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Tankian is singing while Rome burns

October 24, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Serj Tankian is a thoughtful, erudite man -- especially for a wild-man rock singer -- but sometimes he's simply overwhelmed by an impulse. His decision to quit studying for law school and become a musician came so suddenly that he literally hit the brakes on his Jeep Wrangler one night in the early 1990s.

And in 2005 he was accepting a European MTV Award with his band, System of a Down, when something came over him.

"In my mind something just sprung up and went, 'You have to say this,' " Tankian says. "And I'm like, 'Thank you very much, but what I really want to say is civilization is over.'

"I said, 'Let's find a way to work through this peacefully with each other all together with love and understanding.' And I'm going to my seat and I go, 'What . . . did I just say?' It was what was percolating out of me. And since then I've been thinking about that and what it means."

Tankian's engagement with this disquieting thesis -- that greed, nationalism and indifference to the environment have taken civilization past the point of no return -- sets the tone for much of his new solo album, "Elect the Dead." Released this week, the collection is the first work from a System member since the popular and acclaimed Los Angeles quartet formalized an "indefinite hiatus" earlier this year.

"Nature-based beings will survive apocalyptic days of now . . . nature will survive us human dogs after all," he sings in the song "Honking Antelope," his eccentric, twangy warble and jumpy cadences as distinctive in his work as they are in System of a Down.

Tankian, 40, is taking the apocalypse well. Sitting in his living room, he almost seems to look forward to the transition.

"We're all addicted to civilization, myself included, because we can't imagine life without it," he says. "If we were able to imagine life without it, like the 0.1% of indigenous population on this planet, it wouldn't be scary at all, it would just be like, 'Well, it's not going to be this way, it'll be another way.'

"I have hope," he adds. "I'm a very hopeful, optimistic person. I smile every day, and I don't go around going, 'The sky is falling, the sky is falling.' If I do, I'll probably be thinking, 'The sky is falling. I hope I can see it -- that'll be such a trip.' "

'Indefinite hiatus'?

On stage and on record, Tankian is a flamboyant, Rasputin-like figure with a fierce glare and a unique voice that's helped make System of a Down a Los Angeles rock institution. And away from music, he's a fervent social crusader with a special interest in the Armenian genocide. He and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, another L.A. rock firebrand, founded the nonprofit organization Axis of Justice to unite musicians, fans and political organizations behind activist causes.

But entering his hillside home in Calabasas is more like stepping into a mountain monastery than the lair of a rabble-rousing rocker. The glass-walled main room is spotless and uncluttered, centered on a hanging fireplace above a flat, square stone arrayed with candles.

It's silent except for the clicking of claws on the wood floor as Tankian's dog, Bowie, walks by, and the clamor of a row of wind chimes out on the deck.

Tankian's homes haven't always been so tranquil. He was born in Beirut, and came to the U.S. with his family at age 7, just as civil war in Lebanon was heating up. He grew up in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, and after graduating from Cal State Northridge he joined a relative's jewelry business.

He later started a software company with products geared to that trade, and after selling it he took classes to prepare for law school. But he'd started tinkering with music in college, and then came that moment of revelation.

"The realization came to me: Do I want to be a . . . lawyer? . . . Hell no, I want to do music. And that was it."

Tankian teamed with guitarist Daron Malakian in a band called Soil, and after it broke up the two formed System of a Down. They had immediate support in the Armenian community, but soon their experimental hard rock, most of it recorded with producer Rick Rubin, caught on big. They've released five albums since 1998, and none has sold fewer than 1 million copies in the U.S.

SOAD was also one of the few bands in the hard-rock/metal fold to earn consistent critical respect, and its fiery blend of poetry and politics has brought the group an intense, loyal following.

So word of this "indefinite hiatus" -- often a term for "we're finished but don't want to say so" -- has sent waves of concern through the System audience.

Tankian, who says the four musicians needed a break after a busy decade-plus, understands, but he's not going out of his way to be reassuring as he prepares for an extensive concert tour, which includes a show on Saturday at the House of Blues. Malakian and System drummer John Dolmayan, meantime, are preparing to record under the name Scars on Broadway.

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