System of a Down - Not Exactly For The People
System of a Down guitarist Daron Malakian is not a people person, and the fact that his band that has spent most of the past two years since Columbia released its self-titled debut playing music for an endless stream of people in cities far and wide, hasn't done much to sweeten his perspectives on humanity.
For him the appeal of playing rock n' roll has less to do with adulation than the compulsive need to create. He talks about art and music with fiery fervor and his frustration with peoples misinterpretations of System's complex, visceral music borders on flat-out scorn. Yet despite his curmudgeonly tendencies, his genuine passion for music shines through -- and it's that passion (one shared by his cohorts, bassist Shavo Odadjian, drummer John Dolmayan and frontman Serj Tankian) that has won System of a Down its following.
Guitar.com: You generate a pretty impressive array of guitar sounds.
Malakian: I gotta give some credit to Shavo. If Shavo was the type of bass player that was going off and doing a solo of his own, then what we're talking about wouldn't exist. He's playing something solid underneath. So if I want to do something that's not all riffed out, I have a pretty heavy bottom down there to rely on. The way we structure the songs, we sort of feel it as a band -- this part doesn't feel right, it needs a bit more of something. It feels empty. We don't have any rules, any laws. It's art. If you're gonna put any rules, regulations, you'd have never had your Picasso, Salvador Dali or any of these people in art. It goes the same with music. If you put any rules or regulations on yourself then you're gonna accomplish something that's generic. Usually the artists that interest people are the ones that take chances.
Guitar.com: Are you a disciplined musician in terms of writing and playing? Are there specific things you work on?
Malakian: More than a guitar player I consider myself a songwriter, so it's like I want to build on song writing I know this is a guitar magazine, but for me it's not only about the guitar, it's about the vocals, it's about the drum, it's about the bass, it's about how it all blends in together.
Guitar.com: You're more concerned with the big picture.
Malakian: The pure satisfaction of coming up with something new. That's what I want to do, I want to make a difference. It may sound cheesy -- if it does fuck you, because I'm not into cheese but I'm very into art. Because I feel as though if art stops, then you get to a point where everyone's doing the same thing. They're afraid to try this, afraid to try that because they won't get the record deal, they won't get on the radio. Then we stop, then the world stops. To me the whole point is trying to combine things, there's been so many different kinds of music in the past hundreds, thousands of years. Music came from beats, like people hitting rocks or whatever. There have been so many different kinds of music. You can take inspiration here and there, take your own roots and blend it all if you have the mind to do it, the guts to do it.
Guitar.com: It's a matter of being fearless.
Malakian: Fear will close your mind. That's the thing. It'll close your mind from trying, from taking the steps. In our band we have this one rule. No idea is a stupid idea We try everything. If it comes out stupid then we know it wasn't vibing. But you have to try it, always try, I don't care who thinks of it. I might be the main songwriter in this band but everybody has a say. I do something to create a vibe, but you can come in, my girlfriend can come in and say "Hey, try that." I'll try it and if it works for the song then we'll put it in the song. I don't give a damn who thought of it, as long as the song comes out, as long as it's a song that's gonna have character, stand up on its own two feet.
Guitar.com: Were you in many bands before System?
Malakian: The band before System I don't think was a bad garage band. We were pretty cool. We were called Soil. The sound of that band had a lot to do with the sound of this band. Soil was like mixing Rush, Zappa, Slayer, Pantera, Soundgarden, everything you can think of together into these ten minute song structures that started off this way and ended up another way. We were a really good band, and it spawned out a lot of the style that System is now.
Guitar.com: What changed between Soil and System?
Malakian: After Soil I [got into] the Beatles. I never was into them before, before that I was just a metal head. But the Beatles made me realize song structure, putting things into three minutes -- compress these things. Maybe take some things out, which as a songwriter I think is the hardest thing in the world. It's easy to keeping throwing ideas in because you love all your ideas. But to make the song great, you gotta sometimes pull things out and that's the hardest part. What part of the song do you pull out to make it great? That's the biggest challenge.
Guitar.com: It's hard to edit yourself.
Malakian: It's tough. My dad is an artist and this is where I learned this lesson, just watching and learning. Both my parents are artists and when my dad used to paint these abstract paintings, sometimes he would put too much into the painting and as an artist once you put it in, it's too late. I've seen him fuck up so many paintings by putting too much into the painting and that's where I learned it's sometimes tougher to hold back than it is to throw that idea in.
