Malakian, singer Serj Tankian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan, bonded quickly as friends but also shared Armenian ancestry and mutual disdain for perceived limitations. Their disparate tastes Jaco Pastorious, Slayer, The Beatles, Faith No More, traditional Armenian folk music assured from the onset that this would be a band less ordinary: System Of A Down.
In the Los Angeles musical netherworld of 1993, two bands found themselves rehearsing at the same studio. Daron played in one, Serj in the other. Soon, the kindred musical spirits joined forces in a musical entity called Soil. Their then-bass player knew Shavo, who'd been playing both guitar and bass. "I'd had been in bands," recalls Shavo, "but I really liked their band, so I'd hang out with them, and got to know each member pretty well. I knew of Serj and Daron because I went to a private Armenian school in Hollywood where you at least 'know of' everyone in the school." Eight or nine songs later, Soil got a gig.... and they asked Shavo to manage the band. "I was amped to do it 'cause I liked them so much, and them inside, as people, too," he recalls. Soon, though, member shifts resulted in Shavo joining on bass.
By 1995, it was a new beginning: System Of A Down was born, with new songs, a hardcore work ethic that matched their hard 'n' heavy sound, and finally, a new permanent drummer in John Dolmayan.
"We had a show at the Viper Room [in Hollywood] and Guy Oseary [from Maverick Records] brought his friend, [producer/American Recordings head] Rick Rubin. "I saw him from the stage," says Shavo, "and he seemed pretty much into it. Later, he told us he was blown away, which blew US away, being '80s kids who loved all the rap stuff he came out with. My 'License To Ill' record from the Beastie Boys....I wore it out... and Public Enemy... everything Rick's done is really incredible." System Of A Down signed to American Recordings in September 1997. Their first two major tours are also coups: SOAD hits the road with labelmates Slayer before embarking on the Ozzfest tour in the summer of '98.
A lucky 13 songs populate System Of A Down's self-titled debut, produced by Rick Rubin, engineered by Sylvia Massey (Tool) and mixed by Barkmarket vocalist/mixer Dave Sardi. Befitting the band's singularity, the recording process was as experimental and varied as the group's music. Tracking at the famous Sound City studios in late 1997, Serj then did his vocals at Rubin's home. "We set up a tent in the middle of his recording room, with nice antique stuff lying around. Sylvia Massey was a big part of the vibe, she brought in colored oil lamps, crazy stuff. It was an adventure." While Rubin was a hands-on producer, the songs remained as the band wrote them, with some minor arrangement changes: "Rubin likes us for who we are, and that's why we work well together." While the System sound is often complex and multi-textured, it's completely reproducible live. On System Of A Down, Rubin personally played a bit of piano and added a few samples and to the mix. "But," the band members explain, "we didn't want to burden the album. We wanted it to be live-sounding, but with touches to make it full and complete-sounding." The bottom line? "Although we worked with a great number of upper-echelon people, we had the once-in-a-lifetime chance for a heavy band to do exactly what the fuck we wanted to on our own album. We're very happy and proud of that."
The most-asked question.: where is the band's name coming from? "It came from a poem our guitarist, Daron, had written, called 'Victims of a Down,'" explains Serj. "He brought it to us, and 'System' was chosen as a better, stronger word, and it makes it into a 'whole,' instead of the people in particular, it's the society." Ultimately, Serj advises people to "Take your own meaning out of our name. It means different things to different people. That's the beauty of it. It's like putting art up on a wall, and going, 'what do you think of it?' It's many different things, on a personal, a political level. We leave it open to interpretation."
I think we're ahead of the game, says guitarist/songwriter Daron Malakian. I just feel like this band will be more respected ten years from now when people finally figure out what were really doing.
Tankian says, Humans have been on the earth for millions of years, yet we dont believe man began thinking until he started building walls. And what good have these walls ever done us?
Systems 1998 self-titled debut, produced by bearded board whiz Rick Rubin (Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Public Enemy), was an achievement in pastiche overdrive, a dark carnival of moods punctuated by breakneck tempo shifts and progressive structures. That year, radios rung to the visceral fury of Sugar and the spooky tension of Spiders, each a fiery baptism for listeners weaned on predictability and rote rhyme schemes.
Serj favors abstract, existential poetry, peppered with politics and personal religion. He says, No one ultimately knows what theyre saying anyway. Are we really making art? Art doesnt belong to us. It doesnt belong to people, it belongs to the universe. It comes FROM the universe. It comes THROUGH us. When I write something, I think I know what Im saying, but I never pretend to know the full meaning of the words.
The singers quaking wails were the perfect compliment to Darons schizoid noodling, Shavos inventive lines and Johns potent jazz-cum-thrash rumble. Their first salvo found an instant cult and was heralded as a revolutionary diamond in the homogenous crush of Nü Metal
a label that clearly didnt (and still doesnt) fit this foursome.
John says, I dont think we sound like anybody else. I consider us System of a Down.
Shavo says, You can compare us to whoever you want. I dont care. Comparisons and labels have no effect on this band. Fact is fact: We are who we are and they are who they are.
Two years of hard touring followed (OzzFest et al) before the band re-immersed themselves in the studio in late 2000. With Rubin again at the helm, they set about crafting a sprawling blitzkrieg of sounds, one that invited an even wider array of influence and experimentation to the table. Melodies expanded. Riffage went mad. Structure and timing were eviscerated. Deeper lyrical levels were mined and the resulting gems were strewn onto thrashing anthems and careening frenzies of fuzz.
Rubin says, They really set out to reinvent themselves, to be bigger and better than they were last time. I think they're very proud of their first album and all the touring they did. They wanted to grow from those experiences and expand. They really wanted to write lots and lots of songs and reach in all different directions.
In August of 2001, System of a Down emerged with their second album, Toxicity. As critics scoured their thesauri for ample superlatives, radio and MTV heavily rotated the first single, a harmony-drenched slab of whiplash rock called Chop Suey. With the cult of System exploding nationwide, the foursome took to the road where manic throngs of Systemites old and new awaited.
In May of 2002, with the title track from Toxicity in heavy rotation and a third single, Aerials fast gaining steam, System accepted the coveted headlining slot on the annual OzzFest circus. The thinking mans metal troupe aim to give Ozzys mobile headbangathon an intellectual facelift.
Shavo says, Its time for the bands these kids are listening to to deliver something deeper than just lets party.
Now one year after the triumph of Toxicity, System of a Down find themselves in an elite class of rock acts whove managed commercial hugeness with dignity in spades and nary a compromise on their resume. Theyve engendered a sound transcendent of trends or labels, a propulsive hybrid destined to flourish in any radio climate from here to forever. What sonic twists await us only they know, but we can rest assured knowing that their next offering, like those that have proceeded, will be born from a primal need to evade classification and emote loudly.
Daron says, "Everyone who knows me knows my music comes before anything. It comes before me. If someone said, "your music will live forever but you won't wake up tomorrow morning, I'd be like, 'Okay.' That's very fair to me."