Q&A With Serj Tankian

These days, performers often prefer to conduct interviews via e-mail instead of taking part in a telephone chat. There are plenty of good reasons for this switch from their perspective, even if we assume that the individual in question is actually the one sitting at the keyboard (as opposed to a lowly assistant armed with a sheaf of canned answers). Subjects can respond at their leisure, and on their own time, and they don’t have to worry about a slip of the tongue, since they can carefully read over their responses before they press the “send” key. Too bad e-mail Q&As tend to lack spontaneity and the give-and-take that comes from actual lively conversation instead of an approximation of one.

Fortunately, the following cyber-exchange with veteran System of a Down singer Serj Tankian, staged for a March 20 Westword profile, is far better than average. Although his handlers limited the number of inquiries to a mere ten, Tankian tackled each topic floated his way in unexpected detail, exhibiting a depth, thoughtfulness and passion that leap off the screen. Along the way, he dissects a line about democracy from “Unthinking Majority,” a tune from his latest solo recording, Elect the Dead; discusses his juxtaposition of political themes with more personal lyrics; defends the use of a certain c-word in a surprising way; extemporizes about System’s post-9/11 airplay banning by Clear Channel-owned stations; defends the stylistic similarity between Dead and SOAD’s oeuvre; and draws a distinction between “musicians” and “artists.”

Tankian clearly knows the difference.

Westword (Michael Roberts): During "Unthinking Majority," the second song on Elect the Dead, you sing, "We don't need your hypocrisy/Execute real democracy." In your view, what are the differences between real democracy, by your definition, and democracy as practiced in the United States – and do these differences rob the average citizen of his or her voice, thereby allowing politicians to actively defy the will of the people in the implementation of policy?

Serj Tankian: Real democracy is one where there are no levers that may reverse popular vote (electoral reversal in 2000). Where citizens are represented more than corporations or foreign governments and their interests in some cases (K Street lobbying firms, no campaign contribution ceiling for corps like for citizens). Where you have more than one party, or more than two parties that are the different sides of one coin (instant runoff voting would help encourage independent candidates). Where there is a free and non-partisan media to report the truth (imagine that). Side note: BBC World News is a great example of why not all our media should be privatized (without the truth it's never a real democracy, is it?)

WW: Other songs on the album talk about relationships, often in lyrically tender terms: "Saving Us" is an example. This side of your work is frequently overlooked in favor of songs with more overt political meanings. Why was it important for you to include love songs – and do you think their presence causes listeners to react in more emotionally and intellectually complex ways to tracks that touch upon societal ills and global events?

ST: I can never write lyrics on one theme for a record, nor poetry, nor anything else. Our days are filled with multiple emotions, interests, dialogue and interests. Since this was a solo and more personal record, it was easier for me to portray more intimate feelings than with SOAD or any other project. I don't think that changes the way people approach the societal or political themes in the music.

WW: A couple of years ago, I interviewed Daron Malakian, and at one point, he said, "It's important not to take yourself too seriously, and I think people sometimes take us a lot more seriously than we take ourselves." Do you agree with that statement – and if so, how do you balance the seriousness of many of your themes and activities, including your work with Axis of Justice, with a more light-hearted approach to life?

ST: Yes, we all know way too many bands that take themselves too seriously, and that itself is kind of funny. I never have. After all, this is music, not brain surgery. It's magic and math combined. If you can't laugh within your day no matter what you do for a living, you're not really living. Songs like “Lie Lie Lie” are great examples of that.

WW: Does your performance style, which is often very theatrical and extremely entertaining, tie into this philosophy by sending the message that protesting injustice and having a good time while rocking out don't have to be mutually exclusive?

ST: That's a good statement. Thanks, yes. You don't have to be boring to be political. You can be a good human being and work toward justice and have fun in your life as well.

WW: One song on Elect the Dead is entitled "Beethoven's Cunt," and you've named your backing band the Flying Cunts of Chaos. "Cunt" is a word that even many people appalled by the entire concept of censorship avoid as a matter of course under the theory that it's extremely offensive to women, yet you're clearly comfortable using it. To you, does the use of this word symbolize your view that no words should be forbidden, because by making some of them off limits, the denizens of polite society are actually placing limits on our thoughts – and if so, are there examples of other words or phrases that we should be using as a way of defying this mindset?

ST: We called the band the FCC (Flying Cunts of Chaos) to sabotage the real FCC (Federal Communications Commission). So they can penalize themselves. I guess I find it funny that people in Europe tend to use “cunt” lightly, like “bitch” in the U.S., yet us Americans have decided to be appalled at its use. It's just that simple. I never intend to offend anyone at all. I think I've watched too many British gangster films.

WW: Speaking of censorship, immediately following 9/11, an essay entitled "Understanding Oil" that you placed on the System of a Down website was promptly taken down, reportedly at the behest of Sony, the corporate parent of the band's record label, and Clear Channel released a memo advising all of its affiliates to stop playing your music for a time. Are these events evidence that the free exchange of ideas must always be protected and exercised, since this right can be taken away from us at a moment's notice – and if a group as popular as yours can be impacted in this way, is the average American even more at risk of being gagged by commercial or governmental powers?

