Longtime activist and musician Serj Tankian didn’t have any reservations about bringing Anthony Bourdain to Armenia to shoot an episode of Parts Unknown last year. “Just the opposite,” he said during a phone interview from Los Angeles with Explore Parts Unknown’s Cengiz Yar. “I was delighted like a schoolkid that he would come to Armenia and taste the food and get introduced to the culture.” The Grammy Award-winning musician and metal icon spoke about reaching out to Bourdain and what he admired most about him.
Cengiz Yar: How did you end up bringing Tony to Armenia?
Serj Tankian: My wife and I were in New Zealand watching Parts Unknown, and I asked an agent friend for Tony’s email. I sent him an email basically saying, “Look, dude, you’re one of those guys that tells it as it is. I love the fact that you hate s****y music and that you hate s****y food and you will say it. … You’ve never done Armenia but have gone to Georgia, to Turkey, to Iran. If you decide to go, I got your back.”
He responded within 10 minutes, “You got it.”
Yar: How was it?
Tankian: I met him in person for the first time at the restaurant Dolmama in Yerevan. He was congested and had the flu or something. I told him, “You need a good shot of Armenian vodka right now.”
And he said, “You know, I’m down.”
We had an enjoyable lunch and then spent the week meeting people and having him really take in modern Armenia—and that’s changed drastically since the Velvet Revolution [when thousands of peaceful protesters successfully demanded a change in government in April of this year]. The episode aired on May 20, right after the revolution, which was really interesting.
Tony was very gracious with his time and open about his own life. I couldn’t believe how personable, down to earth, and charming he was. It was really enjoyable in that sense. We talked about family and traveling because we both had families and travel a lot.
We had a great rapport in such a small period of time, cracking jokes and talking about music. He loved music and knew all these bands I had never f***ing heard of. He loved life.
Yar: Did you have any reservations about this project?
Tankian: Because it was him, no. Just the opposite. I was delighted like a schoolkid that he would come to Armenia and taste the food and get introduced to the culture. I also love the fact that he was brazen in terms of politics and not being afraid to speak out about his own. He spoke about the genocide on CNN with Anderson Cooper in the lead-up to the Armenia episode, which was something I didn’t expect.
He didn’t buy hypocrisy or think that we should do things because they’re politically convenient. You saw it on every episode: He would go to a country and talk about the colonial days in postcolonial countries or who the ruling junta was. He’d give you that in the first 15, 20 seconds of each episode.
Food is part of culture, and culture is part of peoples’ history and identity and what they’ve gone through. He understood that, and I loved that about him.
Yar: Did you gain a new appreciation for Armenia?
Tankian: I did. Watching other people see what you see is always interesting because you wonder what they gravitate toward.
I’ve been politically involved—fighting for political and social justice—with Armenia in the past, and as part of the diaspora, I’ve tried to make the world aware of the Armenian genocide, which I’ve done with System of a Down.
But my time in Armenia with Tony was the most enjoyable and comfortable because I was just there to travel with him and taste everything, and I honestly had one of the best times I’ve ever had in Armenia because of him.
Yar: Does any particular memory stay with you?
Tankian: There’s so many. In the episode intro I’m driving this Volga, an old Russian classic car. It looked awesome on camera but was a b**** to drive.
He was sitting next to me like, “Yeah, that’s an old Volga.”
On camera, I was like, “These aren’t brakes. These are decelerators.”
I don’t know how the f*** people drive those cars. People are passing us. He’s laughing. I’m laughing. I know they’re going to cut this s*** out, so I just say, “I can’t f***ing drive this thing.” There’s no seat belt. People are whizzing by, and we’re just laughing.
Yar: What did you learn from Tony?
Tankian: He had this amazing way of analyzing stuff quickly. His mind was incredibly sharp. You have a lot of bland conversations with people in our world, in cities like LA and even New York. But I appreciate someone who is free to be themselves, whose mind was incredibly focused on subjects like art, literature, music, food, politics, geopolitics.
You could tell he was really into researching everywhere he was going. He had a way of quickly analyzing stuff and coming up with the pure colors and essence of what he was actually perceiving, be it food, culture, politics. That’s what I learned from him.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.