Photo by George Tonikian
Serj Tankian Talks 'Fuktronic,' Working With Jimmy Urine & Pushing Boundaries In Every Direction
The GRAMMY-winning frontman of System Of A Down also talks to the Recording Academy about his film-scoring work and the "repercussions of being an activist musician"
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 fked 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. 'Fk 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 fking 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 fking 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 fk 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
Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More
The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'
In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.
"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.
Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.
"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."
Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American.
"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."
Joan as Police Woman
Quarantine Diaries: Joan As Police Woman Is Bike Riding, Book Reading & Strumming D'Angelo
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors
As the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the music industry, the Recording Academy reached out to a few musicians to see how they were spending their days indoors. Today, singer/songwriter Joan Wasser of Joan as Police Woman, whose forthcoming covers album, COVER TWO, includes tracks by The Strokes, Prince, Talk Talk, and more, shares her Quarantine Diary.
Thursday, April 2
[10 a.m.-12 p.m.] Went to bed at 4 a.m. last night after getting drawn into working on a song. Put on the kettle to make hot coffee while enjoying an iced coffee I made the day before. Double coffee is my jam. Read the news, which does not do much for my mood. Catch up with a few friends, which does a lot of good for my mood. Glad it goes in this order.
[12 p.m.-2 p.m.] Make steel cut oats with blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, a sprinkling of cinnamon and cardamom, and of course, coconut butter to melt on top. If you’re not into coconut butter (sometimes marketed as coconut "manna"), I’d suggest just going for it and getting it (or ordering it) and putting it on your sweet potatoes, your oats, anywhere you’d put butter. I’m not vegan but I do enjoy hearing the tiny scream uttered by a strawberry as I cut into it.
Contemplate some yoga. Contamplate meditating. Do neither. Resume work on the song I want to finish and send today. I have a home studio and I spend a lot of my time working on music here. The song is a collboration sent to me from Rodrigo D’Erasmo in Milano that will benefit the folks who work behind the scenes in the music touring system in Italy.
[2 p.m.-4 p.m.] I traded in a guitar for a baritone guitar right before all this craziness hit but hadn’t had the time to get it out until now. I put on some D’Angelo, plugged into my amp and played along as if I were in his band. Micahel Archer, If you’re reading this, I hope you are safe and sound and thank you immensely for all the music you've given us always.
[4 p.m.-6 p.m.] Bike repair shops have been deemed "necessary," thank goodness, because biking is the primary way I get around and I need a small repair. I hit up my neighborhood shop and they get my bike in and out in 10 minutes, enough time to feel the sun for a moment.
I ride fast and hard down to the water's edge and take in a view of the East River from Brooklyn. There are a few people out getting their de-stress walks but it is mostly deserted on the usually packed streets.
[6 p.m.-8 p.m.] Practice Bach piano invention no. 4 in Dm very, very, very slowly. I never studied piano but I’m trying to hone some skills. Realize I’m ravenous. Eat chicken stew with wild mushrooms I made in the slow cooker yesterday. It’s always better the second day.
[8 p.m.-10 p.m.] Get on a zoom chat with a bunch of women friends on both coasts. We basically shoot the sh*t and make each other laugh.
Afterwards I still feel like I ate a school bus so I give into yoga. I feel great afterwards. This photo proves I have a foot.
[10 p.m.-12 a.m.] Record a podcast for Stereo Embers in anticipation of my new release on May 1, a second record of covers, inventively named COVER TWO. Continue to work on music (it’s a theme).
[12 a.m.-2 p.m.] Tell myself I should think about bed. Ignore myself and confinue to work on music.
[2 a.m.-4 a.m.] Force myself into bed where I have many books to choose from. This is what I’m reading presently, depending on my mood. Finally I listen to Nick Hakim’s new song, "Qadir," and am taken by its beauty and grace. Good night.
If you wish to support our efforts to assist music professionals in need, learn more about the Recording Academy's and MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.
If you are a member of the music industry in need of assistance, visit the MusiCares website.
Hero The Band perform at the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter Annual Membership Celebration
Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage
Report: Music & Culture Infrastructure Can Create Better "Future Cities"
How sound planning for a creative future in our urban areas makes all the difference for artists and musicians
The future, as they say, is now. And for music makers around the world, building a future for themselves often starts at home, in their local creative community and in the city where they live. While technology has expanded communication and made the world smaller, cities continue to grow, making planning for the future a critical cultural mission of the present.
