The musical obsessions of Daron Malakian began in utero. The System of a Down/Scars on Broadway guitarist-singer-songwriter is convinced that his life direction was set when his mother sang Arabic songs to herself while pregnant with him. Ever since, he's been an insatiable fan, absorbing rock, metal, disco, hip-hop and ancient folk and transforming those elements into one unique, furious whole that can be heard in his own high-octane music.
"Even though I was a heavy-metal kid and wore heavy metal T-shirts, I always had eclectic and broad tastes in music," Malakian says. "I respect music as an art form. I use all of these styles — everything from Grateful Dead to Morbid Angel — as colors in my writing."
Born in 1975, he grew up during a vibrant period of extremes in popular music, from the birth of thrash and death metal to the rise of gangsta rap. Over the years, he has been drawn to punk, goth, prog, the British Invasion, Bee Gees, outlaw country, synth-pop and discovered his all-time fave tune in the form of ultra-soft rocker Christopher Cross' 1979 hit "Sailing."
"Listening to music is way more important to me than practicing my guitar," he says. "You've just got to let your subconscious do its thing and get lost in it."
But ask him to name the top 10 albums that have influenced him the most, and Malakian is unable to comply. He couldn't possibly fit his wide-ranging passions for Van Halen, Bowie, King Diamond, Zappa, Eno, Joy Division, the Ramones, Cabaret Voltaire, Neil Young, the Beatles and much more onto one list. "There's no way I can do this in 10 albums, man," he says with a laugh.
Malakian goes well beyond 10 on the following list, but it's still only a small sampling, he says, of the epic sounds that have inspired him.
I started collecting records when I was three or four years old, and that was the first one that I got my hands on. My neighbors were Danny and Lisa, who I sing about in "Radio/Video" with System — they had that record and it ended up at my apartment. I would listen to that record all the time. I first saw Kiss at a relative's house. They were older teenagers and had Kiss all over the walls in their bedrooms. I remember being so afraid of Kiss, and it just stuck. For me, out of the four solo albums that Kiss did, Ace [Frehley] and Paul have albums that are listenable and good. I can't even listen to the Gene Simmons and Peter Criss ones. Kiss started the metal attitude, metal theatrics and metal fashion — they contributed to that a lot. I was listening to that album in my car with my girlfriend a few months back. When I put it on, I said: "This album is extremely special to me."
I dragged my mom to the record store to buy me a record, and that was the first one that she bought. At the time, heavy metal had a Satanic, taboo thing going on: "Is heavy metal connected to Satanism?" She would watch these television news specials. She was buying me a record that she knew I was so passionate about — but she would always say, "As long as it doesn't influence you too much." It's funny because of what I became. That song "Too Late for Love" would scare the hell out of me. Even though that was not a Devil song, the way the song starts has this dark intro. Def Leppard didn't have the Devil on their album cover. It was just fire, so it was OK.
That album had so many hits. When you're a little kid, you don't always go towards the underground. You're grabbing what's popular. They write good songs. For me, it ends at Pyromania, though. Hysteria came afterwards, and they totally lost me on that one. The early Def Leppard albums had attitude — you could rock to those albums: On Through the Night, High 'n' Dry, Pyromania. It wasn't "Love Bites" and shit like that. That's what heavy metal was at that time. There was no Metallica, Slayer or anything like that yet.
I remember people hating disco when I was a kid, but I just loved that album. By the time it got to me in the early Eighties, when I was 5 or 6 years old, that album was already played out. I remember people laughing at me for listening to it. Some older cousins had it at their house and I said, "Can I borrow this?" I took it and I never gave it back. It wasn't metal or anything. It was just good. I was really into the songs and into the music of the Bee Gees. Front to back, I loved those songs. I've always been a huge fan of disco music through my life. We have a song called "Violent Pornography" in System of a Down, and the lyrics are: "It's a non-stop disco/Betcha didn't know/Betcha didn't know …" That line means, "I love disco, betcha didn't know." That has nothing to do with the rest of the song, by the way.
I was born in the mid-Seventies. When I got to be maybe 17 or 18 years old and I started smoking pot, I started getting into the psychedelic Sixties kind of stuff that I never listened through my childhood or teenage years. After I got through all the speed metal/death metal stuff, I got into songwriting. American Beauty and the Grateful Dead have become real important to me. It's such a beautiful album. There's so many layers to it. I love the guitar playing, the songs, the lyrics. The Grateful Dead opened the door for me to country music — even though they aren't a country band — there's a lot of country influences going on. It puts you in a whole different kind of mood. It's great traveling music.
When I was 14 years old, I went to Iraq. I was there for a month and a half and I got to see the whole Saddam cult of personality. I took a bunch of my cassettes and heavy-metal magazines just to keep me occupied. Show No Mercy was the one I would listen to the most — on an old Sony Walkman with headphones, and a Mötley Crüe T-shirt on. All my family there were like, "What the fuck is this that you're listening to?" I might have been the first person to take heavy metal to Iraq. I can't prove that, but they had no clue what heavy metal was in 1989 in Baghdad. I was just in love with it.
It was heaviest stuff that I could get my hands on. It was a great time in heavy metal because there was an evolution happening in the Eighties. When I first bought that cassette, I didn't like it. But I kept putting it on, and it clicked for me when I took it to Iraq: "Wow, this is really great shit. This is heavier than anything else." Slayer was a harder sell for some of my friends in those days. They all liked Metallica. All my friends who were trying to play like Yngwie Malmsteen and all that shit, they were really not into Slayer.
