Daron Malakian: 21st Century Schizoid Man
“Then when I was 17 or 18 years old, my life completely changed, and I attribute that to the Beatles. As a kid, the Beatles were just some band that older people listened to, and they sang stuff like ‘Twist and Shout,’ which I wasn’t interested in because I was into metal. But later on I bought a Beatles greatest-hits CD and heard shit like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ and it really changed my life. That’s some of the most progressive music ever made. I became completely infatuated with it. And that’s where I got more in touch with writing songs. I was always writing songs but never realized I was doing it until the Beatles came into my life. It made me realize that I was interested in songs rather than riffs. Some guys relate to Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton. I happen to relate more to a songwriter like John Lennon.”
By then, Malakian had been through a series of bands, some of them with the future members of System of a Down, whom he’d met while attending a neighborhood Armenian school. “Me, Serj and Shavo were in the same elementary school together. So we all go pretty far back together. Serj is a little older than I am, so we never really hung out until we started playing music together. I was the lead singer for a band, and we shared a rehearsal studio with the band that Serj was the keyboard player for. We decided to form a new band [named Soil, a System of a Down forerunner] and trade places; he became the lead singer. So this latest mutation, where I’m singing more on the new album, feels very natural for us. It wasn’t like me and Serj got into fights because he wanted to sing it all.”
One style of music that left Malakian cold was Nineties alternative rock. In fact, System of a Down first coalesced as a reaction against that particular genre. “I remember sitting in Shavo’s Honda Civic and talking about how we were frustrated with the times,” Malakian recalls. “That kind of pulled us together. There were some good bands to come out of that era, but I also think it was kind of a bland era. System was starting at that time, and a big part of it for me was to find a sound that wasn’t that.”
From the start, System of a Down were hard to categorize, even within the metal community. “When we were still a club band,” Malakian recalls, “record label people would tell us, ‘The heavy metal fans are gonna think you’re too different, and the rap fans aren’t gonna get you. We can’t sell you to white people because you’re Armenian, and they’re never gonna buy you down south.’ So many stupid things we heard: ‘Get a new singer.’ The people from MCA used to call us and say, ‘You know your songs are good, but you gotta write more catches.’ I told them I don’t write catches. But they never caught on.”
One guy who did was producer and allaround record-biz wiz Rick Rubin, who signed System of a Down and has guided them through their entire career, from their attention-grabbing, self-titled 1998 debut album throughout Toxicity’s mainstream breakthrough and 2002’s Steal this Album! Over that time, Malakian’s relationship with the producer has evolved into a comfortable partnership.
“When we were making the first album,” says Malakian, “I was afraid to open my mouth in the studio, because it was like, Wow, we got the legendary Rick Rubin! That was never Rick’s trip; it was more my take. As a 23-year-old making my first album, I was very overwhelmed. But on the second record, getting to know Rick better, I felt more comfortable coming in as a producer. It’s funny: when we first worked with Rick, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, he doesn’t even show up.’ But with System, he’s very hands-on. He cares. But he’s also hands off enough to let me see my vision through. I had the guitar and drum sounds in my mind for this new album. I paved that direction.”
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