System Of A Down had released just one radio single, the jazzy post-hardcore oddity Sugar, when they flew to Europe in October 1998 to open for Slayer on tour. Having already supported them in the States, System guitarist Daron Malakian had developed a strategy for getting the thrash giants’ impatient fans to pay attention.
“I figured out that the best way of dealing with them was to challenge them a little bit,” he told me for the 2014 book Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History Of Metal. “I’d encouraged them to heckle us, and if they weren’t yelling, ‘SLAYERRRR!’ by the middle of our show, I’d call them a bunch of pussies. I wanted to give them a bit of a hard time before they gave us a hard time.”
In late 1998, the growing media buzz that surrounded System had yet to translate into real-life excitement, and Slayer’s European fans seemed ambivalent to their quirky, art-damaged metal. After a frustrating show in Berlin, in which the audience remained nonplussed at the sight of these four Armenian-Americans cavorting around the stage, Daron told his bandmates that he had a plan.
“I said, ‘Look, if these guys don’t applaud for us after we play the first song, Know, we’re gonna play it again, over and over, until they react,’” he said in 2014. “We played Know and the crowd was pretty silent. So John started Know again, and we all played it. Halfway through the song, they were actually cheering for us. My attitude was, ‘You’re gonna love us whether you like it or not, and if you don’t, you’re gonna hear this song over and over again.’”
That unrelenting determination, unwillingness to compromise and insistence on defying convention didn’t just help System Of A Down win over the tough Slayer crowd, it helped to turn them into one of the most successful and mould-breaking bands of the last 25 years. And their debut, self-titled album was the spark that lit the fire.
When System Of A Down was released in June 1998, metal was in a strange place. The old guard were in bad shape, with Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford having left Iron Maiden and Judas Priest respectively earlier in the decade, and many other older bands had been taken out of the game by grunge. Metallica had chopped off their hair and released the divisive Load and Reload albums. Nu metal trailblazers such as Korn, Deftones and Limp Bizkit had dispensed with the genre’s flash and shred, replacing it with rapping, turntables and samples.
System Of A Down were initially lumped in with nu metal, but there was clear water between them and their shiny-tracksuited, baseball-cap-wearing peers. Their difficult-to-categorise debut was heavy, quirky and dangerously eclectic. It sounded like an acid-damaged hybrid of hardcore-orientated Slayer, early Faith No More and Dead Kennedys, with multitextured guitars, syncopated drums, nasal melodic vocals and jazzy frills. Some tracks were injected with Middle-Eastern and Armenian musical flourishes; others were sprinkled with carnivalesque lunacy or melancholy atmospheres.
“When we write music, we try to do something different than even what we do,” Serj Tankian told me in 1998, just before the release of his band’s debut album. “I’m serious. We want every new song to be done in a way we haven’t done before. We try to not sound like System Of A Down, let alone anyone else. That keeps us not only a step ahead, but a step ahead of ourselves.”
Serj was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1967, though his ancestry dates back to Turkey, and his four grandparents were survivors of the Armenian genocide in which up to 1.5 million people died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire (the forerunner of modern-day Turkey). His family left Beirut in the mid-70s after the outbreak of a civil war, settling in Glendale, California, home to the second-biggest Armenian community in the world.
Growing up, Serj listened to a variety of music, from The Beatles and the Bee Gees to traditional Armenian music. The young Serj’s parents sent him to Rose And Alex Pilibos Armenian School in East Hollywood. There, he learned more about Armenian customs and the Armenian Genocide. He graduated from university in 1989 with a marketing degree, setting up his own software company, and eventually began playing keyboards with a band called Forever Young.
Born in 1975, Daron Malakian went to the same Armenian school as Serj, though his future bandmate was already in high school by that point. From the time he was a baby, Daron was exposed to classical, jazz and Armenian music. His epiphany came at age four when his cousin played him a Kiss album. When the latter appeared on early 80s US TV music show Solid Gold, Daron convinced his mother to let him stay up late and watch it with him. “I was scared as hell of the way Kiss looked onstage, but I was also fascinated,” he said in 2014. “I think that’s how I latched on to metal.”
