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The Best of 2 Worlds
System of a Down remade hard rock in its own confounding image but still draws inspiration from the unglamorous streets of Hollywood
~ By STEVE APPLEFORD ~
This is how the beginning ends: right here on the unglamorous streets of east Hollywood, the land of no film stars, at a seedy motel in Little Armenia. The band System of a Down is about to begin passing from one world and into another, and hardly anyone seems to realize what is happening. It’s just business as usual for a rising quartet of rockers known mainly to a young cult of metal fanatics always hungry for more, more, more. The band has returned to the old neighborhood to make a music video for a new tune, “Chop Suey,” a frantic, apocalyptic meditation on drugs and confusion, of jangly acoustic guitars and speed-metal riffs and epic non sequiturs. The September 2001 release date of the group’s sophomore album, Toxicity, is still weeks away, but some tracks are already crowding the Internet. Something is brewing.
And where better to begin than at the Oak Tree Inn? There is history here. In one of these rooms, bassist Shavo Odadjian witnessed his first scene of sexual conquest as an eight-year-old on a skateboard looking through a motel room window. He grew up in this neighborhood, not far from the childhood home of guitarist Daron Malakian, and he still remembers all those mysterious ladies of the night and day standing on the sidewalk beneath the palm trees as young Shavo was driven to school at 7:30 a.m. Who were these strange women in the big heels and short-short skirts? They’re waiting for the bus, Shavo’s mom insisted. They’re going to work.
Then there was that time, years later, when Mötley Crüe was at the strip club across the street making a video, with a crowd of big hair and leather and string bikinis spilling out into the sunlight in 1987. Shavo met his first rock star that day. “There was a Shakey’s Pizza, a hooker motel, and a strip club on my block,” he says. “Isn’t that great? Awesome. The best and worst of everything. And I think I learned more from the worst.”
Now here he is, making his own rock video, a budding rock star himself with a shaved skull and a goatee braided into a rope hanging off the end of his chin. This wasn’t the first time for System of a Down by any means. There was that minor radio/video hit in 1998, “Sugar,” but there are signs that things will be different this time. Anticipation is in the air, and it’s the kind that can’t be manufactured by your typical Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man. Word went out on the band website just days earlier, inviting fans to appear in the video, and hundreds of young men and women traveled from as far away as Illinois and New Mexico, maybe farther, an army of System fans in matching black T-shirts cheering on the band in the Oak Tree courtyard through take after bruising take of “Chop Suey.”
Between shots on day two of the production, band members find ways to kill time. Singer Serj Tankian autographs albums and body parts and meets with the accountant. Others retire to a rented motor home loaded up with McDonald’s cuisine for Malakian. Comfort food, the same thing he ate every day on the road in Europe, shying away from that weird foreign grub the locals like. McDonald’s burgers and fries and shakes. The same stuff he had for breakfast, the same crap he’s eating now.
That may explain a lot. Malakian is the complex central nervous system of System of a Down, an anxious, brilliant, obsessive sound scientist. Before this, he was in a band with Tankian called Soil, a project that reflected their shared interest in early progressive rock, anything from Frank Zappa to Yes, plus a certain weakness for speedy Slayer-style death-metal riffs. But talk to them now, and they will speak much less of metal and more about the Beatles. The hard stuff is a given. Soil ended, and System was born out of Malakian’s desire to fit his wildest dreams of noise and melody, rage and hilarity, the whole confounding landscape of sound, into pop tunes never more than a few minutes in length. The result is something like a mad, hard-rock version of what Brian Wilson used to call a “pocket symphony,” an entire universe of pure, epic sound and beauty in a small, perfect package. Toxicity expands on this ideal, and will serve as a band foundation for everything to come.
But no one can see this yet, not in 2001: that, amid the band’s urban racket and crazed visions of rage and politics and joy and excitement, System will redefine what hard rock can be. Loud, delicate, serious, hilarious. In a few weeks, Toxicity will debut at the top of the pop album charts. They will be on the radio, on the TV. There will be rioting in the streets. Celebrity baseball. A check in the mail.
Just not yet. Malakian reaches for a McBurger. “It hasn’t sold one copy yet,” he says with another nervous laugh, as the others come and go to say their goodbyes for the night. “But I feel so proud of it, I don’t care if it sells any copies. It’s a good piece of work. I’ve got to be behind it before anyone else gets behind it.”
True enough. And one more thing: These guys are going to be huge.
