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.''