with System of a Down
It’s not often that the buzz about a band reaches the world
over before the band gets signed. Demos of System of a Down’s
energy-driven songs were making the rounds among fans, heavy-metal
collectors, and editorial offices throughout America, Europe and
Australia well before the band signed the dotted line.
Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and
drummer John Dolmayan formed System of a Down in Los Angeles in
the mid-'90s. Along with bands such as Korn and Coal Chamber,
System of a Down are considered to be part of the Californian
heavy-metal explosion, but their roots are as much in Armenia
and Lebanon as in the United States. Combining European, Far Eastern
and Native American influences into their American music, the
band comes across equally hardcore, rap, distorted guitars, mad
vocals, jazz, gothic, alternative, metal and any other genre imaginable.
Your musical influences seem vast. Where do you find them?
We take our influences from everywhere. There are so many different
genres of music, so many different bands. It just doesn't seem
fair to pick one or two of them and ignore the rest. We firmly
believe in taking the best from every genre and trying to let
it melt into our music. Music in general is something great.
As Serj said, there's a lot of good stuff out there and it wouldn't
be fair to pick one over all other. But personally I like the
Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, the punk angle. But I also like gothic,
rap, heavy metal, techno… Well Ozzy Osbourne, of course,
he and Black Sabbath are sort of the godfathers of heavy metal.
Ozzy, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Metallica and now Korn, they were
all sort of godfather bands. They all pushed it a bit further....
It seems to make it hard to label it, and you know we journos
have a weird tick to label everything. So which label would you
I'd prefer heavy mental, ha ha. To be serious, I think we make
quite thought provoking music. Of course, we're heavy and we want
to be heavy, but we have a strong emphasis on the lyrics. It's
not just the music; the lyrics are just as important. They're
an important part of the whole thing.
Your big break was opening for Slayer some years back. A lot of
bands claim a break is impossible, but you seemed to have no problem....
I wouldn't go so far and say it was a piece of cake. The people
who come to see Slayer don't come to see another band. They don't
come to see a support band. We knew that and we were ready to
face the challenge, but still… We just can't thank Slayer
enough. They made us feel so welcome and gave us such great support.
Whenever we opened, there was always at least one of them there
to watch our performance and that made us feel a lot better.
You're a band with a political message. Do you think your fans
understand or do they just like the music?
There will always be people who don't care what you sing, who
don't care what goes on as long as the like the music. You just
can't avoid it. There are quite a few political bands out there
and I think there's always somebody in the audience who doesn't
care for the lyrics.
What can we do? I think we're pretty much "in your face."
Should we stop just because some people don't understand? In general,
I think our fans really do understand what we're about.
What we do
is what we do, and we do it our way. We enjoy playing music and
we decide to deal with things in the lyrics that are important.
We don't want to compromise and we don't have to. For us it's
important to spread the message and we have to accept that not
everybody gets it, but it's important to do it, and even if just
a few get it, that's still better than doing nothing. Some do
and that's what counts.
You've got to give the kids credit. There are a lot of smart kids
out there. They often come up to me after a gig and discuss things
with me, and I'm always amazed. I think they see a lot of things
clearer than adults do. They got the right feeling for things.
They know what's right and what's wrong. They're not cynical;
they can still be amazed and they can still grasp things. They
recognize the truth.
Is it frustrating putting so much effort into your lyrics knowing
some will only go for the sound?
Sometimes fans come up to us and thank us for making them aware
on a topic or two. That's great because it really gives you a
feeling that you're doing something worthwhile. But there are
others, they like us for the music. Either way it's all good.
After all, music is entertainment and we can't expect everybody
to share our views or beliefs. We're not dictators and it is up
to the people to enjoy our music in any way they like. Of course,
it is great if we touch people with both, lyrics and the music,
but in the end it's up to the fans.
It is important
that people really do come to conclusions themselves and not just
follow a politician or somebody with a political message because
it's something like a fashion trend. I prefer people who are upfront
and tell me they like the music but they don't care for the message
You have an Armenian heritage. In your music, you address the
Armenian genocide that happened earlier this century in Turkey.
