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Serj Tankian on His Film Truth to Power, the Chaos Around Toxicity, and the Time He Feared for His Life

"When you see a dark balcony ... you're kind of freaked out. I moved around onstage more than ever in my life on that tour."

Serj Tankian interview Truth to Power
Serj Tankian, photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
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    Serj Tankian’s life as an activist and musician is captured in the new documentary, Truth to Power. The just-released film offers a fascinating look at the singer’s journey inside and outside of his multiplatinum rock band System of a Down.

    Following Tankian’s path from his childhood to to his pre-SOAD band Forever Young to the present day, Truth to Power features testimonials by Serj and his bandmates, along with such associates as producer Rick Rubin and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello.

    The film also uses archival video to tell Tankian’s story of activism, while also touching on the origins and highlights of System of a Down’s career. Interspersed are newly shot scenes that include the singer visiting his old high school in Hollywood and voyaging to Armenia during a revolutionary time in the country’s history.

    Musically, we see Tankian finding his voice, as his initial recordings sounded more like Jim Morrison or Glenn Danzig than the signature vocals fans have come to know from System of a Down and his solo work.

    Socially and politically, Tankian and filmmaker Garin Hovannisian take us through the tumultuous path of trying to get the Armenian Genocide recognized by the U.S. government, as well as the chaos that surrounded the release of System of a Down’s masterful 2001 album, Toxicity.

    Tankian, who also created the soundtrack for Truth to Power and has a new solo EP titled Elasticity arriving next month, caught up with Consequence of Sound to discuss the documentary, including some of the key moments in his life and career captured in the film.

    We highly recommend checking out Truth to Power, which is screening online now. While you can watch the documentary from the comfort of your own home, the ticket purchase will support a local record store, venue, or theater that you choose from the list of options.

    Read our interview with Serj Tankian, as he discusses the documentary Truth to Power, below.

    On whether making the documentary made him think about how different his life would’ve been had he chosen another career path

    That’s interesting. It did kind of make me have to go back and think about stuff from those times that I hadn’t thought of for a few decades, I guess. And that was an interesting feeling. And working with my friend, Garin Hovannisian, the director, and trying to really figure out what parts we want to show, what is important, what is not — you always shoot more than you edit — so that was really interesting. Going back to my high school was very interesting. I hadn’t been there in so long and just that really kind of brought me back, and made me think of those old days, being in Hollywood.

    On the scene where he listens back to “Waco Jesus”, the first track he co-wrote with Daron Malakian, and how his vocals sound similar to Jim Morrison or Glenn Danzig

    So, that was the first time that I ever actually recorded my voice on something, professionally, if you will, not home recordings or whatever. And because at the time I was really into the whole Doors, Jim Morrison, Danzig, as well, and also Pearl Jam — Eddie Vedder’s got that kind of low growling kind of voice — and that’s what came out. I was basically interpreting the type of vocals I was listening to at the time, probably, I’m guessing, and didn’t have my own voice. And I’m surprised listening to it, ’cause it almost doesn’t sound like me. But the voice changes, which is an incredible response to fans that sometimes get on socials and go, “I miss the way you used to growl, man. You used to yell way better.” And I’m like, “Well, there’s a reason for that. It’s not like I’m not trying, it’s just your voice changes.”

    I used to basically distort my vocals at the top of my range when I first started singing with System, where now I could go way beyond that range with a clean voice and not even think about it. So it’s kind of like you can’t really help how your voice gets trained over time, which is very interesting. But I also like being a vocal chameleon. It’s something I’ve always appreciated about people like Mike Patton and Frank Zappa, and not really thinking of it as vocals, and just thinking of it as an instrument. Just going wherever you can go with it to make different types of sounds, and I’ve always appreciated that creatively about vocals.

    On the importance of having the story of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide weave throughout the entire documentary

    The reason that part of the story is incredibly important is the reason it made me an activist. The taboo-ism of recognition of the Armenian Genocide in a well-known democracy like the U.S., as I was growing up, made me realize that there are truths out there that are kind of hidden, because of economic interests or geopolitical interests, geopolitical capital with other countries. And I knew that this wasn’t the only truth that was kind of trying to stay under the carpet, because there are many other things. So that made me an activist, number one. Number two, it’s because the members of a System of a Down are all Armenian, in terms of ancestry, we all have ancestors that survived the Armenian Genocide, that were victims of the Armenian Genocide.

    All four of my grandparents were basically survivors of the genocide, with horrific stories of how their families perished. So, for us, it was always important as a band to get this out. It wasn’t political for us, it was personal, to get the awareness out,  and unlike most ventures that activists go on that never really see the effect of their activism, in this case, we were able to see it. Because people would write to us and say, “I wrote my high school dissertation about the genocide that I didn’t know about,” or universities or teachers would hit us up, organizations would hit us up. And then finally, the United States Congress formally recognized the Armenian Genocide in December of 2019, which brought that whole thing to fruition, if you will. So, that’s why it’s a really important part of the story, because it’s the lack of awareness of the Armenian Genocide that made me an activist toward many, many different things. And that’s why it’s a crux of the story for us.

