Singer-songwriter Serj Tankian

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Singer-songwriter talks about the new breed of activists.

Best known as the unconventional former frontman for the Grammy-winning band, System of a Down, Serj Tankian is a Lebanese-born singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet and outspoken activist. In '07, he launched his solo career and recently released his sophomore disc, "Imperfect Harmonies," produced at his home studio in L.A. He also has a record label, Serjical Strike, releasing music otherwise ignored by the mainstream. In addition to numerous side projects, Tankian co-founded Axis of Justice, aimed at fighting for social justice.


Tavis: Serj Tankian is the former lead singer of the band System of a Down, which sold more than 15 million records. During its time together, the band debuted in 1998. It immediately drew critical acclaim and comparisons to acts like Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine. They’re on hiatus for the moment, but along with Rage guitarist Tom Morello, served as the founder of the activist group Axis of Justice. He’s also out now with his first-ever solo disc; it’s called “Elect the Dead.” Here’s some of the video for the single “Empty Walls.”


Tavis: Serj, good to see you, man.

Serj Tankian: Good to see you, man. Thanks for having me on.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you. My most important question I’ve already asked before we came on the air so you missed this. I was just dying to hear you pronounce your last name. It gets pronounced a gazillion different ways. So you say?

Tankian: Tankian.

Tavis: Tankian. So I’m getting it right, then.

Tankian: Thank you, yeah, you are.

Tavis: I’ve been working on that for three days. (Laughter) Three days working on your last name, a lot of years working on this CD. Finally, your first solo disc. Why now?

Tankian: Well, I’ve been writing music for a long time. I’ve got my own studio, I write a lot of different types of music, from electronic to composing for film, to noise, to experimental –

Tavis: Poetry.

Tankian: Poetry. So this is something I really wanted to do and get some of my music out, and this was a way of doing it. And a lot of these songs were written in the past in demo form, either on piano or acoustic guitar, and these were songs that I felt were emotive and profound in terms of meaning for me, type of songs that I wanted to sing on.

And so I arranged them all. I recorded all the different instruments, composed them in my studio, produced it, and putting it out on my label.

Tavis: So when you write hundreds of songs, as you have literally hundreds of songs, over a period of time and then decide at a certain point in time that I’m going to put out this first-ever solo disc, how do you figure out what, from that vast vault makes it onto the disc?

Tankian: It was the character of the songs themselves. They weren’t songs that I wanted to collaborate with people on or they weren’t pieces of music that I could use for film. They were things that required a voice, a really strong voice, to get through the message and the dynamics of the music, as well. There’s a lot of classical influences on there, really orchestral, humorous things.

A lot of interesting things, so it required a full kind of dedication of all my multi-instrumentalist work as well as my vocals.

Tavis: I suspect the title of this CD could be taken a million different ways. If you sell a million CDs, you’ll get a million different interpretations for what that means. I know how it struck me when I saw the title “Elect the Dead,” but what did you mean to suggest by it?

Tankian: Well, the title’s pretty open to interpretation. It’s named after the song, “Elect the Dead,” which is not very political, actually. It’s very spiritual, talks about love, life, and death and different things. But I have gotten a lot of great responses as to what the meaning could be, like our current leaders are not qualified enough to lead us through these trying times, so we need to look for guidance from past leaders like Martin Luther King, like Gandhi or JFK.

And another friend of mine said it, that possibly the victims of the epitome of civilization should elect our next leader so that we can live in a more just system. That’s another interpretation I liked.

Tavis: Wow.

Tankian: But generally, it stands for – if you look at it politically, if I was to look at it politically, I would say that we need to gain the wisdom from beyond history, beyond the physical, beyond the material, to be able to deal with not just electing our leaders today, but learning how to elect ourselves as leaders to go through these trying times.

Tavis: I’ll take all those.

Tankian: (Laughs) Okay.

Tavis: All those for 500, please.

Tankian: Thank you. You got it.

Tavis: When I saw the title, to your point about Dr. King, and those who watch my program regularly know that I think, without apology, that Dr. King is the greatest American we’ve ever produced – that’s my own personal opinion. But I thought of something that I heard years ago that I’ve become fond of saying, which is that I would rather have the living ideas of the dead than the dead ideas of the living.

Tankian: That’s a great, great way of putting it.

Tavis: I’ll take the living ideas of the dead any day.

Tankian: I like that.

Tavis: Than the dead ideas of the living.

Tankian: I’m going to borrow that.

Tavis: You can have it. You can have it. (Laughter) Whole world saw me say it first, though, Serj.

Tankian: Yeah, you got it, you got the copyright.

Tavis: Without attribution, it’s already out there now. But believe me, I got it from somebody else, so that’s what’s great about putting stuff out there for public consumption. You take it and you run with it. But I thought about that the minute that I saw that, because I think there is a lot to be gained from going back into the past and seeing what – and when you think about the difficulties and challenges that we face now, America has been at these crossroads many times before, and yet we found a way to get through it. But the leadership just seems to be so lacking in so many ways now.

