"I mean every word that I say, every lyric that I sing, every noise that I make": Meet the real Serj Tankian

Who is Serj Tankian? The outspoken frontman of System Of A Down has been a permanent fixture of the rock world for almost three decades, but he still remains something of an enigma. We go on a mission to find out…

"I mean every word that I say, every lyric that I sing, every noise that I make": Meet the real Serj Tankian
Luke Morton
Andrew Lipovsky

Foam soundproofing covers the walls. Shelves are filled with various wires and open tech boxes. A framed gold-certification plaque for the Scream 3 soundtrack hangs on the wall. This is Serj Tankian’s Los Angeles studio, where we join the political polymath on a wintry Wednesday morning. He’s all smiles, sporting the regiment lockdown uniform of a T-shirt/hoodie combo and his freshly groomed trademark beard.

To millions of people, he’s System Of A Down’s Molotov-mouthed ringleader, yelping about seeds and terracotta. But this is just one dimension to the Serj Tankian multiverse. Today, perched on a swivel office chair, we find a man who exists not just as a vocalist, but also as a painter, an activist, a composer, a husband and a father. Just as he cannot be boiled down to one thing, neither can his music, exploring everything from bizarro-metal to jazz-fusion to cinematic soundscapes over the past two-and-a-half decades.

“I don’t think music should be defined,” he begins, as we cast our eye over Serj’s on-again-off-again relationship with rock. “Each genre has its own potency: rock is the music of revolution, rock is the music of protest and change. Classical music has the subtleties of so much emotion that can touch upon the rebellious nature of rock in one point, then be so vulnerable and beautiful in another way that rock can’t touch. Jazz has so many implications and capabilities, from sexy vibes to crazy progressive elements. Genres of music are like different types of food; you can’t just eat pizza all day.”

Serj chuckles at this last notion. He scoffs, too, at the idea, put forward by System Of A Down’s more vocal detractors, that its frontman is simply not interested in rock music these days. They point to the lack of a new SOAD album since 2005’s Hypnotize – last November’s standalone Protect The Land and Genocidal Humanoidz singles marking the band’s first new music of any description in 16 years – while it’s been nearly a decade since even Serj’s rockier Harakiri solo LP. The years since have seen him favour working in symphonic and electronic sounds, including 2020’s Fuktronic collaboration with Jimmy Urine. These misplaced assertions are simply shrugged off, Serj bluntly explaining that he’s too busy creating to care, allowing inspiration from the universe to flow through him, believing that music comes from either the subconscious or collective consciousness, and artists are “skilled presenters” at best.

“I’ve always believed that music comes from the subconscious or collective consciousness. At best we’re skilled presenters as artists”

Hear Serj discuss why his Elasticity EP is more rock’n’roll

Six years ago, Serj’s subconscious was struck by a bolt of creative energy, arriving, for the first time in almost a decade, in the form of rock’n’roll: firstly in the shape of How Many Times, a quasi-metallic ballad, shortly followed by the adrenaline-soaked punk rager Electric Yerevan, written after the Armenian protests of the same name.

“I wrote Electric Yerevan and I thought, ‘Wow, this could make a great System Of A Down song,’” Serj recalls. “That led me to think that if I were to write songs for and with System now, what would they sound like? And that inspired me to write more rock music, if you will. Honestly, the guys loved the songs, and we started collaborating on different songs at one point. But being unable to see eye-to-eye in terms of where we can go forward with the band made me go, ‘Okay, if we’re not going to do these songs [in System], I’d like to put them out myself.’”

And so he is. Completed by four additional tracks written over the same period in the mid- to late-2010s, Serj’s Elasticity EP is set to arrive next month. But rather than being System cast-offs, these songs have developed their own distinct flavour, embracing electronics and arpeggiated keyboards unlike anything SOAD have done before. Naturally, there are some similarities; the track Your Mom, in particular, ricochets with that signature zany, Frank Zappa-esque lyricism. Yet the song we hear today is not the same bouncing beast as its original incarnation.

“Your Mom had some different lyrics which were very specific to the time they were written, but because I sat on the songs so long before releasing them, the specificity of those lyrics didn’t make as much sense, so I had to mess with them and take them out of context,” Serj explains. “It was written about terrorism very specifically, like System’s Prison Song is very specific.

“Sometimes music presupposes its destiny,” he continues. “You write about something, and if it’s a universal truth, then it will apply later as well.”

The EP’s centrepiece, Rumi, speaks to one such truth: the bond between a father and his son. The piano-led rock anthem is an ode to Serj’s six-year-old Rumi, nakedly expressing his love and sharing advice in a display of affection far more personal than anything he has previously released.

Serj and his wife named their son after the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, having been affected by his words and wisdom; the song’s lyrics act as both homage and guiding hand. ‘Be the change you want to see and be the man you want to be.’

