Down Is Up

System of a Down is rock's least likely success story

They used to call us nü-metal," System of a Down singer-guitarist Daron Malakian told the ecstatic crowd at a stop on his band's spring tour. "Now they call us prog-rock. I think they'll call us anything that's popular." Then, after a pause and the subtlest of grins, he announced, "But actually, we're just a bunch of mo-rons. "

Months later, as System headlines its biggest junket to date, Malakian is being touted as the mastermind of Mezmerize, which has been embraced by critics and fans alike. The CD debuted in May atop the Billboard album chart, further raising expectations for Hypnotize, a companion disc scheduled for a November release. Malakian isn't particularly comfortable with this attention, and he's just as wary of questions about his in-concert comments from earlier this year. "I never remember anything I say on stage," he warns. Upon having his statement repeated to him, however, he laughs with relief. "I can stand behind that," he declares.

No wonder, since his offhand remark effectively satirizes the media's continuing attempts to pigeonhole System. "Lately, we've been doing interviews, and people have been like, 'You guys are really leading the way for the new prog movement,' " he notes. "And I'm like, 'What?' Because a couple of years ago, these guys were comparing us to Limp Bizkit and Korn, and now that we're still here and those bands aren't, they're talking about prog. It's just kind of aggravating that people always have to have something to compare us to, or bunch us up with. I'm not saying we're the most original band in the world, but I don't really feel that we fall into a heavy-metal category or a pure rock category. There's a lot of stuff mixed up into one."

As for the humorously self-deprecating "mo-rons" remark, it hints at a truth about the group that's frequently overlooked. Although System is clearly one of the smartest acts in popular music, socially astute, hyper-articulate fare like "B.Y.O.B." is as popular among just plain folks as it is with left-wing activists and Mensa members, for reasons that the live show makes clear. Vocalist Serj Tankian's sweeping theatricality, bassist Shavo Odadjian's elastic head-bobbing, drummer John Dolmayan's hyperkinetic rhythms and Malakian's aggressive riffology suggest that they remain very much in touch with their inner mo-ron -- the part of them that loved sound and fury long before it signified anything.

"It's important not to take yourself too seriously," Malakian says, "and I think sometimes people take us a lot more seriously than we take ourselves, especially when it comes to politics. Politics, for me, is a reflection of the world I live in. But love is just as important as politics to me. They both exist in the world, you know? And if you don't reflect the entire world around you, then you're leaving something out."

System is all about inclusion. The music bears the mark of so many varied influences that, Malakian maintains, "I think you could call us anything you want and you'd be right." That's one reason numerous labels initially kept their distance from System, even though these "four Armenian guys from L.A.," as Malakian calls them, had built a sizable audience among habitués of the mid-'90s Hollywood club scene. Producer Rick Rubin eventually signed System to his imprint, American Records, but reviewers didn't quite know what to make of the quartet's 1998 self-titled debut.

"They'd say, 'It kind of sounds like this,' or 'It kind of sounds like that,' " Malakian recalls, "and by the time they were done, they'd named five bands that had nothing to do with one another." He wasn't bothered by Dead Kennedys references, since he acknowledges a certain commonality between Tankian's nasal wailing and that of DK leader Jello Biafra, but he felt nü-metal allusions constituted "guilt by association."

Still, this tag likely helped convince radio programmers to give System a chance, and the airplay lavished on strong cuts such as "Spiders" and "Sugar" -- not to mention the publicity garnered for its star-making turn during the 1998 edition of Ozzfest -- helped break the band nationally. Malakian and company responded with 2001's Toxicity, an even better recording than its first, albeit one whose appearance was awkwardly timed; the disc arrived in stores the week of 9/11. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, representatives of Clear Channel, the owner of more U.S. rock radio stations than any other company, placed the group's entire oeuvre, including the brilliant single "Chop Suey!," on a list of tunes that shouldn't be aired. This misguided, arguably racist move, which took place around the same time that Tankian posted criticism of American foreign policy on System's Web site, hardly stopped listeners from seeking out Toxicity. As Malakian points out, "We were being censored, but people were still going out and buying the record. And to be honest with you, radio was playing it like crazy." He adds that "the more they try to shut somebody's mouth, the more people are going to want to hear what the person has to say. It's a big mistake from the beginning."

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