Serj Tankian on System of a Down, Protest Music, and the Trump Years

Truth to Power, the new documentary about System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian’s life and activist work, begins with a question that’s seemingly impossible to answer: Can music change the world? But it’s a question that Tankian has never shied away from. The 53-year-old Armenian American has dedicated his life in the public sphere to trying to prove music can shift the way we think, from attacking the prison-industrial complex on Toxicity, to the 2005 antiwar anthem “B.Y.O.B.,” to System’s landmark 2015 concert in Armenia’s capital, where Tankian called out the country’s government for corruption. And at times, he and his bandmates have been highly successful at inspiring change—their efforts to raise awareness of the Armenian genocide played a role in convincing the U.S. Congress to recognize the atrocity, which saw about 1.5 million people slaughtered by the Ottoman government during World War I.

The film, produced by Tankian’s Serjical Strike Entertainment and directed by longtime friend Garin Hovannisian, is an at-times inspiring look at how a young business major transformed into one of the most prominent activist musicians of the 21st century. It’s also something of a reintroduction to Tankian—his most famous band hasn’t released a full-length since 2005’s Hypnotize, and aside from scoring films and video games, Tankian hadn’t put out much solo work in the past eight years. On Friday, however, that will change with the release of Elasticity, a collection of five songs he originally envisioned for System of a Down. While the music is ultimately being released as a solo project, it’s at times reminiscent of his band’s biggest work, except with more instrumentation and electronic flourishes. (See: The EP’s title track and the dedication to Armenia, “Electric Yerevan.”) The full range of Tankian’s writing talents are on full display too, from the caustic wit of “Your Mom” to the tender, whimsical dedication to his son, “Rumi.” Tankian’s music may inspire change, but the new songs will also appeal to fans who miss the comforts of System’s refined anarchy.

The singer, poet, and painter, spoke to The Ringer in February about the new documentary and EP, his journey to activism, the dynamics within System of a Down, and what goes into making an effective political song.

You’ve been making music for over a quarter-century. Why was now the right time for the documentary?

The idea of a film came to me about 10 years ago. It was going to be a very professional year, and I decided to document everything, almost like a video journal, but I did it through a head cam. I wanted to do it like a POV-type scenario where you see through the artist’s eyes, because it was going to be like a very interesting, dynamic year. But a full film that’s POV from a person whose head turns as quickly as a bird’s is not very watchable, really. So I had all this really fun, interesting footage, but it didn’t really flush itself out as a decent narrative.

I decided to talk to Garin Hovannisian, who’s a director and a good friend of mine. “Look, I’ve shot all this footage. I want to make this interesting film. Originally it was POV, but I’m thinking something else.” So we had some conversations and we really fleshed out what we wanted to say. It turned out to be the activist journey through music. So that’s the story line of the film: watching an activist from a young age develop why he’s an activist, what makes him an activist, what made him an activist. And then how his reach through music pronounced that activism and multiplied the reach.

It was funny to watch your evolution, especially early. You studied business in college, but then you quickly decided that you wanted to do music for the rest of your life. Did you feel conflicted at that time? Your music doesn’t feel like it came from somebody who ever majored in business.

Touché. I have done many, many different things. I started playing music quite late compared to my band members. My bandmates started at 8, 9 years old. While I was in university, I didn’t know that my calling was music. I used music as a way of meditating away from all the real world craziness and stress that was around me. After graduating college, I worked in the jewelry industry with my uncle, ran a software company, did many things. I was looking for my path, as a lot of young people do when they’re college-aged or even shortly thereafter. I had to go to the far ends of who I don’t want to be to realize who I am, in a way, creatively.

I’m a very left-and-right brain, equally sponsored from my heart, so I like doing creative things, but I also like doing what you would call logical things. I think that’s where lyrics come in. It’s not just creative lyrics, stream of consciousness lyrics and poetry, which I love to write. But I also like to sit down and write an essay.

It was interesting to see in the film how much poetry influenced you and the role it plays in how you craft songs.

I was a word man first before. When I started working with the guys on music, I played guitar and I played keys, but I wasn’t an incredible songwriter. But I would write every day and my words had weight. I had intentions behind those words, even when my voice wasn’t great. Luckily, I had the time and devotion and ability to develop as an artist.

I rarely write now. I compose for films. I compose for orchestras. I paint, I do exhibitions. But I rarely write. When I do, it’s more essay form, it’s more political, it’s more logical and astute, I guess. Less right-brain poetry, which I do miss. I’m sure I should be doing that more. I’ve been telling myself to do it more, actually.

There’s a lot of talk in the documentary about the idea of coming home to Armenia. You were born in Lebanon and as you bounced around and then ended up moving to Los Angeles when you were 7. Los Angeles is probably the largest Armenian enclave in the U.S. But at the time, as you were growing up, did Armenia feel like home even then?

