Serj Tankian on his memoir Down With the System, activism and art vs. entertainment

Serj Tankian interview

Serj Tankian’s Down With the System doesn’t start in the North Hollywood warehouse when he and his bandmates rehearsed, tinkering with the music that’d become the first System of a Down album. Nor does it begin with the exhilarating moment Tankian heard “Sugar” on KROQ for the first time or when the band became one of the defining sounds of a generation.

Instead, Tankian’s engaging and captivating memoir begins in a small village that he’s “never been to” at a time “nearly sixty years before [he] was born.” The village was Efkere, home of his maternal grandfather, in central Turkey. Once a predominantly Armenian enclave, it no longer exists, another victim of the Ottoman Empire’s ethnic cleansing in 1915 that left over a million Armenians dead and displaced.

Tankian’s decision to start his self-described “memoir (of sorts)” a million miles and half a century before his own story began is not out of character for the SOAD singer. Anyone vaguely familiar with their music knows the politically charged band has raised awareness of the Armenian genocide affecting their families. For many middle-class Gen-Xers/Millennials, the band’s music and message were the first time they learned of the atrocities.  

“I always say you have to make a choice early on in your career: do you want to be an entertainer, or do you want to be an artist?” Tankian says in an interview with Treble. “Because they’re not necessarily the same. An artist can entertain, but an artist’s job is also to spew out the truths of their times and be an honest representation of everything happening in society.”

Tankian has never been shy about how he views himself. In Down With the System, he reiterates how he was an activist before becoming a musician. It’s why it eschews the usual routine of rock memoirs, with less emphasis on road stories, rock star escapades, and dirty laundry of former lovers. Instead, it focuses on a bigger question: what is the purpose? What is the point of Serj Tankian’s life?

While the book does document the rise of System of a Down and how the band fragmented into its current iteration, the focus is never minutely focused on the band. Yes, Down With the System has plenty of SOAD material, giving fans of the band a better understanding of how the group formed and why they don’t tour anymore. There are road stories—taking mushrooms while on the tour bus with the guys from Clutch, seeing Lemmy sunbathe in a speedo and a cowboy hat—but there’s always a sense that something bigger is at play with Tankian’s life.

Reading the book, one discovers a recurring theme: Serj Tankian has made himself a servant. Not in the sense of subjugation, where he has lost agency. Quite the opposite—he has chosen to work in the service of others for ideals greater than his self-interest. The chapters detailing his involvement with the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) show how, as a youth, he wouldn’t let the world ignore the atrocities inflicted upon the Armenian people. As a teen and young adult, he helped his parents adapt to their new home and assisted them through a litigious struggle. Tankian even took the first steps in law school to “help people like my parents instead of so often feeling impotent in the face of their struggles.”

Even when Tankian puts his interests first in Down With the System’s most pivotal moment—a drive through Laurel Canyon that sets him on his path towards music superstardom—there’s a follow-up scene where he confesses to his father how uncertain he was about committing himself to music full time. The scene depicts a son unsure about following his dreams because it means putting his desires ahead of others, something he wasn’t entirely confident in doing. To which his father replies: “If I have to get a second damn job, you are going to do music. Just do what you want to do.”

“I can tell you that when that incident happened, it gave me so much strength,”  Tankian says. “I say it made me fail-proof, in a way, because now I was almost given permission—well, not permission, because I was in my twenties. I didn’t need permission, but I was given the approval of my parents, which we all seek.”

For Tankian, this approval was more profound than a father supporting his son. Down With the System details how Tankian’s father gave up his aspirations of becoming a professional musician so Serj’s success would fulfill not one but two dreams.

“Because of what my dad had gone through as an artist who couldn’t make it, as an artist who always wanted to, and his desire for me to see my dreams come true and not let the financial failures in our life predicate a failure of vision for me, it meant the world to me,” Tankian said of that fateful moment. Tankian can’t say how his life would have turned out had his father given him that support or not. “But, I can say that it was the wind in my sails that I needed.”

