Shavo Odadjian: "After 30-something years, my playing has just become its own thing. I never said I wanted to play like anyone else"

Shavo Odadjian
(Image credit: Francesco Castaldo/Mondadori via Getty Images)

Let's face it – the last year has been an incredibly tough time for musicians and the industry at large. Tours were postponed, releases cancelled and plans thwarted. But that still wasn't enough to stop Shavo Odadjian from doing what he loves best...

One of the biggest news stories from last year was the unexpected return of his main group System Of A Down, who reunited for two tracks in light of the recently erupted conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan/Turkey. It had been 15 years since they'd released any new music and the two new offerings – titled Protect the Land and Genocidal Humanoidz – did not disappoint.

And that's just the start of it. As well as expanding his premium cannabis brand 22Red, Odadjian also launched his new project North Kingsley, with two EPs released over 2020 and plenty more to come. The band, which also features producer Saro Paparian and frontman/lyricist Ray Hawthorne, sees the SOAD legend playing both guitar and bass, combining elements of rap and electronica with the hard rock sounds he's been mainly known for over the last 22 years or so.

Here he tells Guitar World about what to expect from North Kingsley in 2021, the gear used on SOAD's long-awaited return and his experiences working with legendary artists outside of rock like George Clinton and Wu-Tang Clan...

When did you realize this would be the year to launch the new band?

"I just needed to make music again. We'd been together for about two years but it wasn't a band. I always play music at home, every day I grab a guitar and start riffing. I like to make music and anytime I come up with something good, I'll record it as a video on my phone. I had about 65 different clips and realized I wanted to put them out properly.

"I wanted to learn a program and I liked Logic. I met a guy who was really good at it – Saro, who is our producer – and asked him to come over to my studio and teach me how to work it.

I just needed to make music again. We'd been together for about two years but it wasn't a band. I always play music at home, everyday I grab a guitar and start riffing

"The day he came over, all these ideas started coming out perfectly just the way they were in my head. That excited me! And it wasn't supposed to be in any genre of music, these were just ideas that could be anything.

“So we started progressing and would be in the studio three or four times a week working away. Ray came over – he'd been working with Saro on a project they had together– but I still wasn't convinced I wanted this to be a band. I didn't know if I wanted other vocalists I already knew. But then one song 'happened' and when it did, I realized this was definitely a band."

Stylistically, how did you envisage the music turning out... did you have a specific idea in mind?

"I never wanted to do rap-rock because it had been done loads in the '90s, but I love hip-hop and I love metal... that's what I do, that's my shit. So how do I mix the two without making rap-rock? That was the question. There was a formula with Saro and Ray that felt cool and original. The beats we were using had a different vibe compared to the rap-rock with actual drums. We were using trip-hop and trap-style sounds and beats.

"I was also using the guitar and bass not so much as instruments, but more like textures and samples. I would bring them in and take them out, they didn't always have to be there. They were just another element of sound. And Saro was the same with his beats, that's why I became so confident with what he was doing. Plus I didn't want to do everything myself..."

North Kingsley

(Image credit: North Kingsley)

Why not, if you don't mind us asking?

"Well, I'm not a solo artist. It's really tough when you do everything (laughs)! I like to collaborate with people I trust, like in System Of A Down, where I'm more of a collaborating style of writer. I would bring a riff in and know that Daron (Malakian, guitars) would take it and arrange it in a certain way, then Serj (Tankian, vocals) would do what Serj does and John (Dolmayan, drums) would boom-boom right away. Those would often be collaborations. And it's the same with this group. 

"Saro doesn't use any programmed beats or sounds, he'll makes his own sounds and then make the beat or he might make the beat with regular sounds and then change them later so it's original. That really excited me and that was the initial attraction, on a song called Kids Love Guns. After that, I knew we were working on some cool shit. We started writing but I didn't want to say anything... the other guys were excited and wanted to drop it straight away because they're young. But I had to say, 'No bro, let's become something and develop before we release anything!' I felt it was too premature."

You give people a full meal and they'll be too full too fast. Give them bits and pieces and they'll want another taste, maybe with a different flavor

Instead of releasing it all in one go, you've been putting the music out as EPs. What prompted that decision?

"We had 12 songs and more coming through fast, so I wanted to find another way to release it all. It's a different genre – everyone knows me for heavy metal – so I didn't want to shock them too much. I felt 12 songs in a new style dropping at once would have been too much. Some people might have liked one or two tracks and forgotten about the rest because something else would be coming out.

