American Rock Scene interview with Serj Tankian

Serj Tankian

Serj Tankian at Showbox Seattle

Serj Tankian is one of the busiest musicians on the scene, one of the coolest people we’ve came in contact with — and easily one of the smartest.

Serj was in Seattle recently, touring in support of his latest solo album “Harakiri”. We took the opportunity to hang out with him before the show and talk about the things he’s passionate for: A little bit of music and a whole lot about politics, corporate greed, and the state of the planet.

Serj is a fascinating man and a wonderful communicator. While the pre-show buzzed, the powerful frontman of System of a Down was zen. As he made the environment around him completely relaxed, he made it clear that no subject was off limits. We laughed a lot and easily could have talked for hours… but once again, work called — he had a show to do, and scores of screaming, adoring fans to make happy.

Sounds like you are staying real busy, what project are you enjoying the most right now?

My favorite thing to do, hands down, is to compose. I love composing. Whether it’s for an orchestra, a rock record, or electronic stuff, collaboration, or a jazz record. I just love writing music. The rest of it is fun as well, the touring and putting it together live, but my favorite part is the composition.

You must have a pretty nice studio if you recorded this album at home.

Yeah, I do. I’ve built it up over the last 15 years in different locations and now it’s finally all there. It’s all plugged in the way I want it and ready to go; dialed in. I can go there at night, it’s right next to my house.

So what is your favorite instrument to play?

Probably the piano.

Are you pretty good on the piano?

I don’t know. I don’t think I’m good at anything, but I’m great at being myself on everything.

Who thought up the content for the Harakiri video?

The director, Nico Sabenorio. He had the concept and I was really into the idea of making it about everything happening in the world, even though that could be a dangerous route to go down, because you might not have enough focus and an emotional appeal if you have all this stuff in it. But he put it together in such a great way, along with a live performance at Sultan Sea — about an hour from Palm Springs, right at the end of the earth. It stinks. Dead fish everywhere. From what I’m told, it used be a thriving beach community. But things went sour and now it literally feels like the edge of the earth. Pretty fucking depressing. So he came up with the video concept and came up with all this incredible footage from around the world, along with some amazing quotes. By the end of the video, you’re like “fuck, I get it!”

I know right? We’re screwed. Do you ever just sit around and wonder what we are going to do?

The science is very clear with what is going on in terms of climate change. There’s no argument in it. The confusion comes from people that gain from obfuscating the idea of climate change and the effects of humanities. Carbon emissions and climate change and those are mostly the oil companies and the fossil fuel companies trying to basically throw us in for a loop.

And because of that, public opinion… I recently read a story about a survey back in the 90′s, seventy percent of the public supported drastic legislation on climate change. Now that’s down to 40 percent. Which means that they’ve had an effect on our mentality as a public. And that’s sad because that means there is very little strong legislation having to do with combating climate change — besides something like an executive order like what the president is doing with renewable energy. But that’s someone’s decision that they made, not because of public pressure or congressional legislation.

If it was up to the republicans we’d be sucking on oil till the day we die, so their cause is completely inept.

I know you’re a little bit political. Is this election as depressing to you as it is to me?

Serj laughs. Here’s the thing, if you want more choices you have to create more choices. We need more parties and that’s been the case for many, many years. Even the Communist party of the Soviet Union had two sides of the same coin, they had kind of a liberal side and a conservative side, they were kind of like two parties, kind of like the democrats and republicans, in different ways obviously. But I point that out just to say that with two parties it’s not much of a democracy. But what makes it less of a democracy is money in politics, the K Street lobbying firms and groups like Citizens United, who make corporations into people.

New Zealand just enacted legislation that made a very important river to a tribe a legal entity, so that no one can pollute it or use it for anything else. I think that’s a good example. Instead of making corporations people and giving them rights, we should do that to nature, so that we can protect it, ya know? We are definitely heading the wrong way.

There’s more money in politics that ever before. Less legislation having to do with reforming campaign finance. We gotta switch it all around. The real problem isn’t just the choice of candidates, it’s what’s happening around it. The money in there. The electoral system. The choices of candidates. We really need a healthy left wing party in this country like the Green Party or — I’m down to start a socialist party because President Obama is not socialist. The republicans are calling him socialist and I’m like, “come on,” the guy made legislation where you have to buy insurance from private entities. That’s not socialism, there’s no public option. Most of his policies are centrist, just to the right of center, sometimes left of center. That’s not socialism, but apparently, America has no idea what socialism is.

I jest a little bit about starting a socialist party but what I mean to say is that there is no absolute on the line that we call economics. There is no absolute, we used to be a capitalist country before the industrial revolution. We’re a capitalist country now as well, right? However we are a completely different type of capitalist country because we didn’t have workers rights then, we didn’t have women’s rights, we didn’t have minimum wage. You could call that capitalism and what we are now socialism if you like. Or not. What I mean to say is, there is no absolute point in anything. It’s just a lever, and you go this way and that way.

