It's a quiet midweek evening in Glendale, and we're at a coffee shop, about an hour before closing time. The place is empty but for a couple of day-weary punters, tapping out the final drops of coffee. The radio is on but nothing of interest is blaring out of it — just standard background noise. It's a nice, regular, main street coffee joint.
Daron Malakian initially does nothing to disturb the normality. Later, the coffee shop owner will figure out who he is and excitedly ask for photographs, but that's because he can see the interview taking place rather than any overt “rock star” vibe. As he strolls in alone, Malakian's demeanor is as unspectacular as the surroundings. His clothing is equally ordinary — jeans, tee, hoodie — and, while there's something resembling a shy awkwardness about him from the outset, the Glendale resident is extremely likable.
His eyes are instantly recognizable. They pop with an intensity almost at odds with the slouch in his gait. He can't hide it, though — there's a curiosity in those big eyes, soaking in everything they scan, that helps make him the artist that he is. It's a look that System of a Down fans know well. From that Glendale band's 1994 beginnings, Malakian's intense expressions (not to mention singer Serj Tankian's Zappa-esque hair) were focal points for a group that could have afforded, had they so desired, to rely entirely on the music.
SOAD sounded like nothing the metal genre had birthed before. With Malakian the main songwriter, the music blended the ferocity of metal with the traditional Armenian music so richly ingrained in his DNA, incorporating strong and smart political messages. System of a Down broke down just about every barrier that metal fans could construct. And in doing so, that unpredictability became a part of their identity. Their fans grew to crave something different with each record. There was nothing the group couldn't do.
Over the course of two decades and five excellent albums, System of a Down rose to be one of the biggest metal bands in the world. 2001's Toxicity and 2005's Mezmerize and Hypnotize (both released that same year) all reached No. 1 on the mainstream album charts in the United States and Canada while doing well in a multitude of other countries. The band played to hundreds of thousands of people around the globe, headlining festivals and selling out arenas. People love System of a Down.
But those 2005 albums are, to date, still the band's most recent. They haven't been able to find common ground when it comes to writing a new one, so they simply haven't. They have continued to perform live together, but no new material. For an artist, a songwriter, like Malakian, that simply won't do. In 2006, he founded his own project, Scars on Broadway, and, in 2008, he put out that group's debut self-titled album. Here we are, 10 years later, and he's just about to release Dictator, the second Scars album. The first thing we have to ask is, what the hell took so long?
“It was about not knowing what was going to happen with System,” Malakian says, bluntly. “So I just held the songs, and waited to see. I have plenty of songs that haven't been recorded, that I've also held on. There was always talk of making a new album with System, so that was one of the main reasons I kind of had this album recorded but didn't release it, just because of uncertainty with the System album.”
Yeah, as he reiterated to Consequence of Sound recently, Malakian believes that Tankian pretty much checked out on System of a Down prior to the Mezmerize and Hypnotize albums. Tankian confirmed as much with an open letter, republished on the same website.
Over the course of our conversation, Malakian answers every question that's thrown at him without flinching. Occasionally, we get the impression that he's holding a little something back, particularly about the behind-the-scenes SOAD goings-on, but that's understandable. Simultaneously, it's hard to shake the feeling that he's scanning us, trying to figure out what makes his interviewer tick. That's not unusual; we've only met briefly before, so there's no reason there'd be instant trust. So he holds our gaze, considers his answers carefully and speaks at a moderate pace. With that comes an attention to detail that we appreciate immensely.
When talking about the state of System of a Down today, Malakian makes it clear that the four men are not fighting. They're still friends, and they still enjoy playing those old songs live. They just can't get into the same creative headspace when it comes to writing and recording a new album. So the fact that he has 100 percent creative control when it comes to Scars on Broadway must be refreshing.
“Yeah, it's not too far away, aside from playing the drums, to my approach with System,” he says. “I do a big part of the writing in System, I produced those albums as well, so my approach isn't very different with Scars or with System. The difference with this one is that I sang everything and played the drums. With System, usually when I bring in a song, people give their opinions, but the song doesn't change all that much from the time that I had it writing it in my room to when I present it to the band. It has little changes here and there, and someone will say, 'Maybe do that twice,' or something.”