To that end, a new report by global organization Sound Diplomacy titled "This Must Be The Place" examines, "The role of music and cultural infrastructure in creating better future cities for all of us." The 37-page deep dive into community planning and development highlights the importance of creative culture in what it calls "Future Cities."
"The government defines ‘Future Cities’ as 'a term used to imagine what cities themselves will be like," the report states, "how they will operate, what systems will orchestrate them and how they will relate to their stakeholders (citizens, governments, businesses, investors, and others),'"
According to the report, only three global cities or states currently have cultural infrastructure plans: London, Amsterdam and New South Wales. This fact may be surprising considering how city planning and sustainability have become part of the discussion on development of urban areas, where the UN estimates 68 percent of people will live by 2050.
"Our future places must look at music and culture ecologically. Much like the way a building is an ecosystem, so is a community of creators, makers, consumers and disseminators," the report says. "The manner in which we understand how to maintain a building is not translated to protecting, preserving and promoting music and culture in communities."
The comparison and interaction between the intangibility of culture and the presence of physical space is an ongoing theme throughout the report. For instance, one section of the report outlines how buildings can and should be designed to fit the cultural needs of the neighborhoods they populate, as too often, use of a commercial space is considered during the leasing process, not the construction process, leading to costly renovations.
"All future cities are creative cities. All future cities are music cities."
On the residential side, as cities grow denser, the need increases for thoughtful acoustic design and sufficient sound isolation. Future cities can and should be places where people congregate
"If we don’t design and build our future cities to facilitate and welcome music and experience, we lose what makes them worth living in."
For musicians and artists of all mediums, the answer to making—and keeping—their cities worth living in boils down to considering their needs, impact and value more carefully and sooner in the planning process.
"The report argues that property is no longer an asset business, but one built on facilitating platforms for congregation, community and cohesion," it says. "By using music and culture at the beginning of the development process and incorporating it across the value chain from bid to design, meanwhile to construction, activation to commercialisation, this thinking and practice will result in better places."
The report offers examples of how planners and leaders are handling this from around the world. For instance, the Mayor Of London Night Czar, who helps ensure safety and nighttime infrastructure for venues toward the Mayor's Vision for London as a 24-hour city. Stateside, Pittsburgh, Penn., also has a Night Mayor in place to support and inform the growth of its creative class.
What is a music ecosystem? We believe the music influences and interacts with various sectors in a city. We have designed this infographic to show how music ecosystems work and impact cities, towns and places: https://t.co/0DIUpN1Dll— Sound Diplomacy (@SoundDiplomacy) August 14, 2019
Diversity, inclusion, health and well-being also factor into the reports comprehensive look at how music and culture are every bit as important as conventional business, ergonomic and environmental considerations in Future Cites. Using the Queensland Chamber of Arts and Culture as a reference, it declared, "A Chamber of Culture is as important as a Chamber of Commerce."
In the end, the report serves as a beacon of light for governments, organizations, businesses and individuals involved in planning and developing future cities. Its core principals lay out guideposts for building friendly places to music and culture and are backed with case studies and recommendations. But perhaps the key to this progress is in changing how we approach the use of space itself, as the answer to supporting music may be found in how we look at the spaces we inhabit.
"To develop better cities, towns and places, we must alter the way we think about development, and place music and culture alongside design, viability, construction and customer experience," it says. "Buildings must be treated as platforms, not assets. We must explore mixed‑use within mixed‑use, so a floor of a building, or a lesser‑value ground floor unit can have multiple solutions for multiple communities."
Ice-T In 1993
Photo by David Corio/Redferns
Nearly 30 Years After Their Debut, Body Count's 'Carnivore' Is The Thrash-Metal Band's Most Fully Realized Album
Led by iconic rapper Ice-T, the L.A.-based seven-piece keep their socially conscious themes consistent and the music louder than ever on their seventh studio album
In early 1992 Ernie Cunnigan visited the Burbank office of Howie Klein. The guitarist (who goes by Ernie C.) and the then-president of Reprise/Warner Bros. Records were listening to the upcoming self-titled debut from Cunnigan’s band, Body Count, fronted by his Crenshaw High School buddy Tracy Marrow, already famous as rapper Ice-T. Ice, with the savvy creative connectivity that guides his multi-hyphenate media career to this day, introduced his forthcoming metal band in 1991 via tracks on O.G. Original Gangster, his fourth album.
