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Serj Tankian: Where I'm From

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For Artbound's "Where I'm From" series, we aim to delve into the cultural landscape of Southern California through in-depth interviews with musicians, artists, and other culture creators, exploring the role that their environment plays, or played, in their creative development. Through these portraits, we hope to gain exclusive insights into the interaction between place and imagination. These videos will attempt to answer the questions: Why here? How did California become the creative capital of the world?

For Artbound's new "Where I'm From" series, we talk with Los Angeles musician Serj Tankian.
Serj Tankian: Where I'm From

Can you describe your cultural background, your experience moving to Los Angeles and how that has shaped you as a person and an artist?

My parents and I migrated here in 1975 at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War. There is a good amount of Armenians in Lebanon who have left and come to the US and other places. There is obviously a big Armenian population here. So I grew up in the Armenian community in Los Angeles, went to an Armenian School until end of high school, and then went to Cal. State Northridge and got a degree from there. I think growing up in the Armenian community and realizing the kind of hypocrisy of the denial of a well known genocide within a well-known democracy kind of made me aware of other things, made me an activist in life. I said to myself, "How many other things are there that are denied for political expediency or economic reasons and hidden from the public because it shoots a certain class of people in this country or elsewhere in the world?" So that kind of opened me up to many causes, be they human rights causes, environmental, animal, labor causes, inequities, injustice. So that's a big thing for me in my life is to find ways to create justice - because I think it brings a new beauty to the world. A new culture.

How would you characterize the culture of the Armenian Diaspora here in L.A.? Is there a specific culture that can be defined?

The Armenian Diaspora in Los Angeles is from different parts of the world. A lot of Armenians have immigrated here from Armenia proper, but there are also Armenians from different parts of the Middle East, from Iran, from Lebanon and Syria, Jordan and Kuwait, and you name it, as well as some Armenians from Europe. There are Armenians in Fresno in Northern California that have been here for a century or more, like William Saroyan, the known writer from that area and that era. And there is a good Armenian community in Watertown, Mass. near Boston as well.

Armenians have things that tie them together. One is the injustice that's been done to our people, with 600 years of oppression under the Ottoman Empire, which is now modern day Turkey, the Armenian Genocide which has been committed by the Turks, etc. But, you know, there is the food, there's the music, there's the arts, there's the events, and a way of living, a lifestyle, and a way of doing things.

How did this experience influence or define the music of System of a Down? How do you think it was received within your community and here in L.A.?

I think there is definitely an infusion of melancholy into System's music from the beginning that is very much Armenian. You know, it's not defined really well, in other words, it's digested really well. None of the music that we are influenced by is directly spit out. It's more well defined and then presented. But I think there is definitely an aspect of that in System's music. In terms of the themes, in my lyrics, injustice definitely plays a huge role in lyrical output.

I think when System first came out everyone had a tough time understanding what we were doing, whether it is the Armenian community or L.A. music community in general. We came in from the left. We weren't really in the music scene in any way, and we were just brewing our own little experiment in the valley and kind of building it up. We had a warehouse such as this and we would have these friends over for rehearsal and little parties and build up the interest from people. And then when we had our first show we actually played at the Roxy in Hollywood on Sunset Blvd. I was thinking about that driving over here today is how many musicians in different cities in the world have the ability to go play a place like the world-famous Roxy, irrespective of getting discovered or not getting discovered or anything like that. I think that is really special about Los Angeles is we have a heritage of rock music, of music in general, and 60s clubs, like all this stuff that was going on, the entertainment center of the world, both in terms of music and film, which is very important. All the collaborations I do, it's easiest to do them in L.A. because there is a lot of musicians, a lot of great musicians. I've worked with orchestra players in L.A. that are phenomenal because they do so many music cues for Hollywood films and jazz musicians, virtuosos, rock musicians. It is such an amazing place for that kind of collaboration and for production.

Let's go back to System and the influence of the Diaspora in your music. Is there a particular lyric that stands out for you?

There is not a particular lyric that stands out for me. I think it is a culmination of of a lot of things. And, to be honest with you, System's music was never just unilaterally political or social based. You know, we have a lot of humorous songs and dadaesque things and philosophies and personal stories intermixed. So it's a combination of a lot of these things. But because there are not a lot of artists that kind of get political with their music and take sides strongly, and because they always want to walk in the center like politicians so they don't lose any of their constituency, which artists shouldn't have, artists should have fans and friends, not constituents. I think we have always taken the stand that we've taken and we've done it in a very--this is what we believe, this is what's in our heart, and this is what we're doing, and if you like it, great, if you don't like it, great.

So let's talk a little more about the heritage piece that you're talking about. All of a sudden you became part of that heritage. Are there any particular people within that musical heritage or this sort of entertainment heritage that stand out for you as influencers in your trajectory?

