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,
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).
— Carol Brennan