"I love days like this," says Daron Malakian, gazing out the window of his den at the torrential February rains soaking his Glendale neighborhood. All across the greater Los Angeles area, people are bitterly cursing the storm, which has already been responsible for numerous mudslides and road closures. But for Malakian, the wet winter weather just serves as another excuse to stay at home and do what he does best: play guitar and write songs for System of a Down.
"I don't go out much, ever," he says, exhaling one of the many bong hits he'll take this afternoon. "When I was in my early twenties, I used to love going out, but now I'm just really focused on doing what I do, I guess. When I find myself somewhere where I'm not doing something constructive with music, I feel like, What am I doing here? I'm wasting my time!"
Over on Malakian's coffee table, a stack of notebook pages covered in the guitarist's scrawl offers proof that he has been extremely busy, indeed. Each piece of paper lists a different track order for Hypnotize/Mesmerize, the first System of a Down record since 2002's Steal This Album. As he did with all of SOAD's previous LPs, Malakian has spent countless hours trying to compile the perfect song sequence. But it's managed to elude him thus far, and the fact that Hypnotize/Mesmerize happens to be a double album makes his task all the more frustrating. "It's driving me up the wall," he admits.
Why are System of a Down releasing a double album? And why are they splitting the album into two halves, the rest of which will be released this May, and the second around Christmas? Well, to paraphrase the old adage about the dog that licks his balls, they're doing it because they can. Together for a decade, the intense creative partnership of Malakian, vocalist Serj Tankian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan has sold millions of records and established a rabid worldwide audience for the band's genre-smashing, sociopolitically conscious brand of hard rock. With that kind of commercial and artistic track record, SOAD have pretty much earned the right to do as they please when it comes to releasing new music.
And yet, despite its unconventional format and overall length, Hypnotize/Mesmerize isn't meant to give the finger to the music biz or test the limits of fan endurance with an arrogant display of musical self-indulgence. Like every System record before it, Hypnotize/Mesmerize is ultimately about good songs. Only this time, there are more of them — and they're simultaneously the most accessible and most challenging tracks the band has ever recorded. "BYOB" slams like an unholy cross between Led Zeppelin and the Cro-Mags. But it also features a chorus so sublimely poppy Mark McGrath would gladly trade a lifetime's supply of hair gel for it, and the song's devastating closing chant of "Why don't Presidents fight the war?/Why do they always send the poor?" shows that the band has lost none of its daring lyrical edge.
Among other highlights are "Vicinity," which mixes a disco groove with brain-frying guitar feedback, and "Question," which layers jangling acoustic guitars and a haunting melody over jazzy beats before veering into a crushingly heavy refrain. "Attack" is fist-pumping, Iron Maiden–style power metal, while Malakian's piercingly high vocals on "Hypnotized" would make Rob Halford doff his leather cap in appreciation.
In fact, Malakian's vocals on Hypnotize/Mesmerize are far more prominent than they've been on any previous System record. In addition to trading lines with Tankian on the majority of the tracks, Malakian takes the lead on several songs, including "Lonely Day," the most straightforward song the band has ever recorded. A rock ballad built around Malakian's plaintive pledge of "And if you go/I want to go with you/ And if you die/I want to die with you" and capped with a dizzying guitar solo, "Lonely Day" sounds a little like Green Day would if Billie Joe Armstrong had grown up on a steady diet of late-Seventies Scorpions records.
"I don't want to recreate what System have done before— I want to build off it," Malakian explains. "Serj is an amazing vocalist, but we've always bounced vocal ideas off each other, and me singing is just another natural mutation on the sound. I also had more of a hand in the lyrics this time around. Before, I would leave a lot of space for Serj to write lyrics. But since I had my own personal situations that I was dealing with this time, I kind of said, 'These are the lyrics.' And he respected that."
Whether he's riffing his way through a thrashy chord progression, or just discussing the finer points of British rock legends the Kinks, Malakian radiates a burning intensity that can initially be intimidating, though he's also prone to break into a disarming, high-pitched chuckle when he finds something funny. But there's no laughing when he mentions his concern for the safety of his relatives who live in Iraq, one of the many "personal situations" that influenced his writing on Hypnotize/Mesmerize.
"That's a big part of the stress on my family," he says, "but just looking at the way the world is right now, that bums me out more than just my family being in Iraq. I mean, 200,000 people die in the tsunami, right? And motherfuckers are still bombing each other! It's like, don't you see what's possible? We should be able to combine our strengths to try and find the one thing that can save us from global warming, all of that shit. And instead, we're throwing bombs on the earth, polluting it more. It doesn't make sense to me."