At the time that I was growing up, Soviet Armenia wasn’t as much in my conscience. Being Armenian was because I grew up that way and with my culture, my language, the music and all of that. But the country, the homeland of Armenia, was not so much in my conscience. It was later in life—as I developed, and after Armenia’s independence and seeing things that were going on there—that I became more aware, more entangled, more dedicated to the homeland.

Why has the U.S. had so much trouble acknowledging the atrocities that have been committed against Armenians both historically and in the present day?

Turkey’s refusal to fess up to its past and its multimillion-dollar lobbying efforts with K Street lobbying firms over the years had over time split Congress into those that wanted to properly acknowledge the genocide as a historical fact and those that didn’t want to piss off a NATO ally. That changed in December 2019, when Congress historically and properly recognized the Armenian genocide.

That of course was a major milestone, but the Armenian genocide is often ignored in the public discourse when we talk about historical atrocities. Personally speaking, I didn’t learn about it until I think I was about like 20, 21. I didn’t learn it in school.

There’s a movement now to actually teach it in the California school system. And we’re starting to see it in different states as well, so that it’s not something you have to learn later. But yes, that is the situation, unfortunately. And that’s mostly attributed to the fact that there were no proper trials, post–World War I for Turkey’s actions at the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Turks. Whereas after World War II, there were the Nuremberg trials.

You were extremely critical of the previous administration and also, to an extent, the Obama administration before that. Are you hopeful about the Biden administration?

When Trump left, irrespective of everything else, we all breathed a sigh of relief. I was very critical of the Trump administration in many ways, not just regarding affairs having to do with Armenia and its disengagement from the Caucasus, but as far as leadership overall.

With the Biden administration, I am hopeful that there will be more engagement. We’re already seeing signs of more engagement with Armenia and with other causes. I’m glad that in his first 100 days, we rejoined the Paris [Agreement], even though that’s a little too, too late, as far as the environment is concerned.

I think there’s a lot of anticipation of what the Biden administration might do by everyone around the world—not just here in the U.S. because American foreign policy affects the whole world, so I think we’re not the only ones that sighed relief. It was pretty much most people on the planet when Trump left. It was pretty interesting to see, in sociological terms.

The songs on your new EP, Elasticity, were originally conceived as material for a new System of a Down album, correct?

Well, I didn’t sit down and write the songs and think that I’m writing a System record’s songs. It’s more like four or five years ago, these songs came to me, and a couple of them had a really hard punk-rock edge, which reminded me of System in a very strong way. I’m like, “Wow, these could really work for System.” And at the time, the guys really wanted to collaborate and make a record. So I played the music for them.

And I thought it would work, but I had a different philosophy in terms of moving forward and a creative difference. I wanted a more equitable solution to band engagement and commitment and responsibilities. At the time I was not able to see eye-to-eye with that. So I just thought, “OK, let me just finish these songs that I really like and release them. There were only five, so I released them as an EP.” It’s that simple, really.

But you’re still close with the band, right?

We’re very close. John [Dolmayan] is my brother-in-law. Our kids are together two, three times a week and we’re at each other’s houses. He’s my drummer and my brother-in-law, my friend. And Shavo [Odadjian], same. Our kids are together. Darren [Malakian] doesn’t have kids, but we’re family, we’ve known each other for a long time. We respect and love each other, even when we’re fighting.

But that’s a different thing than in being able to accomplish a record. We were, however, able to galvanize ourselves and do those two songs for our people in Artsakh, “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz,” which we made videos for. And we donated all the proceeds to Armenian humanitarian organizations. I think we accomplished a lot both in terms of a media blitz against the Azerbaijani disinformation and bots on social media, and the money that we raised. I was really proud and we weren’t thinking of what we feel as artists or what the future holds or whatever. It was more like, “We need to do something,” and we did it.

How would the material ended up on the EP have sounded had it been on a System album?

I’m not sure, but it would have sounded different just because it’s System. Everyone puts in their own thing, and someone may or may not like a certain part of the song. And of course, as a songwriter, I appreciate everyone’s input, but ultimately you want to be able to be happy with your own creation in the end. Not to say that I wouldn’t be—I just mean that it would be different. A lot of these songs have keyboards and pianos and all sorts of stuff that was layered. It may have not ended up that way. It’s hard to really tell what it would be like.

What’s your favorite song on the new EP?

I don’t have a favorite song or ice cream or color. I don’t have favorites, honestly. To me, everything has a different sort of value. When I write classical music, it’s got a different vulnerability and value than punk music or punk rock song or jazz or any form. They all represent different sensibilities. And I think it’s the same with songs on an EP.

There’s definitely different sensibilities on the record. There’s “Your Mom,” which—

I wrote that just so someone would say “your mom.” It’s just so funny.

I knew that there had to be something up with a title like that.

There’s “your mom.” [Laughs.]

The song is about “ISIS,” as I understand it.

