KCET‘s Artbound recently spoke to singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet and political activist Serj Tankian for its “Where I’m From” series, which aims 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, Artbound hopes 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?
A couple of excerpts from the Serj interview follow below.
Artbound: Can you describe your cultural background, your experience moving to Los Angeles and how that has shaped you as a person and an artist?
Serj: 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 U.S. 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.
Artbound: How would you characterize the culture of the Armenian Diaspora here in L.A.? Is there a specific culture that can be defined?
Serj: 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.
Artbound: 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?
Serj: 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.
Read the entire interview, and watch the video, from KCET‘s Artbound.