a long talk

The Passion of Serj Tankian

System of a Down’s front man on 25 years of finding truth in political tension, even if it means within his own band.

Photo: George De Sota/Redferns
Photo: George De Sota/Redferns

For more than 25 years, Serj Tankian has threaded art, activism, and Armenian identity into his career as a singer-songwriter, producer, label head, and political advocate. That perspective made his work as front man of System of a Down — which, like Slipknot and the Deftones, transcended easy classification and complicated the idea that nu metal was merely a fount of unthinking men’s rage — both unpredictable and informative for a generation of listeners learning about economics and world politics the hard way during the band’s heyday in the early aughts, when the growth and prosperity of the ’90s dissolved into the wars and recessions in the early 21st century. System of a Down examined political disorder at home and abroad, decrying police brutality, privatized prisons and health care, and unmanned drone strikes, using withering humor and astounding technical prowess to shake its American audience out of faith in the goodness of government. (This at a time when an uptick in nationalist sentiments post-9/11 gave elected officials license to pass restrictive legislation like the Patriot Act and pursue military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan whose justifications would prove dubious in the years to come.) Outside of System, Tankian runs Serjical Strike, a record label where he and his friends, like Armenian singer and musician Arto Tunçboyacıyan, follow their muses down unexpected rabbit holes.

As an activist, Tankian has worked to bring awareness to Armenia’s painful history of occupation, oppression, and displacement by larger nations in the Caucasus region like Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Efforts to have the United States publicly recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide paid off in 2019 when Congress passed a resolution to acknowledge the late Ottoman Empire’s ethnic cleansing as such following years of American leaders mincing words when asked to go on the record, for fear of angering Turkey. Tankian supported the public demonstrations against government corruption that would inspire 2018’s Armenian Revolution and reconvened System of a Down last year for a double A-side single addressing the nation’s political strife, whose proceeds assisted victims of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. It’s their first new music together since 2006.

I spoke to Serj Tankian in late February as he relaxed in Los Angeles post-vaccination about all of this, as well as the new documentary Truth to Power, a primer on his activism inside and outside of System of a Down; Elasticity, an EP out later this month on which his rock-and-roll impulses have returned in vibrant, mischievous form; and parallels between corruption and unrest in the U.S. and Armenia, the two countries he calls home. He’s as passionate and insightful on the phone as he is on his records.

In November, you released two new System of a Down benefit songs. Last month, you put out a cover of Gang of Four’s “Natural’s Not in It” with Tom Morello. This month you release a documentary, next month it’s a new EP. What’s inspired all this activity?
The film and EP were in the works for a while. We were actually holding them back; they were going to be released last year. We galvanized System of a Down to do two songs, “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz,” to serve as a response to the disinformation and propaganda campaign that Azerbaijan was releasing regarding the war. We wanted people to know that our people are being attacked on their historical homeland of 2,500 years, and that the aggressors want their annihilation, basically, like the Armenian genocide 100 years ago, with the same perpetrators. It was very important for us to get those songs out. So, we put all the rest of the releases aside.

With Tom, we’re both fans of Gang of Four and he hit me up, saying, “Hey, I’m working on this.” [Gang of Four guitarist] Andy [Gill] was still alive at the time, and Tom said, “Andy would love it if you could sing on it, too.” By the time it came out, he had passed [in February 2020]. Tom’s one of my good friends. We’ve done a lot of covers together, and a lot of causes. We had a nonprofit called Axis of Justice years ago. We had a radio show together for years. I mean … quarantine, man. It gave me a lot of time to finish music.

Elasticity is your first batch of rock songs in something like a decade. What brought you back?
When songs come to you as an artist, in a certain format, because of the attitude, because of what you feel, they just do. If I’m composing for a film, then I’m being creative within parameters and limitations that are set for me by the director. But when I’m writing on my own, whatever comes comes, and it could be classical. It could be jazz. It could be rock. These rock songs came to me about five years ago. The last rock record I had done before then was a solo record called Harakiri, that we released on Warner in 2012. These songs came to me, and they kind of had a very punk ethos to them. We tried working with System on them, and we couldn’t see eye to eye philosophically, as far as the future of the vision of the band, and so, I finished them myself and released them.

