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Lying in the grass at an expansive outdoor amphitheater recently, John Dolmayan had a unique experience: He watched the world change. "I was sitting way up in the cheap seats," says the drummer of System of a Down, the latest politically charged outfit hailing from Los Angeles. "The sun was setting, and it was then that I saw heaven and earth melt into one." That this moment occurred during a portion of Tool's set at OzzFest -- a raucous tour that System of a Down took part in last year -- might seem odd to some. Coming from a member of a band with a tendency toward paradox, though, it makes perfect sense. To hear Dolmayan speak is not unlike talking with an Allen Ginsberg wannabe in the lotus position, but reading his band's lyrics is like thumbing through a pamphlet on inner-city warfare.
On the surface, System of a Down calls for revolution, pointing a finger at modern as well as historical political and social issues. The band denounces government, criticizes political leaders and demands change in a way that appears extremist enough to make Osama bin Ladin look like an apple-cheeked schoolgirl. The sleeve of its self-titled debut on American Recordings bears this delicate proclamation: "Freedom will only be available through revolution or death." The meanings within the music are often opaque ("Lie naked on the floor and let the messiah go all through our souls/Die, like a motherfucker, die/I want to fuck my way into the garden because everyone needs a mother, fucker!" from "Suite-Pee"), but the unrelenting sound of the music makes the message clear: The revolution will not be anesthetized.
Yet on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Dolmayan is philosophical, reserved, almost soft-spoken. His words are deliberate and delivered with the same precision that drives his drumming; there's hardly a trace of the apparent anger -- or militarism -- that fuels the band. Asked about the suggested road to world reconstruction mentioned in System's sleeve, for example, Dolmayan is noncommittal. "I don't know if I'd be willing to die for a philosophy," he says. "It would have to be an incredible cause, because life is precious, and it should be handled that way."
Dolmayan and System of a Down's recognition of the frailty of life is a primary reason they are strongly aligned with one cause in particular: Whether or not they're willing to die for it, they are screaming for reparations for the genocide of Armenians by the Turkish government from 1915 to 1917. As far as political themes in popular music go, the antique plight of Armenians is not nearly as fashionable as freeing Tibet or journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal. In fact, it's one that the average American has never even heard of -- and that, say the band and other Armenian activists, is by design. According to the Armenian National Committee of America, more than 1.5 million people were systematically deported or massacred after the Central Committee of the Young Turk Party (also known as the Turkish Committee for Union and Progress) disarmed and butchered Armenian citizens and military, political and intellectual leaders. Yet many nations and some NATO alliances are unwilling to formally recognize that the genocide occurred, and some feel that the international community has, in essence, allowed Turkey to unwittingly set a precedent for nations that would commit similar acts in the future. "More than half of our people were eliminated by the Turks, and it was never recognized," says Dolmayan. "They were never punished, and if they would have been, Hitler's Holocaust never would have happened."
But Dolmayan insists the band's appeal is hardly limited to Armenian sympathizers and that while the members themselves know what they stand for with their music, there's no singular agenda. Just as Picasso's Guernica, a commentary on the Spanish Civil War, was seen by some as a simply brash image of disfigured horses and people, System of a Down's music is open to subjective response. "There's no right or wrong way to interpret what our songs are about," says Dolmayan. "If you have an opinion, you are correct. But the goal of System is to find and spread harmony -- to make people do their best and to enjoy the beauty of the world." Oh, yes -- one need only listen to lyrics like "Gonna let you motherfuckers die/Gonna let you motherfuckers DIE!" from the song "Mind" to pick up on that aspect of System's message.
Whatever System of a Down's goals -- be they the "overthrow the government" kind implied in its songs, or the "peace, love and harmony" variety pushed by Dolmayan -- just who is listening is another question. Foreign and domestic policy-makers and others capable of acknowledging the Armenian plight are more likely to crank Stravinksy than heavy metal, while political notions possibly sail right over the banging heads of the kids who flock to System shows. (The band is currently headlining a tour with Mr. Bungle, Incubus and Puerto Rican rockers Puya -- none of which are known for their strong political convictions.) But Dolmayan contends that youth is the very audience the band aims to reach.