System of a Down gets bigger stage for its act


September 30, 2005


Cheerfully idiosyncratic in an old-school, Frank Zappa way, System of a Down is an unlikely arena act. Nevertheless, in the decade since the progressive metal quartet formed at an Armenian Christian school in Los Angeles, it has become one of the most popular and outspokenly political groups in rock today.

Vocalist Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan released their eagerly anticipated fourth album, "Mezmerize," in May, after keeping fans waiting for more than four years after 2001's "Toxicity." Now, as the band prepares to release "Hypnotize," the second installment of its double album, on Nov. 22, it is touring with another equally strange and creative act, the Mars Volta.

I spoke with Tankian from his home in L.A. shortly before the start of the tour.



  • 7 tonight
  • Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont
  • Tickets, $32.50-$45
  • (312) 559-1212  
  • Q. I saw one of the club gigs that launched "Mezmerize" at Metro in May. Now you're headlining the Allstate Arena. Did you ever think System of a Down would become an arena band?

    A. It's been 10 years, so we've been working at it step by step. It's not like we had one radio single and went from clubs to arenas. We've been steadily working, and "Hypnotize" is going to be our fifth album. It's a trade-off: You get more people, so the energy of the crowd is amazing. But we're trying to get as much of that club sound as possible.

    Q. What was the thinking in splitting "Hypnotize" and "Mezmerize" into two releases?

    A. Simply put, it is a double record, and the type of music that we have, although it has pop arrangements, it is still progressive and it starts and stops and has tempo changes, so listening to more than 35 or 40 minutes at a time is absolutely exhausting to me. We've always liked short records and not putting too much onto the plate.

    Q. The group has always been outspokenly anti-war and anti-administration, yet you don't preach about your views in concert. Do you think the audience connects with your message?

    A. Music in general is an intuitive form. It can be intellectual, but generally it's a right-brain activity. I always give "B.Y.O.B." ["Bring Your Own Bombs"] as an example: You don't have to be anti-war to appreciate the satire in a song talking about a hypocritical war. It's more intuitive: You get it and you feel it more than you think it. Later on, if there is some thinking, that is fine. If there isn't, that's fine, too.

    Q. People talk about the role music played in stopping the war in Vietnam. Do you think that's still possible today?

    A. Music, again, touches the heart, not the mind. It can affect the mind, but only after it has affected the heart. With Vietnam, there was a whole cultural and social movement that precipitated that, with the media showing clips of what was going on. People were really finding out the truth and realizing, "Hey, this is not something that is part of the American dream." Music became a part of that culture. I don't think music created that resistance to the war; it was a part of it. At best, true art is a good representation of our times, and a truthful correspondence of what is going on doesn't create that change. It may help bring that change to an emotional place in our lives, but it doesn't create that change.

    Q. But you're optimistic that we'll see a change?

    A. I think I'm already seeing a change. It's gradual, but there is a change in attitude toward Iraq. Although they're not showing film of soldiers dying, people do realize that there are deaths every day and that, "Hey, this is a war I might have supported years ago because of my feelings about Sept. 11, but this is definitely not the right thing. It's the wrong war in the wrong place." Music has a place in that, but it is mostly people realizing the truth about what is happening in the world.

    Q. Both albums contain a mix of songs with heavy messages, like "B.Y.O.B.," and tunes that are simply scatological silliness, like "Violent Pornography." Isn't that a bit schizophrenic?

    A. I have a hard time being serious all day. I have a hard time being serious for more than three seconds! It's all part of life, and lyrically it is a combination of a lot of things that Daron and I write together. "Violent Pornography" is a funny way of talking about media and where we are today -- things we show and things we don't show.

    Q. How do the songs come together?

    A. It's a balance of ideas. The way that it started is that Daron would bring in most of the music and I'd bring in the lyrics. As time progressed, I'd start to bring in more music and fully written songs, and Daron progressed as a lyricist and a singer, so he was able to bring in more completed songs. That balance has created better songwriters out of both of us.



    As fans of psychedelic rock giants Pink Floyd continue to hope for a full-fledged reunion tour in the wake of the band's performance at Live 8 and the news that it will reconvene again in November for its induction into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame, a new DVD offers a rare look at the start of its career nearly four decades ago, when it was fronted by the soon-to-become notorious acid casualty Syd Barrett and building a reputation as the freakiest British band during the Summer of Love.

    "Pink Floyd: London 1966-1967" features the quartet performing at the legendary UFO Club in London, making the scene at the 14-Hour Technicolour Dream at the Alexandra Palace (a much cooler "happening" than Woodstock) and playing in the studio during its first recording session with American producer Joe Boyd. Much of the footage hails from director Peter Whitehead's film "Tonite Let's All Make Love in London," and scenes of the band are interspersed with appropriately stoned flower children contemplating the universe, go-go dancers stripping and gyrating, Yoko Ono doing performance art and John Lennon dropping by to check it all out (the two hadn't met yet).

    The disc only includes two songs, "Interstellar Overdrive" and "Nick's Boogie," but at 17 and 12 minutes, respectively, that's plenty of mind-blowing music to get you through at least a bong or two. The DVD will be released Tuesday through Snapper Music, and at under $20, it's a patchouli-scented, paisley-covered Day-Glo bargain.