Guitar.com: But you want to be able to run the gamut if you choose -- to be able to execute it all but know when not to. There's a difference between not playing and not being able to play.
Malakian: I like to have that bag of tricks. I like to have it in my pocket to pull out if I want to. I feel once there's a base of a song, it starts asking for things. Sometimes it asks for you to play fast. And if you start throwing things in there that don't belong, it'll throw them back at you, because it won't sound good. That's how it sort of throws it back at you.
Guitar.com: Your music is demanding from the listening standpoint too. That's not a bad thing -- some people like music that's challenging -- but aren't you concerned that it puts off some people?
Malakian: Some people are gonna get us, some people aren't. What I've noticed so far is if you like us, you love us. If you don't like us, then you hate us. And that's just fine with me. Going into signing the record deal I knew we were gonna tour for a long time, but God damn that was 1998 and we're in the year 2000. I didn't think it was gonna be that long. And the thing is we haven't stopped touring and once we're done with this we're gonna record another record and we're gonna start touring another two or three years. But touring has now become a part of my lifestyle. I didn't choose to play music where I was gonna get my one hit. When Les Claypool put together Primus I didn't think they thought "Jerry was a Race Car Driver" was gonna end up on MTV, but they still wrote all these songs and made a difference. That's what System of a Down is about. We want to make a difference like that. It's funny, the comparisons we get -- You guys sound like the Dead Kennedys mixed with the Talking Heads meets Korn meets Faith No More. I mean like ten bands, and I'm like, "Now don't you think a mixture of those ten bands is a pretty unique new twist?"
Guitar.com: You said it yourself -- people have a love/hate relationship with System. So if they get it they love you and if they don't then you get misconceptions.
Malakian: It's just hilarious. They pigeonhole us as a political band, yet we sing about everything, like from suicide to fucking love to politics to drugs. We sing about everything. We don't limit our issues and we don't limit our music. That's the problem I get when people come up to us and talk to us about being a political band. People ask me what does System of a Down mean? Everyone wants everything written down for them. It's like, "What does it mean for you? You figure it out." What is that song about? The lyrics are pretty abstract -- you make your own thing of it.
Guitar.com: People are more comfortable when the world around them can be interpreted in simple black and white terms -- no matter how many shades of gray there really are.
Malakian: I don't like people in general. I think they're stupid.
Guitar.com: Rock n' roll is kind of a strange business for a misanthrope. Isn't that the point of what you do? To connect with people?
Malakian: I think there's some people who we're reaching and I think there's some people who like the music but still don't get it. We're a very misunderstood band in a lot of ways. Like the Middle Eastern thing. My Middle Eastern influence as a songwriter comes more from Iron Maiden than it does any kind of Middle Eastern music. Iron Maiden used to play a lot of Middle Eastern stuff. If we were a few white guys from England, they probably wouldn't be saying all this Middle Eastern stuff. I think sometimes the fact that each band member's Armenian, it's like "Oh, that's what they're doing." We have a song called "Peephole" and it has a waltz beat. There's nothing Armenian about this and it's the same people that are saying this is an Armenian, Middle Eastern influence that have never listened to Armenian or Middle Eastern music. That's what gets me is the people that are telling me this know nothing about Armenian or Middle Eastern music.
Guitar.com: But it's that black and white thing again. People want to be able to conveniently figure out what you're about by how you look or what your name is rather than character, whether it's a person or music. People don't hear the scales in surf music as Middle Eastern because it isn't conveniently labeled that way. But you do make a point of bringing up your Armenian roots, and that sets you up for misunderstandings because most people don't know the ethnographic distinctions between Armenian and Middle Eastern.
Malakian: I know that it's a part of the band, but by saying that's all we do, you're closing our doors. Don't close our doors because we have too much going on in our heads. Shavo deejays on the side, you know, and I have a huge wide variety of music I listen to. I don't like being limited and musicians, I feel, are more limited than any other kind of artist. It's like you put out a record and everyone likes that record. Then, if you don't put out that same record again, everyone's gonna be [put off]. As opposed to if you were an artist you could go through your dark phase, your blue period. That's why when you listen to our record there's a happy song, then there's Spiders. We just wanted to keep the doors open for us to have a chance to go through our phases.