Photo by George Tonikian
Serj Tankian Talks 'Fuktronic,' Working With Jimmy Urine & Pushing Boundaries In Every Direction
Serj Tankian has always been known for his impassioned, thought-provoking music and political activism. So upon first listen to Fuktronic, his dance-driven collaboration with Mindless Self Indulgence frontman/programmer Jimmy Urine, some might be taken aback. It's a nihilistic gangster tale told in 12 tracks where the main character liberally sprays out the C-word like bullets.
"Well, that was the point," responds Tankian when he speaks to the Recording Academy from New Zealand, where he lives with his wife and young son. "Our original idea is how many c*nt words can we put into one record? It's a good end game to go for." Many Americans might not know that the C-word used in the U.K. is derogatory towards men—not women like it is here. "Yeah, people do take it very offensively in the U.S. so that's part of it. We don't care. If people are going to be offended, that'll actually be enjoyable."
That sentiment should be no surprise given that this is a singer who called his solo backing band the Flying C*nts of Chaos.
The Fuktronic project started back in 2011 when Tankian and Urine were dining on sushi and waxing enthusiastic their love for British gangster films like Layer Cake, Gangster No. 1 and Sexy Beast. They loved how the movies were so over-the-top that they veered into dark humor.
"We both get the funniness of the genre which a lot of people may or may not," says Tankian. "We started collaborating with each of us bringing in different electronic tracks that we could work on together with different voiceover friends and artists and make it into Fuktronic. But I didn't think about the whole moral and/or sociopolitical implication of a British gangster soundtrack film, to be honest, but thanks for bringing it to my attention," he laughs.
Tankian has been friends with Urine for at least 15 years, going back to the days when genre-benders Mindless Self Indulgence toured with System Of A Down.
"We've been friends for so long, we're like family, so we're always at each other's places and families together," says Tankian. "When we did it, it was such a natural thing. It was like, hey, this is so f**ked up it could actually be cool. That's where fun art projects come from, whether it's music or otherwise—from the love of trying to do something that you think hasn't been done before with someone who you care about, would enjoy collaborating with, and respect as an artist. In that sense, it's perfect. We always kid that one of these days we're gonna get together and score a Guy Ritchie film because of this."
The music on the album energetically fuses electro, jazz, synth orchestral and rock sounds across numerous scenarios, with eight of the 12 tracks featuring hypertense dialogue and sound effects. (The tastiest track is the grooving instrumental closer, simply called "Credits.") In the official press release, the antagonists of Fuktronic have been described as "despicable but lovable characters." The main one is George (a.k.a. Prisoner No. W08304, voiced by George Sampson), an idiotic, low level gangster from Manchester, England who keeps desperately trying to rise up the ranks of the underworld and falling short. But while the bare bones of the story are there, the entire narrative is not fleshed out, allowing listeners to insert their own ideas and images into their mind's eye. Fans can watch the animated trailer created by ShadowMachine Studios ("BoJack Horseman," "TripTank," "Robot Chicken") to see if it looks how they imagined it.
"What's funny is that we've given enough building blocks for people to actually do their own film if they wanted to from this, or build their own story or make a comic book," elaborates Tankian. "It's endless because we provided audio and voiceover without visuals that leave a lot of room for interpretation and collaboration. I would be interested to see what people glean out of this."
Finally seeing the light of day after a flurry of other Tankian projects, Fuktronic might seem like it is coming out of left field given his extensive film scoring career as of late, but the project's earlier genesis came during a period where his solo career had expanded from heavy rock into other areas. In 2012, Tankian was simultaneously toiling away on his third solo rock album Harikiri, his classical Orca Symphony No. 1, the Jazz-Iz-Christ progressive fusion record, and Fuktronic while also touring with three different groups including System Of A Down. But the transition into film scoring was something he had been aspiring to do for many years. His first experience working with an orchestra came in 2009 with the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra in New Zealand for his Elect The Dead Symphony CD/DVD release.
"That was the first opening of that door," recalls Tankian. "Then actually starting to work on video games and films got me into that world, which I thoroughly enjoy." Tankian's film scores include The Last Inhabitant, 1915, Intent To Destroy, Furious (Легенда о Коловрате) and Spitak, and the music spans stirring symphonic cues to delicate Armenian balladry. His video game soundtrack work includes the 2015 release Midnight Star.
There are two main things that Tankian has learned about film composing that he can impart to those aspiring to the craft. Firstly, one must completely understand the language of the director or producer, whichever partner is guiding one through the process.
"If you don't really fully understand what they want from the beginning, you're spinning your wheels and theirs for a long time and it's very frustrating," advises Tankian. "You get good at nailing down what they have in mind, even if they don't have the musical language for it. That's probably the most important thing of being a film composer. Second is the organization. Unlike playing rock instruments and recording everything live or using some electronic elements, with composing you've got to really, really think through what sounds you want and your palate, and develop them based on the likes and dislikes of the director and the sound that you're going for. Do trials and tests of pieces that you can send and see that you're creating something really interesting and new. You want the tone to be established."
