Daron Malakian: “The alternative is that I could have been a solider for Saddam Hussein… God knows how that would have ended up”

System Of A Down founder Daron Malakian on his heritage, the early days, playing in Metallica and the future of his band…

Daron Malakian: “The alternative is that I could have been a solider for Saddam Hussein… God knows how that would have ended up”
Ian Winwood
Header photo:
Greg Watermann
Originally published:

Once every two weeks, Daron Malakian visits Disneyland. Along with his girlfriend Gayane, he strolls the amusement park in Anaheim, California, boarding rides and marvelling at the vision of its founder, Walt Disney.

Between the months of October and April, he will drive to the Staples Center in Downtown Los Angeles to watch the city’s ice hockey team the Kings, at which he has season tickets at centre ice. “That gets me out of the house two or three nights a week,” he says. The 44-year-old sees his family on Sundays, and most evenings will head out to dinner with his significant other. He stays up late, and after Gayane has gone to bed, at two or three in the morning he will retreat to a room in his house in which he will play and write music.

“I’m kind of a hermit,” he says. “I don’t have a group of friends that I party with. I don’t go to strip clubs or do any of the other stuff that people assume a rock musician would do.”

It has been a quarter of a century since Daron Malakian formed System Of A Down, the most brilliant and startlingly original metal band of recent and not-so-recent times. But despite selling many millions of albums, the group’s tenure as recording artists lasted for just seven years, and ended with the release of the Hypnotize album, their fifth, in 2005. Since then, much to the chagrin of its founding member, System Of A Down have become a heritage act that tours only sporadically and doesn’t record at all. It might even be fair to call it a cash cow. Tickets for last year's tour of the U.S. cost as much as $160 (approximately £122) face value.

One result of so much spinning of wheels is that fans of Daron Malakian’s music have been short-changed. Dictator, the second album from his Scars On Broadway project, was the first new music to which he put his name for a decade. The guitarist and songwriter makes no apology for this – “I write music constantly, even if no-one gets to hear it,” he says – but does admit that it’s nice to be back in the swim. “It’s even good to be doing interviews,” he says, “’cause I’ve hardly talked to anyone in the past 10 years.”

You were born in Hollywood to parents who had emigrated from Iraq. As a child, how aware were you of your family’s backstory?
“As a child I knew there was war in Iraq. There was the Iran-Iraq war. The family that my parents left behind was still part of that; my uncles and some of my cousins were actually soldiers in that war. So I knew they came from a place where things weren’t so stable. And both my parents were artists when they were in Iraq. My dad was pretty well-known for his dance choreography, and my mother had a degree in art and was teaching at the university. So I knew that they left a life behind. I realised that they left a lot behind as artists to come to the United States. My mom worked in a bank for almost 30 years, while my dad worked a lot of odd jobs. So that played on my mind. If you’d asked me when I was five years old what I wanted to do with my life, the answer would have been to do what I do now. I knew when I was really young that I wanted to play music and be in a band. I felt it was destiny that my parents gave up their art and lives to come to this country so that I could make my mark. That was a big driving force for me.”

As a teenager in Hollywood who loved KISS and Judas Priest, were you aware that you enjoyed freedoms that people in many parts of the world did not?
“That really hit me when System Of A Down had somewhat already made it. I was in my tour bus and we were driving through Baltimore; it was really early in the morning and the sun was coming up. I saw the city and I was, like, ‘Man, I’m sitting here on this tour bus, living the dream that I always had.’ And I turned to one of my friends who was on the bus and I was, like, ‘My life would have been so different if my parents hadn’t moved to the U.S.’ They had brothers and sisters and parents who didn’t make that move. I’m sitting on a bus as a member of a big heavy metal band when the alternative was that I could have been a soldier for Saddam Hussein. That really hit me and I felt incredibly lucky for what my parents did. If they hadn’t moved, I could have been a soldier in the wars, and god knows how that would have ended up.”

