Art, activism, and Armenia: Serj Tankian speaks candidly in h-pem exclusive
July 30, 2020
In this exclusive interview, Serj Tankian speaks candidly with h-pem editor Rupen Janbazian about everything from the Armenian community's reactions to System of a Down's early days to his move to New Zealand, his years of activism, and his lifelong love for Armenian culture.
Let’s face it. In 2020, Serj Tankian needs no introduction, especially in an Armenian-interest publication.
But two decades ago, even after his all-Armenian metal band System of a Down had released their debut album and amassed a sizable following, many in the Armenian community of Southern California and abroad were not all that enthused about what may have seemed like four Armenian guys making a lot of noise on stage to them.
“When we first started, it was a curiosity. And like all small nations, we tend to give each other more credit when someone outside of our own nation gives us credit,” Serj explained during a recent conversation with h-pem.
System of a Down likely looked, sounded, and felt different than anything the Armenian community had experienced at the time. From crazy hair to even crazier facial hair, from body paint to their politically-driven, often dark, and sometimes silly songs, it was a type of band many in the community probably hadn’t been previously exposed to. Even the few write-ups about the band that were published in the Armenian press at the time weren’t, in Serj’s words, “all that complimentary.” (We dug up one of the articles he was referencing. It was from Nov. 1998 and entitled “System of a Down: Is it Art or Rabble Rousing?” You do the math…)
Serj, though, is careful not to dismiss the overwhelming love and support he and the band have received since and his connection with the Armenian community—from his birthplace Beirut, to his hometown of Los Angeles, and beyond—has only grown and become stronger over the years. So has his relationship to the Republic of Armenia, where he has focused much of his time and energy recently: from performing a number of times to forming a nonprofit with some well-known friends to help bring justice and transparency to the country.
Serj has always been an activist—even before becoming an artist, as he explains—so it’s no surprise that since this conversation last month, as the situation on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border (and subsequent spillover into the Armenian and Azerbaijani Diasporas) has intensified, Serj has been bringing attention to Azerbaijan’s ongoing aggression against Armenia and Armenians.
As a lifelong fan, you could imagine the number of questions I had hoarded over the years, but with about 24 time zones and 16 hours between us, I tried being as succinct as possible.
Of course, that wasn’t possible...
Rupen Janbazian: You were born in Beirut and moved to LA at a very young age. During a recent sit down with Vahe Berberian, you mentioned the history of Armenians experiencing racism at the turn of the last century, in places like Fresno. Is that something you experienced coming from Beirut in the 70s?
Serj Tankian: No, because we went straight into Armenian school in Hollywood and grew up in the warm confines—the warm arms—of the Armenian community. So, it’s not something I experienced. And honestly, in the 70s and 80s, there wasn’t much racism [against Armenians]. I don’t know how much racism there has been towards Armenians in the Los Angeles area—there hasn’t been a lot, unlike the San Joaquin Valley and people growing up at the turn of the century.
This is how I would consider racism: Even going to university there, your attitude’s always going to be different than your predominant, Caucasian (well, we’re [Armenians] from the Caucasus, we’re the first Caucasians!)—predominant white mentality, and when you challenge those things, you sometimes get the extreme reaction of “go back to where you came from.” I’ve gotten that my whole life. And the more I became an activist for not just Armenian things, the more I’ve been hearing that.
I still hear it: “Go back to your country!” and I’m like “I’ve been here since I was seven. I’m 52!” It’s like, “I live in New Zealand, too, so which country do you want me to go back to? I go to all the countries. Fuck you, you need more countries!” So, there is that, but that’s not necessarily anti-Armenian racism—that’s anti-immigrant racism. And you see that…
R.J.: How about discrimination within the Armenian community? As a kid coming in from Beirut, did you experience any kind of discrimination, at school, for example?
S.T.: No, no. Because, you had Beirutahais (Armenians from Beirut) and [Armenians] from all over. At the time, you didn’t have many Hayastantsis (Armenians from the Republic of Armenia), because it was the 70s and there wasn’t a lot of immigration allowed from Armenia during the Soviet times. So, you had some kids from Armenia, but most of us were from Beirut or Baghdad or Iran or the U.S. and what not. So, I didn’t experience any inter-Armenian racism… Just inter-Armenian shit-talking! Which is present, even until now…
R.J.: Interesting you mention that. You’ve recently spoken about the importance of Armenians supporting movements like Black Lives Matter. Not too long ago, you shared Arpi Movsesian’s article in the Armenian Weekly. You had captioned it, “I was thinking of writing something about this when I saw it.” What would you have written if you were to write an article entitled, “Black Lives Should Matter to the Armenian Diaspora”?
