Serj Tankian: A Passion For Politics

Serj Tankian takes flight.
(Photo courtesy of Reprise Records.)

This past September I interviewed Serj Tankian for a feature on musicians and social activism. I spun off some excess material into a separate blog feature about his music as well as a Digital Playlist. But wait, there’s even more material left over from our hour-long chat, mostly of a social and political nature. So here it is, raw and unedited.

What are you looking at, punk?
(Photo courtesy of Reprise Records.)

Could we get your Cliff notes version of how Axis Of Justice started and how it’s evolved over the last several years?
Tom Morello and myself started Axis Of Justice in 2002 during one of the Ozzfest tours as a way of promoting learning experience not just consumption experience for fans of music, and bringing together musicians, fans of music and activists in the same world. We really became an umbrella organization [for other groups], working with Amnesty International and Greenpeace and doing all sorts of different things. We’ve done a bunch of benefit shows and raised funds for everything from tsunami relief to labor issues to environmental issues to genocide recognition. We’ve had a radio show for about 3 1/2 years on KPFK Los Angeles through Sirius Satellite Radio. Axis Of is a great source of information online. We keep on doing our thing. It’s kind of like the activist body between what Tom does with his activism and what I do with mine.

Some people like to distinguish between activism and advocacy. I knew a pet advocate who preferred not to use the term activist because she felt it implied more extreme behavior. Some animal rights supporters don’t always agree with what PETA does. Do you find that some people make that distinction, and where do you find yourself within that?
You’re absolutely right, there is a distinction, and in most cases we are advocates based upon what we do. Activists are the ones that are actually waking up early and delivering the food and doing all the things that we’re helping sponsor. In some cases we are directly advocates; in my case, the genocide recognition that I’ve been heavily involved with over the years. That’s something I would consider myself an activist on. But there’s definitely a distinction.

Hasn’t Congress been trying to pass a bill to recognize the Armenian genocide? Where is that right now? Are they getting friction from Turkey because they are one of the allies in the Iraq war?
That’s exactly what it is. There have been a number of committee level and subcommittee level resolutions that have passed the US House of Representatives over the years. Their numbers keep on changing with every change in Congress, and none of them have made the House floor because there’s always the threat by Turkey, and the administration comes in and says, “Oh, we can’t do this because it will piss off our ally Turkey.” And in the end, we’re serving as apologists for human right activists going to jail in Turkey who are trying to speak the truth not just about the Armenian genocide but anything, and that’s quite dangerous for democracy to be supporting a country that’s fucking up on civil liberties at the same time that they are are allies because of the air base there. It’s absurd.

Turkey seems to have a history of genocide and intolerance over there, from the Armenians to the Kurds.
Yeah, it’s quite a dynamic country. I’ve never been there, but [from] everything I’ve read geopolitically, there’s a lot going on definitely. They’ve got the Kurds and the PKK that they’ve been bombing in northern Iraq. They crossed the border where our soldiers are based, and they have a huge amount of social issues and unrest within the country. They’ve got to deal with their own history and got to come to terms with it. They have the whole joining of the European Union issue, the whole Cyprus issue, which is really a stumbling block for their accession into the EU. They’ve got their hands full, and now they’ve got the flotilla issue with Israel, plus the government is the Justice and Development Party, which is like a Muslim party, and they’re always fighting with the military establishment there. There have been a large number of military coup d’états since the ’70s. It’s been ridiculous. They’re trying to get a foothold there. It’s quite a complex political affair there.

When System Of A Down did the video with Michael Moore for “Boom,” you aroused some controversy, and there a lot of rock fans that may have balked at it. My belief is that while many people who work behind the scenes in the industry are liberal, a majority of hard rock and metal fans are conservative. It’s an interesting dichotomy. As a rock star, do you find that there are people who criticize your involvement in political issues and just want to be entertained by your music? And how do you feel about that?
That always exists in any genre, and the way I feel about it is that you can’t put limits on music or restraints and borders on music and say this is what music is for. I think music is an amazing, inspirational wave format that co-inspires the listener and the player, and you can’t say that it’s just for entertainment or just for social messages. I think it’s meant to be for all, and it’s quite malleable and an amazing thing. We shouldn’t put borders on it, yet some people tend to do that. It does get frustrating once in a while, but it’s understandable.

