Serj Tankian tells The Rock about the ‘hurt’ of losing Taylor Hawkins and Chris Cornell
Serj Tankian tells The Rock about the ‘hurt’ of losing Taylor Hawkins and Chris Cornell
00:00 / 03:24
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Serj Tankian tells The Rock about the ‘hurt’ of losing Taylor Hawkins and Chris Cornell

The System of a Down frontman and all-round legend has a message for anyone who is struggling.

We've known Serj Tankian for ages as the musically gifted and vocally blessed frontman of System of a Down, but he's also a talented composer, an activist, an artist and a bloody good dude.

His new art exhibition 'Kiwi in Pangea' (yep, he's a Kiwi, and has lived here for 20-some years) combines all of the above. 

Plus, it provided a great excuse for us to head to Suite Gallery in Auckland and talk his ear off about making music and art, dealing with life's tough patches, and what it's like to be a pioneering metal legend casually chilling in New Zealand. 

As well as being a man of many talents, Serj is also a part of many causes. Between fighting for peace in justice in his homeland of Armenia and calling for action against climate change, he also has a deep understanding of an issue close to our hearts at The Rock : NZ's mental health problem.

Serj's message for anyone struggling is simple but effective: "It's very important to have someone to speak to, to not be guarded, to put behind, what you consider yourself to be." 

"As an artist, if you don't have openness, then you're not receiving any communication from the collective consciousness for you to be able to hopefully skilfully present and inspire others," he explains. "It's that openness, I think, that makes an artist special." 

It's like anything else, mental health can be dealt with properly given the right guidance and given the right people.

And here's the really crucial bit: "If you don't wanna seek therapy, at least seek someone you trust that you can talk to deeply." 

The music industry is somewhere we see too many people go too soon and under tragic circumstances. Lately, it feels like we've lost a lot of legends. The Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins was one of them, and Serj is clearly still grieving his loss.

"Taylor was a sweetheart," Serj tells us. "We toured together in 2007 and 2008 with the Foo Fighters. I was with them for months and we were together all the time.

I actually saw Taylor a few months before his passing and it really broke my heart.

"It does happen too much in our industry, you know?" He adds. "It's volatile in that sense. I've seen this happen so many times with people around me. 

"When Chris Cornell passed, it really, really, really hurt me," he said. "It's always tough seeing these beautiful lights diminished."

You only have to watch Serj's emotional cover of Audioslave's 'Like A Stone' which he performed in tribute to Chris at 2017's 'Rock am Ring' festival to see how much he was affected by it.

Serj's work, whatever form it takes, is always a visceral channelling of emotion and that's one of the many reasons it resonates with so many. Hearing how he's made a difference to his fans, he says, brings him the ultimate validation and joy.

"Whether it's System of a Down, or my own music, or anything that I've worked on, I love it when someone tells me a personal story of how that has impacted them in a positive way - I hear these stories all the time, and it is the best thing," he says. 

"You're in your own world creating this crazy shit that you're putting out, and you get the [social media] thumbs up and all that bullshit, but all that is bullshit, right? 

In the real world, there are people suffering, and if your music or your art or whatever you do can help someone, and you feel that, it's the most gratifying thing.

Each painting on show at Serj's 'Kiwi in Pangea' exhibition is paired with a piece of music written by Serj, which you can hear by scanning the art with an app called Arloopa. We tried it, and it's pretty fucking cool.

The show is still on at Suite Gallery in Auckland and Wellington, so we highly recommend getting down there if you can and soaking up some of the magic.