It’s not everyday you get to chat to one of the biggest musicians in heavy music, and probably the most intellectual musician I’ve ever spoken to. Serj Tankian is a sociopolitical aficionado who has committed his life to raising awareness of historical and current Armenian issues (amongst various global protests) through the power of music. The System Of A Down front-man and vocalist has just released Elasticity, a solo collective of five songs that mean a great deal to him.
“I miss those flat whites in Melbourne,” Tankian says to me, smiling during introductions upon hearing my accent. But the small talk doesn’t last very long with the Grammy award winning artist, as he does what he does best and capitalises his platform to be as informative as possible, raising awareness for past and present Armenian atrocities.
On April 24, Armenians commemorate their own Remembrance Day, only one day before Australia and New Zealand acknowledge Anzac Day. “We remember the 1.5 million Armenian, Greek and Syrian people systematically murdered during the Ottoman Empire in 1915 during World War One.” Tankian explains there’s no coincidence in the close proximity between the two Remembrance Days, particularly as a part-time New Zealand resident.
“There is a link between Anzac and the Armenian genocide, and for Armenians it’s about recognising what took place as a genocide which Turkey has been denying for 106 years.”
The artist recently banded with his System Of A Down brothers to release ‘Protect The Land’ and ‘Genocidal Humanoidz’, the first two singles the band’s released in sixteen years, in order to raise humanitarian funds and awareness to the Armenian people. They’re not done yet, there’s work to be done around the world, including our very own corner of the globe, for Australia to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917.
“The term genocide was coined by a Polish person Raphael Lemkin in the 1930s,” The Beirut born singer/songwriter explains. “He saw what was about to happen to his own people in Nazi Germany. In fact, it’s well noted that in August of 1939, Hitler told his generals as they’re about to invade Poland (who now remembers the Armenians), that ‘it’s okay to act with impunity because history forgets.”
So Serj’s firm message is that “it’s time Australia does not forget history. It’s time the Australian Parliament and the Scott Morrison Government properly and formally recognise the Armenian genocide.”
It’s well known how highly sociopolitical Tankian’s music is, and Elasticity is no different, however it doesn’t have the precise currency you may have assumed or that of the new System songs. “Almost all those songs were written five to six years ago, ‘Electric Yerevan’ was about a protest in late 2015 / early 2016 in Armenia before the 2018 peaceful velvet revolution,” he describes before touching on the sonic side of the title track. “Elasticity’ is quite a juggernaut of a song, it’s like doing somersaults with music.”
He goes on to talk about track four; ‘Rumi’ which is about his son, “named after the famous Persian love poet,” – less sociopolitical as Serj importantly points out. The song “Your Mom’ is like this crazy thing because originally the song was about a terrorist organisation with a specific antidote on how to deal with them, almost like the ‘Prison Song’ from System Of A Down.”
The loyal Armenian explains that as time passed since the song was originally written, he needed to add in his own aspects to the song, and he went down the amusing path. “I added in this other character who is like this crime-crusading old mom with slippers that kicks terrorist ass, and it became a kind of tongue-in-cheek kind of song,” he says grinning as he acknowledges the breadth of seriousness and humour to the EP’s lyrical content.
Interestingly, various interviews with members of System Of A Down have revealed that several songs that had originally been written for the band, were thereafter used instead for either solo-material or side-projects (and vice-versa) – but it’s curious to understand their opinions on what actually distinguishes where a body of work should fit.
“When a song comes to me, I don’t think of what project it’s for, I just try to complete it as best as I can, so when I was talking with System about collaborating, some of the songs lent themselves well to that punk ethos that System is well known for,” he pauses “and the metal,” he says with a firm and validating tone of voice.
But regardless of the ethos the songs hold, the custodian of the song gets to ultimately decide. “When we were talking it didn’t end up working out, as at the time we didn’t see eye to eye philosophically and creatively, so I finished the songs the way that I originally intended to.”
He explains that the feeling of a song changes once it goes through the “System machine”. “Each person’s input changes that song, and it can kind of compromise it, but whoever wrote the song should ultimately have directors cut, if you will.” And so he did, with Elasticity.
