Serj Tankian: ‘I’m on a Roll’ With Film Scoring and ‘Want to Do More’ – Interview + ‘Ambush’ Song Premiere From ‘Furious’ Soundtrack
In his time since System of a Down's last album, Serj Tankian has released solo albums, worked with orchestras and ventured into jazz territory, but he's also taken an avid interest in film work. This has been one of Tankian's most prolific years in the film world, having served as a consultant and recorded a track for The Promise earlier this year, and wrapping up 2017 by doing film score work for the Joe Berlinger genocide-centric documentary Intent to Destroy and the new historical action film Furious: The Legend of Kolovrat.
We recently had a chance to speak with Tankian about both of his new film soundtracks and how they allowed him to pursue his passions. With Intent to Destroy focused on genocide recognition, something that is close to the singer's heart, we asked about the continued efforts for recognition of the Armenian genocide and what progress has been made. Tankian also spoke about his involvement with The Promise soundtrack and friendship with Chris Cornell. And he opened up about "the science project" that was putting together the music for Furious and what an enjoyable process it was. In addition to the interview below, Loudwire has the pleasure of exclusively premiering "Ambush," one of the key instrumental pieces from the Furious: The Legend of Kolovrat soundtrack. You can hear that in the player just below the interview.
Serj, I know you've gotten involved with score work more and more over the years. Can you talk about how that has inspired you and has been rewarding to you as things have gone along?
Well, for many years I've been a fan of film music. In fact, I like listening to it in the car more than anything else, and for years when people always ask me "What are you listening to?", they usually expect me to retort back with the name of a ban, and I'm usually-- I'm like oh, I just listened to this film by-- this score by John Barry. I just listened to this. That kind of a thing. So, yeah, it's something I've enjoyed for many years, and as I've put out a number of solo records after System records, and all that stuff.
My first experience with any type of scoring was I met William Friedkin, and he was doing a film called Bug, and I was lucky enough to do a couple of themes for that film years ago. It was on Lionsgate at the time. And that really-- I got a bug for it. I really wanted to score more. And then a few years ago, I did a video game, I did a film called 1915, and then we started doing more films, and now I'm on a roll I feel like, and I want to do more, and more.
It's just, look, at each film, each visual kind of project is a completely different. It requires a different palette of music, so it allows me to venture as a composer. It's more diverse in that sense than making records per se, although each record, you could say, I've put out -- I guess I've put out a jazz record, a symphony and rock record in 2012. I just negated my own premise.
It's just really interesting, and I just find it really fun and easy and exciting and I get to exercise all these orchestra chops and get to, like, for example, with Furious: The Legend of Kolovrat, I got to do everything in one. I got to do ethnic folk instrumentation, huge bombastic orchestra and percussion, and fucking heavy metal guitars and some drums. I was like wow, because it was a big epic action historical-based fantasy score, and they wanted everything in there. And I'm like okay, great. It was a great way of bringing all these influences together in one, and get paid to do it.
I'm going to ask about Intent to Destroy. Because I know your background and history with shining a spotlight on genocide denialism, can you take me through some of the first conversations with Joe Berlinger about what this documentary was going to be and what you were looking for in terms to putting the music to this?
It's a very kind of unusual way that I got to score Intent to Destroy. I was asked to be in the film as a talking head talking about genocide denialists, and what do I think about them with all of my kind of work having to do with the awareness of the Armenian genocide. What do I think of genocide denialists, and what's their kind of angle, and all of this stuff. So, I sat down for an interview with Joe, and he's interviewing me on camera for the film, and as we're talking and I'm like, "Who's scoring this film? This is a really interesting film because it's not just talking about a genocide from a hundred years ago. It's talking about something happening today which is millions of dollars being spent on disinformation, denial, case lobbying firms, and all this nefarious sinister shit that the government of Turkey is doing in denying the genocide, and all of this stuff." I'm like, "This is really interesting. Who's scoring this?" So, we had a little conversation, and I definitely was very excited at the prospect of scoring it, so I got the gig. [laughs]
I really ... I kind of poured a lot of emotions into it because it came naturally, I guess. Like you said, it's something that I've cared about, that we with System Of A Down have cared about, because all of our grandparents were survivors of the genocide. And so, it's a very personal thing for us that we've always talked about. So, being a part of the film, and being able to score it was like an incredible journey. Joe's an amazing director to work with. He's extremely talented, one of the best documentarians on the planet.
