Daron Malakian: ‘I’d Be Really Bored If I Was Just Playing Angry Music’
The guitarist and co-vocalist of metallers System of a Down talks about his new Scars on Broadway album ‘Dictator,’ Armenian history and writing timeless music
Over 20 years, Armenian-origin American metallers System Of A Down (SOAD) always looked like they would be more likely to stay relevant among their nu-metal peers. Sure, they would sing cryptic, often nonsensical songs (“Chop Suey!” “This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I’m on this Song”) as well as emotive numbers (“Aerials,” “Lonely Day”) but their strength was in strongly political themes (“B.Y.O.B.,” “Hynotize,” and “Holy Mountains”) which reference the Ottoman Empire-orchestrated Armenian genocide of the early 1900s.
Over the phone from his home in California, guitarist and vocalist Daron Malakian agrees that they’ve “outlasted that scene because we were different.” There is a certain timelessness to it because he has never written music to fit a current time-frame anyway, with System of a Down or with his solo project, Daron Malakian and Scars on Broadway. On his long-awaited second album Dictator, the artist gives more of that, with the vibrantly groovy “Lives,” the brutal title track and more. Out today, Dictator pretty much sounds like a SOAD album for all practical purposes and it’s not something Malakian will deny. He says, “It’s hard for me to get away from… I guess I could call it my signature? I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s not hard for me to be versatile, but because within that style there’s a lot of versatile things going on. I feel like anything I write usually works for either band.”
In an exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, Malakian talks about waiting 10 years since the release of his debut self-titled Scars on Broadway album to release new material and bonding over the years with SOAD bandmates. Excerpts:
You’ve always said you draw from what you’ve seen on TV and the media for your music and lyrics – right from songs like “They Say” to Dictator.
I draw my inspirations from all different kinds of places – it depends on the songs. Every song has a different story and a different topic, how I got there or why that topic inspired me. The approach to how I write hasn’t changed from the first album until now. It’s a bit of the same approach. The world changes, so the topics change. Life doesn’t stay the same and the world doesn’t stay the same, so there’s always something to inspire new topics or new direction for songs and lyrics.
What was it like writing politically charged songs when you were often grouped with nu-metal bands who often just ran in the opposite direction when it came to themes and subjects?
I never personally saw ourselves in the same style even with a lot of the nu-metal bands that were coming out, but I think at that point, a lot of that stuff was going on and we would be on the same festivals or shows playing with those bands. Even though I’m personally friends with a lot of those bands, stylistically and when it comes to lyrics and the colors that I always liked to use – whether it was System or Scars – I just never felt like we were on the same page.
We kind of got clumped into that because that’s what was popular. You had probably 60 different bands that sounded like KoRn at that time and we didn’t. A lot of those bands, if you think about them now, they’re kind of gone. KoRn still exists, because they were the original band that had that sound, but the bands who copied KoRn aren’t around anymore.
I think that’s why we survived too – we had our own thing. We took risks that some of those other bands didn’t take, with our sound. I was never afraid to try new things and make each album different but still keeping a style. I never edited my writing style and said, ‘Well this is something I can’t do’ and ‘This is what the fans want to hear.’ On Mesmerize and Hypnotize, we had songs like “B.Y.O.B.” but we also had songs like “Lost in Hollywood” and “Lonely Day” and I think a lot of the metal bands we were around, I don’t think they were as diverse as that.
Listen to “Lives” below.
Do you think there are more people who have understood Armenian history because of System and Scars on Broadway? Have you had fans come up to you and talk to you about it?
Well the Armenian Genocide is not in any history textbooks in the United States. I don’t know how it is in India or every country, but in the United States, they do not teach you that this is something that happened to the Armenian people during World War I, the Turkish government – none of that is mentioned.
I get a lot of people that tell me that they learned about the Armenian Genocides and even learned about who Armenians are as a culture, as a people, through us. That’s always nice to hear. It’s not something that was conscious. It’s kind of part of what we do, just like you said. Some of our songs have funny lyrics to it, some of them have political lyrics. Two or three songs reference Armenian Genocide – so it’s part of my world.
I see something on the news, I see the politics of the world – it’s all happening at the same time. You’ve got metal and rock bands who only sing about being pissed off. Well, you’re not pissed off all the time, are you? There’s times when you laugh and sometimes you say jokes, there’s serious situations, you know, like a hurricane somewhere or you hear about news. I want to express myself in different ways. I’d be really bored if I was just playing angry music. Or if I was just playing political music. If it was just one thing, I would find myself really bored and I would feel really restrained as an artist.
