Orginally printed in Guitar World, July 2005.
Visionary songwriter. Mad lyricist. Genius guitarist. Obsessive shut-in. There are so many sides to System of a Down's prolific guitarist Daron Malakian that it took two albums to contain them.
It's never been easy to describe System of a Down’s music. Its contradictory mix of styles is by turns abrasive and dissonant, gentle and melodic, often within the same song. For those who ponder such things, Daron Malakian, the group’s guitarist, has a candid explanation. “People sometimes say our music is kind of ‘schizophrenic,’ ” says Malakian. “And, yeah, it is kind of schizophrenic. That’s because we live in a crazy fucking society.” The notion could be extended to Malakian and his presence in an extreme metal band like System of a Down. Slightly built, with thinning long brown hair and large searching eyes, Malakian has a quietly friendly manner and a highpitched laugh that would suit a cartoon chipmunk. These aren’t the qualities one would assume of a guitarist whose band was responsible for Toxicity, the multi-Platinum 2001 album whose psycho-dramatic metal and militant political stance left a nasty scar on the slick surface of U.S. popular culture. In fact, Malakian contributed heavily to the album’s vitriolic music and message, serving as the principal composer of the songs performed by him and his bandmates, singer Serj Tankian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan.
On System’s newest album, Mezmerize/Hypnotize (Sony), Malakian plays an even greater role as a lyricist, singer and multiinstrumentalist, and the result is an album that surpasses its ambitious predecessor. For one thing, Mezmerize/Hypnotize is a double album, albeit one whose two discs will be released half a year apart: Mezmerize drops first, to be followed by Hypnotize in late fall of this year. “People’s attention spans don’t run too long these days,” Malakian says, explaining the unusual release schedule. “I want to release this in a way that will do each song justice. You put too many songs on your record and it ends up like a family with too many kids: some of them get neglected.”
In addition, the double-album format gives the band ample room to push every conceivable envelope. Mezmerize alone contains some of the most aggressive, gloriously ugly bursts of pure-black bitter bile System have ever generated, as well as their most melodic and vulnerable music.
The album opens with “Soldiercide,” an achingly sad song that brings war’s insanity unnervingly close to home. From there, the listener is sucked into the centrifugal slipstream of “B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bombs),” a full-scale emotional meltdown. Tempos shift and lurch with seismographic unpredictability, and shards of crazy Greek wedding music fly by. Malakian’s dry, tortured guitar tones slice through the mix, while Tankian spews rapid-fire streams of eloquent anger, like a man suffering a Tourette’s seizure. The net result is scary, theatrical, funny, weird and cathartic—an ominous, ironic bash: “Everybody’s goin’ to the party, have a real good time,” goes the song’s chorus. “Dancin’ in the desert. Blowin’ up the sunshine.”
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.”
An only child, Malakian grew up in one of Hollywood’s dicier neighborhoods, near the intersection of Vine Street and Santa Monica Boulevard. Across the street from the family’s apartment was a hotel where local prostitutes conducted their business. Memories like these are reflected in “Lost in Hollywood,” Mezmerize’s rumination on the “city of broken dreams,” a latter-day successor to songs like the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”
“In the early Eighties, all you’d see on Sunset Boulevard were prostitutes,” Malakian recalls. “That was before it got cleaned up. So that’s how I think of Hollywood. People who don’t live here see it as a fantasy land. But I see people giving up their morals, giving up their lives, giving up everything for this town. All the girls who came here to be actresses and ended up as porn stars; all the girls who came here to be models and ended up strippers… You talk to six or seven out of 10 porn stars and they’d probably rather be doing something else. Strippers, too.”
Reminded of all the guys who come to Hollywood to be rock stars only to end up working in music stores, Malakian replies, “They can end up on the street selling their asses too. It doesn’t have to be in a physical way, either; you can actually feel like you made it and still be selling your ass. I sold my ass before.”
At times Malakian seems to have conflicting emotions about his success: on the new song “Radio Video,” he contrasts vivid memories of his fifth birthday party—at a So-Cal Shakey’s Pizza—with a bittersweet image of hearing himself on the radio later in life. “It’s almost like someone saying, ‘Hey, I’m on the radio,’ but they’re not happy about it,” he explains. “So it’s another song with that party mood, but not happy to be partying.”
Still, Malakian’s childhood wasn’t an unhappy one. He remembers being taken to museums every weekend and participating in political discussions with his parents’ bohemian friends at a very early age. “My dad is my biggest inspiration when it comes to what I do,” he says. “I don’t look at music through the eyes of a musician; I look at songs and music through the eyes of a visual artist, ’cause that’s what I grew up with. The way I saw it, I really had to focus on music, because I feel like my parents had to give up a lot of shit. And I’ve always believed, since I was a kid, that my destiny was to play music.”