So, yeah, so it's been a great adventure, and we've done a bunch of previews at film festivals, and it's gotten some awards, and it's gotten great praise. It's a film you definitely have to go see. I would say forget about me composing it, or my involvement at all. It's a really powerful fucking film and story.
Speaking of powerful, listening to this score, it's moving. It's emotional, listening to this as well. Even the instrumentation on this sets a mood. I was transfixed by "Turkish History Changed" towards the end of this thing with just hypnotic instrumentation on this. How much direction were you given ahead of time?
I always sit down with a director I'm about to work with. I want to know what they have in their mind in terms of the music. What instrumentation do they see? What type of emotions are they trying to convey? More than anything I want to know what type of ensemble they want to use because that narrows down whatever I'm going to use. Is it a classical score? Classical instrumentation score? Do you see this as a rock score? Do you see this as a jazz score? Once I know the ballpark of the instrumentation and colors that they have in mind, then it's easier for me to set up my template fo sampled instruments and go in and do some themes just based off of conversation, script and/or dailies that I get and present them. Am I in the ballpark? Is this what you had in mind? Am I close? Once you nail that, then you have an idea of what they're going for musically. Then you're able to extrapolate on that in terms of themes, sound and tone and in terms of emotional impact.
For as long as we've been talking over the years there have always been activities back to the Souls concerts. Even today with this score, we're shining the spotlight on the Armenian genocide. As you're so involved in this, if you can talk about where things stand presently and do you see progress being made towards the goal of recognition?
That's a really great question to ask. It's a tough one to answer. There's progress in terms of awareness. Of people on the planet, there is zero progress having to do with the government of Turkey writing it's wrong having to do with its own history and so forth. Especially having to do with a dictator like Erdoğan in charge. I don't call him a dictator as an emotional response, I call him that because he puts people in jail based on whether they're in the opposition. He just put a cultural icon named Osman Kavala in jail who is trying to bridge the gap between Kurds, Turks and other minorities, Armenians. As it is with the government now, I don’t see any progress having to do with Turkey's recognition of the genocide. And ultimately that's what needs to happen.
Whether the American government recognizes it ... the value of the American government recognizing it properly is twofold. One, honest with our own American history and the praise to the Near East Relief Fund that made its first international journey outside of the US borders into those lands to do tremendous work in terms of missionaries and medical help, orphanages. My grandfather actually went to an American orphanage at a very young age. I'm very thankful for it. To kind of have that story, such an incredible outreach and philanthropic story in American history negated by denialism based on using genocide for political capital to sell Turkey Apache Helicopters and use them as an airbase in the Middle East is a shame and that's what's happening here. So, that's the hypocrisy having to do with the American side but in terms of American recognition it's important for our own history as Americans but it’s also important because it'll put pressure on Turkey to do the right thing as well. But as of now, that's not going to happen anytime soon until there is a new administration in Turkey that's more progressive, democratic, smart.
But the good news is, more people are aware of it because of all the efforts of amazing people spreading it, you know. In 2015 at the centennial of the Armenian genocide the Vatican and the Pope officially recognized it. Many more countries have officially recognized it whereas 100 years ago, it was a few diplomats like Woodrow Wilson fighting for, not just recognition of the Armenian genocide but justice for the Armenian people and those that had suffered under the Ottoman rule. Now it’s a lot more people in the world thanks to the efforts of all of us telling the truth.
I wanted to ask about The Promise as well and your involvement in that as well. What did it mean to be a consultant on that film and actually to be able to honor Chris Cornell recently for his work on the title track?
