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Serj Tankian: “I Do This Because I Care About Art and I Care About The Truth”

Jack Rogers
Jack Rogers 10 March 2021 at 14.20

"I always say that it’s incredible when you do things for reasons outside of yourself"

Serj Tankian is having an incredibly busy start to 2021 with a couple of projects years in the making.

His new solo EP 'Elasticity' is set for release on March 19 via Alchemy Recordings/BMG.  He has also released 'Truth To Power', a film that he has scored himself and that documents not just his career as a musician but also as an activist. 

Both pieces of art are not just close to Serj in terms of his creative input but also in terms of what they represent for him on a bigger scale, both now and when they were first forged.

We jumped on the phone to talk through the making of both the EP and the film and how his relationship with both has changed as the world has changed around him...

You’ve said that the songs on ‘Elasticity’ started life as songs that would possibly be used for a new System project. How did that play out and you decide to use them for yourself?
“I showed the other guys and they actually loved them and started working on it. The EP is made up of songs that I initially wrote around five years ago, give or take. When you have tunes such as ‘Electric Yerevan’, which was written about and inspired by the Electric Yerevan protests in Armenia, and ‘Elasticity’ and ‘Your Mom’ that are so punk-rock and full of attitude, it simply reminded me of the System vibe. So at the time, we were conferring about doing a record and I brought them in to see if they would work. The guys gravitated to those three songs specifically and we started working on some of them with some of Daron [Malakian]’s music whilst I was in New Zealand.

"Philosophically though, we couldn’t really see eye-to-eye in terms of the direction and future of the band. Also, there were questions about to actually do things creatively and this and that, so it became a hang-up. These songs were just there following that. Some friends of mine started to encourage me to finish and release them and that’s how we got here.”

Where within all of this did the film come into play?
“Years ago in 2011, I knew I was going to have the busiest professional year. So I decided to strap on some cameras and record absolutely everything. We had spy glasses, cameras everywhere, someone following me. It became a really interesting year in terms of touring with System for the first time after the hiatus, touring with orchestras and touring with my solo band The FCC. Then there were loads of protests and playing in Armenia for the first time. There was just this whirlwind of stuff happening, and it was a great background for making a film from the artist’s point of view. Though it just didn’t have the storyline that a good film deserves. So I spoke to my good friend Garin Hovannisian, who is an incredible director, about what we should do with all of this stuff. So that’s where we shot all of these additional scenes and making it a film about the activist. That’s what really interested me more than a biography about the music and System Of A Down. What truly happens to an activist’s voice? I personally post stuff about demonstrations and politics and causes, I’m very involved, and within that, I get a lot of slack as well as a lot of praise. I feel as though that contrast is something that was worth exploring thematically.”

So when you were approaching this batch of fast and heavy songs from a solo standpoint, were you having to slot back into a certain mode compared to your other work?
“I’ll be honest, there is no difference between any of the music that I make and how I make it. It’s all just different flavours. I scored a documentary that was all via an orchestra and then I scored a documentary that all based around rock music. That’s called The Longest Wave and it’s about the windsurfer Robbie Naish. So I go from working on rock music and then I will go and work on ambient music for a TV series or whatever. I never really think about what it’s like when I step back into doing rock music again. I just make music, it’s plain and simple.”

So how did you set about making these songs into a cohesive EP? What is the concept of ‘Elasticity’ to you?
“The concept of ‘Elasticity’ came directly from the song of the same name. The song is so diverse that it felt like the word elastic kept coming to mind, specifically musically. It’s the stretching of the borders of musical possibility and composing that comes from songwriting. Then because I was also thinking about the band, there’s the ever-looming idea of ‘Toxicity’. So it just felt perfect. It’s a song and idea that talks about diversity and the dynamics of songwriting whilst also being reminiscent of System Of A Down.”

Because these are songs that have been with you for nearly half a decade, how has your relationship with them adapted what with the world continuing to move and change around you?
“Time changes everything. If you take a song like ‘Your Mom’, for example, that song was written very specifically about a very specific terrorist organisation and a solution to their extremism. It was written very much like {System song] ‘Prison Song’, almost like an essay. As time changed and five years went by, the same circumstances didn’t exist. Therefore the song didn’t make as much sense. So I went back in and made the lyrics a bit more about your mom using her slippers to kick a terrorist’s ass. In a lot of ways, that’s much more timeless. ‘Electric Yerevan’ is about a specific protest in 2015, one that happened way before the Velvet Revolution in 2018 and what was arguably a much bigger event.

“I have experienced other stuff like this recently as well in terms of films too. We’ve made another documentary called ‘I Am Not Alone’, which I executively produced and scored, which is being released this year as well. It’s specifically dealing with the Armenian Velvet Revolution which took place in 2018 and is directed by Garin as well. Now with time going by and the horrible humanitarian catastrophe caused by the attack on the Artsakh by the combined forces of Azerbaijan, Syrian and Turkish mercenaries and the loss of lands that were Armenian for 2500 years, there was a whole change in how people viewed the leadership who is actually the revolutionary in the film and in 'Truth To Power'. So that’s from 2018, which was a very positive moment in time, to 2021, where we’re at a very negative point in history. The thing is that we can’t redo and remake a film just because the times have changed.

“It would be amazing for us to be able to create a work of art and release it the very same day, but unfortunately these things take much longer."

It’s in those moments where it’s your actions as that activist come into play, which is where the two System Of A Down songs you released last year came from…
“I’m extremely proud of my brothers in System for being able to congregate and stand up to what we considered an injustice. The songs weren’t just an artistic output. They were more cultural weapons for us to use against disinformation, misinformation and bots that were being unleashed on social media around the world. Our goal was to release something as quickly as possible and something that we felt powerfully about and something we really cared about and then donate the funds to the Armenia fund to aid in this unfolding catastrophe. That’s exactly what we did.

“It was incredible simply because, for all of the years where we weren’t able to see eye to eye and work on new music, this was the thing that we were able to come together on. We were like, ‘Let’s do this’. We did it in a week. I always say that it’s incredible when you do things for reasons outside of yourself. You’re no longer constrained by not just your own ego but also your own likes and dislikes or future and artistic concerns. We just knew we had to get a song out.

“That really gave me hope that something can also be done in the future with the band, but we will see how it goes.”

​It’s all about that realisation of the power that comes when you put something out, be it music or film, and it becomes bigger than the sum of its parts…
“Absolutely, and that’s why I will always be incredibly proud of it.”

Concerning ‘Truth To Power’ once more, a large span of your life and your experiences are cover in that running time. What was the initial feeling when you were able to watch back what you had achieved?
“It’s one thing that I was the composer for the film, but it’s another when you’re the subject. It was very weird to score it because of that, but that made me focus on other people and other elements within it. When Tom Morello came to visit, for example, I gave him a really cool theme because I love him.

“If I could step back objectively, I think it’s a really interesting portrayal of what an activist is through music and how that evolves. It’s very rare that you see the fruits of your activism. That’s exactly what we got with the formal recognition of the Armenian genocide, which has been an important factor of awareness for the guys and myself in System, by the US Congress in December 2019. You also get to see the daily repercussions of your activism as well, with people telling you to, ‘Fuck off, you don’t know anything about that subject, go and make music’.

“It’s really interesting living this life within music where you have that sort of reach. Some people are afraid to use those muscles because they want to keep as much of an audience as possible. I don’t care about that, to be honest. I never have. It is what it is. I do this because I care about art and I care about the truth and I care about justice. If I was doing this for support, I would be doing very different things.”

'Elasticity' is scheduled for release on March 19 via Alchemy Recordings/BMG. You can pre-order a copy from right HERE

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