|Photo by Larry Hirshowitz|
Labor Day in Hollywoods sleepy back streets and the sky is full of helicopters. In an elementary-school yard, an LAPD trailer has appeared; rows of motorcycle officers straddle their idling machines, incongruous against childrens murals. Approaching the crossroads of Selma and Schrader, there are suddenly teenagers everywhere, black-clad and baggy-jeaned, choking the sidewalks and spilling into traffic. Thousands of kids. And hundreds of cops cops in SWAT gear, cops on horseback, cops on motorbikes. Ten seconds later Im at the epicenter of a full-blown riot. A lone youth, bandanna across his face, taunts law enforcement from the middle of the street, and they instantly respond tear-gas canisters arcing into the intersection to release their chemical plumes, a cavalry charge from the north, baton charges from the south and east. All manner of missiles from the crowd are bouncing off the roof of my van, their impacts angrily amplified by its steel shell; the woman in the car trapped next to me is standing through her sunroof, hysterically howling for help. A sitting target, hemmed in by the throng, I abandon my vehicle and am swallowed by the chaos.
The cause of this unlikely turmoil? L.A.s own art-metal juggernaut System of a Down had planned a free parking-lot concert to celebrate the release of their latest album, Toxicity. Instead of the expected 3,000 fans, however, more like 10,000 showed up, and without any kind of public announcement, the fire marshal forbade the band to perform. Outraged and ignored, elements of the crowd rushed and looted the stage, stealing all of the bands equipment, then set about vandalizing nearby cars and businesses.
Seems that all concerned had simply underestimated Systems local popularity. But should we have been so shocked? This is a band that could sell out any club on the Strip before it was even signed to a label, and whose 1998 eponymous debut album has sold 850,000 copies in the U.S. alone. Toxicity, upon its release this September, debuted at No. 1 and was certified platinum within a couple of months confirmation that, with a leg up from their misfit radio hit Chop Suey, SOAD have elevated to an unfamiliar plane.
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Toxicity is a restless, bipolar affair: furiously mechanical carnival metal in bed with contemplative passages haunted by complex strands of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern melody, harmony and instrumentation, at once exhilarating and utterly terrifying in their aching, ancient beauty. Serj Tankian is a schizophrenic vocalist, shifting from a dying-breath whisper to hollered drill-sergeant tirades to the cartoon baritone of a nightmare singing telegram. Toxicity spews sudden shifts in pace, velocity and personality, with lyrics to match; topics range from the hypocrisy of the drug war and the origins of humankind to the joy of pogo sticks, the sorry spectacle of coked-out groupies and ironically in light of their Hollywood debacle police heavy-handedness.
We are family (clockwise from top left):
Shavo, Daron, Serj, John,
Photos by Larry Hirshowitz
Systems live show when its allowed to happen is a uniquely disturbing spectacle: guitarist Daron Malakian and bassist Shavo Odadjian flailing like overwound, shirtless marionettes while voguing escaped-from-the-asylum shapes flanking the gesticulating, bearded Tankian, the Rasputin of nu-metal and a most improbable yet captivating front man. All the while theyre executing with withering finality, as one with stoic drummer John Dolmayans precise yet passionate patterns. The dynamics are grotesquely exaggerated brutal stutter-stop riffage topped with guttural belches of ire.
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System of a Down (the name is derived from a poem by Malakian) formed in 1995; Tankian, Odadjian and Malakian attended the same Hollywood high school, but were in different grades and only knew of each other at the time (fans have since reveled in tracking down yearbooks containing the three of them). All of the bands members were raised in Los Angeles unusual in itself in a city stuffed with transplanted musicians. A wide array of influences including 80s power metal, 90s death metal and traditional Armenian music, laced with an admiration for the boldness and unpredictability of acts like Faith No More and Janes Addiction, shortly leapfrogged System to the forefront of the L.A. scene. Building on a huge pool of buddies, inspired promotion by Odadjian (who initially managed the band) and some ahead-of-his-time Web-site networking by Tankian, they could soon pack the Roxy, Whisky and Troubadour month after month on the strength of just a three-song demo tape. Not since Guns N Roses had an unsigned L.A. band generated such a following, and the industry just had to take notice.
