We were just being ourselves,” System of a Down guitarist Daron Malakian tells me by way of explaining how weird his band was. Consider this: It’s the mid-1990s and four Armenian Americans from Los Angeles start a band, playing a fermented style of heavy metal that draws deeply from the traditional music of their homeland. Serj Tankian, the singer, looks like a madman, only his hard-rock scream frequently eases up to reveal a soulful baritone — right before the music breaks back into anarchic free-for-all. And contrary to the hormone-crazed butt-rock boasts of the nu-metal bands suddenly dotting the culture, or the weepy, woe-is-me chugging of the post-grunge bands still trying to cash in after the end of Nirvana, these guys are deep. Their songs tackle war, genocide, American empire, organized religion, media bias, government control — the type of stuff you expect to hear from a leftist professor, not a rock band. (And, lest we forget, they really rock.)
Because of the increasingly permissive state of rock radio in the ’90s, this formula is somehow not a turnoff to mainstream tastes, but acceptable. Their first record is produced by the already legendary Rick Rubin — a big score for an unsigned band with a fervent local following. The closest thing to a single is a deranged cut of fuzz called “Sugar,” where Tankian howls about something called “the Kombucha mushroom people” before building to the kind of dizzying pitch that confuses household animals. It goes gold before the band is even thinking about a follow-up. “We weren’t playing the safe nu-metal riff that was going on at that time,” Malakian said. “Limp Bizkit was on the radio at the time — now, Limp Bizkit was actually very cool to us in the early days of System of a Down. But we were not going to write a song that sounded like Limp Bizkit so we could get on the radio. I’m proud we did it our own way.”
Such is the legacy of System of a Down, whose breakthrough record Toxicity celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. Produced by Rubin and containing their biggest singles, Toxicity was the delivery system ferrying System of a Down’s agitprop thrash to radio stations and crowds across America, turning them into unlikely superstars. It also bears the distinction of being the No. 1 album in America on the day of the September 11 attacks — an association the band wouldn’t escape in the following weeks, as its songs were banned on radio and its members were racially profiled on tour. In a rebuke of the post-tragedy jingoism sweeping the country, its frontman wrote a blistering open letter decrying the drums of war already beating within our government. Twenty years later, with the American military embroiled in a disastrous retreat from Afghanistan, Tankian’s warnings feel unmistakably prescient. “I’ve always spoken truth to power,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a naïve thing, but I say what’s on my mind.”
Of every song on Toxicity, lead single “Chop Suey!” is the one that most resonates today. The start-stop cadence of the verses, where Tankian sounds like he’s debating himself right before the chorus opens up into a soulful lament, remains indelible among rock singles from the era — part heavy-metal headbanger, part call-and-response rap record, part unfettered rock opera, and completely unlike anything else on the radio. “When we play that song live, there’s not a person in the crowd that doesn’t sing — even the ‘I’m too cool to sing’ heavy-metal kids,” bassist Shavo Odadjian says. “It’s just a blessing.” The song wouldn’t escape controversy: In the wake of 9/11, it was temporarily banned by radio giant Clear Channel because its lyrics appeared to endorse the occasional justification of “self-righteous suicide,” as Tankian sings in the chorus. Still, this censorship wouldn’t dent its momentum, and “Chop Suey!” recently became the first metal video to surpass one billion views on YouTube. This is the story of that song, and the mark it made on System of a Down’s career, as told by the band and the people around them. (All participants are credited by their role circa 2001.)
‘We Were Kids, Bro’
When you talk to the people around System of a Down, everyone agrees: One show was all it took to become a convert. “These guys come out with this homemade banner that said ‘1.2 million Armenians dead by the hands of the Turks,’ and Serj looked like Charles Manson, and they were playing thrash from another culture,” said manager Mark Wakefield, of the first time he and a friend saw the band. “Our jaws dropped.” After Tankian, Malakian, and Odadjian tooled around for a few years, the band’s lineup was locked into place when drummer John Dolmayan joined in 1997. Around this time, their passionate shows attracted the attention of Rick Rubin, who offered to produce their first album for his American Recordings label and distribute it through Columbia.
Released in 1998, System of a Down’s self-titled debut LP drew universal praise — even the indie snobs at a nascent Pitchfork called it “the most inventive crossover (do we dare call it metal?) recording since Rage Against the Machine’s debut.” Over the next couple years, they toured incessantly, playing with their metal heroes Slayer and Metallica, and becoming an Ozzfest success. In 2000, with their career on the ascent and a summer tour newly behind them, they entered the Los Angeles studio the Alley to work on their second record.
