From Glendale High School Newspaper - The Explosion
ALL SYSTEMS GO
Former Glendale High student Daron Malakian takes the music world by storm
First in a two-part series of exclusive interviews.
This part was originally published March 28, 2003
This web version includes additional material not in the printed version.
Jump to "Collecting System of a Down"
by Mike Lancaster
Daron Malakian is nothing like you might expect him to be. Living in the lap of luxury in a just-purchased home in the posh hills above Glendale, his is a view to die for. "I think this is the only house on the block with such a spectacular view," Daron says, in awe of the panoramic sight from his living room window. "I am the only one on this side of the street who can see downtown Los Angeles." Surprise: It was Malakian who personally greeted us at the door. No maid or personal assistant to cushion the blow for this rock star. Opening the door is just Daron, dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt and sporting long hair and his trademark double-pronged beard.
At 27 years old, he has made a name for himself as the driving force behind System of a Down, one of the hottest rock bands in the world. As the guitarist and primary songwriter for the group, he has amassed personal wealth and a legion of fans. When asked about his fame and fortune, he shrugs and says only, "I am very lucky."
The question he has been asked the most? "What does the name 'System of a Down' mean?" he says in mocking fashion, shaking his head and refusing to answer, preferring instead, to let fans draw their own conclusions.
His easygoing manner is a striking contradiction to the Daron Malakian fans are used to seeing on stage and in videos. "I don't know who that guy on stage is or where he comes from," he laughs. In concert, he is in constant motion, the perfect compliment to lead singer Serj (pronounced s-AIR-j) Tankian's vocal pyrotechnics. Malakian moves to the groove of the music he has created like a madman possessed, prowling from one end of the stage to the other, occasionally climbing on top of amplifier stacks, scaling stage scaffolding or diving headfirst into the crowd.
On stage he is fearless -- a superman able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. "I once jumped from a height taller than my house into a crowd. I am a maniac on stage and I don't know where that comes from. I just get so pumped up for a show. And when the crowd is pumped up too, anything can happen." But those crazy stunts have come at a price. A serious knee injury during a show several years ago in Portland forced the cancellation of tour dates when he had to be flown back to Los Angeles for emergency surgery.
Most rock stars would do anything to get their songs
played on the radio as often as possible. But Daron's big complaint is that radio stations play too many System
songs. He is worried that the band is getting overexposed.
The saturation of System is the main reason the band has kept such a low profile since the release of its third album last Thanksgiving. Instead of hitting the road for a concert tour and the expected blitz of media interviews, and television and radio appearances, the band chose to make only one appearance -- a CD signing at Glendale's Tower Records.
"We have turned so many things down in the last year, it's crazy," he says. The long list of "could have been" System projects and appearances is staggering. It seems everyone wants a piece of them. Even the prestigious Grammy Awards got a turn down from the band. "They wanted us to sing 'Aerials' (nominated for best heavy metal song) on the live telecast last month and quite frankly we just weren't interested. That's something *NSYNC and Britney Spears do, not System of a Down." Malakian says that none of the band members attended the awards show. Had the band won the coveted trophy, it would have gone in a large stack of awards still boxed up in his living room. Having lived in the new house less than a year, he hasn't had time to fully unpack.
He is amazed at the attention he and his bandmates have gotten in such a short period of time. From their humble beginnings playing clubs on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood to playing huge rock festivals (they headlined the most recent edition of Ozzy Osbourne's Ozzfest), Malakian and crew have performed in nearly every part of the world on their way to selling millions of CDs. Tours have taken the band through all 50 states, as well as to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, France, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Germany. The one place System of a Down won't play is Turkey. Says Malakian, "We were scheduled to do a show in Istanbul a few years ago with Slayer but we boycotted it. I'm sure there are probably lots of great kids in Turkey, but we chose not to entertain a bunch of people whose ancestors massacred our ancestors." Malakian is referring to the Armenian Genocide of 1915, when Turks almost wiped out the entire Armenian population. It is the one time during our interview that he becomes deadly serious. "It's a personal thing," he says. Malakian makes it clear that his anger is not directed toward the people of Turkey, it is aimed squarely at the Turkish government, which to this day continues to deny the genocide ever took place.
