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Riots, terrorism, death threats: the story behind System Of A Down’s game-changing second album Toxicity

System Of A Down
(Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

“Do you hate America?”

Serj Tankian knew he’d be in for a rough ride when he agreed to appear on Howard Stern’s radio show on the morning of September 20, 2001. Loudmouthed ‘shock jock’ Stern was one of America’s most infamous DJs. But at that precise moment, System Of A Down’s singer happened to be one of America’s most infamous rock stars.

Seven days earlier, the frontman had posted a controversial essay titled Understanding Oil on his band’s website. In it, he analysed what he saw as the real reasons behind the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon just 48 hours before. The arguments he made were complex yet clear-headed, blaming decades of failed American foreign policy. But the fact remained that Serj Tankian – a man born in the Middle East – was saying the unsayable, and now his patriotism was being questioned on air by Howard Stern: “Do you hate America?”

“I wrote the essay because I was trying to understand it myself, and it really backfired”, says Serj today. “They had been talking shit about what I said on the Howard Stern Show, mischaracterising my words and intentions. He wanted me on to explain my words. I had to get on and defend myself.”

All of that would have been chaotic enough at the best of times, but System Of A Down had released their second album, Toxicity, a week prior to the 9/11 attacks. That record was a dazzling carnival of ideas that disentangled System from the all-pervading nu metal scene they’d been bundled in with a few years earlier. Now the band were on the verge of something bigger and much more important.

Serj Tankian survived his on-air entanglement with Howard Stern. For all the controversy, Toxicity proved to be a game-changer for System Of A Down, transforming them from cult oddballs into a powerful unifying force. Twenty years later, it stands as one of modern metal’s most significant albums – a success story shaped by riots, bans, controversy, turmoil and the kind of world-altering event that no one could see coming.

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It’s easy to forget just how strange System of A Down were when their self-titled debut album landed in June 1998. Early publicity photos of the band looking like shaven-headed prison-yard escapees (Serj excepted) did little justice to their music, which could switch from psychotic waltz to death metal roar in a heartbeat.

System had been kicking around the LA club scene at the birth of what would come to be known as nu metal, but their surreal musical Halloween parade had little in common with the performative angst or dick-swinging braggadocio that characterised that scene. Neither did the band themselves – their Armenian-American heritage simultaneously defined them and set them apart. No one else was singing about the history of geo-political conflict (as they did on War?), or calling out the Turkish government for refusing to acknowledge a state- sanctioned genocide dating back more than 80 years (as they did in pretty much every interview).

“There were a lot of sceptics, because we were trying to promote an Armenian rock band, which hadn’t been done before”, says Dino Paredes, A&R manager at label American Recordings and the man who brought them to the attention of label head Rick Rubin. “Back then, if you were different and ‘weird’, that was a liability. With this band, it wasn’t. It was a positive factor.”

Something about the kaleidoscopic blitz of System’s music clicked with a generation bombarded by the escalating sensory assault of late 90s pop culture (it didn’t hurt that they had a star-making label boss and producer like Rick Rubin in their corner).

Ted Stryker, a DJ on taste-making Los Angeles alternative rock radio station KROQ, was the first person to play System’s debut single Sugar on the radio in the LA area, if not the entire country. “I’d seen them play [Sunset Strip club] The Roxy, and you’d have thought it was Guns N’ Roses or Motley Crue playing given the amount of people who were there”, says Ted. “The first time I played Sugar, the phone lines lit up. It wasn’t just their fans, it was people going: ‘What is that? What’s the story with these guys? People were hooked from that second.”

System Of A Down wasn’t an out-of- the-box success, but by the beginning of the new millennium it had sold upwards of half a million copies in the US (bagging the band a spot on the high-profile compilation Chef Aid: The South Park Album in the process). By the time they entered Hollywood’s Cello Studios with Rick Rubin to record the follow-up, they had the wind in their sails and more than 40 songs to choose from.

