Serj Tankian on his musical firsts and learning to love Iron Maiden

No matter how successful entertainers become, they’ll always remember the first gig—whether it was disastrous, wonderful, or strange. Gotta Start Somewhere embraces these nostalgic moments by asking established entertainers to tell the story of the first time they graced a stage, as well as their memories of other musical firsts, from the first record they ever bought to the first concert they ever saw. In this edition, The A.V. Club talks to System Of A Down frontman Serj Tankian about growing up Armenian and seeing Iron Maiden.

First show:
Serj Tankian: Technically the first show I ever played, I played keyboards with this band that I used to be in called Forever Young. It was an Armenian alternative band, and we played our first show in Hollywood at the Armenian Center. I was in my early 20s.

The A.V. Club: Do you remember how you got the gig?

ST: A couple of us were in this organization called the Armenian Youth Federation, and so we were having, like, a social event, and we said, “Hey, can we play?” I don’t remember exactly how it happened, to be honest, I’m just making this up. Well, I’m not making it up, but I’m thinking that’s how it happened because it was 25 years ago. [Laughs.]

AVC: Do you remember what kind of songs you guys played?

ST: Mostly originals, I would say.

AVC: Do you remember anything else about the show, like if it drew a good crowd or if people were into you guys?

ST: I don’t remember any of it. I honestly don’t remember much about it at all. The next time I played was with a band called Soil where I was, for the first time, the lead vocalist, and that was a precursor to System Of A Down, and we only ever played one show. And that was at a blues club in Los Angeles. [Laughs.] I remember playing progressive metal, and I just remember they had really good soul food, and that was the important thing about that show. And then the next time I played live was as the lead singer of System Of A Down, I guess. The first show we ever played was at the Roxy in ’95, I remember a little more about that than the others.

First System Of A Down show:
AVC: That one was probably a big deal.

ST: Yeah, total big deal. God, we were supporting this other band from out of town, this industrial band called, I don’t fucking know—

AVC: They totally remember you, probably.

ST: [Laughs.] I can’t remember, but it was our first show and it was at a club, and I remember that Shavo [Odadijan] made some calls to some promoter, and he wanted us to sell some tickets. I think we were supposed to sell 60 tickets or something like that. It was pay-to-play in Hollywood at the time, still is. And I think we sold 75 tickets, so we oversold on our first show. That was cool.

AVC: It was probably a supportive crowd, because you sold all those tickets to all your family and friends.

ST: Yeah, mostly friends. But at the time, we also had this kind of industrial warehouse I was renting where the band rehearsed, and so friends would come by, we’d have gigs on the weekends and friends would come by and have drinks and listen to us, so we had kind of like our own little venue in North Hollywood, in L.A. So I think we built kind of a following through friends from there, and then took it to the clubs and then that grew into what it is today.

First solo show:
ST: I remember feeling really comfortable, surprisingly comfortable, getting onstage with The F.C.C. guys and playing my first solo show. [The Flying Cunts Of Chaos were Tankian’s backing band until 2009. —ed.] And I thought, “Wow, I thought I was going to be a little more nervous than this, since this is my first show outside of System Of A Down. But I feel very, extremely comfortable.” In some ways, it may have been even more comfortable, since it was kind of like my own gig and I don’t have to worry about anything else and all that. It was invigorating, definitely.

First big-deal moment:
AVC: Do you remember the show where you thought, “There are a lot of people at our show. This is going to work.”

ST: I still feel that way every time we play, actually. I’m like, “Wow, these people are here to see us, and they’re really excited, and wow, they really like this crazy blend of metal and punk music,” and I still kind of find it interesting.

First song learned:
ST: I think the first song I figured out on acoustic guitar was an Alice In Chains song.

AVC: Do you know which one?

ST: No, I don’t. Because I don’t remember it.

AVC: You were a fan of Alice In Chains.

ST: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I was very heavily into the whole Seattle music movement and grunge and whatnot at the time, so yeah.

First concert:
ST: 1984, Iron Maiden, at Irvine [Meadows] Amphitheater, which is now the Verizon [Wireless] Amphitheater in Orange County, California. I went with my girlfriend at the time. She took me, actually. She was an Iron Maiden fan.

I thought it was one of the craziest things I’d ever seen. [Laughs.] I’m like, “This is madness! What is this? Everyone hide!” At the time I wasn’t actually a metal fan at all. I thought, “Wow, this is really noisy music, I don’t get it.” To be completely honest, I wasn’t in love with it. And now I’m a huge Iron Maiden fan, and I know Bruce Dickinson and see the guys on tour and whatnot. But time changes, it’s interesting. But at the time, I wasn’t a metal or even a rock fan, to be honest.

AVC: What were you into?

ST: I was into different types of music, but I didn’t really go to shows. I think over time, the exposure to rock and metal obviously changed my mind. And it’s funny, years ago I saw that ex-girlfriend. She was my first girlfriend, like, my high-school love and stuff. Years ago, I saw her and she was like, “Do you remember Iron Maiden?” And I’m like, “Shut up.” [Laughs.] She’s like, “You didn’t really like it at the time and now everyone knows you’re the metal singer—how funny.” I’m like, “Life is funny, you know, it’s true.” That’s how life is.

First favorite band:
ST: I’m trying to think back to 1984 what I was into. I was into some alternative music at the time, from Seattle, I was into New Order and Depeche Mode and some of those ’80s bands. A little new wave, a little goth. At the time, I was kind of more into that. Armenian music, I was definitely heavily into Armenian music.

AVC: How much do you think Armenian music has influenced what you’re doing today?

ST: I’m Armenian, but I was born in Beirut. Grew up in Los Angeles; we moved when I was 7 years old, and so grew up here. But at the time, yeah, growing up I listened to a lot of Armenian music. I listened to French music, Greek music, Arabic music. You know, kind of like a lot of different musical influences growing up, and in the ’70s, obviously, we were all listening to ABBA and the Bee Gees. And a lot of soul music, Stevie Wonder, Rick James. All sorts of stuff. Michael Jackson.

AVC: This year alone, you’re putting out four totally different albums: a jazz record, an electronic record, a classical symphony, and a solo rock record. Do you think liking different things growing up has made you able to do that?

ST: Yeah, I’ve never been into just one type of music. In fact, I went through my 20s binging on different types of music, binging and purging, I would say. Every two months I would just pick one, specific, narrow focus of music. Like, for two months or three months I’d listen to death metal. For two, three months I’d listen to hip-hop. For two, three months I’d listen to world. Two, three months I’d listen to experimental. Everything great in that genre I would buy up and just eat it up. So that was kind of an interesting music education for me, and you know, I still listen to all sorts of music. My influences are all over the place, as you can tell through my music, and I like doing different types of music.

I think there is no such thing as just one genre. I think it’s something we just made to define it. You change the instrumentation and arrangements, you have a different genre. It could be the same influence, you could write and produce the same song in 20 different formats. They’ll call it different things. It’s the same inspiration; it’s the same song, for me.

First music lessons:
ST: I never had any classical-music training. I started playing music while in college. I started playing a little Casio keyboard. That was my first instrument—with the mini keys, you know, not the regular-sized keys. So while I was going to college, I had the keyboard. It was a nice meditative late-night thing to do, to get my mind off of studies in the day, and that turned into a professional career. Kind of funny. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I actually realized that was my calling and my vision. Once I did, I kind of dedicated everything to that path.

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