By the age of 12, Daron had progressed from Kiss and Def Leppard to Slayer, Metallica, Overkill and German thrashers such as Kreator and Destruction. It wasn’t long before he began listening to death metal pioneers Obituary, Morbid Angel and Deicide. “I’ve always been a music nerd and I kept listening to all kinds of music,” said Daron, “but by the time I was 14 or 15, I wanted to listen to the heaviest, most uncomfortable bands that I could find.”
The two men met in 1992 at a studio in Burbank. They were in different bands at the time, though neither was creatively happy. They agreed to make music together, so they joined up with a mutual friend, bassist Dave Hakopyan, along with drummer Domingo Laranio, and formed Soil, a meandering, unfocused prog-inspired band that proved Serj and Daron had a good playing chemistry, even if their songs were nearly unlistenable. “We had the System sound, but not the System structure,” Daron said. “We would write something that would start off one way, and then it would go on for 10 minutes and end in a much different way.”
Soil fell apart in 1994 after Domingo Laranio moved to Hawaii and Dave Hakopyan quit. Determined to keep playing together, Daron and Serj hired their friend and Soil fan Shavo Odadjian on bass and drummer Andy Khachaturian, who also hung out at the Burbank studio. They named their new band System Of A Down after a poem Daron had written titled ‘Victims Of A Down’. The first songs they wrote were Sugar and P.L.U.C.K., which would appear on the debut album, and Dam, which has never officially been released. With Shavo acting as de facto manager, hustling local club owners for gigs, the band started playing shows right away.
“Our very first gig was with some local ska band,” Daron told me. “It was funny because it pretty much sold out, and it was a crazy show filled with ska fans in weird costumes and a bunch of Armenian kids showing up with Armenian flags. I guess they identified with us, so they came out to support us, which was cool. But we never felt like we were in anybody’s scene. We always did our own thing.”
System Of A Down rapidly developed a following by playing shows at clubs in and around Los Angeles, including Whisky A Go Go, Troubadour and The Viper Room. Even so, many A&R men scoffed at the band’s demos, and some considered the group an Armenian novelty.
“That two or three years we were selling out clubs and had a huge buzz in LA, but nobody wanted to sign us because we were Armenian, and we were told that to our face,” recalled Daron. “They’d say: ‘Yeah, there’s a big Armenian community in LA, but who’s gonna get you in Texas? Who’s gonna get you in these places that don’t even know what an Armenian is?’ It was crazy because we never considered the Armenian part to be such a big part of our music, it was just what we were. It was like, ‘You know, we’re just a band. Armenian guys? White guys? Black guys? Who cares? It’s music and we’re a band.’ But from a marketing point of view, it didn’t work for a lot of them.”
Many A&R executives may have been baffled by System Of A Down, but by 1997 they were becoming too popular to ignore for much longer. A few labels finally started courting the band, including Universal, which at the time was mostly an R’n’B and rap label and didn’t have any established rock bands. The band were considering Universal’s offer when they found themselves forced to deal with an internal problem.
While Andy Khachaturian was a great drummer, he was something of a loose cannon. At one point, he hooked up with a woman who already had a boyfriend. When the boyfriend confronted him, fists flew, and the drummer wiped the floor with his opponent. When the dust cleared, the boyfriend filed assault charges and at the end of one of the band’s sets, police stormed the stage and hauled the drummer off.
Anticipating worsening problems, System asked their friend John Dolmayan if he would learn the drum parts if they needed someone to fill in for a few shows, if their regular drummer wasn’t able to play them. It wasn’t long before the situation changed permanently.
“Andy ended up getting into a fight and punched a wall and shattered every bone from his fingers all the way up to his elbow, so he couldn’t play drums,” recalled Daron. “Shavo was the one who found out and when he told me I turned to him right away and said, ‘Call John and tell him he’s in.’ I didn’t even stutter. And he fit in right away, ’cos he’s a great drummer, he knew the songs, and it was an extra plus that he was Armenian.”
The recruitment of their new drummer coincided with System Of A Down’s big break. Rick Rubin, founder of Def Jam Records and current head of American Recordings (and the man who produced landmark albums by Slayer, the Beastie Boys and Johnny Cash), had caught one of the band’s shows at The Viper Room and he couldn’t believe System hadn’t been signed yet. When the band told him that Universal were interested, he offered them a better deal.
