How System of a Down’s Serj Tankian Helped Spark a Revolution
The singer opens up about his new activism documentary “Truth to Power,” the Armenian Genocide, the future of System of a Down, and their drummer’s support of Trump.
As both the front man for Grammy-winning alt-metal titans System of a Down and an eclectic solo artist, Serj Tankian has always spoken his mind about the state of the world—and, in particular, the plight of his cultural homeland Armenia, and the 1915 genocide that was only formally acknowledged by the United States in 2019.
Never one to mince words about politics, the 53-year-old singer next takes his calls for justice and change to the cinema with Truth to Power, Garin Hovannisian’s documentary portrait of Tankian’s rise to rock god status as well as his intertwined, fiery activism on behalf of Armenia and other causes (anti-war, climate change) about which he feels passionately. Premiering Feb. 19 on VOD, it’s a look at Tankian’s unique marriage of art and politics, and the way in which music can be a weapon for social change, as evidenced by System’s—and Tankian’s—key role in helping inspire the revolutionary protests that ousted the Armenian prime minster, Serzh Sargsyan, in 2018.
While System’s five albums turned Tankian into a metal icon, the band hasn’t released an LP since 2005’s Hypnotize and Mesmerize—a recording hiatus (they continue to intermittently play shows) that has sparked much speculation about the ongoing rift between him and guitarist/songwriter Daron Malakian. Their artistic differences were temporarily set aside late last year when System, motivated by Azerbaijan and Turkey’s military assault on Armenia, reformed to release its first fresh material in fifteen years (“Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz”) in order to raise awareness about the conflict. Nonetheless, System’s members remain at creative odds with each other, which is why on March 19, Tankian will debut a new EP, Elasticity, whose title is a nod to System’s 2001 hit Toxicity, and which features songs he originally intended to finish with his bandmates. A full-fledged reunion, it seems, is not in the immediate cards.
Still, speaking to us shortly before Truth to Power’s premiere, Tankian makes it clear that, musical differences aside, he and his fellow System cohorts—Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan—are on good personal terms, even though his brother-in-law Dolmayan has, over the past year, become a vocal supporter of Trump and his election-fraud Big Lie. In a wide-ranging chat, the charismatic singer is non-committal about a possible collaborative future with System. At the same time, he also discusses his new non-fiction film, the forthcoming Elasticity, his hope for a better America under President Joe Biden, and music’s ability to transform hearts, minds, and the world.
You’ve had some choice parting words for Donald Trump. How are you enjoying post-Trump life? Or do you think we’re not going to be post-Trump for some time?
I don’t know. Some people are saying “Trump is gone, Trumpism is still here,” all that stuff. But yes, I’ve kind of done some tongue-lashing. Ultimately, we have a diverse population. And we’re not the only country that does. The important thing is to educate ourselves to the point where we can reasonably converse and make decisions—as a lot of adults do in their lives—as a nation. That’s what we’re shooting for now. I am relieved by the incoming Biden administration. Everyone I’ve spoken to, that’s literally the word: “relieved,” more than anything else [laughs]. And I think we’re already seeing a different type of engagement, whether it’s climate policy or social policies. A different way of doing things. Trying to get back into the Paris Climate Summit, and START agreement. We’d like to see that type of engagement with Armenia as well, having to do with Artsakh and the fallout after the war, specifically in the body of the OSCE Minsk Group. The Trump administration was so disengaged that it created a vacuum in the region, and that allowed Turkey and Azerbaijan to wage their aggressive war.
We’ll see where it goes. How do you feel about it?
I think the word “relief” is spot-on. And “tentatively hopeful.”
Yeah, and we’ve got to look long-term. Again, I go back to education. We’ve been cutting education since the ‘80s, since Reagan’s time, and if you look at the extremism within our political world in the U.S., and you look at the downward spiral of our educational ranking in the world over the years, there is a correlation.
Speaking of new eras, you and your System bandmates finally put out new music late last year, in order to bring attention to the war waged by Azerbaijan and Turkey against Armenia. Why did it take a crisis like that for all of you to once again find common artistic ground? And are you heartened by the fact that you were able to do so?
