Serj Tankian may not be the only Lebanese-born Armenian singer in the world, but he’s arguably the most famous. As the front man and guiding visionary of System Of A Down, he steered the all-Armenian band through five thrilling records starting with the self-titled release back in 1998 and ending with their most recent, Hypnotize. The outspoken multi-instrumentalist took an extended hiatus away from SOAD, the group he co-founded with guitarist Daron Malakian, to pursue his own solo career. Back in 2007, he virtually single-handedly assembled Elect The Dead, a record that found him pounding on keyboards, plucking on bass guitars, strumming acoustic and electric guitars, and much more. Though there were elements reflected in the music he made with his Armenian brethren, this solo recording was infinitely more personal and self-reflective.
In this email interview that Tankian
turned around in one day (and would you expect anything less from a man who plays all the instruments on his own album?), he looked back at the Elect The Dead
record. But what seemed closer to his heart was wanting to talk about his participation in making known the atrocities committed in the Armenian genocide. He has been personally touched by the event (his grandfather, Stepan Haytayan, only barely survived the mass killings) and has even gone as far as lobbying President Obama himself.
Here, the musical politico – activist musician? – outlines his feelings about his music, his politics, and the condition of the world.
UG: As a Jew, I well understand the realities of genocide. Have you personally ever felt anti-Armenian/Lebanese feelings directed at you? If so, how did you respond?
Serj Tankian: There have been occasions of subtle looks at the mention of the word Lebanese (not so much for being Armenian), especially in the West, but not to the extent that it rewards a reaction in any way.
Was there a trigger episode in your life when you felt you had to stand up and voice your feelings about the Armenian genocide? Or was it a gradual change?
The Armenian Genocide has served as the door to my awakening of all injustice. I guess the hypocrisy of its denial by Turkey and certain elements of Western States came to my attention in my late teens.
Early on, did you think that becoming a musician would allow you a bigger voice in making your feelings known? Or was becoming a musician simply a desire to write/play original music?
"The Armenian Genocide has served as the door to my awakening of all injustice."
A bit of both.
Do you ever think that your political views might offend your audience? Or do you think that your fans (and fans of SOAD) would expect you to make known your political opinions?
Some people are offended by Dali’s art. What we take offense to has greatly to do with ourselves.
Can you talk about working with Tom Morello and Boots Riley?
Tom is an amazing artist, and an even more amazing activist whose work ethic and interaction with different causes inspires me daily and makes me feel the need to do more. He’s my partner in Axis of Justice (www.axisofjustice.org) and one of my best friends.
Boots Riley is a good friend as well, an amazing political MC, and a great friend of the Axis of Justice. We’ve done a bunch of benefit concerts together. He’s always ready to help. Much respect.
What do you hope will happen on April 24th?
A commitment to organize around the lessons learned from Genocide of the past, and help create a body of Genocide intervention in the general Assembly of the United Nations outside the scope of the Security Council. Where once a Genocide is agreed to occur, all nations will be forced to suspend all economic, political and energy ties to the perpetrator until the act stops, while simultaneously sending in humanitarian resources to the victims. Until we prioritize Genocide over everything else, it will not disappear. I also hope that in the near future, the government of Turkey will reconcile its own past and the Genocide committed by its predecessors.
Was Elect the Dead an attempt to make known some of your political feelings? Are there any songs that specifically address the Armenian situation?
Not really. Elect the Dead is my first solo record. Music is what I do. My feelings are always expressed through my music, be they personal, spiritual, political, humorous, or whatever.
There are no particular songs dedicated specifically to the Armenian Genocide though more than one may possibly apply.
How did you develop your chops as a guitarist/keyboardist/bassist/drum programmer? Did you develop those multi-instrumental skills to accommodate/support your vocals?
I’ve been playing music for many years on different instruments. I compose on many instruments ‘cause each tone guides my songwriting in a different way. I like diverse dynamics in music.
You played a little bit of guitar with SOAD? Was there no room in SOAD for you to play more comprehensive guitar parts?
