"System Of A Down is the band that made me want to play music" - Karnig Manoukian

Karnig Manoukian

Karnig Manoukian is a guitarist and producer for the alternative rock band Charming Liars with Kiliyan Maguire (lead vocals) and Mike Kruger (bass). Starting in London, they eventually moved to Los Angeles and signed a recording contract. They have been able to successfully tour around the world with bands such as Angels & Airwaves, Tokio Hotel, and Dorothy and Welshly Arms.

They released a super catchy EP: “Soul” in 2016 which reached #40 on Alternative Radio charts. In 2019, Charming Liars released the album, “Thought, Flesh, and Bone”, a collection of songs including their singles “Insomnia”, and “Like a Drug” which is similarly compelling. Their music is personal, passionate, uplifting, and authentic created by the nostalgia and romanticism in the  lyrics, impressive guitar riffs, and unforgettable melodies.

This year Charming Liars have released “Golden State”, “Blame”, and most recently “Favorite Show”. The simple songwriting and ability to bring complicated ideas into a simple song structure makes Charming Liars particularly skillful and memorable.  

To leave your hometown and give your dreams a go is a big move which has paid off for you guys. What were some of the beginning challenges you faced after moving to LA?
In terms of moving to LA, we did not encounter the expected issues because we had visited many times before and we have family there. So the change was not a problem and it allowed us to settle in and be comfortable! The main challenges revolved around meeting the right people and making the connections that we needed for our music careers. That was definitely a difficult process and to this day is still difficult! 

What are the differences between the rock scene in the UK and in the US? 
When we moved, it seemed as though a lot of the serious industry people were based in the States. We came to a roadblock in the UK and decided that moving to the States would be the right move. The scenes are different yet similar. A lot of the newest and biggest rock artists come out of the UK but there is a ceiling to what you can achieve because the UK is just such a small place. Many British artists spend the majority of the year touring outside of the UK and that is a big indicator of how the scene is in and outside of the UK. The US has a massive scene with many different things happening. The East coast is different from the West coast which is different from the South. That variety is what makes the US exciting but at the same time difficult to conquer!

You have traveled many places with music such as the US, South America, Mexico, Poland, and Brazil. What are your favorite places you have played at? What makes a show exciting to play for you? 
The things that stand out to me are: the crazy fans in Mexico and Brazil, the loud voices in France and Poland, and the incredibly different and vast amount of venues and types of people all throughout the US. Two incredible moments that stick in my mind are playing to 4000 people in Philadelphia last year, and to 1000 people in Warsaw in March right before the world went into lockdown. Seeing people singing our songs and dancing to our music definitely gives us that energy that cannot be found anywhere else. Those special moments stay in our minds now as we are waiting to see when we can perform concerts again.

What is the songwriting process like? How do you filter through your ideas and decide which ones to build on? Do you usually have a concept in mind before creating or does it evolve naturally? 
There are many different ways that a song can come about. A drum beat in any style, a cool bass riff, a guitar riff, or other instrument can lead the way to the beginning of a song. There are many songs that emerge from lyrics and melodies as well. Sometimes Kiliyan (lead vocals) will come in with a song idea or lyrical idea and that will be the start of something special. Sometimes I will put together a whole track (verse and chorus) and sit Kiliyan down and play it for him. Then, I will see his reaction. Luckily a lot of the time he smiles and gets excited. I feel the same way when he brings something into the studio for us. So, it can be both: an idea that is brought into the studio formed elsewhere, or it can be a miniscule part that evolves into something exciting. At the same time we have also written songs that have started on top of a piano or just acoustic guitar. The possibilities are endless and will remain to be endless and that part is exciting. In terms of filtering through ideas, we know each other so well at this point, that when something hits us together, we all feel it. If one of us is not feeling it, we can tell quickly. We have also been doing this long enough to know if a song has potential or if it is a waste of time. Sometimes we work on something for months and realize it doesn’t give us that goosebump feeling. So, we will put the song aside for a while and then come back to it months later. When we go back to it, we can make one little change, and suddenly we all feel that excitement again. 

What is the favorite record you have made? What is your favorite lyric out of all your records? 
It is hard to pick! But, I think in terms of production, live performance and crowd interaction, it has to be “Soul”. It checks off every box. We will write better songs and have cooler productions but we know from our experiences in the last couple of years that the song that can affect people most, get them to sing, and inspire general positivity is “Soul”. The lyric is simple: “You’ve got Soul”.

You recently released “Favorite Show”, which has an amazing saxophone riff at the end. What are your plans for the future (if you can share)? Anything else production wise you are experimenting with? 
This is our first time experimenting with live saxophone but we have always been intrigued by orchestral elements. That is not a new avenue for us, but what is new is bringing an expert in to record on our song. That is what takes it to another level. We are currently recording saxophone and trombone for another new song. This is definitely the change that we want to be making as we move forward as a band. Four years ago, I don’t think we would have been adding these kinds of live instruments but now it seems perfect! At the moment we are finishing off some songs that we will release on a monthly basis for the rest of the year. Now we are just making sure everything is all set and we are prepared for the next six months.

You have known Mike (the bassist) since you were a teenager in West London but you met Kiliyan (lead vocals) only after moving to LA. What are some important keys to stay united and with strong chemistry as a band while touring and producing? 
Oh, there’s a lot to discuss here! But I will keep it short. To be on the road playing shows every night and to come back home and be in the studio recording all the time is quite weird if you think about it. The chemistry was initially formed when we met for the first time and then, I think we set goals for ourselves. When we slowly achieve things, automatically the bond becomes stronger and the chemistry grows. Important factors are: compromise, respect, work ethic, drive, and success. If we have these with ourselves and with our bandmates, it is impossible for us to fail. When I say success, I mean a successful show, or tour, or single. Success can be anything as long as it is a positive step in the right direction.      

In the beginning years of playing guitar, how did you stay disciplined and motivated to keep practicing your craft? Did you always have a vision you would be doing this? 
In the beginning, I just thought it would be cool to play guitar because the kids in my school would think I was cool. Some of my friends did the same so it made sense for us to play rock covers and imitate (badly) our favorite bands. I never took guitar lessons. I bought the guitar books and learned how to play simple but big guitar parts. My only goal was to play my favorite guitar riffs (Blink 182, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, System Of A Down). Ironically (and not ironically) System Of A Down is, without doubt, the band that made me want to play music. The professional aspect came much later on. But it took seeing System Of A Down live to give me all sorts of ideas.

How has your music been influenced by your Armenian roots? What is your favorite part about Armenian culture? 
The obvious one is System Of A Down. In my opinion, they are one of the most original acts of all time and nobody will ever be able to copy them. Four Armenians living in LA doing something unique that blows up all over the world is so special and inspiring. My Armenian heritage was really put on me growing up so those roots have not influenced my creative process today. Armenian culture is about family, unity, loyalty and perseverance. I try to bring as much of that into my professional life as possible. Growing up in England, I did not know many Armenians but all of our close relatives around us formed a little clan. We could keep our Armenian roots as well as integrate into the British lifestyle. Being Armenian and telling your parents at 16 years old that your career may lie in the music business definitely causes a stir. It is a very traditional culture that historically respects professions such as being a dentist, doctor, lawyer, or accountant. Nowadays that isn’t so much the norm and it has given us the freedom to explore other options.

Interview by Hannah Kazanjian Brewster