System of a Down: “We didn’t come back to do art or business: this is activism!”

Quarrels, false starts, irreconcilable differences: for 15 years putting the SOADs back together seemed impossible. Then came the war in Armenia and the fear of another genocide

It took a war to get System of a Down to record new music . In September, after seeing the start of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the musicians, all of Armenian descent, rushed to the studio to record two songs, Protect the Land and Genocidal Humanoidz , with the aim of attracting attention. on the crisis in their homeland. The proceeds from the pieces will be given to charity. The band is inviting fans to make donations to the Armenia Fund , an organization that deals with humanitarian relief in the region.

Fifteen years have passed since the alt metal group released their latest album Hypnotize . It was an instant success, the second System album to debut at # 1 in 2005. Despite these results, however, the band was no longer able to agree on what to do. Singer Serj Tankian called for a more democratic writing process – up until then, guitarist Daron Malakian did everything – but any discussion ended in nothing. The two continued to tour together, and even remained friends, but that conflict over creative control remained insurmountable.

A month ago, however, the band put everything aside after the outbreak of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, the region of Azerbaijan populated mainly by Armenians who call it Artsakh. It is a mountainous area of ​​2,700 square kilometers, with a long and bloody history that has marked the people who live there. In 1994 the last war between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended with a ceasefire and control of the territory by the Armenians. Last September, however, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev reacted to a statement by President Nikol Pashinyan, who in the spring defined the region as uniquely Armenian, and the conflict has started again. Russia, France and the United States have tried to start a ceasefire negotiation, but their attempts have failed.

Armenia, a small country of three million inhabitants, is decidedly weaker than Azerbaijan, which has 10 million inhabitants, a stronger army and the support of Turkey, the historical enemy of the Armenians since the genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire in the 1915. The Prime Minister of Armenia, with the support of Russia, said that Azerbaijan recruited mercenaries from Syria, but the country denied. According to Human Rights Watch , Azerbaijan used banned weapons and cluster bombs (also used by Armenia). The British newspaper Morning Star told the story of an Azerbaijani soldier who beheaded an Armenian and mocked his family while holding his severed head. The United Nations has warned that attacks on citizenship can be considered war crimes.

The band thinks Azerbaijan made sure to match the attack with the US elections and the second wave of Covid, so as to avoid media attention. And while System members don’t all share the same political views – Tankian is a Democrat, while drummer John Dolmayan supports Trump – they cast aside their differences in the belief that the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh transcended American politics.

“I would like Trump to defend US interests but, at the same time, protect our values ​​and what we stand for,” Dolmayan told Rolling Stone . “There is an unfairness going on. We certainly cannot go to war for economic reasons. I understand the need to think about our interests before doing something, but we need to step forward and start a discussion. We cannot be hypocrites ».

“Heavy stuff is happening,” bassist Shavo Odadjian explains. “It’s inhumane. They are not saying: leave our land, we will help you move. They are slaughtering them and doing cowardly and disgusting actions. And this thing affects us all closely ».

“It’s a David versus Goliath situation,” adds Malakian. “Armenia can’t do it alone.”

“I’ve been to Artsakh twice,” Tankian explains. “There are beautiful countryside and it is sad to see so much destruction and people leaving. They are incredible people. They are the ancient Armenians. They have lived on that land since 500 BC They are strong, beautiful and fun. And they don’t get scared easily. They’ve seen things like this before, it’s absurd. ‘

Dolmayan remembers that seeing the images of the war made him sick. “I was furious, but I felt helpless. I thought about how my ancestors must have felt during the genocide. ‘ After so many disappointments with System of a Down, he had accepted the idea that they would never record together again. But the horror he saw convinced him to pick up the phone and, at 10 pm on the first Sunday in October, he heard the band mates.

“I sent a message to the other three:” Regardless of what you have thought of each other in the past, we have to put everything aside, go to the studio and write a song for our people, we have to put a light on this situation. and involve the forces of good around the world ”. They all said yes. “

Odadjian’s yes was obvious. He too read the news of the war and felt the same things. In fact, he was about to send a message to the other members of the group.

Tankian decided it was worth letting our guard down to draw public attention to the war. “I’m not doing it for myself, System of a Down or anyone in the band; I’m doing it for our people, ”he says. “It’s not a creative or business decision. This is activism, and for us it takes precedence over everything ».

“We can only do it, there are no other big Armenian rock bands,” says Malakian. “There are no great Armenian celebrities willing to do something. It is our duty. We got back together because our country needs it, not necessarily because we’re excited to do a System of a Down song. Our people needed us ».

Malakian sent the rest of the group Protect the Land , a powerful tune he had saved up for his group’s next album, Scars on Broadway. To the rest of the System she seemed perfect to tell what they were feeling. It opens with a guitar riff, Malakian and Tankian harmonize and ask us what we would do if someone tried to kick us out of our homes. “Will you stay and take a stand?” They ask. “Will you take up the weapons?” They protect the earth ». To reinforce the message, when they repeat the chorus, Malakian moves his hands on the guitar neck to simulate the sound of bombs.