The song "Hypnotize," Malakian says, was inspired by his frustration with those who would rather blindly follow their leaders than think for themselves, as well as the propaganda-spouting pundits who reinforce their behavior. "It just feels like we're outnumbered by zombies, you know? I'm not just saying that it's that way in the United States — I'm talking about all over the world. The people who are going and killing themselves in suicide bombings, that's just as stupid to me as people voting for Bush. So I sit in the middle. I'm not anti-American or anti-anything — I'm just anti-dumbass motherfuckers!"
Malakian has two large framed posters hanging in his den: a promo poster for Venom's Black Metal album and a black-and-white photo of John Lennon. Though System of a Down have received plenty of praise (and gotten a ton of stick) for their fearless political stances, the guitarist says he admires Lennon's ability to move beyond political affiliations and boundaries and connect with people on a deeper personal level.
"I see us as a socially conscious band, not just a political band," he explains. "The guy sitting in his car waiting for his girl, while there's a world going on around him — that's what System of a Down mean to me. Each person is a victim of the system but is also a system themselves. Every person can be more aware, and with more people being aware, the culture will change. And when the culture changes, the politics will change, and the whole climate will change.
"Like Lennon's song, 'Imagine,'" he continues. "The things that he says in that song are so possible. It's not a song that pisses you off, it doesn't cater to the right wing or left wing. You just can't argue with it, and that's why the song carries so much weight. I can't say that's how we are shit, we piss a lot of people off! But if you're making a point that both sides agree with, I think you're more dangerous."
"Be Careful," John Dolmayan cautions, as one of his dining companions prepares to chow down on a large sandwich. "Don't bite into the toothpick!" For someone who says he grew up worshipping Keith Moon, System's drummer is remark- ably courteous, well-mannered and concerned about the well-being of others. At one point during today's lunch at a West Valley deli, he solicitously hands a stack of napkins around the table, just in case someone makes a mess.
"It's the small things that really matter," he says. "The energy we put out can be positive or negative, and we make those decisions a hundred times a day. Until we care about people other than ourselves, until we realize that we do have a connection with them, because they're human beings, we have no real hope of understanding each other."
Still, Dolmayan admits, compassion and understanding aren't always the first things out of everyone's mouth at a System rehearsal. "Our personalities are so different, and we're not afraid to say anything," he says with a laugh. "Me and Daron are probably a little more vocal about things than Serj or Shavo, but we're both Cancers — we were born, like, three days apart — and we're both volatile and emotional. It's all positive stuff in the end, even if we don't exactly put things in a diplomatic way sometimes. It's all out of love, and it's all because we want to succeed. It's less about commercial success and more about artistic success. We want to change music — we don't want to just be a part of something, we want to be in the forefront."
Dolmayan says that, as early as the preproduction sessions for Hypnotize/Mesmerize, it became pretty clear that the record would have to be a double album. "There was so much good material," he remembers. "We were all like, 'Man, what are we gonna do with this? How can we take this body of work and just cut it?' It's like cutting a quarter of your body off — which quarter do you pick?"
Though it took him three times longer to record his drum tracks for Hypnotize/Mesmerize than it did for Toxicity, Dolmayan says his parts have been finished since July of last year. "I've been doing a lot of twiddling my thumbs," he says, laughing. "But while Daron and Serj have been at work in the studio, Shavo and I have had a lot of time to practice together and really fine-tune our parts."
Unlike his visually striking bandmates, Dolmayan isn't someone that most music fans would recognize on the street, but he says he's happy with his anonymity. "I'm not a songwriter, and I'm not a soloist, but I'm the meat and potatoes of the band. I don't care about fame. I care about playing drums. And that's why System's a perfect fit for me."
Shavo Odadjian, System of a Down's bass player, could almost be Dolmayan's polar opposite. While the drummer carries himself with a sober, almost formal bearing, Odadjian exudes the happy-go-lucky charm of a frisky puppy dog, alternately marveling at and reveling in the perks of his fame. "I'm a food connoisseur," he says, as he digs into a dollop of fresh sea urchin at a tiny Ventura Boulevard sushi bar. "Steak? Fuck yeah — every day, I'll have it. I'll have it for dinner and lunch!"
But behind the braided beard and goofy grin, Odadjian has battled more than his share of depression, anxiety and self-doubt. "I'm finally just enjoying everything, instead of always being fucking pissed off or sad or worried, you know? Don't make me look like that guy from the Cure," he jokes, "but I was always worried about everything. But these were deep things, man. No one could see it."
One of the keys to his emotional turnaround, he says, has been the rekindling of his love for the bass. A guitarist since his early teens, Odadjian didn't actually pick up the bass until he turned 20. In recent years, he says, he'd begun to regard the bass as merely the tool of his trade, instead of a potential instrument of self-expression. Feeling that Odadjian was letting down his end of their musical partnership, his bandmates confronted him during the Hypnotize/Mesmerize sessions.
