ASIDE FROM RAW POLITICAL FERVOR, one of the things that sets System of a Down apart from the host of nu-metal also-rans was the Armenian-American quartet’s defiantly non-Western sound.
But when asked to get all music-theoretical on it, the guy behind some of the most distinctive hard-rock harmonies since Alice in Chains shrugs it off.
“I try to get on scales that don’t make me look fat,” Serj Tankian deadpans. “I have no idea, ’cause I’ve never studied music. I really just do whatever comes naturally to me.”
Though born in Beirut, he doesn’t dwell on his songs’ Middle Eastern vibe:
“I think it’s more in my voice than in my music, to be honest, kind of like a deep melancholy that comes from the Old World with an optimism that comes from the New.”
The words he pens are a similar no-go. Here’s an odd bit from “The Unthinking Majority,” the second track off Tankian’s solo debut, “Elect the Dead“: “Anti-depressants / Controlling tools of your system / Making life more tolerable / Making life more tolerable.”
There’s no mistaking the critical tone, but is he pulling a Tom Cruise?
Apparently, the antidepressants Tankian tackles needn’t come from CVS.
“I usually like leaving lyrics pretty much open to interpretation,” he replies. “When you ask me a question in terms of what I think about life or civilization or whatnot, I respond pretty openly. But when it comes to lyrics, I kinda like having the listener internalize it and live with it and decide what it means. Because over the years I’ve realized that, just like music, lyrics don’t necessarily solely belong to the songwriter. They come from somewhere else, from beyond us, in terms of inspiration. And sometimes the meaning is elusive even to the person who wrote it.”
Still, many of the fans drawn to the 9:30 Club Thursday will be there for Tankian‘s sharp-tongued point of view.
He’s on record as thinking that globally we’ve reached a dead end:
“We’re so addicted to the concept of civilization that we can’t imagine living ‘outside’ this city called civilization. What would happen if civilization crashed? No one ever says that.”
He decries the tendency to think of war, global warming, population growth and the consumption of natural resources as separate issues.
“I always see the new world as a more local type of world,” he says. “I don’t see large cities. I see very small communes. I see naturally produced energy. I see naturally and locally grown organic food. I see a very beautiful, modern community that still utilizes a high amount of technology but lives in a very plain type of way.”
What’s perhaps weirdest about our conversation is that the voluble yet somehow easygoing Tankian never comes off defeated.
Knowing he doesn’t have all the answers doesn’t keep the questions from rocking like hell.
» 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; 7:30 p.m. $25; 800-955-5566. (U St.-Cardozo)
Written by Express contributor Glenn Dixon
Photos by Daragh McDonagh