System of a Down's Serj Tankian Sings of Hope and Utter Despair
When Serj Tankian takes on political and social issues on his new solo album, Elect the Dead, he doesn't mince words. In the most political song on the album, "The Unthinking Majority," he writes about a hypocritical warmongering government running a society controlled by antidepressants (in 2006, over 227 million antidepressant prescriptions were dispensed in the United States.):
We don't need your democracyElect the Dead is Tankian's first solo project after 10 years with the best-selling metal band System of a Down. An unconventional musician with a distinctive voice and complete creative control, Tankian plays almost every instrument on the album's 12 songs. "It's liberating because all the choices are mine. With this record, all success or failure rests with me," he says.
Execute them kindly for me
Take them by their filthy nostrils
Put them up in doggie hostels
We don't need your democracy
The unthinking majority
Part rock, part jazz, and everything in between, Elect the Dead invokes feelings of hope, frustration, inspiration and utter despair about our current state of affairs.
On and off stage, Tankian takes on issues like environmental destruction, capitalism, and the hypocrisy of pro-war preachers. The 10th track on Elect the Dead is appropriately called "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition." Each song, which is accompanied by a video created by film directors, painters and digital artists, is available free of charge on Tankian's official website.
Born in 1967 in Beirut, Lebanon, to Armenian parents during tumultuous political times, Tankian lived in his birthplace until 1975, when his family emigrated to Los Angeles. He says he became politicized by the hypocrisy of the denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915. Tankian's interview with his late grandfather, Stepan Haytayan, a survivor of the genocide, is featured in the documentary Screamers.
AlterNet's Rose Aguilar caught up with Serj Tankian to talk politics just a few hours before he rocked a sold-out crowd at the Warfield in San Francisco on Saturday. He'll be on tour for the next three months.
Rose Aguilar: In past interviews, you've said it's important to make a statement with your music, not just put out a record. I've been to a few of your shows and you have a very captive audience. Do you feel a responsibility to discuss political issues and promote activism?
Serj Tankian: No, I've never felt like it's our responsibility to speak out as artists. I think everyone's responsibility is to speak from the heart. It's not just artists' job or responsibility to talk about the truth. It's all of ours. We're human beings, and we live on this planet together, collectively. We need to be truthful. In terms of sociopolitical music or political music in general, speaking out is not a must. I think love songs can change the world a lot more than maybe political songs can.
Aguilar: You brought up truth, and that brings to mind your song, "Lie, Lie, Lie." In January, the Center for Public Integrity found that the Bush administration made over 900 false statements about Iraq following 9/11. Some would say they lied over 900 times, and this was over the course of just two years. Talk about your song "Lie, Lie, Lie." And also, what does truth mean anymore?
Tankian: "Lie, Lie, Lie" is a song that originally had really serious lyrics. I was going in with these really serious, really powerful lyrics with quirky music, and it just wasn't working. At first, I didn't notice why. The music's great. They lyrics are really cool. What's wrong with this song? Since I was producing it, I had to step back and go, OK, it's just mismatched. You've got all this dramatic, operatic funny music with serious potent vocals that don't belong there, so I went in and I improvised and made the whole thing into a lie. Originally, I didn't mean to call it "Lie, Lie, Lie," like nontruth; it was more just the singing of "la, la, la, la." Then I thought, I should just call it "Lie, Lie, Lie" 'cause it worked perfect. The whole thing was a fabrication.
As to your question about truth, it doesn't matter what my meaning of truth is. I just notice that anytime there's two people that both claim to be speaking the truth, generally only one of them is. The other one is trying to be perceived as speaking the truth. This is not to say that people don't believe that what they believe they feel is true. This is to say that in reality, there's only truth. Something either happened or did not happen. There's no questioning of that. There's no gray area in my opinion. When they're talking about denial of a genocide, there's no question that a genocide occurred. It's just that because of sociopolitical or geopolitical reasoning, they're trying to deny it, but that doesn't mean that it did not occur. There's always one truth.
Aguilar: You lobbied Congress to pass a bill recognizing the Armenian genocide. The bill has yet to pass. How have you opinions about the political process changed after being directly involved? What did that experience teach you?
Tankian: It taught me a lot. I went to D.C. a few years ago to talk to congressmen and a senator about the Armenian legislation at the time. I was actually surprised as to the openness of certain members of Congress. A number of them were already supporters, and a number have an Armenian constituency, but there were a number of them that weren't supporters or did not have a large Armenian population in their area. I had good talks with them. There were people that were open that didn't have any knowledge about it.
Here I am assuming all of these things that all of these people know this and know that. They have more access to information than the general public, but in today's age, not really. Here we have Hillary Clinton saying she supported the bill that gave President Bush the authority to go to war, but she had access to information that you and I don't have. It surprises me that people make that kind of mistake because they have more information than us, yet in some ways, maybe they don't or maybe they're too busy and unable to filter that information and find out what the truth is, that single truth that we were referring to earlier. I think that was a major goof up that's working against her in the election. A lot of people did know that it was the wrong thing to do.