John Dolmayan (drummer): Metallica asked us to go out on tour again, and we had to say, “Look, we really need to get our second album out, so with all humility and respect, we have to decline your offer.” It was a difficult decision, but we knew the follow-up had to be something really strong — and to do that we had to turn down Iron Maiden, Metallica, bands we’ve idolized and been listening to all our adult lives.
Shavo Odadjian (bassist): We were kids, bro. I was 24 years old. You’re making your sophomore record: If you fuck up on this, the band’s gonna fall apart. It’s the one that needs to be the best so you get to make a third and a fourth and a fifth record.
Daron Malakian (guitarist, songwriter): The first album, we were still a club band, and my headspace was, How do we start a fucking badass mosh pit? It’s totally different playing big arenas and amphitheaters, and I wanted to start writing songs that brought the band into a bigger setting.
Dino Paredes (head of A&R, American Recordings): [On the second record,] Daron was starting to come out of his shell and show signs of being a true student of songwriting. Serj had taken a more mature approach; he was comfortable being more abstract.
Malakian: I wanted to take the band into a more melodic place. Serj was less interested in yelling and growling and more interested in singing, so I started catering to that as well. That evolved into what Toxicity became. We were still touring in an RV; I remember being on the bed of the back of the RV and writing the rough arrangement of “Chop Suey!” when we were driving down the road — I don’t know where we were in the country. But I was fiddling around with the guitar, and it just came to me.
Though some of the band’s songs are credited to all four members, Malakian is the primary songwriter. He would sketch out a song on his own and bring it to the band. From there, Tankian would write lyrics, while Odadjian and Dolmayan would flesh out the rhythm section. “Chop Suey!” was no exception: The arrangement was mostly unchanged from Malakian’s demo, with Tankian coming up with new lyrics over the music. In the studio, Rubin’s touch was the secret sauce — he could subtly tweak an arrangement or suggest an idea until the perfect song emerged. As it turned out, his idea for “Chop Suey!” would make it a responsive live hit.
Serj Tankian (singer, songwriter): [smiling] Twenty years ago, you want me to remember my emotions on a particular day going into a studio?
Malakian: When I write a song, I’ll usually bring in a theme. “Chop Suey!”, for me, was about how human beings are judgmental, even when it comes to someone’s death. For example, if someone dies in a car accident and he was drunk, we judge that. That line — “I don’t think you trust in my self-righteous suicide / I cry when angels deserve to die” — that’s what it meant to me.
Tankian: The vocal patterns are the guitar patterns and the drum patterns. It’s like, staccato, machine-gun wording, which is weird — and also why it worked.
Malakian: I showed the band the song, and I had different lyrics: [to the cadence of “Chop Suey!”] “Tell me / Tell me what you think about tomorrow / Is there going to be a printed sorrow? / Tell me what you think about the people? / Is there going to be another sequel?” I was like, “This chorus is great,” but I turned to Serj and I probably said something like, “This is how I think the vocals should go, but I’m not married to the lyrics, if you want to change.” Serj wrote lyrics to the melody line that I brought up: “Wake up / Grab a brush and put a little makeup.”
Tankian: Daron brought in the chorus — the “Trust in my / self-righteousness suicide” lyrics.
Malakian: The middle eighth, I just had the [quietly growls] “Father! Father!” Serj added his part to that.
Tankian: The middle part was kind of empty, and I was at a loss what to do with it. I remember taking a break and going with Rick Rubin to his house, and using the universal method of pointing to a book, bringing down the book, reading it, and letting that be your guide. It had to do with Jesus and “Father, why have you forsaken me” — that whole thing. The puzzle came together perfectly.
Dolmayan: “Chop Suey!” has a blast beat, a rock beat, and an almost Journey-like chorus. The drums had to change five times for it to work. Rick taught me how to take a step back and ask myself if what I’m doing actually works for the song, or is it just for my own gratification. Rick’s magic is how he can take a song, make a small suggestion, and it makes a profound difference in the way the song comes out.
Malakian: Rick’s always trying to get us to add something to the song that the crowd can chant or sing along to. When it says, “You wanted to!”, that is very much a Rick Rubin type of suggestion. And that little “You wanted to!” makes a big difference in how you sing and feel the song.
‘What the Fuck Is This?’
The finished version of “Chop Suey!” inspired a mix of awe and confusion from its early listeners. “Like the Beatles mixed with metal mixed with hip-hop,” as Mark Wakefield put it; “jarring, but not in a negative way,” according to Dino Paredes. As the record drew to a finish, three songs were floated as the singles: “Chop Suey!”, “Toxicity,” and “Aerials.” But the band was in agreement about what should go first, and with the song completed, discussions arose about giving it a more radio-friendly name.