"They were like, 'Dude, you're a bass player who plays better guitar than bass. What the hell is wrong with you?'" Odadjian laughs. "Daron would say to me, 'Practice your bass! Practice your bass every day!' But I was looking at practice like work, like school-work. I would come home every day after practicing with the band, and play guitar for hours. I was 'good enough' on bass, so why should I have to practice it at home? But then I realized, I strive to be the best at everything else I do — why haven't I applied that to this thing, which is supposed to be my life?"
But even with his renewed musical motivation, the bassist says, the first dates on System's recent Australia/ New Zealand tour were an incredibly humbling experience for a band that hadn't played live more than a handful of times since 2002. "We played Auckland for our first show, and we went up there like warriors," Odadjian recalls. "In our heads, we were like, 'We're back, and we're gonna go out there and fuck the stage up!' The first song was great, but by the third song, I'm breathing out of my ass, Serj is limping around onstage, and I could see John cramping up. I was like, 'Dude, I've gotta stop before something fucking comes out!' The second show was bad, too. I'm thinking, We've had two years off. Did we lose it? Do we suck now?
"The next day, we headlined Sydney, and it was just a good feeling, a good vibe. We were playing as a unit, instead of four individuals out there ailing around. We were looking at each other and smiling, and dancing around onstage. It was one of the best System of a Down shows ever, and the rest of the tour was great." He grins. "Everything from sex to life in general is just better after being onstage."
"OH, NO! Not with the muddy hands!" It's a damp morning in the Santa Monica mountains, and Serj Tankian's beautiful Siberian husky has decided to make herself comfortable on the singer's living room couch, blissfully oblivious to the dirt she's tracked in from the backyard. Mildly exasperated by the paw prints on his couch, Tankian gently scoots the dog back onto the floor and gives her a stuffed animal to chew on. Onstage, Tankian may come off like a wild-eyed demon, but in the peaceful context of his mountain abode, the singer seems the very picture of calm contentment.
Unlike Dolmayan and Odadjian, who've been off for the better part of the last year, Tankian's barely had a break from Hypnotize/Mesmerize. Even while Malakian oversees the final mix with coproducer Rick Rubin and engineer Andy Wallace, Tankian says he won't be surprised to get another emergency phone call from the studio.
"I thought six different times that I was done," he says with a laugh. "And I kept on getting calls, going, 'Hey, there's this one line in this song — can you come down?' 'Sure, when?' And they're like, 'Well, final mix with co-producer Rick Rubin and engineer Andy Wallace, Tankian says he won't be surprised to get another emergency phone call from the studio.
"I thought six different times that I was done," he says with a laugh. "And I kept on getting calls, going, 'Hey, there's this one line in this song — can you come down?' 'Sure, when?' And they're like, 'Well, we're mixing today ...' I'm like, 'You're mixing today? You're telling me you're already mixing the song that you need a vocal on?'"
While it's true that Tankian has written the bulk of System's lyrics in the past, it would be a mistake to characterize the singer as the "word man" to Malakian's "music man." Tankian hopes the fact that Malakian is singing more on Hypnotize/ Mesmerize will give fans more insight into the band's creative process.
"It's important to me, after 10 years, for people to recognize our talents above and beyond what they imagined we did. They didn't know Daron as a singer. Daron's been my friend since before we formed System of a Down, and I want people to know that he's got an amazing voice, and that he also writes really potent, cutting lyrics. Just like it's important for me that people recognize that I do more than just sing — that I play piano and guitar, and that I write songs as well."
Tankian says he's relieved by the band's decision to split the album into separately released halves, because he'd feared that many of the songs would get lost in the shuffle if they'd all been released at the same time. "I remember one day sitting down and listening to 30 songs in a row in the studio with Rick, and I was done — I was exhausted! I couldn't listen to another song, and I kept on thinking, I can't imagine someone having to go through this!" he says with a laugh. "Our songs are pretty progressive and all over the place and high energy and all that, and with people's short attention spans, it's like you definitely have to focus on the songs, enjoy them and get another one a bit later."
When it's finally released in its entirety, Hypnotize/Mesmerize will undoubtedly stand as the high-water mark of System's career to date. And while the album was originally supposed to hit the shelves in the fall of 2004, its delayed release may actually lend it an extra dose of inspirational power.
"People are like, 'Oh, we're fucked again. We've got four more years of this shit,'" says Tankian, referring to George W. Bush's recent reelection. "But it's important to not put up with it, to not accept it. It's not just about voting — voting's the easy way out. That's what they want you to think — Well, you voted, you're done, go home now. No, I'm not going home now! I'm going to stay on the street. To some people, it's a waste of time, maybe. But if my other choice is being told how to live, what kind of option is that?"