My grandfather told me a lot about it, how he managed to escape
and his whole family got killed. I grew up with it and it influenced
my thinking. The fact that the band shares the same roots, the
same Armenian heritage is a common bond. In a way we're all outsiders
and see a lot of things from the position of an outsider. We look
at things from an outside perspective and that perspective is
often more clear.
Turkey still denies that it ever happened. You can't just rewrite
history. It happened and we don't want to blame the population
for what happened before most of them were born, but it happened
and the authorities should stop denying it.
About two years ago you were scheduled for a concert in Turkey
and decided not to play. Some say it's a sign that you do blame
the people who live there now. After all, the Turkish government
didn't ban you....
We couldn't have performed there without addressing the subject
and we'd have ended up in jail for that. Prison in Turkey is rather
rough. I don't think our record company could have got us out
of there. So we decided to cancel the gig. Playing there and not
addressing the subject would have been too hypocritical.
Despite your rather aggressive music and stage show, you guys
are all dedicated pacifists....
That sounds a bit misleading. We're not guys who'd turn the other
cheek. There is a difference between starting a fight and defending
yourself. Sometimes you just have to fight back.
Self-defense is perfectly just. We all believe that starting a
fight – or a war – is wrong, but if it's in self-defense
then you have no other choice. Self-defense is the only reason
I can see for justified violence. But it's more important that
people learn that violence isn't the answer. Attacking somebody
just doesn't achieve anything. It just means you are too stupid,
ignorant or primitive to deal with it any other way.
Of A Down
VOX: So how
are things in Cincinnati?
It's cold, man. There are lots of neat shops and stuff around
here, though, and I'm looking forward to checking stuff out. This
is a college city, so there are some cool places I want to go
and check out.
raining here in Los Angeles, so you aren't missing much.
JD: LA is
home! Rain in Los Angeles beats snow in Cincinnati, I'll tell
that's the truth. Let's dive right in…how did you guys come
together as a band?
different members hooked up at different times. Serj (Tankian,
vocals) and Daron (Malakian, guitars) hooked up first…they
played together in a band called Soil, which disbanded. They had
met Shavo (Odadjian, bass) through friends before that, and once
Soil was done, they hooked up. I came in later. We all met through
mutual friends. It's really a coincidence that we're all Armenian.
It wasn't intentional - that's just how it worked out.
does the System of a Down name come from?
had written this poem called "Victims of a Down" and
the first word was changed to "System" - "Victims"
was too narrow, and very personal. "System" is broader,
more open socially - it's a more open statement. It leaves it
open to thought and interpretation.
become almost rare for a band to come out of LA. What do you think
of the LA music scene?
JD: I think
it's pretty good. LA really sets the trend for the rest of the
country, and really for the world. There's a lot of really cool
music coming out of LA.
VOX: You guys
have a very loyal fan base. You seem to really connect with your
all about the live show - that's what has gotten us where we are
today. The fans have made us - we're not really a radio or video
band, and you know, I wouldn't have it any other way. It's all
about us getting the music out and having people really love the
album. One song isn't enough. If you have one song, you're there
for a while, then your disc is in the bargain bin at the record
store - we want people to connect with the entire album. We really
want the fans to love the record the way we love the record. I
want our fans to think of our record the same way I think about
the records I have in my collection that I would never part with.
records are in your collection, that you hold in that high esteem?
JD: Oh, man,
from Slayer, Iron Maiden's Power Slave, The Beatles Revolver,
which is my favorite Beatles album, to Rush - Hemispheres has
got to be my favorite Rush album. From that all the way to my
Zep box set to Maynard Ferguson, the trumpet player. There's also
Mozart and other classical stuff.
do you see alternative rock going?
rock? It's mainstream now, man. If you mean today's music scene
- whatever they call it - then I think we'll see a bunch of clones
until it destroys the scene. There will be a bunch of rip-offs
- every record label is looking for the next Korn, Limp Bizkit…the
labels are going to do whatever is going to make money, that's
what labels are all about.
I mean, I
have no fucking idea what is next after this. I really want to
see what comes next. If you mean heavy rock, it's always been
here; even when other stuff was mainstream, heavy rock was there.