You can call it what you want. But it’s really about how much you decide to take care of your people. Or don’t.

What do you think about the religious beliefs of the candidates?

I’m not as concerned about the candidate religious beliefs as I am their policies. Mitt Romney’s policies are, well first of all, he’s gone back and forth between so many different policies. First he supported health care in Massachusetts and then he turned a 360 and said “I don’t like it anymore I was wrong. Everything I thought, was wrong, I repudiate”.  Editors note:  Serj said 360 but we know what he meant!

He’s just trying to get the right wingers on his side but ultimately they are failed policies of the past. It hasn’t worked for America. It’s left us in debt, it’s left us in wars. And the fact that he actually even said that he doesn’t care about 47 percent of America. I would fucking toss him off the ticket now. That’s offensive. His answer was that it wasn’t a classy way of explaining it, he didn’t even refute it. He admitted saying those things.

Let’s talk a little about Axis Of Justice and apologies for not talking more about music… How involved are you and Tom (Morello) with it?

Axis is an organization that we started 10 years ago and it was originally a way to bring in other non profits & NGO’s to participate in the non commercial aspect of festival goers. Bring together musicians, concert goers, activists… etc. Since then it’s evolved into it’s own organization, but it’s mostly an organizing crux between my activism and Tom’s activism.

We have a radio show that we’ve had for 4 or 5 years now called the “Axis Of Justice Radio Network” on KBFK in Los Angeles and Sirius Satellite Network. The website has tons of information. We always post interesting articles and things for people to organize around. We give people different ideas about ways they can be involved in any type of project that they care about. Be it environmental, social, labor, whatever. It’s a small organization that we sponsor ourselves. Another thing we do is point people to organizations that are local to them.

How can people get involved?

I think anyone can get involved bringing about positive change just by opening a door for somebody. It can be as simple an act as that. Ultimately, with Axis we also try to get people connected to things they are interested in. We believe, as Joe Strummer did, that you can “Act Locally but Affect Globally”. There are many ways to help make with this planet.

I started researching GMO’s lately. That stuff is so scary. What do you think?

It’s extremely scary. It’s scary because of the lack of transparency. There’s a lot of talk about putting a sticker on product that says GMO (genetically modified organism), I think that’s the best idea. 90 percent of people, I noticed, do not know the difference when buying something or eating at a restaurant. Especially when you eat out. You don’t know what you’re eating. You don’t know if it’s genetically modified or organic. We have labels now that have numbers, 1-5 is GM (I think) and 6-9 is organic. So there are ways of knowing what you are getting but you have to figure it out. The labels could just say, “this is this and that is that.”

Monsanto is a very evil fucking corporation. If there is one corporation I think should be gone, turned off, that’s the one. They are a monopoly. Years ago they started with the weed killer, Round-Up and then created genetically modified crops to withstand other pesticides. They get around it by saying that what they do helps farmers because of droughts and what not, but if you really look at the reality, it’s changed the face of natural products; fruits, vegetables… what we eat. We still don’t really know the long term affects of some of this stuff. And it’s such a form of predatory seed and crop that it just takes over other fields next to it that may be organic because of wind and germination, etc. It’s Franken-Foods ya know.

It’s not cool.

They’ve basically created Round-Up for the human race.

Yeah, exactly.

What can we expect in the future with System Of A Down?

We have no plans right now. We just played seven dates on the east coast, though. That was fun and great, but no we don’t have plans right now. We’ll see what kind of offers we get for touring next year and we’ll see if we are going to something then. Not exactly sure.

Everyone is just off doing there own thing?

Yeah, everyone is doing their own thing… and enjoying it right now.

Let’s talk about [Republican Vice Presidential candidate] Paul Ryan and Rage [Against the Machine].  What if one of these politicians said System was their favorite band?

He didn’t use Rage’s music;  But he said he was a big fan. And I actually think he does like it, but the thing is he never actually paid attention to the lyrics. He never paid attention to what they are trying to say with the songs and what they stand for. And that’s kind of scary because if you don’t know what Rage Against The Machine stands for in the United States of America, where the fuck have you been?

I was on the east coast on tour with System, and I read what Tom had posted and I emailed Tom and said bravo, that’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read this year. The way he put it was so incredible. He could have just said, you should not like my music because we don’t stand for that but he literally laid into him and I was like, “Fucking Beautiful!”

You’d probably do the same thing right?

Yes I would.

That was awesome Serj, thank you!

Thank you too, man!

Check out ARS’s Facebook photo album from Serj’s performance at Showbox Market in Seattle

Visit Serj’s website here:

About Casebeer