Long outspoken in his political beliefs, it’s no surprise that System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian has voiced his opposition to an U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Yet now he’s content to let bombs do the talking.
The most striking moment on his first album with experimentalist Arto Tuncboyaciyan, a project the two have dubbed Serart, is when the music stops and the explosions start. “Love is the Peace” arrives halfway through the self-titled set, breaking up a jazz-inspired romp through global sounds with the discord of gunfire. By the time the song gives way to the serene chanting of the Turkish-born Tuncboyaciyan, the album has been sufficiently jolted into more serious, topical terrain.
“When you hear those chants, which are very peaceful sounds, in contrast to the bombs, you appreciate the dynamics of that,” Tankian says. “It’s definitely a message, but what’s more enjoyable to me is hearing the cross-cultural and cross-genre music that comes out of the album.”
For the 46 year-old Tuncboyaciyan, whose Armenian heritage placed his family in the minority of Turkey’s contentious political environment, “War is the Peace” is the defining moment on the album. “When you hear the sound of hate, the sound of the bomb, then maybe you’ll have more appreciation for the sound of peace,” Tuncboyaciyan says. “That’s what I hope the song accomplishes. When I grew up, I had that experience, and the sound of the bomb never, never leaves your mind.”
Due May 6 as the first release via Tankian’s Columbia imprint Serjical Strike, “Serart” arrives like a crash-course in multiculturalism, delving headfirst into the indigenous sounds of the Middle East. Current events may place the album in a political context, but while the world is on the brink of war, the Lebanese-born and L.A.-bred Tankian never saw Serart as anything more than a chance to explore his Armenian roots. For the moment, at least, the 36-year-old Tankian would rather leave the politics to Axis of Justice, a grassroots activist group he runs with Audioslave’s Tom Morello.
“People expect those working in the music industry to do something with what they believe in, but everyone works in some industry and everyone sees things,” Tankian says. “It’s not just artists who should speak their voice. I think that overwhelmingly we’ve heard people voice their opinion as to the lack of justice with this whole situation with Iraq. This is historically the first time there are anti-war protests around the world before a war even starts. That shows how you how very afraid people are of their political leaders.”
Yet Serart is a protest of sorts. In an era when cliched gangster rap and unchallenging pop are dominating the charts, it’s rare indeed for an artist whose work has sold well into the millions to release an album that experiments with worldly rhythms and features few English vocals. While System Of A Down has never lacked in adventurousness, Serart leaves behind anything resembling hard rock.
“What I think is weird is the fact that we hear the same beat on most of the music on the radio,” Tankian says. “In life, even if you’re just sitting in an office, you hear an ambulance outside, you hear the heater heating up, you hear a plane flying above, and you hear people talking on a street. Those are all different rhythms, different sounds, and different tempos, and it’s natural to want to reflect them.”
From start to finish, the album brims with unrestrained exploration, the sound of a pair of artists letting loose in a studio without a plan. Tankian provides his familiar growl and operatic wails to “Cinema,” which are colored with off-the-cuff percussion and Arabic chimes, while “Devil’s Wedding” burns like an out-of-control desert incantation, albeit one with guitars. The drum and bass of “Narina” bridges Portishead with a tribal group, and Tuncboyaciyan provides nearly every track with Third World instrumentation and vocalists.
“For me, you have two choices,” Tuncboyaciyan says, “either you live in a small box, or you live in a place that doesn’t have a box. I’ve been playing music for 35 years, but the first time I listened to Serj and System Of A Down, the roots of my hair jumped up like Don King. I never even thought about heavy metal. It was just wonderful music. It doesn’t matter where someone’s music goes because the ability to create it comes from the same place.”
Multiple times on the album, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what instrument is being utilized, but there’s a good chance what’s being played isn’t an instrument at all. What first attracted Tankian to Tuncboyaciyan was the latter’s ability to turn a soda bottle into a flute, a talent Tuncboyaciyan duplicated on System Of A Down’s “Toxicity.” And Tankian speaks fondly of watching Tuncboyaciyan play a chair during the six-day recording sessions for “Serart.” “He plays life,” Tankian says.
Tankian is vague when System Of A Down will release a new album (“When we decide to make another record, we will,” he says), but fans shouldn’t expect anything prior to the second-half of 2004. Regardless, Tankian assures that his time with Tuncboyaciyan will have an influence on all of his future work.
“The most important thing I learned about our project is to trust in the moment,” Tankian says. “I’ve been trying to apply that to all areas of my life. We don’t have to be anally insistent on stuff to make sure things work out. It’s the opposite. You have to let go and trust that you’re going to make the right decisions. The right sound will come out. The animal defines itself.”