“The drama's gonna be there, always": Serj Tankian on the turmoil that makes System Of A Down tick

Armenian-American heavy metal band System of a Down, pose for a group portrait circa September, 1998 in Los Angeles
(Image credit: Bob Berg/Getty Images)

Perhaps more than any other successful metal band in recent decades, System Of A Down are built on tension. That push and pull, mainly between frontman Serj Tankian and guitarist Daron Malakian, is at the heart of both what makes the Californian quartet so great and why they hardly make any music together anymore, the band’s last album releases coming with the Mezmerise and Hypnotize double-whammy in 2005. 

There have been live reunions along the way, but, despite trying, any attempts to make a new full-length have been long abandoned. Tankian doesn’t let the intra-band conflict get in the way of their achievements, though, once telling Metal Hammer’s Dave Everley that their creative disputes have never overshadowed the music. “Show me a band that doesn’t have drama, and I’ll show you a shitty band,” he said. “There’ll always be drama – we’re four individuals who feel different about different things. But the press has played it up, and it’s kept the band in the limelight irrespective of our lack of making a record for 14 or 15 years.”

He went on to warmly reminisce about how they were able to put their squabbles to one side to make their surprise 2020 Artsakh benefit singles Protect The Land and Genocidal Humanoidz. “Those two songs to me is one of the best things we’ve ever done as a band, in terms of reaching beyond ourselves. And I’m extremely proud of my brothers in System Of A Down that we were able to accomplish that. But yeah, you know, the drama’s gonna be there, always.”

The singer also addressed the death threats the band received in the wake of 9/11, after he posted an essay online titled Understanding Oil, which looked at the reasons why the Al-Qaeda attacks happened.

“We were on the news on a daily basis and we're playing in front of 20,000 people a night. Are we safe? Are they safe?

“‘I remember John [Dolmayan, System drummer] asking me, ‘You're a smart guy, what the fuck are you doing? Are you trying to get us killed?’ That's literally what he told me. I felt so bad. I love these guys and here I am touring with them, and I'm like, ‘I’m so sorry - it's the truth, I swear it’s the truth.’”

When System Of A Down originally went on hiatus back in 2006, Tankian said he always knew he’d come back to them – he just needed time to do his own things. “I was bothered by some of the internal dynamics,” he said. “So I went off and made solo records.” Now, though, a new record seems further away than ever. They amassed an awesome catalogue of records in a short period of time, but perhaps that is where SOAD’s story ends.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.