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"Kids get a bad rap," he says. "Children understand things we don't. They still appreciate the simple things that don't make sense anymore because we're too caught up in our own shit. So, for us, kids may be the best audience, because they can hear the message."
But that message is, at the very least, conflicting. The song "P.L.U.C.K. (Politically, Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers)" states "Revolution, the only solution/The armed response of an entire nation/We've taken all of your shit, now it's time for restitution." But when pressed to expound on what could happen should listeners take his lyrics to heart, Dolmayan stresses that the band is interested in change -- for starters, the merging of the social and political dichotomy of class -- and not destruction. "War is not going to change the world," he says. "What we're talking about is a change inside of the soul and not through a fist. The power system is fucked up. The rich get richer and the poor stay poor. You have to hurt someone to get money." And money, he insists, is "the catalyst for murder."
Even if the band's political convictions go largely unnoticed, however, at least its music is being heard. Last summer, System of a Down played for 40,000 wailing kids each night at OzzFest, and the band is getting some time on the nation's airwaves. Chances are good, though, that most drive-time listeners tuned into "Sugar," the band's current radio single, won't pick up on the song's contextual ties to an early-twentieth-century political massacre in a land that many people incorrectly think can be found in the Middle East.
System's interest in the Armenian issue goes deeper than a shared fear of history repeating itself; all four members are of Armenian heritage and attended Alex Pilybos Armenian Christian School in Hollywood. Although they attended the school at different times, when they found themselves rehearsing at the same Burbank studio years later, the connection was immediate. "There's a ten-mile radius between where we all grew up," says Dolmayan, "and music influenced us all. We all came from one band or another, but when we started playing, it all fell together."
The formation of System of a Down seems a combination of fate and natural progression. Vocalist Serj Tankian and guitarist Daron Malakian first performed together in Soil, and Shavo Odadjian later replaced the band's original bassist. Dolmayan joined after Soil spent two years with a previous drummer, and the band was renamed. "I'd known them since the formation of [Soil]," he says. "We [Dolmayan and Soil's original drummer] were friends. So I was a little apprehensive about taking over the role. But some relationships just don't work out.
"Besides," he continues, "everyone felt it was time to make a change. And when we started playing together, it felt natural. Thinking about it now, I love the nuances, the aggression and the music."
Dolmayan attributes the band's sound to a broad spectrum of exposure to artists both musical and otherwise. "Our musical tastes are very different. More importantly, we draw from all art -- people like Dal and Rembrandt. But man, you can look at a wall and be inspired to create." Some of these influences are more easily apparent than others. They may have something in common with Lennon and McCartney, who addressed revolution, but the band's sound is more aligned with the psychosomatic growling of Motörhead's Lemmy Kilmister. Musically, they're more surrealist Dal nightmare than contemplative Rembrandt portrait.
There's also no trace of Armenian musical tradition in System's sound. The jagged-edge screeches of Malakian's guitar, combined with the speed-metal velocity of Dolmayan's percussion, more closely resembles Death Angel than the pop of fellow Armenian Cher. The band's sound is not limited to one arena; rather, it contains enough guitar distortions and auditory grotesqueries to resemble a trip through a house of sonic mirrors. "Suggestions" opens with galloping guitar that explodes like a pipe bomb set off inside a metal trash can. It's a textured urgency, thanks in part to the presence of Rick Rubin, who produced the album and also softened the sound by playing piano throughout.
The music is anthemic and reactionary, capable of stirring up some momentary angst in even the most mellow listener. It is, in many ways, a populist call to arms, yet Dolmayan swears that the band's emphasis is on change through the individual. This is evident even in the band's name -- it's derived from a poem of Malakian's called "Victims of a Down" -- which was changed from Soil to more accurately represent its sociopolitical views. "System is more social and broad," he says. "so it means everyone is the system, you and me. So as the people who make up the system, we, as individuals, can make it change."
System of a Down's rebellion and rage-fueled lyrics could be leading it straight into the FBI's filing cabinet. But the band is also headlining its way to a heightened awareness of a number of causes. And unlike many acts that give social responsibility little more than lip service, System has put its energy and music where its mouth is. The band's Web site (www.systemofadown.com) has a direct link to and information on how to support the ANCA and the "Million Postcard" campaign, which asks political leaders to acknowledge the events of 1915 to 1917. System also plays benefit shows for the homeless, runaway youth and various contemporary Armenian causes. "We still have a chance to change things," says Dolmayan. "If you make a positive change within yourself and teach, man, the world would be a better place.
"We're just opening people's eyes, in a way. And what we're striving for is freedom. We need to free ourselves from the soul and consciousness to live free. Apathy plagues all people. We need to get off our ass for a little bit and help each other out."