Q&A: Serj Tankian - Rolling Stone
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Q&A: Serj Tankian

System of a Down’s singer on going solo, disliking metal and using the c-word

Serj Tankian

Serj Tankian at KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas at the Gibson Amphitheater on December 8th, 2007 in Los Angeles, California.

Kevin Winter/Getty

ARMENIAN-AMERICAN rockers System of a Down are still on indefinite hiatus, but the band’s goofball frontman, Serj Tankian, is gear­ing up to release his solo debut, Elect the Dead. A melting pot of Western and world music, politi­cally charged lyrics and “whoa!”-inducing instrumental dexterity, the album reflects the influence of his twelve years with System, but Tankian recorded almost all of it himself in his Los Angeles home studio. As if to prove he’s a one-man industry, Tankian also acts in Elect the Dead‘s promotional video, playing an engineer, a pro­ducer, a label exec, an A&R man and himself in a series of hilarious clips. (Check it out on YouTube.) “I didn’t even know that much about these categories of people,” says Tankian, who’s currently touring with his partner-in-protest, Tom Morello. “Like VJs, they’re smiling all the time and trying to be positive. You talk to them about the end of the world and they’re like, ‘Great!'”

You moved to America in 1975. Do you remember the first concert you saw in America?
It was an Iron Maiden show at [California’s] Irvine Meadows in 1985. In the Eighties, I was into Depeche Mode and goth music and world music, but my girl­friend then was a huge metal fan. Years later, she’ll call me and go, “You didn’t even like metal!”

You recently bought a house in New Zealand.
I got a pad on the west coast of the North Island, close to Auckland. It’s a beautiful country: It’s non-nuclear, with no genetically modi­fied foods, an authentic populace, a real democracy and a progres­sive health-care system. There’s a very small population, and they’re ecologically the most progressive country in the world.

In your new song “Money,” you sing, “My servitude can be traced to the tyranny of the down.” What is a “down”?
With System of a Down, we rede­fined the word “down” as a noun. A down could be anything: a lifetime that you don’t appreciate, a job or a relationship that you’re stuck in or the final ending of civi­lization. What it is for me, I will never tell you, my friend.

Your touring band is called the Flying Cunts of Chaos, and you have a new song called “Beethoven’s Cunt.” What’s with all the cunts?
“Beethoven’s Cunt” has a dada-esque essence. I like putting words, concepts and musical parts next to each other that don’t have a pre-existing relationship, to create something more inter­esting. But also, just to hear you say “What’s with all the cunts?’ makes it worthwhile. You coulo say so many things in America today – you could say “pussy” or “bitch” or “whore” –— but it won’t affect anyone as if you said the word “cunt.” I find that funny.

What’s your brand of comedy?
I like Borat and Ali G and Brit­ish stuff like Monty Python and Benny Hill. But I also like more straightforward American com­edy, like “I’m Rick James, bitch!”

Every character you play in your promo video wears a necklace. Is that symbolic?
That necklace was given to me by my girlfriend about two years ago. Something really profound happened about a month ago. I was sitting completely still, meditating, and the insignia on the pendant –— an om sign –— just fell off out of the blue. That was an important lesson for me: that you don’t need the sign of peace to be peaceful.

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