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Old 20.05.2005, 11:57   #1
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Default Big Top Metal | Inside the heads of brokenhearted metal gods, System of a Down



Big Top Metal

Inside the heads of brokenhearted metal gods, System of a Down

By NEIL STRAUSS

"Good things happen in my life in tens," says Daron Malakian. "I was born in 1975. My dad stopped drinking in 1985. The band formed in 1995. And" -- long, nervous pause -- "I guess something good is going to happen this year."

Daron, 29, is the guitarist in one of the most musically accomplished and politically conscious mainstream rock bands of the past decade: the Armenian-American parade-metal purveyors System of a Down. He is sitting in his deceptively suburban-looking home in the secluded hills of Glendale, California, surrounded by body parts. There are at least a hundred skulls, skeletons and horror-movie figurines scattered around his two-story pad. Two of the skulls are human -- one was a present from his girlfriend, model Jessica Miller, from their first Christmas together.

"My girlfriend is afraid to sit in my house alone," he says, sitting on a black, debris-strewn couch. "But to me these things are almost a form of spiritual protection." He flips the top off a bottle of marijuana fresh from a refrigerator full of exotically named buds. This one's called Night Queen. "As a child, I had a lot of dark, dark moments," says Daron. "I had to be an adult very quick. I was drinking coffee at AA meetings at nine years old." He packs the pot slowly into the bowl of a glass pipe. "I've done acid once in my life, and I watched The Exorcist, and everyone in the room with me was freaking out. I was like, 'I know how to handle this, because I've been in hell before.' "

But, as if to prove he's no goth or miserabilist, Daron quickly adds that he also likes going to Disneyland, listening to Wham!, aspiring to write a lyric as badass as "itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka-dot bikini" and talking about his biggest influence, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Besides skulls in Daron's home, there is also a tape recorder. It is a pint-size dual-cassette Sharp boombox, a present from his parents for his twelfth birthday. This boombox is Daron's studio; it's where most System of a Down songs begin. Daron has hundreds of tapes he's made since he first received the recorder. None of them are labeled.

"I think that songwriters and serial killers have things in common," he says, "because it's pathological. They have no control over it." He takes a hit of Night Queen and relaxes into what, for him, is normalcy.

With long, stringy hair receding off a high forehead, bulging buglike eyes and the posture of a baboon, Daron makes an unlikely rock star. In fact, as rock stars, the members of System of a Down are as unlikely as it gets. Neither polished enough to be sex symbols nor unpolished enough to be boogeymen, they are disarmingly unassuming. Their frontmen -- Daron and Serj Tankian -- are among the most gentle, introverted singers in the Billboard Top Ten; the alpha males -- Shavo Odadjian and John Dolmayan -- have been relegated to the rhythm section.

The band's origins are in a private Armenian school in Hollywood, which all the members but John attended. Serj and Daron formed a bloated progressive-rock band called Soil, which Shavo managed. But then Daron heard the Beatles and decided to see if he could squeeze an entire twenty-minute musical journey, full of different changes and styles, into a simple three-minute pop song. Add to this Serj's political and humanist commitment -- to getting the Turkish government to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, to a pacifist political agenda, to abolishing mandatory-minimum drug-sentencing laws, to criticizing the Bush administration, to promoting spiritual thinking and conscious living -- and you have System of a Down, named after a line from a poem of Daron's. Though they rose through the pop charts with colleagues like Korn and Slipknot, System of a Down are a band that could have come about in any era. Their bellowing hit "Aerials," from their multiplatinum Toxicity, may be the best classic-rock song to come from a nonclassic-rock band this decade.

Daron says that, except for his girlfriend, his personal assistant/guitar-tech and a monthly visit from his parents, hardly anyone comes over to his house. And he rarely leaves it, because he's uncomfortable in social situations, especially if someone happens to recognize him.

"I see a different guy in the mirror than what they see," he says. "I see Daron. And I forget that Daron is someone who plays in this band that so many people love." He grins sheepishly to himself. "So whenever someone walks up to me, they have to understand that they are probably talking to someone who is ten times more nervous than they are." He wrings his hands. "My palms even get all clammy." Then he laughs, and his pupils dart around the room, avoiding eye contact. He eventually reaches for the safety of his pipe.

Somehow, System have managed to become one of the biggest new rock bands of the last decade without developing personae that anyone outside their fan base is interested in. And that's just fine, because the music is strong enough to carry the weight on its own, eschewing the verse-chorus-verse structure for a you'll-never-guess-what-happens-next methodology. Angry sociopolitical metal gives way to frothy pop chants, which spontaneously burst into Armenian circus music and then fade into progressive rock or glam rock or grind-core or silence -- all sung with trilling r's and a Frank Zappa-esque sense of intelligent whimsy.