“I try to work for justice and put my all into everything I do, so I think in some ways it’s stuff that I’ve learned that I want to transfer on," he says. "And it’s what I felt at that particular time as an artist. That was when he was two years old; I’d probably write something altogether different now like, ‘Try not to break things.’” He lets out a laugh.

“[Fatherhood] changed me dramatically, as it changes anyone. I always say that the biggest fear a human being has growing up is the fear of the passing away of their parents – until they have children of their own. That fear becomes supplanted with something happening to this small, beautiful human being. It reprioritises your world. I’m more interested in being around for him than travelling and touring as much. It totally changes your world.

“I’m extremely bothered by what the world brings for the next generation,” Serj continues. “Based on climate change, based on political upheaval, based on the industrialisation of weapons, based on the slow scarcity of water, overpopulation… They’re all formulas that together are quite a calamity. I sometimes sit down and think about what his world would be when he’s my age, and I almost gasp. There’s a part of me that’s depressed looking to the future, and at one point in life I didn’t want to have children for that [reason], to be honest. I thought it was a bad choice, but I’m glad that we did. But I do worry.”

With tales of fatherhood, protest and defiance, Elasticity offers a snapshot of what’s really important to Serj Tankian in 2021. But to truly understand the motives and emotions behind one of alternative music’s most imaginative and vociferous artists, you need to go back to where it all started.

Serj Tankian’s memories of Beirut are few but vivid. Born in the Lebanese capital to Armenian parents in 1967, he cherishes typical childhood memories such as his grandparents’ house, the toys he played with, and going to school. “Then,” he says, “I remember the bombs falling.”

In 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon, forcing the Tankian family to migrate to the United States. Los Angeles was a world away from what he’d previously known. Living in what is now Little Armenia in Hollywood, Serj and his younger brother would walk hand in hand to school by themselves, past the “hookers and pimps and all sorts of wonderful, colourful things,” he remembers with a smile.

Despite spending the past 45 years of his life living in the Land Of The Free, Serj doesn’t consider himself fully American.

“I’d say technically I’m a Lebanese-born Armenian-American-Kiwi because I’ve got New Zealand residency," he explains. "I live there part of the year, I live in the U.S. part of the year, I go to Armenia often. That’s technically who I am. But what do I lean toward? I don’t know. I think I’m a human being.

“I was born in a certain place, which you can’t control, moved to another place, which you also can’t control as a child, then chose places where I wanted to live. Culture is the beautiful thing about our diversity. It’s not borders, it’s not nationalism, it’s not military, power or might – it’s culture. Culture’s the most beautiful thing about us.”

Armenia, though, is Serj’s “cultural homeland”, a place still so close to his heart, which led him to spending much of his life raising awareness and leading discussion around the Armenian genocide of 1915. A tragedy leading to the death of an estimated one million people at the hands of the government of the Ottoman Empire, it was not formally recognised by the United States government until December 2019.

“I was an activist before becoming an artist and that’s because of growing up hearing the stories from my grandparents about the Armenian genocide. Living in a country that until [2019] didn’t formally recognise the genocide made me feel like, ‘If there were so many truths out there that are being denied, what other truths are there?’ That made me question authority, question power and its dynamics, and it made me more aware of the need for equilibrium in terms of politics, human rights, ecological balance.”

Coming of age in the United States in early ’80s, Serj says he saw very few activists on television. And while those who fought for change in the past existed in school history books, a wannabe revolutionary of the MTV generation had to find kindred spirits elsewhere.

Citing Peter Gabriel’s anti-apartheid single Biko and USA For Africa charity single We Are The World as examples, a teenage Serj was captivated by artists trying to make change through their music.

“We know a lot of celebrities love to talk about causes they may not be very familiar with, because it makes them look good, so you have to take everything with a grain of salt,” he smirks. “But I really appreciated artists that wholeheartedly dove into trying to make positive change, and that led me into music that made change – be that Bob Dylan or Bob Marley and everything in between. I realised that music had the ability to inspire, and that would have the ability to [make others] really look into some of the things that are wrong in the world, and try to make a difference.”

“Rock is the music of revolution, rock is the music of protest and change”

Listen to Serj examine the differences between different genres of music

Such desires to affect change have been woven into the fabric of System Of A Down since 1998’s self-titled debut album. Serj, however, is eager to point out there’s much more to the band than placard waving.

“Unlike Rage Against The Machine – a phenomenal band I’m a fan of and friends with – our music is not just socio-political; we have the funny moments, and thematically and lyrically we run the gamut of all sorts of topics, which I think makes System unique. It’s something that’s usually overlooked in terms of the validity of the band, and it pisses off the rest of the guys, because you have to have that balance. If you get completely political, not only does it turn off a lot of fans – which is understandable – but it’s not necessarily the goal of all the other guys. It’s this perfect balance.

