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This isn't what Serj Tankian expected for himself. Back in college, he was a business and marketing major and music was just a hobby. At his first job after graduation, he was clean-cut and self-contained, hardly recognizable as the cerebral wild man and staggering vocal talent he would become with System of a Down.
Then music became an obsession, as he discovered a new creative impulse erupting inside himself. In System, he joined guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan to create a revolutionary alt-metal sound that collided Slayer riffs with ancient folk melodies in songs that were complex and confrontational. And as singer, Tankian was as schizoid and unpredictable as the music, shifting from melodic croon to metal howl to nattering diatribe, at times playful, passionate or intensely political.
What wasn't new was his activism. He already had a lifelong commitment to seeing official U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide, when 1.5 million were killed by Turkish forces between 1915 and 1923. (On April 24th, 2021, the genocide was officially recognized by Joe Biden, who became the first U.S. president to do so.) As the high-profile frontman for a multi-platinum, Grammy-winning rock act, Tankian's political activity only deepened.
He tells this story in the new documentary Truth to Power, which charts the impact of his political activity and growth as a musician, both with and without System of a Down. It follows him to Armenia in 2018, as the nation finds its way through a peaceful Velvet Revolution and towards greater democratic freedom.
The film, directed by Tankian's friend Garin Hovannisian, begins with a simple question: "Can music change the world?" The documentary coincides with the release of a new EP, Elasticity, with five songs Tankian originally wrote for a never completed System album. The title song is emphatic and surreal, while the frantic "Electric Yeravan," celebrates an earlier Armenian protest movement.
After a long hiatus from action, Tankian and System reunited in 2011 and toured the world, but anyone hoping for new music from the quartet were disappointed until late last year, when the band unexpectedly dropped two new songs, "Protect the Land" and "Genocidal Humanoidz," the first new music from System in 15 years. All the internal discord over how System would move forward on creating new music abruptly fell away for an urgent cause: to rally attention and support for the band members' shared ancestral homeland as it faced war with Azerbaijan.
The band's future as a source of new music remains uncertain, but Tankian plans to keep busy, with another EP later this year and the debut of a 24-minute classical "modern piano concerto." His need to speak out and create is as strong as ever.
HOW HAVE YOU BEEN SURVIVING THE PANDEMIC?
SERJ TANKIAN We were in New Zealand until October. During the actual lockdown, I was very prolific. I got to write a lot or finish a lot of music that I had started. That was the only positive thing I can think of for the whole year, honestly. It's been the worst year of my life likely and probably for other people.
WAS ELASTICITY RECORDED DURING THIS PERIOD?
No, the Elasticity songs were originally written anywhere from four to five years ago, some older than others, but mostly within the same time period. It was finished before lockdown.
DO YOU WRITE DIFFERENTLY WHEN IT'S FOR SYSTEM OF A DOWN OR IS IT JUST ABOUT WHAT'S COMING OUT OF YOU AT A GIVEN MOMENT?
That's a good question. I was earmarking the project for System of a Down. I had the song "How Many Times?" for many years, and then "Electric Yeravan" came to me inspired by the protests in Armenia in 2015, '16. It was so rock and System-esque. I'm always surprised by what comes, because I believe that we are at best skilled presenters of the collective unconscious inspiring us as artists. What came was rock because that's the language of protest.
It influenced me to go: "If I was to write more rock songs today, what would they sound like?" And with System, obviously we've been wanting to do a record for many years. The other songs came because I focused on that sphere. But because we weren't able to see eye to eye and move forward on things, I decided to finish them myself. When you write a song, you just think of how to finish the song. You don't think of anything else.
AS YOU'VE DONE BEFORE, THE SONGS HERE CAN GO FROM QUIET TO EXPLOSIVE PRETTY ABRUPTLY.