“Everything was starting to happen for us”, says guitarist Daron Malakian. “We were playing bigger places ourselves, opening for bigger bands in arenas. With the second album, it felt like we were ready to take on the world.”

This time around, everything would be bigger, louder, heavier, bolder. Daron promised “12 tracks of guitar on each song”, though that barely did justice to the musical and lyrical inventiveness that ran through the new material. Tracks such as Prison Song and Needles doubled down on the why-use-one-idea-when-half- a-dozen-will-do? approach of the debut, while the lyrics Serj and Daron brought to the table were enigmatic and impenetrable but never less than vivid (what the hell does ‘Wired were the eyes of a horse on a jet pilot’ mean anyway?).

The sessions were hard work, but fun. “There were late, late hours”, says Daron. “I was in my early 20s and there was a lot of experimentation of substances. Let’s leave it at that...”

The energy in the room could easily boil over, and often did. A trivial argument over a single word in the album’s second song, Needles, escalated to epic proportions. Serj wanted to sing, ‘Pull the tapeworm out of my ass’ but Daron and bassist Shavo Odadjian were having none of it: “That doesn’t sound cool”, they told the frontman. They eventually settled on replacing “my ass” with “your ass”, though only after a bust-up that Rick Rubin later claimed could have ended System there and then. “I felt like the band could have broken up over the lyric”, the producer said.“It was so extreme, but it speaks to the passion in the band.”

Things occasionally got physical. At one point Daron and drummer John Dolmayan got into it with each other over some long-forgotten difference of opinion. John hit his bandmate in the face, busting his lip. Daron responded by whacking his aggressor over the head with a microphone stand.

“Shavo and Serj were looking at us saying, ‘Awww, man, we’re done’,” Daron recalled in 2005. “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.’”

Other musicians occasionally dropped by. Mike Patton was one. “I felt stupid not asking him to guest on a track”, a rueful Serj later said. Another was Tom Morello, who delivered his verdict on the songs that would appear on Toxicity: “That’s crazy-person music.”

Much of the album did sound crazy on the surface, but there was often a method to their madness. Prison Song may have been deliberately disjointed, flipping from scratchy, jerky oddness to adamantium-plated riffs and full-throated death-roars, but it was an ideal, if unique vehicle for Serj’s damning indictment of the US penal system. The title track cast a jaundiced eye over the band’s hometown of Los Angeles, the frontman whisper-roaring like a street-corner shaman standing in the middle of Hollywood and Vine. And while the jokey Bounce clearly used a pogo stick metaphor to describe an orgy, what exactly head-spinning single Chop Suey! and climactic slow-burner Aerials were about was less apparent.

Ironically, the album’s most straightforward song was the one with the most potential to cause controversy. The semi-ballad ATWA drew its inspiration from jailed cult leader Charles Manson’s proto-green eco-manifesto – the title stood for ‘Air, Trees, Water and Animals’. Admitting the influence of a homicidal, racist psychopath would be cause for instant cancellation these days, but back then Daron Malakian – the song’s chief lyricist – saw no issue with it, despite the likes of Axl Rose being criticised for flirting with Manson’s songs and imagery a few years earlier. “There are things that I agree with Manson on”, said Daron, explaining the inspiration. “There are others that I don’t. He’s got some racial views that aren’t exactly mine...”

In the end, this Manson-inspired micro-anthem barely raised an eyebrow. There was controversy around the corner, but at that point no one could conceive of where it would come from.

And anyway, before that, there was the riot.

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Monday September 3, 2001, was Labor Day in the US. Anyone travelling down Schrader Boulevard in central Hollywood in their car might have noticed people streaming into the otherwise anonymous parking lot where System Of A Down were due to play a launch show for Toxicity ahead of its release the following day.

Advance buzz around the album was deafening. Chop Suey! – that mad, shapeshifting track that sounded like four different songs clamouring for our attention – had been glued to US radio and MTV since it was released as the album’s first single three weeks earlier. A series of summer shows in Europe indicated that appetite was only intensifying after the success of their debut album (footage from August’s Reading Festival shows the vast crowd absolutely going off when the band drop Chop Suey!).

