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Interview with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian

On Saturday March 16 2002, System Of A Down gave a concert in Amsterdam at the Heineken Music Hall. Inge Drost and Nairi Hakhverdian met with lead singer Serj Tankian a few hours prior to the concert for an interview.

Here is the full interview.

This concert was actually scheduled for last October in a small venue, but
because of the September 11 events and because it sold out so quickly, the
concert was postponed until March to a bigger venue. These tickets sold out
again within a few days last November. The band is now succesfully touring big
European cities such as Nancy, Paris, Birmingham, Manchester, London, Glasgow
and has already performed in Lisbon, Stuttgart and Berlin.

System Of A Down is a hardrock band and was formed a few years ago by four
Armenians living in Los Angeles. Their lastest album, Toxicity, came out first
place in the charts. The band is now very famous and popular all over the world.
The members System Of A Down are Serj Tankian, vocals, born in Beirut, Lebanon,
Shavo Odadjian, bass guitar, born in Armenia, Daron Malakian, guitar, and John
Dolmayan, drums, both born in LA.

Q: This is your fourth time in Holland. What are your
impressions of Holland and your Dutch audience?

ST: The ability to speak freely on television. Completely
freely. It gives a new twist to a free country. Holland is what America publicly
aspires it is, but it’s not. Free media, I like that.

The Dutch audience have been great. I don’t know how to specialize them in
comparison to other audiences because as far as I’m concerned major cities of
any nation are more like each other, like rural areas are more like each other
rather than this country versus that country versus that country.

Q: System of a down. A destructive system. You often coin
the term with America. Do you feel the same applies to Armenia(ns)?

ST: I think only people themselves can bring themselves down,
doesn’t matter whether you’re Armenian or not. I think that we help create our
destiny and therefore we help create our downfall too.

I’m quite negative about the political system in Armenia as well. Very corrupt
government. I mean, a lot of Armenians are on the world wanted list in Armenia,
but many have been so raped and fucked up by the thugs, ministers, whatever you
want to call them, that it’s very difficult for them to open up a business and
not get robbed. Not robbed by your average guy. There is no crime in
Armenia. Robbed by the mafia or the government which is… whatever, let’s not
get into that. But I think if they opened it up, and I really think that the
assassinations that happened in the Armenian parliament had something to do with
that, the Prime Minister was one of the biggest thieves who decided that the
thievery should stop, and there were many other people around him, as well as
Turkish backed and CIA backed operatives that made the deaths necessary. Not
necessary for me, I think it was a terrible tragedy. I think that we have to be
very careful and that the Armenian administration has to be very careful not to
cause a tragedy to the Armenian people that the Turkish could never cause. In
the last five years a million Armenians have left Armenia because of the
economic deprivation. And that has a lot to do with how the government is raping
that country. It’s time to stop.

How can it be stopped? You’ve got a government, you’ve got parliament and you’ve
got a lot of them that are fed by this old Soviet system of corruption. I don’t
know how to stop that. I don’t know if that’s a one-day transition. I’m hoping
that in time they realize that if they stop the corruption, even if they limit
the corruption, if you will, that foreign investment, primarily from Armenians
who really in their hearts want to invest in their own country could be mutually
beneficial for the country, for those ministers, as well as for unemployment.
The country could be an economic boom like no other because it’s a small country
with not a lot of people, but it’s got a lot of support in the diaspora that
could really really make a huge economic significance upon it if it’s done in
the right way.

Q: Many Armenians support you, but as you probably already
know, there are also Armenians who find your appearance and music ‘a disgrace’
to the Armenian culture. How do you feel about that?

ST: I’ve never been exposed to that. We haven’t had many
people really criticize what we’re doing or whatever we appear to be and
appearances are misleading, aren’t they? When we first came out we were a lot
more dramatic, with make-up and all this stuff so it might have been a cultural
shock to Armenians. But I think we kind of opened something up. One thing I do
want to say, since this is an Armenian interview, is this: being children of
many generations of genocide, just like the Jews, our parents are usually
wanting us to be lawyers and doctors because they want financial success. They
want the stability that they didn’t have when they started generally. But
Armenians are very much artists at heart and we kind of brought that back to the
Armenian community; to say that it’s ok to be into music and the arts, you don’t
need to be a doctor or lawyer or anything. You could succeed in other ways.