Aguilar: On your new site Elect the Dead, you ask people to get involved in four areas: getting rid of the electoral college, equalizing corporate funding in elections, allowing people to choose where their tax dollars go and instant runoff voting. Compared to the songs you've done with System of a Down and on your own about the unjust prison system, hypocrisy, lies and oil brigades, those issues are fairly moderate. Why did you choose them?
Tankian: I don't consider the issues moderate at all. For example, the electoral college we've had from the beginning of American history, and it's an outdated institution that was put in place for the purpose of possibly reversing the majority vote, which happened in 2000. So we've seen something that's worked against our democracy and yet we're so blind, we're not talking about it. I think they're revolutionary ideas. They're not my ideas. This is something that a lot of people have thought about that I've just put together.
It's an election year, and for me, no matter who we elect, if our system is unjust, we will be beholden to multinationals, to foreign governments, to the same type of people that have been running our regime. We might have a more liberal person in the White House, but that doesn't make the system less unjust. How can we make elections more just? How can we make them less focused on moneyed interests and more equal and truly democratic? You look at K Street lobbying firms that have taken in millions of dollars. These are ex-congressmen, ex-secretaries of state that go in and lobby for foreign governments, multinational corporations, giving them more of a voice than you and me. That's not a democracy. You look at 2000, where a majority voted for one guy and another guy became president. That's not a democracy. We still have a two-party system. I always say that a two-party system is only one more than a one-party system.
Aguilar: And you initially supported Dennis Kucinich?
Tankian: That's correct.
Aguilar: And he was barred from debates. The media wouldn't take him seriously.
Tankian: Absolutely. The liberal media and obviously the conservative media understated his purpose and didn't take him seriously, and he voted against the war. It's really interesting.
Aguilar: You're supporting Barack Obama now?
Tankian: I am supporting Obama. I think his intentions are good. I think Hillary's got a lot of great points, too. Obviously, either of them would be better than McCain. I like Obama because he's confident, he comes from an activist background, and he comes from a nontraditional lifestyle. He might be another centrist Clintonian for all we know, and I wouldn't appreciate that.
Aguilar: What are your thoughts on the corporate media?
Tankian: The Parisization of the media is really horrible. Look at the conglomeration of our media -- I call it corporate Darwinism -- and the mass privatization of our media. We always think that privatization is the key to freedom of speech and what not, but you look at the BBC in the U.K. and you're like, wait a minute, they have one of the most quality world news services anywhere and it's owned by the government, and yet they criticize their own government. We have a very privatized media system, and we have Fox and all this stuff. What if privatization isn't the answer? And we have such a hard time getting funding for Pacifica and NPR. It's horrible.
Aguilar: I saw you with System of a Down at Ozzfest last year and your first solo show in San Francisco at Slim's in October, and I was looking at the crowd singing your songs, wondering if they were making the political connections. How important is that for you?
Tankian: It's kind of like asking a chef when he's making food how he wants people to taste it. It's beyond the chef. Some people want to smell the food first. The chef would prefer people to chew slowly and really appreciate the food and appreciate the ambience of the restaurant, but they might just be hungry and just gulp it up. And that's fine, too.
Aguilar: I read that you're doing a green tour.
Tankian: I wouldn't call it a green tour.
Aguilar: Environmentally friendly?
Tankian: I'd say it's more environmentally friendly. I don't want to take credit where it's undeserved. We just learned about this organization called Reverb, and I had management start a program to work with them and do some carbon offsetting. We have a bunch of stuff on the bus that we purchased that is more environmentally friendly. The recycling thing is basic. I didn't know that there were these organizations that can actually help touring musicians be green and minimize their ecological footprint. There's a lot more that we can do.
Aguilar: Do you think that will save civilization?
Tankian: I don't think so.
Aguilar: Are we too late? We should have started doing this stuff back in the '70s. We had the answers back then.
Tankian: I'm with you. There's this amazing environmental scientist named James Lovelock who talks about this. He's written a bunch of books. I'm reading The Revenge of Gaia right now. But even before that, I had this whole "civilization is over" theory, and now I'm reading his books and there's an actual scientist agreeing with it and it's scaring the shit out of me. Based on the accelerated rate of population growth coupled with the accelerated rate of the destruction of the world's natural resources, our civilization in its current progression is scientifically unsustainable, which is just a fact. The fact that we can't even perceive that and the fact that we can't accept it, because we can't envision life without a civilization, is what's really haunting. It's not humanity that's in danger. It's our addiction to civilization that's in danger. It's that addiction that makes us endangered. We know about global warming. We know about the rise in the oceans. We know about all of the changes, from the coral reefs to the melting of the polar caps, and yet we're staying in the same place and we're doing the exact same things. It's going to change. It's going to change rapidly. And we're not going to give up civilization. No, we're going to be forced to give up civilization.