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Serj Tankian: ‘Going back to normal is extinction’

The Armenian genocide, climate change… and Kim Kardashian? Multi-million-selling rock star and political activist Serj Tankian is eyeing a new revolution to save us all
System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian says dictators' days are numbered if humanity is going to take on the climate crisis

“Ari tun! Ari tun!” is the chant that rings out around Yerevan’s packed Republic Square, calling Serj Tankian to “come home”.

The hero’s welcome that followed during Armenia’s peaceful revolution in 2018 is now almost a distant memory for the System of a Down frontman. It’s a powerful scene from his new film Truth to Power, but he has had to watch from afar as the country he loves again became unsettled and embroiled in war during the pandemic.

Current prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who gained power through 2018’s landmark peaceful protest – supported by Tankian – is embattled, facing criticism and dissent over his handling of the 2020 conflict with Turkey-backed Azerbaijan.

Nevertheless, Beirut-born and LA-raised Tankian is still hoping for a “beautiful future” for Armenia. Truth to Power and another of his films, I Am Not Alone, both chronicle the 2018 Velvet Revolution, started by Pashinyan setting out on a walk for freedom.

“It was purely using numbers against the government and there is no way the government could have overwhelmed them,” says Tankian. “Showing the power of the people is truly inspirational to me as an activist and I think those lessons can be learned by different movements around the world to have more successful peaceful revolutions. But that peaceful nature, that enthusiasm, that elation of the people, that high point in Armenian history has been completely messed up because of the war.”

For a man whose artistic output is so varied, Tankian is laser-focused on injustice when it comes to politics.

Truth to Power shows Tankian’s motive throughout his career: recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide where nearly 1.5 million died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

The US finally caved to recognise the atrocity in 2019 after years of campaigning from Tankian and others, yet Turkey remains tight-lipped.

However, the singer does have an unlikely ally in boosting the profile of Armenia’s plight on the world stage. Kim Kardashian may not produce art with the same venomous political satire as Tankian but she still donated $1m to the humanitarian effort to help Armenians hit by war.

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Tankian says: “I’ve met Kim a few times and I’ve appreciated her contribution to the recognition of the Armenian genocide because she recognised that’s important for her father and her grandparents’ legacy.

“I think her heart is in the right place and she is doing great work for her Armenian roots.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has occupied the 53-year-old’s mind on the fate of the planet too.

During time spent recovering at home from back surgery and working on new music – which he says is in the pipeline after being finished during the pandemic – Serj Tankian has had time to ponder Covid’s impact on the climate crisis – and he’s calling for unity.

“It’s like when nature sends you to your room like a naughty adolescent child and says: ‘You’ve really messed this up, you have to do something better.’ You realise that going back to normal is extinction,” he says.

“I do have hope in the new generation because I don’t think they will have to deal with these autocrats, these dictators. There is no time for that, that’s silly stuff.

“For me, that’s the biggest lesson of Covid: we need to rethink our future. We need to do it as a society, unified together, if we don’t… we’re screwed.”

It seems like the ideal time for Tankian to return.

As well as retrospective documentary Truth to Power, he’s also dropping new EP Elasticity. The five songs are as eclectic as you’d expect from Tankian. He never plays by the musical rules and has dabbled with jazz, orchestral music and soundtracks in recent years before returning to the nu-metal/folk fusion of System.

But what does the future hold for the band that made Tankian’s name?

Tankian’s latest release will not give fans much hope of a first album in 16 years, however, the songs were intended for System, he says, and came “dressed in a certain clothing” that made them an ideal fit for the band.

Last year the group put out two songs to raise funds for Armenian humanitarian efforts. Philosophically and creatively the four-piece can’t agree on a path forward – but it’s a different story on Armenian issues.

“The future of System is unbeknownst to us all,” says Tankian. “Doing those two songs really made us feel like when we galvanise for a cause outside of ourselves then it is really easy. I think the channel is open, we will see.”

Truth to Power has also offered Serj Tankian a chance to look back at System’s breakthrough, bestselling album Toxicity as it turns 20 in September.

The album’s rise to the top was manic as System’s trademark sound – the record dropped a week before 9/11, the band had songs pulled off the radio and incited a riot when a free show on Hollywood Boulevard was called off due to overcrowding.

“For me the memories of [hit single] Chop Suey! and Toxicity are really stressful. What a mess!” recalls Tankian. “It doesn’t remind me of a time where I was like: ‘Wow, we had a number one hit, the radio is playing our songs, we’re going to be huge!’ I didn’t even think about that. I was just like: ‘Fuck, how are we going to make it through?’”

So by comparison putting out a new EP now, during this time of a pandemic and strife, must be a breeze?

Tankian laughs: “It’s safer, much safer!”

Elasticity by Serj Tankian is out on March 19 via Alchemy Recordings/BMG. Truth to Power is available to watch now