Like many people, Serj Tankian considers 2020 the worst year of his life. “Not to under- or overemphasize it,” he says. “It’s been an incredibly challenging year, physically, mentally, emotionally, internationally, politically, socially, economically.” He lost friends and family members to the Covid-19 pandemic, and he has felt anguish over the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh. A small, ethnically Armenian region within Azerbaijan, Artsakh has been under siege since late September, when Azerbaijani troops attacked the area.
The conflict inspired Tankian’s band, the ever-unpredictable alt-metal group System of a Down — whose members are each of Armenian descent — to convene in a Los Angeles recording studio and cut their first two new songs in 15 years. Those songs, “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz,” helped the group to raise more than $600,000 for aid in Artsakh in less than a week of releasing them.
In a wide-ranging chat for Rolling Stone’s ongoing RS Interview: Special Edition series, Tankian discussed the war, how he finds his news regarding the region, and why System of a Down felt the need to act quickly. He also discusses the Elasticity EP that he will be putting out in February, explaining that it contains songs he’d written for System of a Down that the band ultimately opted not to record. Other topics include his work in orchestral music, the upcoming documentary about his life, Truth to Power, his initial musical inspirations (including John Lennon, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan), how he wound up in a heavy rock band, and one idea he has for a possible classical-music–focused recording project with System of a Down.
“The important thing to me is that we’re all close friends,” Tankian says of his bandmates. “We all respect each other. We all love each other. Our kids hang out with each other. … We’re family. We’ll disagree over stuff and we’ll agree on stuff. Whatever we disagree over, we won’t do; whatever we agree over, we will do. And its that simple, and it’s that beautiful.”
This is the latest installment of Rolling Stone’s latest new video series, RS Interview: Special Edition, featuring in-depth conversations with notable figures in music, entertainment, and politics. Episodes premiere every Thursday afternoon on Rolling Stone’s YouTube channel.