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My Life in Music: Serj Tankian

By: Greg MilnerThe System of a Down frontman doesn’t listen to much nümetal

System of a Down are hard-rock renegades, so it makes sense that frontman Serj Tankian has an outsider’s take onAmerican rock ‘n’ roll. As a child growing up in an Armenian community in Lebanon, the first music Tankian, 35, heard was Armenian folk, though he’s forgotten most of the artists’ names. When his family moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s, he discovered pop music via the Bee Gees: “I started with Saturday Night Fever and worked backward,” he says. A few weeks before the release of System’s latest, Steal This Album!, Spin hooked up with Tankian, and he gave us some insights into his life on record.

A. The Beatles Revolver (Capitol, 1966)
I’m a huge Beatles fan, but I’ve only really gotten into them as an adult. In my 20s, I was listening to the Beatles like nuts and ended up getting every album.I realized that I’d heard every song as a kid but just never knew they were by the Beatles. Musically, the Beatles are as universal as music gets. Revolver is sort of where they started to turninto something completely unique. But I love all of the records–Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band], Let It Be, “The White Album,” everything. Revolver is a good place to start because it’s a nice bridge between the early and late Beatles.

B1. The Cure Pornography (Elektra, 1982);
B2. The Birthday Party Prayers on Fire (Thermidor/4AD, 1981);
B3. The Sisters of Mercy First and Last And Always (Elektra, 1985)
After I was into metal and punk, I got into goth stuff. I really liked the Birthday Party,and then I got into Joy Division and Killing Joke. I also loved this one Sisters of Mercy song [“Marian (Version)”]: [sings] “I hear you calling, Marian.” I also became a huge Cure fan. Pornography is great, but it can be difficult listening. It definitely has its time and place.

C. Faith No More Angel Dust (Slash, 1992)
Faith No More was probably the first hard rock I’d ever heard. They’re what made me go back and listen to Slayer and Metallica. Angel Dust wasn’t as commercially viable as The Real Thing, but I think it’s probably their best album. It’s got stuff on it that isn’t typical of anything else they’ve ever done. I’m a huge fan of [Faith No More singer] Mike Patton. I first met him when we toured with [Patton’s band] Mr. Bungle and Incubus on the 2000 SnoCore tour. The guy would never do any vocal exercises! He’d eat, like, a full steak dinner right before the show and then just go onstage.

D. Korn Korn (Immortal/Epic, 1994)
To be honest with you, I don’t really listen to nü metal. I mean, as far as heavy music goes, there are very few bands I listen to. But I do love Tool, especially Aenima–although all their stuff is really interesting. And I was very much into early Korn. That first album was really beautiful and a real breakthrough.

E. Sonic Youth Evol (SST, 1986)
I’m a really big Sonic Youth fan, though I haven’t heard their most recent one yet. Daydream Nation is great; Sister is good. Everything they do is so creative. I look forward to meeting Thurston Moore someday.

F. Tom Waits Alice (Anti, 2002)
I really like Waits’ new album, Alice, a little bit more than [the simultaneous release] Blood Money, because Alice is darker and mellower. Alice is amazing because of its tonality–just the way it makes you feel. It’s so powerful. I think he’s one of the best songwriters around.

G. David Bowie Low (RCA, 1977)
I’d always been a fan of Bowie’s Space Oddity and Ziggy Stardust era, but I’d never really listened to Low. But I saw him play in New York City recently, and half of the set was from Low. I got to meet him afterward, which was a huge honor, and since then I’ve been listening to Low a lot. I think it’s a really creative album–very moody, very dark.

H. Harout Pamboukjian 50 megaHits (Pe-Ko World Music, 2001)
I’ve always tried to listen to a lot of different music from around the world. I like African music, and I’m a huge Ravi Shankar fan. Harout Pamboukjian is one of the biggest Armenian folk singers in the world. In the ’70s, he was making these records that were really Zeppelin-influenced.

I. The Mothers of Invention We’re Only in It for the Money (MGM, 1967)
Zappa’s got hundreds of records, but I think this is my favorite. I also love Sheik Yerbouti and Joe’s Garage.

J. Bob Marley and the Wailers Legend (Tuff Gong/Island, 1984)
I’m in love with the whole Tuff Gong [Marley’s label] collection–it’s all amazing. Like John Lennon, hetalked about revolution through love. He’s got power and truth on his side. He’s undefeatable in that sense.