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Metal Edge, December 1999

It’s a rare occasion these days when a brand new band, virtually unheard of outside their hometown and not having the benefit of radio or MTV airplay, can burst onto the scene and make an immediate impression. System of a Down is one of those bands, and what’s even more remarkable is that the band, while heavy as hell, does not fit neatly into the trends in heavy metal dictated by popular acts like Limp Bizkit, Korn and Kid Rock. Instead, System’s varied influences – including metal, punk, hip-hop, Eastern European music, avant-garde jazz – have been stirred and shaken into a thoroughly original brew that defies easy explanation and resulted in one of last year’s best debut albums.

It was 1993 when Los Angeles musicians Serj Tankian (vocals) and Daron Malakian (guitar) first met. Their respective bands were rehearsing in the same room and formed a new unit called Soil. Shavo Odadjian was originally asked to manage the budding band, but by 1995 he was playing bass. After several more personnel shifts, Soil was reborn as System of a Down, adding John Dolmayan on drums.

Creating a buzz on the L.A. music scene with their unique, unpredictable sound and manic performances, System was pursued by labels including Universal, Roadrunner and American, eventually signing with the latter in late 1997. Sine the release of their self-titled debut in June of 1998, System has done two Ozzfests, plus tours with Slayer, Fear Factory, and many other bands, developing a devoted following and selling a steady amount of albums without mainstream airplay.

The quartet was drawn together by their common music influence and ancestry: All four are of Armenian descent which figures into their personal chemistry and lyrical message (a recurring theme is the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turkish government in 1915). But their music and lyrics go beyond their heritage. Just as, say, Ted Nugent is an articulate and opinionated speaker who leans toward the right politically, System’s Serj Tankian – as evident in the following interview – is equally passionate about his sometimes radically progressive views, as the band may be the most politically minded in their genre since Rage Against the Machine. But songs like “War?” and “P.L.U.C.K.” are musically explosive even if you don’t subscribe to their views, which made System one of the highlights of this past summer’s Ozzfest.

It says a lot about System of a Down that you have been invited to appear in Ozzfest two years in a row, not to mention that promotion to the main stage this summer. What has been the difference between the two?

Serj Tankian: We’re very lucky that Sharon [Osbourne, Ozzy’s wife/manager] had enough faith in us to give us that spot, and we’ve felt privileged to play with bands like layer, Deftones, Black Sabbath, Primus, Zombie, so it’s been really, really cool. There’s mainly just a lot more exposure on the main stage, a lot more people watching, whereas on the second stage, there’s a couple of thousand, max. But you lose something on the main stage too, which is that direct audience interaction, because on the second stage, all the kids are right up front. On the main stage, you have all these rows of seats. It’s a different vibe, but it’s pretty cool.

It is more of a challenge to reach those fans when you’re on the main stage?

Tankian: In some ways, yes, because you’re not directly in their faces. It has less to do with visuals and more with audio. But we’ve had a blast either way.

Your album came out in June of 1998, and you’re still out on the road promoting it. Do you ever look back and wonder where the last year or so has gone?

Tankian: No, because I remember exactly where we’ve been all year. We’ve pretty much crossed the world except for the Middle East, Southeast Asia and South America.

How does it feel to be traveling so much and away from any kind of permanent home for so long?

Tankian: There’s pros and cons. The bad part is you miss being home with your loved ones, and you miss solitude, which you don’t have much of on the road. So you try to create that. But it does have some emancipating qualities, because you’re not always in your home and your natural habitat, so it gives you a chance to really be out there in a way, and experience life and your own limits and weaknesses, So it’s a growth experience in some ways.

What have been the high points so far, for you?

Tankian: One of them was definitely Ozzfest last year [‘98]. The day when Ozzfest and the Warped Tour combined last summer was just amazing. The Dynamo festival and some shows we did in Europe over this past summer were really, really amazing as well. And I’ve had more of a blast on Ozzfest this year than ever. I’ve met some incredible people, and have some incredible stories. There’s many of them. Chi and Chino from Deftones, Tom Araya from Slayer, some of the guys from hed(pe) – they’ve become incredible friends who I think will be with me my whole life. It’s really cool, because here you are on the road, everyone’s away from their families and whatnot, and to be able to feel at home, and be comfortable, and have a good time – that’s important, or else it would be hard to do what we do.

Are you pleased with the reception that the album has gotten, from the public and the media?

Tankian: Absolutely. We’ve had an incredible response from the media and from fans. We just started a radio campaign recently, and we’ve done a video, but we haven’t really aired it much. So we haven’t really hit on any mass media at all, but we’ve continually done well. The fans are really, really hardcore fans. It’s really cool. We played the main stage at Ozzfest and a lot of people knew us already. To be able to do that in a year, with a new band? I think that’s incredible.

It is incredible, because we’re in a music industry climate where artists have to be really successful really quickly, but it seems like you guys have really been given the time to stay out there and develop an audience.

