Genocide and Kim Kardashian: The Bloody History Behind System of a Down's Tour

Frontman Serj Tankian on the mission driving the band's music and the hopes for a new album

System of a Down will be embarking on a tour to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Credit: Simone Joyner/Getty

Between their spasmodic rhythms and jagged melodies, System of a Down have always been committed to a sobering cause: raising recognition for the Armenian genocide of 1915. The group's self-titled debut LP contained a song called "P.L.U.C.K.," in which frontman Serj Tankian sang "A whole race, genocide/Taken away all of our pride," and over the years the band has held several one-off "Souls" concerts to help raise awareness of the tragedy.

Now the group, whose members are all children of survivors, is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the genocide – in which Ottoman Turks began arresting and executing some 1.5 million Armenians, something that Turkey and several countries still refuse to recognize officially – with an international tour named "Wake Up the Souls." This will end on April 23rd, the day before Armenia commemorates the anniversary, with the group's very first performance in the country of their ancestors. The band plans on livestreaming the concert so people all over the world can watch.

System of a Down have also set up an interactive "heat map" on their website, allowing fans to learn about how different parts of the world have reacted to the genocide, including which countries have officially recognized it. Elsewhere, they host a call to action motivating fans to ask the Turkish president and parliament for recognition.

"Part of it is bringing attention to the fact that genocides are still happening, whether you use the word 'genocide,' 'holocaust' or 'humanitarian catastrophe,'" Tankian says. "None of that is changing. We want to be part of that change. We want the recognition of the first genocide of the 20th century to be a renewal of confidence that humanity can stop killing itself." He chuckles. "I say that, laughing, because obviously it's ridiculous."

Why have you decided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide with a tour?
This is a recommitment and expansion of some of the work that we've been doing with the Armenian genocide for years. The whole "Souls" concept became a tour, and it's something that we all believe in because we're all children of survivors of the genocide. It's important for the recognition of the genocide as an end result, as well as attaining justice.

What are the steps toward attaining justice?
I think for us it's important for Turkey to know its own history in a truthful manner. It's not just about the genocide of the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, but what's going on now. There are no executable international agreements that have to do with stopping the genocide. Irrespective of a number of great U.N. bodies and even U.S.-based bodies in terms of genocide prevention, there's no binding resolution on any genocide or holocaust occurring. We still see them happening. I read in today's press that they discovered a mass grave in Deir Ezzor in Syria of ISIS massacres of this one tribe there, and it reminded me of all the bones that are under those sands in Deir Ezzor from the first genocide of the 20th century in the exact same place. If that's not symbolism, I don't know what is.

Your grandparents both lived through the Armenian genocide. What did they tell you about it?
They had these incredible, haunting stories of their survival. They were both toddlers, small children. My grandmother and her grandmother were saved by a Turkish mayor in a small city, as they were being marched through Turkey toward Syria, toward Deir Ezzor, the desert. They were saved in that way. My grandfather lost the majority of his family on the pogrom. He ended up in a number of different orphanages and ended up in Lebanon, in terms of finding a home there and growing up there. Just really heart-wrenching stories.

When my grandfather was still alive, we had them on camera for this film that we were part of called Screamers. It was a nice partial telling of his story, which was very fulfilling for me. We got a camera crew to tape 16 hours of these important stories that are disappearing because the survivors are almost all gone.

You've played in Armenia as a solo artist. How was that experience for you?
It was really amazing. The first time was with my band, the F.C.C., on my solo tour throughout Europe. We played a show in a beautiful, large theater. The second time, I played with an Armenian orchestra called the Opera Orchestra of Armenia. We played at the opening of a non-profit technology center called Tumo. There were about 11,000 people in this beautiful courtyard by a park, on a built stage overlooking this gorgeous gorge. It was truly amazing. A lot of youth, a lot of excitement. It was really very encouraging as to what the future of Armenia has to embrace.

Have you gotten a sense of how people there feel about the band doing this concert?
In Armenia, our status is unparalleled. I don't want to use any monikers like the Beatles or anything, but it's a unique kind of thing. So we want to go there and play for the people, which we've never done as System of a Down. It's quite exciting.

How is it that System of a Down have never played Armenia?
You know, that's a really good question. I don't have a direct answer to that. We've been asked to play, but it's never transpired either due to timing or the challenge of investment in infrastructure. It takes time for any of the large performance infrastructure to take place.

Has the band ever played in Turkey?
No. We were looking into Turkey as one of the dates of this Wake Up the Souls tour. We needed to get permission from the government, based on our outspokenness about the genocide and against the actions of [then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep] Erdoğan's government in particular. At the time, the new prime minister had just stepped in, which was the old foreign minister, and of course Erdoğan became president and left the prime minister's post. We waited a while, but we never got a response, so we planned the rest of the tour.

What is your relationship with Turkish fans like? It must be hard for you not to be able to play for them.
Totally. I personally want to go play there. Our relationship with them has been really cool. Years ago, someone planted things in the Turkish press trying to denounce us, I'm assuming an agent of the government, saying that we've done things that we've never done. So we put up something on our website saying that all of this is misinformation, please don't listen to it. It's all lies. Our fans were the ones that protected us in Turkey. They wrote to the editors of those newspapers who were planting this misinformation, this disinformation, and fought for us. Our jaws dropped. Here we have fans in Turkey that are protecting System of a Down. No society is unipolar.

Do you think Turkey will ever recognize the genocide?
I think it's very possible. I just read that there is a resolution for recognition for all past crimes, including the Armenian genocides – named specifically – that was just introduced to the Turkish parliament by a minority Kurdish MP, Sebahat Tuncel. Although I'm sure they don't have majority to pass it, that's an amazing sign not just of courage for her to bring that up, but that times could be changing, and that's a positive thing.

Speaking of times changing, there are Armenian celebrities drawing attention to the genocide lately.
Absolutely. For all the flak people give Kim Kardashian, I could say that with her yearly commemorations of the Armenian genocide and spreading that word, she's been valuable. She's been great.

She can raise a lot of awareness.
Absolutely. She's got more Twitter people than I do, that's for sure [laughs].

Shifting topics, it's been 10 years since the last System of a Down album. Are you guys talking about making a new one yet?
There has been talk, and we are going to play this tour, come back and we're going to see where we are. If we have songs that work for System, if I have them and Daron [Malakian, guitar] has them. The openness is there to work together, but we haven't made any particular plans that we can announce.

Have you personally written songs with System in mind?
I have a few that could apply, but I'm not sure until the time comes where I can actually play them for the guys and see if it's something that vibes off them.

Right now, I'm actually focusing on a film score. It's actually a really cool score, and it's for a film based on, again, the genocide. That's all I'm dealing with right now. It's called 1915. It's a very interesting drama that's actually shot in Los Angeles at the Los Angeles Theater, a very old and distinguished theater. It's a really, really interesting psychological thriller, modern story. It deals with denial and the psychological impacts of a genocide rather than the physical aspects of it.

Getting back to a new System album, I'm sure your fans are curious where you're at.
They will be the first to know. Fans will know before the press knows, I assure you.