Photo: Raffi Berberian

Answer to Denialists: An Interview with Serj Tankian

The atrocities of the Armenian genocide has run rampant through Serj Tankian's work in both System of a Down and in his solo career. Now, he soundtracks a film that talks about it in explicit terms, resulting in one of his most personal works to date.

Intent to Destroy
Serj Tankian

Possessing one of the most distinctive voices in music, Serj Tankian — lead singer of Grammy award-winning, multi-platinum alternative metal band System of a Down, as well as being a solo artist and poet — is well renowned for using his platform to give a voice to the voiceless.

Since the very early days of System of a Down, Tankian’s lyrics have addressed subjects such as political hypocrisy, religious intolerance, censorship, and genocide. In fact, a common thread throughout his artistic endeavors over his 20+ years in the music industry has been his efforts to seek recognition of and gain justice for the Armenian genocide that saw roughly 1.5 million Armenians systematically slaughtered between 1915 and 1918 by the then reigning Ottoman empire. A crime that is still not recognized as genocide by numerous countries including the US and the UK.

His latest project finds Tankian taking on the scoring of a film that, not only details the events of the period, widely known as the Armenian holocaust, but also looks to move the conversation forward by offering an even-handed dissection of how one country, Turkey, has sought to manipulate the narrative of the genocide and how other countries have been complicit in the rewriting of history.

The film, Intent to Destroy, was made by film-maker, Joe Berlinger, best known for his work on Paradise Lost which directly contributed to the release of the West Memphis Three. Embedding himself on the set of the Christian Bale-starring film The Promise, which was set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide, Berlinger combines footage from that film with interviews and often harrowing archival footage. It is as hard-hitting, thought-provoking, and visceral as the name would imply with a score from Tankian that beautifully and often heartbreakingly ties the film’s various parts together. Here, Tankian talks in depth to PopMatters about the film and his work on it, as well as how artistically fulfilling he finds the process of film scoring.

For an artist who has spent his entire career trying to raise awareness of the genocide as well as justice for the people of Armenia, it was easy for Tankian to get involved in the project. “For me, it was something I’ve cared deeply about. I’ve always talked about awareness to do with the Armenian Genocide and the need for recognition.” Nevertheless, Tankian is keen to point out that the film is much more than a simple documentation of the events of the genocide. “This film is different from any other film because it doesn’t just talk about the genocide, it talks about a modern story which is in government, nefariously, using disinformation and millions of dollars and hiring lobbying firms and all this stuff around the world to try and rewrite history and it’s such a unique thing. We’re talking about a whole government doing this and strong-arming the strongest country in the world, the US, to kind of play on its own terms.”

That government he refers to is the Turkish government. Beginning with the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, each successive administration has sought to twist and distort history. A process that is the very essence of the film. “I think the film does an incredible job at showing how something as important as a genocide, where one and a half million people perished. How, Number One, the lesson of that has not been learned and, Number Two, how denialism to do with the genocide is being worked. It’s like this machine and how one leader can change the narrative of a nation by recreating the language, by recreating the narrative after a world war.”

For Tankian, those themes are unquestionably as significant and relevant now as they ever have been. “I was recently at a Human Rights Watch dinner. I was given the honor of presenting the Promise Award to Chris Cornell, his wife, and the guys from Soundgarden and I remember saying ‘Genocide is the human disease that we haven’t been able to eradicate on this planet.’ It still exists, we’re seeing it today.” He continues emphatically. “The underdogs that nobody cares about are still there. That hasn’t changed because someone wants to make money selling weapons. Someone wants to get oil. Someone wants a market for future expansion. We haven’t learned the lesson of the first genocide of the 20th century nor the second one apparently. It’s happening in front of our eyes and it feels like nobody is able to do anything about it, so for me, it’s, not just about don’t forget, but learn the lesson of why this happened or why it was covered up or why it was denied. You know those same decisions that basically using catastrophes, war or genocide as political capital happens today which is still why all of these things are still happening.”

