After packing stadiums and selling millions of albums, alumnus and System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian is taking on expansive, new musical challenges.
by Cary Osborne
There was no goal. No thought of performing in front of tens of thousands of people.
The motivation for the young college student was simple: escape.
“It was a way to relieve my mind from everything going on in my world at the time,” said Serj Tankian. “It was a meditative technique.”
His escape vehicle? Music.
In his sophomore year at California State University, Northridge, Tankian ’89 (Marketing) took up the keyboard and discovered a new way to express his emotions. An artist was born.
That artist went on to become the lead singer and songwriter for Grammy Award-winning hard rock quartet System of a Down, a band that packs stadiums and has sold millions of albums. Now, more than 20 years later, Tankian continues to evolve as an artist. Among his many roles: vocalist, lyricist, composer, painter and activist.
It has been 12 years since the release of System of a Down’s most recent album, Hypnotize, which went platinum and reached the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart.
In the interim, Tankian has released five solo albums, created musical scores and compositions for films and video games, produced dozens of paintings and championed social justice causes — from fighting for recognition of the Armenian Genocide to environmental issues.
An Active Matador
Tankian’s emergence as an artist happened at a time of discovery.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life,” said Tankian, 50, of his early years at CSUN. “In fact, I find it rare that people at 17, 18 have a complete target fix of their vision. Some people do, and that’s great. But most of us are in the middle.
“I chose CSUN because I wanted to study business and knew they had a great program, and a top program in accounting — not that I wanted to be an accountant,” he said.
Tankian was a high-achieving student in high school and had his pick of universities. But CSUN, for Tankian and his family, was the sensible choice. He grew up in Hollywood, and his family later moved to Studio City.
During his college years, he worked with his father in the shoe industry, his uncle in the jewelry industry and at a car wash. Even while holding down several jobs and studying marketing, he was active on campus as president of the Armenian Students Association (ASA).
In the May 7, 1987, issue of CSUN’s student newspaper The Sundial, the club was credited in an article called “Ethnic clubs’ issues vary,” for the Armenian language being taught at the university. The ASA collected money from the Armenian community in Southern California to pay for the instructor.
Another key issue for the club, then as now, was national and international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Beginning in 1915, Turkish leaders began a systematic elimination of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the genocide, some 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children had been murdered. Tankian’s four grandparents were survivors of the genocide.
As a 19 year old, Tankian was quoted in The Sundial saying: “‘Most people living today in America have a very local view of life. Even I, living in today’s society, have very little knowledge of international news. The only thing we can do to further our goals is to publicize and try to break the local barrier.’”
Reflecting on his undergraduate years, Tankian noted that CSUN helped elevate his thinking.
“I think learning makes you open to learning. Studying things makes you a more open person,” Tankian said. “People who don’t have that experience tend to have their worlds more closed off. It’s kind of like traveling. When you travel, your world becomes bigger. When you study, your mind becomes bigger.”
Thirty years after his comments to The Sundial, the United States — and Turkey, for that matter — have not formally recognized the genocide. It remains an important and emotional topic for Tankian, now married and a father of a 3-year-old. He also has been an advocate of eliminating the U.S. Electoral College, caps on corporate contributions to political candidates, tax reform and other political issues. In 2008, Tankian launched an eco-awareness website to support Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. He also has been a longtime supporter of Amnesty International, including raising money for the human rights organization.
“When you are from a people who have suffered a major injustice in life, like a genocide, like a holocaust — in my case, it’s made me empathetic to the ideal of justice,” Tankian said. “And so, the lack of proper recognition of the Armenian Genocide in a well-known democracy like the U.S. made me really aware of other injustices. Made me think how many other truths are out there that are covered up due to political gain or for whatever reason. To me, that opened my world. I started empathizing with other human rights struggles, environmental rights, over time.”
Tankian was born in Lebanon and moved with his family to the U.S. when he was 8 years old. His heritage has played a significant part of his music from the beginning.
System of a Down formed in 1994. Its members — Tankian, drummer John Dolmayan, guitarist Daron Malakian and bassist Shavo Odadjian — are all Armenian-Americans. Tankian wrote a song on the band’s self-titled 1998 debut album called P.L.U.C.K. (Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers), which directly acknowledges the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide.
In 2015, the band embarked on the “Wake Up the Souls Tour,” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the genocide. The tour kicked off at the Forum in Inglewood and included an April 23 concert in Armenia.
In the past 21 years, System of a Down has experienced worldwide acclaim and popularity. The band’s breakthrough album, 2001’s Toxicity, topped the Billboard 200 album chart, went triple platinum in the U.S. and featured three signature singles for the band — “Chop Suey!,” “Toxicity” and “Aerials.” System released four more albums and won a Grammy in 2005 for the song “B.Y.O.B.” in the Best Hard Rock Performance category.
