Interview with Serj Tankian, 22.08.2008

Last month, Los Angeles based attorney Irina P. Lemberg approached Asbarez and asked if she could interview Grammy Award winning singer Serj Tankian of System of A Down fame. She met up with the singer before his solo August 2 concert at the LG Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles for an exclusive chat for Asbarez. The two spoke about his solo music career, as well as recent rumors that System would represent Armenia in next year's Eurovision music competition.

Lemberg, who has successfully represented several Armenian clients called her experience very rewarding.

Below, we present Lemberg's interview with Tankian, and thank her for her efforts.

Irina P. Lemberg: Welcome back to the United States. There are a number of articles that are circling around about you being interested in participating in Eurovision 2009.

Serj Tankian: Yeah, you know what happened, is when I was in Finland there was a Finnish journalist who asked me if I wanted to be a part of a song competition, he said, "It would be cool to have a song competition about the genocide and it would be an artistic way of raising awareness about the Armenian genocide." And all I said was like, "Wow, that's an interesting idea." He then asked, "Do you think you'd ever be interested in participating in something like that?" And I said, "Maybe, yeah." And that turned into, as far as the press, people coming up to me and saying, "Are you going to take System of a Down to do this Eurovision thing... And I'm like, "What Eurovision, what Armenia, what System of a Down? Like, what are you talking about? So, it's all news to me, it was all a misinterpretation and a misunderstanding to a point where I had to actually call my label reps in Finland and asked them to please tell the journalist to retract those statements, since I never said that.

I.L.: Serj, it's obvious that as a direct result of your efforts, hard work, relentlessness and dedication, a lot of people found out about what happened to the Armenian people in 1915. That in itself is a very huge, huge accomplishment that is attributable to you.

S.T.: Thanks, djan.

I.L.: What I want to know is whether it is still important to you that it be labeled and classified as "Genocide." Because, as I understand, even 33 years before the UN Genocide Convention was adopted, the Armenian genocide was condemned by the international community. So, is it still important to you that this atrocity be called genocide?

S.T.: I've always had a thing about justice. Injustice has always just kind of turned my stomach. And maybe it started with the idea of the hypocrisy of the denial in a world known democracy kind of opened my eyes to other hypocrisies and other denials and other injustices, and national liberation struggles and human rights infractions and environmental imbalances and disasters and it made me start looking at imbalance and injustice as the things that need to be paid attention to. Whether it has to do with the Armenian genocide...or I mean, you gotta call things what they are. This (pointing to my recorder) is a recording device. If I call it a water bottle then it's still not a water bottle, but a recording device. I mean, that's what it comes down to, having to do with the Armenian genocide. You gotta call it what it is, and that's what it is. So, you can't not use the term to kind of get away from responsibility. And from what I understood, in deep conversations with a lot of diplomats from all governments around the world, Turkey has no problem in accepting the Armenian genocide as a genocide, if they don't have to do anything about it. And you know, I don't think that's fair. You can't walk into someone's house, kill them and expect them to run after you for 90 years just so you can say "I'm sorry." So, anyway, I think that's very important, but in any injustice, the bringing of justice if very important.

I.L.: I understand. What I found very disturbing is I read that a lot of scholars believe that Hilter was inspired, actually, by the Armenian genocide and he figured that nobody was held accountable for what was done to the Armenian people, so we won't be held accountable for what we're going to do and did in fact do.

S.T.: That's right. They were allied in WWI when a lot of German soldiers were in Turkey at the time, so the news would spread fairly quickly and historically, Hitler was able to ascertain that.

I.L.: OK. About the Screamers DVD, it's very powerful and an amazing tool that opened up people's eyes as to, not what happened before, but actually to what is happening today, right now, as we sit comfortably on our couches in our homes in the safety of our country. And I know that Screamers was supposed to make its way into various educational institutions. Do you know if that has happened?

S.T.: I don't know because I'm not responsible for that entity. We just participated in the making of the film in terms of giving them rights to follow us around.

From what I know, and from the last time I talked about this with Carla Garapedian, they had sent it to a bunch of libraries, to a bunch of universities, and the Raffy Manoukian Foundation has been sponsoring that and has been spending a lot of money in terms of getting the word out. He's done a phenomenal job, by the way. He's a friend of mine now and I'm really impressed with the work that he's done.

I.L.: You just came back from an extensive tour in Europe. How was that?

