In a posh London hotel, System of a Down frontman/solo artist Serj Tankian is seated around a small table with singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the founders of modern prog-rock band the Mars Volta. The three old friends are here to swap stories and discuss the merits of complex music while a photographer circles like a shark, snapping shots from all angles.
For Tankian, who is used to such attention, it's business as usual, but for the Mars Volta guys, it's a little unnerving. They enjoy hanging with Serj but don't relish analyzing their tunes for journalists. These are artists who subscribe to the adage that "talking about music is like dancing to architecture."
"The only time we actually even think about our music is in interviews," says Bixler-Zavala. "We have to explain why we do what we do, even though it seems pointless to us to explain it. The rest of the time we just do what we do and don't worry about it."
"I'm very respectful of our friends and the people that enjoy our music, but the whole media game is ridiculous," agrees Tankian. "I went to the MTV Video Music Awards and the press was asking me about how I felt about Britney Spears performing. I was like, 'Why are you asking me that question? What does that have to do with why you're here and why I'm here?' Our real fans know that our music is about our music and that's it."
At first, it looks like this is going to be a short, awkward roundtable. Then the three musicians start to talk shop—discussing how Tankian plays a Theremin and piano through various effects processors—and the tone of the conversation shifts. Suddenly, the musicians are less interview subjects than kindred spirits. Any discomfort with the process and protocol of doing press is forgotten and they drop their guard. Now they're ready to discuss how, in an age of complacency and laziness, music that's intricate, unconventional, and thought provoking can still have surprisingly universal appeal, a fact that these three artists have been proving time and time again for more than a decade.
Between 1995 and 2006, System of a Down defied convention by combining elements of metal, hardcore, pop, funk, jazz, prog rock, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European music into skillfully arranged and deftly executed songs. Against all odds, they infiltrated the mainstream, scoring numerous radio singles, four platinum albums (1998's System of a Down, 2002's Steal This Album!, 2005's Mezmerize and 2006's Hypnotize) and one triple-platinum disc (2001's Toxicity). When System went on indefinite hiatus after headlining 2006's Ozzfest, Tankian started work on his solo album, Elect the Dead (Serjical Strike), which came out in October 2007 and debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart. The disc, which he wrote, performed, and recorded almost entirely on his own, is full of adventurous, catchy rock songs that are flush with orchestration and filled with intriguing lyrics.
In 1994, a year before System of a Down formed in Glendale, California, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez were tearing up clubs in their hometown of El Paso, Texas, with their previous band, the angular hardcore-emo outfit At the Drive-In. The group released three albums and four EPs, but just as it peaked with 2000's unrelenting yet accessible Relationship of Command, Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez bowed out to explore an even less commercial style of music with the Mars Volta. The band debuted in 2002 with the spacious and shimmering EP Tremulant, and over the next four years released three multifaceted and cryptically conceptual albums—2003's De-Loused in the Comatorium, 2005's Frances the Mute, and 2006's Amputechture—each of which incorporated aspects of prog, metal, psychedelia, free jazz, electronic funk, and Latin music. While the Mars Volta's sales have paled in comparison to System of a Down's, they've still achieved a surprising level of acclaim; their second and third record both debuted in the Top 10 and their tripped-out, jam-heavy concerts, which feature eight musicians onstage, are often sold out. The Mars Volta's fourth studio disc, The Bedlam in Goliath (GSL/Strummer/Universal), may be their most chaotic yet—a variously intense hailstorm of tumbling beats, asymmetrical rhythms, gurgling guitars, haphazard horn bleats, and melodic vocals that loosely hold all the shuddering, fractured, and otherworldly pieces together. In this regard, Tankian and the Mars Volta are kindred souls.
Both Tankian and the Mars Volta are convinced their convergence today was an act of fate. Tankian happened to be in London opening for the Foo Fighters while the Mars Volta were here doing promo, so when Revolver decided to devote a few pages to rock that expands the mind, getting the players in the same room was no problem. And once they warmed to the environment, they talked openly and at length about their histories together, the importance of creative exploration, the way mood impacts environment, the dumbing-down of popular culture, the evolving consciousness of machinery, and, of course, drugs.