S.T.: Stuff along those lines [in the article], really. I don’t understand how Armenians could be right-wing in any country in the world, based on our experience as a nation—based on our suffering, based on our being treated as second-class citizens for over 600 years under the Ottoman Empire and having lived in different countries in the diaspora under different governments, from Islamic governments in the Middle East to the West. It’s beyond me how certain Armenians are not in touch with that empathy. Maybe they see themselves differently than my generation coming to the U.S. from Lebanon and growing up there. It’s just, I don’t get how some can be non-empathetic.
I still think that a majority of Armenians around the world are empathetic, not just to Black Lives Matter, but a lot of causes of other people—of other people suffering genocide, of other people suffering atrocities. Overall, we’re very geopolitically astute about everything having to do with the Middle East, since some of us are from there. But there is also a very interesting—well, I don’t want to use the word “interesting” because it’s not really positive—but this thing with rightward migration with American politics, specifically, that has also encompassed some of the Armenian community, and I think it’s hypocritical. I don’t get it, I don’t understand it, I’m trying to understand it, and I’m trying not to be pissed off about it.
It’s not a matter of white and black—these aren’t “color” things—think of where we came from, think of our tribe, think of our people, our culture. And look at these other people. There are no “white people” in America, as far as I’m concerned: There are Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Americans from all over the world. The only natives are the Indigenous people—Native Americans. And they withstood genocide that is still unrecognized. So, if Armenians [of the U.S.] want to be empathetic, the first people they would be empathetic to are the indigenous people of the lands that they’re living on.
I still think that a majority of Armenian around the world are empathetic, not just to Black Lives Matter, but a lot of causes of other people—of other people suffering genocide, of other people suffering atrocities.
It’s been irking [pokes his arm]. And, I don’t know, I hope that people will break out of it. Partially, maybe we do have our own racist tendencies as Armenians. A lot of Armenians can be racist toward other people, I don’t know. It’s one thing to have these preconditioned “stupidities” if you haven’t experienced a culture; it’s another thing to have those same tendencies if you grew up in a country that’s a melting pot. But, I’m hoping that reasonable minds will prevail.
R.J.: Speaking of folks in the Armenian community’s reactions to “the other,” you were starting a metal band with a bunch of other Armenian guys with Soil and then System of a Down. You were sounding different, looking different. What was that like within the Armenian community? What were some of the reactions to all that, at the time?
S.T.: When we first started, it was a curiosity. And like all small nations, we tend to give each other more credit when someone outside of our own nation gives us credit. And that’s how it really happened. Not to diss the Armenian love that we’ve gotten, because, as a band, we get a lot of love from our people. But when we first started, I remember an early interview in AIM [the now-defunct Armenian International Magazine] or something like that and it wasn’t very complimentary! It was just like “These are crazy guys, they’re doing this crazy thing. Let’s see what happens!” And I’m like, “OK. Well, that’s very non-supportive,” you know.
But our friends—we had a lot of Armenian friends in LA growing up with us, so, along with our fans, it became this organic musical thing. And, of course, it grew way beyond that very quickly and very early. Once we started getting some love from press outside of our own circles, people started looking into it, a lot more people started coming to the shows, they started loving the music, and then it became an organic “These are our guys,” and “This is our band, and we love them,” and it grew from there.
But our raising awareness about the Armenian Genocide basically sealed our love from our people internationally, because that’s just a part of all of our beings—of who we are and our grandparents’ stories. When we openly talked about [the Armenian Genocide], unlike a lot of other people that have had celebrity status in the U.S. and around the world, we were loved for it, and I am very thankful for that.
R.J.: I’m sure the activism helped “turn” some Armenians to System, but for me, as a 12-13-year-old watching the “Chop Suey” music video on TV for the first time and seeing the Armenian flag in an otherwise very dark, colorless video, I thought to myself, “Everyone’s going to love them now!” Whose idea was it to get the flag in there, anyway?
S.T.: It wasn’t ours! A friend of ours had come in and he just had it with him! It’s kind of a funny story, so I’ll tell it. When we were looking at the takes, the shots, I saw that the flag was there. I had two Armenian friends with me: one from Bolis (Istanbul), Arto Tuncboyaciyan, and another friend from France. I remember, Arto at the time was like, “Why is the flag in there? Why does it have to be a national thing?” because that’s his experience, and I understand that, as well. I actually gave it credence and thought about it and I’m like, “Yeah, maybe it shouldn’t be in there. Why is that shot in there?”