“Any major change we’ve seen throughout history, whether it’s in revolutions or social change or cultural change, have been through the people. Not necessarily through the arts, but through the people.”

I interviewed Janick Gers from Iron Maiden recently, and he felt that musicians really couldn’t make changes, that politicians could.
Assuming that politicians can change the world.

Touché. Back in the Sixties, groups like the Beatles had a massive, profound impact on the masses with what they said. These days with the demographically divided and increasingly fragmented social world within which we live, is it still possible for one artist to have that kind of impact? Or does it really matter? Is it more about more groups making their statements and ultimately having a cumulative effect on various social causes?
There’s a combination. First and foremost, I think there is a certain amount of apathy, and even though we have more information available to us — [especially] the new generation the younger kids — than ever before, there’s a certain amount of apathy, and it’s hard to get through that. But at the same time music is an intuitive medium, and I think it inspires people and changes their heart. It doesn’t get to the mind immediately. The mind changes after. The heart has the ability to change the mind, and the mind has the ability to change reality as we know it. It doesn’t take everyone to be on the same page, it takes a focused view, not just in terms of music but in terms of anything. In terms of visualization, in terms of prayer, whatever you want to call it. To make concrete changes, it takes a very focused view, from what I’ve read and experienced. It’s hard to also gauge the effects of actions through a medium such as music. Music has been a phenomenal stage for talking about real events and truths of our time. If you listened to Dylan and the Beatles in the Sixties, especially their later records, you feel the vibe of that whole generation in some ways, and it’s hard to do that with other media. Films as well of course, but there is something beautiful and truthful about that. Now if they were entertaining and playing “Help!” throughout their whole career, I don’t think we’d be able to say that about the Beatles.

You don’t see many artists that are able to span genres and expand their sound the way that the Beatles did. The early music of the Beatles was more typical for the time, but they had these very distinct vocal harmonies and an ear for melody, but as they progressed they turned into an entirely different animal altogether. It seems harder for that to happen now, and maybe that’s why it’s difficult for people to listen to the political views of various artists because they seem to think everything has to fit into a box and not deviate from that.
I think it’s also that skepticism is quite U.K. and U.S.-based as well. Throughout my experiences, throughout the rest of Europe or the rest of the world in touring and in media and whatnot, they are more focused on the message than we are. They are less skeptical of it and actually assume that it’s a part of it and an important aspect of it. I think the U.S. and U.K. media are more skeptical and saying that shouldn’t it just be for entertainment. The rest of the world doesn’t even ask that question.

Serj live in 2005.
(Photo credit: Joey O'Rourke.)

We get hung up on basic issues here like sex. The whole Janet Jackson controversy with the FCC during the Bush years was a smokescreen to cover up larger, more important issues. Politicians, and I think Republicans in particular, love it when people freak out over basic things because it distracts them from more serious issues. The Democrats have pulled some of that, too. Like when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and the impeachment of President Clinton was being considered, we bombed Iraq for three days. I was like, really?
I fully agree. Culturally we have a lot of hypocritical things going on that we need to address over time for the health of our society. I was flying from Athens to Amsterdam and reading in the International Herald about how the Republicans are holding the mosque thing at the World Trade Center area over Obama’s head, and I thought it was fucking stupid. It’s ridiculous. One is making a constitutional distinction, and the other is just trying to use it as PR. That only happens in a country where the majority of the people or a good percentage of people can get fooled by that shit. It doesn’t happen in the country where most people will go, “Come on, that’s bullshit.”

My view on that is while they have the right to build a mosque where they want, that’s probably not the smartest place to do it since it is a political powderkeg.
I think everybody will agree with you on that.

At the same time, a lot of the rhetoric against it is racist, even though opponents act like it’s not. I think it’s excuse to be racist.
This article stated something that Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich had said, something akin to would they build a church or synagogue in Mecca. To equate a whole religion with what a handful of terrorists has done is really, really bad.

It’s been the problem all along.
Absolutely, absolutely.

I found an interview with you on the PETA2 website. Are you actually involved with the organization, or did you just do that interview with them?
I’ve done a few interviews with them. I’ve not been very involved with them, to be honest. As you stated earlier when we were talking about advocacy versus activism, I think they’re one of those organizations that once in a while do go too far. I think the message that they’re trying to make is great, but sometimes it’s a little crazy. There are other organizations that might go far that you support, like Greenpeace. I think they’re fucking ballsy, and I think a lot of the stuff that they’ve done is phenomenal. Maybe once in a while they go too far, but they do it in a way that makes sense. They’ll climb a nuclear power plant or go after the Japanese whaling ships and get plummeted by heavy water pressure. Much respect.