REVOLVER Serj, when did you first hear At the Drive-In and what did you think?
SERJ TANKIAN I heard their last record, Relationship of Command, and I was really excited. It had a lot of great characteristics that I couldn't immediately put my finger on, which is always positive.
Cedric and Omar, do you remember your first introduction to System?
CEDRIC BIXLER-ZAVALA Someone gave us a System T-shirt somewhere when we were on tour, then we heard them over the radio driving on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. It reminded me of the spirit of Dead Kennedys, and I couldn't believe something like that was being played on the radio.
TANKIAN Neither could we.
You toured together in 2005. Had you met before then?
TANKIAN Yes, Saul Williams introduced us in 2003 when he was opening for them.
Did you immediately hit it off?
OMAR RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ Oh, definitely. We felt like we had brothers in arms. Rock music is usually dominated by white people, so meeting people that were coming from a different place of culture and singing about things that were important to them and not losing their cultural identity in the face of all this machinery was really important.
Was it inspiring to finally tour together in 2005?
TANKIAN Definitely. I'd watch you guys every night because I love seeing a big band onstage, and all the different instruments, and improvisational moments, and the colors that are brought in when the horns enter. You get bored of watching a band with three or four members after a while unless they're doing something different every time. That's one of the reasons I wanted more guys in my band this time around for my solo stuff. I just wanted more layers of sound and textures to keep it interesting.
Do you play unconventional music to awaken the sleeping masses?
RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ No, we're not trying to challenge anyone. We just get bored very easily. Cedric and I have been making music together for over 15 years. You start at one place playing three-chord punk, and then you start to demand more and say, "Well, what would happen if we threw a trumpet, piano, or saxophone in? What happens if we add an extra beat or take away a beat?" You start experimenting out of sheer boredom of being in the rehearsal room and crossing the same river that you've crossed over and over again. And before you know it, people are saying that you're doing something unconventional, and you didn't realize it.
BIXLER-ZAVALA We do it because it's fun. And you don't feel like it's weird or complicated. We feel normal doing it.
TANKIAN When I did this solo record, people asked how it felt to write a progressive album. I was like, "These are the poppiest songs I've ever written in my life. This is my pop record." And I wasn't kidding. It doesn't sound pop like Justin Timberlake, but that's my pop. This is just me trying to make it interesting for myself but still making very simple, classically written songs.
Maybe it's that intent for self-satisfaction rather than the satisfaction of others that separates good prog from bad prog-rock.
RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ Who knows what makes something good? A lot of times it's nice to stray away from melody and conventional structure, just as sometimes it's nice to stick to structure. It just comes down to whether you're feeling something, whether your heart's in it. We're just searching for a new sound and throwing in new elements to spice it up for ourselves, as opposed to trying to impress someone and show them how musical you can be.
TANKIAN You have to write songs that you're happy with. You're not custom-designing a car for someone.
What does Elect the Dead have in common with The Bedlam in Goliath?
RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ Everything starts with attitude and involves the search for truth, the search for things coming from the heart.
TANKIAN It's all about honesty and a sense of exploration in an honest way, not in a pretentious way.
Does a new band that plays unconventional music face a greater challenge getting noticed than a more mainstream group?
BIXLER-ZAVALA I don't think so. I think kids are hungry for something new. In the information age, you can study all you want and discover the past in order to rediscover the future. Nowadays, I know more kids that don't want simple stuff. They crave bands that push it.
Is it discouraging to see straightforward bands like Seether and Three Days Grace topping the charts?
TANKIAN Without commenting on any specific artists, there has always been unoriginal music ever since the beginning of musical recordings. The real question is, why do people buy this? And not just that, why do we buy Fox News and all of this homogenized shit that's not deep and has no reference to history or quality?
Lyrically, those kinds of questions enter your music, Serj, but the music of the Mars Volta seems more about escape.
BIXLER-ZAVALA I guess that's because the politics of reality are hard to deal with sometimes. But I think politically our music exists exactly for the reason that Serj was talking about—taking a stand against that fast-food culture. It's like what [ex–Dead Kennedys singer] Jello Biafra said: "If the music's gotten boring, it's because of the people who want everyone to sound the same." People like comfort. Ignorance is bliss. It's comfortable for them not to dig in.