I mean, it was in the shot. It’s not like we decided to have it in there. But then, my French-Armenian friend Diran said, “You know what? I get that side of the argument, but do you realize that we’re such a small fucking nation that if we don’t have our flag there…” [laughs] You know, it’s not a bad thing! It’s not a pride or right-wing or patriotism thing. It’s a “Look at me! I’m fucking here! I survived, look at me!” thing. And I’m like “Oh, I definitely get that.” In that little clip, in that little story, there were all these points of consideration that we were—at least I was—going through. I don’t know if any of the other guys even had this conversation! [Laughing] They were probably like, “Oh, that’s cool!”
R.J.: Another thing that we'd get excited about as fans was the fact that the first System show was on May 28, 1995 [anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Armenia]. Was that a coincidence?
S.T.: Was it? May 28? I don’t remember.
R.J.: Sure was. May 28, 1995…
S.T.: No shit! Wow, OK. We should ask [System of a Down bassist] Shavo [Odadjian], because he helped us book our first show at the Roxy, opening for an industrial band that we were friends with. He would know because he helped make the booking. We didn’t have an agent or a manager. We didn’t have anyone at the time, so he would probably remember if we asked him.
That’s a good question. I should ask him if it was on purpose, or if it just ended up landing on that day. We’ll see...
R.J.: Let’s talk a little about your move to New Zealand. You’ve mentioned before that you have a “special connection” to the country, that you’ve felt a sense of belonging there that you hadn’t really felt anywhere else. How was the transition from somewhere like LA—a place where you had your community, friends, family, and loved ones—to a place that is quite isolated, only has a small Armenian community, and is far from the folks closest to you? That must have been quite the adjustment.
S.T.: True. I first came to New Zealand in 1999 or 2000 on the Big Day Out Tour—we were doing this tour of Australia and New Zealand with System. I did have a special feeling toward [New Zealand]. But beyond the intuitive feeling of belonging, I also really had researched about New Zealand—about their non-nuclear stance, their environmental stance, their indigenous to modern balance. New Zealand is one of the only British post-colonial nations—Commonwealth, if you will, like Canada, where you’re at—which has an agreement with its indigenous population. The British were scared to death from the Māori—they were fighters, they created trench warfare. So, there was a deal in place and a lot of “Crown land” in New Zealand is Māori land. Of course, there are still issues between the indigenous and the modern— there’s still a lot of contention. But at least New Zealand recognized the Māori culture as the culture of the country, whereas Canada doesn’t, the U.S. doesn’t. So, I think that’s very important.
And it’s a small country. There is something to be said about being a person from a small nation—like Armenians—and living in a large country like Russia or the U.K. or America: I think we’ll never, ever feel right. So, I think a part of New Zealand’s attraction to me was that. And, being an activist, as someone who has always fought for justice, more transparency—you can’t find a more transparent government and system than either New Zealand or somewhere in, say, Northern Europe, like Iceland or Sweden or Finland or Norway. It’s all of these things. At the time I moved to New Zealand, it had the second-best public education system in the world. So, there are many reasons I decided to move here.
But also—and I won’t be shy away from saying this—I saw a breakdown in the U.S. of the social contract of the citizenry with their government and with each other many, many moons ago. So, what’s happening now in the U.S. is no surprise to me, in every way: whether it’s the handling of the COVID situation or the cut in the public education system since the 1980s, since Reagan’s time; mass incarceration; racial imbalance; income inequality. All these things are going on, and I can’t see a way out
But, then again, like you mentioned, it was also just a feeling of really being at peace in a place you come to and think, “I’ve never felt this in my life before. Let me explore it.” And I explored it for many years before getting a place and getting my residency and what not. I’m a U.S. citizen and a New Zealand resident. I like spending time here. I do miss my family, I do miss my friends. That’s the downside, but I’ve toured for so many years that I’m used to that being a little detached, then coming together again and enjoying each other.
R.J.: Over the years, you’ve had quite a bit of activity with, and in, Armenia, as well. Did you feel that connection—the intuitive connection you mentioned—with Armenia, too?
S.T.: Of course, of course. I think we all feel that connection. Like I said, I’ve always been an activist, even before becoming an artist, so the continued corrupt practices of the previous governments in Armenia over the years were really grating on our people; they were voting with their feet, as they say—they were leaving the country and depopulation was the largest issue. It was prototypical of a very overt, corrupt, oligarchic system, and it needed to go. But how? That was the question.