Tankian: Yeah, we are. We’re gonna keep working this record and we’ll see how it goes. We’re happy with the results, and the label seems to be happy as well, so that’s important. We knew this was the route we were gonna take. We’re not a commercial band, we knew we were gonna build it all through touring, and we’re lucky enough to have people behind us who knew it was gonna take a while, and that this was the right way of doing it.

System of a Down has been put in the same niche as a lot of other new bands on the American heavy rock scene – Korn, Limp Bizkit, Deftones, Coal Chamber, etc. Do you feel comfortable being categorized that way?

Tankian: It’s a natural tendency for people to want to categorize. They train us that way in school, to put things into categories so that our minds can identify them. We’re used to working with our minds rather than our hearts. Sometimes it bothers me, but generally I’m okay with it. We are metal in a way – although we can change and be non-metal if we want to be, depending on the song – but generally we’re a pretty heavy band, so I don’t mind that definition. There are differences between every one of those bands, but people need to categorize and I’m used to it by now.

What do you think you share with those bands? For instance, a lot of them are influenced by hip-hop, whereas I see less of that in your sound.

Tankian: Hip-hop is just an influence like any other one, like metal or punk or goth. We try not to bring our influences in a way that sound like influences themselves, rather than letting them mesh and filter through us artistically and come out with something that is a little bit of everything. A lot of those bands do concentrate more on hip-hop, I’ve seen that as well, but each to themselves. I respect Korn and a lot of other bands for what they’ve done and achieved in their realm. We’re doing our own thing. The next album will be somewhat the same, but a little different as well. I’m sure we’ll bring in some other influences. I don’t think we really sound like anybody else, so I can’t really say anything as far as comparisons. We just do what we like to do.

You’re probably the most politically oriented heavy band to come along since Rage Against the Machine. Do you get the sense that your lyrical message is reaching fans? Do you get feedback from them about it?

Tankian: Yes, I do. And I’m not the type of person where I expect – you know, we’ve been playing in front of five to ten thousand people a day, I think, and I don’t expect even half the crowd to really understand what I’m saying and somehow be changed by it. I’d be happy if one person every day was changed. That’s an effect right there, I do this every day, so over the long haul, that’s a lot of people. And I do have a feeling that it’s more than one person a day. I get kids that come up to me and say, “I’ve done my school report on the Armenian genocide” – and it’s someone from Virginia, let’s say, or from somewhere where you would never heard of the Armenian genocide. So someone has gone and researched it and done a report on it. People are affected by what we’re saying, so it’s good. I’ve had arguments with certain people – Reaganites and stuff like that – in front of kids at signing booths and things, because I say my piece and believe in what I say, and if other people don’t like it and say so, then I’ll argue with them about it, with respect to their attitudes.

So there are people who are definitely listening, and kids are more impressionable and hearing the message. My message is overwhelmingly of peace. I want to stop wars, and I want things to be like they were when humanity was formed, in its original ritualistic style. But I know that it’s gonna get that way, so the least we can do is bring a positive attitude into our lives and try to enjoy what we have here.

It’s interesting that you will debate with someone yet remain respectful of their views, because it seems like that idea of respect for others’ beliefs has been lost to a certain extent.

Tankian: Oh yeah. At one of our shows in D.C., this 40-something guy came up to me and said something like “How dare you disrespect the American people and the American flag,” and this and that. This was at a signing booth, there’s hundreds of kids there, and he was literally yelling at me across the table. So I said “I’m not disrespecting the American people or the American flag, I’m disrespecting the government and the military-industrial complex that’s making you do things you don’t really want to do.” And he’s like, “Well, that’s the people that save your ass and allow you to be here and do this and that.” And I’m like “Really? Who’s attacked us lately? We’re the ones bombing people everywhere else.” So, next thing, he gets in my face and he’s yelling at me, standing up. And I didn’t stand up. Not that I was afraid – I wasn’t – but I didn’t need to. I didn’t need to show him my machismo. Instead, I said to him “If you’re a real man, why don’t you come sit next to me like a real man. Here’s a chair. I’ll offer it to you. Why don’t you talk to me, face to face, if you really have something to say?” He agreed, and came sat next to me, and we talked for an hour and a half. By the end, he said he was gonna come see us again and wanted backstage passes [laughs]! He still didn’t agree with what we were saying, but he thought we were a good band! We’re all here, and we all have things that we believe in because of our own lives and past experiences, and I’m not gonna really change that guy’s mind about what he believes in. But I gave him my point of view without trying to disrespect him.

What are your views on our most recent excursion, into Kosovo?