There's a number of bands that we've played in in L.A. once we actually joined the scene and figured out what everyone is doing. We were those crazy guys coming in from the left going, "What? What the hell are these guys doing? What are they?" People seemed to be actually gravitating towards it and coming and we sold out a bunch of gigs all around L.A., the Roxy, the Whiskey, and Coconut Teaszer, at the time that was still there, and whatnot. Our influence and our message and music started to grow and that's when labels started noticing and kind of coming in. We signed with American Columbia, at the time, Rick Rubin's label. He was very influential, he produced our first record. So I think that had a huge impact on the industry and on press. So we did the streets and we were lucky enough to find a great producer that believed in what we were doing. So that would be definitely a very important point in a trajectory of the band's career. There are many people, obviously that we've worked with, from managers to good lawyers, as well as other musicians that we've toured with. It's hard to include all of them.

If you look at the past, maybe in the past is there a group of people or some people that--as a filmmaker or public media producer there is always those 2 or 3 films or documentaries that I saw that really made a mark on me.

See, I'm not that way. I have a lot of favorite filmmakers. I have a lot of favorite artists. I have a lot of favorite genres or music I listen too. Growing up I was listening to Armenian music, Arabic music, Greek music, Italian music, French music. Coming to the U.S., I was listening to disco, 70s, soul, early soul, then goth, and new wave, and then got into metal, punk, and rock, and hip hop, and death metal, and noise and then jazz, classical. So to me, I can't name specific people that I'm influenced by, whether it is in the music industry or in the film industry.

Let's talk about Serj, after System of a Down. What has happened to you after that? You have had a really dynamic output of work. How was taking the road solo?

Musically, it was one of the best things I've done, going solo and doing my own thing. I always say, everyone is first a solo artist then joins a band because if you have nothing to offer a band, you're not going to be in one. Obviously I'm known for being in System of a Down but as a songwriter, I've put out three records, a live CD/DVD.with an orchestra. I've toured with the world with my back up band as well as with 12 or 13 different orchestras around the world. I've written another three or four records that we are releasing between this year and next year, from rock to jazz to electronic to my first symphony, which is called "Orca." My confidence as a composer has really really increased well and beyond what it was in System. In System, I was mainly known as a lyricist, a lead singer, which I got a lot of praise, thankful praise for. But I wasn't able to express myself as a composer as much because there were so many songwriters in the band. So I think that has really taken off for me and I'm very happy about that. So now I'm scoring videos, starting to get attached to film project for scoring which I really want to do, probably more than anything in my life at this point in my life. I got a new record coming out and all that. But I'm also enjoying touring with System. That's the beautiful thing. We're back in each other's lives after six years of hiatus. We toured three continents last year and we've played tighter, better than ever before and had a blast. So I like having it all. I like doing it all. I like performing with System, performing with an orchestra, performing with my band guys, doing a jazz project with Tigran Hamasyan and some of the other friends from the Jazz record I'm doing, called Jazz-Iz-Christ, that's going to definitely piss people off, but that's good. So I feel great, I feel creative.

You arrived here in 1975. How do you see the Armenian community now after almost 40 years.

In '75 there was a very small Armenian community in Los Angeles. Now it has grown to, I don't know what the numbers are but it's pretty huge. You know, Glendale, Little Armenia in Hollywood, and all over the valley, and everywhere. It's probably the biggest, if not the second biggest, Armenian diaspora outside of Armenia proper. So those are changes, obviously and massive populations bring changes as well. In the 70s, I never related Glendale to Armenians, for example because there weren't that many Armenians in Glendale. Now obviously there are. There have been a lot of changes in the community but specifically, that's a tough one to decipher.

When I was with Tigran last year, the place was filled and I was like, oh my god you filled a house. This is fantastic." He said, "Yeah but there are too many Armenians." It made me think, in a sense he didn't want to be labeled as the Armenian piano player, he just wanted to be seen as a piano player and in a way he was making a commentary. It's great to have my Armenian fans but...

Have you found yourself kind of struggling with that?

Not really, I mean, people make the assumptions sometime when they meet me, "oh you're from Glendale" and I'm like, "No not really." But otherwise, I haven't really struggled with that that much because I think by the time Armenians caught up to what System of the Down actually was, the whole world had caught up to what System of the Down was in some ways. I don't want to say what it may be in Tigran's case, or hypothesize. But Armenians are very proud of System of a Down more than just in terms of the celebrity aspect of a band that's taken off but a band that has represented the justice interests of the Armenian people. Having to do with the awareness of the Armenian Genocide.

Do you think that new generations of young Armenians that are growing up here--have you noticed or have you seen any type of how you have inspired them in some way?

Definitely. I'm asked all the time to go and give lectures and stuff in schools and universities, Armenian and not Armenian, as well, actually. Once in awhile, I do, although I don't want to be a speaker per se. I like conversing but not speaking on a podium. We're told, myself and System, that we've had a tremendous impact on inspiring Armenian youth. People who have gone through a holocaust or genocide, they are so insecure about their children's lifestyle that they want them to be professionals, sometimes correctly, sometimes mistakenly. The Armenian people are a very artistic people and our heritage has a lot of music, architecture, and painters, and the Ottoman Empire's top musicians, and composers and architects were all Armenians. We kind of reminded the the youth and the Armenian community here that that is one of our heritages, that it is okay to do these things and that not everyone has to be a doctor or lawyer. That's really interesting as well, besides the genocide awareness thing for System, I think that has been an interesting inspiration to Armenian youth.

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