    On the timing of his controversial “Understanding Oil” essay that he wrote just a couple days after 9/11

    Timing is important, for a band, as well as politics. But for me, I’ve never had to hold my tongue when I’m speaking about truths, and the essay that I wrote, “Understanding Oil”, on September 12th or 13th, a few days after September 11th, was my way of trying to understand what happened and why. If you read it now, it’s actually, it’s actually used in different writing programs for students around the world that I’ve seen online. If you read it now, you will see that it’s very balanced. And that is basically looking at a long-term solution, multilateral approach to justice, and also the kind of the reasons, the sources of why an injustice can happen that could create that type of terrorism toward the U.S., and it totally makes sense, but at the time, people didn’t want to hear it.

    It was a lot of reactionism, a lot of anger, but people weren’t really looking at the truth. You had all these Saudis that were the terrorists, but they were blaming Iraq, and invading Afghanistan. It’s like, if you don’t know the difference, you’re just angry and ready to bomb anyone. I didn’t like that. As an American, I was angry about the way that the reaction was. It wasn’t a thinking reaction. We didn’t have a president in George W. Bush that kind of weighed it in a smart way. So, that’s what really pissed me off. And of course, we got the repercussions of that — the feedback and death threats and whatnot at the time, and anger. Our songs were off the radio either way because Clear Channel, if you remember at the time, they ruled the airwaves and basically any song with the words “air,” “sky” — [The Beatles’] “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was off the air, let alone Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down. So it’s quite interesting that System of a Down had the No. 1 Billboard album [Toxicity] on the week of 9/11 with a song [“Chop Suey!”] that was taken off the radio.

    On whether System of a Down knew they had an epic album in Toxicity when they were writing and recording the LP

    I think we knew we had a good record, but we didn’t know what the reaction was going to be. I don’t think you ever do, really, especially as the type of band that we were. We were not a radio band. There were plenty of radio bands in rock that were around us that basically relied on singles to sell records. And our first record, we didn’t really have much of a single — I think “Sugar’ was maybe played on some specialty shows or whatever, from that record. Nonetheless, we were selling records because we were touring the f**k out of ourselves. We were touring with Slayer, we were touring with Ozzfest, we were building a proper base of fans and admirers of the music. So, it was the real way of doing it. And so when the second record came out and it connected with those same fans, as well as radio, when we were not off the airwaves, it did really well. Yeah, we were surprised at the reaction in the sense that you don’t expect that as a band, really as a crazy heavy band coming from a very left kind of philosophy. You don’t expect that.

    On why Daron Malakian is the only member of System of a Down not to appear as a talking head in the film

    We invited, obviously, all the guys in the band, plus Rick Rubin, the band’s management, friends, and we had to kind of whittle it down. But [Daron] just didn’t want to participate, and I didn’t push him on it. We didn’t really discuss why. He just said, “It’s not my thing.” And I said, “Okay, I respect that. No problem, bro.” And that was it.

    On his fear of being assassinated at one point during his activism, as mentioned in the movie

    The security company we had hired at the time had some friends in the FBI and in the Midwest, and we were in the Midwest touring. We started this protest against the Speaker of the House at the time, who was Dennis Hastert. And Dennis Hastert was at the time being implicated by an article in Variety magazine by this FBI translator, Sibel Edmonds, who was basically saying that he was taking bribes, small dollar bribes from different people, as a way of the Turkish government funneling money to him, for him not to bring up the Armenian Genocide bill for a vote on the House floor. And so we were talking about that in the press while we were on tour in the Midwest, around Chicago. And we held a little protest in front of Dennis Hastert’s office at the time.

    I think it was in Peoria, but I’m not exactly sure, and we have that in the film. And that was the time where I remember we got some news saying that there are Turkish assets that are looking into me. In other words, the U.S. Government was looking into Turkish assets, basically intelligence assets, looking into me. And I even met a few FBI people that even came by. So, it was very real. It wasn’t a guess type of thing. So, that was really f**ked up because here I am onstage exposed to thousands of people, and when you see a dark balcony in front of you with no one on it, you’re kind of freaked out. And so I’ll tell you, I moved around onstage more than ever in my life on that tour.

    On the separate documentary about Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, whose heroic story is prominently featured in Truth to Power

    The documentary that was made about him is called I Am Not Alone. I produced that and scored it, and it’s coming out this year, as well. And it’s an amazing award-winning documentary. We won a bunch of awards from different film festivals. It’s a very powerful film, so I’m looking forward to releasing that this year, as well.

    Our thanks to Serj Tankian for taking the time to speak with us. Pick up tickets to watch the documentary Truth to Power at this location.

    Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Serj Tankian:

    Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Serj Tankian

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