David “Beno” Benveniste (manager): The song was originally called “Suicide”; you can hear that at the beginning, when it says, “We’re rolling ‘Suicide.’”
Mark Wakefield (manager, Toxicity album artist): I vaguely remember conversations about not wanting to have our first single called “Suicide.”
Dolmayan: We don’t like anything artistic being dictated to us, and the label was good about not doing that. But on this one, they felt particularly strong about it, because at this point they anticipated this song would be one of the ones in consideration as a single. The overall mind-set was that putting out a song that has “Suicide” in it wouldn’t work. So we had a discussion, and we came up with a compromise, which was Daron’s idea: “Chop Suey!” It was a brilliant idea because it didn’t completely take “Suicide” away, just shortened it to “Suey.”
Paredes: If you read that song title, you don’t expect to hear that. It lent to the band being totally different and creative about how they approached everything.
Benveniste: An old friend of mine was a big producer at the time named Damon Elliott. When we were mixing with Andy Wallace in New York, Damon was mixing in another room. He walks in and goes, “Beno, what’s up — oh, what the fuck is this?” He heard the song, and he’s sitting there going, “Oh my God, man, this is a fucking hip-hop song.” And I was like, “This thing is gonna fucking go; we are going to have a smash here.” Any time someone heard that song — a radio programmer, a fan, Black, white, Asian, Latin — it didn’t matter.
Todd Horn (director of international marketing, Columbia): The label originally wanted to start the album cycle with “Aerials,” but Rick Rubin and Beno put their foot down.
Kevin Weatherly (program director, KROQ): The first time I heard it, I’m like, “What is this? This is a train wreck.” Because of the way the song is structured, it’s really intense, and then very melodic and then intense and melodic. It was jarring, to be honest, but with repetitive listens you realize the brilliance.
‘Insanity in the Mosh Pit’
The “Chop Suey!” video begins like a traditional performance clip, with the band taking the stage in a Hollywood motel parking lot. Tankian moves and swings like a street preacher, as a tattoo-covered Malakian shoots crazed stares into the crowd. The video frequently cuts to motel rooms packed with fans, where the band leads the mosh pit and takes a short break to eat actual chop suey; at one point, during the chorus, their bodies overlap each other’s like a Cronenbergian metal nightmare. The band invited its fans to fill out the parking lot, where, in between lip syncs of “Chop Suey!”, they were treated to an all-day concert of songs nobody had heard from the yet-released Toxicity.
Marcos Siega (director, “Chop Suey!” video): The video commissioner at Columbia asked me to document the band on a trip to Burning Man. They were doing a few gigs, and I saw them live for the first time. I remember thinking the roof was going to come down; there was an overwhelming insanity in the mosh pit. The idea for “Chop Suey!” was, “How do I capture them being in that space?”
Odadjian: That was the first video I got involved in; after that, it became my thing. I tried certain things I had envisioned in my head, and it worked out — for example, us going into each other and stuff. It looks older now, but back then, that was revolutionary to do.
That motel we filmed in was down the street from where I grew up, in Hollywood. I used to be a skating kid, and around 12 or 13 years old, I was skateboarding in the parking lot of that motel. There were gangs, hookers, homeless [people]. I witnessed a sexual act for the first time in my life, in one of those windows. I was traumatized, and I went home and told my mom. I was like, “Why don’t we just go back there, put up a stage, and have our fans be at the show?”
Siega: The motels were hourly rentals; the TVs had porn on them; there were syringes. I didn’t really venture into too many of the rooms, but when we shot that little bit where Shavo is eating, we crowded as many humans into there as possible. It was pretty gross.
‘Do I Get Excited? Am I Sad? What Is It?’
Upon release in August 2001, the single and its music video made an immediate impact. Though the song peaked at No. 76 on the Billboard Hot 100, it received overwhelming airplay on rock radio stations, and the video ran regularly on MTV. “I was getting calls from every industry person going, ‘Oh, my God, what is that?’” Benveniste remembered. To celebrate the upcoming release of the record, the band attempted to stage a free concert in Hollywood, with the label budgeting for 3,000 fans to show up. Instead, the crowd was nearly triple the size, and a riot broke out when the police wouldn’t let the band perform. Buoyed by this word of mouth, their hot single, and a summer of aggressive touring in the foreign market, Toxicity debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. It reached that position on a very unique day in American history: September 11, 2001.
