“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 chords?
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 acoustic sounds?
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.