07/02/2013 12:24 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Serj Tankian on His Symphony, Jazz Fusion Record, and Moving Forward with System of a Down

There's a chill I get sometimes when I know I've dug too far into someone's work or philosophy during an interview, a silent request to change the topic before things get weird. I've never felt that with Serj Tankian, no matter what I've ever asked him, which is one of the reasons I was looking forward to talking with him again. He's basically the ideal subject -- friendly and articulate with a seemingly bottomless aptitude for detail -- so when I learned I'd be connecting with him about his full-orchestra album and new jazz record, I knew I wouldn't have to hold back.

Known for his high-decibel, borderline operatic vocals, Tankian has been taking some creative quiet time, at least in a relative sense. Even as he's back to rocking live with System of a Down, his two latest solo projects are comparatively low-key. Released this month is Orca, his first traditional symphony, recorded at Brucknerhaus in Linz, Austria, and on July 23rd comes Jazz-iz Christ, a wide-net jazz fusion project -- both featuring elements of traditional Armenian melodies. Tankian's new efforts have actually been completed for over a year, but he waited to release them in order to get Harakiri, his 2012 rock record, off the ground first. "I didn't want to release three records at once," he laughs during our Iconic Interview chat.

"I'd be in the studio all day," Tankian recalls of the period when production of all three overlapped. "Let's say I'd sent a song out to the flautist in Switzerland to add some flutes. I'd be working on Harakiri and I'd get an email saying, 'I uploaded the flute solo to your Dropbox.' So I take a break from the Harakiri song, download the flute solo, throw it into the jazz track, balance it, see where it's sitting, make some changes, and go back to the Harakiri track -- that kind of a thing." On his constant shifting of gears, he offers, "Your mind is not segmented like genres of music on the radio. It's open. As an artist, as a writer, as a musician -- whatever your moniker of choice -- it all comes from the same source."

Meticulously assembled and packed with guts and pathos, the albums come through as musical meditations with a subtle brand of buildup and climax. Tankian's favorite moment of Orca is its quietest, at around six minutes when it breaks down to a single cello and a couple of piano chords. "At that moment," he says, "my eyes would always water up, and I'm like, what the fuck? I would ask myself, why is that moment of this piece, without lyrics, without a context of what this actually means, doing this to me? To me, that's the beautiful thing about being able to do this. As an artist, I'm very, very lucky that I can introduce different speaking patterns, those emotions, that I haven't been able to in the past."

Tankian has worked in the orchestral arena before, when he morphed his first solo album into his second and recorded 2010's Elect the Dead Symphony with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. Jazz-iz Christ, on the other hand, injects electro-pop, dance-hall synth, funk, and classical into old-school jazz, and it's unlike anything we've heard from him before -- and it's wild. "Jazz, to me, is an improvisational genre," he says. "It's what you want to make it. It's technically designed as such. The beautiful thing is the moment, and jazz is a music of the moment." With Orca and Jazz-iz Christ, Tankian has set himself free and you can feel it.

The multi-genre musician and singer will tour with System of a Down in late July and August and then take his symphony through Europe in September. I asked if tensions would need to be addressed before SOAD starts up again, after the online hubbub a few weeks back about the state of the next System album. "Before we play together, we'll definitely share a coffee and have a conversation about it; that's not an issue," Tankian shares. Regarding a new album, he adds that "you need each other to do it together, and everyone's got to be on the same page." To clarify, I sent Tankian a note after our interview -- does he see himself committing to a new System record at some point? The answer I received was "Yes."

Read the full interview at To learn more, visit or For a taste of Jazz-iz Christ, check out this "Waitomo Caves" track for some serious funk and one of the truly dopest distorted flute solos.