"So I thought let's get it out there and put it out there ourselves, and why not do four EPs that make one album. Giving it to people in little bits like snacks, instead of a full meal... know what I mean? That way they're always hungry (laughs)! You give people a full meal and they'll be too full too fast. Give them bits and pieces and they'll want another taste, with maybe a different flavor.

I started dividing the tracks up thinking the first ones would be cool because of all the craziness, then the next ones would feel more advanced because they were written a little later... I was being totally calculated and strategic!"

Though the virus pandemic didn't manage to stop you, it must have still affected launching the project to some extent...

“Well, the first EP was supposed to come out on my birthday on April 22… which is roughly when it all went crazy! What a terrible time to release something. Then in May the riots happened after they killed George Floyd and all that shit happened. So we pulled it back and decided August 14, no matter what happens. 

“We couldn’t wait forever. It was a warm welcome. I never expected it to go BOOM and make us the biggest band in the world. Once we did that I was pleased with how many people were listening. It was more about quality than quantity. And then Volume 2 came out in December…”

One of the tracks on it, False Idols, features Wu-Tang Clan legend RZA, who you've worked with before a lot in the past...

“That was so cool. He’s my guy. If I’m going to do a hip-hop thing, he’s gonna be a part of it. When he heard I was doing it, he was like, ‘Yo – I want to get on!’ and I was like, ‘Hell yeah, bro!’ I played him three songs and he knew it would be False Idols right away. It was magic. 

“I think we had a drink in the studio, then he wrote something down and said he had it ready. We put the mic up and he did it right there, no vocal booth, no nothing. We just did it as friends. Much like the Achozen record we did that never fully dropped, it was all done in one room too. That’s how we’re used to working! Now I have six songs ready for Volume 3 and Volume 4.”

You and RZA have also worked with George Clinton, appearing on each other's albums like 8 Diagrams and Gangsters Of Love. What did you learn from the pioneer of funk?

“Man, George Clinton taught me some serious lessons! For a couple of years we were hanging out almost every other day. He’d stay at my house sometimes because we were working so much. He’d just say, ‘I’m gonna take a nap,’ and then disappear for a bit, and then come back and do his vocals! That’s what my house was like back then. I wasn’t married, I was just a single guy making music all day with different rooms in the house set up. One was the control room, another was the live room, even the bedrooms were music rooms. 

“I would be asleep while other people were making music! It was constant creation – that house was exciting, there was music coming out 24 hours a day. And George loved that. He’s one of those guys that lives and breathes creation. He’s become the Uncle I never had. I have so much of him recorded that no-one’s ever heard.” 

I would be asleep while other people where making music! It was constant creation – that house was exciting, there was music coming out 24 hours a day

Tells us more…

“I would make beats and do weird things like put a bass flat on a table with loads of effects on. The pickups were capturing the sounds of the table too and I had rubbers and nails next to the bass. I’d hit the rubber bands and the pickups would get all that shit. We’d freestyle moments where I’d throw a beat on and play the rubber bands and bass while messing with the effects, and George would just sit on my couch with a microphone and just talk. 

“He’d say all this prolific shit that would make you think twice, like ‘Look both ways before you cross my mind!’ Just weird shit that blew my mind. I would be listening back wondering where the hell that came from. When he was making his record, he wanted me on it too so I handed him all this music I had and he used whatever fit the mold. 

“And as for RZA, we were neighbors back then, so he’d be over every other day, drop a verse or a beat, hang out and smoke weed. It was such a creative time for me. When you collaborate, you grow and learn more about yourself. You give me something and I’ll give you something else, and it will start to becoming this whole other thing. RZA and George both taught me a lot.”

Back to North Kingsley, some of the music feels really experimental. The song Shadowbox, for example, almost has more of a trip-hop feel…

“I was a little worried about how my fans would accept this, if they would understand the artistic freedom I’m using right now. There are no rules. No one can tell me that because I got famous playing rock, I can’t do other things. That’s not cool. That’s like saying, ‘You’re Armenian so you can’t speak English!’ And it’s like, ‘No bro, I wanna learn every language and every genre!’

“That’s part of life, that’s how you grow. I might do a speed metal record next year. I have some crazy riffs lying around, so maybe it will be a speed metal rap record. Ray started off as a punk rock and metal singer… that guy can wail. And soon you’ll hear more of that from him and be able to understand where we are going. I think Volume 3 will be the heaviest and most guitar-driven.”

There are no rules. No one can tell me that because I got famous playing rock, I can't do other things... that's part of life. That's how you grow

Other songs, like Die For The Pic, have an almost bluesy stoner rock quality to the guitar tones…

“That’s what I’m talking about! I’ve been a fan of desert rock since Kyuss… that’s my shit! That lo-fi sound is what I’m going for. I also love how Stephen sounds in Deftones with that seven-string chug. I’m using my six-string like a seven at times. We don’t have another instrumentalist in this band. Saro plays guitar too, but I’ve been doing it all so far.