Creatively, I've always had this Dada-esque kind of vibe, a Zappa-y kind of vibe where even the 24-minute modern piano concerto was basically having different pieces of music marry each other that didn't have a preexisting relationship and making it work. I find that really interesting in every aspect: lyrically, musically, because a lot of music has already been done. What did John Lennon say? All the songs and chords have already been written. It's interesting to create relationships from things that don't normally co-relate.
WHAT CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE SONG "RUMI"?
I'm 53 and my son was born when I was 47. I was at a point in my life where I had done a lot of music, I had toured the world, and having a child was an incredible new inspiration. I love writing at the piano or picking up an acoustic guitar. When I'm sitting down and just messing about, he's there playing with his toys and yelling and you integrate that into your mood at the time.
When I was playing those piano chords originally, he was yelling and singing along to the notes. He caught my attention, so I started singing to him: "Oh, dear Rumi ..." My wife and I named him that because of the Sufi poet, Rumi, from the Persian empire in the 1200s. He is one of the most celebrated and loved poets in the world. I thought it would be really inspiring to mix the two vibes.
IN THE VIDEO FOR "ELASTICITY," THERE'S A TATTOO ON SOMEONE'S ARM OF YOUR FACE THAT STARTS SINGING. THERE'S A MILLION TATTOOS OF YOU LIKE THAT OUT IN THE WORLD. DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU SAW YOUR FACE ON SOMEONE'S BODY?
Yes! Not specifically, but I definitely was shocked, surprised and complimented beyond compliments. I don't have tattoos, so my first reaction was, why would you do this to your body? Then I'm like, Oh my God, what a huge compliment. I guess it's less painful than taking a knife and doing "Slayer" on your arm, right?
THE TRUTH TO POWER DOCUMENTARY TELLS YOUR PERSONAL STORY WHILE ALSO CHARTING YOUR POLITICAL AWARENESS AND MUSICAL EVOLUTION. WHY WAS THAT A STORY YOU WANTED TO TELL?
In 2011, I decided to strap a camera to my head and record everything because I was going to have the most interesting dynamic professional year — between System of a Down coming back to tour together [and] my solo band touring, I was writing and working on three different records, Harakiri, my symphony, Orca, and Jazz-Iz-Christ.
I recorded a lot of stuff. Originally, I thought of making a POV movie. But in time I realized that I'm not a great director and everyone's going to throw up. My dear friend Garin Hovannisian is a director that lives between Armenia and the United States. I gave him all the footage that I had, and he said, "What do you really want out of this?" And I said, "I want to see the progression of an activist." It's a really interesting journey. It shows the battles that we've waged with System of a Down and myself for recognition of the Armenian genocide, the Velvet Revolution in Armenia, and numerous social political causes.
It's also about the punishment for speaking as an artist in times where it might work against you. It's very easy to say truths when public opinion is on your side. It's very difficult to say them when public opinion is confused or not on your side, but they still remain truths. The way I look at it is, I don't give a fuck. I was an activist before being an artist. I've never had to compromise my truth for trying to be a grander artist or anything of that sort, because that would mean nothing to me as a human being or as an artist if I can't always be speaking the truth.
IN THE FILM, THERE ARE PICTURES OF YOU SHORTLY AFTER YOU GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE AND YOU WERE CLEARLY ON A VERY DIFFERENT PATH, AT LEAST EXTERNALLY. YOU DIDN'T LOOK LIKE AN ARTIST UNTIL LATER, WHEN YOUR WHOLE PERSONA SEEMED TO CHANGE. WHAT SHIFTED YOUR DIRECTION?
Unlike my bandmates in System of a Down, who started playing music when they were six or eight years old, I started playing music in university with a small Casio keyboard, just as a way of meditating away from my studies and away from a lot of the issues I was dealing with in my life at the time. In my early twenties, I graduated with a marketing degree. Music was my hobby. It took me a few years to realize that's my vision. I had to go to the far reaches of who I don't want to be for me to shock myself into admitting who I do want to be.
WAS THERE ANY TENSION AS THOSE PERIODS OF YOUR LIFE OVERLAPPED?