Tankian, who described his musical influences as “world music and rock,” started a new chapter in 2007 with his first solo album, Elect the Dead. That release led to other projects, including creating the film scores to the movies 1915, a drama inspired by the Armenian Genocide, and Furious, a Russian action epic. He also composed music for the video game Midnight Star and its sequel, Midnight Star: Renegade.
“I see music as flavors — like food,” he said. “No matter how much you like a certain food, it would get very boring eating it your whole life. Music is like that. I can’t listen to the same type of music a lot. I can’t play the same music a lot. It’s got to change frequently enough to keep my interest. Even as a composer. “What I like about scoring films and video games, which is something I’m tending to do more than anything else right now, is that same exact thing — every new project is a totally new set of colors, a new palette,” Tankian said. “One director may want to do a big orchestra and big drums, another may want a more modern sound. It’s like every project is a different color. I love that because it lets you experiment as a composer, lets you grow and lets you do different things with what you have. The music coming through you comes in different forms. Doing the same thing again is artistic death.”
His second solo release, Elect the Dead Symphony, came about when he was contacted by a friend who sent word that another friend in the Auckland Symphony Orchestra wanted to work with Tankian. He took on the musical challenge with gusto, and he was eager to do more than just perform with the orchestra: Tankian wanted to help arrange the music as well. He stripped down the songs from Elect the Dead to their most basic elements and began to craft basic string arrangements. Composer John Psathas took Tankian’s brass and string melodies and completed the score. “It became kind of like the impetus for me to start touring with other orchestras,” Tankian said.
Suren Seropian ’88 (English), director of development for CSUN’s College of Humanities, has known Tankian since they were teens. In recent years, he urged Tankian to return to campus to visit its new jewel, the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (formerly VPAC). Impressed after his first visit to the arts venue, Tankian booked a concert featuring the CSUN Symphony for Nov. 10, 2016. The date quickly sold out, and one night became two (another sell-out, Nov. 12, 2016). Tankian and the CSUN Symphony performed songs from his solo catalog.
“There was such a buzz,” Tankian said. “I’ve played with a couple dozen orchestras around the world, and I get asked, ‘What was the best orchestra you’ve played with around the world? The Czech National Symphony Orchestra?’ And I’m like, ‘You know what? Because they were so well-prepared and had so much enthusiasm, I would have to say it was the CSUN student orchestra that played the best from all those shows.’ It was really cool. Saying it, I realized that it was the truth.”
The performances offered Tankian the opportunity to see a different CSUN than the campus he once knew.
“I hadn’t been on campus for many, many years,” he said. “But just seeing the enthusiasm when we went in for sound check and seeing the growth of the campus, everything going on was quite inspiring.”
“I see music as flavors — like food. No matter how much you like a certain food, it would get very boring eating it your whole life. Music is like that. I can’t listen to the same type of music a lot. I can’t play the same music a lot. It’s got to change frequently enough to keep my interest. Even as a composer.”
Tankian’s latest project is a film documenting a year in his life. A camera crew followed the artist throughout 2011, which he called the busiest working year of his life. During that time, he worked on a musical with playwright Steven Sater, an interpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound; released a book of poetry, Glaring Through Oblivion; worked on three albums and toured with System of a Down.
Painting recently has emerged as a new and nourishing element in his creative life.
“Some of my best friends are painters, and they’d be listening to music while painting. For years, I wondered how it would be to score music to a set of paintings. Never thought they’d be my paintings,” Tankian said. “One day I said, ‘You know what? I have this piece of music, I wonder what this would look like.’”
His first painting, Disarming Time, was inspired by a lingering thought about timelessness.
“I really like [painting], loved the experience of it,” Tankian said. “It made me feel like I was 19 again and first started music. I didn’t know what I was doing. For music, now it’s not scientific, but I know what I’m doing. With art, it’s like being lost in it. I was hungry for it.”
Over the summer, Tankian returned to System of a Down for a 21-city European tour. This CSUN alumnus won’t be defined by one branch of his artistry, however. “I’ve put out five solo records and five System records and am very proud of all of them,” Tankian said.
“I’ve put a lot of hard work and love and a lot of emotions into all of them. Maybe there will be more records down the line. I don’t know. For right now, what I’m thriving on is composing more than anything else — rather than writing the song, which is kind of formulaic. Even when it’s progressive, it’s formulaic.
“I still do it,” he continued. “I just sang on (Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist) Tom Morello’s song on his solo record, and I just wrote this Armenian song that came to me. When the music comes, you put it down. I’m enjoying just being the artist — just composing and hiring an orchestra or a rock band for a film or for a part the project needs or desires. I’m going back to purism and doing what I enjoy, and what’s making me grow. As a songwriter, I don’t think I can grow anymore. As a composer, I’m growing quickly.”