His fate was sealed at the age of four when a cousin played him a Kiss record. “I was a little heavy metal kid when I was five and six. I had Van Halen, Ozzy and Judas Priest albums. I played with toys like a normal kid, but I’d drag my mom to the local record store, Wherehouse Records, more often than I’d drag her to the toy store. I also liked stuff like Depeche Mode—a lot of the popular music of the Eighties—but once I was 12 or 13 years old I started getting into what was then more underground metal, like Slayer…all this heavy, dark stuff. My friends used to hate the bands I liked, ’cause they were into Yngwie Malmsteen and stuff like that.
“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.”
Mezmerize/Hypnotize was recorded at Rubin’s famed “haunted mansion” in the Hollywood Hills. “Some weird stuff did happen,” Malakian confirms. “Every day around five o’clock my amps would take a shit. Same time every day, this weird noise came out of my amp. We’d check the tubes and everything, and it would all be fine. So it was a little strange there, especially when you went downstairs into the laundry room. You go down these small, winding steps, and it was kinda dark and cold down there. Creepy. But I like creepy. I have skulls all over my house.”
The spirits didn’t prevent Malakian from achieving the guitar sound he had in mind. “I really wanted the strings on the guitar to be heard,” he says. “That was important. The guitar should sound like a string instrument. Some people want their guitar to sound like a keyboard, or they put a lot of effects on it.”
Malakian’s main guitar for distorted tones was a 1962 Gibson SG through a 100-watt Marshall JMP100 amp and a single 4x12 cab. One channel of the Marshall is stock, but the second has been modified for extra gain. This very basic rig was recorded via an unusual room-miking technique.
“I got to thinking, when you play an acoustic guitar, the sound comes out of the guitar,” Malakian explains. “So why in recording rooms does the sound always have to bounce off the walls? Why don’t we bounce it off more guitars? So I basically covered a whole wall with acoustic guitars, from ceiling to floor. We pointed the speaker cabinet toward this wall of guitars and set up a room mic. The resonance came out of the guitars and back into the microphone. In most cases we muted the strings of the guitars on the wall, so we got the resonance from the body but not actual notes from the strings. And that gave us a very cutting sound, which is what I wanted.”
Along with the 1962 SG, Malakian also used a Jackson Randy Rhoads Flying V retrofitted with humbuckers and two early Eighties Gibson Korina Flying Vs for distorted tones. But the SG was his favorite by far, in part because the guitar’s distinctive “sideways” tremolo arm system endows the tone with some of the trebly cut that was so important to Malakian on this project. “I like that tremolo system, not for the tremolo but for the way it makes the guitar resonate,” he says. “It makes it sound more metallic, which helps the sound of the guitar, in my opinion.”
High-end definition was so important this time, Malakian explains, “because some of the music on the album is faster and more intricate than anything we’ve done in the past. So I really wanted the attack of the notes to be heard. We even tuned the guitars a little higher than we have in the past. Usually we would tune down a whole step, to D, with the low string down an additional whole step to C [low to high: C, G, C, F, A, D]. But for this album we’re in D sharp with a dropped C sharp [low to high: C#, G#, C#, F# A#, D#], and even that half-step-higher tuning makes a big difference. A lot of people want the guitar to sound muddier. On Toxicity I was more into a bottomy type of sound. But not this time. As time goes on I find I’m getting closer to 440 [i.e., standard tuning]. Lately I’ve been playing a lot in 440.”
Malakian’s string gauges have changed accordingly: “In the early days of System I used very heavy-gauge strings. But for this album I went to .50 or .48 sets. I’ve used Ernie Ball strings ever since I was about 12 years old, because that’s what they sold at the local record store when I was a kid.”
For many of the heavy rhythm parts on the album, Malakian doubled one of his humbucker-equipped guitars (the 1962 SG or any of the Flying Vs) with a single-coil pickup guitar. His P-90-equipped 1964 Gibson SG Special was often chosen for the task, and it’s a guitar that is especially close to his heart. “The P-90s really filled up a lot of sonic real estate. The humbucker gives you a very pointed attack, and the P-90s are much more wild and open. So both of them together did something really cool.”
While Malakian’s distorted tone is formidable, his many-and-varied clean tones are among the most interesting on the disc. He has a gift for placing small, delicate sounds amid roaring chunk-metal mixes and somehow ensuring that the tiny sound claims the listener’s attention. Mezmerize/Hypnotize is particularly rich in multitracked, harmonized, Greek bouzouki-like timbres, many of which were achieved on a Fender Jazzmaster through a Divided by 13 model FTR-37 amp. “My uncle lived in Greece for a long time,” Malakian recalls. “He came to America when I was seven or eight years old and he brought a lot of Greek music with him. Maybe that’s where I get those harmonized solo bouzouki things I do on guitar.”
