Serj Tankian, lead singer for System of a Down

This week’s 20 Questions profiles Serj Tankian, lead singer for System of a Down, which performed in D.C. at the 9:30 Club last week. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in the late ’60s to Armenian parents, he and his family left the Middle East in 1975 amidst violence and immigrated to Los Angeles. His albums reflect his political sentiments, such as his solo album, “Elect the Dead,” released last October. It was so popular it hit the Top 10 on the Billboard charts.

 What is your impression of politicians?
It’s an office of compromise. People have asked me if I’d ever want to be a politician. My platform [as a musician] is one where I can always be truthful. If I got into politics I think I would have to compromise.

What do you think of President Bush?
[Deep breath] That’s pretty depressing. He was the perfect trick to make us do things that we shouldn’t be doing with a democracy.

What do you mean, trick?
I think he’s become the person who talks from both sides of his mouth. A lot of people say he’s a puppet for the neocons. His whole regime has been a way of taking us out of democracy in the world. Democracies don’t invade other countries for economic gain.

Do you see any hope in any of the presidential candidates?
From all three, [Sen. Barack] Obama [D-Ill.] presents the best possible scenario for a hopeful future, but I don’t personally put my trust in any political office.

You grew up in civil unrest. Do you remember any of it?
I was 7 years old when my parents migrated, so I have very few memories. Lebanon was a beautiful country. I do remember the last year hearing bombs falling.

Is that why your music is so politically motivated?
That might be a factor. My biggest awakening as an activist was the hypocrisy of the denial of the Armenian genocide within a well-known democracy as ours.

So are you openly supporting Obama?
Yeah. I was supporting [Rep.] Dennis Kucinich [D-Ohio] originally.

Ever met Kucinich?
No, but I would like to.

What do you think of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)?
Just saying, “Yes, sir, yes, sir” to the Republicans is unimpressive.

Tell me about oil.
It’s hot and sticky [laughs].

Seriously.
I wrote “Understanding Oil” a day after Sept. 11, 2001. It was a way for me to understand why it happened. I felt very vulnerable. I think oil has been the dominant factor in American politics in the 19th century. It became this very important thing. We thought it was the biggest tool. We forgot we were supposed to be a democracy and [began to manipulate] other people’s politics for our own political gain.

So why not move to Canada?
I think the ones who speak out about hypocrisy care.

Have you ever gotten so disgusted that you thought about leaving the country?
I don’t believe in countries. I don’t believe in flags. We live in a world that’s open. I travel a lot.

What do you mean you don’t believe in flags?
I consider my dog very honest. I don’t think she knows she’s in the U.S. Nature doesn’t discriminate between borders, flags, countries.

Do you think it’s OK to burn a flag?
I’ve never burned a flag, but I don’t like the idea of disrespecting someone else. If you ever ran out of toilet paper, they wouldn’t be useful. To me personally it doesn’t have much of a value.

What is Axis of Justice?
It’s a nonprofit we set up in 2002 as a way of throwing benefits for the homeless and ecological relief.

Where are you sleeping while you’re here?
On the tour bus. Every day is a different city. We’ve been traveling for eight months now. This summer we’re off to Europe to do the music festivals.

How long is the tour and where will you go?
We’ll be in Europe for three weeks — Moscow, Spain, the U.K., France, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic.

Who are your favorite politicians?
[Rep.] Adam Schiff [D-Calif.] has done a fantastic job to bring attention to Armenian genocide. So has [Rep.] George Radanovich [R-Calif.].

What are your religious beliefs?
My answer is always, I have the same religion as that tree over there.

Hmmm. What does that mean?
You have to ask the tree [laughs]. It’s a mix of Native American, Buddhist and transcendental ideas. I like to think of earth as mother. I like to think of sky as grandfather. God has been used for ulterior motives.


To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Betsy Rothstein at (202)628-8516 or e-mail her at betsyr@thehill.com.