I’m very proud of it, and I’m very heartened by it. I was very excited that we were able to get onboard to do that. It actually made a difference. For me, it’s all about making a difference. You’ve got to understand, Azerbaijan didn’t just launch a physical war; they also launched a media war. They launched a disinformation war at the same time. For many years, they’ve used caviar diplomacy to buy up favors from different politicians around the world, and so they were trying to create this false parity even though they were the aggressors. They were the ones attacking, but they were trying to create false parity in the media so that they’re the victims, or both sides have done the same thing, which is bullshit.
We were trying to fight that. And the release of the two songs was really a surprise, because it made that kind of impact. The video for “Protect the Land”—Shavo did a phenomenal job really showing that part of the truth that is not out there. So, it did make that impact, and I’m extremely proud of it. Why did it take something like that? Simple answer. You’re doing an interview for work that you get paid for, right? There are certain interviews you won’t do because it’s difficult or you don’t want to do those interviews. But if you had to do an interview for your daughter, because it’s good for her, you wouldn’t care which interview it was for, or who it was with. That’s how I’ll answer.
What is it that’s keeping System from fully reforming? Daron, conspicuously, is the only band member not featured in Truth to Power.
Obviously, we asked him, and it’s not something that he wanted to do. He respectfully declined and I respect him for that. That’s fine.
Is it just about not seeing creatively eye-to-eye anymore?
That is the heart of it. There’s nothing else, really. But also the philosophy, going forward. You might think it’s better to go this way, and someone else might think it’s better to go that way. The creativity has to do with that philosophy going forward as well. It’s a matter of vision. If you don’t see eye to eye on the creative and the vision, then you don’t do music together. But I’m happy to say that we’re all friends, we respect each other, we love each other. My brother-in-law [John Dolmayan] is my drummer, and we’re at each other’s house every day. Shavo’s kids play with my kids. We’re a family; we’ve known each other for a long time. That’s the reason we still tour together, and have no problem doing so. And that, to me, is the most important thing, as long as we keep that. If the [new] music happens, that’ll be great. If it doesn’t, the most important thing is our friendship lasting.
Your drummer John has repeatedly proclaimed his support for Donald Trump and his election lies. Are you surprised by his stance, which certainly seems at odds with the band’s, and your own, positions? And has that put a strain on your creative or personal relationship?
Well, besides these two songs, we haven’t really created much together, so I can’t really answer the creative question—whether the diversity of our U.S. political stances would affect our creativity. On a personal level, we love and respect each other; we’re family. But yeah, it is hard sometimes, especially when the media plays it up more than it should. And that happens, because it’s something to grab onto, I guess. But yes, with the ethos of the band, everyone has their opinion—John has his opinion, I have my opinion, you’ve got your opinion, and fans that might find the ethos of the band non-congruent with his beliefs have their opinion. And that’s fine too. The important thing is that we were able to galvanize for Armenia and justice. To me, that’s the most important thing, not our difference of opinion over presidential candidates in the U.S. Look, I’ll finish it this way: I don’t know a single person who doesn’t have a brother-in-law whose political views are very different [laughs]. I’ve hit it so many timed—this is like a universal truth at this point!
Your new EP, Elasticity, features material you had intended for System, but never found a way to complete together. Did you feel like those songs couldn’t be sidelined anymore?
I had the songs for a while; they were written five to six years ago, and I finished them early last year, or maybe late the year before. I wanted to release them, and because we couldn’t see eye-to-eye going forward a few years ago with System, I just decided to finish them as I had envisioned, because I really think they’re great songs, and friends were going, “Hey, you should release this.” So, I decided to do so, and I worked with Dan Monti, who’s my guitarist in the F.C.C. (Flying Cunts of Chaos), and he replayed some of my guitars, or added to some of them. He also did some drum programming, and I did as well. Then we mixed it together, and we had Vlado Meller--who’s mastered a lot of my stuff before—master it. So, it was homemade [laughs].
How did Truth to Power come about, and were you hesitant—or excited—to have a doc made about your life and career?