And so, myself, your compatriots from Toronto, Arsinee Khanjian and Atom Egoyan, my friend Eric Nazarian, we went in 2017 and formed a non-profit called Justice Within Armenia. We went there and tried to participate as monitors in the parliamentary elections. For many years, myself and a bunch of other Armenians have been fighting for transparency, justice within Armenia. But most importantly, the people living in Armenia. They fought and they felt like there was a wall that they couldn’t pass because it was too difficult. There was apathy; they thought that things wouldn’t change.
The first time I played in Armenia was in 2010 with my backup band, the FCC…
R.J.: I was at that show!
S.T.: 2010? No shit? Cool, cool! The mic didn’t work for the first seven minutes, you remember that? [Laughs]. There was a huge head of Lenin that was taken off to the side; it was so surreal…
Anyway, that was the first time. The second time was at the opening of TUMO, in 2011, with an orchestra, and at that show, I remember seeing the faces of the young people. It was during the time of Serzh Sargsyan’s regime, obviously, and I got a glimpse of the hope of Armenia’s future—a small glimpse. And when we played with System in 2015 [at the outdoor concert in commemoration of the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide]. I literally saw the future of Armenia in the faces of the young people. I said, “Oh, shit! Shit’s going to change and it might not take 20 years!” But, then again, I had no idea it would only take three years for the peaceful revolution to occur...
R.J.: Three years to the day…
S.T.: Right, exactly to the day.
R.J.: I was at that show too, by the way.
S.T.: Were you? [Laughs] Cool! Hope you didn’t catch a cold!
R.J.: I made it out OK! Let’s shift gears a bit. Arts and culture have several different facets. You also paint. Now, the leap from musician to fine artist may not be the most surprising. Musicians also create, and the medium in which they channel their ideas can be flexible. Why and how did you get into painting?
S.T.: I got into painting for two reasons: One, I wanted to see what my music looked like, because each of my paintings is musically scored. And two, I got into painting because, for years, I saw series of paintings almost like a film in a gallery and I would want to score each one, or have one score from one to the other. The concept was exciting and interesting to me.
So, I started out and did my first painting from a musical piece that I had on piano, and luckily, I really liked it! So, I kept on doing it, and I’ve done a number of exhibitions, mostly in places where I paint—in Los Angeles, in New Zealand. Group exhibitions, museum exhibitions, all sorts. We have an optical recognition app now, made in Armenia, called Arloopa. It’s a free, downloadable app for your phone, which basically recognizes a painting when you point your phone at it, and it plays the accompanying score to it.
I think painting takes me to the original exploratory and experimental perspective I had as a musician, before I figured out what the hell I was doing with music. And I like that!
R.J.: You touched upon this earlier, and you’ve mentioned this before, that, for you, the most beautiful thing about a country isn’t its flag, its borders, or its GDP, and military might, but rather, the culture of its people. You called the different cultures of the world the “beauty and spice of life that makes us different and special, but also makes us all more alike.” What is it that makes Armenia and Armenian culture different and special, but also one we can share with the world?
S.T.: I’m not sure if I can point to specific creative landmarks. We’ve had incredible artists: from [Russian-Armenian artist Ivan] Aivazovsky, in terms of painting, to [composer Aram] Khachaturian, in terms of classical music. We’ve made such incredible contributions for such a small nation and we still continue to do so. There are larger countries with way less actors, producers, musicians, painters, and all sorts of artists.
I think that, like the Irish, we’re strong on the art gene, if we allow ourselves to explore it. But we also have had the genocide in our history, which makes us much like the Jews, in terms of wanting our kids to become professionals: fear of not having food, fear of strife—especially my parents’ generation, who are the first generation after the genocide. Luckily with my parents, my dad was a musician himself, so he never really pushed his own agenda on my future; he allowed me to be who I wanted to be and encouraged me to be so. And I think that’s really important, because I do believe we have strong cultural genes, as Armenians, like the Irish. Some nations have more of that than others, I guess.
What can we share specifically? I don’t know. It’s specific colors and moods and feelings that we portray through our arts. It’s that when the duduk plays, the melancholy of that—no other culture can exactly do that the same way or make you feel that same way. Which is why when I toured with my symphony Orca, throughout Europe and Russia and what not, I had different orchestras that I was working with—one from the Czech Republic, one from Russia, and so forth—but I would bring out my duduk player from Armenia, Vardan Grigoryan, and we would do Act Four, which has a duduk solo.