It must be frustrating for this particular band to have such public political tension. You had a Bernie supporter and a Trump supporter in the same band. I wonder if that complicates people’s vision of System.
It definitely drew a lot of attention from the media, and a lot of social-media back-and-forth, and it drew the ire of fans. If you were a Trump supporter, you hated me, and if you were a Bernie supporter, you hated John [Dolmayan]. It’s interesting because John’s not just my drummer. He’s my brother-in-law. We’re family, so we have very similar views on certain things: morals, ethics, Armenian issues. But we have completely different opinions on American politics. I always tell people that I’m not the only person with a brother-in-law with a different political agenda. That’s what it is, except we’re in a band together as well, and there’s the message of the band, and this makes it more complicated, obviously. The important thing is to have respect and love for each other, respect for differences of opinion. That’s how we deal with it.

What I appreciate about the new documentary is that, in part, it shows how a band is a relationship, and how that can be difficult and imperfect. A lot of rock documentaries paint a band’s good years out to be this perfect golden era. Did you feel like you had to delve into the tensions within your band at the peak of its success to tell the whole story?
I think that’s exactly what [director] Garin Hovannisian was trying to do. I always say that a good band has to have different push and pulls within itself. Otherwise, the music won’t be great. If it’s a band that’s a solo project, it’s not a democratic, equal band kind of thing, right? With System of a Down, it is. We’re equal members. We’re equal owners of the name and all of that. There’s always push and pull. That push and pull creates interesting music, and I haven’t seen a band that’s good that’s otherwise. But it also creates tension, and that’s important to show. It’s also important because the documentary’s about my activism more than my music, even though the music’s obviously there and a big part of it, but it’s important to show the repercussions of being an activist and an artist.

One strength to your outreach, as it manifests itself in music and in the public, is that it’s not only radical and informative, but you also thread that with humor. It’s good satire on top of everything else. I wonder where that sensibility comes from.
Probably from my dad. He’s kind of a joker. He loves cracking jokes and decreasing the tension in any room. I don’t know, it’s ingrained. It is part of System’s music as well. Daron [Malakian] has that aspect to his writing, kind of an almost ridiculous, overwhelming, silly kind of thing. You don’t know if he’s taking it seriously or if he’s joking through the music. We both have that in our songwriting, which works. In the end as an artist, you’re still entertaining, right? Bob Marley did it best, because he made us dance while spreading his message. If you can do that, it’s both entertaining and informative. That’s the trick.

This September will mark 20 years since the release of Toxicity, which I would put on the shortlist of the albums critical to grasping the cultural moment that created 9/11. “Chop Suey!” was one of the records banned from the radio in the aftermath of 9/11 a reaction that we don’t talk about nearly enough and you caught flak for being critical of American foreign policy. I feel like a recurring theme in your career is the inconvenience of truth, how complacency is really easy and how many people would rather live in a façade of comfort than confront their realities.
Yeah. I have gotten a lot of flak for my activism as an artist. I still do until today, no matter what issue I’m discussing, and no matter what part of the world it is. I get it from American politics, from Armenian politics, from Turks, from Azeris, from Venezuelans, from Israelis. All over the planet, you know? But I’m always trying to speak the truth, and I’m always trying to find justice, and whether public opinion is on that side or not is irrespective of that fact. After 9/11, I wrote the essay “Understanding Oil” trying to understand how U.S. foreign policy created a situation where something like this could happen to us. But if you read it, it’s a very balanced way of trying to understand multilateralism, and actually working to have a world that’s more democratic. It’s very simple and very tame, but at the time there was a lot of reactionism prevailing, a lot of people that were angry. They didn’t want to hear criticism of the U.S. government and policy. So, I took a lot of flak. It’s something you get used to as an activist, I guess. You lose a lot of fans, too. A lot of artists aren’t prepared to do that, so they don’t get into that world. Or, they’ll criticize a figure that’s already unpopular because it’s safe. I’ve never looked for safety. I’ve always looked for the truth.

I threw on “Prison Song” yesterday, and every word of your criticism of privatized prisons and health care in America still rings true, maybe even truer now than 20 years ago. Is it annoying to tell people where they’re headed and watch them slowly cruise there anyway?
Yeah. It is. It’s frustrating to talk about something and revisit it a decade or so later and not see much change, no matter what it is. “Prison Song” is a good example. It’s, like, an essay-form song where it’s entertaining with a great chorus, but at the same time, the words I’m saying, you can write it down and present it as an argument. We’ve been in a lot of wars. I mean, we invaded Iraq because of 9/11, and it had nothing to do with 9/11. They used the “weapons of mass destruction” issue. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a dictator, but he was also the CIA’s dictator. The same thing happened in Libya, in Syria … It doesn’t make me feel good about the fact that I’ve been talking about all of this over the years when the result is still quite negative. But there are good victories we’ve had, like Congress finally recognizing the Armenian genocide, which was very important to myself and the guys in System of a Down, because all four of us have grandparents that were survivors of the genocide. As an activist, you rarely see the fruits of your labor come true. You work your whole lifetime toward something, and you hope that you’ll make positive change. You believe you will. But to actually see some good news is really very affirming and encouraging.

