When Revolver comments to Serj Tankian that he's been busy lately, he looks perplexed. "Eh, not that busy," he says, shrugging. For the System of a Down singer, juggling multiple huge creative undertakings is just business as usual.
The singer, composer, poet, activist, filmmaker and painter recently added "memoir writer" to his resume, having just announced Down With the System, his first-ever memoir ("of sorts," so goes its subtitle), due out next May.
On the musical front, Tankian just released a live album called Invocations, which captures the groundbreaking, experimental opera he composed and performed back in the spring. Featuring a full orchestra, a choir and a cadre of genre-spanning world-class vocalists (including Abysmal Dawn's Charles Elliott), the musical program aimed to cross spirituality and creativity in a one-of-a-kind artistic setting.
Tankian also executive produced a recent film, worked on a new TV series, and is scoring yet another movie, all while working on not one but two new solo EPs, and preparing for System of a Down's next show in 2024. He also launched Triple A Audio, a startup software instrument company, with its first release, Folk Noir: Qanun for Kontakt, a virtual instrument designed to bring the mystical melodies of the Middle East and the Caucasus to digital studios.
Ahead of Invocations' release, we spoke with the busy-not-busy Tankian about his unique new projects, playing Sick New World fest with System of a Down and his current feelings on the the prospect of touring. He also spilled the beans on some previously unannounced new music.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT INVOCATIONS COMPARED TO OTHER CREATIVE PROJECTS YOU'VE RELEASED OVER THE YEARS?
SERJ TANKIAN This is an invoking-of-spirits kind of record — recorded at a live show. During COVID I had approached The Soraya theater, who I had worked with before on a live show of my Orca Symphony, which I had done with them for two shows in 2013. I thought they might be interested in something really different.
So I approached them with the idea of this concept of these voices. I've always wanted to do really diverse voices coming together that hadn't been heard before. It's a Dada-esque tendency, I guess. And so I always wanted to hear a tenor, a beautiful world singer, a death-metal voice, a pop voice, an alto [all together]. So that's what I was going for — with a full choir and an orchestra, based on pieces that I was writing.
These pieces are from a range of different periods that I've written over time. And originally the voices came from my voice, as well as samples from voice libraries, and [sounds] that I played on the keyboard. And I saw a project from all these different pieces and I thought to myself, "This could be really interesting and different from everything that I've ever done."
As it started coming together we realized that there's definitely a very spiritual component to all of this. Because the music's very slow, moody, brooding. Piano and string-based, instrumentally. Ethnic instruments, and these grand voices. Sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonic. And the whole thing became a feeling.
And when we did the actual live show at The Soraya theater in L.A., we felt that from the audience. We felt like they were being moved by this marrying of really weird different voices. And it was a unique, unique experience.
And we wanted to capture that, of course, so we could share it on a wider scale. So we recorded the whole thing, and that's what Invocations' release will be.
WHAT ASPECT OF INVOCATIONS ARE YOU PROUDEST OF?
I was blown away by the soloist singers. Brian Thorsett has the most powerful tenor I've ever heard in my life. When he went for it during rehearsals, we would all look at each other and be like, "What the fuck is that?" People say I've got a strong voice — metal and rock [singers have strong voices]. This guy's on a different level. He shook the room, acoustically.
And the beauty of Azam Ali's voice, Francesca Genco with her unique flavorings. These people have incredible energy. We all got together and it was like kids having fun with each other, and it became this amazing camaraderie.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCES IN THIS VEIN ON THE DOCKET GOING FORWARD?
Nothing planned right now. We've been offered other shows with Invocations, and maybe we'll do that in different places as part of festivals or whatever. But right now I don't have anything planned. I'm not planning a lot of shows.
We have one show planned with System [of a Down] next year, called Sick New World, which is this festival that we participated in this year. But other than that, no other shows. I'm just focused more on art and film-scoring, which I've been doing for a while. And family life.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR YOU TO PLAY SICK NEW WORLD THIS PAST APRIL ALONGSIDE OLD FRIENDS IN KORN AND DEFTONES, AND CELEBRATE THAT ERA OF MUSIC YOU ALL CAME UP IN?
It was really cool. In the late Nineties and early 2000s, all the festivals that we did — from Ozzfest to that one show in Wisconsin where Ozzfest and Warped Tour would come together in this mega festival. All these different bands that we've toured with. It's kind of harking to that time period, which is really interesting. And then a couple newer bands.
