:: Serj Tankian :: Ogden Theatre :: March 21 ::
By Jeffrey V. Smith
Serj Tankian is the rock star of the future.
The passionate, college-educated poet, multi-instrumentalist and experimental musician is known for his commitment for speaking out against violence and social injustice, his environmentalism and being a vegetarian. He’s also known as the vessel for one of rock’s most unique, melodic and commanding voices.
As the vocalist and keyboardist for System Of A Down, the Lebanese-born Armenian-American emerged as an uncongenial musician and melodic visionary. He became known for his immense, versatile voice, capable of what his bio calls “soaring light speed through the heavens, striking chords from every cloud and raining from the heart.”
Tankian has now come forward as a solo artist, partly because System Of A Down announced in 2006 it would be on “indefinite hiatus” and partly because his music, lyrics and fans implore it.
The Marquee caught up with Tankian in the midst of his current tour supporting his debut solo release, Elect The Dead. The tour is “a vaudevillian comedy with deep messages and lots of top hats,” Tankian said.
The album itself features Tankian on all of the instruments and vocals, although he did have help on drums from System’s John Dolmayan and former Primus drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia. The music has been well-received by fans and critics alike. The material, however, is best described by Tankian himself. “I think Elect the Dead is more personal, intimate; more progressive, more classical, operatic and more mature of a record than anything I’ve made before,” Tankian said. “I wrote and recorded this record as a composer, not as a member of a band. So it’s a rock record made by a composer rather than a band. And that’s exciting.”
Another exciting aspect of the solo effort for Tankian is that it was released on his own label, Serjical Strike, which also features other art-rock musicians Buckethead, Kittens for Christian, Bad Acid Trip and his tour openers, Fair to Midland. The label was founded in 2001 and has “cast away the restrictions” of large record labels to create a “unique and imaginative” label. The company has a lofty goal to “create an oasis of diversity and uniqueness within the industry, where fans of all music can find sanctuary and solace from the drab, carbon-copy musical plagues that sweep through commercial culture,” Tankian said.
The album has the expected and unapologetic political slant, since Tankian has involved himself in bringing awareness and activism to many social and political causes throughout his career. Songs like “The Unthinking Majority,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” “Empty Walls,” “Falling Star” and “Money” from the album typify Tankian’s approach to infusing views and politics important to him into his music. Behind the heavy guitar and intriguing melodies are layers of heavy lyrics pointing out the world’s injustices, offering advice for the future or calling out political leaders for their evil ways. Social justice issues, however, are not just passing flights of fancy for Tankian, they are immensely personal.
Tankian, as well as the other three members of System Of A Down, is a grandson of Armenian genocide survivors. The systematic extermination of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire during and immediately following WWI wiped out one-and-a-half million people. Turkey, which today occupies the same region, refuses to accept the term genocide to describe the event. Twenty-two countries and 40 U.S. states (yes, only 40), however, officially do recognize the event as genocide. That issue has been a hot topic for Tankian for most of his life and is the catalyst for his penchant for politics and action.
“The hypocrisy of the denial of the Armenian Genocide in a known democracy opened the door to other injustices and social issues for me,” Tankian explained. “It made me feel that there are many other truths that are being denied today due to someone’s gain,” he said.
Tankian does not limit himself to a single cause, however. “There are many pressing concerns, as we all know,” he said, “the environment, human rights, war, labor issues, secessionist movements. However they are all related to the driving force of modern civilization and its abuses and lost path. That is what I’ve been focusing on; the wider perspective of civilization and our inability to accept its already determined end.”
The artist has taken his political passions a step further as well. About five years ago, with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Tankian formed Axis of Justice, a non-profit organization to bring together musicians, fans of music, and grassroots political organizations to fight for social justice
“We started Axis of Justice as an umbrella organization for other [non-governmental organizations] who wanted to participate in music festivals and concerts and reach potential activists,” Tankian said. “It’s turned into a valid philanthropic, political organization of its own, with a radio program. We wanted to start something that can answer the question, ‘What can I do to be involved.’ Axis of Justice is an example of what can be done, and an organization that can help accomplish goals aimed at justice. Our focus is justice and not one particular type of action.”
Despite the abundance of these themes in his music, Tankian is not motivated out of obligation to include them with his other material. “I don’t feel it a responsibility to write or talk about politics in the least bit,” he said. “Whatever I sing or talk about comes from my heart.”
He explained that his music is less political than any conversation he has with the press, even when he would do interviews for System Of A Down. “I like to talk about things that can make positive change more so than the specific details of one artist’s life,” he said.
Tankian is also not motivated to push personal causes as a way to capitalize on his celebrity. He’s motivated by the idea that everyone should speak their mind. “I don’t really think that celebrities should be used to push causes,” he said “I think everyone, whether an artist, craftsman, laborer, executive, should speak their minds about their truths. I do that myself and feel honored that there are people who listen.”
Whether people like his music or not, everyone can learn a lesson (or two) from Tankian about living justly in this world.
:: Serj Tankian ::
:: Ogden Theatre :: March 21 ::
Recommended if you like:
• System of a Down
• Rage Against the Machine