This goes back to before I was a teenager. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. I had two cousins that I grew up looking up to who were really into dance music. They actually hated heavy metal. They were more into the Smiths or Depeche Mode. I love all that kind of music too. "People Are People" was a really big hit when that album came out. I really loved that song and bought that cassette. Up until Violator, I really love all their albums. They took what Kraftwerk was doing in the Seventies and made it poppy. They were ahead of their time.
A lot of Armenian people really love the Scorpions for some reason. Even my parents loved the Scorpions, and saw them by themselves 6 or 7 years ago in L.A. on their own. They had great songs. They had amazing ballads: "Still Loving You" and "Holiday." I listened to it a lot. I used to really love live albums when I was a kid. Part of it is I dreamt that one day I would get in front of an audience and they would roar. I would geek out to live albums in front of my mirror as a kid, pretending I was the guy playing in front of all those people. It helped me live out this fantasy that one day I will get in front of this crowd and I will do what all my heroes are doing.
That's when speed metal turned into death metal — Morbid Angel Blessed Are the Sick, Death Human and Obituary Cause of Death were the first to get me into that kind of vocal, that kind of aggression. I remember Morbid Angel's "Unholy Blasphemies" was one of the first death-metal songs I'd ever heard. It was so intense. It really turned me on to that whole genre in the early Nineties. It was all brand new — a lot of stuff came out of Tampa, Florida, of all places.
The Death Human album is very special because it was one of the first that really mixed this technical musicianship with the aggression. I had never heard anything like this before. Before that album, Death was more of a straightforward death-metal band. But with that album they transitioned into something a little more progressive. Those three albums opened the door to even more aggressive extreme metal that influenced me. It was heavier. These guys took Slayer and made it heavier. It was so fresh and brand new.
One of my all-time favorite albums. Each song is great. The lyrics are great. As I got into my twenties, and I'd absorbed a lot of the metal aggression and all the industrial and dance stuff, I really got focused on songwriting rather than writing riffs. I don't really care much about riffs. If I can write a cool riff, I try to write a great song with that riff. I had to find out about this music all by myself. I never had any family that grew up in the United States. So I went to the record store and started getting into this stuff and realized how much I loved it. Just being a connoisseur of music and the history of rock & roll — the British Invasion were such important bands.
I just love the Kinks. People do give them credit, but for some reason I still feel they are underrated when it comes to being compared to the Stones, the Beatles and the Who. That album from the Kinks stands out. From the day I bought it and for I don't know how many years since, it's been something that I've always listened to. The lyrics take you somewhere. They are very human. Most people can relate to those lyrics. That's a great accomplishment when you can make somebody feel something and relate their life to what your writing.
"Sailing" is my all-time favorite song. It has always been my favorite song through my whole life — all through heavy metal, all through dance. It's a pretty song and it's about sailing — at least I think it's about sailing — unless he's got an acid trip he's singing about. He takes you there, and I really love that. The music matches so well with the theme of the song. That song came out when I was about 5 years old. It's always been an important song for me. I've heard the album, but nothing sticks out for me the way that song does. I can't say I'm a crazy Christopher Cross fan, but he's a good songwriter. The theme from [the 1981 film] Arthur ["Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)"] was a great song too. I always liked his voice. He had a way about him. Easy listening kind of music. They wrote some cool tunes in that era. I don't know that I have a huge collection of soft rock. Look man, if someone writes a great song, I don't care what kind of rock it is. I don't care what your label is. I don't get stuck in a certain genre and a certain fashion.
Ozzy was a big deal for me. Before Sabbath, I was into Ozzy because I was a kid in the Eighties. Ozzy is what was going on in the Eighties. When I would see Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of a Madman ... I would go to the record store and walk by those album covers. Those were the cool ones. I got to know Sabbath through Ozzy. On the Speak of the Devil live album, with the guitar player [Brad Gillis] of Night Ranger, he played all the Sabbath songs on that album.
I grew up with Armenian, Middle Eastern and Greek music — going to Armenian weddings, going to Armenian events. My family listened to an Egyptian singer named Umm Kulthum. She's the diva of Middle Eastern music. In the Arabic world, she is the goddess of Arabic singing. Umm Kulthum is like the Aretha Franklin. She's very important to me and my style. Music became my art form because of Umm Kulthum — that's because when my mom was pregnant with me, she would sing a lot of Umm Kulthum songs. I can't explain how I got into music. Music found me. I was in love with music ever since I was born. Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez are two Arabic singers that are very respected in that community of music that are huge influences on my life. As a guitar player, I play Arabic scales. It comes more natural to me. Traditionally, American guitar players play more blues scales, and rock & roll comes from 12-bar blues. For me, Arabic music scales leak out of me effortlessly.
In high school, none of my friends were heavy-metal people. They were all into hip-hop and it was all fresh and brand new: Run-DMC Raising Hell, Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill, early Ice-T. Ice-T was the first gangsta rapper, and people don't give him a lot of credit for that. A lot of the L.A. gangsta stuff happened when I was growing up in L.A., so I really related to it.
If you saw high school pictures of me and my friends, we were all dressing up in Raiders jackets and dressing like N.W.A and shit. The first Dr. Dre album [The Chronic], the first Snoop Dogg album [Doggystyle], a lot of the early Cypress Hill — that was all happening when I was in high school.
Eazy-E's solo album — I remember that song "Boyz-n-the-Hood" was huge and we would sit packed in a car with a bunch of guys and we would cruise Hollywood. The bass would be kicking out of the fucking car and shit. It's another major influence in my life and even in my lyrics sometimes: "I buy my crack, I smack my bitch/Right here in Hollywood" ["Prison Song"]. And as things progressed, bands like Rage Against the Machine came out, bands like Korn came out, mixing hip-hop with the metal. Anthrax was the first motherfuckers that mixed rap with metal. Those groups opened the door for it to be OK.