian comical experience with poetic politics," he says of his current tour, which is partnered with the eco-rock nonprofit Reverb to ensure a lighter ecological footprint.

Inquiring about his remix work, which has covered everyone from Dredg to M.I.A., I may have unwittingly prolonged System's hiatus. "I enjoy doing remixes of artists I like. A remix album?" he ponders. "Hmm, never thought of it. Thanks for the idea."

And when asked if he's nervous to be having this much fun away from the band, Tankian responds with characteristically playful wit. "Why would I be nervous making the music I'm supposed to make, in any configuration or manner?" he retorts. "You write for more than one paper, David. Does it make you nervous?"

Yet another good point from Serj Tankian.

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