By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The subject of System’s heritage must be broached gently, for if there’s one thing that chaps the band’s collective balls it’s the ethnic-pigeonholing thing. "I don’t mind talking about it, because we’re proud of who we are," says Odadjan, "but we never set out to be an Armenian band — we’re a heavy band that just happens to be Armenian. L.A.’s got the most Armenians of anywhere outside Armenia, so why should people think it’s so unusual to see some of us playing music together?"
While at times employing chantlike atmospheres or tweaking their songs with rapid-fire stops-and-starts, System of a Down are fairly straight-ahead rockers — forget the poppycock about "Middle East metal" and the other cute monikers writers have latched onto. After all, would this band be blowin’ up on the radio or signed to Columbia Records if it were that big a risk?
"We wanted to make this first record sound live, just to root down our sound," Malakian says. "I like experimenting with musical styles to get a certain effect, rather than using guitar effects. You have to be careful with technology, because people might laugh at it in 10 years. When we listen to these ’80s songs and go, ‘Oh, that’s so cheesy,’ they didn’t think that 20 years ago — they thought, ‘This is badass.’ So, if I think a delay would be good here, I’ll throw it in, or if this part has a dancey vibe, I’ll put something electronic in. We never say never."
Like the jazzy bounce on the intro to "Sugar," the track that’s just now grabbing KROQ’s attention though System’s album has been out a year and a half, the elastic bassinations of Odadjan are the ideal canvas against which the other members can explode: like being the meat ’n’ potatoes to Daron’s spice, but for a while there I was a DJ at raves and underground parties all over Los Angeles, and I didn’t touch my instrument for six months. After I picked it up again, it hit me that all that deejaying influenced my bass playing — it blew me away."
If Armenian styles seep into the band’s sound, it’s only because of the band members’ exposure to their parents’ record collections while growing up. "Armenian pop is already inside our heads," says Odadjan. "Any stuff we do that’s non-normal, like a little Greek thing or something, people call it Middle Eastern, which is ridiculous." Still, you have to take into account the band’s mouthpiece, Serj Tankian. He prances about in silk robes and head wraps, with arms extended, nasally warbles like a muezzin summoning the faithful to daily prayers while whirling dervishy pirouettes — all of which gives the band a quasi–Middle Eastern aura. But Odadjan squelches that notion quick: "First of all, Armenia’s nowhere near the Middle East. But that doesn’t matter, because we’re not doing traditional music. Trust me, there’s never been a band like us before."
Since Tankian is holed up in an editing bay supervising the final cutting of the video for the new single, "Spiders," Odadjan provides a titillating sneak preview. "I can’t even describe it," he says of the Charlie Deaux–directed video. "It’s like we’re characters in this girl’s dream, connected to the dream through umbilical cords, and we keep her asleep, even though she’s trying to wake up from this nightmare. It’s got elements of sci-fi and horror, but it’s artsy. Deaux mostly does commercials, but when we saw this, we were like, ‘Fuck yeah.’"
If Odadjan sounds like he has something to prove, that’s probably because the band’s mixed messages and bizarro presentation are really throwing people off. Even big mainstream softy Entertainment Weekly gave System their dubious "Worst Group Name" award. "Shit, I was so happy, man!" Odadjan shrieks with wicked relish. "If pussy magazines like that insult us, I know we’re doing a good job."
Unlike bands that are pussies, System of a Down thrives on the frenzied think-on-your-feet lifestyle of the road. "I love playing, like, four, five nights in a row," Odadjan says. "When I’m on a roll, I wanna keep up the heat. I hate days off."
Malakian concurs, but for different reasons: "Actually, touring is really peaceful. It’s like, a certain song will be playing on my Walkman as the scenery flows by — like one of those Poison videos from back in the day. I can say I’ve fulfilled a dream: I get to live in a Poison video."