What free Americans do, especially free Americans in rock bands, is question authority, seek the truth. That's what Serj Tankian, singer/keyboardist for System of a Down, has been doing for years. That's what he did Sept. 12, the day people started calling him "un-American."
"That phrase I absolutely do not deserve," said Tankian via cell phone from the band's tour bus. "I'm as American as anyone else, and America is supposed to be about speaking your mind."
Which is what Tankian often does on the System of a Down Web site (www.systemofadown.com), as another way of connecting with fans. About 223,000 of those fans purchased the group's sophomore album, Toxicity, when it was released last month, catapulting it to the top of the Billboard charts. The record contains social statements ("Prison Song") and songs about Charles Manson-as-ecologist ("ATWA") and coked-out lost souls ("Psycho"). It roars with great noise, rage and heavy musicality, but there is another side to Tankian beyond the bearded, writhing singer the hard-rock nation has come to know.
"I like to know the world that I live in," he said. "I want to know what's happening around the world, because I believe it is one, and that everything affects everyone else. So whatever happens in South America or Colombia has a lot to do with what's going on with American citizens, even though we're very isolated and most people don't even know about what's going on there."
On Sept. 12, Tankian, an Armenian-American born in Beirut, Lebanon, and raised in Los Angeles, penned a 1,000-word essay titled "Understanding Oil," a well-informed and well-researched thumbnail history of the United States in the Middle East.
He posted his essay on the System's Web site, which was immediately bombarded with e-mails from fans (or "ex-fans," as several have since described themselves), who called Tankian every name in the book. After two hours, the band removed the piece from the site. As a result, many fans never got a chance to read it in its entirety and instead got only hearsay and sound bites.
"And after that, it went to all these radio stations and program directors and Howard Stern. And I was like, `OK, thanks for the mess, whoever created this,' because I didn't create it. Maybe my words were untimely, and that would be my only apology, that the mood of the nation at the time, maybe they weren't ready to listen, and they were too busy grieving. Which I completely, fully understand."
Tankian went on Stern's show and explained himself, but the damage was done. "I've been saying and writing stuff for years and posting [it] on our Web site," he said. "I've cared all this time for my people and my nation. That's why I've been writing these things.
"I understand people's moods, and why people are afraid to criticize the government," he said. "The government is there to protect us, and when the Pentagon was hit, we all felt vulnerable.
"I still don't think people are fully ready to listen, which is sad to me. But I also now get e-mails from people who say, `I got hold of ["Understanding Oil"], and I want to know more.' "
After pulling off the road the week of the terrorist attacks, the Pledge of Allegiance Tour is up and running again. It stops tonight at the Baltimore Arena.
On record and in concert, Tankian's voice is a guttural yowl; over the phone, it is a gentle aria that pauses to refer to his interviewer as "my friend" and "brother." With a slight Armenian accent, it speaks of peace and what it has felt like inside the eye of the storm. It also sounds slightly weary, as if Tankian is ready to get back to the business of being in a rock band.
"It's getting a lot better, because people at the show are there to have a good time, and to watch a show, and they're in it with you, and you're in it with them, and you get up there and make the best of it and have a blast."
What: What: Heavy metal music featuring Slipknot, System of a Down, No One, Rammstein and American Head Charge
Where: Baltimore Arena
When: When: 6 p.m. today