“You don’t wake up and think about politics all day,” Serj adds. “If you’re having repercussions of bad leadership and whatnot – and that’s not a direct criticism of Boris Johnson (laughs) – you might be more political than you would be otherwise. But you don’t think about that all day. You have lunch, you see friends, and you have a lover… If you’re an artist, you need to present all those emotions through your music.”

In the trailer for upcoming documentary Truth To Power, Serj Tankian is asked whether music can change the world. He meets the question with a contemplative silence. “That’s the universal question, isn’t it?” asks Serj today. “Music has the ability to inspire, and when you inspire someone, they are already changed intuitively. In specific cases, for example, with System Of A Down and the Armenian genocide, it’s not something we planned on being preachy with, but it’s who we are, and it’s a personal quest based on our grandparents. It made a lot of people look into the genocide, and a lot of young people said they learned about it through the band, which is the largest compliment someone can pay you. So yes, music can change the world in that sense.”

In the minds of some fans, though, politics and rock shouldn’t mix. It’s an argument the frontman is all too aware of; the hellscape that is Twitter spewing forth daily messages from ‘fans’ telling him he ‘doesn’t know shit’ about politics and should stick to music

“When people disagree with your political opinions or statements, that is their first line of defence, to try to put you in a box and say you’re not a reasoning, diverse human being – you’re this. ‘You’re a journalist, what the fuck would you know about food?’ for example. But you might be a chef at the same time, or your mom might be a chef, or your partner, and you might know more about food than the person commenting, and they don’t know that.”

However, sometimes an artist’s political stance can elude those who are listening. Just last year, Tom Morello blew a RATM fan’s mind with the fact that the band who wrote Killing In The Name and shut down Wall Street were, in fact, ‘a political band’.

While Serj’s lyrics aren’t as on-the-nose as Zack de la Rocha’s, often laced with irony and metaphor, does it bother him if System fans aren’t on board with the message – or simply don’t even recognise one at all?

“Let’s use the pizza example,” Serj begins. “Some people like the pepperoni, some like the crust, some like the cheese. You can’t force people to like a particular part of your dish – that’s up to them. [Fans] react to art based on their own cumulative experiences. Some people might say, ‘Oh I love Prison Song, it’s a great dance song,’ and that’s cool. I’m glad you’re dancing to it.

“But I have to say, most people, when it comes to socio-political songs, it doesn’t completely go over their heads. If they really love the song and they’ve listened to it multiple times, they do get into the lyrics and try to analyse it and understand whatever it means to them.”

Turning the microscope away from System’s lyrics and onto the band themselves, Serj admits he doesn’t really know how to answer the question of what System Of A Down have ultimately achieved in their 27 years together. There are markers for success – the platinum albums, the festival headline slots, the bands clearly influenced by the Armenian-American radicals – but these pale in comparison to the human connection Serj Tankian, Daron Malakian, John Dolmayan and Shavo Odadjian have inspired. “The amount of people who have responded positively and said, ‘I was having a hard time but I listened to this song and it made a real difference to me, thank you’… I’m like, ‘Wow, thank you.’”

“The intentions behind the words are more important than the words, and you can feel that if you’re sensitive to them”

Listen to Serj on whether he can be defined by his music

But what does SOAD’s catalogue, and indeed Serj’s solo output, mean to the man himself? He freely admits that he doesn’t care about how he’s seen by others, and that he’ll keep making art regardless of how it will define his “legacy”, yet he acknowledges that everything he’s ever put his name to is the real Serj Tankian. This – all this – is Serj’s truth.

“When I listen to hip-hop, I either like an MC or I don’t like an MC immediately, because I either believe them or not,” he begins. “The intentions behind the words are more important than the words, and you can feel that, especially as an artist. I mean every word that I say, I mean every lyric that I sing, I mean every noise that I make. Every joke that I’ve made, I mean it. I was in that moment for me to have done it.”

As we look forward to the next chapter of Serj Tankian’s jokes and noises, away from the Elasticity EP, he’s already got another rock EP ready to go and a 24-minute piano concerto (thanks to lockdown being “a musician’s studio dream”), alongside some film scores marked in the diary. But as for goals outside of music? He leaves a long silence.

“That’s a really hard question,” he eventually responds, gazing away in hope of finding the answer. “My vision has always been to make positive change one way or another. I’d like to see more peace in the world. I’d like to be a part of that in some way. But I’d like to be able to do it through art as well. I don’t know how you’d put it, but I always in my mind that I can be a better artist and a better activist at the same time.

“You do what you’re supposed to do when you’re tied into your vision, and if you’re not, then you’re a dead person walking. You do what you do and you don’t think about it. You don’t think about legacy. There’s a lot I need to do. There’s a lot I need to do with Armenia, a lot I need to do where I live, I have a lot of projects in mind that are not music or art-related. But I want to continue doing music, because music’s my food. I can’t keep on going without it.”

Bon appétit.

Serj Tankian's Elasticity EP is released on March 19 via Alchemy Recordings/BMG

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