To raise awareness of the tragic events, System, whose members are all of Armenian decent, has performed benefits around the world. A song on its debut album, "P.L.U.C.K. (Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers)" calls for recognition, restoration and reparations from the Turkish government.
He estimates the largest crowd he has played in front of was 80,000 people and says the band has performed in nearly every weather condition imaginable, from stifling heat to torrential downpours. The next System world tour will take them places they've never played before, including South America. "We're huge down there," he says. Would the band play in Armenia? "We've never been asked. There really isn't a heavy metal scene there."
With so many concerts under its belt, you might think System would have a slew of concert videos and live albums available in stores. But, surprisingly, the band hasn't recorded or videotaped many of its shows and only rarely allows a show to be broadcast on the radio or shown on MTV. That lack of commercially available live material has made fans eager for a concert DVD. "I think if we ever get around to doing the live DVD we've been promising our fans, it will be shot at a small club with maybe 200 people." Is that often-rumored DVD going to be recorded anytime soon? Malakian smiles and offers a noncommittal, "You'll just have to wait and see."
Aside from burning up the music charts (their second album, "Toxicity," debuted on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart at #1 and has since sold in excess of 4 million copies worldwide), the group is a hot item on the Internet. "It blows me away," says Malakian, who checks out his name on search engines from time to time. "It's like I have no privacy anymore." He is also astounded that in any given week there are regularly between 700 and 800 System of a Down items up for bid at eBay. "I think it's very cool that people want to collect stuff the band has done, but it's weird to see people that knew me in like 7th grade selling old pictures of me on the Internet."
He is also a little surprised at the misinformation about him and the band on the Internet. To correct those mistakes: He was born in Hollywood, not Armenia or Glendale as some sources claim. On the web his age is reported as almost everything between 22 and 29. He is actually 27, born July 18, 1975. He and two of his bandmates were not best buddies at a high school in Hollywood as has been widely reported. The three attended the same private school, Alex Pilibos Armenian School in the Los Feliz section of Hollywood, but because of their age differences were not in the same classes. Daron was in 4th grade when Tankian was in 12th and bass player Shavo Odadjian was in 5th, but the three do appear in the same yearbook. "It was a small school where everybody knew everybody, but the three of us didn't hang out." Daron's family moved to Glendale when he was 11 and he went to Roosevelt Middle School and then Glendale High School. He moved out of his parents' house a year ago.
Last year was a banner year for the band, but also
a controversial one. With its' second album riding high on the charts, System made headlines after discovering
songs from its recording vaults had been copied and leaked to music pirates and were being downloaded on a variety
of Internet file-sharing services. It didn't take long for homemade CD-Rs of the stolen songs to end up for sale
at eBay. "It's not about the money, really, it's that the songs being downloaded weren't finished. It was
so frustrating; we had lost control of our own songs. On some of the songs my vocals or guitar overdubs hadn't
been added or the best version of Serj's vocals hadn't been used or the drum and bass tracks weren't all there,
so we had to do something to get the right versions to our fans."
The band's course of action was unheard of. They decided to release the stolen songs in their finished form and beat the bootleggers at their own game. That CD, entitled appropriately enough, "Steal This Album!" was released last Thanksgiving to critical acclaim and fan approval. "Does it bother me that some people are burning their own System CDs and taking money out of my pocket? Not really. This has always been about putting the best possible version of the songs in the fans' hands. It was like selling an artist's painting before he had finished it."
Now, the pressure is on Daron Malakian. As the wunderkind
of the rock music set, all eyes are on him to deliver the next System of a Down album, sooner rather than later.
For fans, it will be a long wait for the band's fourth album. Malakian estimates he and his bandmates won't begin
recording the new album until sometime in 2004. "I have been working hard on it and I have written tons of
songs, but I'm a perfectionist. It's never good enough."
Until 2004, Malakian works 12 hours a day several days a week in a recording studio searching for the right sound. If he comes up with a melody or great guitar riff while at home, he records it on an old portable cassette tape recorder his mother bought him when he was eight years old. "Seriously, that recorder is my most prized possession. I have much fancier equipment around the house, but that recorder has heard it all. It has been with me since the beginning."