This launch gig was intended to bottle that excitement. Such was the anticipation that some kids had been sleeping there overnight, while others arrived hours before the gates were due to open.

“We’d promised fans on the radio that we’d play this free outdoor show in this huge parking lot”, remembers Serj. “I guess we were expecting 3,000 to 4,000 people to show up.”

That figure turned out to be inaccurate to the tune of several thousand. Depending on the source, between 10,000 and 15,000 people were crammed into the Hollywood parking lot that afternoon. “I remember a lot of people and not a lot of security”, says Dino Paredes.

The authorities were concerned that it could be dangerous and refused to let the show begin. The scheduled start time of 4pm passed and the crowd began to get restless. As the minutes ticked past, their frustration grew. And then it was announced that the show would not be taking place due to safety issues. The backdrop behind the stage was taken down, which is when everything exploded.

SOAD

System Of A Down in 2001 (Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images)

Serj and his bandmates watched the riot erupt at one of their own gigs from across the street. System were holed up in a small club where they had planned to prepare for the show. As soon as fans broke the barriers and stormed the stage, he knew the band had to do something.

“We had this horrific idea that someone might get seriously hurt”, he says. “We were really concerned for everyone’s well-being.”

Serj and his bandmates tried to convince the authorities to let them go onstage. It would calm everyone down, they reasoned. They could tell the crowd they would arrange another show in a proper venue to make up for it. The local fire marshal was having none of it.

“They said, ‘Absolutely not’,” recalls Serj. “In fact they threatened to arrest any of us trying to make it to the stage.”

Serj was incensed. He grabbed his bandmates. “I went, ‘Fuck these guys, let’s go and do this, let ’em arrest us, who cares?’” he says. “And then my lawyer grabbed me and went, ‘This is Los Angeles, they will sue the fuck out of your band, they will take everything from you. I remember being extremely stressed, thinking, ‘I’m doing fucking music, this is not how it was supposed to be.’”

Local TV news crews swarmed in to capture the carnage. By the time things finally calmed down, six people had been arrested and more than $30,000 of damage had been done to the band’s gear.

“I wasn’t thinking about what this meant for the record, or whether it reflected how big we were becoming”, says Serj. “I was too busy looking at the news on TV and seeing fans getting trampled by horse-riding LA police. I mean, shit, we inadvertently started an LA riot and we didn’t even do anything.”

On the plus side, it showed that System Of A Down could unite people despite being nowhere near a stage, even if it was in the form of a riot. Similarly, the media coverage it prompted proved there really is no such thing as bad press – although thanks to Serj Tankian’s very public criticism of the US establishment, that notion would soon be severely tested.

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Toxicity was released on Tuesday, September 4, 2001. A week later, on September 11, it entered the US Billboard charts at No.2, just behind R’n’B star Alicia Keys’ debut album, Songs In A Minor. Within a few hours it had leapfrogged the latter to claim the No.1 spot after the chart’s compilers added on 50,000 sales of a limited-edition CD version they had overlooked.

The band barely had time to register their triumph. At 8.46am, the first of two planes flew into one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Seventeen minutes later, another plane hit the second tower. Suddenly, everything changed.

“From a label point of view, it was all about trying to figure out what it meant for the band”, says Dino Paredes. “And then Serj felt compelled to make his statement...”

Serj Tankian had more on his mind than chart positions or album sales. The singer was born in Beirut, and spent his early years living in Lebanon before moving to the US in 1975. He was more plugged into Middle Eastern politics than most native Westerners. He knew that America’s failed foreign policies were the root cause of the 9/11 attacks. And he said as much.

Serj posted the Understanding Oil essay on System’s site without telling his bandmates. It was quickly taken down, though not before the shit had hit the fan. “If you read it, what he says is very accurate”, says Dino.“But it caused a bit of a backlash.”

