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System of a Down's Serj Tankian on his memoir, why a new album hasn't come since 2005

Serj Tankian, singer for System of a Down
Travis Shinn
/
Hachette Books
Serj Tankian, singer for System of a Down

The sound of protest music used to be the gentle plucking of Bob Dylan's guitar or the smooth grooves of Marvin Gaye. But at the end of the 1990s, there was a more insistent voice, screaming through a wall of amplifiers.

System of a Down became the most popular metal band of its era, scoring three No. 1 albums in the early part of the 2000s. Concert venues sold out. Eardrums were pummeled. Then, at its height, the Los Angeles-based band stopped releasing music and hasn't offered a new album since 2005.

Singer Serj Tankian describes the band in a new memoir, Down with the System, as:

Part of the band's mission was to educate a new generation about something that happened more than a century ago — the Armenian genocide. The Turkish government has never acknowledged it as a genocide, and a U.S. president didn't formally recognize it as genocide until Joe Biden did in 2021.

Morning Edition host A Martinez spoke with Serj Tankian about his memoir.


On his family fleeing the Lebanese Civil War as a child:

I was seven; my brother was four. And I remember when the bombings first started and school was closed, we were crouching in our bedroom from the sounds, the building shaking from bombs falling nearby. And it was just fear. I remember fear, you know? The fear of the unknown as well because as a child you're not cognizant of who's fighting for what reason. You just feel the fear of war, and it's a horrible feeling.

That definitely made me anti-war at a very young age, but as I grew up, it is actually the hypocrisy of the taboo nature of the recognition of the Armenian genocide in a well-known democracy like the United States that ultimately made me an activist.

On his family's link to the Armenian Genocide:

My ancestors, my great grandparents – perished in the genocide. My grandfather, Stepan Eytan, was born in the early 1900s in a small village called Efkere in the Gesaria area of Turkey, which used to be historical Armenia. Turkey used to have at least 3 million Armenians, if not more. We were the largest Christian minority in the country. During the First World War in 1915, there was a systematic, organized genocide conducted by the government of the Ottoman Empire at the time. And my grandfather is a survivor of that genocide. He told us his story of survival.

My grandfather lived to the age of 93, 94 (we're not exactly sure of his age because of lost documents). We know his story more than our other grandparents, so that was a gift for us. I wanted him to know that before he [died], we were fighting for his memory, the memory of his family, his whole generation, and what he had fought for during his life.

On losing fans over his activism:

I'm OK with that because an artist isn't supposed to please everyone. An artist is supposed to basically try to receive through the collective consciousness whatever truths that we're trying to live by, the truths of our times. If we can't do that as artists, then we're entertainers. From day one, you have to make that choice: Are you an entertainer only or are you going to be an artist? If you're an entertainer, that's cool; there's many entertainers I follow and love. But if you're going to be an artist, then the road is not going to be easy. You're going to have to be honest with yourself and everyone else at all times, and people are going to like you and people are going to hate you, and that's OK.

I was more of the activist in the band than anyone else. There was always this push and pull between the message and the music. The other guys, rightfully so, didn't want the music to be victimized by the message at all times. I understood that because I loved the music as well, but when there was [a message] that needed to be dispersed, I felt like that was just as important, if not more important, than the music.

On why System of a Down hasn't released a new album since 2005:

I guess the short answer to that is: creative differences. And trying to imbue egalitarian means within the system, not only through our message. A band is a unique dynamic of individuals, with goals and things that they want to express. Not all of it works together at once.

Our original format was: Daron [Malakian], guitarist in System of a Down and my friend, would write the music and I would write the lyrics. As he grew as a lyricist. I tried to encourage him to sing as much as possible, because those were his lyrics. I wanted his voice to come out through his song. I believe that when someone writes a song – and they have a more complete song, both lyrically and musically – they can encapsulate it better with their voice.

I felt like I wasn't getting the same back at the time, in terms of encouragement. I was writing more music now, not just lyrics, and I wanted that badly within the band. I was also passive at the time, based on everything that was happening in my life. I wasn't as assertive. And I totally take the blame for that, which is not who I am now. I'm more assertive now. So it's an interesting dynamic that caused this block for us to be able to proceed musically ultimately.

On many fans learning about the Armenian Genocide through System of a Down's music:

I consider the awareness having to do with the Armenian genocide one of the band's largest non-musical legacies. In fact, in 2015 when we were playing the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Yerevan, Armenia in Republic Square, that feeling was palpable, like we were almost created for this moment. This is the top of the mountain for this band. I'm incredibly proud of that, that we've been able to help.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Cover art for Serj Tankian's "Down with the System: A Memoir (Of Sorts)"
Travis Shinn / Hachette Books
/
Hachette Books
Cover art for Serj Tankian's "Down with the System: A Memoir (Of Sorts)"

Corrected: May 14, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Joe Biden was the first U.S. president to refer to the Armenian genocide as genocide. Ronald Reagan referred to the killings as genocide in 1981.
Kaity Kline
Kaity Kline is an Assistant Producer at Morning Edition and Up First. She started at NPR in 2019 as a Here & Now intern and has worked at nearly every NPR news magazine show since.
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.