Musician Serj Tankian is a busy man. His most recent project was a collaboration with the Auckland (New Zealand) Symphony Orchestra to produce a symphonic version of his successful solo effort “Elect the Dead.”
Asbarez Special Correspondent Irina Lemberg caught up with Tankian to discuss this effort and other projects on the Horizon.
Tankian will be the featured performer at the June 5 Museum of Contemporary Art Member opening for the highly-anticipated exhibition, Arshile Gorky A Retrospective.
IRINA LEMBERG: How was the idea of making the symphonic version of Elect the Dead born and how did you get into contact with the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra?
SERJ TANKIAN: I was contacted by Jooles Clements the Marketing and Development Manager of the APO about doing some sort of collaboration, and I was happy to respond and see if we could make something work out. I was honored that an orchestra wanted to collaborate with me and had been thinking of incorporating orchestral elements into my next solo record, so it was perfect timing. The fact that it would be in New Zealand was a bonus too, given my love for spending time there. There was lots of correspondence back and forth to try and figure out what the expectations were on both sides, so that we have a firm understanding about the event. I then proceeded to start writing the orchestrations for my songs to be played with the APO.
I.L.: What can you tell us about working with the musicians of the APO?
S.T.: What can I say? They were really great to work with. And I’m thankful that they possessed the sense of humor necessary to deal with some of the music’s built-in antics.
I.L.: To what extent were you involved in the rearrangement of the songs?
S.T.: I wrote all the primary cello, viola, violin 1 and 2 and a brass melodies and then worked with a Kiwi orchestrator, John Psathas, to flush out all of the arrangements for the full 70 person orchestra. To do this I had to strip down my tracks back to just piano and vocals or acoustic guitar and vocals and build everything back on with orchestral instruments. It took a long time but was well worth it.
I.L.: When you were done, did the orchestral version of Elect the Dead sound as you had imagined it would or different?
S.T.: It sounded better than our mocked up versions of course since it was a real orchestra playing the music.
I.L.: Did you find that you had to sing differently or adjust your voice when singing with an orchestra, as opposed to with a rock band?
S.T.: There were minor changes in projection necessary to sing with an orchestra. When singing with a rock band, you’re competing for frequencies with the electric instruments so the vocals can be a bit more pushed or abrasive. With an orchestra, the clean, strongly projected vocals are preferred. I think it’s the best I’ve ever sang those songs.
I.L.: What can you tell us about the previously unreleased songs on the album?
Falling Stars and Blue were released with the premium package of Elect the Dead but only in acoustic versions. Those songs are arranged with the full orchestra in full form here. In addition to that, there are 2 songs, The Charade (both orchestral and rock versions available) and Gate 21 I performed Gate 21 on piano without the orchestra.
The song will be on my new solo record, Imperfect Harmonies, with full orchestrations.
I.L.: Along with the CD, you released a DVD of the APO performance, which captures the intensity and passion of the performance by zooming in, zooming out and fading, often in synch with the music. Were you involved in the production of the DVD?
S.T.: Only so far as approving the video edits and producing the whole release.
I.L.: How and what did you feel moments before coming on stage in Auckland?
S.T.: I was a bit nervous but mostly excited since I had never performed with an orchestra before, let alone wrote for one. It was very exhilarating.
I.L.: So, in essence the APO performance was a dream come true, for you. Were you surprised that this wasn’t a one-off, but resulted in a tour?
S.T.: I was thankful that a large number of orchestras around the world were interested in performing my songs from the Elect the Dead Symphony with me.
I.L.: On this tour, you’ll be performing with the orchestras of each city where you’re performing?
I.L.: How does that work?
S.T.: We send them the sheet music ahead of time, then do a few rehearsals with them and play the show.
I.L.: Who will you be performing with on July 30, 2010 at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles?
S.T.: We are looking to push this show to September to coincide with the release of Imperfect Harmonies, my next solo record, where I’ll be playing with a full orchestra and the band.
I.L.: Will you be performing at any of the European festivals this summer?
S.T.: Aside from the Elect the Dead Symphony tour in Europe in June, we’re planning a full assault with the FCC and orchestral elements for the new record in Europe in August (including Greece and Armenia), and the U.S. in Sept/Oct. I can’t wait.
I.L.: You usually work with 3 or 4 guys and instruments. What was it like to work with such a huge amount of instruments and so many people?
S.T.: The experience allowed me to learn how to better orchestrate for large ensembles. And that has been instrumental to my current work on my 2nd solo album.
I.L.: Do you have a release date in mind for that album?
S.T.: We’re looking at the end of August for now.
I.L.: What can you tell us about your next solo album?
S.T.: My second solo album is electronic, orchestral (live orchestra), jazz and rock all at the same time. It is a sound I’ve never heard before, and for me, borderless. It will be called. “Imperfect Harmonies.” It is a very powerful and intriguing record with many layers. Yet it’s also memorable in the way good songwriting should be. Some of my favorite records are so compelling that they require multiple listens to try to figure out what’s going on. It sports a huge wall of sound, depth, and the maturity of a seasoned artist, so I’m told.
I.L.: Will you be releasing snippets of the songs, prior to the album release date for those of us that can’t wait to hear this new sound?
S.T.: Yes. We’ll have a single out by late June and some other snippets on our sites.
I.L.: When creating this unusual and unique sound do you consider how your fans will react?
S.T.: I write all the time, when the muse comes to me. I don’t think at all in those moments. I really don’t consider anyone outside of the inspiration generally when it comes to making music.
I.L.: So, you’re writing more orchestral music?
S.T.: Besides using an orchestra for my next solo record, I’m writing a full classical-jazz symphony (instrumental) for orchestra to release in 201I.L.:
I.L.: Will fans see Serj, the rock/metal musician, ever again or has he evolved into something new?
S.T.: I have a huge archive of unreleased songs in all genres that will eventually creep its way into the ears of the interested, including more rock.
I.L.: You’re quite vocal and politically driven on the issue of the Armenian Genocide. This past year we saw the Genocide front and center as the Armenia-Turkey protocols were signed. How do you think the protocols will affect the work you and so many others have done toward the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide?
S.T.: I think the majority of Armenians are unconvinced of the Turkish intentions regarding the protocols given their simultaneous continuation of disinformation and denial while talking about rapprochement, coupled with the addition of the Karabakh issue to appease Azerbaijan. So far, the so-called protocols have not yielded any positive effects except for it being used as an excuse for Congressmen to vote against the genocide recognition bill. No borders have been opened nor any real diplomacy succeeded. True diplomatic rapprochement begins with positive steps. How about Turkey dismantles its disinformation and denial campaign in the world for a start?
I.L.: Do you believe the Protocols are a viable way of addressing the Armenia-Turkey issue?
S.T.: Not as they are presented or executed at this time. I believe in the diplomatic resolution of conflict between nations where justice and good intentions are placed as the top priorities of that developing relationship. Otherwise, it’s just a photo-op for ulterior motives.
I.L.: Are you planning anything for the special opening night event at MOCA for the Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective exhibit?
S.T.: Yes. We’ll have some traditional Armenian instruments, a DJ, and a few other players entertaining the crowd and paying tribute to Gorky.