“When you talk about symphonic music,”
says System of a Down frontman Serj
Tankian, “a lot of people think about very
boring classical music that your grandma
likes. My record isn’t that. Mine is an orchestra
with big timpani and strong lines, like a rumbling, giant steam roller coming
through your house.”
Tankian is describing his latest release, Imperfect Harmonies [Reprise], and
although he doesn’t explicitly say it, he’s also describing the role of the guitar
on the record. Even though he plays plenty of 6-string on the album, he wanted
orchestral instruments to perform the role normally played by guitars. It makes for a grand production where distorted guitars
and electronic drums coexist with
organic strings, wind instruments, and percussion.
It’s not the first time that Tankian
has partnered with classical musicians. He
gigged his first solo album, Elect the Dead,
with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
for the live release, Elect the Dead Symphony.
In addition to his solos efforts, Tankian
is keeping busy these days with his ongoing
work with the Axis of Justice—a nonprofit
he founded with Tom Morello—as
well as preparing for the first SOAD shows
in five years.
What do you mean by having orchestral instruments
play the role of the guitar?
Generally in a rock band, the guitar carries
the drive, along with the drums. In terms
of frequency, the guitar brings the high
mids—that big presence, the chunkiness,
and the attitude. I wanted that with different
instruments. Not that there are no guitars
on the record, because there are, but it’s not
as guitar heavy as Elect the Dead or anything
I’ve done with System. I really wanted the
orchestra to take over the electric guitar and
have that strength, because that’s so unusual
in music today.
The symphonic parts in “Disowned Inc.” could
totally work on guitar. Are they playing power
Not really. The strings are divided like
this: 18 violins for violin 1, 11 for violin 2,
then violas, celli, and bass strings. Then
you’ve got your brass section and your woodwinds.
It’s a full orchestra playing, with both
sampled instruments and a live orchestra.
There’s a lot going on. They’re each playing
a different line. Some are playing harmony
lines, some of them are playing the root notes
in different octaves. But it is done in a way
to sound like chunky power chords.
How would you describe the guitar presence
on this record?
There are three types of guitars. There
are acoustics, which I’ve used to write the
songs in cases like “Beat Us” or “Deserving.”
Then there are electrics, although they
aren’t as chunky as the guitars on Elect the
Dead or System records. The reason for that
is there are so many other instruments.
There’s piano and samples and full orchestra
and electronic beats. There’s so much
going on in the mids—both low mids and
high mids—that the guitars have to kind of
find their own place. There are also these
cool, weird, effected guitars. I use a lot of
Moogerfooger and Line 6 Echo Farm. That’s
a really great plug-in by the way—just a lot
of delayed, weird-sounding, filtered stuff. So
the guitar became another instrument in the
orchestration of the whole material rather
than the driving instrument.
You have effected guitars and electronic beats
alongside orchestral sounds and you make it all
fit together. What are the challenges of combining
electronic sounds with much more organic
Originally when I was starting to do this
and I had a song that was electronic based,
putting in an orchestra didn’t sound right
and vice versa. If you had an orchestral song,
beautiful pianos and legato strings, putting
in an electronic beat didn’t sound right. One
was so organic and the other so synthetic.
It also depends on the type of orchestra. A
lot of people use what I call hip-hop orchestras,
which are overly condensed and
compressed with very high-pitched strings
playing lines. That’s something you could
use with beats anywhere. But I’m talking
about a real legato, beautiful-sounding full
orchestra. It’s really hard for a full orchestra
to work with beats. So we did some tricks.
The first thing we did was to take anything
that was acoustic, such as the live orchestra
and the sampled orchestra and vocals, and
put them through filters and delays—basically
a whole re-sampling job—and then have
that as a layer in the sound of each track.
That really helped electricize the orchestra.
And then to humanize the beats, I had Troy
Zeigler, who plays with me in the F.C.C.,
play live drums. So the beats are still there,
but with live drums on the bottom. I had
Mario Pagliarulo do the same thing on bass.
Those things created the bridges for those
two really disparate kinds of sounds to come
together and sound unified.
“Left of Center” is a very guitar-driven tune.
It seems like something so guitar heavy might
sound out of place on a record like this, but it doesn’t.
How did you create those tones?
We had a lot of guitar parts—at least
seven guitars are playing simultaneously.
What I usually do when I want heavy guitars
is use my Little Labs box, which lets
me triple-amp all the guitars. I run a Marshall
with a Marshall cab, a Mesa/Boogie
Triple Rectifier with a Mesa cab, and a Vox
AC30. I record them to three separate tracks
in Pro Tools. Then I’ll mix and match amplifiers
and cabinets for different sounds. I’ll
put the Marshall head through the Mesa
cab, the Mesa through a nice old Sunn cab,
etc. Then we added a Tech 21 PSA 1.1 amplifier
that has a really cool heavy metal patch
on it. I would kind of get a rough balance,
but I would leave it up to the mixer to mix.
In the verses you may not need all seven.
You may just use five or six. Then in the second
part of the verses you add another guitar
for it to kind of start building up. And then
in the choruses you bring them all in. You
just blend them until it sounds right. Marshalls
usually have the best attack, Mesas
have the best crunchiness, and the AC30 is
great because you can have the clean sound
or the tremolo sound.
I asked your Axis of Justice comrade Tom
Morello this same question: Is it possible to bring
about world peace with a guitar, and if it is, would
you please get on it?
Tom’s amazing. He’s very energetic and
influential. As much as I work, he makes me
feel lazy. To your question, though, the way
I feel is that music is an intuitive medium
and it has the ability to inspire people. If that
inspiration is positive, it will lead people to
create positive change. It’s a way of reaching
out to their hearts, and their hearts can
overrule their minds. We have seen a lot of
those things happen. Bob Marley’s music to
me is phenomenal. It’s a great way of making
change. I’m sure that people who listen
to Bob Marley’s music have made positive
change in their lives. Some of that positive
change can be anti-war, leading people to a
world of peace. Some of that could lead people
to understanding themselves and the
world around them, which can lead to justice,
and that justice can be on many
grounds. Hopefully my music can do that
on some level.