System Of A Down drummer John Dolmayan has released his first ever solo album, These Grey Men. Ostensibly, on the surface it’s a covers album, but, as John tells us, it’s more of a collection of songs that have been reimagined and reworked by the stickman. “I wanted people to think “Oh, John just came out with a new bunch of songs,” he tells us. “But, no it’s a cover. That’s what I wanted.”
The record was inspired both by John’s craving for more artistic output, and by the long drives he takes whilst listening to the radio. “It had been a good decade since I recorded something with System. I had done the Scars On Broadway album, but it was not enough artistic output to keep me interested and satisfied,” he sighs.
“It’s hard not being a songwriter, but I always enjoyed covers, I was doing these three-hour drives from my family to LA, and I’m listening to all these songs and thinking ‘how would I play that song?’ There was a cartoon that I used to watch when I was young, and it was about this kid used to just daydream, and the whole show would be his daydreams come to life. I guess I’m kind of like that kid, so I would daydream about what I’d do if I was in that band was listening to.”
From that initial idea the seeds of the record started to grow, and John roped in everyone from bandmate Serj Tankian to the likes of Rage Against The Machine guitar god Tom Morello and Avenged Sevenfold frontman M Shadows to get involved with helping reimagine a genuinely eclectic set of songs.
“I started thinking who would be a good vocalist for each song,” he smiles. “This guy would be good for that song and this for this song, and I have a lot of friends in the industry as I’ve been touring for so long. So, we got, not everyone we wanted, but we got a real good amount of musicians that added so much to these songs. I love doing covers, I might do more, I wouldn’t rule out another album, I had so much fun doing it.”
Here, John takes us through thealbum, track by track, to discuss what inspired the choice of each song.
1. Road To Nowhere (Originally by Talking Heads)
“Number one, it’s a really cool song. But I love and respect Talking Heads, they are a band that approach songs really differently. No one else sounds like them, they’re very unique and they’re pretty much like System in a lot of ways. In that, they have a really odd thing that they have managed to make sound commercial.
"System probably should never have been signed because we were so weird and at odds with what the music industry was and Talking Heads are the same. It’s a great song and it really appealed to me. Serj was the obvious choice because the just does stuff really differently, and thinks about things in a different way. So, it made sense.”
2. Star man (Originally by David Bowie)
“You’re talking about an artist that I have an enormous amount of respect for, he’s out there man! You listen to his lyrics and they’re very unique and esoteric, he had some very unusual ideas. And it’s a hard task to take a beloved song, which this definitely is, and do something new with it. I can’t stand exact replications of covers, if it isn’t going to be any different to the original... well the original exists, so why bother?
"I definitely think David would have wanted us to mix it up. I know he knew System, Serj has a picture of the two of them together somewhere, I think we may have even played a festival together, so he’s had us on his radar. I wish he was around to hear it, I wish I could hear his opinion on it, to hear him say he loved it, or that it sucked.”
3. What I Know (Originally by 2 Door Cinema Club)
“I only know the one song by this band. Great song, very catchy and I watched the video and fell I love with it. I slowed it down, could have gone faster, I don’t think that would have worked though. It’s just got a really great backbeat, really love the song.
"They are on my list of bands that I need to invest more in, I need to check them out to see where they go next. But sometimes you can have that one song and that be all you need by a band, and if they never do anything else that appeals to me, this song is still very special.”
4. Runaway (Originally by Del Shannon)
“It’s a very old song, I believe it was from the fifties, it not the sixties. What can I say, I heard it on a TV show in the 80’s, I can’t remember the show now, but I was like it’s a badass song.
"I was like a sponge back then, always looking for new music and listening to everything that came my way, and it was something that I really loved. I decided to fuck with it and turned it into a fusion song, Franky (Perez) sang on it, he was on scars on Broadway with me and he hit it out of the park.”
5. Street Spirit (Originally by Radiohead)
“The Bends is a record; you have to listen to the whole thing. Taking a song as iconic as this, it’s not daunting for me, I don’t think I those terms. If I did, I never would have got anywhere, I’d be too scared to be in a rock band. So, I’m not scared to come to something as big as this song and put my own personal spin on it, like, I always loved the song in its original form, but wished the drums came in earlier.
