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System Of A Down | Steal this Album | interview | Daron Malakian | metal | Lollipop
System Of A Down
"Steal this Album!" (Columbia)
by Martin Popoff
An interview with guitarist/backup vocalist Daron Malakian
Headbanging The Borscht Belt
Pirogies, polkas, power chords... even when System Of A Down are serving leftovers, they fill rock bellies with warmth, mirth, and merriment. Steal This Album! is the band's anarchic response to the cyber-theft of fringe-dwelling System tracks, purportedly tracks that were in their infancies compared to the final results on this barely-packaged quiltwork from Baba's craft room. Fact is, one should never underestimate the abilities of these loudmouth lefties: For an odds 'n' sods collection, Steal This Album! is possibly as good, weird, and infectious as Toxicity or the self-titled debut, both platinum pieces of ear-yanking exotica that, in their sales dominance, prove, like Tool, that the melted metal masses deserve more credit than they're offered. Read on, as guitarist - sorry, songwriter - Daron Malakian, reveals the meaning behind the Armenian.
You said in the bio that some of the songs didn't fit the continuity of Toxicity. Could you explain that?
When I sequence a record, it's not based on "This is the best song," know what I mean? It's which ones fit right for an overall vibe. If we added "Ego Brain" and "Streamline" and "Roulette" to Toxicity, it would've overdone a certain thing that was already carried by "Aerials" and "Atwa." It would've been overdone, and we didn't want to overdo anything, except ourselves. (laughs)
I talked to Gary Moore today, the guitarist from England, and he said he was a big fan of you guys, and you in particular. He called his local shop in England to get his copy of Steal This Album!, and the guy said "yeah, I've got it," but after looking for it, he came back to the phone and said "Someone's nicked it, mate!"
(Laughs) I haven't had any reports of that yet. But that was the idea, I guess.
Was this a play on the Steal This Book idea?
We made a weird connection with that whole thing, and it did fit in, but that wasn't the initial reason. The reason was that people stole the record at first.
The opening track, "Chic 'n' Stu;" what's that all about?
It has nothing to do with soup. Excuse me, I've got gardeners over the place. Great time for the gardeners to show up. "Chic 'n' Stu" is a schizophrenic type of tune inspired by television.
I really like "Innervision;" tell me about that lyric...
I didn't write the lyrics for that song, but I think it's more of a mindframe-type song, a song about looking into yourself. You'd be best to ask Serj.
What are one or two of your favorite guitar performances here?
I'm really proud of the solo on "Nuguns." In the past, I haven't really put in very many guitar solos. I don't make it a point to put a guitar solo in the middle of every song. I don't think it's necessary all the time, and I don't think the guitar is the most important instrument going on, you know? But this album ended up with quite a few guitar solos, and they're there because they fit.
You've said that this album is more of an indication of things to come.
Yes, there's a more melodic thing going on with Steal This Album! - even more than on Toxicity - between me and Serj especially, in the harmonies. I think we should venture into that stuff more. It's tough to explain any System album because there are so many different directions we're always going in.
What did you do differently in the studio for the first two albums, or indeed, what did Rick Rubin do differently?
Well, I produced Toxicity, and I didn't have as much of a hand in producing the first record. I would say that's the biggest difference, a really big difference. (laughs)
What does Rick do for your sound?
Rick's ideas for us are usually pretty simple. As a producer, I'm not really counting on Rick making the whole record. I like his opinion about... I like his opinion, basically. (laughs) He has an opinion about which songs he thinks are the best. He has an opinion on how this chorus could be better, stuff like that. I'm just so deep into the band and writing that I need an outside ear to tell us these things and he really helps in that way. As to direction and vibe, that's my job. (laughs)
Now how much of this album is revamped from the Toxicity sessions?
Not all of it. After we came back from Ozzfest, Serj and I went to Rick's house and re-did a lot of them, so, to me, they're brand-new. For example, "Roulette" is completely brand-new. We recorded that two months ago. We went in and re-did vocals for "Nuguns," though the music for it was recorded during the Toxicity sessions. A lot of the vocals were recorded about a month or two ago. "Bubbles" is a song from the Toxicity sessions. I thought that song should've been on Toxicity (laughs), but it just didn't work out in the sequencing. We were working on "Boom!" when working on songs for Toxicity, but never got it the way it sounds now. "Mr. Jack" was probably recorded during the sessions for the first album. My memory ain't that great. (laughs) "Ego Brain" we recorded during the Toxicity sessions, but not vocally. Everything has been re-done. Even if we did record some of these songs during the Toxicity sessions, we hadn't really established a lot of vocals for them at that point.
What are the ingredients of the System Of A Down sound?
I'm a musical schizophrenic. I can't really pinpoint one thing. I'd say it's full of emotions; that's our main ingredient, emotion.
Can you name some of your favorite hard rock albums of all-time?
Well, Reign In Blood and probably the first couple Stooges records, early Iron Maiden... A big influence on me was Ace Frehley (laughs), just personally. And I don't really have guitar influences. My guitar influences are all drummers.
So you consider yourself a percussive player?
What is the material news for you guys for the next six months?
