System of a Down


Interview with System of a Down

By Gabriella
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.

Vocalist Serj 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 prefer?

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 to fans.

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.

November 2000


System Of A Down

VOX: So how are things in Cincinnati?

John Dolmayan: 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.

VOX: It's 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 you that.

VOX: Yeah that's the truth. Let's dive right in…how did you guys come together as a band?

JD: Well, 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.

VOX: Where does the System of a Down name come from?

JD: Daron 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.

VOX: It's 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 fans.

JD: We're 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.

VOX: What 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.

VOX: Where do you see alternative rock going?

JD: Alternative 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?

JD: Well, 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 is.

VOX: Wow. That's a great analogy - very deep man.

JD: Thanks. I appreciate that.

VOX: What does the hand on the album cover symbolize?

JD: What does it symbolize to you?

VOX: Hmm…reaching out…

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.

Let's take 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?

JD: Well, 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?

JD: Pretty 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.

VOX: What's 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.

VOX: What can fans expect from a System of a Down live show?

JD: The unexpected!


Toxic Avengers

from MTV

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.

After the 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.

Iann Robinson: Your new record is so much more abrasive than the first record was. Was there a conscious effort to make it more brutal?

Daron Malakian: 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 record.

Shavo Odadjian: ... It starts off really heavy. It's like a roller-coaster ride.

Malakian: The influence of death metal is there. I'm an old death metalhead myself. ... It doesn't come out just heavy.

John Dolmayan: 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.

Malakian: There's just more drive to certain riffs. It's tough for us to explain, because we were on the inside.

Robinson: You get really close to your fans in the video for the first single, "Chop Suey."

Malakian: 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.

Dolmayan: 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.

Malakian: That's why I've got a lot of respect for System fans, man. System fans came from all over the world.

Odadjian: ... Canada, New Mexico ... for one day, just to be in a video.

Malakian: 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 show.

Robinson: 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?

Serj Tankian: 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 European Union.

Malakian: 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.

Tankian: We 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.

Robinson: In "Prison Song," there's a lyric about the new "non-rich." Who, in your opinion, are the new non-rich?

Tankian: Most of the population of the industrial world — as well as most of the non-industrialized world — is the non-rich.

Robinson: Daron, you co-produced the record this time. Was that scary for you?

Malakian: 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.

Tankian: We were very confident and focused this time around. [We knew] exactly how we wanted it to sound and we became workaholics and did 33 songs.

Robinson: 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?

Dolmayan: It took us a long time to even approach that subject. We recorded 33 songs. I think we had a lot more, like 45.

Odadjian: 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.

Dolamayan: 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 right now.

Malakian: 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.

Tankian: We 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.

Robinson: You're going to do the "Pledge of Allegiance" tour with Slipknot and Mudvayne. Why Slipknot? How did that come up?

Odadjian: 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 on.

Dolmayan: 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.

Iann Robinson


Hardradio interview

System Of 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.

Within just 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 them."

System Of 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 buzz started."

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."

Lyrically, 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!"

It's apparent 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 right now."

By Bob Nalbandian


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