System Of A Down haven’t released a new album in 15 years, but the four band members have been far from idle. Singer Serj Tankian has combined a solo career with soundtrack work and assorted collaborations, guitarist Daron Malakian resurrected his dormant side-project Scars On Broadway a couple of years ago, and drummer John Dolmayan launched his own band These Grey Men at the start of 2020 with a cover of Radiohead’s Street Spirit.
Bassist Shavo Odadjian might be last out of the gate, but his new group North Kingsley are far from an afterthought. The singer and his bandmates, producer Saro Paparian and frontman/lyricist Ray Hawthorne, have been working on the project for the last two years.
“A lot of time and effort and thought has gone into this.” Shavo tells Metal Hammer. “I’m not looking at North Kingsley as a veteran band or a side-project. This is a fully-fledged new band we’re starting from scratch. And we’re gonna take this all the way.”
North Kingsley‘s first song Like That? – taken from their upcoming debut EP Vol. 1, the first in a planned series to be staggered over the coming months – wears the trio’s love of hip hop on its sleeve (Shavo’s last extra-curricular project Achozen was a collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA). But this is no re-tread of the tired old rap-metal clichés – its woozy thump sits halfway between the club and the moshpit.
“I swear it feels like we’re doing something brand new with this,” says Shavo, as he prepares to explain what he’s doing with North Kingsley – and just where it leaves System of A Down.
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What was the gameplan with North Kingsley? Did you know how it would sound in your head from the start?
There was zero gameplan. It literally wasn’t even supposed to be a band. It was me being frustrated at not being able to make music by myself. I wanted to learn [digital recording software] Logic Pro – it has internal instruments, so you don't need to bring external stuff in. I was in the studio with an old friend of mine, and there was a guy there that was sharing the space, and he knew it really well. That was Saro.
I asked him if he could come through to my studio once or twice a week and give me lessons. He said, ‘Of course, you’re the guy from System of A Down, I'll do anything you need.’ He started coming over, and I swear the second or third time he was there we wrote this crazy beat - I was, like, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ That led to more and more, and we stopped doing lessons and we started making music together.
It was just going to be the two of us making music for other artists. So we'd make the music and if a rapper or a singer wants music, we have it for them. Or maybe I should just make the music and then have friends of mine that are vocalists come in and sing each one - B-Real, Jonathan Davis, Serj [Tankian, SAOD singer].
Then Ray came in. He used to be in a project with Saro, and when he came in it was, like, “Dude, this could be an actual thing.” Cos he sounded perfect for where I was going: he can sing, he can rap, he can yell, he can scream. And his words are very politically charged and socially aware. We're saying things that need to be heard right now – we’re not far left, we're not far right, we're people's voices. We're saying, ‘It's OK to have free thoughts.’ it sucks how free thinking has become conspiracy theory now. Before, we would say free thinkers are dangerous, now we say free thinkers are crazy.
The first track you released, Like That?, sounds nothing like System Of A Down.
If anything sounded a lot like System, I would take it away. I already have that band, I'm still in it. It don't want to have another band that sounds like that. I want another band that sounds like me and these guys that I’m working with. It’s its own entity.
Like That? is more hip hop than metal, but it still rocks. And it doesn't sound anything like old school rap-metal.
I've listened to a lot of hip-hop. I've listened to hip hop as much as I’ve listened to rock – groups like Cypress Hill, Wu Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys. I like some of the newer stuff, like Post Malone. Not too much. I'm not into the stupid thing where they say two words and that's the whole song. I'm not into that. It drives me crazy. But we're using elements from the hip-hop of today - the beats, the production, the stuff that makes you want to bang your head.
You haven't even heard the other songs. The other songs have some grimier metal in there. I'm talking about that crazy stuff everyone in metal really loves - that building up and building up and then dropping. I'm still putting in the riffs and the rock and metal vibes. We have all of that.
What’s the difference between the way you work in North Kingsley and the way you work in System?
With System, Daron would bring a song in, or I would bring some riffs in, we would work those out together live, as we were playing, and then we would have a song. And then we would go to pre-production, and then record it. Now it's the opposite. We record everything we write. Everything. Then we'll arrange it in the computer. And then once the song is made, we'll relearn it instrumentally so we can play it live. It's the exact opposite.
Saro was a System fan growing. When he met you, was he pumping you for all the war stories?
He’s a fan, yeah. When we met, it was like he met his hero. But you hang out with me, I’m the same with everyone - I don’t treat people like fans, I treat them like normal people.
With Saro, he was tripping: "I'm gonna teach you?" I was, like, “Bro, we all learn things." If you stop learning, you're dead. It's not like your mind stops growing at 21. Your mind keeps going til the day you die.
Today, we're equal in the studio. But they call me The Captain cos I'm guiding the ship: "You're the Captain, you're the leader!” It’s really amazing for me, really liberating. In System we have four captains. It’s easier to lead when your team is ready for you to lead.
Have you played it to the other guys in System?
I played it for John only. I haven’t seen Serj for a long time. He's been in New Zealand, and then he was stuck there because of the pandemic. And Daron’s doing his own thing - I talk to him every now and then, but I haven't played anything for him. Daron and I have a special relationship. We're like big brother, little brother. We’ll always love each, but we haven't been hanging out with each other than much. I've been really pre-occupied with kids and this project and 22 Red [Shavo’s fashion/weed brand]. I've been really busy lately, which is the way like it, by the way. I can't live if I'm bored. That's why the years we didn’t work in System really got to me.
But John, when he heard it, said, “Congratulations brother, this is rad. I’m proud of you, bro.” It meant the world to me. Imagine that: the guy from the band that can never be bettered told me this was good.
There are going to be System Of A Down fans who hate North Kingsley because it sounds nothing like System Of A Down. Does that bother you?
Yeah. That's always been a thing in my head. But I can't please everyone. Just because I'm in a band that’s already respected and loved and people are into that, people who expect me to do the same thing, that's not going to happen. Why would I regurgitate what I’ve done for 20 years? This is new.
Yeah, there are gonna be fans who hate it. I did this little Facebook thing the other day, I invited some people to see the new North Kingsley page. And someone's like, 'This isn't music, why are you inviting me?’ I'm like, 'You're the god of music, you're judging music that I haven't even dropped yet?’ Of course we're gonna have idiots like that. It's OK. We'll smile and say, "We'll see you next year."
If they don't like it, don’t listen to it. I’m not searching for people that don't like it, I’m searching for people that do like it. I'm hoping that people who are waiting for something new to come out find this, cos I think it's new and it's got cool things and it's serious. It's not a joke band, I'm gonna do this for a long time.
It sounds like you had a lot of ideas and nowhere to let them out because of the System Of A Down situation. Is this you leaving the idea of doing a new System album behind and moving on from that?
No. No way. This is new and it's great and I can't wait to take it over the top, and my heart is in this because System is not working. But my heart is always with System as well. I'll take the time off and work with System any time they’re ready. I have about 25 different things that I could still bring to System. I know Daron’s got tons of music. We are always writing music.
I'm not closing the book on System because I'm doing this. I know a lot of people are like, “Oh no, it's the final guy, the one who was always System Of A Down, always pushing for System, the cheerleader - now he’s doing this.” Yeah, I’m doing my own thing because I need to. And when the time is right, I'll be doing that other thing. I'm not going to close any doors to anything ever.
North Kingsley’s debut EP, Vol.1, is released on August 14