Yeah. It's interesting. So, one of the producers of The Promise, my friend Eric Esrailian, had reached out to me years ago when they were just talking about when Kirk Kerkorian had decided to bankroll a major US American film that dealt with the genocide and he was calling me for advice and stuff and I'd say, "Look, man. I'm not in the film business. I'm in the music business. Why are you calling me?" But he kept on trusting my instinct and I'm very appreciative of it because it actually got me more into the film world by kind of pulling me and going, "What do you think? I've just met these executives and you may or may not know them but what do you think of this idea or that idea?"
So, that was really amazing that he'd have that kind of confidence in me and kind of take me to where I hadn't been. But yeah, I was involved with kind of the musical direction of the film in terms of understanding what we want to do, what type of sound we want and all of that stuff. The producers always make the decision, obviously, but you know, a lot of ideas went back and forth, which was great. I got a chance to do a song for the end title. A remake of an old Armenian song called "Sari Siroun Yar" which came out really beautiful. I got to do that with some friends of mine in the Authentic Light Orchestra. And of course, Chris, Chris was always slated to do a song and at one point we were going to do it together and then we're like, "Okay, we'll each do our own song kind of thing for the end credits." And he was always involved with Eric as well. He was a friend of Eric's as well and so we would always gather and talk about the film and see each other at premieres and we got to hang out more and more this last year because of the film and gotten closer and then the tragedy occurred and none of us really knew how to deal with it, to be honest, and until today, I've got to say honestly, I still don't get it and I don't think I ever will.
Anyway. I've talked about this before and I won't go into detail but we just recently, this last week, we were at the annual Human Rights gala, for the annual Los Angeles, California for Human Rights Watch and they honored Chris Cornell with their Promise Award, their inaugural Promise Award, which was beautiful and they asked me to announce it. So, it was my honor to do so and see his wife Vicki and the guys from Soundgarden and we sat down together and had a meal and talked before the award and whatnot. It's always very tough, missing a friend who was gone before his time, but this is a good way of remembering him and the amazing work he's done, not just as an artist, but as a humanitarian.
Moving into Furious as well. Obviously the other film you have a deep connection to. This one, I was curious how much you delved into the history of the subject matter of what they were going to do with the film before you actually tackled the score.
I did do some research on the history because I am a history buff and a geopolitical buff. So I looked into it and I was very interested. The mongol hoards basically conquered not just the Russian areas but Armenia as well, that whole area. I mean, they had the largest empire at one point in possibly in all of history if I'm not mistaken. So it's very interesting and I read about Batu Khan and I didn't know that the Russian lines were divided at the time and how he was able to conquer some and the rebellion. So that was interesting. But, for me, I've always been a fan of the genre of these historical action films. I've always loved them. I watch a lot of Chinese films because of that. They're really good at these historical giant production battle films.
So I was really intrigued by it. So we had the conversation and I saw some of the footage and I was like, "Wow this could be really fun." And to come out of making such an emotional score with Intent to Destroy, I literally did these back to back, which is why the soundtracks are [coming out] back to back [laughs]. To come out of such an emotional kind of score where you're really tied in like that to something where it's more like, go crazy, go epic, go big and let's throw in more guitars. It was actually a nice relief as well to work on something that was more of a genre favorite and kind of just do crazy heavy sounding music, whether it's heavy orchestral or heavy with guitars, and just kind of push the envelope on it. I think the score came out really good because of it.
We spoke way back when you were doing your first symphonic album and I remember how excited you were for that. You've had much more experience at this point working with an orchestra. Take me into a session. How maddening but also wonderful must it be to bring all that instrumentation together?
So with Furious: The Legend of Kolovrat the way that I did it, is the initial part of the score was written in New Zealand, arranged in Los Angeles, recorded between Bulgaria, Mongolia and Russia. [laughs] But that's technology linking us, it's way easier than it sounds. A lot of it was done mobile in terms of live recordings where we were able to monitor from my recording studio in real time and see them on Skype with cameras and confer, make changes and ask them to redo something with different articulations or what not. So it's a lot easier today to do these things than when people first started scoring films I'm sure.