Malakian: When the video came out, we were somewhere in the United States, walking in the mall and people were recognizing us. That was my first taste of fame, where people were asking me to take pictures and sign autographs for them.
Horn: I had several clients, and one of them was Wyclef Jean. I was on the road with Wyclef, and when that song came out, the tour manager, and then the crew, and then the band surrounded me at a show and said, “We want the record.” At the time, that was how you got it. They loved it; they were like, “This is the hardest thing ever.”
Weatherly: During its peak, it was probably played eight times a day. And over the last 20 years, “Chop Suey!” is probably one of the top-five songs KROQ played over that span.
Dolmayan: We were in rehearsals, and they used to do something called “Furious Five at Night” on KROQ. We’d gotten information that we were going to be No. 1, so we stopped rehearsing, went to my car, and listened. And we were No. 1 there for like 48 weeks straight.
Benveniste: It was the perfect storm. The record debuts at No. 1. The riot is all over the newswire. And then 9/11 happens.
Tankian: [9/11] is all I remember from Toxicity — the actual toxicity.
Odadjian: Tuesday was the day that SoundScan used to come out, and you would find out where you were on the Billboard charts. I had a little apartment in North Hollywood, and my phone kept ringing. I had probably drank the night before, and I didn’t want to get up. But I answered the phone, and it was my mom saying, “Put on the TV.” I turn on the TV, and all of a sudden, the second tower falls. At the same time, my phone beeps again, and I pick up. It’s my manager, and he says, “Congratulations, you’re No. 1 on Billboard.” It’s like, fuck: Do I get excited? Am I sad? What is it? And is the tour still happening?
Dolmayan: What’s the best and the worst day of your life? And how do you find happiness when other people are suffering? You have to deal with the guilt of that.
Odadjian: The song had a totally different meaning before, and a different vibe. I have this thing called synesthesia, and the color of the song changes in my head: It was a lighter color, and it got darker.
Malakian: The day after 9/11, we were supposed to take a flight to New York. Obviously, that flight didn’t happen. And the thing that was surprising for us was that people thought we had written these songs like prophets. We had songs called “Aerials,” “Jet Pilot,” “self-righteous suicide” in our lyrics. That’s when I realized that people were starting to take our band seriously.
Odadjian: On that day, our crew is flying out to do preproduction to get everything ready for us to start touring. They got stopped at the airport, and they put them on the ground. And imagine this: Our tour was called Pledge of Allegiance.
Tankian: While all that’s happening, there’s a real panic. You feel like things are out of control — there’s no government, no security. But we were putting out a record, so our tour got delayed by a week or two. Then we’re on tour, in front of 20–30,000 people every night, while there’s all these looming terrorist threats, according to the news. It was one of the most uncomfortable, stressful times in our lives.
Dolmayan: I was called John “Random Bag Check” Dolmayan for quite some time.
Odadjian: In the Midwest and in the South, there were some remarks made. They thought Armenians were Middle Eastern, because nobody knew what an Armenian was. We were pigeonholed as camel jockeys, terrorists, all these crazy slurs. That went away with time, but it sucks we had that kind of vibe. But when you’re young and shit like that happens, it fuels your fire.
‘It Could’ve Been Done in a More Tasteful Way’
A few days after 9/11, Tankian published an incendiary essay about U.S. foreign policy to the band’s website, in which he laid out the blunders leading up to the attacks, as well as possible solutions. “By initiating peace, we would have already shaken the foundations of support for bin Laden, and/or all those that sponsor activities like those we saw yesterday, and break the stronghold of extremists on the world of Islam,” he wrote. “On the other hand, if we carry out bombings on Afghanistan or elsewhere to appease public demand, and very likely kill innocent civilians along the way, we’d be creating many more martyrs going to their deaths in retaliation against the retaliation.” The letter sparked immediate blowback — especially as the band was just about to go on tour. Around this time, Clear Channel — then the primary owner of radio stations across America — banned dozens of songs from the radio out of sensitivity concerns. “Chop Suey!” was one of them. Though it wouldn’t stay off the air for too long — about a month, according to the band’s managers — it was a sobering reminder of the new climate, despite the success of their new record.
Tankian: I had written a statement called “Understanding Oil” and posted it a few days after 9/11. It dealt with the mishaps of U.S. foreign policy in the last 50 years before 9/11, and how those events could have contributed specifically to the arming of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, and the inability of the modern youth there to have employment, and how foreign policy is implicitly tied to terrorism — which is really a plain and simple way of looking at it. But at the time, there was a lot of reactionism, there was a lot of fear. So people didn’t like that.