The political activist released a music video for ‘Elasticity’, which has more than meets the eye. “It was shot in Russia, and featured artist Sasha Borden (a huge Russian actress). We were so grateful that she actually took the time to do this little video with us.” The music video features Borden struggling to retain her seated spot in a queue and eventually loses her patience. It was produced by Tankian’s “really good friend, Ilya Naishuller,” who just made a film with one of Serj’s other good friends, one you probably wouldn’t have guessed..
“He just made a film with Bob Odenkirk,” of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul – “and it’s called ‘Nobody’ which is out in theaters, so he was the conduit to making this video.”
In terms of Tankian’s vision for the music video, he left it open to interpretation, however suggests it “could be looking for freedom in a system that’s circular, a feedback mechanism that could mean so many different things.”
Although Serj admits to being the primary driver of System’s sociopolitical voice and sometimes needing to have been reined in by the band over the years, he denotes the unified voice that the rest of System live and breathe personally and through their musical expression. Recently we had a chat with his bandmate Shavo Odadjian about North Kinglsey, and he highlighted that the evolving situation in Armenia/Turkey is not just their issue, but rather “a humanitarian issue”, which Tankian unequivocally agrees with.
“Yes, what’s Shavo said is point on I couldn’t have said it better, the Armenian genocide is not a national issue, it’s a humanitarian issue when over one million people are systematically killed.”
The L.A. based musician is proud of his System brothers who’ve banded together for the benefit of the Armenian people, and he acknowledges the unique position of using music as a vehicle for political awareness; in fact he’s highlighted it in his new film ‘Truth to Power’ with Live Nation Productions.
“It’s about my activism in the band and my musical journey and it deals with what it means to be an activist artist, the repercussions of it, the fruits of that labour and and how this small voice suddenly becomes pronounced with the success of your music and audience.”
Being an activist artist, as the 53-year old calls it, would certainly lead to some cognitive dissonance when experiencing that euphoric rush of releasing new music for the first time in sixteen years, however it was a reunion of sorts after all.
Tankian ensures the predisposition is clear before he expresses the positive emotions experienced. “Referencing back to the Artsakh war of September 27th, the combined forces of Turkey with Syrian mercenaries attacked the Republic of Artsakh and this huge war, onslaught and humanitarian catastrophe ensued. Azerbaijan wasn’t just attacking with military equivalents, they were also using social media bots and attacking people’s businesses if they spoke in favour of Armenian peace.”
With this comfortably conveyed, the heavy metal icon then emotionalises his experience with the band. “After sixteen years of not putting music together, we got together and within a few weeks we were able to put out these two songs and videos,” which has an immense impact as the band raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in proceeds.
“It made a huge difference that we would measure and see ourselves, and we wanted people to know the truth that the underdog here is Armenia and that we’re being bullied.”
System Of A Down see these two new songs as something they did for their people, rather than songs they put out as artists. “It was fun being able to see that irrespective of our artistic differences, we were able to get together for our own people and do something outside of ourselves.
“I’m extremely proud of the band for doing so and I actually started looking at System Of A Down in even more of a positive light than before because of it.”
By seeing what they can achieve socially by reuniting, it opened them up even further to a world of opportunity, but for now there’s not much activity happening with the band. “When that time comes I guess we’ll see, we have no plans at the moment.”
But that doesn’t mean Tankian isn’t keeping busy in the meantime. Let’s just say releasing an EP and one film wasn’t enough for 2021, he’s got another film on the way. “I helped produce a film called ‘I Am Not Alone, it’s an award-winning film coming out this year about the 2018 Velvet Revolution which is an amazing little blueprint for the centralised civil disobedience as a conduit to change and to revolutions,” the front-man says articulately.
“It was just screened at the Hong Kong Film Festival with huge accolades, especially because of what people from Hong Kong are going through,” Tankian says anecdotally, pointing out that Armenian-related issues are not the only social issues he cares about. “I think it has a little secret key that can unlock new ways of challenging authoritarian figures.”
But don’t get him wrong, Serj is not always a fighter, he’s an individual who basks in the glory of the big milestones too, particularly when System Of A Down played a free show in Armenia back in 2015.
“It was the one hundredth centennial of the Armenian genocide and we were invited by the government to perform to tens of thousands of people. I had this calmness about me and I felt like if we were created just to play this show we’ve already done something incredible.”
Interview by Ricky Aarons @rickysaul90
Take a look at Serj Tankian’s EP Elasticity here.
2. Your Mom
3. How Many Times?
5. Electric Yerevan