But what I do, I literally sit down and write all the different instruments layer by layer, scene by scene until both the director and myself are content with the demo version, if you will than the in the box version. Then depending on the budget, in this case they did have it - we will hire live players, so we had a string section from the Sofia Symphony, I think. And also a brass section from them. I had a bunch of ethnic Russian instrumentation in Mongolia. Singing and all this stuff and we also dubbed live between Russia and Mongolia with a Tuva singer that we overlaid and also some ethnic instrumentalists playing a Bava Lanka. Srilanka, dombra and all these Russian instruments. Kind of sneaking in an ethnic and also integral sound of a culture in both cases, Russia and Mongolia.
We stayed away from typical sounding ethnic stuff, which I don’t think anyone wants to do. It's making a modern score but kind of have these things inside it that make it feel like it's coming from that part of the world in an authentic kind of way. Not in a Lawrence of Arabia, Hollywood trying to do that kind of score in that kind of way. So that's really cool. The producers also didn't want it very ethnic, so it was kind of sneaking it in in a way, you feel it more than you hear it. Although you hear it a lot of times as well.
They kept on saying, "Yeah, layer in more guitars over that big orchestra procession." I'm like, "You want more guitars? I'll give you more guitar." [laughs] That shit I know from a long time ago. It was fun, it was a fun score to do and I'm really proud of both of these soundtracks in completely different ways. That's why I love doing what I do here. I got to do these two projects that are completely different sounding with different instrumentation and different ensembles and enjoy it.
We'll be premiering "Ambush" along with this interview. It's a forceful piece and you can just envision the battle ensuing. I'll ask what you can share about how "Ambush" came together?
So "Ambush" is basically the second cue in the film and you see these riders coming through this beautiful forest and this young girl playing this little whistle flute which is turned out to be the main theme in the film in the end. I love extrapolating themes from a basic scenes to a more complex sense to the word end of the film, etc. And they get abused, these riders get ambushed by Mongol fighters that are hiding on a cliff and there are these incredible kind of CGI moments where they're coming in on these ropes and shooting arrows and these horses are running around. There's a lot of swords being clashed against each other and it's like immediately the film goes from zero to 60 and so the music has to complement that. It's really interesting because you have to nail everything on the fucking fly. You have to hit every downbeat at the right time. It's not like doing a film where you can write a score that kind of just places the scene in a very comfortable, low tempo kind of way with pianos which is beautiful. This is like, bam bam bam, sword hitting bam. Everything is timed and sequenced, almost like it becomes this science project but you've got to make it really fun and heavy and crazy.
So it's challenging in that way to try to nail every hit the right way so that every downbeat with every sword hit or fly or scene change happens on cue. When you're trying to match the tempo of a temp or trying to do the same thing, a lot of editors cut to temp, they'll take a piece of music that they don't own and they will cut their film to it, really fast in this case which is all battle scenes, that kind of stuff. You've got this like, totally locked in temp that you've got to replace and you're like, what the fuck? How do I do this? I've got to match every hit and of course music is doing something else, you don't want to do anything that the temps are doing, you want to do your own thing. But all the hits have to be, and all the percussion has to land all over the right places. So that's a little challenging. So regarding "Ambush," it's exciting but it's also a little bit of a science project.
I'll ask, as fans will definitely be curious. Is there an update on System of a Down at this point. I know there had been talk of getting together and seeing where it goes.
I wish I had any new information that I could divulge or share with you to update you but nothing to report at this time.
Our thanks to Serj Tankian for the interview. Be sure to check out the new song "Ambush" from 'Furious: The Legend of Kolovrat' below. The original motion picture soundtrack will be released this Friday (Dec. 8) through Amazon and iTunes. Meanwhile, Tankian's other film score for 'Intent to Destroy' is already available through Amazon and iTunes. Both of Tankian's film soundtracks come from Lakeshore Records.
Serj Tankian, "Ambush" From Furious: The Legend of Kolovrat