New School Hollywood
Famed producer Rick Rubin, the man responsible for signing the now über-successful System of a Down, recently told the L.A. Times that SOAD guitarist/songwriter/vocalist/mastermind Daron Malakian is "a true artist." Malakian, said Rubin, "doesn't really live in the world. He lives in a bubble and the bubble is filled with music. All he does is listen to music and play music all day every day."
"I don't know about the true artist part," Malakian tells New Times from his Glendale, California, home, "but the way he explained the way I live was pretty right on."
But as it turns out, there's at least one other thing that Malakian likes to do.
"I'm a sports fan in general, you know," he says. "I really love sports. That probably doesn't fit very well with the art part, does it?"
Not that the 29-year-old guitarist is concerned with appearances. "You've got a lot of people who are really into making people think they're an artist," he says. "I think an artist should just do whatever the hell they want and stop trying to be artists. That's pretty much how I live my life."
In actuality, the members of Malakian's band, a quartet of Los Angeles-based Armenian-Americans and surely the only arena rockers in history whose names all end in "an," go out of their way to stand apart. Mezmerize, their latest disc and just the first half of a double album pairing released six months apart, furiously propels a now signature mix of hardcore, metal, opera, and Armenian folk riffs behind vigorous political invectives. And yet SOAD's singular amalgamation of sound has certainly found an audience. The group's first three albums have all gone platinum. 2001's Toxicity has done so three times. And Mezmerize is well on its way to its own certification.
"I'm proud that we're a band that isn't made by a machine," Malakian says, "and I know the machine has taken effect in some ways, but I can't say that the machine was there when we were building from the ground up, you know? I'm really proud that System of a Down isn't like that and never was like that."
To be sure, System's ground-floor, lyrical politics are often painted with an overreaching brush. Take the tag from SOAD's current single "B.Y.O.B." -- "Why don't presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?" -- which both literally and figuratively raises questions it can't, or refuses to, answer. Still, it's a discourse that, in the past, has only been pursued by a legion of folkies and the stray, politically aware punk rocker -- certainly not by any metal act that, against all odds, has managed to reach out and touch the face of the mainstream.
So while Malakian and fellow SOAD writer/vocalist Serj Tankian habitually editorialize on the cornerstones of societal ills -- violence on television, a Statue of Liberty weeping over America's polarization, and genocide ("P.L.U.C.K.," a song from their debut album, functions as a history lesson on the Turkish slaughter of neighboring Armenians in the early 20th century) -- Mezmerize also brings to the table "Old School Hollywood," a rare personal take on the guitarist's participation in the L.A. Dodgers' annual celebrity baseball game.
"My publicist said, 'Hey, they play this game every year at Dodger Stadium, and do you want to do it?' And I was like, 'Cool, man,' because I was such a big fan. When I was a kid, like in elementary school, I played basketball on the Forum floor. And I was like, 'Wow, I did that.' It would be kick-ass to play baseball at Dodger Stadium.
"I ended up going there, and you've got all these actors who like haven't been in a show for 15 years or so. And they're really taking the game seriously. Like they're wearing like fucking uniforms and shit. And I felt very awkward, because my whole thing was not to go there to win. I was there just so I could get a chance to play at Dodger Stadium."
"It kind of turned out," Malakian says, "to be a really surreal, weird experience. And a song came out of it."
Two participants whose careers have seen better days, Tony Danza and Frankie Avalon, make appearances in Malakian's composition, as does the manager of Malakian's team, Jack Gilardi, agent and husband to Annette Funicello. But don't expect any dinner for five to be held at the guitarist's home.
"When they let me play," he says, "they stuck me in the outfield for like two minutes, and then they sat me back down. I was so benched it wasn't even funny.
"Here I am in the middle of all these huge like television sitcom actors and fucking movie actors, most of them from like my childhood, and just the whole experience, playing baseball with Frankie Avalon on your team, is just, I mean, come on. You couldn't dream that."
Ah, but this is L.A. La-La Land. The place where rock 'n' roll dreams can come true.
"I remember coming home," Malakian says, "[and in] no more than like half an hour, picking up the guitar, and that song just shot out of me. It was a very spontaneous thing. A lot of the stuff that I'm proud of usually comes out very natural that way. I don't even feel responsible for it sometimes."
The night after he talks with New Times, Malakian will return to the scene of the crime to take in a Dodgers game at Chavez Ravine. But make no mistake, his heroes extend past the diamond. Take former Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (which may at least partially explain why two consecutive songs on Mezmerize contain the phrase "10 feet tall"). And Malakian's musical paladin?
"Keith Moon is my biggest guitar hero," he says. A surprising choice, since the late Who drummer, you know, wasn't a guitarist. "He played so free and powerful," Malakian says, "but also changed rock drumming forever."
Over the years, Moon's balls-out, bull-in-the-china-shop persona has drawn more than its fair share of rock 'n' roll followers who, like Malakian, just want to make a difference.
"[I want] to affect art," he says. "To do something that kind of contributes to art. Not just follow the trend or something like that. Something that kind of helps. Something that helps it evolve, you know? That's still my dream today. I've never lost that."
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