It always goes back to what was here ten years ago. Even while
grunge was going on, heavy rock was there.
VOX: How does
being Armenian influence your music?
it's like when you make a soup, you use lots of spices to come
up with that flavor that makes it good. Our heritage is one of
those spices, and it's one part of what makes our music what it
That's a great analogy - very deep man.
I appreciate that.
does the hand on the album cover symbolize?
JD: What does
it symbolize to you?
JD: Then it's
about reaching out. Ask seven hundred System fans what it symbolizes,
and you might get seven hundred different answers, and none of
them are wrong.
VOX: So it's
open to interpretation?
JD: It's completely
open to interpretation. We want to inspire people to think, and
what they get out of it is neither right nor wrong. There is no
right or wrong. People have to go with what works for them. If
System of a Down works for them, then great. If the Backstreet
Boys work for them, that's cool too. See, I don't think anyone
has the right to tell people what's good or bad. It's all about
personal taste. It's about where you come from and what has brought
you here. People can say whatever they want about System of a
Down…it's like the "stick and stones" thing -
say what ever they want.
the Backstreet Boys for example - no one has the right to criticize
them unless they know what they have been through, what their
influences were. It really fucking bugs me when people slam other
stuff, without knowing anything about it. If it's not what you
like, that's fine, but if other people like that, so be it. Those
people who don't like our music, that's their right. Their stuff
might not be my thing, but other people like it.
VOX: How does
the System of a Down creative process work?
a lot of the songs are written by Daron, the lyrics are done by
Serj...Shavo does some writing, too. I don't do much writing.
I helped a bit. I'm content to play drums - I mean, it's hard
to copyright drumbeats like you can lyrics or a guitar riff.
VOX: How do
you guys get along?
well. I mean, just like any other family, there are those situations…we've
broken up fifty times, like every band, it's "I fucking quit"
"No, I quit." "No, I'm outta here." But at
the end of the day, we all still love each other. We get over
it. That's life. We see the bigger picture.
the next step for System of a Down?
JD: Go home!
We've been touring for two years. It's time to take a break, reflect
on who we are. Then, it'll be time to write and put an album together.
can fans expect from a System of a Down live show?
JD: The unexpected!
A song about
the drug trade funding private American wars, another about drug-addled
groupies — all these things and more have been mixed with
dissonant sounds, power chords and odd singing/scatting-style
vocals to create the new System of a Down record, Toxicity, which
hits stores on September 4.
success of their self-titled debut album, System have been busy
dodging labels. From "political" to "quirky,"
people have been working overtime attempting to squeeze the band
into a niche. Their Rick Rubin-produced second album is sure to
inspire a new wave of adjectives, plus a few raised eyebrows.
I sat down recently with the band and found out why they're more
comfortable in the pit with their fans than onstage, what was
the inspiration for their upcoming tour with Slipknot and why
too many songs is a good thing. Here's how it played out.
Your new record is so much more abrasive than the first record
was. Was there a conscious effort to make it more brutal?
It's funny that you say it's more brutal. I feel like it has more
melody. Everybody comes to us with a different opinion about the
... It starts off really heavy. It's like a roller-coaster ride.
The influence of death metal is there. I'm an old death metalhead
myself. ... It doesn't come out just heavy.
Some of it can be more in-your-face than our first album was,
but I think it hits elements of melody a little more than our
first album did.
There's just more drive to certain riffs. It's tough for us to
explain, because we were on the inside.
You get really close to your fans in the video for the first single,
It shows how much we are like those people. We've got shots where
we're in the [mosh] pit. We don't feel very distant from our fans,
as human beings. Maybe our fans might see us that way, but at
the end of the day, all of this hasn't changed anybody in this
band too much. People who know us will tell you that. We're still
four ordinary dudes. We're no different from those people that
come to the shows and pay their money. ... I am the people, we
are the people.
When we go on tour, you'll usually find us somewhere in the audience
watching the other bands we tour with. That's the best place to
watch from. There's a point to all those speakers being pointed
out as opposed to in.
