As expected of someone who sprayed his political views all over last year’s thrillingly eclectic solo debut Elect the Dead, Serj Tankian has opinions. That much becomes obvious seconds after the hardrock iconoclast calls the Georgia Straight from Los Angeles.
His first order of business is to sing the praises of New Zealand, his reasons having little to do with the things that typically attract foreigners to the land of kiwi fruit and grassfed lamb.
The ArmenianAmerican artist has called the City of Angels home ever since his family immigrated to the U.S. when he was a kid. But as much as the Beirutborn Tankian like the States—even if he has major problems with its foreign policy—he’s more at peace in New Zealand, where he maintains a second residence.
“They have the whole Maori counterbalance to modern culture,” says Tankian, who gives Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips a serious run for the title of nicest man in rock ’n’ roll. “One of the things that I really like about that country is that they regard that culture as their culture. In the U.S., we don’t regard Native Americans as our culture. And that’s the same in Canada, or Australia, or anywhere else.”
The other attraction of New Zealand is that it’s halfway around the world, enabling Tankian to escape from it all when his main project, multiplatinum metal alchemists System of a Down, went on hiatus in 2006.
“I have a little piano and some writing utilities there, and when you have space, creativity seems to creep in at a faster level,” he continues. “So I tend to write there, as well as read and finish all the books that I always mean to. I never want to leave when I’m there—I almost want to cry, to be honest, when I come back to the States. It’s not that I don’t like my home here, it’s just that New Zealand is just such a pure place. It’s great to get away and clear your mind.”In + out
Serj Tankian sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.
On staying informed: “Along with the emails that I get for my work, I get daily strategic assessments of foreign policy that I read with the same attention. I watch CNN and read a bunch of newspapers like The Nation, as well as magazines. A lot of media in the States is very filtered. You have to go outside the mainstream media to get your news.”
On working to change public opinion: “I think political music is just one route that you can go. I always say that a good love song can change the world more than any political song. I really believe that.”
On life in general: “It’s very obvious that the more basic your lifestyle is, you have less stress. You tend to live longer even if the conditions around you aren’t as luxurious.”
In case the preceding hasn’t made it clear, there’s something monumentally Zenlike about Tankian, which is funny considering how enraged he often sounds on record. In the tradition of System of a Down’s work, there are plenty of moments on Elect the Dead when it seems like he’d love to go postal in the White House, if only in the name of making the world a better place.
The Middle Eastern–tinged exercise in artcore “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” pretty much says it all in the title, while “Empty Walls” takes aim at U.S. warmongers with nuke’emall guitars and Tankian’s famously operatic vocals. Part metal smart bomb and part pianopumped Balkan waltz, the no less damning “The Unthinking Majority” decries America’s various opiates—think pills, liquor, drugs, porn, video games, and Oprah—with lines like “Antidepressants controlling tools of your system/Making life more tolerable.”
Whether addressing the end of Earth as we know it (“Sky Is Over”) or allconsuming greed (“Money”), Elect the Dead is never less than an adventure, dabbling in everything from blazingcampfire folk to roadrage hardcore to loungetastic pop.
Tankian acknowledges that Elect the Dead marks something of a policy shift. No matter how pissed he’s been in the past, the singer has often resisted the temptation to make his political targets clear; for a good exercise in frustration, try figuring out what the hell he’s on about in fullmetaljacket manifestoes like “Cigaro” or “Revenga” on System’s 2005 opus Mezmerize. One listen to Elect the Dead, though, and it becomes obvious that Tankian won’t be voting Republican in the next U.S. election.
“I think it’s easier to be less ambiguous in your lyrics when a record is personal and you don’t have to be representing other artists within your group,” he explains. “Being a solo record, it’s like there’s only you and me—the listener and the disseminator—so I think there’s definitely a more direct aspect.”
And if that directness works, it’s because the singer has made it a point to be informed. Right after 9/11, Tankian got America in a lather when he penned an essay titled “Understanding Oil” and posted it on System’s Web site, his goal being to provide a different set of reference points for the terrorist attacks on New York City.
On the streetlevel side of things, he’s teamed up with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello to form Axis of Justice, an organization designed to get musicians, fans, and grassroots political organizations fighting together for social justice through advocacy and outreach programs. The way Tankian sees it, he has an obligation to get his fans thinking about something other than iPhones and Xbox.
“We’ve become complacent,” the singer says bluntly. “The statement that I like to make about complacency is that, if they let us protest in L.A. in cars, then we’ll turn out in large numbers. But when the knife goes to the organ, I think people start reacting, finally. I think it’s come to a point where, with the rise in oil prices, the recession—even though a lot of people are denying it—that people are waking up now because they are feeling it in their pocketbooks.”
Warming up to the subject, he continues: “You get a lot of bands now talking against Bush. It’s easy to support public opinion; it’s harder to do it when the truth opposes public opinion. People will ridicule you, and you might lose your job or your fan base. It’s a risk, and a lot of people are not willing to take that risk.”
So far, that risk seems to be paying off bigtime for Tankian, who admits he couldn’t be happier with where he finds himself these days. And if everything should suddenly end up going downhill faster than America during the past couple of years? Well, there’s always New Zealand.
Serj Tankian plays Pemberton Festival on Friday (July 25).