"Our heritage, our politics are really important, but our musical vibe together is the thing. Our live performances speak for themselves." -- System Of A Down
System Of A Down formed "organically", the members' shared diverse musical and personal experiences created an explosive musical sound of such volatile, incendiary ferocity that Rick Rubin elected to sign and produce the group as the first new act on American Recordings under a recent pact with Columbia Records. The intensity of metal, the social commentary of rap and a plethora of influences -- ranging from the band's Armenian heritage to jazz to Middle Eastern melodies to the nightly news -- has made System Of A Down a top draw in their home town of Los Angeles. The band's agenda has always been clear and open: "Our goal has been to stay open to whatever currents guide us through our lives -- musically, thematically, in every way, to be ourselves," explains SOAD's eloquently soft-spoken, but big-voiced, singer Serj Tankian. "Our songs and themes range from political to social to daily angst to love to hate to dope." However, the band emphasizes, "we do music because we love it, and our agenda is not just political. We'd like to touch every sense of our audience: visual, auditory, taste, touch...." "We don't just concentrate on an aggressive emotion, though we have that. Anger becomes more angry when you're quiet at first. That's key to our dynamics," Serj explains. "We have the openness to go anywhere. It goes without saying we're a heavy band, but we can also do a love song."
In other words, in the musical milieu of System Of A Down, all are welcome. "If you're into surprises, being taken for a ride, I think you'll like the music, no matter what type of music you're used to listening to," Serj believes. "We have a lot of people who like our sound who have never been into heavy music. We have cross-genre types of music lovers."
Even before System Of A Down were signed to American Recordings, local, national and international press got in on the ground floor, hearing a new musical revolution in the air.
"This debut will be one of, if not THE most important heavy rock records of the year." -Hits
"The band's songs are fueled with rebellion and protest. And its diverse music which blends metal, rap, hardcore, jazz and Middle-Eastern melodies expresses the need to stir up the great American melting pot and unite against prejudice and injustice." -Tower Pulse
"Their leonine muscularity and machine-like tightness rocks way hard." -Bam
"THE next big agit-politicos." -Kerrang! (England)
"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.
On The Record
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. "Sylvia Massey was a big part of the vibe ""during the recording"", 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. The band explains, "But 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." In total? "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."
Serj is both a college graduate running his own successful business and a muckraking, politically aware musician/visual artist, whose on-stage rants and manic energy captivate crowds. Shavo, an endearing yet aggressive KISS fanatic, did wire transfers at a bank to earn his keep, while Daron, who possesses a quirky, otherworldly stage presence and a fierce playing style, "used to be a brain surgeon," cracks Shavo. Pre-System, John, whose powerful drumming keeps heads banging, once sold comics and Japanese animation. "Not just between us, but within each of us, we listen to varying genres of music," says Serj when explaining the musical contributions of each of the group's members. In the System Of A Down mix, the aggro-metal side comes from the influence of Daron and Shavo, but walk into any System show or listen to any track on System Of A Down and you'll find that Middle Eastern, rap, goth, jazz, and Armenian music are visible and viable musical influences. With the raw rock authority of early Van Halen and the on-the-edge punk power and political and social acumen of the Dead Kennedys, System Of A Down have quickly carved out a niche of their own.
What's the Name mean?
The most-asked question. "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."
Of Historical Significance
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.
What The Words Mean
Much attention is paid to System Of A Down's provocative, insightful lyrics. "P.L.U.C.K.," for instance, stands for "Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers." "It's a revolutionary song having to do with the Armenian Genocide, the injustice," explains Serj, the main lyricist. "Generally, I write words by themselves, and sometimes I'll cut and paste them into a song we're working on." "Soil" is a particularly poignant cut about a friend who committed suicide, while "Darts" allows Serj to espouse some of his rather untraditional beliefs. "To be able to understand our world and our life as it is, you have to have your eyes open to more than one type of philosophy that's being fed to you," he offers. On another tip, "D-Devil" is a mesmerizing merging of four of Serj's poems, dealing with issues as diverse as "cloning and plagiarism and as beautiful as a little bunny rabbit." The raging aggro "War" is another fan favorite, while "CUBert" is about "clichéd people...people who don't care to take an extra step in their lives. It's partially a condemnation and partially a dare to them."
Politics, Heritage And Much Ado About Something
"Politically, there's a lot of things I talk about at our shows.... about mind control, or non-lethal weapons being used by the CIA and the intelligence community in the West," begins Serj. "We're ready to speak about things openly." And yes, many of those "things" revolve around the American-born band members' Armenian heritage. Cher may be the most famous vocalist of Armenian descent thus far, but System note that their heritage is simply one part of the band's entire makeup. "It's as much of an influence as anything else is as far as what we listen to. Sometimes less, depending," Serj says, while Shavo clarifies: "We're using a basic four-piece structure, no authentic Armenian instruments. There are vibes we enter within a song....we don't always know when we're doing it, but it might be very Middle Eastern or Mediterranean." The bottom line? "We play heavy music, and Armenian music generally isn't heavy music. It's dramatic, like our music. The Armenian people had a genocide, just like the Jewish people had the Holocaust. Those who look the other way, such as Turkey, who committed it, that injustice itself has been a driving point of my life," admits Serj. "Because of that, I've been able to look at other injustices in the world. I know that injustice exists and it's always hidden, so it opens your eyes. It's been a motivation factor. Since we do something different musically, people need to name it something. Some say it's Armenian rock. But that's unfair to us. It's a part of who we are, but it's not what we do. If we're playing in another country, I don't think we'd be called 'Armenian rock.'"
Source info from systemofadown.com, american.com, Serj Tankian via e-mail, liner notes, and interviews from the special bonus pack release of the self-titled album.