Sure enough, manager David Beno Beneviste was soon drawn into the picture, blown away by Systems sheer raw power, message and vibe. The band was just such an anomaly, enthuses Beneviste, you couldnt not look at it, analyze it and take it seriously. Though it was his first band, Beneviste shrewdly took the buzz SOAD had self-created and ran with it; hes credited with pioneering the concept of street teams those now ubiquitous huddles of fervent fans who accost concertgoers with fliers and promos. Noted producer/guru Rick Rubin was sucked into SOADs circle after witnessing a performance at the Viper Room: I remember laughing the whole show, he chortles, cause they didnt look or sound like anyone else. It was funny how different they were! Rubin whose credits include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Slayer and Public Enemy signed them to his American Recordings label and has been their producer ever since.
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Mid-November finds me barreling through broad, leaf-strewn North Hills streets with John Dolmayan in his cherry Mach 1 muscle car. System returned just days earlier from two months on the Pledge of Allegiance Tour, co-headlining arenas across America with Slipknot, and are bracing themselves for a yearlong global assault in support of Toxicity, catching up on errands and chilling with friends and family. Dolmayan exudes a polite impatience and the air of a man who has little to prove as he guns the gurgling Mustang. With his shaven head, Ho Chi Minh beard and white sweats, he could pass for an affable gangbanger, yet within minutes hes ushering me into a closet at his spacious home to show off a collection of action figures and comics that would shame an über-nerd. This is the man whose punishingly articulate, adventurous drumming propels and punctuates SOADs exhausting sonic roller coaster? An hour with this conundrum proves both fascinating and bemusing and Dolmayans only one-fourth of the endlessly enigmatic Rubiks Cube called System of a Down.
A career in music wasnt necessarily a conscious decision for the diverse personalities of SOAD. Music chose us, stresses Dolmayan, particularly me and Daron. I knew from perhaps 1 year old that I wanted to play drums, and Daron was pretty much the same. Malakian, son of artist parents, discovered his songwriting gift as a teenager when he realized he could reduce the tough gangsters he ran with to tears with his compositions. Odadjian was a skate-punk ultrafan who never expected to make a living from music. Hes still incredibly in touch with, almost a part of, Systems audience, and Rubin credits him with a major role in their commerciality: If it starts sounding too complicated, Shavos very quick to say, This is too much. Tankian, an anomaly within an anomaly, came to music relatively late, having previously been CEO of a software company. Though deeply passionate about SOAD, he seems able to step back and view the band objectively.
For all the real and perceived complexities of their music and personalities, Systems sound and success are indirectly built on fundamental, timeless qualities: Were a very brotherly band . . . we care about each other, insists an animated Dolmayan. Such sensitivity is hard to reconcile with a man with an almost Rollins-like demeanor, but it figures; the SOAD story is one of unusual loyalty and continuity a stable lineup and crew, the same manager and attorney since 96, and an ongoing business and creative relationship with Rubin. Thats a testament to the way we work, explains Dolmayan. Once we like somebody, theyre a part of us . . . whether its Rick Rubin or a drum tech, the same principles apply: respect, understanding and love. System, and all around them, are an ardent mutual fan club: Theyre as tight as any four people in the world, confirms Beneviste. You cannot penetrate them. They believe in camaraderie, in family, and once they trust someone, they bring them into their family.
The consequent stability and lack of distractions have liberated SOADs artistic devotion. Theyve had a great team in place from the beginning, marvels Rubin. Their only real job in life is to focus on writing the best songs they can and being a great band its a luxury. Systems deep kinship and resulting solid infrastructure has not only concentrated their attention on the music, but oiled the wheels within the creative process. The more comfortable you are with the people youre with, the more likely you are to be free with yourself and your art, says Dolmayan, mildly surprised that its even an issue.
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While too much has been made of System of a Downs shared cultural heritage theyre very much a band of Armenians rather than an Armenian band this has only underpinned their enviable bond. Our families brought us up a certain way to have morals, explains an effervescent Odadjian, relaxing in his darkened Toluca Lake apartment. Were all ä 32 different, but the root is the same we all know that mother jokes wont pass . . . and you dont mess with anyones girlfriend. Girlfriend, sister, mother do not talk about them. Thats blasphemy heresy! These things are unspoken between us and bring us closer. Odadjians a loquacious yet modest man who retains a wide-eyed love of all things aesthetic a sharp contrast with his electro-shock-Nosferatu stage persona.