The guitarist wrote it a year and a half ago, after another song dedicated to the tensions in Artsakh. It was called Lives  and was released on the 2018 album Dictator . “We used it to raise money to send first aid kits to Artsakh, I heard that civilians and soldiers needed them,” he says. “That’s how I thought about the Protect the Land theme , the people and soldiers of Artsakh were in my thoughts.”

They recorded it a week after Dolmayan’s message and Odadjian immediately started working on the video in secret: he filmed several generations of Armenian descendants without telling them that he was working on a documentary on the diaspora that spread them around the world after the genocide. . “I’ve got people of all ages involved,” he says. “There are children, my two children, the high priest of Los Angeles, doctors, taxi drivers and soldiers. There is also footage from the front in Artsakh showing what’s going on. The message is clear: we are thousands of kilometers away, but we are with our soldiers and we support this cause, because we are Armenians ». The video shows the images of the soldiers at the front, and other images projected on the faces of the musicians as happened in the Toxicity video .

The band manager was convinced that Protect the Land made good the importance of the moment, but convinced them to immediately record another tougher piece to accompany it. Three or four years ago, Malakian, Dolmayan and Odadjian met for a jam that resulted in several songs, then the project fell through because Tankian didn’t want to commit to a full album. One of the best songs was Genocidal Humanoidz, written by Malakian: it’s a fast track, winks at punk and talks about fighting the devil. This time all four members agreed to register it. “The persecution ends now,” Malakian sings in the middle of the piece, then turns the guitar into a shotgun and sweeps the track with a whirlwind of black metal riffs. Tankian instead asks: “Guess who’s coming to dinner? The humanooooid genocides “. It’s a completely different atmosphere, recalling the spasmodic unpredictability of the band’s best tunes.

“That song goes really well with Protect the Land, ” says Malakian. “The original text was very similar to what we recorded. At the beginning he said: “The terrorists are coming, we will never stop”. The word “humanoid” came to my mind thanks to Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, the manager of wrestling. He used it to talk to the public, to say how idiots they were. I changed very little of the text, it didn’t take much to adapt it to the message we want to send now ».

Even though they hadn’t all played together in the studio for over ten years, the recordings were quick and went smooth. A few days after deciding to record the song, the musicians worked on arranging their parts remotely – Tankian developed Protect the Land harmonies in New Zealand, where he lives for part of the year -, then on October 11th. the singer arrived in Los Angeles to meet others in the studio. Registration closed that week.

“This thing is bigger than all the problems we’ve had in Systems,” Odadjian says. “We put everything aside and said to ourselves: ‘We have to get back together. If we speak up after 15 years, people will listen ”. We knew that the public would ask themselves why we got back together ».

All the members of the band fear that Azerbaijan, a state with a Muslim majority, considers the conflict with Armenia, which is a Christian country, as a holy war. They fear that the conflict could escalate into another genocide. By drawing attention to the war, they hope their fans can contact representatives of their government and ask them to intervene. “Make your voice heard and talk about this injustice, ask for sanctions for Turkey and Azerbaijan,” says Tankian. “The guilty must be punished. We don’t need money or soldiers, but economic pressure on those countries. Only in this way will they take a step back, they are aggressors ».

System of a Down also hope to send humanitarian aid to Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. “We are doing this for the Armenian community diaspora, but we need help because our opponents have oil and natural gas, and they spend billions of dollars on the military,” says the singer. “We need financial aid to help our people locked up in the Artsakh bomb shelters, families with children who don’t go to school. And there is also a surge in Covid infections, it is scary and dangerous. It is a humanitarian catastrophe that must be addressed ».

Dolmayan is happy to get the band back together for a good cause, but tells fans not to expect more music or an album. “If it were up to me, I’d do one every three years,” he says. “But is not so. I’m at the mercy of my team, and even though I’ve tried for years, I’ve accepted the situation for what it is. We have five records and now two new songs. We have had a successful career. If this is the end, patience ».

Tankian, who has put aside the solo EP Elasticity scheduled for fall, has no plans to work on any new music, with System or anyone else, until the conflict is over. “I can’t think of anything else. Neither to my music, nor to System’s. All I care about is war and I pray that the fire will cease so that negotiations can begin. It’s a question of life or death. “

The others in the band, however, are still convinced that System can get back together in the future. “I’m proud I did this,” says Odadjian. “I wish we could do it more often. Maybe these songs will convince us to try, maybe not. I have always been an optimist ».

“Never say never,” says Malakian. “I didn’t expect these songs. I was ready to release the next Scars record. It all happened suddenly, so who knows. If we stop recording together I will continue on my way and so will the others. But it was nice ». More than anything else, he is happy that the band’s musicians have put aside their problems for the good of their land. “I’m not a soldier, but I’m involved. My way of contributing is the songs ».

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