That backlash was as swift as it was predictable. Howard Stern was a high-profile critic, but others were no less determined to deplore Serj as an anti-American and a traitor to his country. He received abuse and death threats. Even members of his own band were aghast. “You’re a smart guy, what the fuck are you doing? Are you trying to get us killed?” John Dolmayan asked his bandmate. “I’m so sorry, but it’s the truth”, responded Serj, apologising for his actions but not his intent.

While the frontman attempted to pour oil on troubled waters via his Howard Stern interview, a potential shitstorm was brewing on another front. In the days after 9/11, giant US media conglomerate Clear Channel clandestinely circulated a memo list of “lyrically questionable” songs that DJs were advised not play – a ban in all but name. Chop Suey!, with its reference to ‘self-righteous suicide’, was right there at the top of the list.

“In music, that’s a badge of honour”, says System guitarist Daron Malakian. “So many great rock bands have been banned. It’s almost like you’re not part of the cool group if you’re not banned once or twice. I think it made the song more popular.”

The essay and the Clear Channel memo were two separate flashpoints, but either could have sunk Toxicity. Factor in the pall of grief, fear and confusion hanging over everything, and System’s path forward suddenly looked a lot more uncertain and chaotic than it did two weeks earlier.

The litmus test would be their co-headlining tour with Slipknot, whose second album, Iowa, had been released the week before Toxicity. The six-week run would be billed under the banner The Pledge Of Allegiance Tour – an ironic reference to the patriotic custom of pledging allegiance to the US flag, which looked a lot less smart in the wake of Serj’s Understanding Oil essay.

“There was this intense stress”, says the singer of the tour. “There’s terrorist threats every day, I’m getting shit for activism and speaking truth to power – all these different threat levels. And we’re out there in front of 20,000 people every night. We’re thinking, ‘Are we safe? Are they safe?’”

Thankfully, no harm came to either the band or their fans. At least not from terrorists – Shavo Odadjian was allegedly beaten up and racially insulted by security guards when he was trying to get backstage at a show in Grand Rapids, Michigan, prompting the bassist to file a lawsuit against the security company.

“I had my pass on, and they still kinda beat me up and threw me out of the arena”, Shavo told Metal Hammer in 2017. “I’d just gotten offstage, but these motherfuckers just didn’t like me for whatever reason. It was a stressful time.”

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In the end, the stresses that surrounded the release of the album and the subsequent tour were worth it. Toxicity was certified triple platinum in the US in November 2002 for sales of three million copies. The title track and Aerials followed Chop Suey! into heavy rotation.

The songs that Tom Morello described as “crazy-person music” had struck a chord in those unprecedented times. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, people either needed a chance to let off steam, a means of expressing defiance or simply something they could lose themselves in to forget about the horrors of the world. With Toxicity, System Of A Down provided all three. 

It was significant on a cultural level, too. Nu metal had become drunk and bloated on its own success, and its star was waning. While Toxicity was far from a nu metal record, it was the last massive-selling album from a band associated with the original scene. Disturbed and Linkin Park would both outstrip it commercially with their respective second albums, Believe and Meteora, but they were one step behind – System had been in the trenches almost from the start. With Toxicity, they killed what they’d helped create.

“Do we even fall in the nu metal category?” says Daron. “I don’t think we sound like any of those bands. Personally I think we sound like System Of A Down.”

And System Of A Down themselves? Toxicity may have unified everyone who heard it – it’s a rare metal fan who doesn’t love or at least respect the album – but it marked the last time the band that made it truly felt like a unit. Steal This Album! (featuring tracks left over from the Toxicity sessions, released to foil online pirates), Mezmerize and Hypnotize were all works of varying greatness, but none of them had Toxicity’s sense of purpose. There was nothing like it before, and there’s been nothing like it since. Not for System Of A Down and not for anyone.

Published in Metal Hammer #351. See www.systemofadown.com for more.