Serj Tankian: “I think the whole world felt some relief that Trump was gone”

The System of a Down frontman on his new solo EP ‘Elasticity’, recent documentary 'Truth To Power' and how his approach to activism has changed over the years

Six years ago, Serj Tankian began discussions with the rest of System of a Down about working on new music. He’d written five tracks for the potential followup to their fifth studio album, 2005’s ‘Hypnotize’, and the rest of the band even started playing around with the new songs in their rehearsal space; but the group didn’t see eye to eye on “how to philosophically move forward”. The project was called off.

Now, over a decade since their first conception, we get to hear these songs on Tankian’s ‘Elasticity’ EP. Finishing the songs as he originally intended, the project was initially slated for release last year. Ultimately Tankian delayed ‘Elasticity’ in order to reunite with System of a Down for charity singles ‘Protect The Land’ and ‘Genocidal Humanoidz’ – the band’s first new music in over a decade. The new songs were released to raise money for the Armenia Fund following conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Artsakh, and as it stands, they’ve raised $700,000 for humanitarian projects in the area.

If an EP and that long-awaited System reunion wasn’t enough, Tankian also told his story as an activist in his Truth To Power documentary. With so many plates in the air, we thought we’d call him up for the latest in NME’s In Conversation series. Here’s what went down.

Your recent EP ‘Elasticity’ is a mix of politically charged anthems and more intimate, introspective moments. Was it important that this record spoke to both the political and the personal?

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“I don’t just write about one topic. Whether it’s through my solo work or with System, that’s always been the case. You’ve got funny stuff, stream of consciousness stuff and then socio-political songs that are as serious as a heart attack – sometimes it’s all within the same song. It’s just the way that I work. At one point I can tell someone I love them, the next I’m angry at some injustice. It all works together in the same moment for me.”

The track ‘Rumi’ was written for your son. Does he listen to much of your music?

“He loves System, and he loves a bunch of my solo stuff. He listens to all types of music. I was introducing him to death metal the other day because we’ve been on a Beatles kick for about a month and a half, so it was time for Slayer. In the car we just started playing that, Metallica, the band Death and all this other stuff. And I’m like ‘do you like it?’. He’s like ‘yeah, I want more!’ It’s cool introducing him to different types of music. He listens to hip-hop, he listens to Armenian music and he knows jazz due to Snoopy.”

The message of your Truth To Power documentary is that anyone’s voice can be powerful. Do you hope it’ll inspire something positive?

“Absolutely. Especially because in unison, all those ‘anyone’s voices’ can become everyone’s. I hope both [my] films inspire something positive. Truth To Power will dispel the curse of those keyboard warriors who tell artists like myself or Tom Morello – if they don’t agree with one of our ideas – they tell us to go play music and to stop talking about politics. It shines light upon the fact that we are diverse beings. We can do more than one thing. I hope the other film, [documentary about the 2018 Armenian revolution, which Tankian scored and was an executive producer of] I Am Not Alone actually becomes a catalyst for other movements to learn about decentralised civil disobedience, which is shown in the film as a successful part of a peaceful revolution.”

Your Wake Up The Souls tour that took place in 2015 helped encourage the US government to formally recognise the Armenian Genocide. Is that your proudest achievement?

It took a nation of Armenians half a century of work raising awareness about the genocide and the need for proper recognition. The whole Armenian community around the world should feel somewhat proud, but I’d feel better when the grandchildren of the perpetrators of the genocide, the government of Turkey, recognise their true history…The important thing in recognising a genocide is to stop other genocides from occurring…We’re hopeful that President Biden will take his cue from Congress and on April 24th, the day that we commemorate it, he will use the word genocide. We also hope the UK government does its part in recognising the genocide and does not stay behind in true reflection of its own history.”

Has the way you approach your activism changed over time?

“The approach hasn’t changed, I’m just a little more careful but that’s from having a family. Before I might have said ‘fuck you’ to a world leader, but now I’ll debase them based on their injustices, which is actually more powerful. My approach has changed but my zeal for activism and my need to speak truth to power has never changed.”

Do you think more artists need to actually get involved in activism, rather than just posting about causes on social media?

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“It’s very important to be involved in things. I know you can’t be physically involved with hundreds of causes but it’s important to put your money where your mouth is and actually get into the work aspect of it. There’s got to be an end goal, you’ve got to be all in and work hard towards that.”

Million dollar question: do you have any hopes that System of a Down will ever make new music again?

“Making those two songs was an incredible task and I’m incredibly proud of my brothers in System of a Down because we galvanised. We didn’t think about anything except getting the songs out as soon as possible so that they could have a physical impact. That left an incredibly good feeling with all of us. When we do things outside of ourselves, it’s easier than we ever thought to get together and do it. So we’ll see. Time will tell.”

Are you surprised that people are still so desperate for new music?

“I’m grateful. It’s incredible that people are really excited about a band whose last record came out in 2005. That’s a huge compliment.”

How much of an obstacle is the differing political views in the band?

“A good band always has a lot of dynamics. The political differences became pronounced between John [Dolmayan] and I in the last year through Trump’s re-election campaign, but it’s a new phenomenon. John’s my brother-in-law, as well as my band mate. Find someone who doesn’t have a brother-in-law with a differing political view, and I’ll find you an interesting family.

“Some of the bands that create the most elastic, interesting music are ones that have very interesting dynamics between band members. I wouldn’t change that. It’s better than four people making what I call “corporate music” where they agree on everything and want to maximise their returns. That’s Pepsi. System of a Down has never been that. We’re fucking punk rock.”

You never shied away from your criticism of Trump. Does a Biden presidency make you hopeful?

“The word is relieved, more than hopeful. The US president has way too much power in terms of Foreign Affairs, so it affects the rest of the world greatly. I think the whole world felt some relief that Trump was gone and that an adult was now in power. Does it go far enough for me as an activist, in terms of my wishes for policies about climate change, wealth redistribution, or free tuition and healthcare in the US?  I would like to see all those things come into fruition. And hopefully, Biden’s administration opens the doors to some of those ideas that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and some other progressives were pushing for. Right now, it’s middle of the road for me, but compared to the chaotic policies of the Trump administration, it’s great.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of ‘Toxicity’. Do you have plans to kind of celebrate?

“I never thought about celebrating. When I think about the record ‘Toxicity’, I don’t think about it being 20 years and a celebration of what a great record it was – which it is. I think of all the stress of the release: ‘Chop Suey’ being taken off the air and censored by Clear Channel because of 9/11. My statement Understanding Oil [an essay by Tankian, posted on System of a Down’s website two days after the September 11 attacks] which was posted to our website, and me having to go on Howard Stern’s radio show to defend my words. Being on tour a week after 9/11 with crazy threats of further terrorist attacks in the US. When I think of ‘Toxicity’, I think of toxicity.”

‘Elasticity’ EP is out now via Alchemy Recordings/BMG

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