One of the
coolest things about this video is [having] real fans there. A
couple days before the video shoot, we went on the Net and let
people know we needed fans to come in. We had 1,400 kids there.
We played for about six hours with live instruments. Between takes
we'd play songs from the new album and the old one.
That's why I've got a lot of respect for System fans, man. System
fans came from all over the world.
... Canada, New Mexico ... for one day, just to be in a video.
The point is, we didn't hire anybody to come and cheer for us
at the show. ... So the video actually looks like a live show,
and I'm stage diving. It's pretty much what happens at a System
You guys have gotten behind House Resolution 596. Can you fill
people in on what it is, what your involvement is and what you're
doing to spread the word about it?
It was a resolution that was about to pass the House of Representatives
last year while [Bill] Clinton was still president. It's about
the United States officially recognizing the Armenian genocide
perpetrated by Turkey in 1915. Clinton wrote a letter to the House
speaker asking him to withdraw the resolution.
It was a cowardly
move — as far as I'm concerned, as far as we're concerned
— to basically hide the truth in history. ... It's already
passed in France, not the same resolution, but a similar one.
The Italian Parliament has also recognized it, as well as the
This is not political, this is personal. Whenever it's your great-grandmother
that got chopped up, you're like, "I'm coming after you now,
in my own way. In a nonviolent way." ... Here's four Armenian
dudes that play rock music that are actually getting attention.
If we're not gonna do it, who is? It's like we have a responsibility
to the souls.
did a benefit concert last year to raise some awareness and funds
for an organization in Washington, D.C. that lobbies for recognition
for the Armenian genocide. We're gonna continue that until there's
proven results from the Turkish government and America.
In "Prison Song," there's a lyric about the new "non-rich."
Who, in your opinion, are the new non-rich?
of the population of the industrial world — as well as most
of the non-industrialized world — is the non-rich.
Daron, you co-produced the record this time. Was that scary for
I know what I'm doing. There are just certain things that I thought
could have been better from the last record. ... I knew what I
wanted to do with the guitars to make it more furious. On the
last record there were two tracks of guitars. On this record,
there's 12 tracks on each song.
were very confident and focused this time around. [We knew] exactly
how we wanted it to sound and we became workaholics and did 33
How hard was it to decide what songs you weren't going to put
on this record, and what's going to happen with the other songs?
It took us a long time to even approach that subject. We recorded
33 songs. I think we had a lot more, like 45.
It was really tough, man. We all had to choose from all those
great songs. We had to pick 17 that Andy [Wallace] mixed, and
out of those 17 we had to pick 14 that made the album.
Every song could have been on the album, in my opinion. One thing
we try to avoid is the filler philosophy. I don't like to listen
to an album where I have to skip over songs. I like to put on
an album and listen to it from beginning to end and enjoy it as
a piece, as opposed to whatever song happens to be on the radio
The reason why those songs are on the record is because [they]
felt like they made an album. They felt like they belonged as
a family together. It doesn't take anything away from the other
songs we didn't put on the record. Sometimes people think you
didn't put it on the record because it wasn't a good song. It
had nothing to do with that.
haven't exactly decided how to do it, but [the extra songs will]
probably show up on the next album. [Most of them] will show up
in one form or another.
You're going to do the "Pledge of Allegiance" tour with
Slipknot and Mudvayne. Why Slipknot? How did that come up?
We've known Slipknot for a while, and we've been talking about
doing something together. We played with them on Ozzfest '99 and
we made friends. ... It just happens that our records are coming
out around the same time and there's no other big tours going
We have a lot of respect for them and it's mutual. [We thought]
"Why don't we put it together? We have totally different
vibes, but let's give the fans a really good show.
A Down are one of the most original hardcore metal bands to emerge
in recent years. With influences ranging from classic rock/metal
and grind-core, to jazz and industrial, with unique Middle-Eastern
melodies thrown in for good measure, this powerful, eclectic quartet
takes metal music in new, unexplored directions.
the last couple years, System Of A Down has built an incredibly
large, loyal following in and around Los Angeles, which, inturn,
landed them a prominent record deal with American Recordings,
making SOAD Rick Rubin's first signing to go through his new Sony/Columbia
distribution network. I recently chatted with SOAD guitarist Daron
Malakian and bassist Shavo Odadajian to discuss their latest release.
