System of a Down ready to 'Mezmerize' fans
By Todd Martens
May 6 2005
LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Few acts can trot out a Peter Jennings
newsreel before a concert and have a hard-rock audience of 6,000
erupt in cheers. For fans of System of a Down, however, a pre-show
report on genocide is as fitting as a guitar solo.
It is a Sunday night in late April, and System of a Down is staging
its third hometown concert to benefit human rights and genocide
awareness organizations. The group is about to embark on a world tour,
and the L.A. crowd has gathered not to see the band off or hear a
glimpse of its upcoming material. Instead, the atmosphere at the
Gibson Amphitheater (formerly Universal Amphitheater) is that of a
family reunion, where high schoolers and adults stand and cheer a
heavy metal guitar line -- or an ABC news clip from 1999 -- all in
the name of Armenian heritage.
Fans drape the Armenian flag over the balcony, and the mosh pit near
the front of the stage is a blur of red, blue and orange as fans
brandish flags in the crush. A fan in the back yells "f--- Turkey"
-- a remark directed at the country that perpetrated the Armenian
genocide of 1915 -- and the audience explodes in cheers that rival
anything the band received at Ozzfest in 2002.
"This band didn't start to change the world," guitarist/songwriter
Daron Malakian later says from the stage. "This band didn't start to
change your mind. This band started just to make you ask questions."
BRINGING ITS OWN OPINION
System of a Down's ethnic appeal and political directness are not
the typical qualities of today's megastars, and that says nothing
of the band's music: a metal-laced mesh of off-the-wall rhythms and
whiplash shifts in direction.
The American/Columbia act has sold nearly 6 million albums in the
United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The group's 2001 effort,
"Toxicity," is its most successful so far, scanning 3.5 million copies.
On May 17, System of a Down will release the first half of its most
ambitious project, a double-album that will be issued as two separate
discs nearly six months apart.
The first disc, "Mezmerize," was introduced in March with first
single "B.Y.O.B.," a thrashy, Black Sabbath-inspired anti-war anthem.
The song is highly critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East. ("And
we don't live in a fascist nation," Malakian sings with far from
Loaded with four-letter words, it is not the obvious choice for a
radio cut. Singer/songwriter Serj Tankian says the band chose the
song with hesitation.
"It's such a heavy and aggressive song, and we didn't want a political
song as our first single," he says. "But it's so powerful and so
different from everything else on the radio, we thought we could
get away with it, even though we don't want to be pigeonholed as a
Yet Tankian can't escape politics. As the co-founder of Axis of
Justice, the activist Web site he runs with Audioslave's Tom Morello,
Tankian is the most politically active member of System of a Down.
Mild-mannered and articulate, Tankian chooses his words with the
conscientiousness of a scholar. He shows up for an interview in a
suit, while Malakian slouches next to him in jeans and a T-shirt. In
the words of producer Rick Rubin, Malakian is the "darker, more aggro
character, and Serj is the poet."
"The word 'politics' is a funny thing," Tankian says. "A lot of
people say, 'Hey, I'm not political,' and they don't realize that,
in today's world, economics, politics, class struggle and social
structure, are all tied together. It affects us directly, whether we
like it or not, or whether we want to pay attention to it or not. Our
lives are political, and System of a Down is a band that talks about
politics and has very strong points of view."
System of a Down is also the band Columbia Records Group chairman
Will Botwin describes as the company's "flagship." He says the label
is counting on "Mezmerize," and follow-up "Hypnotize" -- which is
planned for a November release -- to surpass the sales of "Toxicity."
"We sold more than 5.5 million worldwide, and our expectations are
that this upcoming record is going to exceed that," he says. "We look
at what happened last time as a barometer for what our goals need to
be for this record."
Fans first got a taste of "Mezmerize" when the track "Cigaro" was
leaked to the Internet. At the time, the band's representative claimed
the cut got out against the group's will.
But that was not the case.
"It was our choice to put it out," Tankian says. "Everyone made it
sound like it leaked. Marketing efforts get more interesting day
The cut -- in which Malakian turns a reference to the size of male
anatomy into a statement about the egoism of the ruling class -- made
it onto the airwaves. Despite not being officially worked at radio,
"Cigaro" peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
Like all of its previous work, the act recorded the albums with Rubin,
who signed the band to his American Recordings imprint in 1997. If
there is a noticeable difference between "Cigaro" and past System of
a Down songs, it is that the first voice one hears is that of Malakian
and not Tankian.
Tankian is still the group's primary vocalist, and Malakian has always
composed essentially all of the band's music -- coming off as hard
rock's answer to Frank Zappa. Yet "Mezmerize" and "Hypnotize" see
Malakian writing more lyrics than he has before. Malakian even splits
vocal duties more evenly with Tankian and sings lead on a few cuts.
Tankian and Malakian run their own record labels, but Tankian's Axis
of Justice Web site is becoming more visible, and in 2003 he recorded
an album of largely experimental instrumental music with Armenian
musician Arto Tuncboyaciyan. With Malakian taking on a more active
vocal role, one gets the impression that Tankian is taking a step or
two back from band.
"I'm starting to compose music for films," Tankian says, "and I don't
like being committed to one thing, whether it's the singer of a band
or one band in general. System of a Down is part of what I do, but
it's just part of what I do. I don't define it, nor does it define me."
Malakian, however, notes that only those outside of the band's inner
circle will be surprised to hear him sing more. "I've always been
vocally involved with System of a Down, not necessarily as a singer,
but I've written a lot of the melody lines and the vocal patterns.
When I wrote something before, I had Serj in my head, but this time
I had both of us in my head."
In discussing the new albums, Malakian and Tankian always refer to
them as a single project. To the band, "Mezmerize" and "Hypnotize"
are one album released in two parts, with both topping off somewhere
between 35 and 40 minutes.
"You don't have a bunch of kids dropping acid like they used to,"
Malakian says. "You can't just release double albums and expect
people to sit there and devote their time to it. Our songs are tough
to digest, and I would feel really uncomfortable handing someone a
CD with 25 songs staring them in the face."
Rubin agrees, saying he recorded about 35 songs with the band and was
unable to get it down to a number that was manageable. "Everything
in today's culture is short term and disposable," Rubin says. "We're
living in a time when people don't seem to even listen to one full
album, so we felt the only way for it get properly heard was to spoon
The group is in the midst of a 10-city "guerrilla tour" that began
April 25. The band is playing small venues in major markets, with
ticket information and show locations being announced just days before.
It will make its first major national TV appearance May 7, performing
two songs on "Saturday Night Live." System of a Down has generally
stayed away from the late-night talk-show circuit, and the band will
nix anything too commercial.
"We recently received an e-mail from a documentary filmmaker in
Israel," Tankian says. "He wants to use 'Aerials' for making a film
about hats. He saw these Armenian monks listening to and singing
'Aerials' in Jerusalem. He's not paying anything, but I think that's
cool. That's more our cup of tea than a football commercial."
This month the group will head overseas to perform at European
festivals, and then launch an arena tour of North America with the Mars
Volta in late summer. It will be System of a Down's first large-scale
U.S. tour since Ozzfest in 2002.
"We could have put out another record really quick and played on the
fact that 'Toxicity' did really well," Malakian says. "But we were
determined to make another record instead. I want to stay a fan of
System of a Down. We can't become everyone's favorite band."