The cover of Serj Tankian's new memoir, Down with the System

BOSTON — Serj Tankian is a mass of wonderful contradictions: a screaming heavy metal singer who can croon delicate Armenian folk songs tenderly and a rock god in a genre not known for political or egalitarian stands who has made it his mission to spread the word about the Armenian Genocide as well as other horrors across the world. In a business known for its heavy toll on the artistic soul, he is a proponent of spirituality. He hangs out at Los Angeles Armenian schools AND with legendary music producer Rick Rubin. He has been incredibly successful with his band, System of a Down (SOAD) and as a solo artist, painter, soundtrack composer, record label starter and poet. He has sold around 40 million records and won awards and global acclaim. And he also sells Armenian coffee.

He is a busy man.

His new memoir, Down with the System: A Memoir (of Sorts), released by Hachette Books in May, is climbing the New York Times bestseller list. (See accompanying review by Christopher Atamian.)

Asked who his target audience for the book is, he replied, “The target audience is anyone who can read. I wrote the book because someone asked me if I would do it. And I will likely write more. I’ve previously released two poetry books as well.”

In a recent email interview, Tankian, 56, offered some insight into his fertile mind, while suggesting that despite being firmly rooted in the physical plane, he has his head in the spiritual realm.

Cover of “Elect the Dead Symphony”

Stardom in Two Worlds

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Tankian is unique in not just identifying as an American rock star. He is very much an Armenian, both active in courting recognition for the Armenian Genocide by the US government, as well as offering support to Armenia.

When asked how it feels as an Armenian icon to straddle his “cool” status with global stardom, he said, “Neither is worth anything. I just work.”

Tankian is such a part of the cultural zeitgeist that he contributed a song to the soundtrack of the hugely popular HBO series, “Game of Thrones.” The song, The Rains of Castamere, he said, was written “by my good friend composer Ramin Djawadi who asked me to sing on it.”

In many online interviews, this singer of very loud music, often expresses that he is a fan of silence, during which he can tap into his spirituality. He said, “I’m a quiet person generally. As an artist I give what the music requires. If it’s loud and rebellious I become that: if it’s soft and loving, then that.”

Tankian is loath to name any favorite songs, either with SOAD or solo. He replied, with tongue firmly in cheek, “I don’t have favorite songs nor ice cream flavors.” The same goes for artists. “I listen to many artists in many genres. Mostly composers recently though I’ll still listen to songs once in a while,” he replied.

As part of SOAD, with bandmates Daron Malakian on guitar, Shavo Odadjian on bass and John Dolmayan on drums, he released five studio albums, and selling over 40 million albums worldwide,. The group received a Grammy Award in 2006 for the song B.Y.O.B.

As a solo artist, he has released multiple albums in a variety of genres, beginning with 2007’s chart-topping hard rock album “Elect The Dead.” He has released other works, including “Imperfect Harmonies” in 2010, followed by “Harakiri” in 2012. He has explored different genres, including jazz (“Jazz-Iz Christ” in 2013, and the 2021 instrumentals “Cinematique Series: Illuminate” and “Cinematique Series: Violent Violins.”)

Serj Tankian with his wife, Angela Madatyan

One place Tankian fans can hear his music is on Netflix; he composed the soundtrack for “Hitler and the Nazis: Evil on Trial,” a docuseries by his friend, Joe Berlinger, tracking Hitler’s rise through the Nuremberg Trials, which was released in June. He had previously scored Berlinger’s Netflix series “Crime Scene – The Texas Killing Fields” as well as composing for the second season of Zac Efron’s wellness and travel series, “Down To Earth.”

When asked to compare writing songs for a record versus a soundtrack, Tankian responded, “Composing for visual media is an altogether different experience than songwriting. The trick is to find ways to be creative within the given criteria and limitations. TV is also different than film, which is different than a musical etc. They all present ways to be inspired by another artistic medium than your own.”

For him, there is no set formula on how a song comes to be.

“If you have a full vision of a song, it may be easier to go at it alone even if you hire other musicians to complete your vision. If the idea requires collaborators then you work in that direction. I usually write music first before lyrics as the intuitive medium created its own thematic stories and the words come,” he explained.

Poetry remains a huge love for him — he writes it (he has released two volumes, Cool Gardens and Glaring Through Oblivion) and devours it too. When asked to name some of his favorite poets, he noted Edgar Allen Poe, T.S. Elliott, Jim Morrison, Charles Bukowski, Daniel Varoujan and Siamanto, among others. He often speaks about his love for 13th-century Persian Sufi poet Rumi. Rumi to him simply means “love.” In fact, he and his wife, Angela Madatyan, love the poet so much they named their son after him.

Serj Tankian

When asked how he manages to release albums, write soundtracks, pen books and more, he offers a verbal shrug: “I’m an artist. It’s my job.”

