Serj Tankian: Alternative Rock's Political Poet

System of a Down singer Serj Tankian talks about going solo, his Armenian Genocide activism, Dennis Kucinich, and the decline of Western civilization.

| Fri Nov. 9, 2007 4:00 AM EST

While relaxing backstage an hour before a recent performance in San Francisco, Serj Tankian had some unexpected visitors. Representatives from Mayor Gavin Newsom's office arrived with a proclamation in hand, declaring October 28, 2007 "Serj Tankian Day" in the city by the bay.

A big, yet slightly humble smile washed over Tankian's face. After fronting the Grammy Award-winning, Los Angeles-based alternative rock band System of a Down for more than 10 years, he's now touring to support Elect the Dead, his first solo effort. But Newsom's proclamation wasn't for Tankian's music; it was in recognition of the messages behind it. On and off stage, he is helping to lead the fight for recognition of the Armenian Genocide through his lyrics and the political activism of Axis of Justice, a group he co-founded with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.

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In performance, Tankian, the 40-year-old Beirut-born grandson of Armenian Genocide survivors, appears as a sort of traveling carnival ringleader; he sports a top hat, a long goatee, and a constant wide-eyed grin on his face, and surrounds himself with guitars, keyboards, microphones and even a theremin. In conversation, he has a relaxed, Zen-like demeanor and an insatiable desire to talk about history and politicians' efforts to re-write it. Catching him just before his tour of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, Mother Jones spoke with Tankian about going solo, his activism, Dennis Kucinich, and the decline of Western civilization.

Mother Jones: Why did you make this solo album, and how would you describe the music?

Serj Tankian: I've got my own studio, and I've got four- to five-hundred unreleased tracks. I've got stuff that's electronic, orchestral, jazz, I've got rock, I've got metal, you know, I don't have polka. [laughs.] I've been doing film compositions, licensing to video games, collaborations, and remixes. The record is something I've been wanting to do for a while. And the experience I gained, by producing other bands, and writing and composing music over the years gave me the tools I needed to successfully make this record.

MJ: You've got a lot of political commentary on the album, with songs like "The Unthinking Majority," and "Elect the Dead." What are some of the issues you're addressing with these songs?

ST: "The Unthinking Majority" is the most blatant political song on there. It was important for me to make a statement, not just put out a record. Putting out a record to me is an experience, not just selling music. "The Unthinking Majority" is a very blatant, punk-attitude critique not just of our leadership now, but it could apply to Rome, it could apply to any empire, or any type of situation where you have a failed democracy, where you have a democracy taken hostage by ulterior motives. It's also a critique of society in general, a society that has allowed themselves to be kidnapped.

MJ: Many people can point to a specific time at which they started to become politically engaged. When did that happen for you?

ST: I was pretty young. Being Armenian and growing up in the U.S. where the government does not recognize the [Armenian] massacres as a genocide because of geopolitical expediency or economic expediency having to do with Turkey being a NATO ally and all of that, it made me feel like, "If this is a truth that's out there being denied because of ulterior motives, what other truths are there out there being denied for other reasons?"

MJ: The Armenian National Committee of America announced three days before this interview that the Armenian Genocide resolution, co-authored by Adam Schiff (D-CA) would be delayed in coming to the house floor, again, until later this year or in early 2008. How involved are you with that resolution?

ST: I actually work with Congressman Schiff, and the Armenian National Committee in terms of recognizing the genocide. The year before last, I went to D.C. with John from my band, and we held a meeting with about 20 congressman and a few senators, talking about the resolution. For me it's a personal thing, because my grandparents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide. And it is the door that opened me up to other activism, so it is very personal, and the crux of where my activism comes from. It's a part of who I am.

MJ: A New York Times article from a week and a half earlier talked about the fact that U.S. troops and supplies go through Turkey, and since Turkey is an ally in the war right now, Bush doesn't want to rock the boat right now by bringing up genocide recognition. What's your take on that?

ST: I understand the idea behind the Incirlik Air Force Base (a large military base in southeastern Turkey, and a key re-supply hub for Iraq) and the utilization of that to supply forces of ours in Iraq. I read a New York Times article in which a general said the air base is definitely useful, but we can make do without it if we have to. We have other supply lines. It will take some time, and it will take some work, but we can get it through Kuwait, we can get it through Jordan, we can make it happen. To me, it's an expediency issue. It's a commitment to convenience issue. To deny a genocide because of convenience and expediency having to do with an illegal war or occupation in Iraq to me, is double hypocritical.

MJ: So if you are Turkey, how do you move forward?

ST: Part of the problem with Turkey is that to them, they feel like they have to redefine their whole nation if they accept this. What are they going to tell their own people, whole generations that are growing up thinking it never happened, to suddenly saying yes it happened? To them, it's a national identity issue.

MJ: You formed the nonprofit group Axis of Justice with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello a while back to fight for social justice issues. How does it address some of the things we're discussing?