System's third studio CD, Mezmerize, ranks as their most diverse, with Daron stepping up to take control of much of the songwriting and singing. The last two songs on the CD, full of vocoder and David Bowie choruses, are so atypical that they almost sound like the work of another group. Though the CD contains only eleven songs, the rest of the session highlights will be released six months later as Hypnotize, a disc that many close to the band say is even better than its already excellent companion.

This new direction must be strange for Serj Tankian, who has sung and written lyrics for nearly all of the band's songs prior to Mezmerize. Here, Daron wrote lyrics not just for himself but also for Serj. In addition, Daron played much of the bass because he didn't feel Shavo's playing at the time was "confident and tight enough."

Most bands splinter over the same issue: power struggles. Yet Serj seems to have had no problem letting go.

"I never saw things as turf," he says. He is foraging for food in the refrigerator of his tranquil home in the hills of Calabasas, a half-hour away from Daron. "When someone writes the music and has a vision for it lyrically, you have to respect that, you have to let that happen. The important thing is the song, no matter who writes the lyrics, no matter who writes the music."

Daron had complained earlier that Serj eats nothing but strange vegetarian products and is wasting away to nothing. Serj's bare fridge seems to attest to this. He eventually settles on a beet salad and a portobello-mushroom Gardenburger, which he puts in the microwave. True to Daron's concern, he does not eat a bite of the food.

Serj, 37, is wearing a gray shirt, his facial hair is overgrown and an age spot is visible just over his left cheek. His CD racks are filled not with hard rock but jazz: Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Miles Davis.

Where Daron is a shut-in, Serj is a shut-up. He listens and obliges, always gracious. He speaks, moves and gestures with an eerie sense of calm -- one entirely at odds with his schizophrenic vocals.

He walks out to his balcony. Gazing at the tall oak trees, listening to the birds chirp, smelling the wood of his patio and feeling the distant ocean breeze, one feels removed from the narcissistic clamor of Hollywood. It's a far cry from the early days of System, when Serj had a thousand-square-foot studio in North Hollywood that also served as an office, band rehearsal space, crash pad, concert hall and party place.

Speaking softly and slowly, like the college philosophy professor all the freshmen have a crush on, he discusses the composer John Cage's dictum that the natural sound of the environment is music. "There's a phrase I always think of, and I don't know if someone has written this," he says. "But I want to hear beyond my ears, see beyond my eyes, touch beyond my skin, taste beyond my mouth and smell beyond my nose. And that just makes me feel like that illusion of separation, at least for a little while, will disappear."

I ask him if he has always been this balanced, and he gives the answer that any balanced person would: He denies it. "I don't know if I'm balanced now. But I'm learning every day how to deal with myself. Sometimes in the last couple of years I ran the risk of trying to be too calm in some ways, trying to be too passive."

A misconception about System of a Down is that because their music is aggressive and their beliefs adamant, their members are angry. "I'm not angry," Serj insists. "Just because you raise your voice does not mean it's anger. But earlier in the band's career there was definitely more true anger coming through. I had a lot of feelings that I had to work with."

Work with or work against? "If you believe that everything is one, then it's with," he replies, sedate.

If it wasn't anger that spawned the new CDs, then it was at least pain and frustration. Though there is a general band policy not to speak about personal lives publicly, every member of the band has gone through a rough breakup: Serj, who says he suffered countless heartaches; John, who says it took forty-nine painful false breakups for him to realize, after the fiftieth, that he was with the wrong woman; Daron, who's too scared to go to the local mall for fear of seeing his ex; and Shavo, the only member of the band who has remained single since his split.

Beyond the hearts, there was the head. And the Iraq War and the 2004 election weighed heavily on the band's conscience, particularly since Daron's grandparents are still in Iraq and won't leave, despite his family's efforts. It is no fun to be an advocate for social change when it feels like the country is moving in the opposite direction. The first single from Mezmerize, "B.Y.O.B.," with its faux Europop chorus of "Everybody is going to the party/Have a real good time," is a parody of Army recruitment ads, which make volunteering to fight a violent war seem like joining a really good frat house.

Serj plays me two songs from the band's next CD, Hypnotize. The only thing he stops to point out is a guitar solo of Daron's, which he thinks is the best playing his bandmate has ever done.

"Writing long progressive rock in a three-minute-song format -- that's the trick," Serj raves.

Afterward, he walks to a guest cottage next door, which he's converted into a gorgeous studio full of red and black soundproofing. He has been working on a CD for Buckethead, the masked, experimental funk guitarist best known for playing in the doomed incarnation of Guns n' Roses. Buckethead sent Serj a handful of instrumentals, which Serj has fleshed out with a variety of different vocalists, including the poet Saul Williams and a female neighbor who sings opera.

