Creative + Caffeinated
Jun 26, 2019 05:52PM
● By Dawn Garcia
You may know him as the front man behind the epic band System of A Down, but Serj Tankian (SERJTANKIAN.COM) is so much more. Known for being an outspoken voice for the Armenian community, a human rights activist, a killer songwriter and musician, Tankian is adding to his repertoire with his latest endeavors in art and coffee.
While Tankian is on the road for both his music and art, I had the fortune of catching up with him to get personal about life, music, politics, and coffee. As his career started at a time when grunge and rap were both considered revolutionary, his band was among those that raised the music bar with a sound no one had ever heard and lyrics that dared to question authority. It was the harkening of a new era of sound that raised its voice and demanded more of political and social leaders.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Los Angeles’ KROQ 106.7FM radio station was where Tankian and his System of A Down bandmates first heard their song “Sugar” flood the airwaves during Jed the Fish’s DJ show. This was during the early days of Lollapalooza when bands like System of A Down, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, Sublime, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Alanis Morissette, and more got a Woodstock-worthy audience of rockers, moshers, rabble rousers, and genuine die-hard fans.
In other words, it was a damn good time to be introduced to a new era of music, one where millions of listeners around the world felt like someone spoke their language. “It was an amazing feeling and something I had looked forward to experiencing,” Tankian recalls. “I couldn’t believe others beyond our friends and people around us may have heard the song.”
When asked how his parents felt about him pursuing a music career, he says, “My father, being a musician who had chosen another career out of necessity, was very encouraging and gave me the confidence I’d need.”
Instrumental in a new generation of music, System of A Down shook things up. Not only was it a mainstream Armenian American band, it was a hardcore rock band with a message. The band formed in 1994 with original members Tankian, Daron Malakian, Shavo Obadjian, and Ontronik Khachaturian, later welcoming drummer John Dolmayan. It stands as one of the most pivotal bands of the late ‘90s.
Tankian now creates his own music and musical scores on films and television shows. “My friend, composer Bear McCreary, and I have talked for years about working together on a score to a film and always keep in touch,” he says. “He called me one day with the idea of doing a cover of the Blue Oyster Cult song ‘Godzilla’ for the new Godzilla film he was scoring. It was a very exciting prospect as we both loved the original song and knew the band had never allowed the Godzilla franchise to use the song until now.”
Part of Tankian’s message derived from a deeply rooted sense of duty to empower the Armenian people, who had been through a tragic genocide. That was when the activist nature in his blood became the driving force of his life’s mission to represent and fight for human rights. “Culture is the color and flavor that is part of everything one does if they’re doing it honestly,” he says. “In my case, Armenian culture brings this unique melancholy and valor to what I do.”
Taking an active stance to ensure that the United States did its part to properly represent Armenians and their history is what prompted a lifetime of advocacy. “The hypocrisy of successive US administrations and sessions of Congress shying away from using the word ‘genocide’ to describe what happened to my ancestors for political capital or economic expediency made me a lifetime activist and a seeker of truth and justice in all fields,” he says.
Tankian and fellow musician and activist Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Prophets of Rage) joined forces to launch their nonprofit, Axis of Justice (AXISOFJUSTICE.NET). By bringing about social justice through grassroots measures and music Axis of Justice is bringing about change. Tankian believes anyone willing to fight for social justice should. “We’ve always said organize locally to impact globally,” he says. “It’s not so much about [people] helping Axis of Justice, but helping themselves connect to causes they believe in. There are millions of amazing nonprofits seeking help and talent. Pick any one of them.”
Tankian also believes that how we share messages and go about social change matters. He is working on a film called Truth To Power, which attempts to answer the question, “Can music change the world?”
“I would say music changes your heart, the heart changes the mind, the mind changes the world in that order,” Tankian says. “We have to be inspired to visualize a better world and to work hard to achieve it. We have been told that our work having to do with genocide awareness has had a strong impact on public awareness of the Armenian genocide in the West. That’s a positive example.”
When Tankian needs another creative release, he turns to the canvas. “I got into painting because I wanted to see what my music looked like,” he says. “All my paintings have an accompanying musical score, allowing for a deeper connection to the art itself through a multisensory experience. I have been influenced by many traditional and modern painters but ultimately my work is a physical manifestation of my music.”
The next endeavor for Tankian? Coffee. Kavat Coffee (KAVATCOFFEE.COM) makes delicious, organic Armenian coffee using organic beans hand-selected from Ethiopia. “Ara [Anjounian] and I started Kavat Coffee to introduce the rituals and culture of Armenian coffee to the world,” he says. “Sitting down with a pot of coffee for a chat has been a welcomed occasion in our family for years. My grandmother would make a pot and sit down with my mom to discuss family events and such. The aroma in the room, the banter, and accompanying sweets are a beautiful memory instilled in my consciousness.”
With two premium lines, Kavat Coffee is now part of Tankian’s daily ritual. “I usually begin my morning with a cup of our Kavat San Lazarro espresso and mix in a smidgen of heavy whipping cream and brown sugar to start the day sweet,” he says. “After lunch, I like to have a cup of Armenian coffee. Then mid afternoon I usually have an espresso. I can’t sleep well if I have caffeine after 4 p.m., so I usually drink herbal tea at night, though sometimes I’ll have a decaf espresso. That habit led us to developing a very delicious decaf yes, decaf that we will soon be launching at Kavat.”
When asked what his life’s journey has taught him, Tankian says, “It’s being creative in ways I have never been so I can add to the art and help bring justice to the world hopefully leaving this place better than I first saw it.”
His most recent humanitarian call to action was his May Twitter challenge (@SERJTANKIAN). Using hashtag #aznavour95, Tankian challenged fans to sing a few bars of their favorite Charles Aznavour song in support of the great humanitarian work the Aznavour Foundation is doing.
You can find Tankian these days making music, art, and coffee. “I am very grateful to have and to have had the opportunity to do what I love for a living since my 20s,” he says. “I’m always surprised by how excited others get when I am excited about music, art, or coffee. I think as long as what you do comes from the right place, that will remain true. It’s worked for me so far.”