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Serj Tankian: From System of a Down to writing symphonies

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Serj Tankian is performing his orchestral works at the Valley Performing Arts Center on Nov. 10 and 12.
Serj Tankian performs his orchestral works at Cal State Northridge's Valley Performing Arts Center on Nov. 10 and 12.

The heavy metal band frontman talks about the early days for the group and how he became interested in writing symphonic music.

Most rock fans know Serj Tankian as the frontman for the politically outspoken metal band, System of a Down. The band has released five albums, won a Grammy Award, and sold tens-of-millions of records worldwide.

​The band took a break in 2006 and Tankian started a solo career. He began writing rock songs, but now he’s composing music for films and video games. In 2012, he also wrote a classical work called “Orca Symphony No. 1." 

The Frame’s James Kim spoke with the L.A.-based musician about the beginnings of System of a Down, his transition into composing symphonic pieces, and what he wants to say as an artist.


On how being Armenian-American shaped him musically:

My musical tastes are based on my ethnic background [and] upbringing. Born in Beirut, raised in Los Angeles, I was here in the '70s listening to disco and soul music. Growing up as an Armenian and listening to Armenian music, Arabic music, French music — that also gave me a world music background to begin with. 

But it's not like I came out playing pop music trying to make it on the radio. I came out with System of a Down and everyone was like, What the f--- is that

On System of a Down breaking into the mainstream:

I remember one of the heads of a major Los Angeles [radio] station [said], We can never play music like this. But it didn't stop us because, when you have a specific musical vision that you feel strongly about, you don't give up and you keep on going, and it somehow worked.

The first few years we were on tour consistently and our second record had a lot of radio [potential]. At that time, funny enough, the major station that wouldn't play our music became our biggest supporter. 

On his lack of musical training:

I wasn't a singer, I didn't go to music school, I didn't learn composition. For me, it was about making sound with my voice and saying something that I believe in. When you sing something, when you say something, when you write something in a song or in a piece of music, you really have to feel that. But I came from the school where it's just like, I have all these things to say, I'm gonna f------ say them all.

On how he started writing symphonic music:

I had never written classical music and I thought, Wow, this could be really interesting! So I started stripping down my rock songs into their basic elements. At the time, I wasn't very proficient in composing [with] an orchestral palette. So I had a lot of help from this amazing composer friend of mine, John Psathas. He helped me arrange the "Elect the Dead Symphony." 

But that got me into orchestral composition, and now I compose ground-up for orchestra for films [and] video games. That became my foray into the classical world. 

On not worrying about what others think of him:

In our industry there's almost a stigma [against] artists doing different things. They're like, Oh, they've gone way too far off base. Most artists that I know and respect adhere to that formula to a certain degree. But the ones that I really love are the ones that just make whatever they want to make, whether people are going to like it, listen to it, buy it or not. 

So I want to learn more. I want to create more. I want to express more in different ways that I haven't been able to. And whether I suck at it or get good at it doesn't matter. That's for someone else to judge. I just want to be able to do it and learn and grow as an artist, and have one more avenue of expression. 

Serj Tankian performs at the Valley Performing Arts Center on the Cal State Northridge campus on Nov. 10 and 12, accompanied by the university’s student orchestra. System of a Down has just announced that the band is working on a new album.

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