By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
“To me it’s very important to multiply the artistic factor of this record, not just put out a record and sell it. Lyrics and music should never be completely explained by the artist or songwriter, because people should internalize them .?.?. I know that music comes from the universe, through all of us, and the difference between a songwriter or an artist and a nonsongwriter/artist is that skill to present.”
Elect the Dead’s gorgeous melancholy, ancient ache and very contemporary rage is the product of a psyche both utterly of its time (Tankian previously ran his own software company) and steeped in the past (he has an acute knowledge of history). He deals with interpersonal dramas and, say, U.S. foreign policy, with equal eloquence.
Tankian says that living through civil war in Lebanon as a child probably affected his worldview. “And the whole Armenian genocide issue and growing up with that as a story — my grandfather’s story, my grandmother’s story — has made me very aware of activism of other issues.” (From 1915 to 1917 up to 1.5 million Armenians died as a result of forcible deportations and massacres by forces of the Ottoman Empire — a genocide not recognized by the U.S. government.) In 2002 Tankian formed Axis of Justice, a nonprofit organization fighting for social equality, with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. Last year he and Dolmayan (who also played drums on some of Elect the Dead) met with members of Congress to campaign for support for the Armenian Genocide Recognition Bill.
Elect the Dead artfully embraces Tankian’s many vocations: music, poetry (his Cool Gardens collection was self-published in 2001), his record label and activism. The commonality among these disciplines: Each requires an audience. Ego or accident?
“If you feel like everything’s ?connected then there is no micro/macro,” Tankian mulls. “It’s not a conscious thing that I do. Like when I’m working on a record, or when I’m doing work with Axis of Justice, or I’m writing poetry. I’m not thinking of anyone else.”
Fair enough, but Axis of Justice, as an organization campaigning for social justice, exists only in the context of society. And while Tankian says he has hundreds of diverse songs archived, most of which will never be heard, he appears palpably aware (and appreciative) of the commerciality of what he does and how this allows him to keep on doing it (while discussing his imminent touring plans he mentions “primary markets,” then almost catches himself).
Apparently his multiple public faces are all Serj Tankian. While he has more questions than answers, there’s tangible conviction there. Drawn to New Zealand’s progressive attitudes, he recently gained residency status there, and his controversial essay “Understanding Oil,” posted on System’s Web site two days after 9/11, earned him death threats and cost his band airplay.
Yet far from retreating to some solar-powered sanctuary, Tankian opts for all-mod-cons, ultracivilized Calabasas. And hybrid car or not, as recently as last year he was crisscrossing the globe in System of a Down’s extremely eco-unfriendly private jet. But in these Paris-and-Lindsay celebrity Dark Ages, at least ol’ Serj makes us think.
So when civilization does crumble (Calabasas and all), as Tankian expects, his little legacy may be one that survives in the rubble.
Elect the Dead is available on Serjical Strike/Reprise Records.