System’s creative overload

Los Angeles Times
May 22, 2005 Sunday
Home Edition

System’s creative overload;
Sold-out theaters. An oddly functional partnership. A double dose of
new music. These guys certainly proved the industry wrong.

by Richard Cromelin, Times Staff Writer

System OF A DOWN’S singer Serj Tankian and guitarist Daron Malakian
are as oddly matched as the components of their band’s epically
disjointed music.

With his Rasputin look and guru’s serenity, Tankian sits on
a dressing-room couch backstage at the Gibson Amphitheatre and
contributes concise observations and epigrams (“The future doesn’t
exist, my friend — we’re making it right now”) to the interview.

Malakian, eight years younger at 29, is a prototype rock dude with
a sensitive streak, and he seems full of nervous energy as he sits
beside his bandmate, talking in rushes punctuated by loud laughs.

“Daron is a true artist,” says Rick Rubin, who has produced or
co-produced all four of System’s albums, including the new “Mezmerize,”
for his American Recordings label. “He doesn’t really live in the
world. He lives in a bubble and the bubble is filled with music. All
he does is listen to music and play music all day every day. He’s got
no interests or hobbies or social life or any of those things…. I’m
not saying it’s healthy, but it makes for good music.”

That’s a matter of taste, of course, but even critics who generally
avoid the harder stuff have developed a soft spot for the Los Angeles
band’s unlikely, unpredictable juxtapositions of heavy rock riffing
and mock-operatic declamation. By turns surreal, absurd and pointedly
political, System’s music is what you might get if the Marx Brothers
took possession of Metallica and hired Frank Zappa as arranger.

As unconventional as it is, it has also become extremely popular. An
hour after the interview, Tankian and Malakian join drummer John
Dolmayan and bassist Shavo Odadjian in front of a full house at
the 6,000-seat amphitheater for their annual “Souls” concert, which
commemorates the Armenian genocide of the early 1900s.

When the band takes the stage and launches into its new radio hit
“B.Y.O.B.,” the audience explodes in greeting. These fans have been
waiting a long time since System’s last formal album, “Toxicity,”
came out in 2001.

Sparked by the hit singles “Chop Suey,” “Toxicity” and “Aerials,”
the album sold 3.5 million copies in the U.S. and established System
as a genre unto itself, with one foot in a form of heavy art-rock
and the other in traditional headbanging. So anticipation was at a
high pitch for its return to concerts and for last week’s release of
“Mezmerize,” which is expected to contend for the No. 1 position on
the national sales chart.


Creative chemistry altered

It looks like business as usual for System of a Down, but behind
the statistics and below the surface, internal balances have shifted
significantly, and creative ambitions have risen.

“If you go back to the first discussion [the band] ever had about this
record, maybe years ago,” says Malakian, “it was about stretching it,
about not repeating ourselves, trying to do other things.”

As potent and provocative as the new album is, it’s only half the
story. As they recorded, they found themselves juggling too many songs
for one CD, and rather than release a double-disc set or two separate
albums at the same time, they assembled “Mezmerize” for release now and
set aside a second full album, “Hypnotize,” to come out in the fall.

And the album reflects an altered creative chemistry. Malakian has
always been the primary musical force, writing most of the music and
co-producing with Rubin, but on “Mezmerize” he asserts a much more
prominent presence as lyricist and singer.

“I was a little nervous at first because I felt that I needed to sing a
little bit more on these songs, but I wasn’t sure how that would affect
the band’s sound,” says Malakian. “Till now Serj’s voice has been the
main voice of System, and now I’m coming in a little bit more…. You
know, you try things, you’re not sure how they’re gonna come out.”

Adds Tankian, “People look at us, they look at MTV or whatever, ‘This
guy does this, this guy does this.’ None of us are that isolated. We
do a lot of different things…. I think it’s good for people to see
that and not have us in our little walls.”