When he isn't in the studio he allows himself one outlet: He is at most L.A. Kings home games. He'll also check out an occasional Dodger game. Unfortunately, his increasing celebrity status doesn't allow him to get out of the house much. "I go to Starbucks or the supermarket and people follow me home, and then pretend that they just happened to be driving down my very secluded street and just happened to bump into me, and I've had people leave notes in my mailbox and girls knock on my door at 3:30 in the morning. It's so crazy."
The music playing in the background during our interview is anything but System of a Down. A series of very eclectic instrumentals -- call it Daron's mood music -- fills the house. His living room is a neatly organized maze of CD stacks and his signature guitars are on display throughout the room. Should he become inspired, they are little more than an arm's length away. The guitars are not decoration. "I'm working on something new," he says slyly. It is obvious that Malakian is a student of music and he is a walking encyclopedia of rock and roll history. He cites his favorite bands as Slayer and the Beatles and his influences as everyone in between. "There is nothing I don't or won't listen to." Malakian talks about the use of cover songs, versions of songs made famous by other bands, which occasionally crop up in System's live repertoire. The band has done a few in the past, most notably, Berlin's Top 40 hit "Metro," which System released as a CD single bonus track (it was also included on the "Not Another Teen Movie" and "Dracula 2000" soundtracks), and Pink Floyd's mellow "Goodbye Blue Sky," which occasionally shows up in their live shows. He quietly starts singing the first few lines of Led Zeppelin's "Thank You."
What Beatles song would he most like to cover? Without
hesitation, Daron replies, "Happiness Is A Warm Gun," John Lennon's anti-gun/anti-violence statement
from 1968's White Album. He talks enthusiastically about other bands from a bygone era. "Have you heard Iggy
Pop and the Stooges or the Velvet Underground?" he asks. "They were so ahead of their time." He
also talks about the homogenized rap scene in the new millennium. "Where is the next Public Enemy or the rap
group that was influenced by them? Where is the next generation of black rappers with a message other than buy
Adidas or Pepsi? They are out there performing right now, but the media don't want you to know about them. Instead
we have MTV-friendly rap - safe rap. Record companies need to stop peddling this safe mainstream stuff and forcing
it down kids' throats."
He says he is tired of the recycled music he hears on the radio. "If you aren't going to bring something new to the table, then what's the point of creating? I am always looking for the next thing, the next new sound, mixing elements and sounds together that people think would never go together. You can have more than one tempo in a song or more than one set of instruments. I have no intention of making the next System albums all sound exactly like the last three. That's just being lazy. I could write a million songs like 'Sugar,' but that's not what I want for us."
Right now, Daron is focused on the most important thing in his life: his music. "Everything I do is about the music. Everything else comes second. I give 110% to my music. I lose all track of time and space when I'm creating. It is what drives me and keeps me focused and centered."
That impressive work ethic was not evident in Daron Malakian during his high school days. "I was a bad student," he confesses. "I wouldn't want anyone to follow my example. I cut class and when I did go to class I didn't pay much attention. I didn't take it as seriously as I now know I should have. What I've learned is that if a student doesn't go to class or doesn't do anything in school, that's probably the pattern they're going to continue later on in life, and then where will they be? But I always had a plan, a strategy. I just knew school wasn't for me."
Malakian says he skipped many high school activities (including his senior prom), but did have his senior picture taken for the yearbook. "You gotta do that. You gotta leave your mark somehow."
His favorite teacher? Mr. Lancaster. "It was the one class I looked forward to going to every day, that and probably wood shop. Mr. Lancaster taught this life science class and we used to go on field trips to the football field. That class was the coolest experience. I still tell people about it today."
He remembers being called into the principal's office during his junior year. "When I got there these very concerned looking adults sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do with my life because I was barely passing any of my classes. I said, 'I want to be a musician,' and they looked at all my report cards and said, 'but you've never taken any music classes here,' and I said, 'I teach myself,' and they just shook their heads ... they didn't understand."
