Daron Malakian: 21st Century Schizoid Man
As Malakian explains, the song (the album’s first single) combines the gilded optimism of army recruitment ads with the egocentric lifestyle depicted in hip-hop videos. “A lot of MTV’s programming is hip-hop based, and the messages are usually all about blingbling,” he says. “A lot of hip-hop artists sing about stuff that’s more important, but they seldom get heard. The ones who get heard are the ones saying, ‘Think about yourself. Make your money. It’s all you. Everybody have a good time and party.’ ”
Likewise, he says, the army beckons to the same audience with its promise of money, career and a social life. “Seventeen-, 18- and 19-year-old kids are getting prepared to go and fight in a war and they don’t even know why they’re fighting. Army recruitment ads always say things like, ‘Start a career! Make new friends!’ They never talk about how you’re going over there to kill people.”
In other words, it’s important to look beyond the superficial details. As much is true when it comes to Malakian. Consider his home, nestled in a comfortable L.A. suburb. From the street, the place looks much like any of the other well-maintained residences in the neighborhood, its bubblegum-pink façade notwithstanding. Approaching the entrance, though, one notices twin wooden skulls carved into the double front doors and a disturbingly cadaverous iron sculpture lurking in the courtyard. This imposing piece is the work of artist Vartan Malakian, his father and the creator of the album art for Mezmerize/Hypnotize.
Inside, the place feels like a household after mom and dad have gone off on a long vacation, leaving their teenage son to run amok. The family room is littered with guitars, amps, keyboards, turntables and DJ gear, video-game consoles and a big-screen TV, with cables running helter-skelter across the luminous black tile floor. Skulls fashioned of colored glass, chrome, plastic and who knows what else adorn every horizontal surface. There are photos of Malakian’s heroes John Lennon and schizophrenic cult leader Charles Manson and, near the black leather sofa, a four-foot-high bong that Malakian repeatedly refills and relights with the casual nonchalance of a confirmed pothead.
It was in this smoky, technology-littered lair that much of Mezmerize/Hypnotize was written and conceived. “I haven’t been out of the house in two weeks,” confesses Malakian, who’s a bit of a homebody and a workaholic. “I don’t go to parties. I don’t drink, so I don’t go out and buy the gang beers. I basically stay home and work on music. I guess you’d say I’m a gearhead. It’s not just guitars; I have five or six drum sets, a bunch of keyboards… It’s like Guitar Center exploded and all the cool stuff dropped in my backyard. I’m a really lucky guy, I have to admit.”
In addition to assuming a larger share of the vocal and lyric-writing duties, Malakian played 90 percent of the bass parts, as well as guitars and keyboards.
“I’ve always written lyrics,” he says, “like ‘Prison Song’ and ‘Deer Dance,’ to name a couple. I’ve written almost every System chorus, but I wrote more verses this time, too. I’ve always considered myself a songwriter, but this time I really focused on being the best songwriter I can possibly be. Sometimes you do it by getting into a character. Sometimes you just drive around town. Songwriting to me is just as mysterious as serial killing.”
Malakian has a highly personal stake in Mezmerize/Hypnotize’s antiwar songs. Though he is of Armenian descent, many of his relatives live in Iraq. “My [maternal] grandmother lives there,” he says, “and my aunts, uncles and cousins.”
Asked what word he hears from his relatives in that war-torn country, Malakian answers tersely: “They’re alive. They’re not dead. They don’t say ‘We’re great,’ ’cause they’re not. But at least they’re not dead. It’s funny: Our family is in danger now, but nobody in my family is anti-American. So I don’t understand Americans who are so against the other side. It’s been a really strange couple of years for me. It’s brought up a lot of emotions, a lot of songs. I’ve had moments of waking up in the middle of the night with crazy pictures in my head of really bad things happening to my family there.”
The experience made Malakian think of his parents’ own history in Iraq and delve into his earliest memories of growing up in Los Angeles, which in turn shaped many of the new songs’ lyrics. “Before my parents moved to America, they were successful artists in Iraq, before the Saddam era,” he explains. “They left when all that stuff started. But before that, my dad was a very well-respected painter and dance choreographer; he wasn’t just chump change. And my mom was a college sculpture teacher. Then, when they came to America, my mom worked at a bank and my dad worked as a presser for Neiman Marcus.”
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