Recently I watched the Adam Curtis documentary Bitter Lake, which sort of covers how the Brits and Americans helped to modernize Afghanistan but were, then, horrified when things cut left, as if they hadn’t understood the ramifications of their meddling. I think that central to your message is the idea that anything that you move around in government overseas will have consequences, and that we should be mindful of this. But do you think the American government is just ignorant to the minutiae of and the fallout from its foreign policy, or do they just not care?
I think a lot of is intentional. When it comes to domestic policy, governments act with diplomacy and try to be even-handed and present a very just and balanced thing for their population in a democracy. But even democracies, in terms of foreign policy, act like 8-year-olds over resource acquisition. They’ll do anything, start wars or whatever, to get what they want, whether that’s oil, gold, control, or whatever they think is in their interest. The U.S. is no different, in that sense. I don’t think that these are mishaps. I don’t think that they are short-term concepts of not doing nation-building after invading. I think they are just, “I want this, and I’m going to get it, and I don’t care what happens thereafter,” and that’s really fucked up.

In 2002, you released Steal This Album!, a collection of songs that had leaked on the internet after Toxicity, putting kids onto Abbie Hoffman in the process. It went platinum, a rarity for a compilation of leaks. System of a Down was in the last class of rock bands to break before the internet became central to the way we encounter and purchase and listen to music. How do you feel about the streaming economy and the social-justice dynamics there?
What I remember most [about Steal This Album!] is sitting at a band meeting at our management offices. We had just released our third single off Toxicity, which was huge on the radio, and we’d just gotten off tour. When we wrote Toxicity, we had a lot of extra songs that we had put aside because they didn’t really belong on Toxicity. We finished them as Steal This Album! quite quickly in the studio with Rick Rubin. I looked at the guys, like, “We’re all over the radio. We can’t release another single now, but we should put this out, because it’s leaked, and people should hear how we wanted to finish our songs. It’s not fair to the artist to release unfinished songs, so we should release this.” We made a video for the song, “Boom!,” which is about bombing people. There was the growing government program to invade Iraq at the time. It’s a fight, man. It’s a fight to always do the right thing.

But streaming is a byproduct of technology evolving. As a consumer, I love streaming. As an artist, I love and hate it at the same time. Because, publishing-wise, people are not downloading the music, or buying the music, so you only get performance royalties instead of publishing. It’s a whole different thing. And it’s pennies and micro-pennies on the dollar for each stream for an artist. So, you’re making less money through the whole thing turning into streaming, but, as a consumer, I appreciate the convenience of it. You have to accept changes in technology and in the industry as they come, and try to fight for your rights as an artist at the same time.

What’s uniquely frustrating about this era is that it’s never been clearer what the path forward is, but everyone is siloed in their own micro-reality where they can avoid hard news.
The invention of social media and the fake-news world within our generation in the last number of years is a phenomenon to be reckoned with. It’s scary. [Joseph] Goebbels would be proud of what we’re living today. It’s fucking scary.

Something that struck me as I read about election fraud and parliamentary shootings in post-Soviet Armenia is the feeling that America could easily, and may already, be heading down that path. How does it feel to see unrest in the homeland and in the country you currently call home?
It’s tragic. Right after Armenia lost the war in Artsakh, and there was a horrible ceasefire that was signed — and I say “horrible” because it’s good that the war has stopped and people stopped dying, but the points of the ceasefire were very damaging to the Armenian nation — there was a ransacking of Parliament in Armenia that same day. A couple of months after, the same thing happened at the Capitol here, and I’m going, What the fuck? It made me feel that what’s going on in the world is very symptomatic and connected. I would say that a lot of people are being taken for a ride by forces that are very, very selfish in trying to grab power, and that is the same in this country as it is in Armenia and elsewhere in the world, my friend.

Truth to Power ends on a high note with Congress acknowledging the Armenian genocide and the election of Nikol Pashinyan as Armenian Prime Minister, but a lot has happened since. The deal with Azerbaijan forced Armenians to evacuate the area, and there’s been recent dissent in the military about whether the Prime Minister should continue to lead. What’s your perspective on those developments?
Since the November 10 ceasefire, Armenians have been grieving, not just for the young men that have died, but also for the 2,500-year-old historical homelands that we have lost to dictatorships who attacked with impunity and used disinformation along with high-grade weaponry. That obviously creates instability in Armenia, and it’s created a lot of grief and anger toward the current government of Nikol Pashinyan. He was the revolutionary leader that started the 2018 Velvet Revolution, a high point in history. Now is an incredibly low point in our history. The street opposition is made up of different parties that are mostly not even in Parliament; a lot of them are tied to older ruling regimes trying to gain power back, using the capitulation, or defeat, of Armenia as the excuse. It’s a very tenuous situation. People are angry. The majority of Armenians are in a state where they don’t know who to support. A lot of them are angry at what happened in the government. There’s issues of mismanagement of the war that are being raised, and other things. But they also don’t trust the former oligarchic regimes that have stolen from their population and created depopulation within the country for 20 or so years.

