For a man responsible for so many varied and successful endeavours - he's not only a singer/songwriter, but also an acclaimed producer, a published poet, and a respected and provocative political activist, Serj Tankian is surprisingly and refreshingly humble. When asked about his new solo album, the boldly titled Harakiri, he is self-effacing to the point of being dismissive.
"I think it's a very straight-up kind of record with some punk influences, some '80s influences, and more traditional rock playing." he says, and fair enough. But when he begins to elaborate, the complexity of the album becomes apparent. "However, there are a lot of different sounds and scapes that are layered in there. There's three songs that I sketched out on the iPad, for example, that are kind of ethno-electro, like Ching-Chime, Reality TV, and Deafening Silence. It just brings a different colour palette and a different sensitivity to the music, having those elements. Like the way Occupied Tears starts, for example: a very brooding, kind of '80s goth vibe with the vocals really low, and beats, and these beautiful soundscapes turning into a rock kind of song. It's interesting. I like it when people pick up influences."
And while the album is certainly an accomplished piece of musicianship, it's on that thematic level that it becomes really interesting. Dealing with such subjects as mass extinction, economic malfeasance, the tyranny of mass media and the hijacking of democracy, Harakiri sounds like nothing less than Tankian's Grand Unified Field Theory on What's Wrong With the World.
"I never thought of it that way," he laughs. "But I guess that could play into it. All of those things are interconnected. Ecological change forces political change. Lack of rainfall creates migration. Migration creates anti-immigration, right wing policies. There's many things that are interconnected: culturally, economically, ecologically, politically, So they all play into the same sphere of conversation, so the songs naturally kind of include all of that. Although there are songs that are personal, humorous, and all that; that's my kind of exclusion clause with every record - that I'm not just a political artist, you know? But yeah, I like to tackle politics a little."
"A little" is an understatement. Tankian's work is underpinned by a set of strong political convictions, and driven by a sense of righteous outrage at what he sees as the coopting of the democratic process by threatening forces. A simple question about the subject of the song Uneducated Democracy elicits a short lecture in response.
"I think we are uninformed," he states firmly. "There's a lot of information out there, definitely more than ever before in the history of civilisation. However, knowledge, true knowledge, is lost, and what we can do it about it is build awareness. Read! Fucking read, mate! That's what it comes down to. For example, and the American populace is being slowly but surely revved up for a possible war with Iran. However, if people in America were aware of the US foreign policy having to do with Iran as one country, and if they were aware that, in the 1950s, with help of the CIA, we helped overthrow a democratically elected Iran and brought in a king, people might want to apologise to Iran before threatening to bomb them. This is just simple history, you know? This is basic knowledge, and it's only 60 years ago, for God's sake. But ask ten Americans, and if one of them knows, I'd be fucking surprised."
Still, Harakiri doesn't come across as a grim polemical, thanks in large to the injection of a strong line of wry, albeit dark, humour throughout the record.
"I think doses of humour are very important in terms of not coming across as preachy," Tankian says. "And it helps understand the them better. Figure It Out is a great example, because it's a very political theme, but also ultra-simplified to make CEOs the target of all of our economic woes. However, the issues are much more complicated than that. But making it a political satire and going after one villain makes it more fun, and it makes the song jump up and be a good time. It's also part of my character; I don't like to sit down and brood all day, or laugh all day, or do just one thing all day. your day is mixed with emotions, varied emotions, so why shouldn't a record be?"
And, despite appearances, Tankian remains, at heart, an optimist, both personally and politically.
"I do believe in the power of the person," he says. "I don't believe we're stymied by systems; I believe we created those systems, and we can take 'em down – it's as simple as that. But it requires a monumental effort, and it requires an awareness of the interconnectivity of all of the things we originally spoke about. I think it's doable, bro."
BY TRAVIS JOHNSON
Harakiri is out now on Reprise Records/Serjical Strike/Warner.