A conversation with Systems members is littered with words more easily associated with Mafiosi than musicians respect, honor, family yet for all their old-country machismo, these are emotionable artisans aspiring to dwell in both the spiritual and material worlds, clamoring to reconnect with their instincts: Lets not forget the simple pleasures, says Dolmayan, walking with the sun on your face, getting off the Internet for five minutes and walking around your neighborhood. There are real people out there; you can talk to them, look into their eyes, understand them and learn from them. Tankian concurs: I love L.A. for all its offered me . . . but Im not a fan of big cities in general. I long to live more of a natural, non-concrete-wall life . . . As a band who spend more and more of their time in state-of-the-art recording studios, on mack-daddy tour buses and performing in purpose-built arenas, they may be moving in the opposite direction.
In light of their ballooning celebrity, and the sycophants and stone-throwers who come with it, SOAD are aware that theyll have to make a conscious effort to maintain the moral codes they believe in. Thats what scares me with whats happening with System right now, admits Malakian. The radio, the MTV. I mean, one of the Backstreet Boys is a fan of ours now thats a bit bubblegum!
Respect is something Im trying to maintain, laments the surprisingly grounded guitarist, hunched in his cluttered room in the modest Glendale home hes shared with his parents since age 11. (Malakian, at 24, is the baby of the band.) A sizable array of musical instruments is fondly displayed along his walls, overlooked by a Slayer poster and memorabilia from his beloved L.A. Kings; its every bit a Gen-X bedroom, occupied by a prodigy whos sold millions of records and receives mass adulation across the globe. Yet Malakian cherishes Systems esoteric distance. I want to keep this band sexy, he says, where were not overexposed this months flavor. Id hate to see 10 other System of a Downs break out just because we had a No. 1 record.
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Daron Malakian is unquestionably the creative nucleus of SOAD (Rubin dubs him a visionary songwriter), but all involved credit him with deftly taking into account their various strengths and tastes in his compositions. All the amazing attributes of the band members have to go through Daron, and he cultivates the final product, says Beneviste. A lot of what Daron writes caters to our tastes, agrees Dolmayan. Hell take into consideration what were all listening to; hell pay attention to how we play when we jam and incorporate that into his songwriting.
Malakian himself finds it hard to define his talents, he just knows theyre there. Im always songwriting, its just something I do. Music is all I know. I dont talk with confidence about many things I cant tell you about cars or computers, but if you had a song you needed help with, I could probably help you with that.
Im a real workaholic with what I do, continues the elfin composer, sometimes to the point where its not healthy. I get stressed out, especially now theres a million people listening to us. I used to write for myself and then show my mom that was my audience.
Rubin puts Malakians gift into context: Daron has a sense of melody and harmony thats really unique hes so much more musical than other people who make heavy music. Though I dont think the bands sound anything alike, Id say that Queen had a musicality that other heavy bands didnt have in their day, and that may be a parallel. I feel like Darons at that level of writing.
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When theyre not being stereotyped as an Armenian band, SOAD are often dubbed political, or the new Rage Against the Machine, when in reality theyve released as many sad, abstract and funny songs as they have overtly political pieces. A lot of people misinterpret our lyrics, groans Malakian. There are people who know Toxicity came out a week before September 11th, yet they insist were singing about the attacks. Theyre thinking our lyrics are prophecies theyre taking us too damn seriously!
Yet the bands cultural and political traits seemingly intertwine in their lobbying, individually and collectively, for official recognition of the Armenian genocide. (Between 1915 and 1923, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were ethnically cleansed under Ottoman Turkish rule. To this day, many governments refuse to recognize the massacres for their own political and economic reasons.) SOAD have sought to raise awareness of this sensitive topic through lyrics, interviews and events organized by ANCA (Armenian National Committee of America). The genocide is an emotional issue for the band, as all four members had ancestors murdered at the time, but, as vocalist Tankian points out, this dark episode of history holds lessons that transcend personal and cultural boundaries: They committed a crime against humanity and thats universal, its not a national issue.
Out of place in a sterile record-label office, Tankian, with his soothing old-world accent and genial, sagely disposition, is your favorite college professor the one you could smoke pot with after class. Hes the prophet, glows Beneviste, a plethora of knowledge when it comes to worldly issues. He is indeed extremely well-versed in global affairs, with an abiding fascination with U.S. foreign policy and its ramifications. Hes philosophical and attentive, and thinks before he speaks. Tankian is an inadvertent enigma a man of peace who whips mosh pits worldwide into a violent frenzy.