Daron begins the conversation, "This album is pretty hardcore,
but it also shows our ethnic/folk influence with songs like 'Sugar'
and 'Peephole,' which kind of has a waltzy sound to it."
All four members
of SOAD are involved when it comes to the songwriting, each contributing
his own unique talents. "Each member has certain qualities,
so we each have a job in writing the songs. We also like to incorporate
a lot of different styles," Daron claims, which isn't at
all surprising, seeing that their songs have a certain unique
quality, yet are vastly varied in song structure, ranging from
hardcore metal to ethnic folk-rock. Daron continues, "You
can't really compare a song like 'War' to a song like 'Peephole'...they
are so musically different, yet they have that certain SOAD sound
to it. I think of it as being like The Beatles...their songs are
all very different, yet they all have a certain personality to
A Down were formed, and raised, in Los Angeles (not their native
homeland of Armenia, contrary to what several reviews have stated).
"We all grew up here in LA," Shavo confirms, continuing,
"Daron, (vocalist) Serj Tankian and I all went to the same
private elementary school in Hollywood, although Serj had already
graduated high school when we were in 4th grade!" Daron adds,
"SOAD emerged through a band that Serj and I formed called
Soil, which is now a title of one of our songs, and Shavo came
into the situation a few months later." The band formed in
early 1995, and within three years they literally took the LA
club scene by storm! Shavo remembers, "Our first show was
at the Roxy in Hollywood. The promoter gave us a bunch of pre-sale
tickets and we ended up selling double the amount. Then, we opened
for bands like Manhole, Human Waste Project and Engines Of Aggression
and started to get a lot of local write-ups...and that's how the
So, how does
American Recordings President/producer Rick Rubin come into the
fold? Shavo tells the story: "We had offers from other labels,
and Rubin had heard about us through Guy Oseary at Maverick...he
brought Rick down to see us at the Viper Room. There were several
labels at that show who had been checking us out for a while but
never really made us an offer; but as soon as Rick came into the
picture, all the labels started coming to us with offers. The
thing about Rick, even when we had doubts about signing with American,
he still came to our shows as a fan; in fact, he even came to
our show in NY (at the CMJ convention) when we were falsely labeled
as Universal/Cherry recording artists. Rick really believed in
us and seemed to have a special interest in our music."
SOAD cover a diverse spectrum, everything from art to politics.
And although they do write about certain political issues, they're
not your typical arrogant, preachy band ala Rage Against The Machine.
SOAD also make a point to cover topics on a worldwide level, that
go far beyond just singing about the local neighborhood. "A
lot of people have labeled us as a political band, but we're more
of a social band," insists Shavo. "We write about all
sorts of aspects of society, not just politics. We can write a
song about the government one day, and then write a song about
love the next." And as far as influences go, Daron admits,
"I'm influenced by all types of music. I write a lot of poetry,
and that helps to inspire me in my songwriting. Serj will often
write lyrics to what my riff in the song sounds like...sometimes
the shit is so wacked out, I can't even follow it!"
I'm sure many
of you are probably wondering, what is the meaning, or concept,
behind "System Of A Down"? Daron explains, "I thought
of the name from a poem that I had written. It was originally
called 'Victims Of The Down,' but Shavo didn't really like the
word 'victims' in the title, so I thought up 'System Of A Down'
and it just clicked...Plus, now our album will be under the 'S'
section, next to Slayer!"
when listening to SOAD's music that Slayer are a big influence,
so it must have been a dream come true for Daron and the boys
to have recently supported Slayer. Daron admits, "The Beatles
and Slayer are my two favorite bands!" And not only did they
share the stage with Slayer, but SOAD were also on the bill to
last summer's OZZFEST tour. Daron exclaims, "It's just overwhelming
to be opening for bands who we've worshipped most of our lives,
like Ozzy and Slayer. We're very grateful to be where we're at
By Bob Nalbandian