Now it’s personal; System of a Down is playing a benefit concert

Los Angeles Times
April 22, 2004 Thursday
Home Edition

Now it’s personal;
System of a Down is playing a benefit concert to bring attention to
the Armenian genocide.

by Susan Carpenter, Times Staff Writer

Tackling everything from shortsighted social policies to media
consolidation to the lemming-like conformity of the masses, System of
a Down is one of the most overtly political bands in modern rock, but
don’t call them a political band. The Los Angeles four-piece prefers
the more neutral “art” label.

Even so, they’ll be using their art to make a loud political
statement when they headline “Souls, 2004,” a concert benefiting
organizations working to eradicate genocides across the globe and to
encourage recognition of the Armenian genocide. The concert takes
place Saturday, on the commemoration of the Ottoman Empire’s killing
of about 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923. It’s an atrocity
few Americans know about. It isn’t written in most school textbooks,
nor is it formally recognized by the U.S. government, despite decades
of promises from various presidents and present-day Congressional
initiatives. But it’s a deeply personal issue to the band’s members,
all of whom are of Armenian descent.

“My grandfather never knew how old he was because so much of my
family history was lost in the Armenian genocide,” said guitarist
Daron Malakian, the only member of the band who was born in the U.S.

“If not for my grandfather’s memories, I would know nothing of my
family tree before his lifetime,” said singer Serj Tankian, whose
accent still bears traces of a faraway land.

“It’s just really personal for all of us,” bassist Shavo Odadjian
said. “There’s a lot of political issues of course that go with it,
but the reason why it’s called Souls for me is there’s all these
souls that aren’t at rest right now. Their deaths are overlooked.”

The subject of the Armenian genocide is not the group’s only concern,
though it has long been addressed by the band. The band’s 1998 smash
success, the self-titled “System of a Down,” concluded with an
incendiary, metal-edged takedown called “P.L.U.C.K. (Politically
Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers).” Three years later, on their
Grammy-nominated follow-up, “Toxicity,” they again brought it up on
the short but effective “X.”

With “Souls, 2004,” they take the power of those lyrics and turn them
into direct action. The second in what they hope will be an annual
concert series designed to raise awareness of the issue and exert
political pressure on the U.S. and Turkish governments to recognize
the genocide, the band expects to raise about $100,000 from this
weekend’s concert at the Greek Theatre.

But the show will not be a political rally. There will be no fiery
speeches, no sloganeering, no banners, though booklets about the
genocide will be available for those who are interested. Everyone
else can just rock out to System’s unique, thinking man’s metal,
which will be primed with warmups from Saul Williams, Zach Hill and
Bad Acid Trip, the latter of which is signed to Tankian’s label,
Serjical Strike.

“People don’t like hearing speeches,” Tankian said. “We’re just gonna

Playing is, after all, what they do best. Long before their signing
to American Recordings in 1997, they had developed a huge following
based entirely on their live shows — tireless episodes of intense,
hard-core mayhem led by the cynically messianic Tankian and propelled
by a tightly wound rhythm section. Seven years and three records
later, their shows have lost none of their spit and sizzle.

Heralded as the vanguard of the nu-metal scene — another label they
disdain — the group is at work on its next record. In the North
Hollywood studio where System rehearses, more than 20 songs are
listed on a marker board, but how many or which of those songs will
make it on the record hasn’t been decided. Nor has the record’s
release date.

All the group will say about the new album is that “it will make you
think and laugh at the same time,” according to Malakian, who pens
the music. In other words, it will do what their records have always
done — juxtapose the absurd and the serious while playing with
tempos and temperaments.

During a recent interview with the band, the conversation danced from
subject to subject with little prompting — the evils of television,
short-attention-span political coverage, corporate mind control,
two-party politics, individualistic selfishness, apathetic teens, the
Armenian genocide, spirituality. How much, if any, of those topics
will be addressed on their new record is unknown. What’s clear is
that ever since the group’s first hit single in 1998 — the lyrically
sarcastic, vocally schizophrenic and rhythmically nonlinear “Sugar”
— System of a Down hasn’t played by conventional rock rules.

“We’re a band that reflects life,” Malakian said. “Even though we do
talk politics, life is all around us. Politics is a part of life. We
just mesh it all into our art. We’re more a social band than a
political band.”

Perhaps more accurately, they are a social band concerned with
political issues that are shaped by a common ancestry and anchored
with a deep spirituality.

“I kind of always had the vibe from when we were first on tour, just
the souls of the genocide of our ancestors, of our grandparents, of
our grandparents’ parents, that they had something to do with our
success, spiritually saying, and pushed us along,” Malakian said.

Addressing the Armenian genocide, he said, “is our duty in a way.
There isn’t exactly a million Armenians out there who are so famous
in the entertainment industry.”

Susan Carpenter can be reached at mailto:[email protected].


System of a Down

On their heritage and calling attention to the Armenian genocide:

Serj Tankian, vocalist

“Geopolitics or military strategy is not an excuse to deny the
killing of 1.5 million people…. Could you envision us making a deal
with modern Germany if they backed us on the war on Iraq if only we
go back and we destroy the Holocaust museum? Well, that’s what we’re
doing with Turkey.”

Daron Malakian, guitarist

“Everybody used to tell us, ‘Change this, change that. Four Armenian
guys? Who’s gonna buy that?’ … One thing that kept me confident we
were doing the right thing is we have a huge backing on the spiritual

John Dolmayan, drummer

“We’ve come from very similar places in one respect, and in another,
all four of us come from very different backgrounds. So we have that
heritage in common. It all came out of our love for music. Everything
we have together is built on our love for music.”

Shavo Odadjian, bass player

“To me, it’s not really a political thing, it’s more of a personal
thing because I don’t know beyond my grandparents. My grandfather
never knew his birthday. It’s not just me; most Armenians went
through this.”


`Souls, 2004′

Where: The Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont, L.A.

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

Price: $45

Info: (323) 665-1927 or

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: (no caption) PHOTO: (no caption) PHOTO: (no caption)
PHOTO: (no caption) PHOTO: PLAYING POLITICS: Lyrics by System of a
Down frequently deal with social and political issues. PHOTOGRAPHER:
Photographs by Rick Loomis Los Angeles Times