Interview by Adam McKibbin
Previously published on ARTISTdirect
Elect the Dead marks the full-length solo debut of Serj Tankian, who for the past decade has made his mark as the fiery and charismatic frontman for System of a Down. Along with Rage Against The Machine, SOAD (now on a reportedly short-term hiatus) had been one of the few bands to achieve major mainstream success while keeping their activist ideals constantly at the forefront, both on and off stage. Among the many issues that Tankian has long championed is Congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide, an issue that is currently the subject of hot debate on Capitol Hill.
Elect the Dead blends the personal with the political, with Tankian taking a DIY approach - playing almost all of the instruments, recording in a home studio, and releasing the album on his own label (Serjical Strike). Right before the release, he sat down to talk about the changing music industry, his growing song archive, and the cowardice of Congress.
What’s your take on the Radiohead release of In Rainbows? Do you think it’s adaptable on a broader scale, or is it a curiosity confined to bands of that stature?
I think it’s the wave of the future, man. For a while I’ve thought that in five years we’re going to be at a point where every artist is going to be their own main portal for sales and distribution, not just information and promotion. I think Radiohead is the first one to actually crack that safe door open - and it took someone like Radiohead, an established act with a very loyal base and a revolutionary bent. I think it’s very encouraging.
Radiohead is smart because their loyal fanbase is still going to buy and give them a decent amount. Those that don’t know the band are going to get the album for virtually nothing and become fans of the band, and some of those people are going to go to shows and buy merch and buy their back catalog. I think it’s really pretty economically socialistic, as well. If you only have five bucks instead of fifteen bucks, the band is giving you a break. They were already a huge band, but I think this will propel them into a bigger stratosphere.
Do you think that labels will always have a place in the equation?
I think there will still be a need for labels. Artists don’t know how to promote themselves or market their records. Unless you’re a very well established artist and people are coming to you, you’re going to need to promote yourself. There are indie companies you can hire to do web promotion and radio promotion, so you can do it without a label if you become the label yourself and you use those different companies and stay on top of it. But it definitely takes a business perspective and it takes organization, focus and a lot of work - on top of being the artist and touring. We do that with Serjical Strike, obviously, but I don’t think most artists will be doing that.
Speaking of Serjical Strike, to what degree does it affect the art when it is your money on the line? Does it make you any more nervous or cautious?
No, it makes me less cautious. Actually, the music itself doesn’t change no matter what. When I’m writing music or lyrics, I don’t have anything or anyone in mind. I’m just pouring whatever comes out of me from the universe and channeling it and structuring it into a quality record. Now I’m trying to infuse the same integrity that’s in the artwork and the record into everything else - the videos, the publicity, the promotions, the photography. From the label perspective, I push to make sure that the artist - which is me in this case - gets the same representation through the business side as he would if he put it out himself.
I read your recent interview with MTV and, while I know you write a lot of songs, I was a bit astounded that you have 4,500 of ‘em stockpiled.
I don’t know if it’s 4,500. [Laughs] I think I said four or five hundred. They may have mistyped it.
Forgive me for taking this to a morbid place, but if something terrible happened to you, would you be comfortable with someone combing through your archives and posthumously releasing them to the public?
Not all of them are meant to be released - and not all of them are meant to be released on a solo artist’s record. The majority of them are pieces for films, pieces for videogames, there’s a lot of jazz stuff, experimental stuff, noise and rock and all sorts of stuff. I’m very careful about what I release where. I wouldn’t mind a lot of it being used in film in the future. As far as releasing something under my name, I’ve been very specific and if anything does happen to me, people will know what to release.
Typically the storyline behind a solo album is that the artist is getting out something that they’re not able to access in their “day job” band. Is that the case with Elect the Dead? Are you exploring things that you wouldn’t be able to explore, for whatever reason, with System of a Down?
First of all, we should define what my day job is. [Laughs] Artists are solo artists before they ever join a band. You don’t wake up with a guitar in a band, you wake up as an artist who writes and develops your own music. I had a lot of solo songs before I even helped create System of a Down eleven years ago. That said, I think it’s been different. They’re both enjoyable. It’s good to have a partnership with band members and to do things together, but it’s also cool just to do it on your own. That affords you a different level of freedom and expression - the buck stops and starts with you.
