System of a Down's Serj Tankian on his tour for recognition of the Armenian genocide

The Armenian-American metal band, System of a Down, is doing a special tour for the Armenian genocide centenary. We catch up with the lead singer to find out why.

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A pot of chives perches next to a pile of Haribo. Rows of white candles burn gently alongside boxes of muesli, some grapes and a fridge packed mainly with bottles of Perrier. It’s not as rock ‘n’ roll backstage at a System of a Down gig as I expected. Though there is some disembodied whooping from down the corridor as I wait, sipping recklessly on some sparkling water, to interview the lead singer, Serj Tankian, the atmosphere is tranquil.

The metal band that has graced the black, oversized hoodies of millions of teens since the late Nineties is doing a special tour, called Wake up the Souls, to raise awareness about the Armenian genocide. It is the centenary of Ottoman Turkey’s attempted annihilation of the Armenians next Friday, and this band of Armenian-Americans has long been campaigning for recognition of the events in the First World War as genocide.

Its tour will include a live show in Armenia that will be streamed worldwide. It will be the first time the band plays in the country of their ancestors. But I catch up with Tankian on the London leg of their tour, an hour or so before they're due on stage at Wembley Arena. It is testament to the band's popularity that its tour consists of such massive venues. It has also played in LA, Germany, France and Holland on this tour, and is heading to Russia, Armenia, and then back over the Atlantic for tour dates in Canada, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

Tankian is the vocalist, alongside guitarist and fellow songwriter Daron Malakian, drummer John Dolmayan, and bassist Shavo Odadijian. As is clear from their names (most Armenian surnames end in "ian" or "yan"), all the band members have an Armenian heritage.

They formed in 1994, but only gained the huge, loyal following they have now amassed when releasing their breakthrough album, Toxicity, in 2001. The title track, a radio favourite, encapsulates the band's unusual sound. Spidery, haunting melodies make for an intricate brand of metal, alongside bouncy, almost hip hop bass lines. Tankian has a mellifluous singing voice, which he intersperses with screaming riotously down the mic. The lyrics are more narrative than other classics of the genre.

In the flesh, Tankian is softly-spoken and impeccably polite – a gentle persona completely at odds with his roaring stage presence. A world away from when he bounds in front of the 15,000-strong crowd later, repeatedly shrieking  “LIAR, KILLER, DEMON”: the hard-hitting refrain of a song that refers to the Armenian genocide, “Holy Mountains”. With his signature pharaoh beard, tight brown curls, olive skin and wild eyes, he is a striking figure.

Tankian tells me about his Armenian ancestors and how they were affected by the genocide. “I've heard the stories of my grandparents’ survival and the horrific things that they've seen,” he says.

In 1915, the Ottoman Turks – motivated by the new Young Turk regime's "Turkification" process, a crumbling empire, religion, and long-term resentment towards the Armenians, a Christian people living in the heart of their empire – began an organised programme of ethnic cleansing. On 24 April, now the annual genocide memorial day, 250 leading Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were rounded up in Constantinople, arrested, tortured, and executed.

This was the beginning of the genocide, implemented by killing the able-bodied Armenian men, and then sending the old men, women and children on "death marches" through the Anatolian desert. Chillingly, it is at the heart of this desert, Deir ez-Zor, where mass graves of Armenians were discovered, that Islamic State has been executing its victims.

One and a half million Armenians (of an estimated population of 2.1m) were killed in the period 1915-18, when the rest of the world was preoccupied with war. Although it is almost overwhelmingly recognised as a genocide (indeed, the case of the Armenians was used by Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word "genocide", to define the word) globally among lawyers and governments both, Turkey refuses to accept that its ancestors committed such a crime. Some other countries, including Britain, have shied away from accepting that there was a genocide against Armenians, in a bid to avoid angering an important ally.

Tankian's ancestors, like mine, managed to escape to Lebanon. There is such a widespread diaspora of Armenians because those who fled scattered around the world during the genocide. But many other Armenians living in Turkish Armenia were not so lucky.

“My grandfather from my mother's side ended up in an American orphanage in Greece and eventually made his way to Lebanon," Tankian tells me. "And my grandmother from my mother's side – she and her grandmother were in the pogroms and they were saved by a Turkish mayor who put his life on the line to hide them and save them and so they survived that way.

“And my grandmother and grandfather from my dad's side had both worked on the German-Baghdad railways, they were building this huge railway to the east from Turkey. So that's how they were able to survive. Especially my grandfather who lived to be 97, he was very clear about what happened to his family.”

Tankian wanted to do this tour both to boost the Armenian genocide recognition cause and to avoid such events unfolding in the future. “I think it's about the necessity to bring justice to this issue,” he says. “And also to bring focus and attention to genocide in general. We've seen it happening today, we've seen it happening in recent history, in the last 15, 20 years... it's still occurring. Irrespective of the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Darfur, and Cambodia, all this stuff is still occurring. So that's important to me, because that's modern, that's not World War I, that's now.”
 

Serj Tankian has written a new song in memory of the Armenian genocide.

The gig opens with an animated film depicting the facts of the Armenian genocide, describing it as “the blueprint for modern mass murder”. The famous quotation from Adolf Hitler to his generals ahead of invading Poland is worth evoking here: “Who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”

To deafening cheers from the audience, the animation ends by calling on System of a Down fans to unite in joining a peaceful effort to spread awareness about the genocide, and to urge the Turkish government to come to terms with its own history.

Indeed, Tankian attempted to include Turkey on his band’s tour. System of a Down has a lot of Turkish fans, to the extent that it has been smeared in the Turkish press, reportedly at the behest of a political establishment fearful of the band’s influence. Tankian sought permission from the Turkish government to play there, but never heard back.

“I'm sure I'm blacklisted in one way or another by the Erdogan regime,” he smiles. “But that's not going to stop me performing.”

How do System of a Down fans – most of those here tonight have no links to Armenia – feel about the band’s message?

“We've never been into being very preachy,” Tankian says. “We realise that the 15,000 people coming tonight don't want to hear a sermon. So what we've done is designed a way of educating that is also entertaining, and works with the message of the band and the type of music that we do.”

He is withering about countries like the US that have technically recognised the genocide, but shy away from using "the g-word" for fear of angering Turkey. “You can't have diplomacy on lies,” he says. “Especially when it involves the death of 1.5 million people. I find that offensive.”

However, he is reticent about the Armenian identity being defined by its bloody history. “I think, with justice prevailing, I would like to see the Armenian culture move on from talking about the genocide,” he tells me. “We don't want to be known as the lost orphans of the near east forever. We want to be known for what we are today, and for what we've represented through our history in general.”

And when the crowd surges forward as the band's shrieking vocals kick in, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about this aim.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.