They're an Armenian band
September 14, 2001
Thoughtful eloquence, a political consciousness, and a boundless, genre-defying musical
curiosity aren't traits associated with many nu-metal bands. But California's System of a
Down is an exceptional group in many ways.
Having built a devoted following for its chaotic art-rock on its self-titled 1998
debut, the group recently released an even stronger sophomore effort, ''Toxicity,'' and it
is co-headlining the Pledge of Allegiance tour that kicks off in Chicago tonight. I spoke
with vocalist Serj Tankian before the start of this jaunt.
Q. Making ''Toxicity'' was an intense process that involved recording
dozens of songs with producer Rick Rubin. How did you decide what made the cut?
A. We had 33 songs that we fully recorded, tracked, and then we mixed a certain
amount for this record. There was actually a lot of consensus as far as everyone kind of
picked the same first seven or eight. After that, obviously there were differences in
opinion, but we just did it by voting. So if I wanted a song and no one else wanted it, I
didn't get my way. But we didn't really argue about it or anything.
Q. On the first album, you built a fan base slowly over a long period of
time via constant touring. Now that the group is established, were you feeling the
pressure of the expectations for this disc? The band is the bright shining hope of the
otherwise dismal nu-metal scene.
A. I try to not care about what people think in my daily life as well as my
business. Period; not for me. I could care less what other people expect. I got into this
industry not to make money or to fulfill people's expectations, but to do art.
Q. Fair enough. But you're touring as part of Kevin Lyman's newest
festival, and he's notorious as the man who brought corporate sponsorship to a miserable
new level with Warped. How does art fit in when you're playing under a corporate banner?
A. The main thing is that there aren't that many tours that are available that
are going out that we were interested in. So they came to us and said, ''How about you
guys do a co-headlining slot with Slipknot?'' Now, I don't know how many corporate logos
are going to be there or what not, and it's not something I even thought about until you
asked, actually. Ads and advertising are something that you cannot control. If you walk
out of your house in any city in the world right now, you're besieged by it. Whether you
like it or not, whether it turns you on or not, whether it actually affects your
consumption habits or not, it's basically forced on you either way.
Q. The problem is that music means something more than advertising, but
the trend toward sponsorship puts it on an equal plane.
A. I don't think so, not necessarily. But of course it matters; everything
matters. It can be distracting to me. During the Sno-Core tour, I remember there was a
banner of some type up--I don't know if it was for condoms or what--but it was right in
front of us and it was distracting me, so I asked them to bring it down and they did. But
you know, that's gonna be there--the corporate infrastructure--until everyone sets up
their own tours and does their own thing.
Q. You've complained that System was often stereotyped or mischaracterized
in articles about the first album. How so?
A. We were a ''political band.'' And then there was the Armenian thing.
Q. But you are Armenian, and you are a political band--the first song on
the new album is a protest against the prison system.
A. Of course it's political. We never said we're not a political
band. We're just saying we aren't just political. U2 is political, but no
one goes and calls them Rage Against the Machine. People need folders, files and cabinets
to classify things so they can represent them to their audiences.
Q. Two of your musical heroes, Frank Zappa and Mr. Bungle, had the same
problem: It's hard to say what a sound is when there's a little bit of everything swirling
around inside it.
A. As far as arrangement and everything, [our music] is pretty much pop. To me,
System of a Down isn't a progressive band. The song structures are very, very
well-arranged, and [guitarist] Daron [Malakian] is an amazing arranger/songwriter. But
it's not a typical pop project, obviously. We definitely pay attention to the music to
make sure that it's not something someone's heard before. We don't like rehashing things,
and I'm happy to be in a pretty creative band.
Q. Do you worry about how your lyrics are perceived? The song ''ATWA''
celebrates the environmental philosophy of Charles Manson. But he also had some more
problematic notions, you know.
A. ''ATWA'' is ''air, trees, water, animals''; it's the name of an environmental
organization that Charles Manson started. To me, when I sing, ''All the world I've seen
before me passing by,'' you could consider it like the earth looking at itself; you could
consider it a man just looking at the earth and everything happening with pollution, and
it could also be Charles Manson looking at the world in that way from an environmental
perspective. From what I understand, the reason that Daron wrote those lyrics has to do
with pointing specifically to the media and saying that this man is generally
mischaracterized because media is a sensational, lustful type of corporation. If you look
at his videos and music, you see that what they put in the news clips on TV are the times
when his eyes are shining and when he's saying something a little crazy--like what an
artist would say. There's definitely a huge point that Daron is making, and it's way
bigger than Charles Manson.
Q. Do you think the average Slipknot fan will understand that, or will
they just hear you saying, ''Charles Manson is cool"?
A. When the Beatles wrote songs, they left a lot of stuff to interpretation. Did
people ''get'' the Beatles' songs? Maybe some did. Maybe some just got the music.
Q. Michael Jackson didn't get it when he sold ''Revolution'' to Nike.
A. I'd never heard that, and that really bums me out. I'm kind of surprised,
because I kind of like Michael Jackson. Anyway, I don't have intentions of teaching. I
don't have intentions of spreading the word of any kind. My only intentions are to put
down in music and on paper what's in my mind--to follow the path that is set out for me by
the universe, as corny as that might sound. I don't really think about whether they're
fully ''getting'' it or not, but I can tell you that some are definitely getting it. And
as a teacher would say, ''If I get one of you guys to understand what I'm talking about,
it's a success.''