When asked if the third song he plays is his duet with his opera-singing neighbor, he responds, "No." He pauses for a moment, then rephrases the answer: "That woman is me." He smiles at his own gender-bending comment.

It almost seems sometimes as if the band is trying to be uncool. This becomes clear upon visiting drummer John Dolmayan at the warehouse in North Hollywood that he uses to store his collection of comic books, action figures and video games.

On meeting, John, 31, gives the impression of being the strongest, most confident member of System. Yet as soon as the interview begins, he says, "Dude, I like comic books. How cool could I ****ing be? Dungeons and Dragons is badass. If I could find a good dungeon master, I'd play a game."

Around him, two assistants in T-shirts are organizing comics and sorting them into cardboard bins so that John can sell off his extras at Comic-Con in San Diego. "If it was up to me, I wouldn't even be in the videos," he continues. "I only feel comfortable behind my drum set. In the first video, I'm wearing a mask; in the second, I'm in it for two seconds -- by choice. The band got pissed."

More than any of his bandmates, John is frank about the fact that the group dynamic is not always perfect. It just seems that with Daron stepping further into the forefront on this CD and Shavo letting his personal life distract him from System, there had to be tension.

"We have our arguments," John admits, "but not to the point that it's just frustrating and everybody leaves. Sometimes we fight. But after a couple hours on the phone or yelling at each other, we resolve it. However, we never argue about musical stuff. It's always about stupid ****, like why some T-shirt was approved."

He picks up a comic lying near his Dragons Lair II video game and continues, saying that the band is actually closer than ever. In the past, Daron and John would take one bus, while Serj and Shavo were on another. Now they're touring on one bus and actually hanging out. "For a long time, we didn't see each other outside of System," John says. "After being on tour for so long, you get on each other's nerves. We were either going to get a divorce or come closer together. So now there's a new camaraderie. We go to dinner and clubs together, and we're having a great time onstage."

Perhaps the rhythm section of System is so tight because its members share the same obsessions. The closets and shelves at bassist Shavo's home in Woodland Hills, twenty minutes away from John's warehouse in North Hollywood, are stuffed with action figures and bobbleheads, and in his garage are big-boy toys: four cars, among them a perfectly restored 1966 Corvette and a 1968 Plymouth Fury. The record covers by his stereo show the eclectic musical taste he shares with his bandmates: Madonna, Lionel Richie and Kiss.

Sitting on his couch, next to his stash of medical marijuana, Shavo, 31, is a cautious interview; any comments about women or drugs are off the record. The most passionate he gets is when talking about the press, and about how certain aspects of the band get blown out of proportion.

"That's not what happened," he says when asked about his bass playing being replaced on the CDs. "I'm not Peter Criss, you know, or some drunk Ace Frehley, where you have to sample my ****. I went in for three weeks and did bass lines. And Daron went in for a day and just, like, did a couple of little parts."

Shavo is the most rock-&-roll-looking of the band, with his bald head and braided ponytail-like goatee; onstage, he is the most energetic. Perhaps because he is so socially adjusted, culturally connected and relatively normal, he's the odd man out. He stuffs a bud into his bong to get into a talkative mood. "System is an abstract painting to me," he begins, after a few tokes. The pot is working. "That's why it made sense to have Daron's dad do the artwork for the cover."

Besides politics, the other main theme on the new System CD is Hollywood. Much of the inspiration was drawn from Daron's life. Back on the couch at his skull-festooned house, he discusses this.

"Lost in Hollywood" is about growing up near Santa Monica and Vine across from a dive motel teeming with pimps and prostitutes. "Old School Hollywood" is about a celebrity baseball game he played at Dodger Stadium, which was a lifelong dream. But he felt so out of place among the plastic people that he wanted to curl up and die. "Soldier Side" is inspired by memories of visiting his family in Iraq at age fourteen and watching his uncle leave his kids at home to serve in the Iraqi army. And the chorus of "Radio/Video" name-checks two of his best friends as a child, Danny and Lisa.

"I haven't seen them since I was ten," Daron says as he stands up and walks to the front room of his house to find his personal assistant. "This album is somewhat dear to me because there are moments from my childhood on it. They are not blunt, but there are pictures in my head that I see when I sing the songs. I couldn't even tell you what they are exactly about.

"Sometimes I sing them as happy songs, but they're not happy songs," he continues, flopping into another couch, where a plastic skeleton sits on one side of him and his assistant is on the other. "We do that a lot. Most of our funniest songs are about the saddest moments in my life."

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