System signed to American Recordings. The band began working on their debut album in early 1998, with Rubin producing. The album would be recorded in the famous Sound City Studios, where Nirvana had made Nevermind, and the producer’s own studio, The Mansion, in Laurel Canyon. Since System Of A Down had been playing most of the songs for over a year, they were tight and well-rehearsed, and their excitement at working on an album kept them energised and upbeat.
“It was easy to make,” Serj recalled in 1998. “Rick’s idea was, ‘You guys are so crazy onstage in terms of sound and dynamics, I just want to record it as it is, as live as possible.’ We did the vocals at Rick’s mansion in a tent because the room was not built as a studio. It was a study room with windows and cement, so we set up a tent in the middle of the room and put in antique furniture and it turned out so cool.”
When the album was finished, it was clear they had created one of the most innovative, unusual debuts of the year, if not the decade. Across 40 minutes, it pinballed between everything from screwball jazz to crushing metal, often within the same song. Lyrically, the album was just as head-spinning, alternately addressing corrupt priests, war, conformity, drugs, the CIA, suicide, sex and the Armenian genocide.
“I don’t like to stick to certain themes or subjects,” Serj said of his lyrics in 1998. “You don’t wake up in the morning and think about one thing during your whole day. You think about love for a second, you think about hate for a second. You get angry at your boss for a second. So with System Of A Down, we want to bring out more than one emotion through the music and I hope it makes the person listening to the music feel more than one thing during one song. Sometimes we’re sad, then horny, then happy, then angry, in no particular order. And I think people find that interesting.”
Released on June 30, 1998, System Of A Down peaked at No.124 in the US and No.103 in the UK, but nevertheless, a buzz was building around them. That buzz only intensified a month later, when the band were added to that year’s Ozzfest as main stage opener.
“The line-up was ridiculous,” recalled Daron. “It was Ozzy Osbourne, Tool, Megadeth, Melvins, Motörhead. So, shit, it was great for me. I got to meet Ozzy and I used to sit there and have lunch with Mikkey Dee, the drummer of Motörhead and King Diamond. I grew up listening to him in King Diamond, so I had a great time asking him all these questions about the King Diamond days. It was like a crazy summer camp that could only be in the dream of a 12-year-old listening to those bands.”
Ozzfest marked a step up for System Of A Down. It helped push Sugar, their debut single that had been released a couple of months earlier, up the US alternative charts. The band’s image – a mix of wild hair, shaved heads and elaborate beards, occasionally augmented with vivid make-up – was instantly eye-catching. The fact that the band was made up of four Armenian-Americans became a big part of the narrative surrounding the band, something Serj pushed back against.
“As a band, I wouldn’t say we’re grounded in the Armenian community,” he told me in 1998. “We’re proud of our heritage, and it’s definitely an influence that we don’t want to deny as far as our music and our standing and some of our thinking. But it’s not specifically something we’re trying to involve in our music and say, ‘Look at us. We’re Armenian. This is what we’re doing with our Armenian music.’ It’s not something we’re trying to point to, because in no way do we want to use that as any sort of gimmick. We’re a rock band and we all happen to be Armenian.”
Twenty five years after it was released, System Of A Down’s debut album stands as a unique calling card for a band that would soon begin to disentangle themselves from the nu metal movement into which they had been corralled. It isn’t as hook-laden as 2001’s Toxicity, or as polished as 2005’s Mezmerize and Hypnotize, but it stands as the band’s most aggressive and confrontational album.
In 1998, Serj Tankian perfectly distilled the band’s essence: “In some ways, the fact that we’re Armenian has something to do with, at times, feeling like an outsider, and wanting to make outsider music,” he said.
“But it’s not just that. It’s like the band’s name. It does entail feeling oppressed or helpless, but the reason why we want to show that to people is so they can see the light and get out and be free, not so they’ll fall under their own rocks and die. Hopefully, we can open some people’s minds and make them think, whether it’s about creativity in art or politics or whatever. As long as they think for themselves, they’re on the right path.”