Photo by Glen E. Friedman
Despite their goth-o-glam war paint, violent onstage paroxysms and pulverizing blasts of sound, System of a Down do not think of themselves as a scary metal band. “What about Garth Brooks, man? That guy scares the hell out of me,” says guitarist Daron Malakian from the back of the band’s hulking silver bullet of a tour bus. “You gotta check out the cover of his new album — he’s all Trent Reznor–looking, like he wants fuckin’ street cred or something.” Before I can assure him that I will check it out, a harried tour manager tells me the phone batteries are low, and even though Malakian’s just half an hour outside Tempe, Arizona (for day two of the SnoCore Tour in Phoenix), the periodic clicks and delays make it sound like we’re speaking halfway around the globe. Anyway, the pint-size powerhouse sounds exhausted.
“Nah, we aren’t tired at all,” he says. “If we were already at that point, we’d be total pussies.”
Pussies they are not. At a System show at the Opium Den a while back, no sooner had Malakian plugged in when he stepped to the mike and screamed, “Fuck that band that played before us!” “Yeah, I was pretty pissed off,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I couldn’t tell you what band it was, but we were the headliners, and they played way over their slot — they totally ate into our time.” Whether it’s the high-pitched squeals from the guitarist’s fingers dancing over the frets or his band’s viscerally satisfying hooks — a sucker punch that’ll cleave your skull — System’s chunky, disjointed metal gumbo has the stamp of Malakian all over it. He was recently featured in a glossy guitar-wank magazine, and those guys take axsmanship
seriously, so you know he’s on the advanced-degree tip. “The only lessons I had were in the school of Slayer,” he laughs, “but I don’t think I’m that fast, so I won’t comment. But I’m stoked, ’cause I grew up reading those magazines — plus it’s something to show Mom.”
One of the more irritating rumors System has been obliged to fend off is that they’re a bunch of Noam
Chomsky–reading gadflys telling everyone what’s wrong with the world and their lives. The band does have its serious side. Take their eponymous debut album’s final track, “P.L.U.C.K.” (Politically Lying Unholy Cowardly Killers), for example, an elegy for kinsmen slaughtered in the Armenian genocide of 1915 at the hands of the Turks. The band comes across as ultralefty anarchists raging against the machine, but even a passing glance at the lyric sheet reveals a vague conglomeration of bumper-sticker slogans and idiosyncratic gobbledygook. The good news is that verbal content doesn’t really matter in the blood, sweat and chaos of heavy rock — the kids are gonna mosh anyway.
“We’re serious, but not in this simple-message kinda way,” Malakian says. “Our emotions are really extreme. If you listen to ‘Sugar,’ it’s not a very happy song, but at the end of each verse it goes ‘Shu-GAH.’ There’s a lot of evil shit in the world, but that’s no reason to stop living life.”
Shavo Odadjan, System’s mad-as-a-hatter bassist (picture a genetic collision between Iggy Pop and Perry Farrell with a shaved head), is a talkaholic I can barely get off the phone with as he chills in San Francisco’s Bijou Hotel, getting some beauty rest before the band’s Warfield gig the next night. After witnessing the System’s wall-splitting performance in a jam-packed steam bath at the Hollywood Palladium the night before, I could see how they might want to take their own lyrical advice and pack a bowl.
“Daron’s down in the Haight right now, looking for a, um, water pipe,” he chuckles. “Everyone thinks we’re all into drugs, but that’s total bullshit. I lectured these two teenagers who came up to me after the show for like 20 minutes. I was like, ‘You have plenty of time to experiment later. Right now you should just learn, go to school, work, whatever,’ and they walked away thanking me for being honest. We might be marijuana-friendly, but we’re not pro any kind of drug. We’re trying to shed light on why it’s illegal, and it’s not because pot’s bad for you. It’s because the government can’t tax you on it.” Odadjan is acutely wary of being misunderstood by 5,000 impressionable youths, especially in light of the band’s portrayal in the music press as a buncha reefer addicts, a myth seeded early in their career. “I think it was Kerrang! or someone, but the headline went ‘Pot Smoking Armenian Gangbanger,’” he laughs, then suddenly stops.
“Will this be in the Valley edition of the Weekly? I got family reading this.”
System’s near-incessant touring has brought them exposure to parts of the world they wouldn’t otherwise have seen, and it’s been an eye-opening experience. According to Malakian, New York is like a second home to the band now, and he was surprised and delighted to learn that the South didn’t run rampant with racist hicks. “They get a bad rap,” he says. “They’re all very polite, plus they make some great sweet tea.” In the last two years, System have toured Europe three times, venturing into tantalizingly untapped markets like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Croatia, but have side-stepped their parents’ homeland of Armenia. “There’s no scene there,” Odadjan, the only band member actually born in Armenia, says flatly. “It’s a very conservative country, and they were the first to make Christianity a national religion. But I heard pirate radio’s been playing us there, so we’ll go if there’s a demand.”
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.”