BY ARA KHACHATOURIAN
Last November, the Grammy Award-winning group System of a Down announced plans for a tour to mark the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
The tour, called “Wake Up the Souls” will kick off in Los Angeles on April 6 and after stops in London, Cologne, Germany, Lyon, France, Brussels, Amsterdam and Moscow the band will land at Yerevan’s Republic Square for a free concert on April 23.
I met with System of a Down’s lead singer Serj Tankian last month to discuss the tour and other projects, which are keeping him busy for the foreseeable future. Chatting over lunch at a Studio City, Calif. cafe, we touched on the some of the key issues coming up in 2015, the main one being the Armenian Genocide Centennial and “Wake Up the Souls.”
“The idea was to take what we had done with the previous concert series, ‘Souls,’ and to project that into a tour for the centennial in 2015,” said Tankian referring to a concert the band staged in 2004 to raise awareness about the Genocide and to challenge then President George W. Bush to honor his campaign pledge to recognize as genocide the events of 1915.
He said that the tour culminating with a large free concert in Yerevan, where System of a Down has never performed, would be an appropriate commemoration of the centennial.
“We are also looking at televising the show in Armenia for free on the Internet worldwide so everyone can be with us in Republic Square in Yerevan,” he added.
Tankian asserted that “Wake Up the Souls,” is not meant to “just raise awareness [about the Genocide], but to be a conduit for justice.” The call to action, he explained, begins before the tour kicks off on an online community where people have already begun connecting to advance the message of the Genocide and universal justice around the world.
“This is all matched by an online campaign with a heat map of data about the countries that have recognized the Genocide and link to Twitter accounts where people can join the effort—can join with us around the world,” said Tankian.
He has been encouraged by the signs of change among certain segments of Turkish society that “are doing amazing work trying to get recognition for the Armenian Genocide.”
“You’re well aware that as of a few weeks ago there was a resolution going through the Turkish parliament to recognize all past crimes from a female Kurdish member of parliament. Even though the AKP [Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party] controls the parliament and it will probably not pass, but that [the introduction of the resolution] is a good sign. I think we’ve come to expect little from the Turkish government, but I can say it’s up to us as well. There is an organization called ‘Project 2015’ that is encouraging people to go to Istanbul for 2015. I think that’s very interesting to go back to where it all started,” said Tankian about the activism within Turkey.
On January 28, two prominent Turkish human rights organizations—The Human Rights Association from Turkey and The Center for Truth Justice Memory–partnered with the Toronto-based International Institute for Genocide & Human Rights Studies and presented legal briefs in favor of Armenia in the now famous Perincek case about Genocide denial at the International Court of Human Rights.
While neither System of a Down nor Tankian have performed in Turkey, due to the Turkish government policy of Genocide denial, as well as its restrictions on freedom of speech, Tankian says that a large fan base in Turkey is active and whenever there are statements or misinformation in the local Turkish press, the fans have actively defended the musicians.
Tankian said that Genocide is a humanitarian issue. “This is an issue having to do with a Genocide. It’s not an issue between people or cultures as far as I am concerned anymore. We’ve seen this happen over and over again and we will continue to see this happen, even if there are committees in the UN [working to address or prevent it]. We won’t see change until executive powers in the world agree that everything else is off the table when it comes to Genocide.”
“So if there is a Genocide occurring in Sudan and the Chinese are buying oil from that country, there has got to be some kind of international agreement or mechanism to stop them from buying oil from that country [that is committing Genocide],” he explained. “There has got to be some kind of international agreement that when it comes to Genocide everything stops.”
Tankian points out that official recognition of the Genocide has already happened in US with the passage of various congressional resolutions in the 1970’s and 1980’s and with President Ronald Reagan acknowledging the Genocide during his presidency.
He believes however that “it’s important to keep on the US State Department to correctly identify our relationship—US’s relationship with Turkey— having to do with Turkey and having the Genocide as a part of that”—Genocide recognition should be a precondition for the level of US relations with Turkey.
“Will our tour procure this?” Tankian asked. “Probably not,” he said.
“But we want to be a small part of the continuing recognition [movement] and necessity for justice having to do with the first Genocide of the 20th century while trying to make it clear that this is an ongoing disease that has not stopped,” explained Tankian.
