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Members include John Dolmayan, drums; Daron Malakian, guitar, background vocals; Shavo Odadjian, bass guitar; Serj Tankian, vocals, keyboards, samples. Addresses: Record company--Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York City, NY 10022, phone: (212) 833-5212, website: http://www.sony.com. Website--System of a Down Official Website: http://www.systemofadown.com.

Fusing rock, punk, metal, rap, and even ethnic folk and jazz, and tackling subjects ranging from cultural and political issues to poetry and humor, System of a Down proved themselves true contenders on the rap-metal scene with their sophomore album, Toxicity. Released in September of 2001, the album, containing the radio hit "Chop Suey," debuted in Billboard at number one, reached platinum status within a couple of months, and elevated the band to a new level of popularity among teenagers. System of a Down's unsettling yet absorbing music played regularly on radio stations nationwide, while the group's videos rotated daily on MTV. The music press placed the quartet in the same league as Tool and Rage Against the Machine. "They have a deep musicality that's really powerful," producer Rick Rubin told Natalie Nichols of the Los Angeles Times. "For a band that offbeat, [the success of Toxicity] is really a testament to the depth of their songs."

System of a Down--comprised of guitarist and chief songwriter Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, keyboardist Serj Tankian, and drummer John Dolmayan--formed in 1994 in Los Angeles, California, deriving their name from a poem composed by Malakian. (Before joining forces, Malakian and Tankian played together in Soil, a band managed by Odadjian.) They claim that loyalty, a strong sense of community, and the importance of family and friends--in addition to their love of music--enabled the group to succeed. "We're a very brotherly band ... we care about each other," Dolmayan insisted in an interview with LA Weekly contributor Paul Rogers. Indeed, System of a Down exhibit a deeper continuity than most bands. Since their formation, the group has had a stable lineup and crew, the same manager and attorney since 1996, and a strong artistic and business relationship with their producer.

Much of the band's emphasis on mutual respect and brotherhood is a direct result of their background. All four members were raised in Los Angeles--making them an anomaly of sorts in a city filled with transplanted hopefuls--all share a common Armenian heritage, and, except for Dolmayan, attended the same private Armenian high school in Hollywood. As adults, one of the main issues they champion is international recognition of the Armenian genocide. (Under Ottoman Turkish rule an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Armenians died between 1915 and 1923; many of the band members' ancestors suffered during this period.) To raise awareness of this horrific event, which many nations, including Turkey, still refuse to acknowledge, System of a Down addresses the topic through their lyrics, as well as through interviews and concert events sponsored by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).

Although known for their aggressive, spectacular, and passionate live performances, the band members appear quite different in person. Tankian, a native of Lebanon, is described as warm and nonjudgmental, a devotee of meditation, and a student of global politics and ideologies. Before settling into a career in music, he worked as CEO of a marketing management software company.

Malakian, the band's creative nucleus, was born in Hollywood to artistic parents. He decided to pursue music at the tender age of four. "I'm a real workaholic with what I do," Malakian, known for his intense, yet at times vulnerable, demeanor, revealed to Rogers, "sometimes to the point where it's not healthy. I get stressed out, especially now there's a million people listening to us. I used to write for myself and then show my mom--that was my audience." In order to deal with the pressures of the music business and System of a Down's popularity, Malakian, too, became interested in the meditative arts.

Odadjian, who was born and lived in Armenia until the age of five, was raised by his mother and grandmother. A former skate punk and intense fan of other bands as a teen, he never expected to make a living in the music business and remains much in tune with System of a Down's audience. Others associated with the group credit him for keeping an eye on the band's commercial appeal, regularly warning his fellow bandmates when songs sound too complicated.

In contrast, Dolmayan, also from Lebanon, recognized music as his calling around age two, even though his father, a jazz saxophonist who ultimately chose family over a musical career, tried to steer him in a different direction. "He knows what a musician's life is like," Dolmayan explained in comments included on the System of a Down official website. "He had no clue I would be in a signed band one day, he figured I'd be struggling my whole life." Described as at once a precise and unorthodox percussionist, Dolmayan's drumming inspirations range from the Who's Keith Moon to Maynard Ferguson and Jaco Pastorius. "You have to have discipline in drumming," he added. "Timing is very important, but I don't want to sound like a robot. I like the fact that every now and then I'll go off time a little bit, every now and then my rolls aren't perfect."

During the mid-1990s System of a Down, united by their personal and musical connections, established themselves in Los Angeles. Their primary influences included heavy metal, hard-core punk, and traditional Armenian music, but they were also intrigued by the boldness of groups such as Faith No More and Jane's Addiction. With the help of friends and promotion by Odadjian, the band's original manager, and Tankian, an expert at web-based networking, System of a Down landed gigs at established clubs like the Roxy, the Whiskey, and the Troubadour. The music industry took notice, impressed by their message and raw energy. Music producer Rick Rubin, noted for his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy, among others, felt equally enthusiastic after attending a show at the Viper Room. Rubin signed the band to his Columbia Records-affiliated American Recordings label and offered to serve as the band's producer.

In 1998 System of a Down released a self-titled full-length album. It sold approximately 750,000 copies, due in large part to the rock radio hit "Sugar," media exposure, and a relentless touring schedule. As in Los Angeles, System of a Down attracted a large following with their aggressive, raging sound, dramatic live act, and socially conscious lyrics. Although the record's closing track, "P.L.U.C.K." ("Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers") was an assault on the ongoing denial of Armenian genocide, System of a Down refuses to be labeled simply as an Armenian-American band. "To me, the Armenian genocide is personal," Tankian said to Nichols. "It's about grandparents and things like that. [Being Armenian] indirectly and in a very deep way plays a part in everything we do, but it's not as big as people usually make it."

Following tours with the Ozzfest concert series and bands such as Slayer and Limp Bizkit, System of a Down returned in the fall of 2001 with their second effort, Toxicity. Entering the charts at number one and eventually reaching platinum sales, the album solidified the quartet's reputation. Although Toxicity relied heavily on political and social messages, such as with the anti-drug war track "Prison Song," the album also included less serious numbers like "Bounce" and "Jet Pilot." "Our music is not just for social causes," Tankian explained to Nichols, in another Los Angeles Times interview. "It has an entertaining factor to it, because kids will not just listen to a sermon. That's boring."

by Laura Hightower

System of a Down's Career

Group formed in Los Angeles, CA, 1994; played at clubs such as the Roxy and the Troubador, mid-1990s; signed with American Recordings, released System of a Down, 1998; released Toxicity, 2001.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

December 2005: System of a Down's album, Hypnotize, made its debut at the top of the charts, with 320,000 units sold. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, December 1, 2005.

February 8, 2006: System of a Down won the Grammy Award for best hard rock performance for "B.Y.O.B." Source: Grammy.com, http://grammy.com/GRAMMY_Awards/Annual_Show/48_nominees.aspx, February 9, 2006.

Further Reading



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