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Serj Tankian: “I don’t like the word ‘God’ – it’s been abused throughout the centuries”

Serj Tankian
(Image credit: Armen Keleshian)

For a man who had major back surgery a week ago, Serj Tankian is in surprisingly good spirits. For the past few months, he’s been dealing with a painful herniated disc – partly the result, he says, of the relentless activism that has gone hand-in-hand with his musical career for nearly three decades.

“You know how in music you should never take yourself too seriously? As an activist, I might have taken myself a little too seriously,” he says wryly, speaking via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “Pain is good teacher in that sense.”

Recently, much of his energy has been devoted to raising awareness of the war and subsequent humanitarian crisis in Artsakh, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan that has been under siege from the Azerbaijani authorities with the backing of the Turkish government. It was that conflict which prompted System Of A Down to surprise-release two songs, Protect The Land and Genocidal Humanoidz, in late 2020  – their first new music in 15 years.

Those two sides of Serj – musician and activist – are inextricably bound together, but each is getting its own separate spotlight now. He’s just released a new solo single, Elasticity, the title track to a brand new EP out in March. The EP’s five songs find the singer in ‘rock’ mode for the first time since 2012’s Harakiri album, swinging from the shapeshifting, System-esque title track to the heartfelt Rumi, a tribute to both his six-year-old son and a 13th century Sufi poet, both named Rumi.

The 52-year-old is also the focus of Truth To Power, an insightful and genuinely inspiring new documentary that charts his journey from Beirut-born Armenian émigré to vocal political and social activist who just happens to be a member of one of the biggest rock bands of the 21st century.

The film is centred around one simple question: Can music actually change the world? Footage of System playing a landmark gig in the Armenian capital Yerevan on the 100th anniversary of a genocide committed on the Armenian people by Turkey – a show which sparked a chain of events that culminate a series of peaceful protests and the resignation of Armenia’s widely loathed president, Serzh Sargsyan – suggests the answer is: Yes, it can.

“Most activists are never privy to the results of their activism in their lifetime,” he says. “With System Of A Down I have lucky to be able to see some of it.”

Metal Hammer line break

Let’s talk about the EP first. You wrote the songs several years ago. Why has it taken so long to release them?

The songs came around roughly the same period of time, four or five years ago. I tried to see originally if we could work on them with the guys in System Of A Down, for a System record. And of course there are many factors involved in that. Suffice to say that we didn’t see eye to eye in terms of the path forward, creatively and in terms of responsibilities.

So the songs just… stayed. Then at one point, a friend of mine was, like, ‘Dude, you gotta release these songs. They’re great songs. And I was, like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’

There is frustration in System Of A Down, because we don't all see the same vision. But it is a family thing.

Serj Tankian

The music was ready by early last year. We didn’t want to self-release, we wanted to work with a bigger label for publicity and all that stuff. That’s one reason it took a little longer to release than we would have liked.

There are five songs on the Elasticity EP. What connects them?

There’s a few reasons I called the EP Elasticity. Part of it is because it did remind me of System, and we've used terms like Toxicity and Mesmerize and Hyptonize on our albums. But that's also the kind of general outline of the songs themselves – they go from really heavy to beautiful and melodic, from socio-political to very personal, vulnerable stuff. It’s elastic. I guess that’s the underlying theme.

The song Elasticity itself starts with a burp. Was that a first-take burp, or did you have to do it several times?

No, that was a first-take burp.

What’s the inspiration behind that song?

You know, I'm not exactly sure, because it's been so long. I can't really remember what moved me. But I can tell you that my son was basically jibber-jabbering at me while I was playing the song. Where my piano is and where my playroom is, it's the same room. I'd be working on something and he would be jibber-jabbering, and I’d kind of try to get his attention by repeating it back at him. That’s where the bit that goes, ‘Da-da-da-da-da!’ came from – the really crazy part.

The song Rumi is part love letter to your son, Rumi, part advice to him, but it references a 13th Persian love poet also named Rumi…

My son was really young - one, maybe not even that. Again, I was playing my piano and he was making sounds. I was talking to him, [singing gently], ‘Oh dear Rumi’, and he'd smile. It was just a demo, and  I didn’t think that was what it would end up being lyrically, but then I realised that the core emotions of the song are to do with my son.

From that we extrapolated the fact that we named him Rumi because of the poet. It became this hybrid of a letter to my son  and advice, and also Rumi’s advice the world - love and knowledge and this beautiful universal message.