ST: We raise funds for worthy causes, and we use it as a mouthpiece for his and my activism, as well as other things that people in the organization bring in. Tom's worked with different organizations working with New Orleans and Katrina. He works with a lot of domestic labor issues. I work with foreign policy, the Iraq war, and genocide. So, if we were running a government [laughs], I would be the foreign policy guy, he'd be the interior guy.

MJ: How do you and Tom Morello connect, exactly, and how does that make Axis of Justice work? Do you both agree on everything? What do you argue about?

ST: We argue about the Beatles. I'm a bigger Beatles fan than he is.

MJ: What music inspires you?

ST: When I was younger, I was listening to a lot of Armenian music, you know, revolutionary music about freedom and protest. In the 70s I was listening to soul and the Bee Gees and ABBA, and funk. In the 80s I was listening to a lot of goth and new wave, and in the late 80s I got into rock and metal and punk, and pop and hip-hop, and death metal. In the last few years I've been listening to jazz more than anything else. I listen to a lot of world music and experimental here and there.

MJ: You have this acrobatic vocal range where you're kind of all over the place. You do a falsetto, operatic thing that can be a challenge to listen to sometimes, and mid-range melodic type of things, and there's also some shouting in there, too. What do you think about when you're coming up with ideas of things to express vocally, and is there something in particular you're trying to achieve, or are you just sort of letting it all go?

ST: Just letting it all go.

MJ: What about taking heat for your music and your activism? I'm sure you've gotten some negative backlash at some point.

ST: Oh yeah. I think the worse backlash I got was for writing an article called "Understanding Oil", which I posted to the band's website on September 12, the day after 9/11. At the time our album Toxicity was coming out, and we had our top single "Chop Suey" being dropped by program directors, and Howard Stern dissing me. I had hate mail, I had death threats. But in retrospect, now people come up to me and say "you were right." The letter was a harmless plea for peace. I was just trying to make sense of the helplessness that I felt.

MJ: How do you see things going in 2008? Do you any of the issues you're talking about will come to the surface more and guide how people will vote?

ST: A presidential election, nor a candidate, is no magic bullet. I think the only way is for us to be aware of what's going on as a populace. I think we should get rid of the electorate. I think it's a useless, outdated system that allows someone to manipulate or reverse majority rule, or popular vote. I think every major candidate should be given equal TV airtime. Right now people vote for who they think might win, not who they think really represents them. Let's make it about the issues again. Even if it's Dennis Kucinich, who is my favorite candidate, to be honest, because the only one that didn't vote for the war, because he was smart enough to know it was bullshit. But even if he became president, we're so far gone as a civilization. It will be really difficult to bring the reins back.

MJ: Have you ever performed in Turkey before?

ST: No, but in '98 we were supposed to open up for Slayer there, and the show promoter there said they could not guarantee our security. Sony, who was our label at the time, also could not guarantee our security. We said we're not going to do this show because we don't have the ability to speak freely in your country. Then I noticed a very specific attack in the media. They had these outrageous assertions that we printed tickets for shows that said "No Turks Allowed." Just ridiculous shit like that. Then Rolling Stone Turkey did an interview with me. I spent hours talking, writing, everything. My only thing was, I told them they had to print the interview in its entirety or not at all, because they can change your words. And they would not. That article is still not printed. I'm not a radical, dude. I'm just asking for truth, whether it's that country or our country. It's no different. And that's not being radical, that's being human.

MJ: Are you spiritual or religious in any way? Do you practice any organized religion?

ST: When people ask me what religion I am, I always say, see that tree outside, go ask the trees the same thing, you know? I believe very firmly that indigenous populations had a really good, intuitive understanding of why we're here. And we're trying to gain that same understanding through psychology and intellect in modern civilization. We're not there. I've been doing an interesting experiment with journalists, that after they interview me, we send them a question from me to answer, which is "What does civilization mean to you, and what would its ending bring to the world?"

MJ: Am I going to get that question?

ST: Yes, you are. We're getting a lot of interesting answers. What I've noticed is that we equate humanity with civilization, which is really interesting, because man's been on this planet for millions of years and civilization has been around for 10,000 years. What we call history is 10,000 years old. My assertion is that we are addicted to the cities of civilization. We're like that guy sitting at home that orders pizza every night, and if that pizza doesn't come, we're fucked. That's how I think of civilization. But I'm part of that, too. I'm a city boy.

MJ: If you were to stop doing music someday, what do you see yourself doing?

ST: I think I might write a book. I like writing. People have asked me if I would get into politics, but I think I feel a lot more effective being a representative of truth through the arts. I think music and poetry should be a truth-telling narration of our times, like a Dylan song represents the 60s in some ways, or the Beatles, or whatever. My two interests are spirituality and politics. I would mesh them in some way; maybe try to figure out the politics of spirituality, or the spirituality of politics. Or maybe come up with this really crazy naïve solution for the end of civilization.

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