It's all happening at the same time. When I decided to do business and marketing, it's not because I was in love with business or marketing. I couldn't think of anything else to do. I had a software company at one point. I've done a lot of interesting things that led me to this particular road of music and art, and I don't regret a moment of it. Someone asked me, "If you could talk to your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give him?" I wouldn't say a thing.
THINGS WORKED OUT PRETTY WELL.
It's like Back to the Future, right? If you fuck with one thing, everything else gets fucked up.
AT THE BEGINNING OF THE FILM, YOU'RE ASKED, "CAN MUSIC CHANGED THE WORLD?" AND BY THE END, A LEADER OF THE VELVET REVOLUTION SAYS SYSTEM'S PERFORMANCE IN ARMENIA WAS A DIRECT INSPIRATION FOR HIM.
In 2015, System of Down played Armenia for the 100th commemoration of the Armenian genocide. It was the show that we were almost created to do. It was like the climax of our band's career. I'm not sure the other guys would agree, but that's how I feel about it. It was the perfect marriage of music and art and a powerful message where it's needed. It's not just the music obviously, but I've also been an activist behind the scenes, always talking and posting and displaying and protesting. So it's also putting up the work, not just saying the words, that's important to me.
There's scenes of the film where I land in Yerevan, and I'm greeted by Nikol Pashinyan, who is now prime minister of Armenia. But just seeing the people's faces — at the time they were elated because they realized that they can finally have a vision into their own future the way that they want. I've never seen anything like that. I've played Rock in Rio with 120,000 crazy Brazilians and seen a lot of happy people rocking, but I had never seen the elation. Unfortunately, it's the polar opposite of what Armenia is experiencing now, post the war and the Turkish, Israeli attacks on Artsakh and the humanitarian catastrophe that Armenia is experiencing.
WHICH LED TO TWO NEW SYSTEM SONGS. HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT CREATING NEW SYSTEM MUSIC?
It was perfect because it was like calling 911. The Armenian people were having a horrible war thrown upon them. And Azerbaijan had really done something called caviar diplomacy over the years wining and dining politicians. They had a huge onslaught of social media warriors trying to make themselves the victims, even though they were the attackers in the war.
We needed to break through that, and that's what these two System songs did. It really made an impact at the time that it was necessary. So I'm extremely proud of my guys and what we accomplished. Daron had a song called "Protect the Land" with lyrics in mind for that cause and all of us jumped at it because we just wanted to get something done, like, today. We didn't even want to think, "Oh, is that ending right?" Fuck it, we gotta put this out next week! That was our vibe.
I was in New Zealand. They were in the U.S. It's incredible when you put everything aside and find some other purpose that you're doing it for. And we've donated 100 percent of the band's proceeds of those songs to the Armenia Fund. Probably over the long run it will be over a million dollars that we're donating. It's going to be focused on prosthetic fitting and rehabilitation for young 19-, 20-year-old soldiers that were blown into bits by drones that they never saw coming.
ASIDE FROM THOSE SONGS, THE MUSIC ON ELASTICITY WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED FOR A SYSTEM PROJECT, AND AT LEAST SOME OF THE SONGS ON THE LAST ALBUM FROM DARON'S BAND SCARS ON BROADWAY WERE WRITTEN FOR A SYSTEM RECORD. OBVIOUSLY, THERE'S SOME DESIRE THERE TO RECORD TOGETHER. WHAT DO YOU PREDICT FOR THE FUTURE?
I have no predictions. The important thing is for us to always maintain the respect and love that we have for each other. As long as that exists, we'll work with each other one way or another. Whether new music will come forth, time will tell if we can galvanize and put aside ... I don't want to get into the specifics of this because it's been laid out within the press, on Facebook and all of this stuff as to what he said, she said, she said, he said. If we're able to see eye-to-eye and continue making music together, that would be amazing. If we can't, that's OK. As long as we remain friends, that to me is the most important thing, because that's what made us do what we just did.