System of Down on the upswing

The Record, NJ
Aug 19 2005

System of Down on the upswing

Friday, August 19, 2005


WHO: System of a Down, with the Mars Volta and Bad Acid Trip.

WHAT: Hard rock/metal.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday.

WHERE: Continental Arena, East Rutherford; (201) 935-3900.

HOW MUCH: $32.50 to $45, Ticketmaster

Daron Malakian never expected commercial success as a musician. Born
to immigrant parents and raised in a ramshackle area of Hollywood,
System of a Down’s guitarist and vocalist admits he’s a little leery
of mainstream adulation.

“I always knew I would be an artist, but to be successful is crazy,”
Malakian says. “I have two parents who are artists, but they never
made any money.”

Indeed, the Los Angeles quartet, all of Armenian descent, would seem
an unlikely candidate for arena rock band status. They’re definitely
not pretty boys. Two of them sport creative facial hair. And their
music is confrontational and unrelenting in a time of “American Idol”
pop ballads and heartfelt emotion.

Their latest album, “Mezmerize,” mines their Hollywood roots – not the
sunny, star-studded image but the gritty underbelly. The band members
were raised in the Armenian enclave of Los Angeles. Those memories
fuel the lyrics to “Lost in Hollywood,” a place where “vicious streets
are filled with strays” and “phony people come to pray.”

“To really get to know any place in the world, you have to go to
its ghettos,” Malakian says. “You can say I lived in the ghettos. I
grew up in a neighborhood where there was a hotel with hookers out
in front and stuff like that.”

As part of their cultural heritage, the band members also grew up in
the shadow of the Armenian genocide.

For the past three years, System of a Down has performed a benefit
concert to commemorate the genocide and raise money for human rights
groups. More than a half-million Armenians died at the hands of the
Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923. The survivors scattered across
the globe.

The diaspora is evident by looking at the birthplaces of the four
System members. Malakian is the only U.S. native. Lead vocalist Serj
Tankian and drummer John Dolmayan were born in Beirut. Bassist Shavo
Odadjian was born in Armenia.

Malakian, Tankian and Odadjian met as students at a private Armenian
school in Hollywood. They formed System of a Down in 1995, with
Dolmayan coming on board the following year.

“Mezmerize” is their first release since “Toxicity” in 2001. It’s
also the first part of a two-CD set – “Hypnotize” will come out
in the fall. Malakian said the band decided to release the two CDs
separately to give each disc breathing room: A double album is like
being introduced to 30 people at a party, Malakian says. You can’t
possibly spend quality time with each song.

“I’m not the type of person who thinks that just because we sold a
zillion records, everyone has to sit there and listen to our album,”
he says.

System of a Down has developed a reputation for questioning the powers
that be and for biting political and social commentary. “Mezmerize”
is no exception. In the track “BYOB,” Malakian and Tankian share vocal
duties. The war in Iraq transforms into a party where everybody is
“dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine.” Then they ask: “Why
don’t presidents fight the war?/ Why do they always send the poor?”

In the case of the war in Iraq, the political is also personal
for Malakian. His parents emigrated from Iraq. The family has many
relatives there.

“Having them over there is not easy,” he says. “I try to think as
positive as I can. If anything, it makes me sympathize with families
who have their own sons and daughters out fighting the war, a crazy
and stupid war. Some people say, ‘He must hate America.’ Actually I
sympathize more with the families that have young kids over there.
There’s no reason for them to be there.”

“Mezmerize” tempers the outrage with moments of kookiness, too. A
song about Dodger Stadium has the actor Tony Danza cutting in line.
The bizarre lyric that gets the most ink comes from “This Cocaine
Makes Me Feel Like I’m on This Song,” which pairs the words “gonorrhea”
and “gorgonzola.”

The self-effacing Malakian says he never expects anyone to like
the band’s songs. Despite the acclaim that “Toxicity” brought,
the group never once thought about how “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize”
would be received by critics or by fans. Trying to force songs into
a mold is the artistic kiss of death, Malakian says. “We’ve got to
be our favorite band,” he says. “We have to love ourselves. If you
love yourself, other people love you, too.

“Even my own tastes can’t interfere with the song,” he continues.
“The song comes from another place. You can’t feed the song what you
want. The song asks for things, and you have to give them.”