That, plus the fact that Malakian says the songs he writes would work for either band, is fascinating. He was the main songwriter in System, he does everything with Scars, and when writing, he takes the same approach. So, for him, the only differences come from the other personnel involved. That said, as an artist he organically evolves with time. There have been 10 years between Scars albums, so naturally there are differences.
“This album is a little heavier, a little more on the metal side, a little bit more on the punk-rock side,” he says. “It does have some of the midtempo stuff like 'Till the End,' but I think there was more of that on the first Scars album. No matter what I write, there is that flavor in there. Whether it's for System or Scars, there is that flavor there. Different ideas come to me, different vibes come to me, but my approach to the writing doesn't change very much. I still write with a guitar, I have all the drums and vocals going on in my head while I'm playing guitar, but this album has a little bit more of an aggressive, heavier, more metal … I think the first Scars album had more of a rock vibe to it.”
Prior to the release of Dictator, Malakian dropped “Lives,” the first single from the new Scars record. The accompanying video is spectacular — the chugging metal riffery somehow both at odds and comfortable bedfellows with the traditional Armenian dancing. “We are the people who were kicked out of history,” Malakian sings with an effective blend of venom and croon. It's a superb song, and the visuals complement it beautifully.
“I always wanted to make a video like that for that song, and it came out perfectly,” Malakian says. “My dad was a dance choreographer in his early years, so he was a big inspiration on including the folk dancing. It really matched up well with the lyrics, and I wanted to do something that wasn't focused on just the deaths but also the survival. The people that survived and I guess for us as Armenians to be proud of that, even though it's a dark thing in our history. There's something to be said about the people who survived and had kids, Armenians who built communities in Glendale or other places in the world, [like] Argentina — just different places where Armenians had to flee and build new communities and thrive. I wanted to shine a light on that, and to have people thrive on that.”
From the moment System of a Down started to receive national and international attention in the mid-'90s, the band members were educating the public about the Armenian genocide, the Ottoman Empire's extermination of 1.5 million Armenian people starting in 1915. It's something barely covered in American school history books so, for many people, System of a Down interviews in metal magazines such as Kerrang! were the first time they heard about the devastating events.
“I'm not as politically involved with it as Serj might be,” Malakian says. “I like to speak through song, and that's my outlet, so whether it was 'P.L.U.C.K.,' 'Holy Mountains' or 'Lives,' that's the way I've always tried to express my feelings. I don't try to push it — I don't say, 'I'm gonna write this song about this.' On three occasions so far, when I was writing, that topic inspired me. I'm proud to do it. We've been given a stage that most Armenians don't have, and it's not something you're gonna learn in your history books, so we go around the history books and educate people about something that happened in our culture. It's something I continue to do as a writer, and I think Serj does in his own way as well, even away from System of a Down.”
He's putting his money where his mouth is, too, donating the first week of sales on iTunes of “Lives” to the Armenia Fund, while drawing attention to the fact that the Armenian Fund website is asking for people to donate first aid kits. Meanwhile, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to escalate, with ceasefires broken. Malakian believes that another genocide is very possible.
“That's why I like to shine a light on it,” he says. “There could very well be another genocide, and nobody will do anything about it because nobody knows about it. If I can help people not die through getting them something as easy as a first aid kit, because I heard a lot of people died through just bleeding out, I'll do what I can.”
While politics and world events have continued to provide a rich vein of subject matter for Malakian to mine, the music industry around him has changed almost beyond recognition over the past two decades. The guitarist says the creative process hasn't changed at all, but the way music is put out — the way musicians make, or don't make, money — that has changed completely.
“We've done everything on our own right now,” he says. “We don't have a label. We've had offers, but I'd prefer not to have one. I don't really see what they're going to do. You put it out yourself on your own social media and stuff. That's what's changed — social media, I guess since 2006, 2008. Then you've got streaming outlets — you put your songs out through there. Nobody's really buying CDs, or music. So you're judged on how many people listen to you. The label world had changed quite a bit since then. Labels were more in charge in the mid-'90s, but still on their way out. Aside from how you present the music and how you put it out, in some ways there's a little bit of a freedom and control of putting it out yourself on your social media.”
That said, even when the band first emerged, nobody ever told System of a Down what to do. That points to a little bit of smarts from their label heads at American/Columbia. Why try to stifle a band that thrives on creative freedom, especially once they've proven that their quirky take on metal is marketable?
