Shavo Odadjian: “It’s Been 15 Years Since I Properly Put Music Out, And That’s Exciting Again, This Is What A Musician Should Be Doing”

System Of A Down's Shavo Odadjian on a life of rock stardom, inciting riots and new project North Kingsley

Shavo Odadjian: “It’s Been 15 Years Since I Properly Put Music Out, And That’s Exciting Again, This Is What A Musician Should Be Doing”
Paul Brannigan
Shavo solo photos:
Paul Harries

Like everyone else, Shavo Odadjian has had to recalibrate his expectations this year. Had things fallen differently, the 46-year-old Los Angeles-based musician would have spent a chunk of summer 2020 onstage with his friends in System Of A Down, headlining festivals such as Rock Am Ring, Rock Im Park, Nova Rock and, of course, Download Festival. Shavo had other plans too: he’d drawn up plans to expand 22Red, his Californian lifestyle brand providing premium cannabis products, into Arizona and Las Vegas – “My goal is to be in every state in the U.S. one day… and then become a global brand,” he says, confidently – and had earmarked April for the launch of a brand new musical project, the fierce hip-hop collective North Kingsley. “This year was going to be my year bro!” he laughs, fully aware that he’s not the only one who’s had to tear up a 2020 planner.

But things are finally coming in to focus again. As we’re all aware, System have been booked for a return to Donington Park in summer 2021, and now, later than scheduled, North Kingsley, in which the Armenian-born bassist is teamed with producer Saro Paparian and vocalist Ray Hawthorne, are about to drop their three-track debut EP, showcasing an eclectic, hard-edged, combative and contemporary sound, with biting socially-conscious and political lyrics.

Speaking exclusively to Kerrang! from his home in Los Angeles, it’s immediately obvious just how excited Shavo is about re-entering the fray, and putting new music out into the world. Given that he’s seen and done it all with System, a band, remember, who scored three U.S. Number One albums, with 2001’s Toxicity and the Hypnotize/Mesmerize set in 2005, before declaring their original hiatus in 2006, it’s rather charming to see how charged he is right now.

“The plan with North Kingsley is to release three or four tracks every few months so this is just the beginning,” he says. “I love System, I love it to death, and I’ve said it before, if it was up to me, we’d have 10 records out by now, and be touring every year. But that’s not the reality right now for our band. So I have this opportunity to do something new and special to me. And I think people are going to be excited to hear what’s coming…”

Your family moved from Armenia to America when you were five. What memories do you have of your country of birth?
"Yeah, my whole family moved to America in 1979. I remember that it used to snow in Armenia every year, and it was very beautiful, and I remember my old house and my family members. Later in life, talking to therapists now and then, I found out that a move like the one we undertook is the second biggest traumatic experience that anyone could have, death aside, so it was a big deal. In 1979 Armenia was still a Soviet republic, so in order to come to America, we had to do certain things, so we first moved to Moscow, for a second, and from there we moved to Rome as refugees for about six months, and then from there we moved to New York. I lived in Queens for about six months, and I could have been a New Yorker. But my dad’s side of the family moved to Los Angeles, and my mom didn’t want us to be separated from my dad, so we flew to LA and ended up living on North Kingsley Drive. And that’s where I grew up, as an only child until I was 11."

Were you something of a mummy’s boy growing up?
"I was probably more of a grandma’s boy, as my mom’s mom raised me up while my mom worked two jobs and my dad worked two jobs. But my mom was definitely a big inspiration and influence on me. She’s such a strong, strong woman and she’s always been there for me and always will be. And now I’ve got her back. My mom and dad were very young parents, both in their early 20s when I was born. My mom and dad had actually wanted to move to America in 1973, but then my mom got pregnant with me, so the whole extended family waited until I was of an age that I could travel. We had no money initially, and now that I’m a parent myself, I really put them on a pedestal for all they did. They brought me to America to have a better tomorrow, and it worked out: it’s the American dream."

As an immigrant kid, did Hollywood blow your mind?
"Oh my goodness, yes. We lived in East Hollywood, not West Hollywood, and there was a lot of gangs, a lot of prostitution, a lot of homelessness. The MS [Mara Salvatrucha] gang actually started in my neighbourhood, and I’m not gonna lie, I was very intrigued by it, I wanted to be involved; not for the violence, but as an only child the idea of people standing with one another in unity kinds appealed to me. But thankfully the gangbangers on my street would say, ‘No man, this isn’t for you.’ I was skateboarding from the age of five, and I was this inquisitive kid, but I think they felt that I could do something with my life."