Last year, Tankian scored three documentaries. I Am Not Alone has toured the North American film festival circuit and won numerous awards, and it is about the 2018 Armenian Revolution. Truth To Power is his own music film being released in the future with Live Nation. Then, he composed music for a film about famous wind surfer and kiteboarding pioneer Robby Naish called The Longest Wave, which was directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster).
Truth To Power was supposed to have its premiere at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, but those plans changed when the coronavirus quarantine kicked in and the event went virtual. Not all of the enrolled filmmakers participated. "Other festivals are trying to do virtual stuff from what I saw," says Tankian. "But they're still trying to figure out the best way of doing that without losing worldwide streaming rights. Whether your partner's YouTube or Vimeo or whatever, once you put it [your film] out there and it's public, it's hard to sell it."
Of his three recent documentary efforts, Truth To Power is more personal for the singer and extends beyond scoring. "It's actually an activist journey through the world of music, which is basically my last 20-something years," explains Tankian. "It talks about some of the challenges of being an activist and some of the repercussions of being an activist musician. 'F**k you, dude, just make another record. I don't want to hear your political opinions.' You know, that world."
He says that Truth To Power builds up well. It starts with System Of A Down's first concert in Armenia in 2015 to commemorate the centennial of the Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire of Turkey, which was officially recognized by the United States Congress in December 2019. "It goes back into our history, the community, how we grew up in L.A., the school we went through," describes Tankian of the film. "Very interesting building blocks to show where the activism comes from, why that truth resonates through the music, and how the music becomes a vehicle for incredible dissemination."
Despite the tumultuous times we live in, it feels like many rockers are less politically vocal than before. Old-school rockers were more agitators, but on a mainstream level it feels less imperative for the new guard. This sentiment applies to before the quarantine.
"I haven't done the tally as to whether we have more music-based activists now than before," says Tankian. "But part of it is that social media has become quite f**king useless because all it does is provide people a platform for their angst that they wouldn't say to anyone in person. It's become really a negative platform. Sure, it's also a marketing vehicle. It's many, many different things. But overall, I think we're living the death of social media in the next five to 10 years. I see other things on the horizon in terms of the digital connection world, but not what we've seen so far."
The singer thinks social media is too primal and judgmental, which might be discouraging other artists from speaking out due to potential backlash.
"It's never really dissuaded me because the truth is the truth, whether public opinion is on your side or not, whether people are ready to admit it or not, whether people like it or not," stresses Tankian. "Injustice is injustice whether they are on that side of the injustice or they're on the side of the just. It doesn't f**king matter to me. I don't care. I'm not trying to make more fans. I'm not trying to become a bigger artist. I'm just trying to do what I do which is express myself as an artist, and if I don't have the truth to express it with then the expression doesn't mean sh*t to me."
For fans missing Tankian's heavier side, he has a five-song EP of rock songs currently titled Elasticity which is planned for release later this year. He acknowledges that working on so many other projects has refreshed him for returning to rock.
"You just gain more tools and experience and sounds and ways of approaching things, and you have so many different outlets," says Tankian. "As far as the EP, these were primarily songs that I wanted to do with System. When we weren't able to see eye to eye I just went ahead and finished them. They have more synth flavors than most System songs do, more arpeggiated stuff like that, but they still have the heavy groove and also a lot of beautiful ballady stuff that is more like Elect The Dead and some of my earlier solo stuff. It's a really good EP."
A past project that Tankian is looking to revisit is Prometheus Bound, the rock musical he composed and collaborated on with lyricist/book writer Steven Sater of Spring Awakening fame. The show was directed by Diane Paulus and debuted at Boston's American Repertory Theatre in March 2011. Its stars included Gavin Creel (future Tony Award winner for Hello, Dolly!) and Uzo Aduba and Lea DeLaria (future "Orange Is The New Black" castmates, the former winning two Emmy Awards for her role on that Netflix series).
"The interest is still there,” says Tankian of Prometheus Bound. "Everyone who sees a clip or hears some of the music are like, 'Wow, what the f**k is that.' Steven Sater and I are looking forward to finding another opportunity to reintroduce Prometheus either internationally or within the U.S. with the right producers and outfits."
Given the non-existent state of theater right now, this is not the moment to contemplate reviving such a dynamic show. There are no concerts, sporting events, or any large groups of people congregating. Tankian says that this new paradigm changes the way he and other artists are looking at future projects. But the set-up for Prometheus Bound—an immersive theatrical experience where the actors move among the crowd, with only the band staying onstage—re-ignited a concept in his brain that he could not achieve during the show's original run.
"I thought it would be great to have 3-D cameras mounted on one person, the protagonist walking around experiencing the whole thing," explains Tankian. "You can then put it out there for people to be able to get into their shoes and walk around and enjoy this beautiful, theatrical, multimedia experience. I always wanted to do that with Prometheus, and we didn't get the opportunity. But I'm starting to think more in those realms as well. How can we experience more quality art not being able to congregate physically?"
It will be yet another adventure for Tankian to embark upon, but without the C-words.
Read More: Musical Explorations With Serj Tankian