[H]aving one-offs, even though they’re more expensive to play for the band … they’re fun because it’s one occasion, and you do your rehearsals, you laugh, and you have one focus point and one audience, and you deal with that.”

While Tankian inherited his father’s musical talents, he credits his maternal grandfather as the source of his political side and rabble-rousing proclivities.

“[That] is the reason I talk about him [at the start of the memoir],” he says. “I almost inherited his advocacy, but my parents stayed very neutral—both in terms of Armenian domestic politics, if you will, and everything else.”

“I was just recently listening to Geddy Lee’s audiobook [My Effin’ Life], which is very interesting as it details his family’s struggle post-Holocaust,” says Tankian. “It’s almost like the first generation after a genocide wants to forget so badly that they want to assimilate. It’s usually the second and third generations that kind of pick up the cultural nuances and start to look back because they’re not as threatened, if you will, for speaking out or for merely existing. And so, I think it’s that in my case.”

One aspect of Down With the System that made headlines was an episode in 2017 when Tankian attempted to disembark from the band. Doing so served the group, as the other members—Daron Malakian, Shavo Odadjian, and John Dolmayan—wanted to tour and record more frequently. Tankian was emotionally burnt out and physically worn down. He saw himself as an obstacle in his group’s way and offered to step aside as they looked for a different singer. A year later, the group revealed to Tankian they’d actually auditioned for a potential replacement. Tankian wrote he was “taken aback” not by them actually following up on his offer but by their keeping it a secret from him.

Down With the System documents Tankian’s other musical pursuits, including his growing career as a composer for visual media and his forays into different genres. However, it always seems to come back to System. In recent years, SOAD has found a compromise that works for the group, playing one-off shows like Sick New World. After playing this year’s iteration of the rock and metal festival, the group’s second (and so far, only other) show of 2024 is on August 17 at Golden Gate Park, co-headlining with Deftones. The Mars Volta, VOWWS, and Viagra Boys will also play.

When the news of a second SOAD show broke, there was speculation over whether this suggested a fuller schedule in the future. Tankian says there’s nothing more to it than what meets the eye. “We definitely wanted to play a show with the Deftones, but I think they reached out from the venue at Golden Gate Park and said, ‘Look, we’re opening up a night thing, and we’d love System to be the first band to kind of do this here.’ We only had the Sick New World show planned this year. I was in New Zealand, and they hit me up. ‘I’m like, ‘one-off?’ And John [Dolmayan], my brother-in-law, reached out to me and said, ‘I promise, only three rehearsals. It’ll be fun. We’ll fly in and out. We’ll have a good time.’ I’m like, fine. Let’s do it.

“But, I have to say, I’m really enjoying these one-offs because they are events!” Tankian adds, with a smile. “Touring, which I was having a hard time with, became repetitive; after a while, exhausting physically, back problems, all this stuff, but also, artistically redundant after a certain number of dates. But having one-offs, even though they’re more expensive to play for the band because you have to pay for everything—new rehearsals, crew, equipment, rental—you’re not amortizing them over a number of shows. But they’re fun because it’s one occasion, and you do your rehearsals, you laugh, and you have one focus point and one audience, and you deal with that.”

At the same time of his memoir’s release, Tankian put out “A.F. Day,” the first song from his upcoming solo EP, Foundations, due later this year. He describes the song as “kind of reminiscent of early System days,” and mentions that the song has been around for 25-30 years. As far as another tour for the band, nothing is yet in the works, though he’s not ruling anything out. For now, he’s simply enjoying the events as they happen.

“Just like I said at the end of the book…I was like, ‘I don’t want to do any more shows. I don’t want to tour,’” Tankian says. “But then, when we did Sick New World [in 2023], I have to be honest, I was the one who really wanted to play it again. It’s the weirdest thing.”

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