Daron has known since the age of six that performing music was what he was going to do with his life. "Did I think it would be this gigantic System of a Down ‘I'm gonna sell millions of CDs' thing? No way! And that's why I say I am very lucky. There are millions of musicians dying to get discovered or get their songs played on the radio or whatever, and it happened to me. Me and my bandmates. And for that I thank my higher power."
Malakian is quick to credit his three bandmates
-- whom he calls his brothers -- with the success of the band. "I write most of the music and half of the
lyrics, but System of a Down is four distinctive parts that work well together. Daron, Serj, Shavo and John. Don't
ask me why, but it works. Hey, I'm just as amazed as you probably are that we are a household name."
Daron was playing guitar in high school and following his senior year, started hooking up with musicians in the club scene in Hollywood. In 1993 he formed a jam band called Soil with Tankian. Not long after, Odadjian became the group's manager and eventually its full-time bass player. The band also went through a succession of drummers. In 1995 the group changed its name to System of a Down (the name coming from altering the title of a poem Daron had written entitled "Victims of a Down") and soon was attracting a large following at Hollywood nightclubs like the Roxy, Whisky a Go-Go, and Viper Room. Drummer John Dolmayan joined the group in early 1997.
Word of mouth led acclaimed music producer Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, AC/DC) to see their show at the Viper Room in July 1997. He signed the band to his label, American Recordings, and the rest, as they say, is history. Prior to that, young Malakian took odd jobs to put money in the bank. "It was so random. I mean, look at me, who would hire me? So the only jobs I could get were in like telemarketing or places where I'd be hidden away from public view. I just couldn't hold down a job. My heart wasn't in it. I know it really frightened my parents."
Were his parents supportive during those lean pre-fame times? "Oh, yes. They were supportive, but they were also concerned for me. Both my mom and dad are artists so I think the thought of me -- their only child -- going into the arts really scared them because they knew first-hand how hard it was to make a living."
System's genre-bending 1998 debut album made its way slowly up the charts as the group toured almost non-stop between 1998 and 2000. The CD ultimately sold more than one million copies and led to the band's first network television appearance, singing "Spiders" on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." By the time their second album was released in early September 2001, Systemania was in full force. Daron explains their most recent CD is more than a collection of leftover tracks. It is a look at where the band is headed. Since its release, the CD has sold more than 500,000 copies, outdistancing many of the band's rivals.
Malakian is especially irritated by people who want to categorize System's brand of music. "We are not an Armenian band, we are not a heavy metal band and we aren't nu-metal. We are System of a Down. People always seem to feel the need to put us into a category, but we just don't fit into any category. We are what rock music has evolved into."
The category that gets the loudest response from Malakian is that System is a political band. "Anyone who would say that hasn't listened to too many of our songs." But he adds, "So what if we sing a few songs about politics. Why wouldn't we? We are living in turbulent times. This is what it must have been like for musicians in the 1960s. The big issues then were war and racism. Forty years later, nothing has changed. So Bush is about to take us to war with Iraq and I'm just supposed to write love songs? Hell no. I won't stand for that."
What's next for System of a Down? Nothing, and Daron Malakian likes it that way. He is enjoying a much-needed break from the extreme rigors and stress of promoting himself and the band and goes to the studio only when he feels creative. He knows that the time off will be short lived. In 2004 the whole Systemania thing will start up again. The tours, the interviews, and the invasion of privacy.
For now, Daron seems content to keep a watchful eye on some water he is boiling for the tea he is offering his guests. When he asks if we'd like some sugar, we laugh and correct him, imitating his famous vocal line from one of the band's first hits. "Don't you mean, shoo-gahh"? He smiles and confesses, "That's going to haunt me for a very long time."
The Daron Malakian Interview - Q&A:
This is the second of a two-part series on former
Glendale High School student Daron Malakian, who is the driving force behind one of America's hottest rock groups,
System of a Down.
This part was originally published May 2, 2003
Have you had any professional guitar lessons?
No, I've had no formal training. I just learned by practicing … hours of practicing. It was like my homework. I've been playing for 16 years now, since I was around 11, but you never finish learning.
If you weren't a musician what would you be doing?