Well, I didn’t name the terrorist group, but yes, it was a particular kind of terrorist group. And it was very much written in the style of System of a Down’s “Prison Song.” It’s very much an essay—very specific, very time sensitive. The song was written years ago. You look back and you’re like, “Well, that situation is not the same.” And so it didn’t make as much sense to leave it in a very rigid time-sensitive situation. So I kind of go, “How can I fuck this up?” And I brought in “your mom”—the caped crusader with a nightie and slippers that kicks terrorists’ asses. The whole thing just becomes a fucking joke in a way. It becomes like a hybrid, nonsensical song, but it’s fun.

Then you have more serious songs like “Rumi,” which has multiple meanings.

My son’s name is Rumi and my piano is in the house. And every time that I’m writing something on the piano, especially a number of years ago when I penned that song, he would be playing with his cars and he would make noise. And I’d be trying to get his attention by singing his name and including him in what I’m doing while I’m trying to write a song. So that was in the demo. And then I realized that, “Look, there’s a sensitivity that’s in there, vulnerability that’s really beautiful. It should be about that.”

But I also realize that I’m also talking about his namesake, the person that he was named after, which is the 13th-century Sufi poet, who was likely the most loved poet in the world. And so the song became a combination, a hybrid of the poet’s message to the world and my message to my son.

Toxicity is turning 20 this year. How do you view that album now?

Truth to Power reminded me of a lot of the struggles around the release of Toxicity. The huge L.A. riots; 9-11, which happened the week that we released Toxicity; my essay “Understanding Oil,” and all the reactions to that and defending my words; and the stress level of being on tour daily—they were talking about further possible terrorist attacks within the country, and you’re in front of 20,000 people a night. I just remember the release of Toxicity as one of the most stressful times of my life.

It’s our bestselling album. It’s something that connected intensely with people starting from our first single “Chop Suey!,” which by the way, was taken off the airways by Clear Channel the week of our release.

It was such a weird, nationalistic era in this country—the Clear Channel situation, Congress banning the phrase “French fries” in the run-up to the Iraq War.

I know, freedom fries, right?

Yeah. Such a strange, paranoid time in American history.

Absolutely. It’s maddening.

Do you consider yourself a political artist?

I’m considered one. I don’t have considerations for myself as other people would view me. I just do what I do when I wake up. And sometimes it’s this, sometimes it’s that. I’m scoring a film, I’m painting a painting, I’m on a call. I’m writing a song that’s political, and I’m writing a song that’s not. I do it all.

System’s often considered a political band. I have to ask how that works with your brother-in-law, John, whose politics have been portrayed as being very different from yours.

If two people meet and they join a band—like they just met right now—and they have completely different political views, they might have a hard time working together. But if they’ve been working together for 20, 25 years. We’re brother-in-laws and family, we see each other every week, a couple of times a week sometimes. Our kids play together, we respect each other artistically, musically. We disagree politically. It’s a different type of thing.

John and I are very close. We’re very good friends irrespective of our American politics. We’re both very passionate about how we feel. So that’s literally it.

What goes into making a great—I don’t know if I want to say “protest song,” but maybe activist song? How do you make something that resonates?

You’ve got to be pissed off. There’s no other way I can put it. You’ve got to be really angry at something, at an injustice, for that muse to come and slip in your consciousness and just—motherfucker, just pissed off. Like, “How could this be happening?” kind of thing. “I can’t believe this!” That’s the feeling that brings in a really great protest song.

I have been thinking a little bit recently about the dialogue around the time that Trump took office. There was going to be this groundswell of protest music. The line was, “This is going to be great for punk rock.” Right?

Mm-hmm. Bad presidents made for a good protest music, type of thing.

I don’t feel like I really saw that fully materialize. There were pockets of great songs, and some very moving but …

Eminem? The Eminem song was a direct frontal attack. But yeah. I don’t know how everyone else felt, but it’s two years in, I was like, “Fuck man, no point in even doing anything, and just wait until this guy goes away.” That feeling did creep in, to be honest. It’s kind of like two people that get into an argument, one with facts and one without, and they can never really argue properly.

You’ve got to at least agree on the facts to be able to have a disagreement about the art, about the points, right? But if you don’t agree on the facts to begin with, what are you arguing about? There’s no argument.

We weren’t really making a lot of music at the time. I didn’t release a lot of music. I didn’t even release a solo record during the Trump years. Maybe some collaborative efforts that came to me from friends, but not really. System didn’t release any music except for the two songs we put out for the Artsakh War.

Are there any young bands that you see living up to the spirit of System?

I’m less aware of young bands than you would be. I don’t listen to a lot of new music, unfortunately. If someone sends me something, I’ll listen to it, but I’m not completely up to date with what’s going on. I know there are some young political bands. But you don’t have to be a political artist to write a great song that moves the needle on politics. The Beatles did it. They weren’t a political band. And I always say sometimes a love song can change the world more than any political song. The idea is to create something that really connects people and leads them to a positive place. And that positive place could be justice, it could be truth, or it could be something else. And it’s all equally valid.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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