When dealing with a thinking artist, critics tend to analyze and dissect every title, lyric, and theme. Is that agonizing?
BIXLER-ZAVALA I think other people's interpretations of what I've written are a lot better than what I have, because I don't understand a lot of what I write. I'm just an antenna. Someone gave me the job and I appreciate it, but I couldn't tell you what I'm saying or why I'm saying it. I just like the way things look.
Do critics do a disservice by trying to put ideas into your head?
RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ The critic gives his own interpretation, that's all. And whether he's right or wrong is completely irrelevant. It doesn't affect our work or change what we've done. And many other people are going to have their own interpretations and give these records their own lives and let them constantly be evolving and be an exponential thing. Even though it's a record. Even though it's set in stone, it can keep changing.
TANKIAN How you see music is how you define where it comes from. For us, music comes from the universe. It doesn't come from some rock star, who thinks he created this amazing thing. I think at best, we're skilled presenters. The inspiration definitely comes from a communal experience that everyone can tap into, but maybe artists are more sensitive and better at tapping into those musical truths, and it's a talent we all share.
The first two albums by the Mars Volta were conceptual. Does The Bedlam in Goliath follow a narrative arc?
BIXLER-ZAVALA Sort of. It's all about Omar and I trying to dig ourselves out of a hole, and it's the sound of us trying to retain our sanity through a really painful birth.
Was there a point where you were losing that sanity?
BIXLER-ZAVALA Of course. While we were making the record, our engineer had a nervous breakdown, Omar's studio was flooded twice, and we lost entire tracks over and over. Our producer, Rich Costey, called it quantum entanglement.
RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ Yeah, for us it was a curse. Rich needed a very scientific explanation. But you've never seen anything like this. At one point, every single take, every single everything for all 13 songs in the computer was completely out of order. It was as if somebody had hit a reset button and all the information went into a blender. I had to dig through and go backwards for two weeks just to be at the beginning. Another time, we went in to mix a song we'd been working on for two days and all of a sudden a guitar part we were working on two seconds before just disappeared. So we looked through the playlist and it was completely gone. And we went back to older sessions and it was completely gone. This happened time and time again. Tracks just disappeared out of nowhere.
TANKIAN I lost four drives making Elect the Dead. And most of them were backed up, but one of them wasn't. It's just ridiculous.
What do you attribute that stuff to?
BIXLER-ZAVALA It's spirits in the machine, if you want to give it that kind of power.
TANKIAN I couldn't understand why we lost four drives—one every three weeks. That doesn't make sense.
Do you think there's intelligence in machinery that can develop its own energy or consciousness?
BIXLER-ZAVALA Why not? It's only a matter of time before machinery becomes sentient. It's going to happen because we're already slaves to all of it.
TANKIAN There's a Japanese scientist named Masaru Emoto who used high-powered microscopes to analyze water in glasses with different words on them.
RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ Right, right. He would write "love" on one glass and "hate" on another. And the glass with the word "love" on it blossomed into a snowflake design under the microscope, while the one that read, "I hate you, I want to kill you" formed ugly, jagged patterns.
TANKIAN Right. Everything is affected by us and we're affected by everything. If water is affected by my mood, then I'm affected by water. So, why would a computer be different? I have a notebook computer and there have been times when I'd be angry and it wouldn't turn on. Then I'd calm down and press the button and it turned on. You can say I'm pressing it differently and that there's a completely scientific explanation, but I could swear that my mood affected whether it would turn on or not.
Any chance we'll see a future collaboration between you three?
RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ What do you call this? This is a wonderful conversation we're having.
What about a musical collaboration?
RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ [Banging rhythmically on the side of an empty water bottle] We're making music right now, man. [Laughs] Actually, one of Serj and my first meetings was a conversation through music. We were together and we didn't know that much about each other yet, and we discovered each other through playing for two hours.
TANKIAN Right. So we have collaborated, we just haven't recorded it.
RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ Exactly. The opportunity is always waiting to happen. It's just got to present itself at the right time.