Right now, it’s a divisive time. I think the solution to this is a democratic, constitutional way forward, and that is to hold early, snap parliamentary elections, which the current government at one point said it would do. The opposition had not favored it, because they are afraid that even with new elections, they’re less popular than the current government that lost the war. But, the only way forward has to be a democratic one. The army should not take over. Opposition shouldn’t just take over. No one should just take over. There should be fucking elections. And they should be sooner than the two and a half years left on the mandate of the current Parliament. That’s what I have to say about that.

Last June in the U.S., the brutality of police and the sense that what they’re protecting is property and hegemony was laid bare. The government treated COVID mortalities like acceptable losses, weighing re-openings against how many people would die, and whether it mattered. Then, we got the bad man out and danced in the streets. Since then officials who allegedly instigated a coup attempt, or who helped to create a violent political climate through rhetoric … everyone’s gotten away with it. Are we in the death throes of an old order, or is this the honeymoon before the sci-fi-movie stuff starts happening?
I’ve been thinking of aliens showing up. What else is left, right? “You guys are really fucking this up.” Or, like the Danny Elfman–scored Tim Burton movie Mars Attacks!: “We come in peace,” and they just shoot everyone. I don’t know, man. We are living in weird times. I have to say that it is a breath of relief seeing Trump go. There was incredible chaos. It didn’t feel like government. I felt like people that were in charge of the government wanted to take the government apart. It was the perfect sabotage, the perfect coup. He basically took apart the whole government. Maybe that’s what some people wanted. I think the reason Trump had support is because of dirty politics, because politics became a dirty word, and nobody trusts politicians. Nobody trusts American politics anymore. That’s why something like that was able to happen. Instead of going for the Bernie, who would have actually cleaned up the fucking atmosphere, Trump wanted to drain the swamp, but he made America into a swamp. I think going back to normal is our own extinction.

I’m hoping that I can see some engagement in the positive sense with the Biden administration. We have to stop being a corporatocracy and start really becoming a democracy. Otherwise, we’re not truly going to survive. That’s what it really comes down to. The U.S. is probably the most corrupt country in the world, except the genius of the U.S. is that it’s legalized. It’s legalized in its electoral college, super-delegates, K Street lobbying firms. All of these are legalized forms of corruption. The government of Turkey spends millions of dollars a year with K Street lobbying firms to convince the U.S. Congress to work on its behalf. And it’s not just the government of Turkey doing this. We know that because of fighting for recognition of the genocide. Every country does that. Our government is up for sale because of money in politics. It’s time to end that. This is our country. We are the citizens. They work for us. Fuck that.

No matter how much else you do, a sizable contingent of your fandom is always going to want you at square one in System of a Down. Is that frustrating?
Look, the fact that a lot of people are interested in us having new music is the biggest compliment in the world. It’s not frustrating to me. It’s always a compliment, because if people forgot about you as an artist, and no longer care whether you put out music or not, that would be worse, right? So, I think it’s always a compliment when there’s all that attention, and love, and wanting the new music. Now, when people come and say, “Fuck you, I don’t care what you think, just give me another System record,” that’s kind of rude. That I’ll respond to, and say “Go fuck yourself.” I don’t like the attitude, but I love the fact that people love the band and the music, to a point of frustration, and I’m sorry that people are frustrated. But, it is what it is. You know? As an artist, you have to make the music that you feel most comfortable with.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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A bloody September 2020 dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Republic of Artsakh, a breakaway state of historically Armenian land situated within current-day Azerbaijan ceded to Azeri leadership in a very unpopular treaty brokered by Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinynan, hero of the revolution only two years prior. Dolmayan is married to Diana Madatyan, the sister of Tankian’s wife, Angela Madatyan. An excerpt: “During the Iran-Iraq war, America supplied both sides with weapons and advice. These are not the actions of a rich superpower wanting peace.” “Minor drug offenders fill your prisons, you don’t even flinch / All our taxes paying for your wars against the new non-rich.”
The Passion of Serj Tankian