Sometimes you have to do something over-the-top to get attention, but it seems that we are now living in a world where you have to be more extreme to get noticed. I have this belief that rather than a few people doing everything, if everybody did something that more things would get done.
In the case of PETA, I believe in their ethos and understand what they’re saying, but you can’t hurt people in the process. Even if you think they’re wrong or you think they’re thinking is wrong, you’re not going to teach them anything by hurting them. That just doesn’t work well in anything, in the world of activism or anything at all.

But it’s indicative of where we are. Look at the fight over the mosque. It’s getting to be so extreme that it becomes about mudslinging after a while.
They’re using it for political currency instead of really delving into the issue. When you do that you’re not really caring for the public. And here we go to the dude from Iron Maiden that says if you want to [make change] be in politics. Politicians aren’t creating change. They’re creating static. The people that create change are the people. Not politicians. Not government. Government doesn’t create change. It’s the people. Any major change we’ve seen throughout history, whether it’s in revolutions or social change or cultural change, have been through the people. Not necessarily through the arts, but through the people.

Do you think we’re going to see a return to the Sixties idealism were young people get more socially and politically active?
I don’t know. I hope that we have a cultural awakening. I think that’ll make a huge difference on politics because political awakening just doesn’t happen on its own. It comes with something else. It comes from spiritual and cultural awakening as far as I’m concerned, and I think it’s the only way to overcome the apathy that we’re referring to. Speaking of Obama, a lot of people have asked me what I think of him, especially in Europe. The thing I’m noticing is a shift in that he’s really starting to get pissed off, and I’m happy about that. He’s finally starting to call Republicans obstructionists. Fuck, man, these guys held us hostage for eight years, and here we are with somebody who can actually change and they’re just sitting their ground. Some people are buying into that. Tell them to go fuck themselves. Take your majority while you have it, push everything through and stop being the national negotiator. As the President, say, “I got elected to make change. Fuck you guys, I’m making change.”

“Throughout my experiences, Europe or the rest of the world…are more focused on the message than we are. They are less skeptical of it and actually assume that it’s an important aspect of it. I think the U.S. and U.K. media are more skeptical and saying that shouldn’t it just be for entertainment. The rest of the world doesn’t even ask that question.”

Have you officially been involved with any other organizations over the years?
I’ve done a number of things with Amnesty International over the years, from the Darfur genocide issue to the Article 301 freedom of speech issue in Turkey. And through Axis we’ve worked a number of nonprofits, including Food Not Bombs, which distributes food.

Serj pensive.
(Photo credit: Chris Anthony. Courtesy of Reprise Records.)

Have a lot of fans told you that you’ve been an influence on them in that way?
I’ve gotten that, and obviously that’s always a good feeling, but it’s people. Everyone has a choice, and growing up I was encouraged by artists that always spoke the truth and did the right thing and never compromised their music. To me, that stands for a lot and means a lot to me, and that’s why I’m in this. I’m in the game for real. When I started doing music, I had a software company and was making more money doing that doing music. But I knew that was my vision, so I had to cross over. When I did, I had to keep doing the right thing, writing creative new things, making equality and always being truthful about it.

It’s funny because to different people “doing the right thing” means different things. To some it means stamping out intolerance, making sure everyone has basic resources and trying to spend a peaceful message. To other people, it’s trying to break down the government, preserve personal freedoms and not have to pay into a system that supports other people.
I don’t who said it, but someone said, why do right-wingers have a problem with paying taxes if they love their country so much? This is going for your country, this is going for your countrymen, for the defense of your country, for the feeding of your country and the sheltering of your countrymen. If you love your country, just shut the fuck up and pay your taxes. Who doesn’t want to pay less taxes? That’s fine, but in the end, who’s going to suffer? Whether you’re in New Zealand or Holland, they’ve got a bit higher taxes than we do, but they pay a lot less insurance and everything else. Their health care is mostly taken care of. None of them are perfect, but there are not that many starving people or homeless people. A lot of the basics are covered, and this is their country. They take care of their countrymen. That’s fucking nationalism. There’s nothing wrong with that.

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