When System of a Down released their second album, Toxicity, on September 4th, 2001 they had no idea it would break them out of the metal underworld and turn them into a multi-platinum radio-rock band. In fact, there was a time when the primary songwriters, guitarist Daron Malakian and vocalist Serj Tankian, were mired in dozens of songs and it seemed like the record might never come together at all — not to mention, that the band might fracture in the process of trying to get it done.
The pressure was high: System were following up a self-titled debut that had won them many fans in its own right, and wanted to up the creative ante — a tough task considering that their inventive first LP sounded something like a cross between Slayer and Dead Kennedys, with exotic Mideastern melodies weaved into the mix. With Toxicity, System wanted to make a more musically diverse, melodic infectious and deeply meaningful album that still adhered to their offbeat and sometimes nonsensical aesthetic.
"I'm constantly trying to find ways to reinvent myself as a writer," Tankian said in interviews for Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. "I always want to introduce new ideas and new stuff because that's what art is all about."
System of a Down recorded Toxicity in 2001 at Cello Studios in Hollywood with producer Rick Rubin and engineer Dave Schiffman, mixed it at Enterprise Studios in Burbank and mastered the disc at Dasis Mastering in Studio City, California. Rubin encouraged the band to shoot from the hip and not hold anything back or overthink their ideas. "[Rubin] wanted the album to be really dry, in your face and unapologetic," Schiffman told L.A. Weekly. "That's part of what makes it feel as honest and powerful as it is."
But just one part. Here are 10 things you didn't know about Toxicity.
1. Toxicity's lead single "Chop Suey!" was written in the back of an RV while the band was on the road in support of their first album
System of a Down were excited to be touring for their first album, but also eager to prove that they were capable of writing songs with even greater music depth and cohesion than those on its debut. Guitarist Daron Malakian lay the foundation for Toxicity by writing the album's explosive, schizophrenic first single "Chop Suey!" while the band was on the road. "I wrote that in the back of the RV," he revealed in Louder Than Hell. "With that [song], I didn't want to repeat myself. I didn't want to write 'Pluck' again or 'Suite-Pee' again. I wanted to explore something different. At the same time, I wanted to retain our style so I put a lot of the ideas together."
2. Daron Malakian took inspiration from Charles Manson for the song "A.T.W.A."
The song "A.T.W.A." stands for "Air, Trees, Water, Animals" or 'All the Way Alive," both of which phrases were used by Charles Manson and his "family" as terms to reference environmental awareness. "During the time I was writing the Toxicity album, Manson's interviews and music were a big influence on me as an artist," Malakian wrote on Instagram after Manson died in 2017. "I titled the song #ATWA after Manson's environmental organization. My interest was in the way he articulated his thoughts and his views on society, not in the murders." He confirmed this perspective when he talked to Revolver earlier this year. "I almost wanted to shine a different light on somebody that people usually put together with murder and blood and horrible things," he explained. "I wanted to take a different approach on the Manson thing and show a different side of it."
3. Two members of System came to blows in the studio
Malakian and drummer John Dolmayan were so passionate about their music and ideas that they frequently argued. Sometimes those conflicts became physical. "There were times when we fuckin' threw down," Malakian said. "[Once], John and I were totally going at it. My lip was all cut up, and I took a microphone stand and hit him across the head and his head was all bashed in. Shavo [Odadjian, SOAD's bassist] and Serj were looking at us saying, 'Awww, man, we're done.' But right after we fought, we took each other to the hospital and got stitched up right next to each other. Both of us were sitting there laughing, saying, 'This is one of the coolest moments in the history of our band.'"
4. The band started out with 33 songs that they had to whittle down
Malakian and Tankian wrote 40 songs and narrowed them down to the 33 they liked best before they entered the studio. They recorded all of them before narrowing the track list to the 14 cuts that worked best on Toxicity. Many of the outtakes were released as Steal This Album after preliminary versions of the cuts leaked to the internet. At the time of the leak, the band released the following statement: "These tracks are unfinished and don't reflect the group's high standards of recorded sound. We are disappointed that our fans are listening to anything less than the best possible recordings from System of a Down." When Steal This Album (named after political activist Abbie Hoffman's 1971 book Steal This Book) was released in 2002, Tankian issued another statement: "We don't consider any of these songs B-sides or outtakes. The songs that didn't make it onto Toxicity are as good as, if not better than the songs that did — they weren't originally included because they didn't fit the overall continuity of the album, and we're happy that our fans will be able to hear them in their completed form."
