System Of A Down, Armenia's Favorite Sons, On Facing History The band is performing in its ethnic homeland for the first time, on the centennial of the Armenian genocide. Singer Serj Tankian says that as historical events go, this one couldn't be more personal.
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System Of A Down, Armenia's Favorite Sons, On Facing History

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System Of A Down, Armenia's Favorite Sons, On Facing History

System Of A Down, Armenia's Favorite Sons, On Facing History

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Let me read you a quotation about drug addiction and prison overcrowding. (Reading) All research and successful drug policies show that treatment should be increased and law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences. That's not from some stodgy think tank. That's metal, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISON SONG")

SYSTEM OF A DOWN: (Screaming) All research and successful drug policies show that treatment should be increased and law enforcement decreased, while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences.

RATH: That is "Prison Song," a track by the very political band System of a Down. They did that one back in 2001. System of a Down is made up of four Armenian-Americans from LA. They hit it big, then they kind of dropped off the map for about nine years.

This year though, they've reunited for a special tour that ends on Thursday with their very first performance as a band in Armenia. It's to draw attention to the centennial of the Armenian genocide, when Ottoman Turks killed between 1 and 1.5 million people. The lead singer of System of a Down is Serj Tankian.

SERJ TANKIAN: We took a hiatus in 2006 after we put out the record "Hypnotize." And we decided to come together to do this tour called Wake Up The Souls tour. We got invited to do this big free show in Republic Square in Armenia that's going to be televised and all this stuff. So it's kind of been a dream of ours to go play there as a band. And everyone's really excited about it.

RATH: Well, how is the music received there?

TANKIAN: People are really, really excited. System of a Down is probably the biggest band that can play in Armenia, because, you know, the band is of Armenian origin. And not only are there, you know, musical fans in Armenia, but a lot of people have been fans of the kind of political work having to do with awareness of the genocide that Armenian's are aware of. So we have a huge, huge following there.

RATH: Tell us about your family history in Armenia - like when your family left and your connection with the awful history of the genocide of a hundred years ago.

TANKIAN: My grandparents are all survivors, and I've, you know, while they were alive, I was able to talk to them about their family story and how they survived and what happened. My grandfather on my mom's side survived through orphanages. He lost the majority of his family in the pogroms, and so he ended up in an American orphanage in Greece - ended up in Lebanon.

My grandmother on my mom's side, and her grandmother, were saved by a Turkish mayor, who put his life on the line - because at the time, it was taboo to try to save the Christian population being massacred, and people would actually go to jail or worse. So this mayor apparently saved my grandmother and her grandmother.

And my other grandparents were saved because they worked on the railway. There was this railway being built by a German railway company between Turkey and Baghdad. So it's these incredible tragic stories that we've grown up with. So this is very important to us. Some people call it political; sure, there's many political aspects to it. But because all four members of the band are Armenian-American, it's personal.

RATH: I want to play a clip of tape from you. This is from a show of yours about 10 years ago, just before you launched into a scathing song about the genocide called "P.L.U.C.K." Here you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TANKIAN: Tonight is just not just the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. It's also time to break down all the walls of hypocrisy around the world with all genocides, known and unknown, accepted or not accepted. It's time to make the Turkish government pay for their [expletive] crimes.

(APPLAUSE)

TANKIAN: Yeah, wow, that was 10 years ago.

RATH: Yeah. I hope this isn't a silly question, but, you know, you've played all across Europe. And I know that they like rock 'n' roll in Turkey. Have you or the band ever played in Turkey?

TANKIAN: We have not. And we actually tried to set up a show for this tour in Turkey. And we were told that because we're System of a Down, we're going to need special permission from the prime minister's office. We should have just said we were Metallica.

(LAUGHTER)

TANKIAN: So that took over - you know, we waited for at least a month or two, if I'm remembering correctly, and we never heard back anything. And we had to kind of plan the rest of the tour and get the logistics down, so we just skipped it and went on.

RATH: It doesn't seem like the government of Turkey has come close to acknowledging the genocide. I don't think the current government is much different. Do you think that's ever going to happen?

TANKIAN: I think it will eventually happen, yes. But you're right, the current Erdogan government has not come close to recognizing the genocide - not just not come close, but spends millions of dollars a year on disinformation to try to say it was wartime and things happen, everyone died, that kind of stuff.

You know, when you talk about a genocide, when you talk about a holocaust, using the word war as a pretext, it's, you know - it's offensive above everything else. So we'd be happy if they stopped with the disinformation before accepting it, even one step at a time, you know?

But there is a strong civil society developing in Turkey that are recognizing the genocide, that are pushing the envelope, that are putting themselves in the way of harm and prison sentences for talking about the genocide.

RATH: That 's Serj Tankian and lead singer of System of a Down. On April 23, they'll play Armenia for the first time together. Serj, such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

TANKIAN: Likewise. Thank you, Arun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "P.L.U.C.K")

SYSTEM OF A DOWN: (Singing) A whole race genocide, taken away all of our pride.

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