Tankian: I think that it was a mistake, from day one, for NATO to do what they did, the way they did it. I’m not saying Milosevic was not perpetrating a genocide, of course. But what I’m saying is neither America, nor Britain, nor anyone else lent the Kosovar people any hand until 1995, when they started taking up arms, encouraged by the CIA. Here’s my problem: I have no problem going into the world against dictators. But if we go and save one type of people from one dictator, because we’re gonna profit from it, and not save another people from another dictator because there’s no profit in it, I have a problem with that. My problem is with the purpose, the intent – just like a crime. What is the intent? The intent wasn’t to save the Albanians in this case. That’s a blatant lie. We allowed and helped and supported the Croatians, during the Serbo-Croatian War, to kill about 600,000 Serbs. We let them do that in front of our eyes. We didn’t stop them. And when Milosevic started doing it to the Kosovar Albanians, which is wrong too, we interfered. We’re picking our enemies based on our own political and business strategies. When Russia went into Afghanistan years ago, during Communist rule, we called that imperialism by Russia. But when we go into Nicaragua, it’s protecting our borders. When we go into Vietnam, it’s fighting Communism. Let’s call it what it really is. But they can’t, because if you tell your average American, “We are going into the Middle East because of oil, so that Exxon can make more money,” the average American is gonna say, “I’m not sending my son. Fuck you.” So they have to lie to you.

So you feel we pick our human rights “campaigns” selectively, for reasons dictated by business concerns…

Tankian: Yes. What have they done for Tibet? I mean, China is definitely one of the biggest adversaries, militarily. But since we’re doing business with them, we’re not even making a big deal out of them stealing our trade secrets. We bombed their embassy accidentally, you know? And nothing’s happening, because we’re doing business with them and money’s being made, who cares about Tibet? It’s all based on what our corporations want the government to do, not what the people want the government to do.

I was reading an article about emergency rooms. Recently, doctors aren’t coming into emergency rooms as much , and people are dying because they’re not getting the help they need and they have to try to get to another hospital, and die before they get there. Supposedly, there’s a federal statute that says emergency rooms should cover everything, no matter what. If the insurance doesn’t pay for it, the government is supposed to. But the government has not been kicking any real money into it, and doctors don’t want to do it. So here we are in a country that’s pretty much ruling the world, but if you run to an emergency room, you’re not even sure if you’re gonna survive, insurance or no insurance. That’s pretty sad. We have 1,800 children dying an hour from malnutrition and starvation, and we spend $270 million an hour on defense. That doesn’t make sense to me.

If you weren’t in a bad, what would you be doing? Do you think you’d work to get this type of information to people?

Tankian: Right now, If I wasn’t in a band, I’d still be writing music, because I love writing and recording music at home. I’d also be writing words and reading, as I always do. So if the music doesn’t take off, or if I wasn’t in a band, maybe I’d publish a book. If that didn’t work, then I’d try music again. But I wouldn’t want to go back to a nine-to-five in any way. I had my own business before this, too, and I wouldn’t want to do that either. I wouldn’t even want to run my own business in the entertainment industry, cause it’s bad enough having business in the artistic realm anyway, let alone to have it just be business.

What was your business?

Tankian: I had a software company that catered to the jewelry industry. I sold it.

Was it a hard decision to sell?

Tankian: It was very hard because it was very successful. I was making a lot more money than I make now, doing it out of my home, I had complete control, and it was growing as well. I could have owned my own house and whatever by this time. But I knew it wouldn’t make me happy because creating makes me happy. Writing music and words, and spreading my words around makes me happy. I knew that the other business was only temporary, and I think I got out of it just in time.

Where is the band headed next?

Tankian: We’ve had some time off after Ozzfest, and most likely we will start our own headlining tour in September. But that’s not set in stone because there are other options coming up.

Are you thinking about the next record yet, or writing any songs?

Tankian: We are. When we’re off, we’ll go into a studio and write some new songs, so it’s not like we’ve stopped the creative process. But a lot of touring kind of slows down the creative process for us, because no matter how much you want to write on the road, you have more time in the comfort of your own home to get into your essence and be able to create. Some bands are different; some bands create more when they’re on tour, and when they’re home, they don’t have the same work ethic. But when we’re home, we sit down and we write music.

System of a Down has a very serious image and message, so tell us something funny about the band that no one has heard before.

Tankian: [laughs] Well, in some ways, it is serious, but in other ways, it’s a very quirky band. I mean, what we do as far as stage theatrics and makeup and clothing and some of the songs that we have is really quirky. That comes from our sense of humor and the fact that if you can’t laugh at yourself as well as everyone around you, and if you can’t have fun doing what you’re doing, then it’s not worth doing, no matter what. We really enjoy having a good time and getting up there and being quirky.

I’ll tell you a funny story: We had this show last year in East Germany and the crowd was so silent. We played our first songs and there was no response – you could hear a pin drop. I had my best show ever at that show. We played the song again. The first thing I said was, “Since you really enjoyed that song, we’re gonna play it again for you.” So we started playing it again just to get on their nerves. I realized I was enjoying myself, so I became a clown onstage that day. I didn’t talk politics or anything, just jumped around making faces and being completely goofball. I just had a fucking blast. If you can’t laugh at life and what’s going on, while knowing the truth nonetheless and being straight about the truth, forget about it. Fugeddaboudit!