Two of us are doing our own little things right now. We're going to release this record and not really going out and touring right away or anything. Serj is working with his label. I got a project I'm working on with the singer of Amen, Casey Chaos. I like it when band members are involved in other projects because it brings something new to the table. This thing with Casey, it's not going to be anything all hardcore; it's going to be very rock, like a Gothic Sex Pistols, a very dark punk feel like Sisters Of Mercy, except with a live band, a collaboration of my vibe and his vibe. I'm doing pretty much all the writing for it. I sing myself, but I like to double up with a singer because another flavor comes into the picture. Having Casey in mind when I'm writing is a lot different than having Serj in mind, so I come up with very different material. It's cool because I'm very much into punk and rock music. It's going to be more stripped-down...
If someone asks, "Who does your singer sound like?" what do you say?
I can't explain it. He's versatile, man. I feel like the luckiest songwriter when it comes to my band members. I can go anywhere with the songs because he can go anywhere with his voice. He growls, he recites poetry, he sings, and he doesn't sound like anybody.
People talk about the ethnic or Armenian-type music in your sound. Do you know that stuff well?
Serj listens to and likes that kind of thing more than I do. I'm more rock in my tastes. But, you know, it's not consciously done, it just happens, it's a flavor. Ever heard of a legendary Arabic singer called Umm Kulthum? She's like the diva of everything. My mother used to sing her songs when she was pregnant with me, and I always thought that might have been something. (laughs) Maybe that's what attracts me that type of vibe.
What's one of the biggest things you've learned from doing quite well at this career?
You know what, man? I feel like I'm more of a humble and grounded person right now than before any of this, I guess you can call it, rock stardom. I try to show people almost that I'm not any more special or different than them. (laughs) I've learned to appreciate what's happening to me now. I feel really lucky and I don't take it for granted. What can I say? I write songs and people dig 'em and that's cool. I don't see myself any differently from the guy who plumbs really good, you know? I mean, who's the star if your toilet is clogged and I'm there and so's a plumber?
Are there different editions of this album?
There're five different covers, the individual artwork from each of us four, and then the one that just has "Steal This Album!" scribbled on it.
What's a lyric that you're particularly proud of?
The lyric I'm proud of I had no hand in; Serj wrote it. "Matador corporations," I like that a lot. (laughs) It's just very deep to me, corporations having the red towel in front of them, and us being the bull. It's just two words but I make a big thing out of it. (laughs)
Has there been any talk about the next album?
I have, like, 15 new songs all ready, and we talk here and there about it, but I think we're just taking a rest right now. I haven't really spoken to any of the band members in a couple weeks. We always do that after a tour. We do our own thing when we're at home, and my thing is focusing on writing. I arrange the songs, so if anyone has music, I help them arrange it, and we bring it into a System form together. It's cool because it gives each of us space to do what we do and then bring it to the table when we come together.
I've heard Rick burns a lot of sage in the studio. What's the deal with that?
It's actually me and Rick. (laughs) It's a way to get the fire department to show up. (laughs) No, just kidding... I burn a lot of sage and incense in my house, and it causes a really nice spirit, a nice vibe to get rid of all the bad stuff in the air. It's the hippie in us, I guess.
Are there other art forms you want to get into, books, visual arts?
Producing pretty much is what I want to do. My strength's in music. I do have interests in other kinds of art, but I try to stick with what I'm strong at. I don't consider myself a great guitar player. I consider myself a stronger songwriter than anything instrumentally. I dabble with the drums, I dabble with guitar, I dabble with vocals and I bring it all together in songs. I enjoy working with others, too. If I find a band that sounds really cool, I like to get them into the studio and help them put a record together. I put the System records together, and I love taking songs, sequencing them, bringing out the best in the tracks. That's what I hope to do, to tell you the truth.
Is Serj quite the experimenter? I listen to him and think, man, he must try a lot of different things right there in the studio. Is that true?
Serj is an experimenter. Some of his ideas can really go over your head, you know what I mean? (laughs) But it's bringing in a medium. We have a way of understanding each other and finding ways to make it where we're both happy. I don't exactly write the most straightforward type of shit, either. The stuff I write asks for some really wacky stuff, but sometimes it can go overboard. He likes to experiment with different effects, and some of that we have to, like, put low in the mix because it's a little bit overdone. Even he would agree...
Your definition of overdone... does that mean it becomes too comedic?
You can say that, at times. But then again, sometimes it gets too soft. Like, I listen to Norwegian black metal, and he's really not into that kind of thing. There might have been some vocal overdubs in falsetto here and there where, you know, we just didn't need that vibe. We don't get in any fights about it or anything. I like the fact that he tries a million things. I don't have a problem with someone exploring tangents. Because everybody has trust in this situation; everybody is comfortable with who they are and what they do.
Do you envision a time when you won't need Rick?
No. Unless he's too busy to work on it himself. Like I said, being the guy that's in it so deep, I have to have an opinion I respect. To be honest with you, there aren't very many producers out there who are risk-takers. There are a lot of cookie cutter-type guys out there, even songwriters; no one takes risks. The Beatles didn't become great songwriters by copying other people's songwriting. They brought out their own style; same with Bowie. Now you've got people who are like "He can write a great Beatles tune. He's a great songwriter." (laughs) And that frustrates me. It's not fair to a whole new generation of kids, a whole new generation of songwriters. I feel people don't focus enough on this whole subject of songwriting. People go "I'm a guitar player" or "I'm a bass player." The focus is on the instrument. But the songwriting is more than playing an instrument, it's like playing the song.