I feel like you’ve never shied away from saying that Scars on Broadway is very much sonically close to System of a Down. That’s still very evident on Dictator.
It’s my style – that’s the style I write in. The first Scars album had songs like “Stoner Hate,” but then it also had songs within that style that brought out different emotions. That style isn’t just one kind of song. On this album, there’s songs like “Fuck and Kill,” and then you have songs like “Till the End” – totally different kinds of songs, but for me, there’s something about both songs that sound like it was written by the same person.
If you look at Mesmerize and Hypnotize, I grew a lot as a writer. From the first album Toxicity to these. Even though I grew, I feel like the identity just stayed there. For example, if you listen to early U2, then you listen to later U2, it’s different, but it still sounds like U2.
You recorded Dictator in 10 days and then had to wait six years to release it – a lot of musicians hold on to material, but this doesn’t sound dated at all – did you let it take its time knowing that this kind of style of music wouldn’t necessarily sound old?
I think as long as I stay true to myself and true to what I’m writing… Because I don’t listen to the radio and say, ‘Oh you know, this is what the radio is playing, and maybe I should add these kind of elements because it’ll be more accepted.’ I have never written that way, ever.
I think when it’s honest, no matter if it was coming out three years ago or 10 years ago, when you’re doing something and you’re doing it in an honest way – you’re not pretending to be something else. That’s the kind of art, the kind of music, the kind of movies that can stand the test of time, because you can relate to it at any point in life.
A song like “Lonely Day,” going back, I wrote that 13 years ago but I feel like I can still relate to that lyrically and musically. It’s not like, ‘Hey, that was the sound of that time.’ No, that was the song that I wrote at that time not necessarily following the sound of that time. It was just a song I wrote at that time that you can listen to it now and relate to the lyrics.
Some of the political things that we’re singing about are still kind of happening now. [Referring to ‘B.Y.O.B.’ lyrics] ‘Why don’t Presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?’ It’s still the poor that are going out and fighting the wars. It’s been the poor for hundreds and thousands of years. It’s never been the rich that go out and fight the wars. It’s something that, even if 10 years pass by, we find ourselves as human beings doing the same things that we’ve done for centuries now.
Listen to “Dictator” below.
Is there a chance you’ll stash away something again thinking it could be brought to the table at a System rehearsal?
To do it with System, I need everybody in System to be on board. That isn’t necessarily the case right now with System of a Down. Not everyone is on the same page about making an album. A big part of why I waited to release Dictator was because I was kind of waiting to see what’s happening with System and if I’m going to need to hold on to these songs and use them with System Of A Down. Since we came to an agreement that now is not the right time for everybody to do a System album, it feels more comfortable for me to put the songs into Scars and watch and see what happens with Scars – put some time into it and nurture Scars for a while.
I don’t think I ever really put the time and love into Scars that I should have when the first album came out. I kind of stopped the touring and went on my own little hiatus. I feel much more comfortable moving forward with Scars at the moment and watching it grow and releasing music under the Scars banner.
I feel like everyone in System probably bonded on beards. What do you guys bond about when you’re on the road together now?
(Laughs) I think now everyone talks about their kids. I don’t have kids but everyone has kids and everyone is married. We talk about that, we laugh and joke around. I can’t exactly say one thing that comes to mind about what we bond over.
When we’re not rehearsing for shows, we don’t see each other on a weekly basis. Months will go by and I don’t see Shavo [Odadjian, bassist] or Serj [Tankian, vocalist] or John [Dolmayan, drummer] until we’re going to rehearse for the tour and we see each other. When it comes to our everyday lives, we kind of live very separate [ones].
When we get home from a tour, it’s kind of healthy to give everybody their space – everybody goes their own way and lives their life. When it’s time to come back and do System shows, we’re all close enough that everything comes back together quickly, even after some time apart.
Your work has certainly inspired tons of bands out here in India. I think Serj has been out here, but I’m guessing you’ve never got any offers to play.
That’s awesome. I can’t remember an offer to play in India before. I don’t think anyone approached us with that. It’d be cool, though, especially since you say that there’s so many people there. It’ll probably be an amazing show.
It feels great for me to reach you guys out there. A lot of these songs, I wrote in the living room I’m sitting in right now and it’s still amazing to me that I could sit there and write a song and people so far away are being affected or touched by that song. It still means the world to me. You don’t think of India as a big rock market usually. I never have. When you tell me there are people out there that are hungry for rock music, that’s really cool to know.
‘Dictator’ is out now. Stream the album here.