System of a Down's Serj Tankian has a new memoir, 'Down with the System' System of a Down singer Serj Tankian covers fleeing the Lebanese Civil War as a child, advocating for recognition of the Armenian Genocide, and why his band hasn't made a new album since 2005.

System of a Down's Serj Tankian on his memoir, why a new album hasn't come since 2005

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A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The sound of protest music used to be the gentle plucking of Bob Dylan's guitar or the smooth grooves of Marvin Gaye. But at the end of the 1990s, there was a more insistent voice delivered through a wall of ants.

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

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

MARTÍNEZ: His name is Serj Tankian, and he sings for the Los Angeles-based band System of a Down. Here's how he describes them in a new memoir - quote, "Armenian Americans playing a practically unclassifiable clash of wildly aggressive metal riffs, unconventional tempo-twisting rhythms and Armenian folk melodies."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOP SUEY!")

SYSTEM OF A DOWN: (Singing) Wake up. Wake up. Grab a brush and put a little makeup. Hide the scars to fade away the - hide the scars to fade away the shake-up. Why'd you leave the keys upon the table?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "B.Y.O.B.")

SYSTEM OF A DOWN: (Singing) Everybody's going to the party, have a real good time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AERIALS")

SYSTEM OF A DOWN: (Singing) Aerials in the sky.

MARTÍNEZ: System of a Down had three albums hit number one in the early part of the 2000s. Part of their mission was to educate a new generation about something that happened more than a century ago, the Armenian genocide, something the Turkish government has never acknowledged. Then at the band's height, they just kind of stopped releasing music. They had no new album since 2005. Serj Tankian explains in a new memoir called "Down With The System." He goes all the way back to his childhood home in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War.

SERJ TANKIAN: I was 7. My brother was 4. And I remember when the bombings first started, and school was closed. We were crouching in our bedroom from the sounds of the building shaking, from bombs falling nearby. And it was just - it was fear. I remember fear - the fear of the unknown as well because, you know, as a child, you're not cognizant of who's fighting what and for what reason, obviously. You just feel the fear of war, and it's a horrible feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOM!")

SYSTEM OF A DOWN: (Singing) Boom, boom, boom, boom. Every time you drop the bomb, you kill the god your child has born. Boom, boom...

MARTÍNEZ: What you experienced at the age of 7, how did that start to form and shape your political views and your activism?

TANKIAN: That definitely made me anti-war at a very young age, obviously, but, you know, as I grew up, it is actually the hypocrisy of the taboo nature of the recognition of the Armenian genocide in a well-known democracy like the United States that ultimately made me an activist. I mean, 1 1/2 million people, my ancestors, my great-grandparents all perished in the genocide, and I couldn't understand how a country such as the United States - you know, a self-professed beacon of democracy - would put that all under the rug for political expediency. But as I grew older, I realized that that is the norm.

MARTÍNEZ: And it wasn't until April of 2021 that President Biden declared that the U.S. recognizes the Armenian genocide. Now, the Armenian genocide isn't something that's taught in many schools, and I think that you've discovered over the years a lot of people learned about it through System of a Down. That's got to be something that you think - could that be something that serves as legacy marker?

TANKIAN: I consider the awareness having to do with the Armenian genocide one of the band's largest nonmusical legacies. If there's anything that we can be proud of as four Armenian Americans that we've done in our lifetimes, it's that. In fact, in 2015, when we were playing the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Yerevan, Armenia, in Republic Square, that feeling was palpable, kind of like we were almost created for this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TANKIAN: It was a Turkish mayor that saved my grandmother. The government of Turkey should be hailing these saviors as heroes instead of denying the obvious history.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you write the lyrics to the majority of System of a Down songs. A lot of the lyrics that you've written - very serious, very political.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISON SONG")

SYSTEM OF A DOWN: (Singing) All research and successful drug policy shows that treatment should be increased and law enforcement decreased while abolishing mandatory minimum sentences.

MARTÍNEZ: Was everybody in the band on the same page with this approach? I mean, did you ever face pressure from your bandmates to tone things down?

TANKIAN: There have been those moments over the many, many years 'cause I was more of the activist in the band than anyone else. And there was always this push and pull between the message and the music. And the other guys, rightfully so, didn't want the music to be victimized by the message at all times. And I understood that because I loved the music as well. But when there was something that needed to be dispersed as far as a message, I felt like that was just as important, if not more important, than the music. So it was this push and pull. And I think that's what makes System of a Down unique.

MARTÍNEZ: Why has there been no new System of a Down album releases? I mean, you were coming off of back-to-back No. 1 albums then. It just seems - I know that, you know, some people like to get out while they're on top, but it just seemed like you had so much more to offer.

TANKIAN: I guess the short answer to that is creative differences, as Daron and I specifically grew as songwriters.

MARTÍNEZ: And you're talking about Daron Malakian.

TANKIAN: Daron Malakian, yeah, my guitarist in System of a Down and my friend. Our original format was he would write the music and I would write the lyrics. As he grew as a lyricist, I tried to encourage him to sing as much as possible because those were his lyrics. I wanted his voice to come out through his song. I believe that when someone writes a song, they can encapsulate it better with their voice. And so I felt like I wasn't getting the same back at the time, in terms of encouragement, because I was writing more music now, not just lyrics, and I wanted that. I wanted that badly within the band. That kind of caused this block for us to be able to proceed musically, ultimately.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you write, quote, "I know for a fact that I've lost fans over my politics and my activism. I'm OK with that." Why are you OK with that?

TANKIAN: I'm OK with that because an artist is supposed to basically try to receive through the collective consciousness whatever truths that we're trying to live by, you know, the truths of our times. And if we can't do that as artists, then we're entertainers. From Day 1, you have to make that choice. Are you an entertainer only, or are you going to be an artist? And if you're an entertainer, that's cool. Like, there's many entertainers I follow and love. But if you're going to be an artist, then the road is not going to be easy. You're going to have to be honest with yourself and everyone else at all times, and people are going to like you, and people are going to hate you, and that's OK.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Serj Tankian. His new book is called "Down With The System: A Memoir (Of Sorts)." Serj, thank you very much.

TANKIAN: My pleasure. Thank you for an amazing interview. I appreciate that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYSTEM OF A DOWN SONG, "TOXICITY")

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