Talking to System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian is a little like reading a fortune cookie. You can’t figure out whether what he’s saying is profoundly confusing or confusingly profound — things such as “An emotion is a temporary experience,” or “Thinking can be dangerous.”
Later this month, System will hit the road with Slipknot and Mudvayne to showcase songs from their supremely weird new album, Toxicity, the follow-up to the Los Angeles band’s 1998 debut. With its twisty rhythms, origami song structures, and banjo and sitar flourishes, Toxicity resembles nothing else in contemporary hard rock. Until Limp Bizkit go on a long, dark Frank Zappa bender, System of a Down’s sound is their own.
Though that sound is often aggressive and menacing, in person the affable thirty-three-year-old Tankian exudes a Zen-like calm. In song, he often growls and hollers with what sounds like rage, but Tankian insists that he’s not nearly as pissed off as he sounds. “I’m just climaxing the communication,” he says.
Are you happy with how the album turned out?
I’m just happy.
Yeah? What are you happy about?
Everything. I’m happy with the record. I’m happy to be here in New York. I’m just happy.
What makes you unhappy?
How do you counter those things?
You’re a pretty philosophical dude.
I don’t think so. But I do like falafel sandwiches.
It’s the closest thing to philosophy — falafel.
Toxicity has a song protesting mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenders as well as one about sympathizing with Charles Manson. Do you consider System a political band?
I don’t understand why we have to be just one thing. If I write on one side of this lampshade, “The metropolis is too dense. It causes fear,” that’s a social statement. And on this side I write, “Blow me.” And then here it says, “I’m hungry.” And here it says, “Gee, what a splendid day.” Now, those are four different things. We’re all just turning the lampshade. Should I see the whole thing as political because the first statement was political?
But do you enjoy the opportunity to shake things up?
If we as a band touch upon an injustice and someone learns about it, absolutely it’s a good feeling.
Do you ever feel disconnected from your songs when you hear them after they’re done?
I can connect to it, and I can be disconnected from it. And generally, I like to be disconnected from it once I’m done with it so that it won’t keep me awake.
Why would it keep you awake?
Because since I was a child, music runs through my head — and sometimes it’s my worst enemy. It keeps me awake. It loops.
Do you think your music is an accurate reflection of who you are?
I don’t think anything reflects accurately who I am. Anything you do is a part of who you are, and even then you don’t know who you are. You’re just guessing.
Who do you think you are?
I don’t. “I think, therefore I am” — that’s the biggest mistake you can make. Because there are many animals that don’t think in the way that we consider thinking that are. And right now, if an earthquake was about to happen, they would know it before you do.
What is the biggest misconception that listeners might have about you?
That I’m angry. I’m not angry. When you dance around a fire and you go off in an ecstatic frenzy of spirit and life and then you yell at the gods so you can make your spirit heard, that’s not anger.
Everybody gets angry sometimes.
It’s a metropolitan fear. Today’s life is unnatural. When we say “nature,” we’re talking about the park.
Do you care much about whether people will like what you’re doing?
No. Absolutely not.
If only fifty people buy your next album?
Great. That’ll get me out of my record deal and I could do other things. That would be totally cool. Obviously, based on the world we live in, success is positively earmarked — financial success — and there are definite advantages to that. But ultimately, you gotta do what’s inside of you — what your art is, what your passion is, what your essence is. The rest is just tossed to the wind. If the wind takes it to many ears, fine. If it doesn’t? Fine.
Are you religious?
That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t go to church, generally. I have been in churches if they’re peaceful places and they give me a vibe I like. I like going anywhere, whether it’s a church or a cave or a park bench. I believe in the spirit that moves through all things. Does that make me religious?
I can’t say. I don’t really know you.
Hey, I don’t really profess to know myself that well, either [laughs]. I just work here.