System of a Down's Serj Tankian Stays Busy With 'Harmonies'
Life after System of a Down has been pretty good for Serj Tankian.
Outside of his chart-topping Los Angeles-based hard rock band, which went on indefinite hiatus in 2006, the singer/songwriter/political activist launched a solo musical career with the release of 2007's "Elect the Dead." The primarily rock-driven set debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 319,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In addition to touring and promoting his solo music, Tankian has spent recent years writing new songs, overseeing his label Serjical Strike, promoting various causes, publishing books, producing albums and scoring music for films, TV and videogames-a lifestyle he never had time for while fronting SOAD.
"I feel like I've established myself as an artist aside from System of a Down, and I'm comfortable with that," Tankian says, noting that the group regularly receives offers to perform but that no such plans are in the works. "It's been very emancipating and confidence-building."
Now, with nearly three years under his belt as a solo artist, and amid numerous other side projects, Tankian is prepping the release of his second album, "Imperfect Harmonies," due Sept. 21 on Serjical Strike/Reprise Records. This time around, he moves further away from the heavy-hitting sound he's become known for with SOAD and "Elect the Dead" and delves deeper into elements of electronica, orchestral music and jazz.
"In one way it's really modern, with the electronics stuff, but it's also really classical, with the legato orchestra," Tankian says. "The core of the songs are still rock-based songs with some jazz influences here and there."
It's uncertain whether Tankian's fan base, which largely consists of SOAD die-hards, will remain loyal to his evolving musical direction. So far, first single "Left of Center," which features a big rock chorus and chunky guitars, hasn't gained any traction at rock radio. "Elect the Dead" has spawned such radio successes as "Empty Walls" (which peaked at No. 3 on the Alternative chart and No. 4 on Active Rock) and "Sky Is Over" (which peaked at No. 22 on Alternative and No. 24 on Active Rock).
But at this point in his career, Tankian, 42, says he's more concerned about following his own musical interests than with how many albums he sells.
"When I die, I'm not going to care whether I've sold X number more records or less," he says. "I'm going to care if I made the right expressions, if I explored enough and did something new, and put something new on this planet."
Nevertheless, Tankian was hard at work earlier this summer preparing fans for his symphonic transition by performing numerous concerts with backing orchestras in Europe. The idea stemmed from an invitation in 2009 from New Zealand's Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra to perform a symphonic version of "Elect the Dead." The Auckland Town Hall performance resulted in the "Elect the Dead Symphony" project, which was released on CD/DVD in March and has sold 10,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"We wanted something that Serj's core fan base could hold onto and have one more piece of 'Elect the Dead' before transitioning into the new record and putting his face out there in between," manager George Tonikian says.
Tankian says performing with the New Zealand orchestra was an inspiration for much of the symphonic songwriting on "Imperfect Harmonies," and his camp hopes to build buzz around the album through more live performances with orchestras during his European/North American tour from August to October.
"We're going to have anywhere between a 24- to 45-piece orchestra onstage with the full rock band behind me," Tankian says, noting that such an endeavor significantly raises his touring costs. "That's where I don't see a lot of money coming, but it's to promote the record."
Tankian also believes that the music on his new set "lends itself further to licensing than anything I've ever done." In June, he held a listening party for press and music supervisors at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art during an exhibit for Armenian painter Arshile Gorky. Although no synch deals were in place at press time, he's tapped Music for the Masses founder Julie D'Angelo as a consultant and hopes that music from the set will land in some "key films" by early next year.
"This album can lend itself to people saying, 'Wow, maybe this doesn't work for my film, but it's beautiful and I can see him and his talents fitting into another project down the line,' " Tonikian says.
Tankian already has several other projects lined up. His musical "Prometheus Bound" is scheduled to open in March 2011 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., and he's also finishing up a "classical jazz symphony" that he hopes to premiere next year. The forthcoming year may also find the artist publishing a second poetry book, "Glaring Through Oblivion," and starting work on a nonfiction title.
If that wasn't enough, Tankian says he'd someday like to score a film and record an instrumental jazz album, adding, "I want to try one of everything."