John Dolmayan: “My Stuff Doesn’t Compare Or Compete With System… It’s Just Something I’ve Done For Enjoyment”
The four members of System Of A Down continue their fascinating musical endeavours outside of the context of the band, who despite intermittent touring since reforming in 2010 haven’t released a record since 2005’s Hypnotize. Frontman Serj Tankian creates soundtracks, most recently for the video game Midnight Star; guitarist Daron Malakian has his band Scars On Broadway, whose last album was 2018’s Dictator; and bassist Shavo Odadjian has Achozen, his project alongside Wu-Tang Clan member RZA, whose debut album has been completed for several years but is yet to be released.
Not to be outdone is drummer John Dolmayan, whose latest venture These Grey Men could be the most idiosyncratic release of the lot.
On paper it may seem routine — a solo EP featuring a revolving door of collaborators including M. Shadows and Tom Morello working on eight covers –- but in practice it’s a collection that moves all over the musical map and takes some thoroughly unexpected detours, from Eminem (Rock Bottom) to Two Door Cinema Club (What You Know). And while some, notably a version of AFI’s Beautiful Thieves, sit firmly in K!’s wheelhouse, others, particularly the mashup of Madonna’s Hung Up with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s protest anthem Ohio, come right out of left field.
The biggest headline from These Grey Men comes in the form of the two appearances from Serj, as SOAD’s frontman performing vocals on the Talking Heads’ Road To Nowhere and David Bowie’s Starman. They’re brave choices given the classic status of both, but bold and excellent in their execution, retaining the spirit of the originals while playing to the strengths of the artists tackling them. These fruitful collaborations between the System Of A Down bandmates certainly raises the topic of whether this creative process has moved the dial on a new SOAD record, though – questions John has comprehensive, if slightly disheartening, answers to.
How did These Grey Men come about?
“I live in Las Vegas but have a lot of family and business to do in LA so I’m there at least twice or three times a month. It’s a three-and-a-half hour drive between the cities so I would put on the radio or my iPad on shuffle and listen to a lot of different songs. I remember thinking back to when big bands would cover one another’s songs, whether that was someone doing a Zeppelin song or Hendrix covering The Beatles, and thinking how cool those times must have been. You’d have someone release a song and two days later someone had done a version of it. It’s something that happens a lot in the rap world, but I thought that collaborative mindset was something lacking in rock. That was coupled with the inactivity of System and me listening to songs thinking, ‘What would I have done if I’d been the drummer playing [these songs] at the time?’
“Then I talked to my good friend James [Hazley] who was in a band called Cockeyed Ghost back in the day and is a very talented guy. I told him about the idea and that’s where it all stemmed from, although it took a long time to do because I’ve had kids since then. Life takes you in different directions, but art has no timeline.”
What was the central criteria for the songs you chose?
“I think melody, if anything, was the central filter. I looked for the melody in the songs and if I thought there was something I could expand on. Sometimes I’d do that with the lyrics, too, such as on Hung Up by Madonna, where there’s almost nothing left from the original song. The melody is actually from ABBA (Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!…) and added the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song to it.”
The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is Ohio, about the Kent State shootings in 1970 and a very political song. Was there a political purpose to its inclusion on your part?
“I can’t say that there was. It was more because I got bored with the melody of Hung Up and thought something else had to be there, though at first I didn’t know what that something else was. I’ve always admired Neil Young, both solo and his work with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the song itself. For whatever reason I thought those two songs would work together, and they did. I also threw a French horn in there for good measure.”
For some, you doing a cover of AFI’s Beautiful Thieves will be equally unexpected…
“My manager also manages AFI and he invited me to a show at [Hollywood nightclub and venue] The Troubadour. I really enjoyed it and that song in particular stuck out, because even though I’d seen the band maybe once before I’d never heard that song. I was in the audience wanting to be up on the stage playing it, so I knew I had to include it. If the melody resonates, it attracts me, especially if it’s morose.”
Street Spirit (Fade Out) by Radiohead could certainly be described as morose. Your version has M. Shadows from Avenged Sevenfold on vocals and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine on guitar — how did that come about?
“As soon as I decided to make the covers album, I started to think of a list of people I’d want to have on it. I approached people that I had friendships with for the most part. I had met Matt [Sanders, M. Shadows’ real name] in Las Vegas at a mutual friend’s dinner party. He was the nicest person and we ended up becoming friends. I’d always loved Street Spirit because no-one sings like Thom Yorke — the guy makes you feel every note and you just want to curl up into a ball and make it rain outside for six hours. I thought Matt would be superb on it and he really did hit it out of the park — it’s probably my favourite of the songs. And then Tom came in and did a really interesting solo and made some cool sounds. If anything, with the inclusion of strings I was trying to put a bit more Zeppelin into the song.”
What was it like working with Serj in the studio? Did you work directly or was it done remotely?