"I would listen to it and think ‘what would John Bonham do with it?’ That’s what I do a lot ‘How would I play it?’ You listen to systems ballads and I try and do something different to set us apart. Tom Morello came in and knocked it out of the park, of course he did, everything he does is exceptional, everyone knows that.
"As did M Shadows, we’ve become really good friends, he’s not aloof he’s really down to earth. Some singers have quite an ego and Matt doesn’t. He was up for it straight away, as soon as I put it to him he was there.”
6. Hung Up (Originally by Madonna)
“I heard this song for the first time when I was in Italy with some friends in a club, and I thought the melody was really good. I didn’t realise it was ABBA, so I was like ‘Wow! Madonna did something really cool there!’ But everything I loved about the song was ABBA.
"Madonna is cool, but her lyrics aren’t exactly substantial. So, I change the lyrics, because it just repeats the same thing over and over again and I lose interest. I took the Neil Young song Ohio and put some string in the middle part and it just gave it life. And the young lady that is singing it is an Armenian singer named Sirusho, and she kills it.
"I’ve known her for a long time, she’s likes a little sister to me, and she just has this amazingly deep quality to her voice, so haunting. She’s really cool, she does a lot of pop stuff but dig deeper and there is some amazing stuff that she has made with real substance.”
7. Beautiful Thieves (Originally by AFI)
“My manager also manages AFI, and there is another singer who is also just a really sweet person in Davey Havok. There’s this whole generation of singers that are great guys, I don’t know what’s happening! Usually singers are douche bags! The world has gone all topsy-turvy.
"So, I was invited to their show at the troubadour, first time I saw them, and I just loved it. Lots of charisma on the stage, and I just heard that song and I wanted to play it, I wanted to go get up on the stage and play it with them then are there. It really stood out as the best song in a really great show. That’s it really, I just loved the song live, I wanted to hear myself play it, and now you can hear it too.”
8. Rock Bottom (Originally by Eminem)
“I don’t have a great explanation on that one. I do like Eminem, I like his syncopation, but I don’t like rap, I find it kind of boring. But I love this song, although I don’t know why. It’s like, I don’t know why I like banana ice cream! I feel like I’m the only person that does... and I don’t like chocolate ice cream... unless it has banana ice cream with it. So, that’s what this song is; banana ice cream and chocolate ice cream.
"People have been asking me to do a drum solo for ages, but in a live show the only two people that should do a drum solo is Neil Peart and John Bonham. No one else, and both of those people have passed away so it isn’t going to happen. From my end, I know I’m capable of doing it.
"My dad is a jazz drummer and sax player, he’s where I get my musical talent and my inspiration, and he told me once ‘Joe morello is a drummer you need to listen to!’ I always take my Dad’s recommendations, so I listened and you need to respect this guy. When he does a solo he doesn’t use very many cymbals, when you’re doing a solo cymbals are a cop out.
"The way he does it is a lot harder, so this was my homage to him. It’s not really a cover per-se at all. And I might put some vocals on it one day, at a later time. It would be cool to hear it with vocals.”
These Grey Men: These Grey Men (opens in new tab)
System Of A Down drummer John Dolmayan's These Grey Men project will release their debut album at the end of February. The record will feature guests including Serj Tankian and Tom Morello.
These Grey Men: These Grey Men
1. Road To Nowhere (Talking Heads cover featuring Serj Tankian)
2. Starman (David Bowie cover featuring Serj Tankian)
3. What I Know (Two Door Cinema Club cover featuring Jonathan Dorr)
4. Runaway (Del Shannon cover featuring Franky Perez)
5. Street Spirit (Radiohead cover featuring M. Shadows and Tom Morello)
6. Hung Up (Madonna cover featuring Sirusho)
7. Beautiful Thieves (AFI cover featuring Jonah Perry Nimoy)
8. Rock Bottom (Eminem cover)