You formed System Of A Down in 1994. How long did it take for the group to gain traction?
“System Of A Down has rarely played in an empty venue. I think we’re a little spoiled when it comes to that. We played with a lot of bigger bands in LA, so within a year or two people recognised that what we were doing was unique and different. At that time, the record labels didn’t want to sign us yet, but we had a huge following in the city that people still talk about to this day. Even before we were a signed band, they would have to close off whole streets when we played. They would have entire blocks closed off because there were so many kids showing up to the club shows. The labels were reluctant to sign us because they didn’t think a huge following on the Sunset Strip would translate to us finding an audience in Texas, or in some parts of Europe. They thought we wouldn’t be understood. I had all sorts of people offering me advice on how to change our music so we’d get signed, but I was convinced we were doing the right thing. And bands who didn’t have anything like our following were getting signed, but they were white and not Armenian. We waited our turn, though, and it worked out okay.”

You finally caught the ear of one of music’s great icons, Rick Rubin. What part does he play in the System Of A Down story?
“Rick started appearing toward the end of our two or three-year period of playing the clubs. By then, there was a buzz going on with some labels; some of them were taking us out to dinner and wanting us to sign with them. But Rick saw us one time at the Viper Room, which is a small club on the Strip, and we met him. It’s funny, I remember being in a car with Shavo [Odadjian, System Of A Down bassist] long before the band was signed and I remember him saying that in an ideal world he’d want Rick Rubin to produce our albums. That was something that we’d actually talked about three years before, when we hadn’t even played a club show. So Rick saw the band and according to him found himself laughing a lot, but in a positive way. We were really animated in those days – I probably had a pink mohawk or something. But he fell in love with the band, and we decided to go with Rick. To this day, if I need any advice from him, he’s still there. I can text him at any time.”

System Of A Down became a multi-platinum band. Was it edifying that you could make such off-the-wall music and find an audience of such vast numbers?
“Yeah. We proved something to people who thought we couldn’t get anywhere, and of course it feels good to prove people wrong. But I always felt confident that what we were doing was good and original, and that we were doing something that hadn’t been done yet that you couldn’t get anywhere else. I never felt that I had to change anything. From the start, it felt right.”

System Of A Down toured the United States with Metallica in 2000 and you got to deputise for James Hetfield, who had injured his back. What was that like?
“It was surreal. I learned how to play in my style by playing Metallica songs in a tiny garage with two or three other guys. So that’s how I knew the songs. Hetfield had injured himself so he wasn’t there [for parts of the tour] and we were the opening band on a bill that had five or six bands on it. At that point, I’d never even met Metallica, and we played so early that we were onstage when they hadn’t even shown up at the venue yet. But I was watching them one night and they were kind of struggling. [Bassist] Jason Newsted was singing and it wasn’t going over well. So I turned to my guitar tech at the time and I said, ‘Hey, do you want to go and tell their people that I’m willing to help them out if they need me to?’ And the next thing you know, I have a Les Paul on my back and I walk out onstage with Metallica – I’m not sure they even knew who I was – and they’re asking, ‘What songs do you know?’ And I say, ‘Master Of Puppets?’ And so Lars counted it off, and there I was in front of 60,000 people playing with Metallica. And then I flew on their private jet to the next show and played with them again. I’ll never forget it. It was very surreal.”

System Of A Down presently exists in a strange form. Is it unkind to say that it’s a kind of franchise that exists only to make money?
“No, because we enjoy playing the songs, and we enjoy going out on tour. We have fun doing it. When it comes to making another album, there’s just a certain way that System make albums, and there’s a bunch of us that want to make an album that way and there is, I guess, one of us that doesn’t want to make an album that way and wants to make an album his way. And not everyone is on board with that. That’s been the issue. I have material for a new System album. Right now, if everyone got together and was ready to play ball, I have an album ready. If it was up to me, System would have never gone on hiatus.”