“On Rifle In Thought, I played my first ever solo in the middle section, with lots of guitars layered. I’m just having fun, man. I’m doing whatever happens and comes to me. We didn’t plan this, it wasn’t even supposed to be a band. I just wanna make music, whoever I connect with… let’s go!”

I’m just having fun, man. I’m doing whatever happens and comes to me. We didn’t plan this, it wasn’t even supposed to be a band. I just wanna make music, whoever I connect with… let’s go!

What kind of rig did you use on these new tracks?

“I was using three different basses – an Idolmaker bass that was custom-made by Warwick for me, as well as two custom Streamers. Every year I get a new signature bass from them, with differing setups. I love Warwick and want to give them a big shout out. Those guys are amazing and ever since I teamed up with them, my sound and playing has gotten so much better. Their instruments just fit my hands better and I can play them better, even though I’ve used Thunderbirds my whole life in System. Warwicks are just more comfortable I find.

“Because of the way Saro records, he developed some amp and pedal sounds in Logic so we went straight in. I have bins and bins of pedals I’ve collected over the years. As a hobby I’d walk into any music store and buy anything I didn’t already have! I don’t use them right now, but it will be fun to get them out for live shows. I can’t wait for that… to play live with a guitar. I’ve never really done that, because I always play bass. In this group, I can do both!

“And for guitars, it was all vintage Les Pauls. I used two of my 69 Goldtops and a white 72/73 and then a black 68, which I’m playing in the Rifle In Thought video. I love Les Pauls, especially the ones from the late 60s or early 70s. I don’t have to try or think with those guitars. I just hold them in my hands and it just happens. I’ve got a cool Les Paul story if you want to hear it, by the way…”

As a hobby I'd walk into any music store and buy anything I didn't already have!

Please indulge us!

“The first Les Paul I ever purchased was a 69. I wanted to buy my first vintage guitar, maybe around 15 years ago. I was in New York going from store to store and couldn’t find anything – nothing vintage and nothing cool. Then I walked into this place called Rudy's and went straight to the counter without even looking. I told them I was looking for a vintage Les Paul and the guy told me to turn around… it was this 69 Goldtop. I didn’t care how much it cost, I just wanted it – but it was a reasonable price. 

“I was walking the streets of New York holding it. A friend I’m with got a call from someone who worked on the Howard Stern show, Jackie Martling, and got an invite to watch Les Paul play at this club. Les had just gotten out of hospital and wanted to play a show the next day… the dude was like 90 years old! So my friend told them I was in town and had just bought my first Les Paul, and got told to bring me along and the guitar as well in the hope that Les might sign it.”

North Kingsley

(Image credit: North Kinglsey)

And we’re guessing you were lucky in that regard…

“Yup! My day changed pretty fast. I watch Les play – that guy was amazing, a magical human being and guitar player. Afterwards, I got to hang out with him and he asked what I had in the case. So I took it out. This was a legendary moment for me because he created that thing. He looked at it and peered up as if something crazy had happened, then pointed to the Goldtop he was playing that night and it was the exact same 69 model. 

“He said he’d just gotten out of hospital, went into the attic which is where his collection was and pulled that specific guitar out to play that night. We sat there and he told me the whole story about that specific year and all the special things that happened. I have pictures and videos of us talking and hanging out. I was like a little baby that night – it was like I met God, that’s how it felt. He signed the guitar and personalized it for me. I still have it on my wall! 

“I ended up buying more of those 69 models because it was a special year. Anytime I find one, I will buy it and my kids can have them when I’m gone! I have three right now, but the one he signed – which I can never play on stage because he signed it and I can’t wear that out – is the ultimate. Every time I play it, I know it’s better than any other guitar. Not the other two, but specifically that one. I was very sad when he passed away but he lived a life, man.”

It was like I met God, that's how it felt. He signed the guitar and personalized it for me. I still have it on my wall!

And as for the new SOAD tracks, what exactly are we hearing in your hands?

“For those two new tracks, I used my new Warwick bass. It’s the one with the stained glass effect, so the last signature they made for me. They used this gloss for the paint job, it’s all hand-made and I think they said it took 111 hours to finish. They’d never done anything like it before. I wanted it to look like glass, and was talking about a switch for a light at the back so it looked like the sun shining through. 

“They went through a bunch of experiments to create that effect and it looks great, almost like a mirror kind of thing. I used to have the mirror pickguard on my T-Birds, which I would use on stage to reflect light back into the crowd and make a beam of light coming out of my instrument.