Considering Tankian’s passionate views on genocide and his long advocacy for recognition and justice it was obvious that director Joe Berlinger should want to interview him as part of the film, Intent To Destroy. It was actually just before the tapping of one of these interviews that Tankian enquired about the possibility of further involving himself in the documentary. “So I basically sat for an interview in Toronto in a hotel room where he was conducting interviews and I asked him ‘who’s scoring this film?’ That’s when we first started talking about it.”

Once the seeds of their collaboration were sown, it wasn’t until a further meeting that the pair fleshed out the musical vision for the film. “We had a subsequent conversation later In Los Angeles in person talking about what he envisaged [for] the instrumentation, the vibe, the sound, you know. How he feels the music. We talked about strings, about cello. We talked about some rock instruments possibly. Overall, we both definitely wanted a modern sounding score.”

On this film, Tankian elected to explore a more textured and layered approach to the music. “It was cool for me to be able to kind of use these ambient moments in terms of music as well. Kind of arpeggiated moments and these very synthy but very organic sounding things under the score as well as the strings, the piano and of course some ethnic instrumentation.” Despite the film being very much about Armenia, Tankian was careful not to overload the score with ethnic instrumentation. “It’s quite a modern score overall and there is a layer of ethnic instrumentation here and there kind of like where it is necessary and I tended to make those live. I brought in a duduk player and an oud player, both friends that I kind of overdubbed on the duduk and oud parts I had written for the film. I had overdubbed those with live instrumentation to actually bring a bit of life out of the score as well.”

The shifting nature of the production meant that the whole process proved, at times, to be particularly demanding. “Usually, I get a final cut before I do my scoring so I can keep the linear fashion going whereas in this case, they were still cutting and they were on a crazy crazy timeline where I had a month, a month and a half to do the whole score. Meanwhile, they’re still changing the actual film so for a composer, it’s quite challenging. I had to go from like linear scoring on the first pass to an adjustment with the second cut that they sent me of all the cues and the changes there and from then on I was basically doing cue by cues so each cue was a separate session, if you will, and then whatever scene they would change I was then able to go to that one particular scene and redo it based on the changes. It gets kind of mathematical after a while.”

For an artist who has been making music for as long as Tankian has, it is that varied methodological approach and the sheer diversity of working in film scoring that excites and appeals in equal measures. “What I love about films is that each film has a completely different musical genre for me, it’s a completely different adventure. A different palette of sounds I need to use. Different expectations emotionally.” Musical variation has proven to be a feature of Tankian’s musical output to date and it has provided him with a suitable bedrock for success in film. “I’ve worked on many different genres of music in my own career. It’s kind of really prepared me for composing for film and visuals.” As a result, Tankian is finding himself more and more in demand. “I’m getting more films. I’m getting more serious calls. That really feels awesome and really honestly I’m enjoying it.”

Most importantly, film scoring clearly satisfies Tankian artistically as it allows him the freedom that can often be difficult for people to accept as a member of a hugely successful band or even as a solo artist. “It’s like being an artist where each of your records is completely different and that’s hard to sell as an artist these days but as a composer, it’s expected of you. I really feel like this part of my life was designed to do this if that makes sense.”

On a film that feels as pertinent, powerful and potent as Intent to Destroy, Tankian is confident that his work has helped make the film a success. “I know that I had a positive impact on a film that should have a very strong impact on people.” Not only that, working on the film has given him a profound sense of satisfaction. “I’ve gotta say of all the films it’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, let alone worked on and so it makes you feel relevant. It makes you feel good. It makes you feel like you’ve made a strong difference.”

With his work on Intent to Destroy, Tankian continues to keep the discussion about the Armenian genocide alive through his art. A medium that is critical for a greater understanding of the world we live in, as Tankian attests by saying. “The arts are really the best way to inspire people to look into the truth.”