For these passages, Malakian facilitates his bouzouki-style double-picking technique with large triangular-shaped picks. “I used smaller picks in System’s early days, but when we started playing live, the fingers of my picking hand would get all bloody. My whole guitar would be covered in blood. At first it was like, ‘That’s so cool!’ but after a few shows you get over it. So I made myself get used to a bigger pick. Those big triangular picks are just bass picks. Or they used to be bass picks until bass players stopped using them.”
Malakian started out with the “tortoiseshell” Fender triangular picks but has since moved on to the Dunlop’s Tortex version of the same plectrum. He even sharpens the edges for extra “cut.” “I’m waiting for them to make me some already sharpened,” he notes.
The distinctive clean guitar intro to the song “Hypnotized” was created on a red Sixties Hagstrom through a small Watkins (W.E.M.) Dominator also of swinging-Sixties vintage. “I tried two or three different guitars for that part to see which one would cut,” he says. “The Hagstrom had just the right tone. And the Watkins gives a very punchy sound. It’s cool for arpeggiated parts or even little solo stuff. I also used the tremolo channel on the Watkins for the tremolo sections in some songs.”
The drone behind the “Hypnotized” intro riff was generated by means of a technique Malakian has used on every System album thus far. “I have a double-neck Gibson SG. And I play the bottom [12-string] neck but leave the top pickups open and also mic the strings, as if it were an acoustic guitar. So you get the resonance from there, which adds this mystical type of thing to the cleaner guitars. Also, for some of those drone parts we unmuted the strings of the acoustic guitars hanging on the wall to get even more drones.”
As the arrangements took shape, Malakian found himself recording most of the bass parts himself, using a Fender P-Bass through an Ampeg SVT rig. “The new songs are more technical than anything we’ve done in the past,” he says. “There was just a certain way I wanted to hear everything come together with the bass. It was a matter of touch, of feel. Since I wrote it all, I thought it would work out better if I played it with my own touch. But Shavo plays on two or three tracks on the album, where I thought his feel was right. And they’re three of the best tracks on the record, in my opinion.
“It’s not that Shavo couldn’t play the other songs, ’cause he can. He’s already started developing the right feel for them and he’ll be playing them on the road. To be honest with you, there’s no drama or hard feelings about it. In System, there’s plenty for everyone to do. Shavo directs videos for the band. So he’s not trippin’ on it if I want to play some bass. He understands where I’m going with the record. He gives me that respect and I appreciate that.”
Respect is also key to the yin-yang dynamic between Malakian and Tanakian, and their relationship is the main engine that drives System of a Down. Where Malakian is introverted to the point of being a recluse, Tankian is a consummate extrovert—an outspoken political activist who has spearheaded projects like Axis of Justice, the advocacy group he started with Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello.
“I’m no activist; I drive a Hummer,” Malakian says, and laughs. “Serj flew all the way to New York to protest the Republican National Convention. I don’t do that kind of thing; I’m more stuck on staying at home and writing songs. Anyone in my life—my mother, father, girlfriend—knows that I stay home and work on music almost all the time. Serj commends me for that, and I commend him for what he does. There’s a very big mutual respect there. I’m very aware of what’s going on politically, but I chose to make the focus of my work a lot broader than that. I don’t want to be known as a political guy. I’m focused more on art. I admire someone like Bob Marley; he was a threat to the warmongers. He would say a lot of insightful things about the world situation, but at the same time he’d say, ‘Forget your troubles and dance.’ He connected to a more personal emotion. That’s what I try to do.”
At times, Malakian’s reclusiveness seems to border on agoraphobia. “I’m scared as fuck to go out on tour for this new album,” he confides. “I’m so scared of leaving my house. I’m not kidding. I just like having all my stuff right here around me. I like the way I live, although some people might not see it as healthy.”
Malakian’s world very much revolves around weed, junk food, video games, his collection of macabre artifacts, his extensive CD collection—Neil Young and the Reverend Gary Davis are two current favorites—and professional sports. “If you sit me on a beach, I’m just going to think about music,” he says. “But when I go to a sporting event, I think about the game. It’s one of the few things that kinda zones me out and takes my mind off music. So I go to baseball and hockey games. Me and my girl, we watch movies and do all sorts of stuff. I’m more the cozy chillin’ type.”
Malakian’s main strategy for surviving on the road is to “transform the back of the bus into my living room. The TV would be in the same place. I play a lot of video games, just kick it with a bong…the same as when I’m home.”
If Mezmerize/Hypnotize does anywhere near as well as its predecessor, Malakian is going to be spending a lot of time in back of that bus over the next few years. “I believe this is where hard rock has evolved,” he says of the disc. “In the beginning, very few people understood. Now all the labels are looking for the next System of a Down. But I don’t want to see any band clone us. I’d like to see bands that we’ve inspired do different things. But I don’t wanna see five or six System of a Downs. That would make me sad.”