Another project Tankian is focusing on is writing the score for the upcoming Armenian Genocide thriller “1915,” which is set for release this year.
“1915” is the feature film debut of writer-directors Garin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian. Together with producer Terry Leonard (“Before I Disappear,” “Cold Comes the Night,” “Amira & Sam,” “Hounddog”) and an international cast including Simon Abkarian (“Casino Royale,” “The Cut,” “Gett”), Angela Sarafyan (“The Immigrant,” “Twilight”), Sam Page (“Mad Men,” “House of Cards”), Nikolai Kinski (“Aeon Flux”), and Jim Piddock (HBO’s “Family Tree,” “The Prestige”), “1915” was filmed on location in Los Angeles, with the production companies Bloodvine Media and Strongman announcing last week that the film will debut this year.
Set on the single day of April 24, 2015, the film follows one man’s controversial and dangerous mission to bring the ghosts of a forgotten tragedy back to life. The movie will play a leading role in the global movement this spring to shed light on all genocides of the past century.
“I think ‘1915’ is a really interesting, unique drama that deals with a unique topic that hasn’t been dealt with in films. For me the film deals with the Diasporan effect of trauma—of loss. There’s no film that’s dealt with that. Maybe it’s personal, but the message of loss—the pain of loss– is very universal. ‘1915’ does that in a very artistic way,” said Tankian who explained that he has been working on the score for months and describes the music as “orchestral, piano and very authentic instrument-based” with elements of surprise, horror and mystery.
He explained that he first wrote themes based on the script “to figure out what the emotional centerpiece of it is and then extrapolate the sub-themes and build other themes.” Working in his studio, Tankian composes the score frame-by-frame and scene-by scene, with notes from the directors.
While the entire score is original, Tankian said he has brought in a few elements of a composition called “A 100 Years,” which he co-wrote with New Zealand-based composer John Psathas. The entire composition was performed last fall with the Lark Musical Society.
“A 100 Years” is a symphonic piece about the first Genocide of the 20th century of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians.
“It goes from dark to hopeful at the end,” said Tankian who engaged his musician friends from around the world to perform the piece.
“A lot of great instrumentalists have given their time for free to be on the track,” he said, adding that a video was also made that is a montage of the various musicians playing the piece. He anticipates featuring the video on YouTube, as well as various festivals.
“’A 100 Years’ is a symphonic piece that was born in New Zealand from a collaboration that I’ve had with another composer named John Psathas, who is Greek-Kiwi. He and I have collaborated before on the ‘Elect the Dead’ symphony in 2009. He helped me arrange a lot of those songs for the orchestra. We both co-wrote and co-composed ‘A 100 Years.’ It was actually his idea,” he said.
Tankian said that some of the elements of “A 100 Years” that he has incorporated in the “1915” film score worked perfectly with the overall composition.
While discussing “1915” and other films projects about the Genocide, I asked him about a prevalent expectation among Armenians that a “Schindler’s List”-type film is the only genre that can effectively impart the Armenian Genocide narrative on screen.
“I can understand what people expect or want, but at the same time when it comes to the arts… It’s not like the Armenian people woke up one day and said ‘we expect a band like System of a Down’ that are playing progressive metal music. That’s not what the expectations were of us,” said Tankian.
“When it comes to expectations, let’s put that aside for a moment. The important thing is to make an effective film. A film that on its own is a great film, irrespective of the topic, and other people’s expectations,” he added.
Tankian said that “1915” is an indie film and expressed hope that “it will be an award-winning indie film, because I think it’s got great acting, great performance, great writing and great music [laughs].”
Tankian and System of a Down have been touring since 2011. In September the band will headline the Rock in Rio festival in Brazil, in addition to performances in other South American countries.
This past fall, Tankian and his wife Angela, welcomed their first child, a son. In fact, he was looking at his pictures on his iPhone when I showed up a little late to our lunch appointment.
“Fatherhood is amazing,” he said proclaiming that it has changed his life. “It’s the most important thing for me.”
“When your child is on your chest falling asleep and completely melting into your being, there is nothing in the world—including music—that matters. That’s how it’s changed my life,” said Tankian.