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Burning Love

Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

Labor Day in Hollywood’s 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 children’s 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 I’m 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 band’s equipment, then set about vandalizing nearby cars and businesses.

Seems that all concerned had simply underestimated System’s 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.

* * *

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


System’s live show — when it’s 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 they’re executing with withering finality, as one with stoic drummer John Dolmayan’s precise yet passionate patterns. The dynamics are grotesquely exaggerated — brutal stutter-stop riffage topped with guttural belches of ire.

* * *

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 band’s 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 Jane’s 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 System’s “sheer raw power, message and vibe.” “The band was just such an anomaly,” enthuses Beneviste, “you couldn’t 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; he’s 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 SOAD’s circle after witnessing a performance at the Viper Room: “I remember laughing the whole show,” he chortles, “’cause they didn’t 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.

* * *

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 he’s 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 SOAD’s exhausting sonic roller coaster? An hour with this conundrum proves both fascinating and bemusing — and Dolmayan’s only one-fourth of the endlessly enigmatic Rubik’s Cube called System of a Down.

A career in music wasn’t 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. He’s still incredibly in touch with, almost a part of, System’s audience, and Rubin credits him with a major role in their commerciality: “If it starts sounding too complicated, Shavo’s 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, System’s sound and success are indirectly built on fundamental, timeless qualities: “We’re 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. “That’s a testament to the way we work,” explains Dolmayan. “Once we like somebody, they’re a part of us . . . whether it’s 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: “They’re 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 SOAD’s artistic devotion. “They’ve 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 — it’s a luxury.” System’s 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 you’re with, the more likely you are to be free with yourself and your art,” says Dolmayan, mildly surprised that it’s even an issue.

* * *

 

While too much has been made of System of a Down’s shared cultural heritage — they’re 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. “We’re all ä 32 different, but the root is the same — we all know that ‘mother jokes’ won’t pass . . . and you don’t mess with anyone’s girlfriend. Girlfriend, sister, mother — do not talk about them. That’s blasphemy — heresy! These things are unspoken between us and bring us closer.” Odadjian’s 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 System’s 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: “Let’s 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 it’s offered me . . . but I’m 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 they’ll have to make a conscious effort to maintain the moral codes they believe in. “That’s what scares me with what’s happening with System right now,” admits Malakian. “The radio, the MTV. I mean, one of the Backstreet Boys is a fan of ours now — that’s a bit bubblegum!

“Respect is something I’m trying to maintain,” laments the surprisingly grounded guitarist, hunched in his cluttered room in the modest Glendale home he’s 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; it’s every bit a Gen-X bedroom, occupied by a prodigy who’s sold millions of records and receives mass adulation across the globe. Yet Malakian cherishes System’s esoteric distance. “I want to keep this band sexy,” he says, “where we’re not overexposed — this month’s flavor. I’d hate to see 10 other System of a Downs break out just because we had a No. 1 record.”

* * *

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. “He’ll take into consideration what we’re all listening to; he’ll 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 they’re there. “I’m always songwriting, it’s just something I do. Music is all I know. I don’t talk with confidence about many things — I can’t tell you about cars or computers, but if you had a song you needed help with, I could probably help you with that.

“I’m a real workaholic with what I do,” continues the elfin composer, “sometimes to the point where it’s not healthy. I get stressed out, especially now there’s a million people listening to us. I used to write for myself and then show my mom — that was my audience.”

Rubin puts Malakian’s gift into context: “Daron has a sense of melody and harmony that’s really unique — he’s so much more musical than other people who make heavy music. Though I don’t think the bands sound anything alike, I’d say that Queen had a musicality that other heavy bands didn’t have in their day, and that may be a parallel. I feel like Daron’s at that level of writing.”

* * *

When they’re not being stereotyped as an “Armenian band,” SOAD are often dubbed “political,” or “the new Rage Against the Machine,” when in reality they’ve 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 we’re singing about the attacks. They’re thinking our lyrics are prophecies — they’re taking us too damn seriously!”

 

Yet the band’s 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 that’s universal, it’s 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. “He’s 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. He’s 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. “We’re speaking about enlightenment — not only spiritual but political. Knowledge is power — if you’re 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: “We’re 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 that’s what we’re all about. Anything that’s going to pigeonhole us as anything, I’m against.”

All of the band’s members profess that challenging, progressive music alone is enough for them, and that they’d 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 don’t give a fuck what Serj is saying — or what I’m saying, or playing.”

“I never assume anyone’s paying attention anyway, and am always surprised when they are,” Tankian says. “I don’t write for people — lyrics or music; it’s a selfish process. Ultimately I see how it affects people, but I can’t think of them [while writing].” Yet it’s 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 SOAD’s being tagged as “political” is relative to the banality of much of the material they share the airwaves with. Musically and lyrically, they’re loners within the very “nu-metal” genre they helped to create, sharply contrasted against Slipknot’s unfocused, negative rage or Limp Bizkit’s 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 man’s bands” with which SOAD enjoy considerable audience overlap — Rage Against the Machine, Tool — are lacking in System’s ever-present curve ball: humor. In the midst of their most political work to date, Toxicity’s “Prison Song” (presenting some hard truths about U.S. drug policy), Malakian’s demented falsetto refrain of “I buy my crack, I smack my bitch, right here in Hollywood” comically sweetens the pill.

* * *

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 it’s 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, they’ve bought themselves broad creative parameters: “[With music] you’re taking a risk by changing,” sighs Malakian, “because people want the same album again and again. So I’m really grateful that I can paint my musical pictures and be accepted — that we can go anywhere with this.” Even now they’re on heavy TV and radio rotation, an adamant Dolmayan says. “Radio and MTV catered to us, we didn’t cater to them. ‘Chop Suey’ is a very big radio hit, but does that mean we’re going to record other songs that are similar to capitalize on that? No!”

* * *

“The songwriting is easy,” declares a remarkably self-deprecating Malakian, implying that it’s 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, “they’re fervent believers in System of a Down — in the message, the energy, the culture, in the tone of the band. It’s not just the songs.”

SOAD’s secret is elusively simple; it’s 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
Toxicity (American)


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