That’s the funny thing—nobody came to me and said, “Let’s make a documentary.” In 2011, I strapped a camera to my head, because it was the most diverse professional year I was going to have. From January 1 to December 31, 2011, I decided to shoot everything I did professionally—and I did. I was touring with System for the first time since the hiatus, I was doing orchestral shows, I was making three types of records in three different genres: Harakiri, Orca, and Jazz-Iz-Christ. I was touring with the F.C.C., we played Armenia. There were so many things going on – protests, and all sorts of stuff. So, the idea of making a film was mine.
Originally, my idea was to make a POV film so you could see from the artist’s perspective. After watching some of the footage and almost throwing up, I realized that I’m not a good POV person, because I’m like a bird and my head shifts a lot [laughs]. So, I had all this footage on a drive, and a good director friend of mine—Garin Hovannisian—I had done a score for his film 1915, and he and I were already working on a film called I Am Not Alone, about the Velvet Revolution in Armenia. I scored that as well as executive produced that, I helped put together the team for the film, and we made an amazing award-winning documentary, and it’s coming out this year. I talked to him about this idea, and he loved it.
But the idea was no longer a POV film, obviously. What interested me wasn’t a biography, or Behind the Music, but an activist’s journey. What is an activist’s journey, starting from where they have a little voice when no one knows them but they’re still an activist, to where their voice gets bigger and bigger and bigger until finally, it helps enact progressive change? And also, the repercussions along the way. “What the fuck do you know, go make music!” The repercussions, whether it’s losing a fan base or anger or death threats—anything to do with an activist’s journey through music. That was the story I was interested in revealing and showing, and I think that’s the film we made.
System has always been overtly political, which is part of its appeal. But did you ever feel like politics interfered with the band’s success?
Sure. I still have pushback. If you check out my socials, anything I post, there’s a lot of pushback. For years, besides the one that says, “Fuck you, go make another System of a Down record”—that’s always been there, that’s just scenery [laughs]—there’s been a lot of pushback, politically. I get it whether it’s on Armenian issues from Armenians, or whether it’s from Turkey and Azerbaijan, obviously. I get it from Trump supporters. I get it from everywhere, and I’ve gotten it for twenty-something years. So, pushback is my natural expectation at this point. Although I also get a lot of people that commend and agree, and that’s very nice.
But as an activist, I don’t really pay attention. “Fire and forget” is my social media mantra, really. Because you can’t get involved with people’s psychologies and keyboard-warriorships, if that’s all they have to do. For me, it’s like, I do my thing, not just expelling the message but also actually doing the work, and then hopefully change happens. And in a lot of cases, change has happened. Myself and the guys in System of a Down, we’ve struggled for awareness of the Armenian Genocide since our inception as a band. And in December 2019, Congress formally recognized the Armenian Genocide. That’s a huge victory for Armenians around the world, as well as our band. That’s just one example of the activism, and all of this is discussed in the film, so I’m glad we’re talking about it, because that’s really the question we’re answering.
The central question of the film is, “Can music change the world?” Do you still feel confident that it can?
Music for the sake of music I enjoy as well, because music is a form of my meditation. And not all music that I make is political; most of it is not, actually, because I do a lot of scoring for films. Most of the music I produce is instrumental, or classical. But when it’s songs and message, yes, some of it will be political, some of it won’t be. The song about my son and the poet Rumi [Elasticity’s “Rumi”] is not political. Same with System. We have a lot of songs that are humorous or absurd, or about love or whatever. But there is that sociopolitical center, and it does help.
Rock music is the perfect delivery vehicle for that angst, for that protest. So, for me, it’s always worked naturally together. Does music change the world? Fuck yeah! But in a unique, particular way. Not in the way that you would generally anticipate. It’s not like there’s music, and then there’s change. It’s more like, there’s inspiration, there’s co-inspiration, there’s being moved by that inspiration—kind of right-side mental thinking and heart—and then the left side of the brain and heart start to react to that influence, and can change our minds. Our minds create our reality, and that reality can be changed through the left side of the brain.