Serj Tankian isn't an idiot. He realizes that when his solo debut, Elect the Dead, hits record shops this fall, critics and fans will be there to make the obvious comparisons to System of a Down, the band he's fronted going on 12 years.
Like the five albums in System's catalog, his will be a rock record, featuring those unmistakable, operatic pipes of his. But to his mind, that's where the similarities end.
His album, he maintains, is "different." But, in the same breath, Tankian admits it's hard for him to describe the differences between his own solo material and that of System's, "because I am so attached to this project." But lyrically speaking, "there's a lot more intimacy, because it's just me. Musically, I think tone-wise, there are a lot of instruments — there are layers of pianos and strings and weird synth stuff. There's a lot of guitars and lots of different affected guitars, heavy guitars — way too many guitar tracks. It's just a different vibe. There's maybe a song or two that may be reminiscent of some of the System stuff, but I think [this material] takes a lot of new directions."
Of course, with System on an indefinite hiatus (see "System Of A Down Aren't Breaking Up — They're Going On Hiatus"), Tankian said he's had plenty of time to work on Elect the Dead — when he's not busy running his own record label, Serjical Strike, that is. And like the rest of the band, he's used his time wisely. While he plans to release future solo efforts, he doesn't rule out a return to SOAD.
"We're all doing our own things right now and just taking time off ," he said. "System's always been there. We've been a band for 11 years. We're five albums in, and we're all friends. So anytime we want to get together and work, it's there for us. Otherwise, we're doing our own things."
Venturing out on his own has been an idea Tankian has fostered for some time, he said. For years, he's been stockpiling material not knowing what he'd do with it.
"I write music every day — for film, for video games, for whatever — and most of the songs I write, I don't know where they're going to end up, so I just keep on writing," he explained. "I like putting out different types of records. I like dabbling in many different things. But I had never done a full solo record. I had never written full songs for me to sing, where I play all the instruments and produce it myself. So I had all these songs that I felt really strong about, that I thought that I should be performing myself and not have them as songs for other people or for film or anything else. And that's [how] Elect the Dead came about. It's been a fun, liberating process for me."
The LP will feature 11 tracks in all, including "Honking Antelope," "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," "Lie, Lie, Lie," "The Unthinking Majority" and the likely first single, "Empty Walls." And, as the title suggests, Elect the Dead has a political side to it. But that's not to say Tankian's album is a preachy attack on the current state of global affairs.
"It deals with everything in my daily life, whether it's my daily ritual or interactions with people, politics, economics — anything in the world that touches me is an influence and comes through in the music, whether I know it or not," he said. "There's humor, political stuff, ecological stuff, personal pain, transcending personal pain, transcending the material and physical — there's a lot of things, whatever I felt at the moment and whatever came through."
The album ends with the title track, an acoustic number that's "the heaviest song on the entire thing, because it's emotionally really heavy." While Tankian would rather leave the title open to interpretation, he did offer up what it meant to him: "It means that we should channel the wisdom of not just the physical and material world but the one beyond to really make the right choices, because we've really f---ed up," he said.
While Tankian composed the material on Dead, he didn't record the LP all by his lonesome. Opera singer Ani Maldjian lends her voice to three of the album's tracks, while Dan Monti pitched in on guitars and bass. For the drum tracks, Tankian called on his System chum John Dolmayan and Bryan "Brain" Mantia, who's done time with the likes of Primus and Axl Rose's latest incarnation of Guns N' Roses.
"They both ripped it," he enthused of the two drummers. "We had so much fun in the studio. They were just monsters. They just killed the skins. It was phenomenal watching them work."
Tankian said working on Dead was one of the more memorable highlights of his career and that "the excitement I had making this record was the same excitement I felt when we were making the first System record. That exploration, that high energy — not that it wasn't exciting making the other System records. It was just a new thing, a new direction, and so is this."
At the moment, Tankian said he's assembling a backing band he'd like to take on the road with him this fall. "We will do all radio shows, and then there will be a full tour next year," he explained. "It's a new thing. There's a little nervous excitement about it, but it's also an interesting adventure. You have to do things you've never tried in life, because you've only got one chance. You have to go for it — you have to go for it hard. Otherwise, it's not worth it."
So does Tankian think System fans will welcome Elect the Dead with open arms? Well, he's not sure, really. But then again, that doesn't matter much to him either.
"This is what I did in this period of time, and I'm excited about it, and I believe in it, and I don't like doing anything that's not new, creative and quality," he said. "So, if they dig it, great. If they don't, it's all good. I like it — that's what counts."