S.T.: It was really great. We did a lot of the European summer festivals and played some countries we've never played before, like Russia, Luxemburg, and Finland. Most places we have played of course. You know, the summer festivals are really great. They're a good time to be touring because you get to see different bands every day instead of the same groups of bands touring together.

And beautiful, you know, summer time in Europe and different countries and cultures, foods, it's phenomenal.

I.L.: I don't know if you can see from the stage, but I viewed a number of YouTube videos from all over Europe. The Czech Republic, Poland, Spain, Italy, Russia, and these fans are singing your lyrics right along with you! Did you know that? Did you realize that was happening?

S.T.: Yeah, yeah. Russia actually surprised me the most just because, you know a lot of people don't speak English there and for them to know the lyrics is more of a reach, you know, and I was really, really surprised. Like the first show we played was in St. Petersburg and we played in this little arena and they were singing so loud, I was having a hard time hearing my own band. That was phenomenal.

I.L.: That's great. What did you think of Russia? Did you get to walk around Moscow? Because I'm fluent in Russian. I'm from the former Soviet Union and I actually came to the US the same year you did in 1975...From Kiev, Ukraine. So, what did you think of Russia?

S.T.: I really liked it. I really enjoyed it. Um, you know, it was a different vibe than any place I've ever been, you know. 'Cause mostly we've toured Western Europe, Eastern Europe as well I guess and North America.

I.L.: Did you go to Red Square?

S.T.: We did go to Red Square and walked around, which was awesome, and got to drive around the city, which was amazing, and St. Petersburg was actually absolutely gorgeous. You know, all the architecture and the rivers and everything. It was really cool, but besides that it was just a different vibe. Like it was like this crazy society that in some ways was really organized, but you know that there's like this whole, kind of a weird kind of, almost like the Western like lawlessness to that organization.

Like when you have the government and a large portion of the mafia or whatever as part of the same echelon, you're gonna have that kind of lawful lawlessness or lawless lawfulness or whatever you want to call it, and while we were there they were cracking down on a lot of corruption, but that whole corruption it innate within that whole Soviet structure and whether it's Armenia or Russia or Ukraine.

I.L.: So, after tonight, you have Ozzfest in Texas, and then you're going back to Europe for a while. Are you planning any more Elect the Dead concerts once you're back in the US?

S.T.: Um, we don't have any planned right now. No.

I.L.: You'll be busy working on the new album?

S.T.: I will be working on a lot of things. I've been working on composing for a play, I've been working on composing for some films, and I will be writing new songs for my next solo record, yeah.

I.L.: OK. Do you have an anticipated date of release of your new record?

S.T.: I don't. I don't. You know, it'll either be late next year or early year after, most likely.

I.L.: Any songs on Elect the Dead that sort of resemble the songs on the new album? Because you stated that it would be "jazzy" and I just don't get jazz, but I'm going to have to listen to it now....

S.T.: Well, there is no new album yet, because it's not done. Although I have a lot of songs that I could kind of hammer out in that format. So, I'll use some of the songs I have and also add a whole set of new songs, just like I did with Elect the Dead. But the new record is not going to be rock per se, as far as the instrumentation. At least I don't think so, just because, you know, I want to do something with a full orchestra that would be fun. I've been kind of tinkering with it with all of my composition stuff for film, so I'd like to do that for a solo record. I don't even know what to call it. I don't even know how it's going to come out, you know, it's too early to tell. I'm still doing other songs as well. I just did a song for Amnesty International that I want to have different artists sing in it and kind of do something for their 60th Anniversary this year.

I.L.: That's great. Your father is working on his own album. Are you participating in that in any way?

S.T.: Yeah, we're going to be releasing my dad's record through Serjical Strike and I'm helping him out. I just actually recorded him singing on like seven songs, just for practice, just for him to do in a Waltzy kind of fashion. He wants to do more of a classical traditional Armenian record, as far as recording. So I'm helping him out with that.

I.L.: Are these songs that already exist or are they new songs?

S.T.: The songs he's worked on so far are covers, yeah, like most Armenian singers. But he will be doing some new songs for his new record.

I.L.: I read somewhere that you were going to go to law school, but realized that music was your true calling. As an attorney, I have to ask you, what area of law would you practice had you pursued a law career?

S.T.: Not, criminal, probably civil. Yeah. I just don't know what area within civil that I would peruse.

I.L.: Well, I know you have to get ready for the show. It was a pleasure and an honor to speak with you, thank you very much, Serj and all the best to you.

S.T.: Thank you.

Friday, August 22, 2008
Interview by Irina P. Lemberg ©

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