I played guitar on the songs that I wrote for SOAD; usually acoustic, on the record. Live I’d play on a song or two on guitar when I felt like it. I didn’t feel the need to have to play an instrument on every song. Same with Elect the Dead - I wrote and played pretty much most of the instruments on the record, but live, I prefer to only play a few on piano, a few on guitar, and a few on other instruments. I wrote for a whole orchestra in New Zealand, but just sang and played nothing with them. I like performing to an audience and being free to move around and do as I wish.
Rick Rubin produced the SOAD albums – did you learn anything from hanging out with Rick? Have you used any of his production techniques? What did you like/dislike about Rubin’s productions?
"There have been occasions of subtle looks at the mention of the word Lebanese."
Oh yes. I learned a lot from Rick in terms of producing, especially in terms of getting good performances from artists, including from myself.
You co-produced Toxicity with Rick Rubin – what was that like? Does Rick have pretty strong opinions? Was he open to hearing your ideas?
Rick’s always open to hearing ideas. If he disagrees, he will make it clear, though the decision is always for the artist to make in the end. He’s never imposing or strong-handed. Just the opposite, he sets the tone to make things comfortable and supportive for the artist.
Could you address some of the tracks on Elect the Dead? “Saving Us” has a very organic and earthy melody reminiscent of the Bedouins sitting around the fire – where did the melody come from? Was it inspired by traditional music?
I wrote the song in my living room on my favorite Taylor CE-310 acoustic guitar. I added many layers of electric guitars on the actual recording, including a custom First Act guitar, a Les Paul Custom, and a Gibson SG, I think.
Is “The Sky is Over” an ecology song? Was this written on the piano?
I don’t like divulging thematic bounds on songs so people can internalize their own meanings, like a painting. I did write it on my piano in my studio, yes. I have a pretty sizable recording studio with lots of really great vintage gear as well as modern gear, including a bunch of great synths, yes. However for “The Sky is Over,” besides the piano, bass, drums, and guitars, we used some cellos and violins to build some of the sections. We did that on most of the songs on Elect the Dead actually.
Was writing for Elect the Dead a different process than writing for SOAD? Was it more difficult because you were doing everything – or easier? Certainly it must have been more personal?
It definitely was more personal and easier to write and record it in my own studio. It was quite a different process than writing within the framework of a band, rehearsing the songs, then recording the drums then layering all the other elements on top. This one started with one guide instrument, usually an acoustic guitar or piano, then drum programming so I can define my rhythm, then some electric guitars to provide counter melodies to main melody lines, then bass, more guitars, synths, strings, vocals, then finally we replaced the programmed drums with live drums, in most cases. “The Sky is Over” is actually all programmed drums; we ended up liking it over the live patterns, though all performances were great.
Many of these songs seem to have been built around acoustic guitar parts/changes – are you an acoustic guitarist at heart? Or does plugging in an electric give you pleasure?
I used to write everything on electric guitars years ago. However in the past 3-4 years, I wrote most stuff on acoustic (guitar or piano), though I still do a fair share of electronic programming for writing as well.
Does Elect the Dead stand up for you like the first SOAD album? Did you accomplish creatively what you set out to achieve?
"What we take offense to has greatly to do with ourselves."
Yes, it does and yes I think I did. Elect the Dead established me as a solo artist. It is a record that will stand the test of time in my opinion. And I did whatever I wanted to do with it creatively. Now onto other things.
Will you do more solo albums?
Absolutely. I’m releasing a show I did with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra over the summer on CD and DVD. I rearranged a lot of the songs from Elect the Dead for that show (and additional tracks). It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of musically in my life. More soon on that. I’ve also been composing a musical with playwright Steven Sater for a 2010 launch, and a new solo record that I think will be arranged as a jazz/orchestral effort (I say I think ‘cause you never know what the songs may beg for in the end).
Do you think your Armenian Genocide platform has brought more attention to the problem? Has President Obama been responsive?
I think educating people about a genocide they had not heard of is definitely a positive effort. I think Obama has the right intentions, though I’m not sure he’ll be able to maneuver around Turkey.
Is the world capable of healing itself before it destroys itself?
The world yes; civilization no.
Will there come a day when Armenians will walk arm-in-arm with the Turks? When Jews will embrace Arabs?
Yes, when there are no more flags, borders, or governments.
Interview by Steven Rosen
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