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."
System of a Down, with Incubus, Mr. Bungle and Puya, as part of Sno-Core 2000. 7 p.m. Saturday, January 29, Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson Street, $22, 303-830-8497
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.
"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.
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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."