5. Rick Rubin has no idea what "Chop Suey!" was about
It was clear that the song "Deer Dance" was a condemnation of riot police ("pushing little children/With their fully automatics"), and "The title track was a reflection of the ugliness of Los Angeles, which Tankian viewed as a "toxic city." But even Toxicity's producer Rick Rubin couldn't figure out what "Chop Suey!" was about. "I don't know what it means, but I know how it makes me feel," he told Rolling Stone. "It's like a lot of Neil Young songs, where the lyrics don't necessarily make sense, but they give you this feeling of something going on. This does that."
6. Toxicity was not meant to be a political album
Everyone in System of a Down bonded when it came to educating the public about the horrors of the Armenian genocide, yet Malakian and Tankian didn't always see eye to eye when it came to positioning System as a political band. "I think that's where Serj and I differ," Malakian said to the writers of Louder Than Hell. "I write about political things and social issues. Serj tends to get a little focused on politics, so I think that drives people to focus on politics a little bit more and there's a lot more to us than that. Also, he gets more involved outside the band in political issues. I don't really go out and get involved with organizations or stuff like that. I just like to keep my ideas in the lyrics."
7. The band's free album-release concert was canceled, causing a riot
To celebrate the release of Toxicity, the band scheduled a free concert on September 4th, 2001, with plans to take the stage in a parking lot on Schrader Boulevard in Hollywood at 4 p.m. By 4:30 they hadn't played and the audience had exponentially eclipsed the 1,000 fans expected to attend. Fearing crowd control problems, officials stepped up to the mic and announced the show was canceled. When the group's banner came down, the crowd rushed the stage and destroyed an estimated $30,000 worth of System's equipment, which had been set up for the performance. Then a full-scale riot ensued in which six people were arrested. The band was enraged and blamed the chaos on the police, who wouldn't let them play.
"I don't like what went down with, you know, our fans getting hit by rubber bullets and all that," Malakian told the writers of Louder Than Hell. "We showed up to the show to play and we get told we can't play. The fire marshals and the cops all say, 'You can't play. We don't have enough security here. More people showed up than we thought.' Close to 10,000 kids showed up. We said, 'Can we at least address our fans and let them know what's going on, 'cause some of these kids slept on the dirty floor overnight just to watch the show.' They said, 'Nope, You guys can't get anywhere near the show,' So what they did to tell our fans was to just drop our banner and tell everyone, 'Just leave.' The fans thought we didn't show up. At first, they were upset at us and that's why they trashed all our stuff. It was crazy. And, like I said, they were getting shot with rubber bullets and there was [sic] horses and all kinds of riot control going on. They put us in a van and took us to some nearby hotel, so we turn on the TV and on every channel, 'There's riots in Hollywood' and it was mine and Serj's face coming up on the TV and they were like, 'They came to see these guys.' So I didn't like what I saw with what was going on in the streets. But I also looked at it and I was like, 'Wow, this is really gonna make us a popular band."
8. Toxicity debuted at No. 1 and controversy immediately followed
The band's ravenous fans snatched up Toxicity in its first week and the album went straight to No. 1 on Billboard's album chart, selling 220,000 copies. The chart numbers hit the same week as the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Following the tragedy, Tankian issued this controversial statement about U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq: "If we carry out bombings on Afghanistan or elsewhere to appease public demand, and very likely kill innocent civilians along the way, we'd be creating many more martyrs going to their deaths in retaliation against the retaliation. As shown from yesterday's events, you cannot stop a person who's ready to die."
9. The band was surprised by the smash success of the single "Aerials"
Def American released "Aerials" on June 11th, 2002, as the third single from Toxicity, following "Chop Suey!" and the title track. Almost immediately, "Aerials" became the band's first No. 1 single, its only one to date. Two months later, Toxicity went double platinum as "Aerials" continued to blare across radio stations nationwide. It's not like System waited for the right moment to release "Aerials," so it would push their album over the top. In fact, the band didn't think the song was any better or worse than anything else on the album. "We didn't know it would become a big hit or anything, but truthfully we never even thought about it," Tankian said in Louder Than Hell. "It was just another song. We liked it, but we like all of our music. Anything we don't like gets thrown away."
10. System turned down the opportunity to perform at the 2003 Grammy Awards
Toxicity earned System Grammy nominations two years in a row. "Chop Suey!' was nominated for Best Metal Performance in 2002 and "Aerials" was nominated for Best Hard Rock Performance the next year. Along with the second nomination came an invitation to play the Grammy Awards, which System declined. "That's something N*SYNC and Britney Spears do, not System of a Down," Malakian said.
Below, watch System of a Down's Serj Tankian discuss creativity and the art of work in his home studio: