Down Is Up

Here's another headline: Armenian-American band survives death of n-metal; critics now call them "prog-rock."

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."

Toxicity created such a big noise that System promptly issued 2002's Steal This Album!, a first-rate collection of random tracks from throughout its existence that spawned another hit, the appropriately explosive "Boom!" The period of relative quiet that followed was broken in a major way by Mezmerize, and many admirers characterized it as a coming-out party for Malakian. Granted, Malakian's voice is more prominent than before, and "Old School Hollywood," a wry recapitulation of a celebrity baseball game that mentions Tony Danza and Frankie Avalon, finds him employing the first person in an extremely direct manner. Yet he sees the theory that he's suddenly taken control of System as being fatally flawed.

"Yeah, I'm singing more, and yeah, I sing just as much on Hypnotize," he confirms. "But that's the only difference. I've always written and produced and put down the path for System when it comes down to the songs: first record, second record, third record, these records. Almost every chorus -- about 80 percent of every System of a Down chorus that you sing -- is a vocal line that I wrote, with words that I wrote. I just didn't sing them. And this time, the songs called for more of an interaction between me and Serj, so suddenly people think I'm doing more. People get very focused on the vocalist, and end up thinking the vocalist is doing everything in the band, which isn't necessarily the case."

It's unusual for Malakian to trumpet his role in System, primary though it is. He'd much rather talk about people he respects -- an honor roll that runs the gamut from Mahatma Gandhi to Charles Manson. Malakian tweaked political correctness on Toxicity via "ATWA," a track inspired by some of Manson's environmental musings, and Mezmerize's liner sports an epigram from the "Helter Skelter" man: "In your world you can take a pen and write on a piece of paper and destroy 200,000 people or more and it's ok because you don't have to see it."

"I have no interest in murder, and I have no interest in people dying," Malakian stresses. "But I'm interested in people's minds, and sometimes Manson puts thoughts together that I find really interesting. Have you ever seen his unedited videos? He starts making a lot of sense. I'm sure people are scared of that, but to me, it's scarier to watch George Bush try to make sense."

Even so, Malakian's rhapsodic waxings about another hero -- former Los Angeles Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- reveal more about him than does his Manson jones. Malakian often saw Abdul-Jabbar play during the Lakers' '80s heyday, and he says, "I like that he was the captain of his team, and he wasn't so much of a showboater. You just don't see players like him anymore -- players who keep quiet, play their fuckin' game and don't act like a rock star."

Malakian takes the same approach to System of a Down. "When people come to our shows, I don't want it to only be serious moments about politics," he allows. "I want them to have a good time. That's what it comes down to for me." System of a Down appears Saturday, August 13, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2025 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands, 281-363-3300. The Mars Volta and Bad Acid Trip are also on the bill.

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