“It was both actually. The first song he did was Starman, which he did at his house and sent to me, and then we went in and did some overdubs and changed some melodies. I thought he was perfect for Road To Nowhere, too. He didn’t quite see that at the beginning, probably because he had so much respect for the original song, but as I forced him into the studio he liked doing it more and more. It was a lot of fun to do, especially the middle part where it breaks down and he does more ethereal singing. I hadn’t heard Serj do a lot of that in the past, so it was cool to push a little bit past what we were both comfortable with.”
What was it like working at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606?
“It was great, though at the end of the day, unless Dave Grohl is there hanging out with you, you’re just trying to get the sounds right. Actually, if Dave had been there hanging out, we probably wouldn’t have got much work done! Interestingly, the board that we were working on there was the same board from [legendary studio] Sound City, which is where we recorded the [self-titled] System album, so it was cool working on that [board] again.”
How was it being the boss on a project?
“I never really looked at myself as the boss. I understand that ultimately I made the decision to do this record, but it was a collaborative effort. I’ve always been open to working with people, and although you have an overall mindset of where you’re going, you do have to be open to all possibilities.”
Were there any songs or collaborators you had but couldn’t make it work for whatever reason?
“There were many more that I didn’t do because I couldn’t get the right singer for it for. For example, there was a song that I thought would be perfect for Brandon Boyd from Incubus, and I only wanted to do it with him. Unfortunately, Brandon and I couldn’t connect, even though we’ve been friends for a long time, so I didn’t do it at all. And there was a song I wanted Maynard from Tool to sing on, but he wasn’t available. Maybe one day they could happen.”
So you won’t jinx the chances of those collaborations happening by telling us what the songs you had in mind for them?
“If I could remember the song titles I’d probably tell you, but I don’t!”
Does this mean you’ll do more releases like this?
“I probably wouldn’t make another like this, but I wouldn’t be opposed to getting together to make a song here and there if somebody was interested. I’m also not opposed to doing one or two live shows for this, where I could have something interesting in terms of the visuals and the line up, though getting all these guys together would be tough.”
It seems tough to get a new System Of A Down record to happen, too. Are you fed up with answering questions about it, given your earlier statement that ‘art has no timeline’?
“First of all, thank you to everyone for actually giving a shit still – to our fans who have been waiting patiently [for a new album]. I appreciate it personally, and I’m sure the rest of the guys do, too. Unfortunately it’s not something that’s in my control. I wanted to make an album in 2007…and 2009…and 2012…and 2015…and 2018, and we’d have been making an album now if it was up to me. As long as we were making music that we felt was of the same quality, there was no reason to stop making records, but not everybody in the band shares my mindset for whatever reason.
“I’ve said in the past that we’ve got to put our egos aside when it comes to this type of stuff. We started as a band that struggled; none of us had money, and tried to make it, not because we wanted money but because we had a passion for what we were doing. We wanted to make that into our careers, whether that made us enough money to survive or into multimillionaires, whatever got us to the point of making a living as an artist, that’s what we were pursuing. The mistake that many of us make is that you start to believe the hype about yourselves, you start to believe how wonderful you are and anything you do is gold. If you listen to your fans on Instagram, you can drive yourself nuts, as the vast majority on there are telling you how great you are, but then there are others telling you you’re shit. Once you start believing anyone but yourself, you’ve already lost and you can’t recover from that.
“For whatever reason, System Of A Down has done a really good job of getting into that in our own way. But we’re not alone; Tool did a very good job of that for a long time and Rage Against The Machine has done a fantastic job of that for as long as we’ve been a band.”
You think those bands, like System, have made mistakes?
“In the sixties, you had The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Zeppelin…on the highest level. They pushed each other and learned from each other. I feel like in the ’90s there was a newer version of that with Tool, Rage Against The Machine and System Of A Down, bands that sounded different and made a difference. They were all distinct, but equally they were all stupid. Instead of sticking with it and using one another as motivation to be better, we just fizzled out and stopped creating together.
“We made side projects that compared to the mothership were mediocre, and that includes mine. My stuff doesn’t compare or compete with System It’s just something I’ve done for enjoyment, and I hope people enjoy it, but System isn’t comparable to anything any individual member of System can accomplish, musically — I don’t care how many things you put out there! I know Daron is probably making another Scars On Broadway album, Serj is doing his orchestral and solo work, and I’m doing my stuff, but let me tell you: none of it will mean shit compared to System because it was the four of us together, with our talents unified to one purpose. That’s what makes System great. The lack of that is just that — a lack. If we lost any member we’d be poorer for it.
Do you think that realisation will unify you all to create together once more?
“This is just the reality of life. People can’t get it together and can’t get out of their own ways. Maybe they’re upset about something that happened 20 years ago, or maybe they want to create a new reason to be upset. Either way, it is what it is. At a certain point you move on to other things. If you’re dating a girl, you’re in love with her and you want to marry her but she doesn’t love you, you’ve got to move on.”
Yes, but using that relationship analogy, with the band still touring isn’t that a bit like having these continuous torrid love affairs with that person who doesn’t want you? Is that helpful?
“Sometimes you just fancy a fuck, you know what I’m saying?”
John Dolmayan will release debut solo album These Grey Men on February 28.
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