"I have two penises. And fungus growing on both."
"Oh, OK. Congratulations."
"I heard scaring people cures the hiccups."
"Thank you. I think it helped. Actually, I was just concerned for you."
In his soft, hiccup-impeded voice, Serj Tankian does indeed sound genuinely concerned, even at my juvenile gaffe. You get the feeling the vocalist for System of a Down has a rather large capacity for concern. Whether it's regarding the genocide of his native Armenian people, the Wild West recklessness of the Bush administration or just researching the ethics of, say, a beverage company that wants to sponsor his band's tour, he spends a good amount of his time trying to do the right thing.
"I annoy management, and I annoy our lawyers, and I annoy our merch company- everyone-because I'm trying to get so much information," he admits. "But in the end I think it's worth it. If I can do the right thing for us mostly and catch as much of the mistakes as possible, then that's good, isn't it?"
It is good. It's also costly. They are the perfect b(r)and for a Fortune 500 company looking to up its hip index. Their new album, Mezmerize, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling 430,000 copies in its first week, their best sales yet.
"We've turned down millions and millions of dollars-be it sponsorships for tours or television stuff," Tankian explains, refusing to name specific companies they didn't feel inclined to partner with. "We play music, but it's really important to pay attention as much as we can to all aspects of our business and how we're doing it. Because if we're doing it in a way that doesn't represent us, then that's a problem. It's not just because of press, not just because of fans, but personally."
Tankian agrees that there are positive aspects of commercial sponsorship, especially how it allows artists to lower the price of concert tickets for their fans. But after spending 12 years making sure that everything surrounding them-from sponsorships to merchandise and movies-jibes with their own ideals, the band is not about to trade integrity for cash.
"It's a tough call," he acknowledges. "But if Coke wanted to sponsor us, we can't do it. We can't work with a company that has no respect of labor standards. Now, if there's an equitable company that does good for the world and has done good stuff, and we believe in their standards, then there's a possibility of us working together."
So it's peculiar that System of a Down recently played a promotional concert at Best Buy, a company that gets a lot of heat for draconian business practices that hurt independent music retailers.
Tankian explains: "We did it because they had a whole promotion campaign. They get heat from indie stores, but if I found out that Best Buy's business practices or environmental practices were not so cool, then that would be different. And sometimes you don't know, to be honest with you, man. It's very hard to know everything."
They don't have the commercial staying power of a pop star like Mariah Carey, whose album is still No. 2 after 15 weeks. It's not surprising, really. For their first "single," SOAD released "BYOB" (Bring Your Own Bombs), a song that takes a lyrical machete to Bush and is rife with the f-word.
Not the greatest marketing move.
"We're not the greatest marketing band in the world, to be honest with you," Tankian readily admits. "If we were, we would probably release some sort of single from our third record. Instead, we decided to make an anti-war video with Michael Moore before the Iraqi war even occurred. And that wasn't the best marketing move."
Another reason SOAD's massive commercial success is so surprising is the music itself, a disjointed mix of hard rock that shifts tempos and genres 50 times over, sometimes in the same song. It's music that eschews convention as sport. Any effort to find music that's as "out there" and still sells buckets eventually leads to a discussion of Radiohead.
"There is a surprising element to [our success], definitely," Tankian admits. "But we've been at it for 10 years of touring and working hard for our fans. It's not until later [that] commercial outlets-radio, video-actually caught on. And so, in some ways I am and some ways I'm not surprised."
Mezmerize itself is an example of how System of a Down worked for its fans-by showing restraint. Though the band had completed enough songs to issue a double-album, they decided against it because, well, they thought such overabundance sucks for the music listener.
"We wanted to put six albums into one; they wouldn't let us," Tankian laughs. "We had way too much material. We've always hated long records because it takes too much-it becomes a little overwhelming. I don't like listening to more than 40 minutes of music at a time from an artist, even if I love them. After 40 minutes, it's almost like your ear needs a break."
Fans will hear the rest of the band's new material this fall, when SOAD releases the rest of it on Hypnotize, Part 2 of their recent work. Meanwhile, their current tour with Mars Volta is underway, Tankian is reading scripts to choose a film to score, and the band continues its campaign to have the Armenian genocide recognized as such, even though Tankian admits "we're kind of tired of doing it-it's got to happen already."
For the latter, Tankian will take part in a new documentary about the genocide, part of which includes the story of his grandfather, a survivor who may or may not be 97 years old.
"He doesn't know his real age," Tankian explains. "And that comes from having lost all documents and home and family and not knowing your complete identity.... The thing about the Armenian genocide is that it's got to come out. It's going to be the best thing for everyone involved."
System of a Down plays with Mars Volta at the Sports Arena, 7 p.m. on Aug. 6. $39.50-$44. 619-220-8497.