Be it with his System of a Down bandmates or through his own music, political activism, and entrepreneurship projects, Serj Tankian has always followed his muse even if it leads him down very unexpected paths. Such is the case on his new live album Invocations, a 15-song operatic suite recorded this April on the campus of Tankian’s alma mater, Cal State University Northridge (CSUN), and arriving digitally today (Nov. 10).
The material has its basis in Tankian’s longstanding work as a film and TV composer, through which he’s accumulated a backlog of unused piano- and string-based pieces. During the pandemic, he began tinkering with some of them in tandem with writing new ones that utilized samples to replicate the sound of human voices. “I always had a dream of doing this fucked-up choir where on one side you have a death metal singer and on the other side you have an opera singer, all merged with a big orchestra,” he tells SPIN over Zoom. “Once I realized I had a bunch of these songs, I thought I’d do a live show encompassing those incredible voices as well as these beautiful, haunting, slow, brooding melodies.”
Tankian pitched the idea of performing and recording the whole shebang at CSUN, where he previously showcased his 2010 symphony Elect the Dead. To bring the songs to life, he tracked down the identities of the vocalists he’d previously sampled in the studio, who turned out to include renowned tenor Brian Thorsett, Abysmal Dawn singer Charles Elliott, and alto Francesca Genco. He also drafted the student-led CSUN Symphony Orchestra, who were more than up for the challenge.
“I insisted on a student orchestra because my experience with them in the past was that they played better than any orchestra I’ve ever worked with,” Tankian says. “I’ve worked with 24 orchestras around the world, and they were the best because they made it part of their curriculum. They rehearsed the fuck out of it and then they played it with youthful enthusiasm, rather than an old person playing Wagner or something they’ve played a million times.”
“My goal was to take your spirit down from your mouth and raise it without it leaving your body — almost like it was just coming to the precipice of your physical existence. This style of music heightens the emotions involved with vulnerability more so than rock and metal,” he continues. “You get to the depths and core of the human experience. I like that, because there’s no way I can present the emotions of Invocations through System of a Down or rock music in general.”
And what would Tankian’s college-aged self have thought if someone told him he’d one day be back on campus performing a complex orchestral work? “I had just started playing music while at university as a way of meditating away from my whole trauma of a life at that age, and I didn’t know yet that music was my vision,” he recalls. “If someone would have said, ‘I’m from the future and you’re gonna come back here to play your symphony as a classical composer after touring the world with a world-famous rock band,’ I’d be like, ‘I wanna smoke what he’s smoking!'”
Tankian is also busy working on myriad projects for 2024, including his memoir Down With the System, which will be released in mid-May in tandem with a new rock-leaning EP, Foundations. “I was not interested in a memoir,” he says. “My original idea was a philosophical book, kind of in the vein of what Rick Rubin put out. It would be at the intersection of justice and spirituality, which I’ve always been interested in. When I got approached to do a memoir, I said I wanted to do this philosophical book, and they’re like, ‘well, can’t you do both?’ Good question! Can I squeeze in the philosophy and the poetry and the emotive moments as an artist into a book that’s also about storytelling? That’s what I tried to do.”
Also percolating is an album comprised of “a bunch of songs I’ve done with different people and covers I’ve never released” and scoring work on a six-hour series for an unnamed “major streamer” which should be out in the next few months. “We had to take compositions written about 100 years ago and re-orchestrate them. It’s a very heavy topic, but I was honored to work on it,” Tankian says of the latter. He also executive-produced the Armenian film Amerikatsi, which is now available on demand at Apple TV and Amazon Prime, and has invested in the startup instrument company AAA Audio, which he hopes will aid Armenian musicians in need of work.
“We all use small ensembles from around the world when we record for a series or a film, but Armenia never had this organized thing where you can go and record with the National Orchestra, so we started a company to be able to do that,” he says. “We’re making virtual instruments like the qanun, which is like a zither. Then, if someone wants to hire an actual qanun player, we can get that particular player who’s an expert to play and record for them in Armenia. For me, it was a way of giving back to the community.”
As for System of a Down, which hasn’t released an album since 2005, its experience playing with fellow ’90s and early 2000s peers at the Sick New World festival this May was so positive that the group will return to the event again on April 27, 2024 for its only scheduled concert at the moment. “I had more fun there than I had on many, many other tours, and that’s why we’re doing it again,” Tankian says. “It was a blast. We rehearsed just enough to know our chops and then the rest, who the fuck knows? Let’s see what happens on stage.”
“I’m not just grateful but mind-blown at how much people love the band and the music,” he adds of System, which has played live less than 20 times since 2017. “I can never get over that fact, irrespective of us not touring or putting out records. That’s why I think even if we just do one show and enjoy it with them, it’s really something special to all of us that will never go away.”