It's not unusual for high school pals to form a band. What was unusual, though, was that Body Count was a hardcore thrash metal band comprised of all-black musicians, with point-blank lyrics that were both insightful and incite-ful concerning racial and social inequities and the climate of America. Listening to the 18-track debut, Klein praised it, while voicing concern about the lyrics of "Momma's Gotta Die Tonight," a song about the matricide and dismemberment of a racist parent. Turns out it was the last track, a ditty called "Cop Killer," that should have given the executive pause.
While Klein was and remains stridently opposed to censorship and is a dedicated free speech advocate, Body Count, per the era, was released with a parental advisory sticker (as was Original Gangster). Less than two months after Body Count dropped, Los Angeles exploded in fiery violence in reaction to the acquittal of four policemen in the beating of Rodney King, as well as the shooting death of black teenager Latasha Harlins by a Korean grocer. (The grocer was given only probation.) It was the worst possible climate for "Cop Killer," with lyrics including "Fk the police, yeah!" and shout-outs to then L.A.P.D. chief Daryl Gates, Ice's "dead homies" and King. The blowback went all the way up to then-President George Bush, and though Time Warner supported Ice-T in his fight against the song's opponents, he eventually pulled the cut from new pressings of the album.
Currently, streaming services including Spotify and Apple Music offer the version sans the group's most (in)famous song, replacing "Cop Killer" with "Freedom Of Speech" from Ice's 1989 solo album, The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say, edited to add samples of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the voice of political punker Jello Biafra. On YouTube, "Cop Killer" has more than 1.5 million views, with most of the comments thoughtful and positive, understanding the intentionally incendiary messages Body Count was delivering. Ultimately, if Body Count isn’t a classic record in the way that critics consider Nirvana’s Nevermind or Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back to be, it’s an important and groundbreaking one. As Ice-T has said, Body Count is: "a protest record,” not the norm in the metal world, but still the way BC's songs operate today.
Indeed, 28 years later, things haven’t changed. Biafra is also on Body Count's powerful new album, Carnivore. Police actions like "stop and frisk" (the NYC law enforcement program that was proven to disproportionally target black and Latino men) wasn’t legally discredited until 2014. Body Count’s one-time bassist, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts III, was murdered in South Central Los Angeles in 2001 in an accidental drive-by; in the last 12 months, 126 black men were killed by guns in L.A. County, as opposed to 23 white men. And Ice-T and Body Count are still raging against the machine.
Ice-T enjoys pushing buttons lyrically, and if they’ve sometimes been heavy-handed or misguided ("KKK Bitch" or "Bitch In The Pit"), Ice-T is a politically eloquent, passionate and personal songwriter, which can be too easily overlooked given Body Count's volume-heavy metal chops and Ice's delivery, a speedy vocal style that’s been traditionally more aggro-rapping than melodic singing.
That said, Carnivore is Body Count’s best album to date; it’s the most fully realized musically, and there’s a cohesion to the vocals and music that led Body Count bassist Vincent Price to lay out the band’s growth in a Metallica timeline: "Manslaughter  was basically Kill ‘Em All; Bloodlust  was our Ride The Lightning, and Carnivore’s our Master Of Puppets."
He's not wrong, and though Ice-T’s more than 20-year stint as detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has precluded lengthy Body Count tours, the buzz is loud for this seventh album.
Ice-T may be the original gangster, yet he’s patient, articulate and fervent in explaining songs and motivations to audiences and the press alike. "When I'm Gone," featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence, was inspired by the killing of Nipsey Hussle. It’s a reminder, as he says in the tune, to "tell the people that you love, that you love them now. … Don't wait; tomorrow may be too fking late."
His prolific musical social criticism and seemingly left-leaning views are thoughtful and targeted, despite the vitriol of so many Body Count songs. In the nearly 30 years since founding his revolutionary band, Ice-T observes, "I think you’ve got less racism; less people, but more avid racism. It’s unnerving to think that we’ve come so far but there’s still so far to go." As he advised in a 2017 interview, "Don’t just be angry. Know what you’re talking about so you don’t alienate someone who should be an ally."