Even some left-leaning people in the press have been critical of the Democrats for the resolution in Congress that recognizes the Armenian genocide, particularly objecting to its timing given our relationship with Turkey. Are you surprised by that reaction?
The Turkish government has spent millions of dollars on publicity. They’re given basically a free hand in the press. The Prime Minister was able to write an article on the cover of The Wall Street Journal. I find it really interesting that we are allowing the head of a foreign government to get involved with making this decision in our country and in our own Congress. It’s like allowing the Premier of China to come and write a huge article on the cover of The Wall Street Journal on how Tibet shouldn’t be independent. I think it’s a very unique case that we’re allowing Turkey this much clout because of an airbase or because of our NATO alliance. They’re holding a gun to our heads, and that doesn’t make them a very good ally, to be honest.
It’s funny because the right skewered John Kerry during the ’04 election by painting him as someone who would let American politics be dictated by foreign countries.
I read a piece in the New York Times by an American general who said, listen, if we lost Turkey’s support, we would have to go through Kuwait and I think Jordan, and it would take a little longer to get our shit together, but it is doable. To deny a well-known genocide that’s in our own archives and to lose that moral standing because we’re threatened by one of our own allies - it’s a very interesting and historical case. “Now is not the right time” is my favorite phrase. It’s been 92 years! It comes up every year in Congress. During Clinton’s time, Clinton wrote a letter to Dennis Hastert and basically told him that American lives would be at stake in Turkey. I don’t know what that means. Does that mean that Turkish military would kill our soldiers? Hastert pulled the plug on the vote. There was a majority in the year 2000 as well, and the issue comes up every year in Congress. Congress just made a statement about Myanmar, where all these Buddhist monks are protesting and the government is a military junta that’s cracking down on them in a violent way. Congress made a statement about that - and I support it, of course, because it’s the right thing to do. But here we go, because we have pressure from Turkey and because of our illegal occupation of Iraq, we are backing off from a primary truth - a truth that still resonates. If we don’t come to terms with the Armenian genocide, how can we pressure China to put pressure on Sudan to end the Darfur genocide that’s happening right now? We’re being hypocritical here.
How much does a condemnation really clean our hands or make amends?
Well, it’s a non-binding resolution, so there are no actual teeth to it that would force President Bush, his administration or the diplomatic corps to treat that nation as a genocidal nation. But, nonetheless, it would be a statement by the American public and our representatives in Congress that this is the truth and we have to face it. Whether Turkey faces it or not, we have to be honest ourselves. How can we look into the mirror and call ourselves a democracy when we can’t even come to terms with our own archives and a genocide that occurred 92 years ago? It’s not time to capitulate to foreign governments and their own national interests.
This does represent a victory for the grassroots. This wouldn’t have stayed on the radar in Congress year after year otherwise.
Oh, yeah. And the issue is not going to go away. As important as the resolution might be, it’s not the be-all end-all of anything. The ultimate resolution would be the resolution of justice having to do with those known genocides by one of our allies.
In recent years, there have been a lot of bands making noise politically for the first time. There was an oft-expressed sentiment that “Things have gotten so bad that I had to speak out, and I’m going to keep speaking out until change occurs.” But then change didn’t really occur and a pretty good chunk of those bands went back to their apolitical ways. It seems like the industry is set up in a way that encourages bands to make a political album, singular, in a way that they’d never expect a band to make a single “love song” album or “existential crisis” album. Why do you think so many labels or bands are so gun-shy about keeping politics on their sleeves and on the forefront?
Well, it’s a lot of commercialism. Speaking of artists that speak out about stuff, although it’s very encouraging to have seen artists speak out in the last few years against the abuses of the administration and the illegal occupation of another country by a democracy, I think it’s very easy to speak against something when public opinion is on your side. Public opinion had switched before most artists decided to take up and finally get it off their chests. I think it’s harder being in the position of bands like Rage Against The Machine, System of a Down and a number of artists that spoke out while shit was really going down, before war even occurred, when ten million people were in the streets protesting this war that hadn’t occurred yet - and getting shit from it in the media and getting dropped by program directors and getting death threats. We were being honest with ourselves at a time when public policy didn’t support what we were saying - but yet it was still the truth, as we know today.