System of a Down gets bigger stage for its act

Chicago Sun-Times, IL
Sept 30 2005

System of a Down gets bigger stage for its act

September 30, 2005

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC Advertisement

Cheerfully idiosyncratic in an old-school, Frank Zappa way, System of
a Down is an unlikely arena act. Nevertheless, in the decade since
the progressive metal quartet formed at an Armenian Christian school
in Los Angeles, it has become one of the most popular and outspokenly
political groups in rock today.

Vocalist Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo
Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan released their eagerly anticipated
fourth album, “Mezmerize,” in May, after keeping fans waiting for
more than four years after 2001’s “Toxicity.” Now, as the band
prepares to release “Hypnotize,” the second installment of its double
album, on Nov. 22, it is touring with another equally strange and
creative act, the Mars Volta.

I spoke with Tankian from his home in L.A. shortly before the start
of the tour.

SYSTEM OF A DOWN; THE MARS VOLTA; HELLA
7 tonight
Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont
Tickets, $32.50-$45
(312) 559-1212

Q. I saw one of the club gigs that launched “Mezmerize” at Metro in
May. Now you’re headlining the Allstate Arena. Did you ever think
System of a Down would become an arena band?

A. It’s been 10 years, so we’ve been working at it step by step. It’s
not like we had one radio single and went from clubs to arenas. We’ve
been steadily working, and “Hypnotize” is going to be our fifth
album. It’s a trade-off: You get more people, so the energy of the
crowd is amazing. But we’re trying to get as much of that club sound
as possible.

Q. What was the thinking in splitting “Hypnotize” and “Mezmerize”
into two releases?

A. Simply put, it is a double record, and the type of music that we
have, although it has pop arrangements, it is still progressive and
it starts and stops and has tempo changes, so listening to more than
35 or 40 minutes at a time is absolutely exhausting to me. We’ve
always liked short records and not putting too much onto the plate.

Q. The group has always been outspokenly anti-war and
anti-administration, yet you don’t preach about your views in
concert. Do you think the audience connects with your message?

A. Music in general is an intuitive form. It can be intellectual, but
generally it’s a right-brain activity. I always give “B.Y.O.B.”
[“Bring Your Own Bombs”] as an example: You don’t have to be anti-war
to appreciate the satire in a song talking about a hypocritical war.
It’s more intuitive: You get it and you feel it more than you think
it. Later on, if there is some thinking, that is fine. If there
isn’t, that’s fine, too.

Q. People talk about the role music played in stopping the war in
Vietnam. Do you think that’s still possible today?

A. Music, again, touches the heart, not the mind. It can affect the
mind, but only after it has affected the heart. With Vietnam, there
was a whole cultural and social movement that precipitated that, with
the media showing clips of what was going on. People were really
finding out the truth and realizing, “Hey, this is not something that
is part of the American dream.” Music became a part of that culture.
I don’t think music created that resistance to the war; it was a part
of it. At best, true art is a good representation of our times, and a
truthful correspondence of what is going on doesn’t create that
change. It may help bring that change to an emotional place in our
lives, but it doesn’t create that change.

Q. But you’re optimistic that we’ll see a change?

A. I think I’m already seeing a change. It’s gradual, but there is a
change in attitude toward Iraq. Although they’re not showing film of
soldiers dying, people do realize that there are deaths every day and
that, “Hey, this is a war I might have supported years ago because of
my feelings about Sept. 11, but this is definitely not the right
thing. It’s the wrong war in the wrong place.” Music has a place in
that, but it is mostly people realizing the truth about what is
happening in the world.

Q. Both albums contain a mix of songs with heavy messages, like
“B.Y.O.B.,” and tunes that are simply scatological silliness, like
“Violent Pornography.” Isn’t that a bit schizophrenic?

A. I have a hard time being serious all day. I have a hard time being
serious for more than three seconds! It’s all part of life, and
lyrically it is a combination of a lot of things that Daron and I
write together. “Violent Pornography” is a funny way of talking about
media and where we are today — things we show and things we don’t
show.

Q. How do the songs come together?

A. It’s a balance of ideas. The way that it started is that Daron
would bring in most of the music and I’d bring in the lyrics. As time
progressed, I’d start to bring in more music and fully written songs,
and Daron progressed as a lyricist and a singer, so he was able to
bring in more completed songs. That balance has created better
songwriters out of both of us.

