System Of A Down’s Shavo Odadjian: My Life Story

(Image credit: Future)

Where and when were you born?

“April 22, 1974, Yerevan in Armenia.” 

What’s your earliest memory?

“Snow. People think Armenia is in the Middle East, but actually it is in Eastern Europe and there is no sand or desert. It is all mountains and fields. It’s all nature. It snows there in the winter. I moved to Rome for five or six months when I was a kid. We had to move there because we had to get citizenship so we could move to America. The reason we had to do this was because Armenia, at the time, was a republic of the USSR and didn’t have open borders with the US. So I remember moving to Rome and then moving to America aged four, but my first memory is of seeing snow in Armenia.”

So you still remember a lot about Armenia?

“I remember one Christmas when Santa Claus came to the house when I was three years old. Now, my dad had this thick black moustache. It was really long, he never shaved it. I wouldn’t recognise my dad if he didn’t have that moustache. So Santa was giving me my gifts and I looked into his eyes and I thought that he had similar eyes to my dad. And then I saw behind his big white beard a black moustache creeping out and that night I told my mom, ‘Santa Claus looks like dad!‘.”

What did your parents do and why did they decide to Emigrate?

“Mom is a college lecturer, she has got masters degrees in a lot of things. She is a very smart, brilliant woman. She knows a lot of languages, and because she knew that we were moving, she taught me Armenian and English. So when I came to America I could speak English which was so helpful. I wasn’t that foreigner kid moving into the neighbourhood. They decided to move because they wanted a better life. They weren’t about the whole communist thing. You could be a doctor, you could be a trash guy, you could be a janitor, you could be whoever and you would be looked at the same and earn the same amount of money. And there was no room there for hard workers. When Communism started off back in the day it was for the people by the people; it wasn’t a government regime, but it became one. The government has a way of taking something that is righteous and smacking you with it and turning it on its head.”

Do you think all political schemes are bound to fail because of human nature?

“Everything is bound to fail, but will be born again because of human nature. This applies to art, to politics, to everything. There is always the threat of someone screwing things up because of human nature, so then it is the duty of the next generation to try and make it good again.”

What were your first really vivid memories of Hollywood?

“I used to always ask my mom, ‘Why are those girls standing on the corner?’, and my mom would say ‘They’re going to work’, ‘They’re waiting for a bus’, she would come out with every excuse in the book for who they were and what they did. But when I was about eight years old I heard noises through a window in a motel on the block, and I looked through the window and I saw a hooker and a john getting it on. And it tripped me out, I saw sex, live in my face. I was like, ‘Woah, what is he doing? Is he killing her?’.”

Downtown Hollywood is notorious gang turf. Did you ever get involved in all that?

“I got into skating at about five years old and that’s how I didn’t get into gangs. All of my friends were gang bangers but I chose skateboarding, guitar and bass instead, and they wouldn’t let me join gangs, even when I wanted to. I was impressionable and wanted to fit in but they were like, ‘Oh no, you’re the kid who is not supposed to join’.”

Like some other Californian bands, you seem to have a love/hate relationship with Hollywood?

“My parents always tried to protect me from the evils that Hollywood holds and that is probably why I see it as a special place. Daron [Malakian, guitarist] also grew up in the same neighbourhood as me, and his fondest and worst memories of all time are about Hollywood as well. Growing up there is not like growing up in any other place because you are exposed to so much shit. It definitely makes you grow up differently and think differently.”

What was the first time you really took notice of music?

“I had been begging my parents to buy me a guitar or an instrument ever since I can remember but they wouldn’t do it. Eventually at the age of 10 they got me a guitar. My mom said that she knew this was going to happen and she didn’t want it to happen because artists usually live such a fucked-up life and only a half of one per cent of them make it. My mother was very conservative about it, but I think my career going well has made her a bit more liberal and relaxed about it.”

She must have been happy seeing you on TV and in magazines then…

“She always wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer and she doesn’t really care about seeing me on the TV, but she heard that we had won the award [MTV Euro Awards, Best Alternative Rock Act] and she phoned up crying, so I started crying. It makes you feel great to make your parents feel happy, it’s the best thing in the world. She even likes my beard now. It isn’t known for Armenian people to have beards like this. I started growing it when I was 20 and she would be like, ‘What is that? Cut it off.’ I used to have nightmares about my beard being on the floor and waking up to find my mom standing there with scissors. Now she accepts it and is supportive of it. I think she likes the fact that we are doing a lot for Armenian people, we are putting us on the map. We used to be on the map but then we were destroyed, but that is a whole other different interview. I love history, I could tell you all about Armenia. So she is proud to be the mother of one of the people supporting the cause and now she sings ‘Pull The Tapeworm Out Of Your Ass”.”

What was the first ever band you were in?

“They were called Polaris like the Megadeth song and I played guitar. It was metal metal, Kill ‘Em All Metallica metal. We covered Sepultura and stuff like that. I was 17 years old. I played guitar in a couple of other bands and I couldn’t find a bass player. Bass players are funny, because it is hard to find one who doesn’t show off but still doesn’t suck. So a lot of bass players have this complex about not being guitarists, but I don’t mind. I thought I would play bass and do what I thought an ideal bass player should do, and soon afterwards I was hanging out with Daron and the others. One thing led to another and we formed System Of A Down.”

Did you find it hard being a metal band in Los Angeles at that time?

“Yeah! We were one out of 5,000 bands and we were the band without a demo because we couldn’t afford one. When I was at work I would be making telephone calls to the rock scene but they all punked me around and hung up on me. The first motherfucker to hang up on me ended up being our tour manager. He finally got fed up of me calling him 50 times in one week and saying, ‘Hey, give us a show, we’ll pack it’, and he caved in and gave us a show and we ruled it.”

What was that show like?

“It was a Sunday night, they didn’t know what we sounded like because we didn’t have a demo tape so they put us on a ska night with six ska bands. We brought a huge following of our friends. We sold 150 tickets and the venue owners tripped out. When we went on stage chaos broke out, there were people hanging from the rafters, there was a pit. My dad was there filming it. After that it was very easy for us to get shows. No one asked us for a demo, no one asked to sell tickets, they just booked us.”

Last question: how do you take care of your beard?

“Well, it’s hair, so I shampoo it when I wash and I have this amino acid organic shampoo and a leave-in conditioner. I can’t believe I’m giving beauty tips to Metal Hammer!”

Published in Metal Hammer #148

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