Steve Baltin Senior Contributor,
The documentary Truth To Power is a powerful look at Serj Tankian as an activist, tracing his ascent as an activist/multi-platinum frontman in System Of A Down from his childhood to college at Cal State University Northridge to his heroes’ welcome in Armenia last year during the revolution.
While most Tankian interviews focus on when or if there will be a new System Of A Down album, I spoke with him about his activist influences, from his good friend Tom Morello to icons such as Bob Marley; the post 9/11 controversy he encountered and how being a parent has impacted his life.
The film was accompanied by a solo EP, Elasticity, released last month. The film and EP together bring both of the main parts of Tankian, who will tell you he is an activist first and musician second. This is Serj Tankian, the activist.
Steve Baltin: When was your musical activism awakening? You came of age in that ’80s period, which was so activism heavy.
Serj Tankian: That was [Peter Gabriel’s] “Biko,” it was a very inspiring time in terms of activism. “We Are The World,” right? It was a very awakening time in music and activism. I became an activist, as you know because we have talked about this before, mostly because of the hypocrisy of the U.S. government not properly recognizing the Armenian genocide until December, 2019, just a year and a little ago. It made me feel like if this is a historical fact that’s being pushed under the carpet for geopolitical or economic purposes, then how many other truths are there that are being suppressed because someone is making a buck or for other nefarious reasons? So that made me an activist ultimately. And I was an activist before becoming an artist. So, to me, the film is that, it’s an activist’s journey through music, where an activist has a very little voice before his band explodes and has a wider reach. Then the message becomes more accented and pronounced. Then you see the repercussions of being an activist and an artist as well as the fruits of that labor. To me, that’s the interesting thing about the film Truth To Power actually.
Baltin: At what point as you merged the activism and music did you realize the extent of the power you would have as an activist and musician? Because when you start off you have no idea that System will become what they did.MORE FOR YOUIn Sculptural Paintings, Elizabeth Chapin Unravels The Path To Original SinThe New Music Industry: How Perry Farrell, John Sykes, Marcie Allen And More Are Reinventing The GameDylan, Springsteen, Joni, Petty, More And Their Best Song Lyrics And The Greatest Rock Song Lyrics Of All Time
Tankian: True, especially the type of music we played. It was so crazy, musical gymnastics, to the left, hard, and radio changed luckily as we were coming into our own. Radio’s format changed and we were lucky enough to be able to be a part of that L.A. heavy music scene in that sense. But I guess I realized it right after 9/11, when I wrote the essay called “Understanding Oil,” which is right now used in universities to teach essay writing apparently (laughs). At the time there was staunch reaction against anything that was questioning U.S. geopolitics and 50 years of propping up dictators in the Middle East and one-sided policy with Israel and Palestine and choosing the unilateral approach to
revenge versus a multi-lateral approach towards justice having to do with finding and prosecuting those who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. All of these are very logical and make sense reading now, but at the time it was a very hot reaction. Clear Channel was taking all our songs off the radio. Our single, which was “Chop Suey,” was off the air on the week of 9/11, where we had the No 1 Billboard record in the country. And we were on tour to add to the f**king stress. A week after 9/11 we were on tour with daily flashings of orange and red warning signs and Bush getting on TV and saying, “There might be other terrorist attacks coming.” And we’re in front of 15, 20,000 fans a night and it’s just really stressful. And that’s when I realized the power of words being projected. Because when I wrote them, I would always do that. I would write ideas down, interpretations, analyses online and I’d never think twice about it. But here it just exploded and then I’m like, “S**t, there is someone listening.”
Baltin: One of the scenes in the movie that made me laugh was when I believe it was John [Dolamyan] said to leave politics out to not offend the audience, which obviously isn’t your style.
Tankian: It’s whatever you choose to do with your music and your art. And as you can see in the film we don’t even always agree within the same band as to which direction that should be in terms of whether we should stick to what we believe in as our mantra or whether we should keep our base more diverse and that happens too. And, to me, the beauty of a powerful band is that push and pull I think because if there’s really a very uniform direction within a band their music is probably not very interesting (laughs).
Baltin: But is there a value in having the checks and balances of band members who disagree and can help calm you when emotions and inflamed?
Tankian: You’re right, I think those checks and balances are important because it puts things into perspective as, “Look, dude, there are three other guys in this band and we don’t necessarily agree with this particular point.” Or blatantly put right after 9/11 I was on Howard Stern defending what I had written and posted online and the guys called me. I remember we were in Denver about to start a tour, I was up all night, couldn’t sleep because of everything going on. And they’re like, “You’re a smart guy, we respect you. Are you trying to get us killed?” That’s literally what I was told. And I just felt so bad. I’m like, “Guys, I’m so sorry, I love you all. And of course I don’t want any harm to come to any of us, but I’m telling the truth.” They’re like, “Yeah, we know it’s the truth , but you don’t have to always say it.” And that’s the thing, I can’t f**king help it! If it’s the truth I have to say it, no matter
who gets mad. And that’s the thing, that’s the activist.
Baltin: Who are the artists who inspired you in mixing music and activism?
Tankian: There are a lot. Starting with Tom Morello because Tom and I have been friends for many, many years and worked together with Axis Of Justice, we had a radio network, a non-profit organization. His dedication, hard work and inspiration really kind of influenced me a lot in terms of it made me work harder at the things I believe in. So he had a definite strong impression from a peer, a day to day peer in my life as a friend. But you’ve got Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bob Marley, who made you dance positively and rebel at the same time. You’ve got Peter Gabriel with “Biko,” the whole ’80s movement of different artists speaking truth to power. [Bruce] Springsteen. There are so many, I’m probably not thinking of 90 percent. And also honestly Armenian artists that growing up they were speaking truth to power about what happened to our past and the genocide and music in Armenian. And I followed that type of music a lot, like revolutionary music. To me, any artist, that even in one song, even if their whole career were love songs, but wrote this one incredible song, like “War Pigs,” Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne wrote those lyrics and it’s incredible, it just makes an impact.
Baltin: Have you noticed your perspective and priorities change as you’ve gotten older and had a family?
Tankian: Absolutely, becoming a parent is a life-changing event and you re-prioritizing everything that you have. I always say that our biggest fear is our parents dying until we have children. Then that fear switches to the loss of our children. It’s a very interesting biological thing. And for me it definitely made me re-prioritize my life so I could spend more time with my family and spend time with him growing up. I’m in my 50s and I’ve toured for 25 years so it’s not like I haven’t done it. I’ve toured the majority of the countries in the world. We got my son a globe. He points and goes, “Dad, have you been here?” I go, “Yep.” He goes, “I wanna go!” So it definitely changes everything.
Baltin: Were there things that surprised you looking back on them in the film?
Tankian: A lot of it. Going back to my Armenian high school, revisiting that and then the way that the story’s put together is also very interesting because you make connections you never even made in your own life. Even though that’s your life and you lived it. But the way the story is put together and chronology within that hour 20 minutes is a unique thing. And it makes you realize certain things about yourself that you never did because someone made a film out of it. There are a lot of those. But it’s good, I really love it.