“It was half direct and half with amplifiers. There was one Ashdown and I can’t remember the second amp because the owner of the studio had something he wanted me to try, with an edgier kind of tone that sticks out.

“The way it happened was so fast. Daron brought the songs in and we just had to go for it. I had to learn the songs, figure out the sounds and do it all in two days. So it ended up being three or four different sounds meshed into one. I didn’t use any pedals. I never do that when recording.”

It must have felt pretty magical, to be recording new music with your bandmates after such a long break…

“I miss playing with those guys, I really do. Those two days we jammed were amazing. It’s like I got to eat my cake, as they say. I wish it could have gone on longer. I miss those guys and love them so much. When we connect there’s an undeniable bond – no one in the band or out of the band can say it’s not special. 

“We will always have it. I mean, we took 15 years off and it all came out the same exact way it used to. That shit’s not going away. It’s not just the writing, it’s the playing and energy that comes together when we are in the same room.”

And the reaction was quite spectacular, many fans saying the new music felt on par with the SOAD legacy…

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“Daron is a maniac, he’s amazing. We have many different ways of writing. I’ve brought in parts that get arranged. Also, Serj brings stuff in like Question!, Shimmy, Vicinity Of Obscenity, and these other beautiful songs. And then there are times where Daron comes in with everything written – vocals and everything – because he’s a singer-songwriter. How can we say no? He’s in our band and that’s the beauty of the sound we’ve developed. And that’s how these two were. 

Genocidal Humanoidz, though, he wrote and then we developed together at his house in 2017. We’re about to shoot the video for that. I’m directing again. For Protect The Land we teamed up with some other people, it was a team effort – no one took a directing credit. We all did it.

“For Genocidal Humanoidz, I took some time to develop the concept. It’s a two-and-a-half-minute song, but there’s a lot I can explain there because there’s a lot being said. I came up with the idea with my directing partner, Adam Mason, who did the Die For The Pic video. I hope we get to do it as soon as I hope. I don’t want to promise anything and can’t say when or how… but it’s coming!”

Finally, what would you say is the Shavo method of playing bass or guitar? Do you think in terms of technique and theory much or just go with the flow?

“My approach to bass and guitar is just pick it up. I don’t play any scales. When I started out, it was guitar first. Actually, I only picked up the bass a year or two before SOAD started. I never had lessons and never got taught any theory. I learned as I played, so kinda made my own ones up. I’m not technical at all… I just feel. I’m a rhythmic player, so even my guitar stuff is like that and more groove or riff-based. I like playing with rhythms, being a little off here and there to create feel. 

“After 30-something years of playing, it’s just become its own thing. I never said I wanted to play like anyone else. And I sucked at first of course… but the more you do it, the better you get. That’s the key to life in general. If you love something, keep doing it until you get better. No matter what, you will get really good if you stay consistent. If you do it every now and then you’ll be okay. Do it every day and you’ll be badass. Some people probably would say I suck and that’s cool. But I love doing what I do, and I won’t stop. 

“I like to warm up with slides and grooves to get my fingers going. I also thinking listening to other music is very important – that’s what will make your own music better. Your brain will absorb different things and subconsciously it will come out through your hands. It never happens the next day. Sometimes it will be years later when you least expect it!”

The new bands and artists are going to be the hip-hop equivalent of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains. I want to be a part of that. Watch this space!

Shavo Odadjian

Outside of North Kingsley and SOAD, what else are you going to be working on over 2021?

“Recently, I’ve been asked to do a bunch of features on hip-hop stuff. I feel like right now hip-hop is in a place where something truly great is about to happen… like in 1989, when all the hair-metal bands were doing their thing and then Nirvana came out. This new take on it that’s going to make the old rap look like Poison or Warrant (laughs)! And the new bands and artists are going to be the hip-hop equivalent of Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. I want to be a part of that.”

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Amit Sharma

Amit has been writing for titles like Total GuitarMusicRadar and Guitar World for over a decade and counts Richie Kotzen, Guthrie Govan and Jeff Beck among his primary influences as a guitar player. He's worked for magazines like Kerrang!Metal HammerClassic RockProgRecord CollectorPlanet RockRhythm and Bass Player, as well as newspapers like Metro and The Independent, interviewing everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy to Slash and Jimmy Page, and once even traded solos with a member of Slayer on a track released internationally. As a session guitarist, he's played alongside members of Judas Priest and Uriah Heep in London ensemble Metalworks, as well as handled lead guitars for legends like Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols, The Faces) and Stu Hamm (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, G3).