“I've never had anybody at a label come to me and say, 'This is the kind of song we want you to write, this is the direction,'” Malakian says. “System made its name not having to conform or change from what we are. I never had to write under that kind of, someone telling me what direction to take. I'm pretty tough on myself as a writer. There's plenty of stuff that I keep working on because I don't think it's quite there yet. I'm really difficult on myself when it comes to self-editing, and even when I would take a song into System, I had played that song for two years at least to myself before I take it in to the band. There were times where I didn't have lyrics for a verse, so Serj would come in and write. The only pressure on me with Scars is that I'm writing all of the lyrics.”
Malakian is thriving under the pressure, though, and in fact says that he finds it easier to write everything, play every instrument on the album, sing, produce and probably make his own damn coffee. Not having to present the songs to other people for their approval offers him the creative control that he craves.
“I had it all in my head, which is usually the way I do it with System or Scars,” he says. “I have the finished product in my head. I don't have to record it on a demo or anything. It was just easier to do. I went into the studio, I didn't have to gather any musicians or anything together. I always wanted to play the drums on an album, so that was cool. It's a cool thing for me to have on an album my own drumming. It was nice to be able to do that, and play with the exact feel that I wanted the parts to be played with, not have to explain the feel.”
Of course, in the live environment, Malakian has to hand over some of that control to the musicians with whom he chooses to perform. No problem, he says. These guys are solid professionals and they know what he wants.
“They hear the album and they play to it,” he says. “Scars rehearse once or twice a week at my place. I'm really good at explaining when something's not right. I can go behind the kit and explain to the drummer, 'This is how I want it.' So when he sees the direction I'm taking it, he understands. He's a good enough drummer. He catches on. For the most part, the guys in the band are top-of-the-line musicians. They pick it up pretty easily. It's not that difficult, at that point, to pull it off live.”
Ultimately, Malakian is just relieved that this album, this material, is finally seeing the light of day. It was written and recorded a few years back, shelved while he figured out what was going on with System. Speaking about that now, it's clear that Malakian has been frustrated by that process. He's an artist, a songwriter, a performer, and his hands have been tied for a while. System even rehearsed “Lives,” confirming the sense of confusion in the camp.
“The song was still 'Lives,' what you hear today,” Malakian says. “I'm sure there would have been some little differences, but like I said, the songs don't change too much from the time that I write them at home, to when I present them to the band with the melody lines. But you get into a room with everyone, and someone will have an opinion on maybe trying it this way. I'll try it every which way, as long as it's for the good of the song. I don't care who comes up with the song, or who comes up with the idea. I just can't picture them changing too much from what you hear, if it was System or Scars performing them. There's a lot of stuff on Hypnotize that could have been Scars songs. There's a lot of songs off the Scars album that could have been System songs.”
Yep, Malakian's style is his style, and it's very distinctive. In the early days of System, the band often were lumped in with the then-popular nu-metal scene that gave the world Korn, Limp Bizkit and Deftones, among many others. For the most part, this was circumstantial.
“I feel like we were a little bit more experimental than a lot of the nu-metal stuff that was happening,” Malakian says. “We came out around the same time as all that, and in L.A. that's what was happening. And then we played all those Ozzfests, so we caught that wave. But even back in the club days, I never felt like we were doing that. I would compare ourselves to more of a Faith No More. Faith No More came out with all the metal stuff that was happening but they weren't just that. You can't say Faith No More sound like Metallica.”
Rick Rubin, who produced all five SOAD albums alongside Malakian, feels strongly about the impact that the band has had.
“System of a Down are arguably the last heavy guitar band to have significant importance in music,” he says. “Daron as co-creator/writer/guitarist and sometimes singer, is seen for his great work through the band's wild success. Daron's talent is on display through every song System of a Down recorded. All you need to know is in the power of the incredible music.”
Meanwhile, David Benveniste, founder and CEO of Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group, has been System of a Down's manager from the very beginning.
“System of a Down have a very special place in alternative, rock and metal history,” Benveniste says. “They have an extremely fervent fan base who appreciate the importance of their cultural impact, and their industry accomplishments are very apparent. I believe [Malakian's] contributions to both are widely recognized. What people may not know is how great of a pop writer he is, and what an incredible sense of range he possesses across many musical genres. He's a very special musician who never chases what many people would consider to be 'success' in the traditional sense. For Daron, it's art first and an unwavering commitment to write and release the best songs, period.”
