System of a Down's Serj Tankian has a new memoir, 'Down with the System': NPR

Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down

Travis Shinn/Hachette Books


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Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down

Travis Shinn/Hachette Books

The sound of protest music used to consist of the gentle strumming of Bob Dylan's guitar or the smooth grooves of Marvin Gaye. But in the late 1990s there was a more insistent voice, screaming through a wall of amplifiers.

System of a Down became the most popular metal band of its time, scoring three No. 1 albums in the early 2000s. Concert halls sold out. The eardrums were smashed. Then, at its peak, the Los Angeles band stopped releasing music and hasn't released a new album since 2005.

Singer Serj Tankian describes the band in a new memoir, Get rid of the system as:

“Armenian-Americans play a virtually unclassifiable collision of wildly aggressive metal riffs, unconventional tempo-turning rhythms and Armenian folk melodies, alternating between growling, screaming and crooning lyrics that can veer from avant-garde silliness to raging socio-political rants in a single line, I'd be the first to admit it: it's not easy listening.”

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Part of the band's mission was to educate a new generation about something that happened over a century ago: the Armenian Genocide. The Turkish government never recognized it as genocide, and a US president did not use that term until Joe Biden took office in 2021.

Morning edition host A Martinez spoke with Serj Tankian about his memoirs.

About his family who fled the Lebanese civil war as a child:

I was seven; my brother was four. And I remember when the bombings first started and the school was closed, we were sitting in our bedroom listening to the sounds, while the building was shaking from the bombs falling nearby. And it was just fear. I remember fear, you know? Also the fear of the unknown, because as a child you don't know who is fighting for what reason. You just feel the fear of war, and it's a terrible feeling.

That made me anti-war at a very young age, but as I grew up, it is actually the hypocrisy of the taboo nature of recognizing the Armenian Genocide in a well-known democracy like the United States that ultimately turned me into an activist.

On his family's link to the Armenian genocide:

My ancestors, my great-grandparents – died in the genocide. My grandfather, Stepan Eytan, was born in the early 20th century in a small village called Efkere in the Gesaria region of Turkey, which used to be historic Armenia. Turkey used to have at least three million Armenians, if not more. We were the largest Christian minority in the country. During World War I in 1915, a systematic, organized genocide took place, carried out by the then government of the Ottoman Empire. And my grandfather is a survivor of that genocide. He told us his survival story.

My grandfather lived to be 93 or 94 years old (we don't know his exact age because of lost documents). We know his story better than our other grandparents, so that was a gift for us. I wanted him to know that before he did [died]We fought for his memory, the memory of his family, his entire generation and what he had fought for during his life.

On losing fans because of his activism:

I'm fine with that, because an artist is not supposed to please everyone. An artist is expected to basically try to receive through the collective consciousness the truths that we try to live by, the truths of our time. If we can't do that as artists, then we're entertainers. From day one you have to make that choice: are you just an entertainer or are you going to be an artist? If you're an entertainer, that's cool; There are a lot of entertainers that I follow and love. But if you want to become an artist, the road will not be easy. You will have to be honest with yourself and everyone else at all times, and people will like you and people will hate you, and that's okay.

I was more of an activist in the band than anyone else. There was always a push and pull between the message and the music. The other guys, rightly, didn't want the music to constantly fall victim to the message. I understood that because I loved the music too, but when it was there [a message] that needed to be spread, I felt like that was just as important, if not more so, than the music.

On why System of a Down hasn't released a new album since 2005:

I think the short answer to that is: creative differences. And we try to instill egalitarian means within the system, not just through our message. A band is a unique dynamic of individuals, with goals and things they want to express. Not everything works together at the same time.

Our original format was: Daron [Malakian], guitarist in System of a Down and my friend, would write the music and I would write the lyrics. While growing as a copywriter. I tried to encourage him to sing as much as possible because those were his lyrics. I wanted his voice to shine through his song. I believe that when someone writes a song – and he has a more complete song, both lyrically and musically – he can summarize it better with his voice.

I felt like I wasn't getting the same at the time, in terms of encouragement. I was writing more music now, not just lyrics, and I really wanted that within the band. I was also passive at the time, based on everything that was happening in my life. I wasn't that assertive. And I take full blame for that, which is not who I am now. I am more assertive now. So it's an interesting dynamic that this block allowed us to ultimately move forward musically.

About many fans learning about the Armenian Genocide through System of a Down's music:

I consider the awareness surrounding the Armenian Genocide to be one of the band's greatest non-musical legacies. When we played the centenary of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan, Armenia in Republic Square in 2015, that feeling was palpable, as if we were almost created for this moment. This is the top of the mountain for this band. I am extremely proud that we were able to help.

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Cover art for Serj Tankian's “Down with the System: A Memoir (Of Sorts)”

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