"We don't want to be labeled a political band. We don't want to be labeled an Armenian band. We don't want to be labeled any type of band. We're a band that can do anything." So proclaims System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian. Of course, it's hard for the band to not be recognized for its nationality in America, a country where the only real music star of Armenian descent has been Cher. And Sonny's ex has never been very vocal about her heritage, nor has she been part of a genre as often maligned by the world press as heavy metal. "Nothing like this [band] has ever happened before," Odadjian admits.
As Odadjian speaks from a tour stop in Toronto, during the band's recent trek with Limp Bizkit, Method Man, and Redman, it's clear that he's wary of both overemphasizing and underemphasizing the importance of the band's shared culture. "We do have our heritage, and we do have our politics," Odadjian acknowledges. The band has been outspoken on many issues, most notably the need for recognition and reparations for the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in 1915. "But there's many other sides to us. We're four separate people who happen to be in the same band and happen to be Armenian. But if you ask each of us questions, you'll get different answers."
The way the band was formed seems less of a coincidence and more like fate. Nearly five years ago, Odadjian, vocalist Serge Tankian, and guitarist Daron Malakian were all rehearsing with different groups in the same Burbank studio, when they recognized each other as former students of the same private Armenian Christian school -- the Alex Pilybos school in Hollywood. Since their ages ranged from 25 to 31, however, they weren't close pals as children. Nevertheless, due to the small size of the school, they easily remembered each other. "Parents send their kids there so that they won't forget their culture," Odadjian explains. "And I think it did us some good, because I can still speak Armenian, read it, and understand it just as well as I can English."
Soon after that studio meeting, Tankian and Malakian started playing together with another bassist and drummer under the moniker Soil. Odadjian eventually replaced Soil's original bassist. A month later, the group's drummer exited as well. "We didn't know what to do," recalls the bassist. "We changed the whole band. We changed every song, we changed the band's name [to System of a Down], and got a new drummer."
Odadjian also became the band's de facto manager, a role he would hold for two years. The second drummer, who Odadjian declines to name, would leave under less than auspicious circumstances, just as the band was garnering a serious buzz. "His drumming was amazing, but personality-wise, we were having many conflicts," he admits. "He broke his arm right before an important show, and he did it in a selfish way -- he didn't just break it by falling down. John [Dolmayan] said he'd fill in, and he fit in so perfectly that we asked him to join. At first, he was hesitant, because he knew our old drummer and didn't want to step in his way by joining a band that was about to get signed. But John really fit the mold. He was it. And we told him that he had to do this with us."
That was two and a half years ago. The band, including John Dolmayan, would soon become Rick Rubin's first signing under his American Recording pact with Columbia Records. One mistake that you definitely don't want to make when talking to this band is to tell them they sound Middle Eastern. "A lot of music critics think we have this Middle Eastern thing going on," the bassist complains. "But Armenia is not in the Middle East. It's a total mountain country. There are no deserts in Armenia. They see us as Arabs, and that's not even close to where we're located. Armenia is way northeast of Arabia, between Russia and Turkey. It's usually the Armenian beats and little Armenian folk stuff that the critics always mention as being Middle Eastern, because they have no clue as to what Armenian music sounds like."
Actually, if you do understand Armenian music, you'll realize that it's a stretch to say that System of a Down sounds Armenian. They're not likely to fit in with the Armenian pop singers you might find appearing on local public access channels or the traditional combos that play in Armenian restaurants. "Well, it's not like I'll go home and pop in an Armenian CD," chuckles Odadjian. "But it's what my parents listen to, and it's what all of us grew up listening to -- so it just went inside of us. That's the only way that it is an influence. If we're writing songs, and all of a sudden a beat comes in that's Armenian, it wasn't meant to be that way. It just happened. People ask us what our influences are, and I always like to say "Everything.'" In fact, as an occasional DJ at Loz Feliz area underground raves, Odadjian claims to have a fondness for all types of dance and techno music, as well as for hip-hop and Kiss. But he refuses to point to any one sound as being his, or the band's, main inspiration.
And there's a certain delirious quality to the group's heady brew, with hints from all sorts of genres passing through -- from free jazz to Goth to dance, pop, hardcore, and yes, Armenian music. "If you listen to the CD loud and through good speakers," Odadjian explains, "you can hear [producer] Rick Rubin playing piano throughout the whole album. Which is psychotic."
Everything is swirled together at such a dizzying pace, however, that it makes each element hard to distinguish individually. It's thrash music through a funhouse mirror, carnival music for headbangers. Even when the tempo slows, the seams don't show. It's off-balance yet cohesive. Ultimately, the band uses the basic rock setup -- guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. They don't play Armenian folk instruments; they don't even sample them. In fact, although samples are listed in the album's credits, Odadjian claims that, unlike many of the local scene's neo-metal crop, "We don't use samples live. We just use Steven Shaw, the greatest sound guy ever."
Although its debut LP has been out for a year and a half, System of a Down didn't secure anything approaching a radio hit until recently. Like many of today's metal bands, it was building its following slowly -- through relentless touring (including a trek with Ozzfest and an opening slot with Slayer) and word of mouth. After all, radio still seems to be a step behind the heavy-music explosion, playing acts only when they're too big to ignore. And radio finally submitted to System of a Down's "Sugar" single, which was delivered to stations last summer.
"It's got a lot of heavy things in there, and it's got a lot of cuss words, so commercial radio was going to be scared of that," Odadjian recalls. The song -- full of baffling non sequiturs -- has become a hit on alternative radio. Cryptically, Odadjian explains: "Everyone asks us what "Sugar' is about, and I tell them that every little sentence [singer] Serge delivers has a common denominator, even if they sound totally off the wall. And I want the listener to figure it out. I won't say what it is."
Odadjian claims the band is always happy to see Armenian flags raised and people chanting in Armenian at its shows. They realize that, before them, there really wasn't much overlap between the metal and the Armenian communities. Still, they acknowledge, not everyone in their community supports their efforts. "There's always the older conservatives who don't support us," Odadjian admits. "But they can eat my shit, because we've done more for the community than they could ever do. We're touching kids who are going to make a difference in the future. I don't mean to be so rough, but these people that I'm talking about just bring our race down, and they think they're bringing it up!" He continues with a more personal address: "I'd like to say to all the Armenians who may be reading this article: We've gotten the best press from every country in the world. The irony of it is that the worst press we've gotten has been from Armenian magazines. So think about it. Our own people are the ones knocking us more than the rest of the world. So who's right here and who's wrong?"