Malakian: The rest of us had nothing to do with that; he did that on his own. All of us weren’t on the same page with it, to be honest with you. And to this day, I think it could’ve been done in a more tasteful way.
Paredes: There were quite a bit of calls; most of them, of course, were negative. But several came in that were actually sympathetic to what he was trying to say. You’re basically saying that sometimes, things are so bad in your life, in your culture — for reasons beyond your control, whether it be oppression, or the horrors of colonialism — that you feel the need to take your own life, to make a statement. That’s all he was trying to say.
Tankian: We were getting death threats and my label pulled down the essay. The guys said, “What, are you trying to get us killed?” “No, I’m just telling the truth.” They’re like, “So what!”
Wakefield: Our immediate concern was damage control. Howard Stern, who was hugely influential at the time, spoke out against System of a Down, and Serj had to go on and explain himself.
Horn: We all felt that letter could have come at a different time. That said, I was in the unique position of handling the international media around the world, and at least the ones in the know recognized that what he was saying was true. You know, these countries and their media have watched America do a lot of things. This isn’t a dig on America. These things happened. Vietnam happened. Korea happened. American foreign policy is known around the world. And they weren’t as judgmental of the band making a statement like that.
Tankian: Twenty years later, with everything we’re seeing in Afghanistan with the pullout, and with what happened in Iraq — none of these were positive building blocks toward human evolution. That’s the nicest way I can say it. They were horrible misadventures in foreign policy, and their consequences are being felt worldwide.
Dolmayan: [Clear Channel] made the mistake that a lot of people make in a tragedy. You cannot eradicate any sense of what happened; they tried to pasteurize the music people are listening to, when it’s actually the opposite — morose music will give you much more healing than some kind of positive message.
Tankian: What they were doing at the time was any song with the word “suicide” or “sky” was taken off the radio. In retrospect, that’s a little weird.
Malakian: I mean, they fucking took off [Sam Cooke’s] “Wonderful World” — anything that had to do with the world.
Weatherly: We weren’t one of the stations that banned the record. We listen to our audience and respect the artistic freedom of the artists. Our audience appreciated that we took a stand.
Paredes: Of course, there were meetings called and discussions about how to handle it. But everyone said the same thing: The band has a right to speak their mind, because in theory we live in a country where freedom of speech — even dissent — is allowed and encouraged.
‘I Don’t Think We’ll Make Another Album’
Over the next few years, the band released music at a furious output: Steal This Album, composed of leftover material from the Toxicity sessions, arrived in 2002, while Hypnotize and Mesmerize both dropped in 2005. Then, the band went on hiatus at Tankian’s behest, as he cited dismay over their musical direction. They reunited in 2011 to tour, but their attempts to record a new album have fizzled out. Though Dolmayan is very publicly conservative, despite the band’s ostensibly leftist politics, the primary tension seems to lie between Malakian and Tankian and their respective creative ambitions. “It’s frustrating and very sad, because you have a band that can be the most important rock band in the world, grounded due to internal strife,” Benveniste said. Last year, they managed to release two new singles to benefit an organization providing aid to Armenians. But the members are pessimistic about the possibility of a new album.
Malakian: “Chop Suey!” was a really great thing for System of a Down — made us more famous, made us more money, and elevated us as a headlining arena band. But at the same time, that’s around the time where we all started getting separate buses, and living our own separate lives as well.
Benveniste: Daron is the primary songwriter, and Serj was the primary lyricist, and when Serj started to do more as a songwriter, the tension started to become apparent.
Dolmayan: I don’t think we’ll make another album.
Tankian: Time will tell.
Dolmayan: We might do a couple more tours. But the mind-sets of my band that are really stupid, they don’t seem to be going away. And as people get older, they tend to be more resolved in what they do.
Odadjian: We’ve gotten to a point where the creative differences are causing a rift between us. Before, I think we were more understanding of each other. Now, some people want to keep it a certain way, and other people want to change. And we don’t want to release anything that’s not from the heart.
Malakian: Everybody is getting paychecks, everyone’s ego is being inflated — and when I say everyone, I’m including myself in this. It gets tough to keep it together. We enjoy playing live, and we enjoy each other’s company. But when it comes to System of a Down, the band, that’s where we have disagreements.
Odadjian: I tried pushing for a long time — being the glue, and saying, “Yo, he means this, he means that.” But I see that it might push them away a little more, so I’m going to leave it alone. And then once I see it happening again, I’m going to join in.
Dolmayan: We had our day in the sun, and it’s been a great ride. But I see this as the waning of System of a Down. The waxing is long gone. It is what it is, man. I’ve been trying to get these assholes to make an album for almost 20 years.