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There is a stack of pizzas waiting for you in the little room. But Mr. Serj Tankian (pronounced Say-rj Tank-ee-an) will have none of this and none of your McDonald’s, either. He is a smiling monk in pinstripes, a dark, beatific presence on a vegetarian diet, and a perfect host alternating from gentle high priest to grinning rock ’n’ roll Groucho. He shares a couch with Malakian, who wears an elegant coat of black reptilian leather. They are an epic pair, just sitting there quietly, rock stars at rest.
The release of Toxicity not only represented a milestone of impossible commercial success, but it also went far in establishing the two System frontmen as possessing as much potential as Page & Plant. Together, they have created an unlikely sound mix of musical sophistication colliding with jagged bursts of electricity and an intense hurricane of words on politics, war, cocaine casualties, and rough sex.
“I can’t say we don’t get into arguments,” says Malakian. “I get pissed sometimes, he gets pissed sometimes. Giving birth is not the most simple thing to do, so it’s got to be painful sometimes. I’ve had a few episodes, but at the end of it now, we’re close to done. As long as it’s great, and me and him are still sitting together, and I don’t hate him and he doesn’t hate me, then everything was right, everything happened for a reason.”
The occasion now is a studio visit in mid-December 2004, somewhere on that slice of earth and oblivion where North Hollywood meets Burbank and not much else. A new batch of songs are being mixed and remixed here, so they’ve come to play a handful of tracks for visitors and to explain their plan to release two albums in 2005, Mezmerize and Hypnotize, each barely 40 minutes long. Malakian is not a fan of lengthy albums, so he’d rather just split up the songs. “Attention spans just aren’t what they use to be,” he says sadly.
It’s soon very clear that System of a Down aims to further expand the boundaries of hard, hard rock with its first new studio project since 2002’s Steal This Album!, blending melody, aggression, restraint, and the usual boundless experimentation across two discs – beginning with Mezmerize, and followed six months later by Hypnotize. The albums were recorded over the summer of 2004 in the monumental Laurel Canyon mansion owned by coproducer Rick Rubin. Malakian says he is anxious to move forward. “Why should we make another Toxicity?” he says. “I crave to grow. I don’t want to stay doing the same thing just because it worked. That is boring.”
He goes on: “We’re all still finding our places in this band to where we’re all comfortable together. It’s like growing pains. As a producer, I’ve been thinking of the sound of this record for like three years, and what kind of amp should I use, and listening to albums and thinking, ‘That’s a great drum tone!’ The Stooges’ Fun House was a reference. … I’m blown away by the way this record sounds.”
That ambition can be heard in the driving, playful, punishing hard rock of “Kill Rock and Roll” and the taunting “Cigaro,” with its wild, slashing flourishes of guitar and Malakian singing crazily: “My cock is bigger that yours/My cock can walk right through the door!” “B.Y.O.B.” delivers a blunt anti-war screed, setting livid, dizzying shouts against tranquil passages that could have been lifted from P-Funk: “Everybody’s going to the party … dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine.” On Hypnotize, System again mixes the political and personal, stretching from Tiananmen Square to Malakian sitting in his car “waiting for my girl” on the title song.
“It was when I was with my ex-girlfriend, and I remember sitting in the alley waiting for her to come out of her house,” Malakian says. “And a lot of thoughts were going through my head, like …”
“Don’t let out too much,” Tankian says quickly, with a laugh.
“Oh, yeah, huh?” Malakian turns to me. “Oh, yeah, it’s not written about anything. It’s a bunch of bullshit!”
The only mystery is which songs will land on the imminent Mezmerize, and which will have to wait until November for Hypnotized. Even Serj wants to know. And Malakian mentions that he wants to put “Hypnotized” first on Mesmerize, and not on Hypnotize.
“Brain fuck!” says Tankian with a laugh. “Great! I love it. You keep your band members guessing, that’s the best thing about it!”
Malakian is also doing more singing here. On the surface, that may seem a strange choice for a band already fronted by one of the most dynamic voices in popular music, but Daron’s frazzled shrieks make for a startling and engaging contrast. “I think we’re doing some freaky shit on this one,” says Tankian, who has always shared some vocal duties with the guitarist. “We both are.”
This is a self-sufficient operation. Daron’s father, Vartan Malakian, did the artwork for both albums. Shavo has directed or codirected most band videos since 2002. And Serj keeps busy with his own label, promoting and producing new acts. He’s also published books of his poetry, and is active as a part of Axis of Justice, a political action group cofounded with Tom Morello, guitarist for Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine.
Daron stays to himself at home, working, writing, playing, recording on the same boombox recorder he’s had for years. He’ll sometimes send his girlfriend away for weeks at a time, just so he can concentrate. She seems to understand. He attends the occasional baseball game or hockey contest, the loudest heckler with the best seats.