Presumably the line ‘Stay away from God and crime’ is yours, not the original Rumi’s…

[Laughs] Yes, you’re right about that. I don’t like the word ‘God’, because it’s been abused throughout the centuries. I prefer more indigenous words like 'spirit that moves throughout all thing', 'creator'. That makes more sense to me as a human being than the word 'God.' Because God is also the god of revenge – God is the reason we've had established religions that for so many years have been really oppressive. To me, saying 'God and crime' means any organisation. Be your own man. Don't be a part of anything that your vision cannot be precipitate from.

How did the Truth To Power documentary come about?

In 2011, I shot everything I did. I literally strapped a camera to my head, wore spy glasses – I thought it would be great to make a POV [point of view] film. But the way I shot it was ridiculous – I was like a bird [mimes bobbing head around]. You’re not supposed to do that. There was a lot of fun footage, but it wasn’t really a movie.

With this, I was going back to Armenia during the revolution, and my good friend Garin Hovannisian and I ended up making two documentaries almost together. One is about the Velvet Revolution in Armenia, called I Am Not Alone, which I executive-produced, and the other is Truth To Power.

I had done a score for Joe [Berlinger, documentary maker behind Metallica’s Some Kind Of Monster and more] called Intent To Destroy, and was in that film as a talking head. So  when I needed a good executive producer, I tapped Joe. He has been incredible in terms of his help on both films.

Were you comfortable being the centre of attention?

I wasn’t. I was not interested in the performer, the artist, the backstage footage. I was interested in the activism. I was interested in what happens to a guy who has very little voice and very little projection, and then, through the success of his music and his band, that voice becomes larger and larger, and it has impact in the real world, and also repercussions.

One of the most memorable moments in the documentary is when System Of A Down played in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. What did it feel like up onstage?

April 23, 2015, the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks. We're outside, it's raining like crazy. It's a beautiful Spring day, but it's raining because we're all commemorating one and a half million deaths of our ancestors.

There's this electric energy in the crowd - it's a young audience, and it's beautiful because I saw the future of Armenia. I saw the revolution that came in 2018, I saw it in their eyes, without knowing when it was gong top happen or how it was going to happen. And I got inspired by just seeing a country with a lot of youth that just wanted change.

I always say that if System Of A Down was created for one show in our career, that would be it. It was like we were designed to be there. It was beautiful moment.

There’s a point in the movie where you’re talking about the effect that gig ultimately had on the revolution that followed a few years later, and you begin crying, Did you have any reservations about putting that onscreen?

I did. It's kind of interesting when you're shooting a documentary about your own life and experiences. For a month or so you are revisiting your past, you'\re making connections you've never made about your life, about your path and the things around you and the challenges you face in all that.

When it came to that one moment where I'm talking about the revolution, I just felt this incredible overwhelming emotion of pride, but mixed with joy and sadness. It was the weirdest thing. I got overwhelmed.

Why sadness?

Pride and joy because I saw a small country, Armenia, do something no one else has done, which is accidentally create something called Decentralised Civil Disobedience. It’s a technique to overwhelm any dictatorship in the world, which had never been used properly in a peaceful revolution, which Armenia happened upon. That made me proud.

I was sad, because I had seen the struggles of being in a country where you feel like your voice is never going to matter. Not just that it doesn't matter now, but that it will never matter. And that is a really sad phenomenon for anyone.

Your System bandmates John Dolmayan and Shavo Odadjian appear in the documentary. They talk about you with love, but with flashes of frustration too. It’s like watching family members talk about each other…

There definitely is frustration, because we don't all see the same vision. But it is a family thing. Technically, it is a family thing, because John is my brother-in-law as well as my drummer and my good friend.  And we have two completely opposing American political views, so it's an interesting dynamic. But we love each other and we respect each other.

Same with Shavo - our kids play together. Same with Daron. We love each other, we have tremendous respect for each other, we've been together as friends for 25, 30 years. No matter what, we see things through. But, yeah, it is tough when everyone wants to pull this thing in a different direction.

Aside from the Elasticity EP and Truth To Power, what does 2021 hold for you?

There’s another film that I scored and helped produce, I Am Not Alone. And during lockdown I was in New Zealand, in my studio, and I finished a lot of music that I had. I was able to finish another EP, more of an electronic rock EP. I’ve got two records full of cinematic instrumental music that I want to release, and a 24-minute piano concerto as well.

Will there be any new System Of Down music in 2021?

I don’t know.

Truth To Power is out now.  The Elasticity EP is released on March 19