And how did music enter your life?
"Well, obviously in Hollywood there was music all around me. The guys from Mötley Crüe had an apartment right down the street from me, and there was a club called the Natural Fudge Café on Fountain and Kingsley, near me, which punk rock bands like Black Flag and the Misfits played. I could hear the music from my window. But I guess my personal journey started when I was out one day with my uncle and aunt, and I saw a huge mural of KISS on a studio wall on Sunset [Boulevard] and it gave me butterflies in my stomach. I later saw them on a TV programme called Solid Gold, and I thought, 'Wow, you can go onstage in make-up and leather and perform?' And that’s how music entered my DNA."

Your first band was called Polaris: what can you tell us about them?
"Ha, yeah, that was in my last year in high school, and we were named after the Megadeth song Polaris on Rust In Peace. I still have a flyer I drew for one show, with all these aliens and whatever on it. I started playing guitar when I was 12 years old, and then switched to bass when I was 17 or 18, essentially because I couldn’t find a bass player who played in the way I wanted, someone who wasn’t a show-off, always trying to overshadow the guitarist. I got an Ibanez bass and a Peavey bass head, and started jamming with different musicians at a rehearsal facility in Burbank."

System Of A Down were still called Soil when you joined them, but we understand that you actually managed the band for a time before then.
"Yeah, it’s a really long story, but basically it started with me being introduced to Daron [Malakian], who I knew vaguely because he had gone to the same school as me, Alex Pilibos High School. At the time I was in a band called Roswell, and anytime that we weren’t physically practising I’d run over to gang out with the Soil guys, and I’d sometimes grab the bass and jam with them when their bassist left the room. At some point they asked me to manage, and I started to book them gigs. I remember Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against The Machine used to have these house parties, and he’d have bands play, and I remember watching Standford Prison Experiment play there one night and then asking Tom Morello if he thought that maybe Soil could play one day. But then, like, two rehearsals to them having the chance to play, that band kinda fell apart. The bass player was a friend of mine, and he told me that he’d left and they might want me to join. I didn’t want to know initially, I felt like it’d be like me trying to get with his girlfriend, but he totally gave me his blessing. Then a couple of days passed and I got a call from Daron, and he invited me over to Serj [Tankian]’s house, and that’s where it all started."

Did it feel exciting to be playing music with people who were as serious about it as you were?
"Definitely. It felt good from the start, it felt right. Daron and I would go out and get some weed and come back to the studio and talk about how great the band was going to be."

Jumping ahead to 1999, the debut System album is out, and you’re touring Europe for the first time with Slayer and Sepultura. That must have been one hell of an introduction to life on the road.
"Mind-blowing! That was actually our third proper tour: the first one was with Slayer and Clutch, across America, and then we did Ozzfest 1998, side stage, and then Slayer hit us up and were like, ‘Yo, we love you guys, want to come to Europe with us?’ And we were like, 'Fuck yeah, dudes!' It popped our touring cherries properly! We were out there in make-up, playing songs like Sugar, before two of the heaviest bands in the world, and we got booed a lot (laughs). It didn’t bother us, we were like, 'Fuck you! You’re going to love us one day!' That mentality kept us going. And Slayer had our backs. When kids saw Tom Araya standing side-stage watching us, that kinda earned us some respect."