Filling in the blanks, you’re talking about a creative, if not personal, fracture between you and singer Serj Tankian, right? How is this going to be resolved?
“It may never be resolved; or it may be, but so far it hasn’t been. There was a time, I think, when I would have taken this a little bit more personally, but not any more. I realise that it’s not me. We’ve had so many meetings about it. I don’t want to throw Serj under the bus – he’s my friend and he’s someone that I care about – but I don’t know how to change his mind. We’ve all sat down and we’ve had meetings, and he’s totally set in his way of thinking. Serj was never really a heavy metal or a rock guy. I don’t know if he has the same love for this kind of music as I do. I’m the kid that grew up with Slayer and KISS on my walls. I wanted to be like them some day. Serj didn’t grow up feeling that way. He didn’t grow up a diehard fan. So I feel like the whole experience of becoming the lead singer in a hugely successful band was different for him than my experience was for me.”

As a result of the hiatus, over the past decade you’ve placed 12 new Daron Malakian songs in the public domain. This seems criminal.

Because it’s not enough. You’re a prolific writer whose music is going unheard.
“Yeah. A lot of that is System-related. I could put a song out as System Of A Down and it would be a bigger deal than if I put it out as a Scars On Broadway song, even though it would be the same song, same melody, same lyrics, same everything. But as Scars On Broadway, it isn’t such a big deal. And it makes me think that it’s funny that people listen to music in the same way that they’d choose a pair of jeans. It’s become like a brand. Bands are like brands, I suppose, and that’s kind of frustrating for me. To be honest with you, Serj didn’t even want to make [System Of A Down’s final two albums] Mezmerize and Hypnotize. We really begged him to make those records. At that time, he felt like he was out.”

When Scars On Broadway emerged a decade ago, the project was met with excitement, but you pulled the plug on it very quickly. Why?
“Because I realised that my songs were not getting the same love because they were not played by System Of A Down. Nobody knew that when we went on a hiatus that it was going to last for this long. I didn’t even want System to take a hiatus. If you were talking to me back then I would have said that we’d be taking a three or four-year break, tops. That is my biggest frustration. I thought, ‘Why am I starting this whole brand new thing? I’ll just take a break for a few years and then we’ll go back to System Of A Down.’ That way of thinking has kept me from putting out an album for 10 years, because every few years the discussion about making a new System album would come up again. And I made System my priority – I mean, I formed the band, for Chrissakes. It was my baby, and I stayed loyal to that. Because of that commitment I haven’t put out music for 10 years, even though I’ve been writing a lot of stuff. I have a shit ton of material.”

And what’s different this time round?
“I have a better understanding of where things are at and that’s kind of changed me. A lot of time has passed, too, which has healed me a little bit. I feel like right now is a better time for me to do Scars than it was in 2008.”

Is Dictator a worthy addition to your established body of work?
“Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t have put it out. I’ve already proved that I’m willing to hold music back. I have to be a fan of my song before anybody else is a fan. I’m really tough on myself, and I’m quite hard to impress. If I’m impressed with what I’ve done, usually it turns out that other people will be impressed, too.”

By your own admission you live quite a hermetic life. Are you happy with your set-up?
“Yes. I do things, but not the kind of things people might expect of a rock musician. Making music remains the most important thing; even if no-one gets to hear it, I still do it. Without music I would feel very pointless. I focus on art and my art happens to be songwriting. I want to write music that I’m proud of, and that’s what gets me off. That’s what I live for.”

Finally, the cause with which System Of A Down have been most closely associated with is the 1915 Armenian genocide. What do you think your contribution to the cause has been?
“I think more people around the world who didn’t know about it now do through System Of A Down. We’re one of the few people who have had that stage from which we can speak out about the Armenian genocide. There have been other famous Armenians, but I don’t think they were very vocal about it. A lot of Armenian people thank me for this, but for me it’s not something that requires thanks. It would be wrong for me not to do it, given the platform that we have. I’m very proud of the contribution that we’ve made to this cause. It’s not something that you’re going to learn about in your history books, and I think it’s great that we found a different route to talk about what actually happened.”

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