“There’s an interesting balance in the band,” notes Rubin, “because
most of the musical ideas start with Daron, but then Serj brings a
kind of poet’s mentality to it. It’s that combination that really
pushes the envelope and makes it so extreme.”

The devilishly complex single “B.Y.O.B.,” a montage of desert-warfare
images that hammers the insistent questions “Why don’t presidents
fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?” exemplifies that
byplay, with Malakian’s metal riffs and catchy chorus integrated
with his partner’s edgier collection of shrieks and “la la la la la”

“Mezmerize” packs plenty of System’s familiar visceral punch and
jerky, eccentric cadences, with a cleaner sound and even faster tempos
elevating the sheer thrill of the musical chase.

But the album introduces other new elements. Synthesizers and Vocorder
form the setting for “Old School Hollywood,” a quirky account of
Malakian’s day at a celebrity baseball game at Dodger Stadium. “Lost
in Hollywood” is an emotive ballad in a David Bowie vein. And there
are tight vocal harmonies that inspired them to joke in the studio
that they were the black-metal version of Simon & Garfunkel.

In “Violent Pornography,” Malakian recoils from the images offered by
contemporary media; in the soaring, sorrowful chorus of “Sad Statue,”
he imagines the Statue of Liberty weeping over the polarization of
U.S. society.

“I find it to be the tone of the times, when you’ve got red and blue
[states],” he says. “The Statue of Liberty stands there and is for
freedom for all and unity and liberty and all the things that we’re
proud of in America, and it’s crying — it’s kind of a picture you
paint, looking out to modern-day America.”

Not everything is so clear, though.

“I don’t know, man, just a lot of crazed stuff’s going on personally
and in the world, and it’s a reflection of that…. A lot of these
songs I’m still figuring out. What they came from, what they’re
about…. To me, they all have something personal intertwined with
something bigger than just personal, this big social thing….

“People see it as political a little too much, in my opinion. I don’t
think it’s politics that we’re going for. I think it’s more raising
questions — questions that I think people need to ask themselves
before they make big decisions on anything in life, whether it’s
politics or religion or raising their kids, I think they should raise
questions that aren’t asked by the television necessarily.”


Compromise-free zone

In the patio area backstage before the concert, the four band members
circulate through a crowd of friends and relatives. The scene is
more family reunion than rock-show party, and it’s a reminder of the
close-knit community that nurtured the musicians

Tankian, Malakian and Odadjian all attended the same private Armenian
school in Hollywood, and the singer and the guitarist later teamed up
in a band called Soil. When Odadjian became the bassist, System of a
Down began its long march in 1995. Dolmayan joined as drummer in 1996.

When the band started playing local clubs it attracted an audience,
but not much encouragement from the music industry. “Don’t scream,
kid, you’re never gonna get signed,” says Tankian with a smile,
recalling unwanted advice from record company people.

Tankian kept screaming and the band kept touring and expanding
its audience. Rubin signed them in 1997, and their fans’ requests
finally forced the single “Sugar” onto the radio. Now they’ve sold 10
million albums worldwide, and in a hard-rock genre that’s struggling
commercially and creatively, they are, in Rubin’s words, “the only
heavy band that matters.”

Most important to the musicians, they’ve done it without making
any compromises.

“We’re not catering to anybody but ourselves,” says Malakian. “All that
makes our success beautiful, because we’ve had so many people say we
can’t make it, whether it’s because of our culture, our looks…. I
can’t tell you how many different things they’ve told us aren’t gonna
work with System of a Down, and the fact that we can be successful
and not be made by a machine is a big deal for us.”

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: THEY WERE WRONG: Tankian says the typical advice from
record company people was, “Don’t scream, kid, you’re never gonna
get signed.” PHOTOGRAPHER: Gina Ferazzi Los Angeles Times PHOTO:
UNPREDICTABLE: The surreal, political alt-metal of System of a Down
comes from Shavo Odadjian, left, Serj Tankian, Daron Malakian and
John Dolmayan. PHOTOGRAPHER: Gina Ferazzi Los Angeles Times