Obviously things were building nicely for the band, but when Toxicity debuted at Number One in America, you’d very definitely arrived. When did you first realise that System were becoming a big deal?
"I actually know the exact date I knew that, because it was early September 2001, Labor Day, and the album was coming out the very next day, so we decided to do a free show in Hollywood. We expected to draw maybe 4,000 or 5,000 people, so we had security to deal with those numbers, and 15,000 people showed up, and were going crazy. The fire marshall took us aside and said, ‘Look, we can’t let this show happen, there’s too many people out there.’ I remember saying, 'Dude, at least let us go out there and explain what’s happening, because we can’t just not play, and say nothing, they’ll go crazier.' But they wouldn’t let us, and the next thing you know, there’s a full-on riot: shit went crazy. People were destroying our gear and fighting with our crew and we got driven away to a hotel. I was sitting in my room with my friends, and within two hours, every news station in LA was talking about the System Of A Down riot. We couldn’t have paid for that kind of marketing! And then one week later it was 9/11, and our record was banned because we had songs like Chop Suey!, singing about “self-righteous suicide” and Toxicity was the country’s Number One record. I found out on 9/11 itself. I remember my mom phoning me and telling me to turn on the TV, and right when I switched on, one of the Twin Towers fell down live. I didn’t know what was happening, or if it was real or not, and so I’m watching in horror and the phone bleeps, and it’s my manager, and he says, 'Congratulations, you’re Number One on Billboard,' at the same time my mom is saying that the world is going to end. Crazy. I just got chills talking about it."

Over the next five years, System became one of the biggest bands in the world. Did you feel like a rock star, or did you just feel like a working musician?
"Half and half. There was definitely a time where I was drinking and partying and doing crazy things and living that lifestyle, behaving like a rock star. I was young, my friends were doing the same shit, and I don’t regret any of it, I had a great time doing it. But thank God that period didn’t last long, and I’m on the other side of it. But even when I felt like a rock star, I would still be hanging out with my parents and my old friends and I was humble, I was just Shavo, not some rock icon."

You’ve made it abundantly clear in past interviews that putting System on hiatus wasn’t your idea. But you didn’t waste much time in re-emerging with a side project, Achozen, with RZA from Wu-Tang Clan.
"I mean, the timing of our hiatus seemed bizarre to me, and I couldn’t believe that it was taking place at a time when we‘d just won a GRAMMY and were about to go to the next level. It seemed like we stopped at the exact time we shouldn’t have. But it is what it is, and obviously I didn’t know that this break would mean us not playing together for years. But anyway, System had done a song called Shame with Wu-Tang Clan, and RZA and I just clicked, and we just started hanging out all the time, at his studio or my studio. He wanted to learn how to play guitar, and I wanted to make beats and learn production, and he said he’d teach me what he knows if I gave him some guitar lessons. I was like, 'Fuck, dude, whatever you need!' And that’s where that project started. We got some friends involved, and ended up releasing an album embedded inside a new speaker. That was our only official release, and not many people heard it, but it was a good time and I feel we made good music. RZA and I have been friends ever since, and we’ve talked about doing more, but right now I have this North Kingsley music to focus on."

Did North Kingsley come together in the same low-key, spontaneous manner?
"Pretty much. At one point I had been prescribed pills for anxiety, and basically the pills started causing problems for me. I got help for it, and I got off them, but it wasn’t a good time for me: my weight blew up to 210 pounds, where normally I’m 165 pounds, and it took me maybe six, seven months to get myself together again and get back to normal. Anyways, I’d been talking about wanting to make some new music, and when I got my health sorted out, it seemed like a good time to finally get on to that. So I met Saro who was really cool, and Ray came in, and the music we sounded really great. Ray’s lyrics are amazing – it’s like listening to the news, the real news – and I feel it’s music that needs to be heard. I kinda didn’t want to call this a band, because System is my band, our band, and that’s my DNA, and it’s something that I’m incredibly proud of and protective of. But this music we’re doing with North Kingsley is too good not to be out there. And I’m excited to have people hear this."

You mentioned at the start of this conversation that you wish System had 10 albums out there, but obviously that band is a democracy and you can’t force it, or disrespect the wishes of your friends. That must be frustrating, so being in total control again, with this project, must be liberating.
"Liberating is exactly the word. I love my guys in System, we’re brothers, forever. But actually System isn’t a democracy, it’s a band in which every decision we make has to be unanimous, all four of us buying in: that’s how we set it up at the beginning and that’s why we’re in this mess (laughs). That’s a joke, just a joke. But yes, that’s how System works, and now I’m playing with two guys who respect my ideas and they have brilliant ideas of their own, so it’s a brilliant combination. I love that I have now have this avenue to make music again. It’s been 15 years since I properly put music out, and that’s exciting again, this is what a musician should be doing."

North Kingsley's new EP, Vol.1, is released on August 14 via 22Red Media.

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