REASONS FOR LIVING

As fans of psychedelic rock giants Pink Floyd continue to hope for a
full-fledged reunion tour in the wake of the band’s performance at
Live 8 and the news that it will reconvene again in November for its
induction into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame, a new DVD offers a rare
look at the start of its career nearly four decades ago, when it was
fronted by the soon-to-become notorious acid casualty Syd Barrett and
building a reputation as the freakiest British band during the Summer
of Love.

“Pink Floyd: London 1966-1967” features the quartet performing at the
legendary UFO Club in London, making the scene at the 14-Hour
Technicolour Dream at the Alexandra Palace (a much cooler “happening”
than Woodstock) and playing in the studio during its first recording
session with American producer Joe Boyd. Much of the footage hails
from director Peter Whitehead’s film “Tonite Let’s All Make Love in
London,” and scenes of the band are interspersed with appropriately
stoned flower children contemplating the universe, go-go dancers
stripping and gyrating, Yoko Ono doing performance art and John
Lennon dropping by to check it all out (the two hadn’t met yet).

The disc only includes two songs, “Interstellar Overdrive” and
“Nick’s Boogie,” but at 17 and 12 minutes, respectively, that’s
plenty of mind-blowing music to get you through at least a bong or
two. The DVD will be released Tuesday through Snapper Music, and at
under $20, it’s a patchouli-scented, paisley-covered Day-Glo bargain.

Pop music critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts “Sound Opinions” from 10 p.m.
to midnight Tuesdays on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at
[email protected]

dave trying to cross the Mississippi River to rebuild his life in
southwest Louisiana,” Adcock explained. “He is hallucinating as he
comes closer to his death in the swamp. But that is one of those
songs that doesn’t take too much tricking around with, in that
there’s so many people who feel like runaways right now. When I’ve
been singing that song I’ve definitely been thinking about those
people.”

Adcock then sang from the song:

“… Running through the cypress shadows/just to save my life/I’m a
man whose been through hell/ yeah, we know it well/I’m ready for my
final day with the devil/ooh yeah its a runaway life/oh yeah gotta
run tonight/misery is a runaway’s life/goin’ down down down/ drown in
Atchafalaya. …”

Adcock, 33, began calling his New Orleans friends on the Saturday
before the hurricane hit (Aug. 29). He said, “I won’t name names, but
I got a lot of, ‘I’ve been out all night, I need some sleep, can you
call back in an hour?’ That’s New Orleans for you. Alex Chilton’s
girlfriend was at my house. Alex decided to stick around, then had
strange stories of trying to get out of town yet trying to be
inconspicuous so he wouldn’t get caught up in the [crime] that was
going down in the streets of New Orleans. But it was great for people
to see our little corner of the world. It was great to see someone
like Ani out at El Sido’s [in Lafayette] listening to Keith Franco’s
zydeco on a Saturday night. She was dancing all night. It kept people
preoccupied.”

As early as the Thursday following Hurricane Katrina, Adcock,
DiFranco and Napolitano drove back into New Orleans to retrieve
records, tapes and hard drives. Adcock has been writing songs since
Katrina and Rita, but he needs time to process his thoughts.

In the meantime, he will try to focus on “Lafayette Marquis,” one of
the best roots-rock records of last year. The roadhouse beat of
Adcock’s “Stealin’ All Day” is an appropriate signoff for Nitzsche,
whose last rock production was in 1979 with Graham Parker’s
“Squeezing Out Sparks.” Nitzsche, who died in 2000, was nominated for
an Oscar for his 1975 score for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
The Chicago native was a fan of Adcock’s only other solo record, a
1994 self-titled debut for Island Records. “Stealin’ All Day” was
recorded in 1997.

“Jack’s process of producing was not the most economical and
efficient,” Adcock explained. “But it was certainly grand and
wonderful. It wasn’t the way people produce things today, like
sitting down for a couple of hours to figure out what reverb to use.
He wanted to get inside your head and inside your life. We became
very close and slightly entangled in each other’s lives.

“He dug ‘Stealin’ All Day.’ Jack understood roots music and he liked
simple things, which sounds funny to say about a man whose work is so
complex. He had a firm handle on Wagner and orchestral things
[Nitzsche did the choral arrangement for the Stones’ ‘You Can’t
Always Get What You Want’], but he loved Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and
Howlin’ Wolf. It was the last song he ever produced, although he did
other things on me I haven’t released.”

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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS