Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down, talks to Ken Wilber about the intersection between art and politics, discussing some of the most important aspects of his life that contribute to the “post-everything” bouquet of sound that is System of a Down.
“Art doesn‘t belong to us. It doesn‘t belong to people, it belongs to the universe. It comes FROM the universe. It comes THROUGH us. When I write something, I think I know what I‘m saying, but I never pretend to know the full meaning of the words.”-Serj Tankian
Lebanese-born Serj Tankian is the lead singer of mega-popular hard rock band System of a Down. Their sophomore effort, Toxicity, was widely hailed as one of the best albums of 2001. That same year, Tankian started Serjical Strike Records, a Los Angeles-based "label without labels," dedicated to nurturing new and diverse musical acts that would otherwise go ignored by the mainstream music industry. The label‘s first release was a collaboration between Tankian and avant-garde multi-instrumentalist/folk singer Arto Tuncboyaciyan entitled Serart, a spontaneous, inventive blend of exotic musical styles and textures.
Not limiting his progressive vision to music alone, Tankian is also the co-founder (along with Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello) of Axis of Justice, a non-profit organization whose mission is to "bring together musicians, fans of music, and grassroots political organizations to fight for social justice together." He is also author of Cool Gardens, a 96-page book of poetry published by MTV Books in 2002.
But it is for his commanding role within the context of System of a Down that Tankian is best known.
Toxicity, hailed by SPIN as "the sound of now" and Rolling Stone as "a bouquet of smart rock and ardent social argument," was a wake-up call to the world of hard rock, not to mention the world in general. Combining elements of jazz, hip-hop, heavy metal, funk, punk and even Armenian folk music (all four members trace their roots to Eastern Europe and the Middle East), the album was recorded by legendary producer Rick Rubin (also responsible for hits by the Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Public Enemy).
A dense, cathartic blend of heterogeneous influences propelled by Serj‘s dynamic singing/rapping, guitarist Daron Malakian's frenetic guitar playing, Shavo Odadjian‘s driving bass lines, and drummer John Dolmayan‘s dexterous thrashing, Toxicity sold millions and earned the band a headlining berth on the 2002 Ozzfest tour. And as a testament to the band‘s prolific creativity, an entire third full-length was released in 2002 entitled Steal This Album, composed entirely of songs from the Toxicity sessions (where the band produced 33 songs in total).
The band has also drawn controversy for its strident political stance on such issues as the War on Drugs, homelessness, and the second conflict in Iraq, even having their 2003 video "Boom!" pulled from the airwaves by MTV Europe.
All in all, the source for Tankian‘s worldcentric creative drive can be traced to a phrase from Toxicity album-closer "Aerials":
When you lose small mind/You free your life.