I'm asked that a lot. Being a musician is all I've ever dreamed of being and playing the guitar or drums is all I've ever done. I don't have a plan B. I don't do anything else. I can't repair a car. I can't fix a leaky faucet. I couldn't even build a box when I was in wood shop there. But I can write you a song. I realized early on that I could do something not many people could do. No one taught me how to do it -- I just did it.
Your second album, "Toxicity," had more of a "pop" feel to it. When it debuted at #1 and sold millions of copies in a very short time, many of your original "heavy metal" fans thought the band had sold out to gain a more mainstream audience. What is your definition of a sell out?
A band that sells out is a band that is only in it for the money or the fame rather than the music. If people say System is a sell out because we've sold millions of albums, they're wrong. I can't control how many CDs we sell or how popular we become, but I do have a say in how we are marketed and where we appear. We turn most mainstream things down. System of a Down is not here to sell you Coca-Cola or sneakers; we are here to take music to a different level with our integrity fully intact. Our albums are a progression of who we are as a band and who we are as individuals. The next album will sound different from the last album. If it doesn't, then what was the point of making it?
How do you write songs?
I don't know. Songs just come to me. Sometimes the music comes to me first and sometimes the words come, sometimes both at once. I am blessed that way.
What is your all-time favorite album?
"Reign in Blood" by Slayer.
Tell us something about you that fans would be surprised to hear.
I think they might be surprised to learn that I'm actually shy and kinda quiet. I'm not the crazy person they see running all over the place in the videos.
What did you do on April 24 this year?
Quiet reflection and prayer.
Has fame changed you?
I don't have that big of a social life, I don't walk around being "famous" and trying to get noticed, you know. I think if anything, fame has made me less social. I have the same friends I've had since high school. When I walk by on the street, people stare, and that's really uncomfortable for me. I wish they would just approach me.
How did your "Boom!" video come about?
There weren't a lot of other artists commenting on the war so we decided to make a pro-peace statement. I had seen "Bowling For Columbine" three times. It's such a great movie and I knew that Michael Moore, who directed that movie, would be the perfect person to put together the "Boom!" video for us. It turns out he knew our stuff -- he's a System fan -- so we all got along great.
Would you ever do a song in Armenian?
We have made such a big deal about not being an "Armenian Band" that it would be weird to all of a sudden sing a song in Armenian. That would also exclude a lot of people who wouldn't understand what we were singing about. But I've learned to never say never.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
The Beatles, heavy metal music … stuff like Metallica and Slayer. I'm more into drums than guitar. Keith Moon from The Who, Iggy Pop. I respect anyone that gets on an instrument and gives 100% of themselves.
What are your thoughts on TRL and the disposable "television friendly" music of today?
We have made a point not to be there. We don't want to be like their guest hosts. We are careful not to be clowns. I have band meetings to discuss where we want our band to be. That kind of stuff just isn't us. It's not what we do.
Boys love cars, especially at Glendale High, what kind of car are you driving nowadays?
I have two Corvettes. An old one and a new one. I use the new one to get around most of the time because it's more dependable.
Would you do a free concert at Glendale High?
We've done the free concert thing and it just seems to get us in trouble (Hollywood riot, 2001). The minute we do something like that then it seems there are always people who want to ruin it for everyone. Our first and foremost priority is the safety of our fans. We have become so big that we can't do the little events and appearances we could do five or six years ago.
Is there a System of a Down fan club?
There is an e-mail list you can join at our website, www.systemofadown.com.
What are you doing with all of your time off between albums?
I've been doing some producing and also some songwriting. I just signed the first band to my own label (the punk-metal band Amen) and I'm also producing the debut album for Bad Acid Trip, which is signed to Serj's label.
What can we expect with the new System album?
Expect the unexpected.
Any words of advice for an aspiring rock star?
Don't be an aspiring rock star, be an aspiring musician.
Original newspaper layout and design, story editing and Q&A questions by Olga Ramaz.
Text © 2003. All Rights Reserved.
These cassette tapes were handed out at System of a Down club shows in 1996 and 1997. They are now impossible to find.