Maybe there are people that don’t like the way we look or whatever, we’ve had a
large tremendous support from the Armenians, because they’ve realized what we’ve
been doing and speaking about the genocide and even our success in the rock
world. That they’re very proud of. Armenians do have one thing that I don’t like
and it’s that they don’t commend their own before somebody else commends our
own. That’s kind of like a serf mentality. Living under Turkish rule for 600
years. I don’t like that.

Q: We’ve understood that you like to consider yourselves a
metal band rather than an Armenian band. Do you feel the same in your private
life? i.e. We heard you speak Armenian, but do you also read and write Armenian,
listen to or make Armenian music, eat Armenian food, practice Armenian religion
etc.? How do you feel about ‘keeping the Armenian culture alive’?

ST: Let me just state it this way: Armenian is who we are.
Whatever we do it climbs into it, but our music is not just Armenian. If it was
we’d be writing Dle Yaman and not fucking PLUCK. So you don’t have to worry
about your culture if it’s in you. Just let it be. You create from there on.

I don’t really know what I am, I don’t really pretend to know what I am, I don’t
know where I’m going, I don’t know where I’ve been. I’m just riding it. I know
where my people are from, I know where my roots are, I’ve learned a lot being
Armenian. About injustice. The genocide opened my eyes to a lot of other
injustices in the world. I believe that knowing who you are is very important.
But I also believe that waving any flag is egotistical as well.

I think it’s very important for us to realize that no matter where we live, the
true elements of what we are are generally in use. But it’s important for us to
realize what we are all. It’s not just an Armenian thing. The truism of our
existence, not as Armenians, as animals, comes before all modern religions; it
comes before all nationalities. The truism of what we are and why we’re here on
this planet is closer to native peoples, tribal peoples and all of the truth was
more apparent than from what I’ve seen, from what I’ve read from what it is now.
We’re living a historic reality. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re
Armenian or not. You’re still living that historic reality. If you want to be a
true Armenian, go find out how Armenians lived before Christianity, before the
kings, before cities, before civilization.

[About religion] My religion is the same as the trees out there. It’s the same
inspiration. Whatever moves them, moves me. I believe that we’re animals. I know
we are because we die and we eat and we shit. And all modern religions to me are
false. All modern religions come from a time of what we call civilization.
Civilization has only existed ten thousand years among millions of years of man
being on this planet. Everything before civilization is called prehistory. The
reason that I don’t give credence to modern religions is because they are only
partially true. Because they were started from after civilization. Therefore
they all start from a place that’s not already to me natural. So if you want to
know what my religion is, it’s the same religion as the native American, same
religion as the Aborigine, as the Maori in New-Zealand, as the Kahunas in
Hawaii. I believe in beginnings.

Q: What does the future of System Of A Down look like?

ST: I have no idea and I don’t pretend to know.

Q: Many young Armenians in Holland are ashamed of their
ethnic background. They live quite isolated from the rest of the Armenian world.
Is there anything you could say to them?

ST: It’s ok to eat badeljan and hamburger on the same day.

Q: You also have many young Armenian fans here who are very
proud of you. What would you like to say to them?

ST: Thank you. Quite generally it’s a mad thing though.

Q: Serj, as the writer, lyricist and poet of the band: have
you ever written a song or poem in Armenian? If so, would you be so kind as to
sing or recite one?

ST: I’ve written stuff in Armenian, yea. I can’t really recite
it. It’s out of my memory but I’ve written certain things in Armenian poetry.
Lyrics and Armenian with music, I’ve never recorded that.

Q: Finally, any Armenian composers that inspired you?

ST: Gomidas is great, Sayat-Nova is great, Khachadurian is
great. I don’t know that many composers besides those I think. I’ve heard
composition by all those three composers that I’ve enjoyed.

A favorite one? I don’t even have a favorite band in modern music. I don’t have
a favorite singer, I don’t have a favorite writer, I don’t have a favorite
anything. Because how can I say it’s my favorite if I’ve learned different
things from different places? What if I learned two more things from this guy
than that guy? That’s favorite? Makes no sense.

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