Serj Tankian Talks Occupy, Protest Songs and Industry Politics

Serj Tankian in the studio.
(Photo credit: George Tonikian.)

Serj Tankian’s excellent new solo album Harakari arrives in July — A.D.D. has an advance copy, and it is a fiery, passionate work ripe with roaring rock riffs — and he has three more projects in the works, including a jazz album, an electronic project he wrote with Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence and a full classical symphony entitled Orca. Plus the reunited System Of A Down are touring the U.S. this summer. All of this on top of last year’s poetry book Glaring Through Oblivion and rock musical Prometheus Bound, which he created with playwright Steven Sater (Spring Awakening) and staged at the ART in Boston with director Diane Paulus.

The man never seems to rest, and 2012 plans to be quite a dynamic year for him not only in terms of music but in the realm of politics. The two are closely linked in Serj’s world, so A.D.D. recently asked him what he thought of the state of politics and the protest song.

Bruce Springsteen’s recent song “We Take Care Of Our Own” has generated a buzz given its implications about the state of the United States. Since we’re now in what promises to be a tumultuous election year, do you think this will lead to a new wave of socially conscious music in 2012? Do you think that the protest song will undergo a resurgence?
Due to the Occupy movement and the injustices that have led to it, there are already more protest songs and artists performing them than in previous years, though probably still less than in the heyday of Bush Jr.’s days of contempt. Will 2012 add to that? Maybe. All you have to do is look at all those running for the highest office in the country and you’ll begin to realize what kind of a country you’re living in. We live in a mostly uneducated if not definitely under-educated democracy. In most developed, evolved societies, your shared morals and teachings would make you at least somewhat trust the outcome of elections within your country, despite your vote. Not in ours. I think the protest song has come full circle and now it’s singing its own tune. The Sixties woke us up to the injustices of war, racial equality, women’s rights…and we have now finally woken up to the reality of economic inequities coupled by money in politics. Let’s see what new songs come from those awakenings.

It seems like many artists on major labels are afraid to get too involved with politics. Do you think they worry about irritating their labels or fans? Or do you think there are other concerns?
As an artist, if you want to make sure that whatever you say or do politically will not lead to any adverse reaction by your label, put a political clause in your contract. There will always be discrepancies in the goals and desires of the artist and the unilateral profit motives of the labels. The goals reconcile when trying to sell a record. In every other way, a modern record company is unlikely to be a supportive, fertile ground for artistic creativity, freedom of expression, or pushing the boundaries of egalitarian idealism — or anything else an artist can dream up.

How much impact do you think popular music has during an election year like this?
I think music generally reflects the mood of the public in the times it’s presented in. It’s that mood and the artist’s perpetual seeking of the truth that can combine to create great socially conscious tunes. Election years tend to dramatize the two sides of the same coin in America. I guess what I’m trying to say is that as much as we think and want music to make a difference, and to a certain degree it does by inspiring change, it’s mostly a reflection of a change already coming in the hearts and minds of those listening, ready to act.

“When I was growing up, I wanted to live in the Sixties because I enjoyed the idea of fighting for positive change. This is the closest moment I’ve felt to those times.”

What is your favorite protest song and why?
This is a tough one since there are so many that approach things from different directions. Some deal with social or economic inequality, others with political injustice. I’ve always been a fan of talking directly to power, especially to those that start wars. So it would have to be Bob Dylan “Masters of War”.

What do you see in the future for the Occupy moment?
The Occupy movement is the biggest movement of our times (the 2000s). When I was growing up, I wanted to live in the Sixties because I enjoyed the idea of fighting for positive change. This is the closest moment I’ve felt to those times. It’s here to stay and to announce it’s candidacy on all those representing us in our representative democracy. I like the fact that it’s focusing on the Supreme Court’s theft of our votes by personifying corporations. Money in politics and the self sustaining growth of the military industrial complex have created the yearning for economic and environmental abuse upon our citizens as well as the planet at large.

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