Tankian: Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s a lot that needs to be done. I think our whole electoral process has got to be changed. I think the structure of it, the whole electorate, has to be completely extinguished.

Tavis: You think musically, you can have an impact on that reality? Or at least on a real discussion about America being more progressive?

Tankian: I think music is an intuitive force. It’s this beautiful wave that connects all of us and inspires us, and I think music has the ability – when you listen to a song, you’re not immediately thinking about the lyrics or what’s going on in the mind of the writer, you’re feeling the song. You’re feeling – when I first heard Rage Against the Machine, I felt the protest inside me.

I felt the anti-authoritarianism brewing inside me, and I didn’t even make out the lyrics at the time. Making out the lyrics and having your mind get involved is a double-powerful response, but initially, it’s intuitive. And I think music has the ability to inspire people and to change hearts, and the heart has the power to change the mind, and the mind has the power to change the world.

Tavis: Speaking of Rage, Tom Morello’s been on this program before, and he’s always welcome to come back any time, we enjoy talking to him. So if you talk to Tom, you get a sense of where, from a child, that activism and that energy comes from. Tell me your backstory and how you have become so vocal politically, socially, economically, culturally. What’s your background? Where does that come from for you?

Tankian: Growing up in the U.S. and dealing with the hypocrisy of the denial of the Armenian genocide made me a lot more aware and empathetic toward other causes, be they labor, be the environment, economic, and other national causes for freedom, humanitarian causes. So it made me more aware of other things. How many other truths are there out there that need to be discussed and acknowledged that are not because of geopolitical or economic expediency? And so that made me more aware. It made me an activist, truly.

You and Morello, speaking of activism, are doing some work together. Is it Axis of Justice?

Tankian: Yes, it is.

Tavis: Now I’m just curious. Did that name precede or follow Bush’s axis of evil comment?

Tankian: It followed. It’s a critique.

Tavis: That’s what I thought. (Laughter) I was asking Chris about that, our producer. I said, “I bet Axis of Justice came after axis of evil, because it makes perfect sense.” So tell me what you thought of when you heard axis of evil, and why Axis of Justice comes after that?

Tankian: I’ll give Tom the credit, because he came up with the name, and we were both watching Bush and the axis of evil, and we’re like, “What is this?” It’s like a cartoon thing, it’s kind of like my friend has a comic book company; it’s like one of his characters, the axis of evil. And so Axis of Justice was a way of saying – it was a critique on the utilization of that kind of terminology and dumbing down politics, and also saying that we want to stand for justice, that we want to be involved in presenting justice, no matter whether it’s farmers’ rights, workers’ rights, ecological or recognition of genocide – whatever it is.

Tavis: What’s your sense of how that message of advocacy and activism is starting to impact a younger generation? And I raise that because it seems to me – at least my read of history is that this kind of activism, this kind of engagement, energy amongst young people, is cyclical. It comes and goes over a period of time, but my sense is – my own read is that there’s a new level of energy starting to hit the youth in our community, in our country. But you’re out there singing and performing and talking to these kids. What’s your sense of that?

Tankian: I think that because of YouTube, because of MySpace, because of the digital domain that we have right now on the Internet, the younger generation is much more open to information. I was talking to a friend of mine – I went to Cal State Northridge, I got my degree there, and we didn’t have computers. We didn’t have Google. We couldn’t look things up, and we’re like God, how would it have been to be in that generation back then, and be able to research things in a second?

I think it’s so much easier for them to gain information and trade information, and they have become more aware. In some cases, more aware than their own parents and adults, as to what’s going on in the world. I find that really intriguing and interesting, and I think there is a brewing of a whole new generation of activists coming, but there’s also the underlying feeling in our society that we’re impotent to making change.

And look at the last election and you’ll know why. You got majority popular vote – well, not the last one, but before the reelection, let’s say. You got the popular vote with one guy, and the other guy becomes president. Why would you not feel impotent as a nation? So we need to change those things. We need to – and not change them like expecting candidates to change our world.

They’re not the be-all, end-all of anything. We need to change ourselves to change that, through communication, through activism, through working on these things. We need to get rid of the Electoral College; we need to take money completely out of politics.

No K Street, no PACs, no funding, and equal air time on television for all candidates, and we need to take capitalism – capitalism’s been infused in the idea of democracy in the sense that when we look at candidates we think “Who should I vote for that can win?” instead of “Who should I vote for that best represents my morals, my issues,” which is how we should elect people.

Tavis: I promise next time Serj comes on I’ll get him to come out of his shell a little bit. (Laughter) Tell you what he really feels about the issues of the day.

Tankian: I’ll try to give it a shot.

Tavis: (Laughter) He won’t be so shy next time. I’m delighted to have him here. His new CD, his first-ever solo CD, “Elect the Dead.” Serj Tankian of System of a Down, on hiatus for the moment. And maybe next time you come back you’ll have an update about that, and where you guys are in the process.

Tankian: Absolutely, thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you, man. Glad to have you on.

Tankian: Likewise.

Tavis: Congrats on the CD.

Tankian: Thank you so much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm