System of a Down
System of a Down
Fusing rock, punk, metal, rap, and even ethnic folk and jazz, and tackling subjects ranging from cultural and political issues to poetry and humor, System of a Down proved themselves true contenders on the rap-metal scene with their sophomore album, Toxicity. Released in September of 2001, the album, containing the radio hit “Chop Suey,” debuted in Billboard at number one, reached platinum status within a couple of months, and elevated the band to a new level of popularity among teenagers. System of a Down’s unsettling yet absorbing music played regularly on radio stations nationwide, while the group’s videos rotated daily on MTV. The music press placed the quartet in the same league as Tool and Rage Against the Machine. “They have a deep musicality that’s really powerful,” producer Rick Rubin told Natalie Nichols of the Los Angeles Times. “For a band that offbeat, [the success of Toxicity] is really a testament to the depth of their songs.”
System of a Down—comprised of guitarist and chief songwriter Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, keyboardist Serj Tankian, and drummer John Dolmayan—formed in 1994 in Los Angeles, California, deriving their name from a poem composed by Malakian. (Before joining forces, Malakian and Tankian played together in Soil, a band managed by Odadjian.) They claim that loyalty, a strong sense of community, and the importance of family and friends—in addition to their love of music—enabled the group to succeed. “We’re a very brotherly band … we care about each other,” Dolmayan insisted in an interview with LA Weekly contributor Paul Rogers. Indeed, System of a Down exhibit a deeper continuity than most bands. Since their formation, the group has had a stable lineup and crew, the same manager and attorney since 1996, and a strong artistic and business relationship with their producer.
Much of the band’s emphasis on mutual respect and brotherhood is a direct result of their background. All four members were raised in Los Angeles—making them an anomaly of sorts in a city filled with transplanted hopefuls—all share a common Armenian heritage, and, except for Dolmayan, attended the same private Armenian high school in Hollywood. As adults, one of the main issues they champion is international recognition of the Armenian genocide. (Under Ottoman Turkish rule an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Armenians died between 1915 and 1923; many of the band members’ ancestors suffered during this period.) To raise awareness of this horrific event, which many nations, including Turkey, still refuse to acknowledge, System of a Down addresses the topic through their lyrics, as well as through interviews and concert events sponsored by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
Although known for their aggressive, spectacular, and passionate live performances, the band members appear quite different in person. Tankian, a native of Lebanon, is described as warm and nonjudgmental, a
Members include John Dolmayan, drums; Daron Malakian, guitar, background vocals; Shavo Odadjian, bass guitar; Serj Tankian, vocals, keyboards, samples.
Group formed in Los Angeles, CA, 1994; played at clubs such as the Roxy and the Troubador, mid-1990s. signed with American Recordings, released System of a Down, 1998; released Toxicity, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10022, phone: (212) 833-5212, website: http://www.sony.com. Website —System of a Down Official Website: http://www.systemofadown.com.
devotee of meditation, and a student of global politics and ideologies. Before settling into a career in music, he worked as CEO of a marketing management software company.
Malakian, the band’s creative nucleus, was born in Hollywood to artistic parents. He decided to pursue music at the tender age of four. “I’m a real workaholic with what I do,” Malakian, known for his intense, yet at times vulnerable, demeanor, revealed to Rogers, “sometimes to the point where it’s not healthy. I get stressed out, especially now there’s a million people listening to us. I used to write for myself and then show my mom—that was my audience.” In order to deal with the pressures of the music business and System of a Down’s popularity, Malakian, too, became interested in the meditative arts.
Odadjian, who was born and lived in Armenia until the age of five, was raised by his mother and grandmother. A former skate punk and intense fan of other bands as a teen, he never expected to make a living in the music business and remains much in tune with System of a Down’s audience. Others associated with the group credit him for keeping an eye on the band’s commercial appeal, regularly warning his fellow bandmates when songs sound too complicated.
In contrast, Dolmayan, also from Lebanon, recognized music as his calling around age two, even though his father, a jazz saxophonist who ultimately chose family over a musical career, tried to steer him in a different direction. “He knows what a musician’s life is like,” Dolmayan explained in comments included on the System of a Down official website. “He had no clue I would be in a signed band one day, he figured I’d be struggling my whole life.” Described as at once a precise and unorthodox percussionist, Dolmayan’s drumming inspirations range from the Who’s Keith Moon to Maynard Ferguson and Jaco Pastorius. “You have to have discipline in drumming,” he added. “Timing is very important, but I don’t want to sound like a robot. I like the fact that every now and then I’ll go off time a little bit, every now and then my rolls aren’t perfect.”
During the mid-1990s System of a Down, united by their personal and musical connections, established themselves in Los Angeles. Their primary influences included heavy metal, hard-core punk, and traditional Armenian music, but they were also intrigued by the boldness of groups such as Faith No More and Jane’s Addiction. With the help of friends and promotion by Odadjian, the band’s original manager, and Tankian, an expert at web-based networking, System of a Down landed gigs at established clubs like the Roxy, the Whiskey, and the Troubadour. The music industry took notice, impressed by their message and raw energy. Music producer Rick Rubin, noted for his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy, among others, felt equally enthusiastic after attending a show at the Viper Room. Rubin signed the band to his Columbia Recordsaffiliated American Recordings label and offered to serve as the band’s producer.
In 1998 System of a Down released a self-titled fulllength album. It sold approximately 750,000 copies, due in large part to the rock radio hit “Sugar,” media exposure, and a relentless touring schedule. As in Los Angeles, System of a Down attracted a large following with their aggressive, raging sound, dramatic live act, and socially conscious lyrics. Although the record’s closing track, “P.L.U.C.K.” (“Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers”) was an assault on the ongoing denial of Armenian genocide, System of a Down refuses to be labeled simply as an Armenian-American band. “To me, the Armenian genocide is personal,” Tankian said to Nichols. “It’s about grandparents and things like that. [Being Armenian] indirectly and in a very deep way plays a part in everything we do, but it’s not as big as people usually make it.”
Following tours with the Ozzfest concert series and bands such as Slayer and Limp Bizkit, System of a Down returned in the fall of 2001 with their second effort, Toxicity. Entering the charts at number one and eventually reaching platinum sales, the album solidified the quartet’s reputation. Although Toxicity relied heavily on political and social messages, such as with the anti-drug war track “Prison Song,” the album also included less serious numbers like “Bounce” and “Jet Pilot.” “Our music is not just for social causes,” Tankian explained to Nichols, in another Los Angeles Times interview. “It has an entertaining factor to it, because kids will not just listen to a sermon. That’s boring.”
System of a Down, American Recordings, 1998.
Toxicity, American Recordings, 2001.
Billboard, January 6, 2000; January 8, 2000.
Boston Globe, January 21, 2000; September 30, 2001.
Guitar Player, July 2000; January 2002.
LA Weekly, December 7-13, 2001.
Los Angeles Times, August 25, 1998; January 9, 2000; January 19, 2000; September 23, 2001; October 1, 2001.
Melody Maker, June 5, 1999.
Rolling Stone, March 30, 2000; September 27, 2001.
Time, November 12, 2001.
USA Today, October 4, 2001.
Village Voice, October 16, 2001.
System of a Down Official Website, http://www.systemofadown.com (January 7, 2001).
System of a Down
System of a Down
Members include John Dolmayan (born July 15, 1973, in Lebanon), drums; Daron Malakian (born July 18, 1975, in Hollywood, CA; son of artists), singer, guitar; Shavo Odadjian (born April 22, 1974, in Yerevan, Armenia), bass; Serj Tankian (born August 21, 1967, in Beirut, Lebanon), keyboards, singer.
Addresses: Record company—Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10022. Website—http://www.systemofadown.com.
Group formed in Los Angeles, CA, 1994; played at clubs such as the Roxy and the Troubador, mid-1990s; signed with American Recordings, released debut album, System of a Down, 1998; released Toxicity, 2001; released Steal This Album, 2002; released Mezmerize, 2005; released Hypnotize, 2005.
Awards: Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, for "B.Y.O.B.," 2006.
Armenian-American rockers System of a Down have sold ten million records since their 1998 self-titled debut. With a style best characterized as metal-meets-Middle-Eastern-melodies, the California-based quartet has opened up a new door inside what had been a tradition-bound, often formulaic genre of arena rock. Yet perhaps even more groundbreaking is the band's outspokenness, particularly regarding Armenian history and American foreign policy. "System of a Down's music expresses a social and political awareness rare in heavy metal," noted Adam Sweeting of London's Guardian newspaper, "railing against corporate enslavement, media propaganda andpornographic TV and the death of American democracy."
All four members of System of a Down are of Armenian heritage. Daron Malakian, the band's guitarist and chief songwriter, is the only one who was born in the United States. His parents emigrated from Iraq—where small communities of settlers from nearby Armenia live—in 1974, the year before he was born. Both parents were sculptors, and Malakian grew up in Hollywood, California. He attended a private school in the Los Angeles area for Armenian-American youth, as did System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian, who came to the United States from Armenia with his family when he was five. Both Serj Tankian, singer and keyboard player, and John Dolmayan, the band's drummer, were born in Lebanon to Armenian families, and came to California as children as well.
Tankian also attended the Armenian-American school, but was born in 1967, making him the oldest member of the band. He had an established career as chief executive officer of a software company well before the band formed. "I didn't start writing music and playing instruments until I went to college," Tankian told Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune. "When I did, I realized I was famished for them. I've been playing like a madman ever since."
Malakian, by contrast, was determined to become a musician before he entered kindergarten. Blessed with a musical talent that gave him the ability to play nearly any instrument just by picking it up, he was an ardent metalhead in his teens. Around the time he finished high school, however, he suddenly discovered the music of the Beatles. "The Beatles changed my life as much as Slayer did," he admitted to Lisa Sharken in a Guitar Player interview. "Listening to the Beatles helped me do things like create a chorus by combining a waltz beat with a metal riff, because they weren't afraid to combine styles or mix heavy music with softer stuff."
Malakian and Tankian first joined forces in a band called Soil, and Odadjian served as Soil's manager. They coalesced as System of a Down around 1994, taking their name from a poem written by Malakian, who became the band's primary songwriter. "I was trying to write the songs that I couldn't buy at the store," he said in the Guardian interview. "I was trying to write the music for the band I wanted to be a fan of."
System of a Down began by playing the southern California rock-club circuit, and attracted a strong following. They graduated to such venues as Roxy, the Whiskey, and the Troubadour, all of which are known as Los Angeles-area hot spots for music-industry executives searching for new talent. But they were often told their act was simply too distinctive, as Malakian told the Chicago Tribune's Kot. "We weren't white, black, or Latino. We didn't belong in any category they could market to."
Their luck changed when a show at the Viper Room, the infamous club owned by Johnny Depp where the actor River Phoenix died, was seen by legendary music producer Rick Rubin. Rubin had once been the business partner of Russell Simmons, and their Def Jam American label had launched the careers of Run D.M.C., Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys. Rubin signed Malakian and his bandmates to his label, American Recordings, which was affiliated with Columbia Records, and offered to produce their first studio effort.
System of a Down was released in 1998, and sold an impressive 750,000 copies. Its breakout single, "Sugar," received immense radio airplay, but the final track, "P.L.U.C.K.," was one of the band's first published diatribes on political hypocrisy. All of the band members had relatives who were affected by the Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 and 1923, when the Turkish-controlled Ottoman Empire acted upon some long-standing hostilities between the Armenian and Turkish peoples. As a result of mass deportations and systematic bloodshed, as many as two million Armenians died during the period, but the genocide was never formally acknowledged by the international community. In the intervening decades, Armenians have sought recognition and apology for the massacre.
"P.L.U.C.K." addressed the Armenian tragedy in frank terms, with lyrics that railed, "A whole race Genocide/Taken away all of our pride/A whole race Genocide/Taken away." Even in the modern era, most Western nations have avoided commenting on the matter, fearing that it might damage relations with Turkey, a crucial ally at the border between Europe and the Middle East. As Tankian told the Guardian's Sweeting, "It was a true genocide whose lessons should have been learned, and all our grandparents and elders are survivors of it. Hitler got pointers from it, because he saw that nobody was doing anything about it."
Following the release of their debut album, the band toured heavily over the next few years, including stints on the annual summer metal showcase known as Ozzfest. They also opened for Limp Bizkit, and were regularly grouped with that act and other practitioners of what came to be known as "nu metal," such as Korn and Linkin Park. System of a Down's politically motivated lyrics, however, shared more with another California outfit, rapcore pioneers Rage Against the Machine, and the band sought to stay true to their own vision of what they hoped to be, both for themselves and for their fans. They viewed their musical style as an amalgam of influences, from punk to rap, and as Malakian told another Guitar Player writer Jude Gold, "It's funny when people say our stuff sounds Armenian—and we are Armenian—but a lot of my parts are influenced by the melodic, Arabic-styled solos of [Iron Maiden guitarists] Dave Murray and Adrian Smith."
Rubin worked with them once again on their second effort, Toxicity, which was released on September 4, 2001. It debuted in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart, giving the band the dubious honor of being the best-selling record in the United States the same week that the country suffered its first-ever major attack on its own soil. The strong political content in some of Toxicity's songs invited misinterpretation in the heated weeks following 9/11, however. There was a line in "Chop Suey" about "self-righteous suicide," which prompted bizarre rumors on music Internet sites and chat rooms in which conspiracy theorists wondered if System of a Down's members had some knowledge beforehand of the attack. Their Armenian heritage, sometimes confused with Arabic, also led to uninformed chatter that the band was being investigated by U.S. government agencies. Adding to the furor, a dejected Tankian wrote an essay immediately following 9/11 with the title "Understanding Oil," that floated around the Web and incited a flood of hate mail to the band from fans who accused them of being anti-American. In some markets, radio station managers even banned their songs from airplay.
With characteristic determination, System of a Down went on the road once again to support Toxicity, nervily calling their tour the "Pledge of Allegiance" campaign. The record eventually sold six million copies, and served to keep them somewhat distant from others in the nu-metal genre. Their next release was not a standard studio effort, but instead a collection of tracks the band and Rubin had rejected for Toxicity. When unfinished studio versions began showing up on System of a Down fan sites on the Internet, the band decided to release them anyway. The result was 2002's Steal This Album, its title a nod to the illegal file-sharing of music that was intensely debated at the time. Entertainment Weekly's Evan Serpick gave it a mixed review, noting that "No matter how hard the label tries to repackage them as 'alternate tracks,' though, the fact remains: If they were that good, they would've made the original cut."
System of a Down spent much of 2004 working on a new record, a process that again yielded so many songs that they decided to release a double album, albeit one with two halves spaced six months apart. It was a somewhat unusual move, but as Malakian told Gavin Martin in London's Times newspaper, "if we were living in the 1960s, when people were on acid and could listen to a double album ten times in a row, they'd be released together. But we just don't have that attention span in the world of iPods."
The first installment, Mezmerize, was issued in May of 2005. Again, the band did not hesitate including political messages in their music, most notably on "B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bomb)," which posed the questions, "Why don't presidents fight the war?/Why do they always send the poor?" The song earned the band its first Grammy Award, for Best Hard Rock Performance, in 2006. The cover art for Mezmerize was done by Malakian's father, but the lyrics criticizing the U.S. war in Iraq since 2003 had an even deeper personal resonance: some of the family's relatives still live in Iraq.
The other half of the double album, Hypnotize, was released in November of 2005, and carried on the politically critical message. Its opening track, "Attack," featured the lyrics, "Bombs illustrate what we already know/Candles cry towards the sky/ Racing your flags along polluted coast/Dreaming of the day that/We attack." Though the band's songs were notably critical of geopolitical events of recent years, Malakian told Chris Riemenschneider of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, they didn't plan on naming names. "I don't believe in complaining about George Bush," he explained. "That's like getting hurt on a ride at Disneyland and complaining to Mickey Mouse about it. There are people behind the mouse."
Both 2005 releases marked a slight shift in the System of a Down line-up, with Malakian taking over lead-vocal duties on some songs from Tankian. The main songwriting duties were still shouldered by Malakian, but he relied heavily on input from others. Tankian, in particular, provided a more introspective voice, and the former software executive has published collections of his mystical poetry. He also collaborates with Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist, on a nonprofit foundation they formed called Axis of Justice, which also has a website that promotes social-justice issues. The Axis group also produces a monthly radio show heard on terrestrial radio in the Los Angeles area and nationwide by subscribers of the XM satellite-radio service.
System of a Down announced they would join the 2006 Ozzfest, and in some dates where organizer Ozzy Osbourne was not scheduled to play due to health issues, they were slated to appear as the headlining act. They also said, however, that after that tour they planned to take a hiatus to pursue some individual projects. "There's no rule that says you have to make records constantly, like clockwork, to continue being who you are," Malakian told MTV's Chris Harris. "We want to live our lives, [because being in a band] really consumes a big part of your life, and sometimes you just want to stop and slow down. We started being just these guys in a band, and the next thing you know, everyone's asking for autographs. It plays with your head."
System of a Down, Columbia/American, 1998.
Toxicity, Columbia/American, 2001.
Steal This Album, Columbia/American, 2002.
Mezmerize, Columbia/American, 2005.
Hypnotize, Columbia/American, 2005.
Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2005.
Entertainment Weekly, November 29, 2002, p. 105.
Guardian (London, England), May 27, 2005, p. 7.
Guitar Player, July 2000, p. 41; January 2002, p. 86.
Rolling Stone, December 1, 2005, p. 117.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), September 23, 2005, p. 3E.
Time, November 12, 2001, p. 96.
Times (London, England), May 7, 2005, p. 18.
"System Of A Down Aren't Breaking Up—They're Going On Hiatus," MTV .com, http://www.mtv. com/news/articles/1530066/20060503/system_ of_a_down.jhtml?headline s=true (May 18, 2006).
System of a Down
SYSTEM OF A DOWN
Members: John Dolmayan, drums (born Lebanon, 15 July 1974); Daron Malakian, guitar, vocals (born Glendale, California, 18 June 1975); Shavarsh "Shavo" Odadjian, bass (born Armenia, 22 April 1974); Serj Tankian, vocals (born Lebanon, November 1970).
Genre: Rock, Nu Metal
Best-selling album since 1990: Toxicity (2001)
Hit songs since 1990: "Chop Suey"
The Los Angeles-based hard rock band System of a Down began its ascent in the late 1990s when it appeared on festival stages with other popular nu-metal bands such as the Deftones, Korn, Slayer, and Slipnot. Although it shared a reverence for early metal originators like Black Sabbath, the band did not fit neatly into a specific category. The group's breakthrough album, Toxicity (2001), was praised for its originality. Instead of the screaming vocals, gothic doom, and dense sheets of guitars typical of mainstream metal, the album blended in Armenian folk music, unusual rhythms, and confrontational lyrics that explored spiritual and political themes. The band actively supported social justice and politically progressive causes. Because three of the four members are of Armenian descent, they became particularly vocal about shedding light on the genocide of their ancestors during World War I.
Vocalist Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, and bassist Shavo Odadjian met while attending an Armenian-run high school in Hollywood. They began playing under the name Soil in 1993. Two years later they invited drummer John Dolmayan into the group, switched their name to System of a Down, and were soon building a buzz in the progressive heavy metal scene in southern California. At the time, metal bands were replacing their lead singers with rappers and adopting the culture of hip-hop. Hip-hop dominated the 1990s commercially with its anti-establishment stance that appealed to metal bands looking for streetwise credibility.
In the rap-rock explosion System of a Down was viewed as a band that succeeded in weaving rap into its music. Label mogul Rick Rubin, who produced both rap and metal artists like Public Enemy and Slayer, discovered the band. He signed them to his boutique label American, a subsidiary of Columbia Records, and produced the band's self-titled debut in 1998. Immediately, the band was launched on several high-profile summer festival tours like OzzFest, Family Values, and Summer Sanitarium.
But the band did not make its major breakthrough until 2001 with its second album, Toxicity, which debuted in the number one spot on the Billboard charts the week of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Co-produced by Rubin, it separated the band from its more formulaic rap-rock
peers. The band incorporated pop melodies, jazz, Middle Eastern rhythms, tempo changes, whiplash rock riffs, and thought-provoking lyrics about war, prison overcrowding, spirituality, and totalitarianism. The song "Chop Suey" became an MTV hit and the band ended up headlining festivals including OzzFest. Steal This Album!, a collection of b-sides, followed the next year.
System of a Down used its newfound popularity to promote political causes. Tankian and Tom Morello, the guitarist for the political rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine, established axisofjustice.com, a website designed as a clearinghouse for social justice organizations. The group also became vocal proponents for recognizing the 1.5 million Armenians who were murdered or deported by Turkey during World War I. They supported a House Resolution in Congress sponsored by the Armenian National Committee of America that would have forced Turkey to accept official responsibility, which it has historically denied. "P.L.U.C.K. (Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers)," a song from the band's first album that addresses the genocide, became a major staple in the band's live shows.
System of a Down (American/Columbia, 1998); Toxicity (American/Columbia, 2001); Steal This Album! (American/Columbia, 2002).