The career of Serj Tankian has been as varied as it has been prolific.
From political activist and humanitarian to auteur of all sorts, Tankian – launched into the metal stratosphere off the back of nu-metal juggernaut System of a Down – has carved out an eclectic and diverse solo career beginning with 2007's Elect the Dead.
"It does feel like a long time, because I personally have experienced so much in between," Tankian shared of his debut solo album in a recent sitdown with Metal Injection. "It feels like a whole lifetime ago. You know, I wasn't married. I didn't have a family. I didn't have a kid. And I was at a different place in my life. I was at a different house. Everything feels different, even though it's 15 years and 15 years is long, but not that long, per se. It's interesting. Time itself is an interesting, subjective thing.
"But Elect the Dead was really important for me because it kind of had elements of things that I always wanted to do within System that I just couldn't see being done, that I did myself. And I worked on a lot of it even while touring with System on the bus. I had a little recording system with the computer on the bus, with the guitar. I was just working on it really diligently, because the last tour we did with System before our hiatus was in 2006. It was Ozzfest, if I'm not mistaken, and I think the record came out in 2007. I had it really ready. We did a video for every song. Like it was a very well thought out vision for that record."
Tankian shared that he held a firm line with record label Warner Music [operators of Reprise Records], on how he would move forward in his sought-after solo career, explaining that, if they wanted Elect the Dead, they'd need to sign up for much more wide-reaching artistic endeavors to follow.
"I also knew when I put out Elect the Dead that my next record was going to be completely different," Tankian recalled. "When we were sitting down with a label head that we actually signed to at the time, Warner Brothers, I told the head executive that … because they were really loving the record, really into it. They're like 'come produce some of our bands, some of our rock bands, and we love this record. We want you involved with everything that we do,' this, that.
"And I said, 'I hate to throw a wrench in this party, but my next record is not going to be rock.' And they're like, 'What?!' And I'm like, 'Well, we should set up the advances and recording budgets and everything accordingly. I don't want to screw you guys by thinking I'm going to give you the same type of output on everything. So you should pay me a lot for what you think is commercial and valuable and pay me less for what you don't think. Either way, I'm going to do that.'
"And I was very clear from day one, which is interesting, and that's exactly what I did because my next record was Imperfect Harmonies, which was basically an orchestral rock, electronic fusion record and kind of like an art record for me. It was like this just beautiful thing to behold. Nothing like anything I had ever heard before musically is what I created. And I was proud of it."
Commenting that his third solo effort Harakiri was yet another departure from the symphonic stylings of Imperfect Harmonies, Tankian doubles down on his belief that art be free flowing and to-the-moment.
"I remember the A&R guy coming in asking me, 'What's your next record?' And I'm like, 'I don't know. We'll see.' It turned out to be a rock record, which they weren't expecting, which I wasn't expecting," he shared of his 2012 return to rock in Harakiri. "See, I don't know what's coming next, you know? I mean, I have a lot of music so I can decide what to put out next. That's one thing that I have control over. But if I'm inspired today and I write something, I don't know what that's going to be, you know, I don't know what genre it's going to be. I don't know what thematics it's going to be. It's just going to come and it's going to get done.”
Fast forward to 2022, Tankian has released his second solo EP in as many years, the layered and diverse Perplex Cities.
"The layers themselves are important to this EP," Tankian shared of his latest collection of tracks. "The first song that I considered as a prototype for the EP was the song 'The Race,' which is basically composed almost like a soundtrack composition more so than a regular song that you would start with one instrument. It's very layered and it has this unique vibe and this unique kind of dark, gothy spirit to it, even though it's not technically goth. And the interaction of acoustic guitar with arpeggiated synthesizers and low bass stuff happening and then the beat coming in and it's an electronic beat. It just made me go 'oh wow, this is something I've never done and I really like this song.'"
From Depeche Mode to Radiohead, Tankian's tastes and influences on Perplex Cities venture into areas far removed from his heavy metal roots.
"Yeah, definitely, I was into Depeche Mode and New Order and a lot of the kind of goth bands, goth pop type of bands as well Bauhaus. It definitely has all those elements that I like, and even Radiohead. Kind of a little of the Kid A starting Radiohead moments. There's a lot of that, but it's mostly experimentation and kind of this brooding attitude, but it becomes more intimate. Like there's something more intimate and something deeper about it than a lot of the rock songs that are very kind of upbeat and sung high and, you know, mighty and epic. There's kind of like the opposite effect here. And that's what I liked about it."
As for the future, boundless of genre or sonic conventions, Serj Tankian is ever game to create.
"I have hundreds of tracks with vocals that are done from demos in all sorts of different genres," he teased. "So these things [the songs on Perplex Cities] kind of came together as a story. And between 'The Race' and the other songs, they kind of fill themselves up, but they're also quite different from each other. You know, they're all moody and they're all kind of slow. And some of them are electronic, some of them aren't, but they work together. And that's what's important for a body of work when you're releasing something."