ST: Absolutely. To clarify, I had placed "Understanding Oil" on SOAD's website without letting the other guys in the band know (which I did commonly, having to do with postings in the Global Action Initiatives section we had that focused on world events). In fairness to them, I agreed to take it down, not because of Sony. We were not forced into that action by Sony, but by the sheer negativity and threats posed to my band (and members). It's one thing to be responsible for yourself but much harder for others… There was an immense amount of reactionism prevailing in America after 9/11, understandably. However, the fact that that made it okay for Clear Channel and others to censor music was very undemocratic and offensive. I mean the Beatles' "Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds" was taken off lists... that's crazy. This is what happens when you allow the media in your country to reach near monopolistic levels of corporate Darwinism through deregulated consolidation. It was the closest I've ever felt to the ´50s, when McCarthyism scared everyone into submission. And the real problem was the media itself not correctly teaching our citizens the truths of our past and current foreign policy and how some of these events can best be avoided and dealt with. And what happened next? All of the goodwill from other nations and people of the word was toilet-ed (new word) in Iraq and the abused for privileged gain. What a surprise. People come back to me now and say, hey you were right in "Understanding Oil" and I say who cares. We're in a number of unjust wars and having to pay the price for it.

WW: On the other hand, such moves may simply be about companies protecting their investment, a point of view of the sort you've undoubtedly heard before, given that you have a business and marketing degree. But is that any excuse for essentially attempting to muzzle speech – and if not, how could Sony and Clear Channel have avoided a backlash that would have cost them money without resorting to such actions?

ST: There's an interesting term Presidents use: "Our interests.” Whenever I've heard "our interests" used, it's been the interests of multinationals in foreign policy terms and not the interests of the American people. Our true interests do not reside in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, South America or anywhere else we've felt compelled to carry out the "White Man's Burden,” "Marshall Law,” or the "Truman Doctrine." Our interests are generally right here, where there's no attention paid to our health care, job security going overseas, Social Security for elders, poorly funded schools, etc. The amount spent on Iraq alone could have fed, clothed, and provided health care and a high degree of education to everyone lacking it in this country. Now if this is a democracy, shouldn't we have been given that option?

WW: Some reviewers criticized Elect the Dead as being too close in tone to System of a Down's work, and you've said in interviews that you initially thought the album would veer away from rock and touch upon classical music, electronic music and other styles in a more overt way. In retrospect, do you wish you'd ventured further afield – or do you feel that you needed to give listeners a recognizable sound in order to establish yourself as a solo artist, and by doing so, you'll be better able to head off in alternative directions in the future?

ST: None of the above really. The music directed and begged for its own instruments and arrangements. I wrote everything on piano and acoustic guitar and could have arranged it in classical or other formats (which is what I had originally anticipated). However, when I started playing around with instrumentation ideas, the drums and guitars seemed pertinent at this time for these songs and the dynamics of the record. There were little thoughts of reaction or appeasement. People are used to hearing my voice on rock songs, so even if I had recorded with another rock band altogether, they would have compared it to SOAD. Can't get away from that, and why should I? That's a big part of me too.

WW: You've expressed your disappointment and frustration at Congress for shelving a measure recognizing the Armenian genocide. Those who opposed the legislation characterized individuals advocating for it as naïve and short-sighted, suggesting that the passage of an entirely symbolic statement about events that took place nearly a century ago, while well-meaning, wasn't worth endangering the U.S. relationship with Turkey, which is portrayed as an important ally in the war on terror. You obviously disagree with this viewpoint, but how do you counter this argument – and do you think warnings about Turkey's reaction to such a move on America's part have been overstated for political reasons?

ST: As a democracy, it would be hypocritical to deny a known genocide for geo-political or strategic expediency. How can we pressure China to deal with their ally Sudan on the Darfur genocide if we can't deal with our own ally Turkey on one that happened 90 years ago and is in our archives? Maybe our profit-over-people ethics are allowing them to continue to occur in the present and possibly in the future. A genocide isn't a point that can be negotiated like trade. It is a human disease that requires knowledge and unity to be abolished from the planet. We also need to carefully define "ally,” especially one who constantly threatens us in a country where the majority of the citizens dislike the U.S.

WW: Throughout your career, you've never dumbed down your material in an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Do you feel that many artists are too easily convinced that they have to squelch their intelligence and compromise their values in a search for commercial success – and do you hope your example demonstrates that it's possible to reach large numbers of people and make a nice living while remaining true to yourself?

ST: I guess so. I'm sure there's some of that. But I also think that musicians have to be artists, not just musicians, to do their (our) jobs justice. The difference is obvious. There are lots of musicians but few are true artists. Artists and poets are the truthful narrators of our times where they take the ethereal gift of the universe and present it in living reality to all.