And it’s just like, man, you see these foreign audiences in these beautiful concert halls, where you can hear everything, playing with the orchestra and having the duduk come in and people were looking up, like it was almost alien to them—they were looking up, like, “Where is this coming from?” It was so amazing to see people that haven’t been exposed to that instrument, that music, that emotion. I saw people crying—Austrians crying in Lindtz in the Brucknerhaus. It’s an amazing thing!
So, you ask what has our culture given or can give? We have all these gifts; it’s a matter of getting it out there. We have incredible talent in Armenia, and we need to find ways to be surrogates—to get them out there, play European festivals, have management, meet with people, expand horizons, give them opportunities. Because culture is digital—most of the output of culture is international, it’s global, it’s digital. Especially music and film. There is no reason why we can’t help spread it.
R.J.: You mentioned your father’s musical talents earlier. You also just mentioned the beauty of Armenian music. You’ve been dabbling in Armenian music, too, over the years. From your collaboration with your dad, to your single “Artsakh,” to performing a song written by Armenia’s Prime Minister. Why did you decide to start performing Armenian songs after all these years, and how is it different from performing what we’re used to hearing from you?
S.T.: It's not really different at all. I guess when you write a song, the intuitive words that come to you, and thoughts that come to you, prefer a certain language. Just like there are emotions in Armenian that you can’t properly portray in English. Vice versa, as well. So, when the words come, you feel like, “oh, I got to say this,” and you say it in that language.
I think that, like the Irish, we’re strong on the art gene, if we allow ourselves to explore it.
So, it’s really very organic, it’s very natural. But in terms of working on a song that is Armenian versus not [Armenian], musically it’s not much different for me. The music is pretty much the same. Lyrical content might be different. And, sure, more people understand the English, but it doesn’t mean you have to write it in English because of that.
R.J.: Our platform has thousands of young, Armenian and non-Armenian followers. Many of them are aspiring artists. I hate to ask the cliché question here, but what advice would you give a budding musician, painter, writer, or poet?
S.T.: When I started, there was no internet; it was very brick and mortar. We had physical demos we would pass out to people at shows. We would sign them up to our database. I remember, early on, putting our demo on the beginnings of the internet, when the internet just started. And no one was doing that, I mean, this was before Myspace and all that. And I’m like, “Oh, we don’t have to send you a demo; it’s on the web! Here’s the link,” and people were like “What’s that?!” That’s when we started. So, it’s hard for me to really look at younger artists developing now and tell them what the best tools are for them, because they know better than I do, really. They came up in this generation, where you have direct communication with people that you didn’t have before, via the world wide web. It’s interesting.
That said, it’s very much harder. In some ways, arts have been democratized; the technology is there and anyone can make music in their living room, anyone can shoot a film on their phone. But the ability to make quality art has not necessarily gotten better. Anyone can shoot with their phone, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to make a great film. And I’m not a learned artist. I’ve composed for orchestras and I’ve never learned composition, so I’m not necessarily saying that everyone should go study their art to the nth degree either. I think when somebody is really creative, they’re going to be creative, no matter what. And if they want to study, then that’s great. And if they don’t and just want to create, I think that’s fine, too.
I think the only lesson, the only advice that I would have is always be honest with yourself. When you wake up in the morning, the energy of the thrill of whatever excites you creatively, always do that; don’t do something else.
Stick to that energy, because that’s what’s going to get you through your day and that’s what’s going to make sure that you’re on your vision as an artist. And, I’ve always said that as a musician—and I’m not sure if this applies to the other arts—but if you can’t burn your own backyard down, you can’t burn the world. Which means you have to have attraction locally for you to become something globally. So, if you play live shows, people have to be raving about you in that little, little community or that little, tiny club and be like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen” and tell each other—there’s still that word-of-mouth, of course, which can be translated online. Use all your social media prowess to expand your database.
But, more than anything, create something no one has created and blow my fucking mind and your fucking mind, so that you’re like, “Wow! This is incredible!” That’s it. That’s really it.
R.J.: Thanks for taking the time for this, Serj. We really appreciate your ongoing support.
S.T.: Thank you. I appreciate it as well. I think Hamazkayin is great! My mom and dad were both in Hamazkayin—my dad sang, my mom danced in the troupe. I think it’s a phenomenal cultural organization.
H-Pem is awesome, I think it’s a great idea to try to connect Armenian artists around the world and support them and connect with each other. I think the whole premise is amazing, so I wish you great luck… further luck!
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