Tankian as a solo artist has collaborated frequently with singers from Armenia. One such collaboration is the band Serart with percussionist Arto Tunçboyacıyan. When asked why he is interested in bringing the spotlight to artists such as Tunçboyacıyan who will not be able to get exposure to audiences in the West, he replied, “Because I value our culture and think we have a lot to offer the world with it as we have in the past.”

Social Justice

Tankian has been singular in his vocal support for social justice, championing causes near to his heart, including the recognition of various genocides as well as human rights.

One of the first vehicles for Tankian’s message to a general audience was the 2006 documentary “Screamers,” by filmmaker Carla Garapedian, who showed the members of SOAD, all descendants of Genocide survivors, share their family histories, along with academics, and talk about genocides in general, including the horrors of Darfur.

Members of System of a Down, from left, John Dolmayan, Daron Malakian, Shavo Odadjian and Serj Tankian

SOAD famously had tables at their concerts where they disseminated information about the Armenian Genocide. “It’s a part of who we are as an Armenian-American band. Music can be a wonderful tool for teaching and learning. We all had grandparents who were survivors of the genocide so it’s part of our personal as well as National story,” he noted.

This activism eventually led to Tankian, as a solo artist, joining Tom Morello, another rock legend who was the guitarist with Rage against the Machine and later Audioslave, to form Axis of Justice. “AOJ was a non-profit Tom and I created years back to serve as a platform for our mutual activism with a myriad of causes. In the process we have raised funds and have contributed to many worthy causes and events,” he explained.

Tankian admits that the genocide, and the generational trauma left in its wake, have shaped him. “Definitely. Genocide and the trauma of it and its lack of recognition is a uniquely dark experience for our people,” he said.

On top of the Genocide, the Tankian family went through more horrors in Lebanon, during the Civil War. And those dark days, again, left their mark on the young Serj, who moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 7, without knowing a word of English.

“When you hear bombs falling as a child you remember that random fear and will never want another child to experience that,” he wrote. “Not knowing English coming to US made me a bit of an outsider which I now cherish.”

The combination of these experiences have led Tankian to focus on what he frequently talks about in interviews, “the intersection of justice and spirituality.”

When asked what that means to him, he explained, “Paraphrasing the words of the Dalai Lama, [it means] to follow a path of injustice is spiritual death. The spirit world is and was always there. I became more conscious of it as my life became more overwhelming and stressful. It’s transcendental meditation by the way. It also coincided with my thirst for knowledge about our combined indigenous past.”

He extends that sentiment to performing, suggesting he loses himself on stage. “The stage is a state beyond time and space at certain intervals,” he said.

One of the former bandmates of Morello in Audioslave was vocalist Chris Cornell, who became a close friend of Tankian. Cornell had contributed a song to the soundtrack of the 2017 film, “The Promise,” about the Armenian Genocide, starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac. Tragically, the same year, Cornell committed suicide.

“It was devastating. He was a musical and vocal influence and a friend with creative energy and love beaming from him. I miss him dearly,” Tankian said.

Advocacy in Armenia

Tankian has produced and scored the documentaries “I Am Not Alone” about the Velvet Revolution and the rise of Nikol Pashinyan, as well as “Truth To Power,” and produced “Invisible Republic” about the devastation in Artsakh, over the last five years.

As for the Velvet Revolution, he said, “The 2018 revolution changed Armenia’s trajectory to a more egalitarian and democratic society whose fruits we have not been able to enjoy due to Azerbaijan’s attacks, invasions and ethnic cleansing. We cannot look back but can only look forward. Armenia will only see peace via military parity or near parity with Azerbaijan. The current government has done a great job with our economic growth but poorly with direct negotiations with Azerbaijan. Giving up on international justice for Artsakh will be the gravest mistake for them or any government as it is a silent weapon for all Armenians and must be unquestionably pursued.”

The devastating loss of the Karabakh war in 2020 was hard for him, as it was for Armenians around the world.

“I had an extremely painful disc slippage two days after we lost the war from what I presume is a mental and emotional meltdown that took me years to recover from. Nonetheless I kept on fighting for my people as I do daily no matter who likes me or hates me. I have a job to do, we all do. And we must put aside our differences and do it together. Everything else seems petty and provincial,” he noted.

Serj Tankian from the Kavat coffee website

What’s Next

Not one to rest on his laurels, Tankian, who along with his family spends part of the year in New Zealand, plans to stay busy.

His EP, “Foundations,” will be released on September 7. The single AF Day was recently released.

He added that he is working on scoring another documentary Netflix series which will be released next year. In addition, this year will see the release of an album of covers.

Tankian has already launched a line of Armenian coffee online, Kavat, with a portion of profits set aside to go to TUMO in Armenia, which gives free tech and creative design education to teens. Non-musical efforts including working on a tequila coffee liquor with a company, “and more.”

Down with the System is available everywhere.

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