So it was really interesting in terms of the flavorings. It's the time period that we came up in and all those bands that came up with us. So in that sense it was really cool to see that and pay homage to it. And honestly the show was really, really fun, which is why we decided to do it again.
When you're doing a tour, after a while it's like Groundhog Day. You try to be as creative and present to each show as you can, but after the second week, you've been there, done that already.
But when it's one show, it's actually unique and special and fun. Our friends and family came out, so it became a really cool, fun event.
WILL SICK NEW WORLD ALSO BE SYSTEM'S ONLY SHOW OF 2024?
I don't know, but likely.
A YEAR AGO YOU SAID THAT YOU WEREN'T INTERESTED IN TOURING DUE TO SOME HEALTH ISSUES. ARE THOSE STILL AFFECTING YOU?
Some of my back stuff is a lot better, in terms of health, which is cool. I have some other things I'm dealing with right now, which may or may not be affected by travel or touring.
It wasn't just a health-related decision as far as cutting down on touring, but also a lifestyle decision. Based on family and vision.
I've been touring for 20-something years, on and off, of course. Not every year. And it's fun, it's profitable, it makes a lot of people happy in terms of being out there and sharing the music and [seeing] the reaction, and people really enjoying it and getting that feedback.
But after years of doing it and the travel that's involved, it's one of those things where it's not the top priority on my list in life.
WHEN YOU SAY FAMILY, YOU MEAN THAT YOU WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH YOUR SON?
Travel takes you out of… you could take your family with you if you're doing a small tour, I guess. And that's something that we have done, even when our son was really young. But it's just about prioritizing life and what you really want to do.
Some people like to tour until they're ready to go from this plane, and that's not how I see myself going. To me, doing different things in measured form allows me to be more creative than to take something that's repetitious and do it for a long period of time. And that includes everything that I do.
So having one show, like Invocations, that was one show. When we were doing Invocations they actually said, "How about a second night?" Last time we sold out two nights in the same theater, and this is a new project, people were very interested.
And I said, "No, let's just keep it to one show. Let's make it special. We can sell out two nights, but no, let's just make it one show." So it's the same for me with having a show with System or anything else.
I am going to put some other releases out next year, as well. I've got another rock EP that I've been working on. That kind of harks back to different times. So a lot of the songs are from way back, that I just finished.
A few songs from my first solo record, Elect the Dead, times. A song from way before, like the early System days, that I never used. That for some reason never fit anywhere.
So I'm going to do that, and I've got another collaboration and covers record that I'm putting together, maybe for next year if we can fit both in. And again, maybe [I'll] just do one event for each. I'm not interested in going and touring for each. It's not just for System, but for anything, really.
ARE YOU ABLE TO REVEAL ANY OF THE COLLABORATORS ON THAT EP?
I'll leave it for later because it's such a long time later. But yeah, there're some cool people, and totally different creative genres, as well.
YOU ALSO JUST ANNOUNCED YOUR MEMOIR, DOWN WITH THE SYSTEM. WHY DID NOW FEEL LIKE THE RIGHT TIME FOR YOU TO WRITE A MEMOIR?
My original idea wasn't even to write a memoir. I had a whole different concept of the book I wanted to write. But it just so happened that I was talking to this agent who had contacted me [and] who was interested in a memoir.
And I said, "Oh, I'm not really interested in a memoir. I'm interested in a book about the intersection of justice and spirituality." Which I've always wanted to write. A philosophy book.
And at that point it dawned on us that it can be both. It's one thing to have a book that you read as a spiritual book, that could be very amazing and moving. But you could also do that through life stories.
So it's not just a rock memoir, but these interesting stories of ethnicity, war, peace, activism, arts, justice, spirituality and how they all relate. So it became a unique thing in that sense.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER PROJECTS YOU'RE WORKING ON RIGHT NOW?
I just finished a TV show for a major streamer. Hopefully that's coming out by the end of the year. If not, early next year. It's a six-part docuseries on a very heavy, powerful topic. So we've done that and I can talk about it once I'm allowed to talk about it in more detail.
I just started working on a new film score. And I'm executive producer on this one film that's Armenia's pick for the Academy Awards. It's called Amerikatsi and it's a beautiful film shot in Armenia, and it's very reminiscent of a Roberto Benigni film like Life Is Beautiful.
It's a very unique art-house film and it's worth seeing. It was in theaters recently and it's now on streaming services. So that's a really amazing thing that I've been involved with.
What else? We got the book, the records, a couple shows here and there. I think that covers it.
Order Down With the System, Serj Tankian's memoir "(of sorts)," at Revolver's shop.