Essentially, Malakian knows that, to achieve what he wants to achieve on an artistic level, he has to take risks with the sound. Try things that other bands wouldn't dare try for fear of alienating a fan base (a valid concern — look at the fallout from fans when Metallica worked with Lou Reed). Malakian won't be restricted. He listens to The Grateful Dead, Neil Young and David Bowie as well as black metal, Motörhead and AC/DC, and he wants to bring those different colors to the table when he writes.
“I don't want to be, 'Well, I'm only allowed to use black and red,'” he says. “Sometimes I want to bring in green, and pink. And comedy! It's an emotion, just like sadness, loneliness, laughter, war — it's all going on. So I want to bring that into the feelings of my songs. I don't always feel political. I'm sometimes having a sad day. A song like 'Till the End' on Dictator is about friendships. Moments you have talking to a friend when they're having a problem. These are moments and times that we have in life. I don't want to be afraid and just show my tough-guy side or my angry side.”'
So he doesn't allow himself to be restricted. If something inspires him, he'll write about it and talk about it, even if that means suffering a backlash. Years ago, he mentioned Charles Manson in an interview and caught a lot of shit for what was perceived as sympathizing with a notorious murderer, despite the fact that he never condoned the crimes. Maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, he could have been a little smarter with his verbiage but, again, Malakian won't be tied down.
“When I got interested in Manson, it was his interviews after the murders when he was in jail,” he says. “There were parole hearings, and I just started listening to a lot of his interviews and I was interested in how he articulated his words. I've never been interested in the murders and how all that happened. When he passed away, I wasn't sad because I didn't know him. It was more about, the guy who influenced [a couple of] songs is gone. It was more about that. I think a lot of people would listen to him and think, 'This is a crazy guy talking.' You've got to read between the lines of what he's saying — he was a lot of times making a lot of sense about society for the most part.”
On a brighter note, Malakian's father, Vartan, has contributed the artwork to Dictator, as he did for the first Scars on Broadway album as well as System of a Down's Mezmerize and Hypnotize. The guitarist is happy and proud to be able to show the world how talented his dad is.
“He's a really talented guy, but he's not much of a self-promoter,” Malakian says. “He has all this stuff that only me and my family sees. He's never done any exhibits, or promoted himself that way. So it's always really cool for me to put his name out there, and put his work out there. I think fans appreciate it, too, having someone that close to me working with me on the albums. And I feel like his art matches my songs in a really cool way as well. The imagery and his style. Because a lot of my approach as an artist and how I approach writing songs comes from him.”
Similarly, Malakian's surroundings have had a huge impact on his work, whether that be Glendale, where he lives now and has for many years, or Hollywood, where he spent a chunk of his youth. He loves Los Angeles, and misses it when he's out on tour.
“When I drive through Hollywood at Christmastime, I get a fuzzy feeling because it reminds me of my childhood,” he says. “L.A.'s been my home forever. It's where I was born. A lot of lyrics to my songs have a Hollywood or L.A. theme to them, whether it was 'Prison Song,' or 'Lost in Hollywood' — I've sang about the city. Sometimes more about the darker sides of the city. A lot of people think of Hollywood, and think of glamour and red carpets. That's not the part of Hollywood I grew up in. It was a lot of gangs and prostitution in the '80s when I was a kid riding my bike in the streets.”
When we spoke, Scars on Broadway were preparing for an intimate acoustic show at the Grammy Museum, and then a full-on electric gig at the Fonda. Malakian is excited about both, as well as the five System shows this summer. He's convinced both bands can coexist in their current form. For now, SOAD is about the past and Scars is the future. But, he admits, that could change.
“With System, we'll see what happens,” he says. “We may get on the same page one day, we may not. I've come to terms with that. I still enjoy going out there and playing live. It's a good time for me right now to have this outlet with Scars and finally know where everything stands with both bands. It makes it a little bit more comfortable this time around with Scars, that I didn't have last time. There was more uncertainty in the air. When is System going to come back? Should I save these songs? Should I wait? That's not happening right now, so I feel more confident moving forward with Scars now than I did 10 years ago with the first album.”
As for the fans, we can just sit back and enjoy the fact that both bands are out there performing, and that Malakian is releasing new music. It won't, he says, be another 10 years before he puts out another album.