System of a Down are quick to stress that they only seek to make listeners think, not to preach. We advocate no particular party or social climate, says Dolmayan. Were speaking about enlightenment not only spiritual but political. Knowledge is power if youre ignorant, you can be led astray. SOAD dismiss any moral obligations regarding their lyrics, but are aware of a degree of responsibility that comes with their notoriety: Were in a position where we can change a lot of young minds if we can say something positive to them for the future, then cool, says Malakian. But I would never want to corner ourselves and say thats what were all about. Anything thats going to pigeonhole us as anything, Im against.
All of the bands members profess that challenging, progressive music alone is enough for them, and that theyd be happy if Tankian simply sang La, la, la, la for the rest of their career. (In fact, they have a song in the can with almost exactly those lyrics.) Words are never potent enough to reflect the world of emotions that an animal lives, explains Tankian. Music can come much closer to it, because music can bounce across boundaries. Sound itself is one of the most powerful catalysts to going beyond the physical world. As long as the song makes you feel the way we want it to make you feel, says Malakian, then I dont give a fuck what Serj is saying or what Im saying, or playing.
I never assume anyones paying attention anyway, and am always surprised when they are, Tankian says. I dont write for people lyrics or music; its a selfish process. Ultimately I see how it affects people, but I cant think of them [while writing]. Yet its almost as if, on Toxicity, Tankian has gone out of his way to defy the labelers, with flippant songs such as Bounce (the aforementioned ode to pogoing) and the willful abstraction of Jet Pilot flying ever faster in the face of easy categorization.
Perhaps SOADs being tagged as political is relative to the banality of much of the material they share the airwaves with. Musically and lyrically, theyre loners within the very nu-metal genre they helped to create, sharply contrasted against Slipknots unfocused, negative rage or Limp Bizkits manufactured mook-rock. This is a situation the band are both familiar with and relish: We should have named ourselves Fish out of Water, chuckles Odadjian. Even other thinking mans bands with which SOAD enjoy considerable audience overlap Rage Against the Machine, Tool are lacking in Systems ever-present curve ball: humor. In the midst of their most political work to date, Toxicitys Prison Song (presenting some hard truths about U.S. drug policy), Malakians demented falsetto refrain of I buy my crack, I smack my bitch, right here in Hollywood comically sweetens the pill.
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System have a near obsession with letting their expression take form organically almost trying not to try. We just do whatever is in our path, insists Tankian, and its that simple, that non-thought-about. We have absolutely no intentions or purposes. But beneath such a blanket statement, SOAD proclaim that art by definition is revolutionary, and they therefore intend to reinvent themselves with each new album. Indeed, a degree of conscious creative planning has existed all along; the band deliberately kept their first disc very raw, live-sounding, with just one or two guitar tracks (a Rick Rubin trademark), in order to give themselves room to develop. Sure enough, Toxicity delivers multiple layers of guitars, sometimes as many as 12, and generally paints from a broader palette than its predecessor. Similarly with their live show, System are holding back on a lavish production to leave themselves somewhere to go in the future. Odadjian, who designed their minimalist Pledge of Allegiance stage set, says, Ultimately, I want the show to be less of us and more of them [the audience] trying to make it as interactive as possible; on top of the normal audio and visual, perhaps something they can touch, too.
SOAD are all about built-in longevity, the epitome of an album band, and almost scared of the high street success of Chop Suey. Yet by being so brazenly diverse from the get-go, theyve bought themselves broad creative parameters: [With music] youre taking a risk by changing, sighs Malakian, because people want the same album again and again. So Im really grateful that I can paint my musical pictures and be accepted that we can go anywhere with this. Even now theyre on heavy TV and radio rotation, an adamant Dolmayan says. Radio and MTV catered to us, we didnt cater to them. Chop Suey is a very big radio hit, but does that mean were going to record other songs that are similar to capitalize on that? No!
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The songwriting is easy, declares a remarkably self-deprecating Malakian, implying that its the rest the intangibles that a band must wrestle with if their work is to be a transparent vessel for their truth. SOAD boast an abundance of X, Y and Z factors, and for all their talents, their appeal goes beyond the compositions, even beyond the music. Their fans are culturesque, notes Beneviste, theyre fervent believers in System of a Down in the message, the energy, the culture, in the tone of the band. Its not just the songs.
SOADs secret is elusively simple; its in them and all around them. It was there before the studios, the photo-shoots and the tours. It exists away from the press, the handshaking and the hangers-on. They have opened a channel for their universe to flow through them, among them, between them and into their art by nurturing the conditions in which their collective expression can grow. Honesty, Respect, Honor, Loyalty, Love: System of a Down.
SYSTEM OF A DOWN
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