September 29, 2021

Presiding over a career spanning more than two decades and an eclectic host of genres, Armenian American rock star Serj Tankian has continued to push political and artistic boundaries, undeterred by his critics or naysayers.

I had a chance to speak with the System of a Down frontman in an exclusive interview for the Washington Examiner about culture and politics: the two sides of Tankian’s artistic persona. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Harry Khachatrian: Serj, you’ve never shied away from being a disrupter. Your first major project, System of a Down, introduced a fresh sound to heavy metal that influenced the direction of the entire genre. You’ve since gone on to command a diverse musical career, writing piano concertos, jazz records, and film scores. Can you tell me a bit about the artistic process behind these different projects? Did you go into them with the same intention to innovate? 

Serj Tankian: Musically, I have always been a chameleon. I never really stuck to one genre. We came out with SOAD as this sporadic hard rock that didn’t align with any of our contemporaries at the time. That’s just our musical diversity, born from our influences growing up with Armenian music and growing up in America in the ’70s, and all that music mixed in. Whatever music comes to me, and whatever vibe it asks for, that is how I try to present it — hopefully skillfully. I don’t think an artist should stick to one genre; it can become repetitive and artistically redundant, irrespective of the artist within that genre. Personally, I just love doing different things; they help me grow as an artist.

I’m always interested in exploring new territory. I’m not afraid. A lot of artists are afraid of losing their fans, are afraid of going too far in one direction or another. I think people are afraid because once they venture too far, people may not follow what they do. When I put out a poetry suite with cinematic music, I don’t expect people to gravitate toward that in the same streaming number as Elasticity, which is a rock record. But I will do it. I put out more classical music this year than anything else. It’s because that’s what came to me, that’s what I finished. If you like it, it’s there for you; if you don’t, that’s cool.

Khachatrian: How do you feel about the general direction of music over the last decade, the new technologies for recording and releasing music (digital and streaming)? Do you find yourself hanging on to the analog processes of the past generation at all? 

Tankian: It’s changed drastically over my musical lifetime in the last 25 years. We went from having a typical record company structure, brick-and-mortar distribution, to iTunes taking over the digital market, and then streaming took over. The whole model of the industry changed. And social media, which didn’t exist when we started as a band, changed how we perceive that music as well. It’s revolutionized the industry, whether you view it positively or negatively. Part of that may have contributed to the homogenization of music. But that’s always been there, too. There’s always one artist or band that will create a new sound that becomes extremely popular, and everyone will try to copy that. It’s happened with the Beatles, with the Stones, Zeppelin; it’s happened with everyone.

Khachatrian: I’d like to pivot to politics, which you’ve been almost equally active in throughout your career. Since I Am Not Alone, the documentary you scored on Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution, much has happened. Notably, the Armenian diaspora watched in horror as their ethnic homeland was rocked by a war with Azerbaijan and Turkey, resulting in a ceasefire that invigorated Russian influence over the region. What role do you see yourself, as an artist and activist, playing in the aftermath of all this? 

Tankian: It’s interesting for me to look at our documentary on a historical event and take it forward a few years and see how people’s reactions have changed based on the theme, or the protagonists of the documentary, and how that affects the film and its viewing. It’s mind-blowing to me that, irrespective of how people may feel post-war with the current Armenian government, they would denigrate a documentary film about a part of Armenian history just two years ago when everyone was united. Most of the Armenian nation was incredibly inspired by the change away from the corrosive and corrupt system and the oligarchy that ran Armenia since the early ’90s since the independence from the Soviet Union. This is absolutely something the world should know about.

But they should also know about the war in Artsakh and how Azerbaijan and Turkey used Syrian mercenaries to attack the peaceful democratic republic of people living on their indigenous lands for thousands of years. They should know about the fallout: loss of territory for Armenia, POWs still in Azerbaijan being randomly put through kangaroo courts and imprisoned. It’s a f***ing mess. And a lot of it is being blamed on the current government, which I understand. The current government has made a lot of mistakes. But that doesn’t negate the importance of the peaceful, nationwide revolution that ousted corrupt officials from power.

Khachatrian: Thank you for your time, Serj. What’s next for you? 

Tankian: We have a set of System of a Down shows coming up this October. I plan to release a dozen NFTs of my art with music, animated by Roger Kupelian, an amazing visual effects artist. And I have a few live solo tour releases with my band, the FCC, and likely another EP — this time, rock-electro.

Originally Published at The Washington Examiner