Demo 1 (1996)
Demo 2 (1997)
Demo 3 (1997)
01. Sugar(Album Version)
02. Sugar (Clean Version)
Sugar E.P. (1999)
02. Sugar (clean)
04. War? (clean)
06. Sugar (live)
07. Sugar(live clean)
08. War? (live)
09. War? (live clean)
Chop Suey! (2001)
01. Chop Suey!
03. Sugar (live)
04. War? (live)
02. X (live)
03. Suggestions (live)
04. Marmalade (non album track)
Aerials CD 1 (2002)
01. Aerials (radio edit)
02. Toxicity (live)
03. PLUCK (live)
Aerials CD 2 (2002)
02. Streamline (Album Version)
03. Sugar (live)
System Of A Down
Released June 30, 1998
1. Suite-Pee (2:32)
2. Know (2:56)
3. Sugar (2:33)
4. Suggestions (2:44)
5. Spiders (3:35)
6. D-Devil (1:43)
7. Soil (3:25)
8. War? (2:40)
9. Mind (6:16)
10. Peephole (4:04)
11. Q-Bert (1:49)
12. Darts (2:42)
13. P.L.U.C.K. (3:37)
Limited edition U.S. version has a seperate CD with four live tracks:
Sugar (Live) (2:28)
War? (Live) (2:48)
Suite-Pee (Live) (2:59)
Know (Live) (3:03)
Japanese version has two extra tracks:
Released September 4, 2001
1. Prison Song (3:21)
2. Needles (3:13)
3. Deer Dance (2:55)
4. Jet Pilot (2:06)
5. X (1:58)
6. Chop Suey! (3:30)
7. Bounce (1:54)
8. Forest (4:00)
9. ATWA (2:56)
10. Science (2:43)
11. Shimmy (1:51)
12. Toxicity (3:38)
13. Psycho (3:45)
14. Aerials (3:56)
---. Arto (Hidden Track) (2:12)
Japanese version contains:
A 2CD version was available upon its initial release which contained an EPK (behind the scenes video footage) and the audio track Arto on CD 2. Another special 2CD version was released with a bonus DVD containing the Toxicity video and 3 live tracks. The French version contains a CD with five extra songs.
Steal This Album!
Release November 26, 2002
1. Chic 'N' Stu (2:23)
2. Innervision (2:33)
3. Bubbles (1:56)
4. Boom! (2:14)
5. Nüguns (2:30)
6. A.D.D. (3:17)
7. Mr. Jack (4:09)
8. I-E-A-I-A-E-O (3:08)
9. 36 (0:46)
10. Pictures (2:06)
11. Highway Song (3:13)
12. F**k The System (2:12)
13. Ego Brain (3:21)
14. Thetawaves (2:36)
15. Roulette (3:21)
16. Streamline (3:37)
This CD also comes in four limited editions featuring individual CD artwork drawn by each band member.
Click on a thumbnail to enlarge an item
System has been featured in dozens of magazines and is usually on the cover. Here are a few:
In-Store Promotional Posters and Banners:
These were sent primarily to radio stations.
Some record stores offered these if you bought a System album.
Fans seek out any item signed by the band. As it is becoming harder to find all four band members in the same place at the same time, an item autographed by all four can fetch a lot of money on eBay.
Sent to newspapers and magazines by the band's record company.
CD buyers outside the United States generally get CDs with more songs than their U.S. counterparts. This is to combat the low cost of American imported CDs. The dollar is so weak in some countries that the American import is usually cheaper to buy than a CD made outside the U.S. To entice Japanese fans to buy the Japanese-made version (or the French or Australians, etc. to buy their own country's version) extra songs are usually offered. The CD single format, almost extinct in the U.S., thrives internationally. SOAD CD singles always carry several live or non-album tracks unavailable in the U.S.
Press Pass (CD Signing for "Steal This Album" at Tower Records)
Daron's Ibanez advertisements
One of Daron's guitar picks
Excellent System of a Down concert tickets
One of many guitar tab books featuring System songs. It shows you the chords to their songs so you can play along.
The band members have posed for literally thousands of photos. These are used by magazines to accompany articles on the band.