Daron Malakian is best known as the lead guitarist, part-time singer and songwriter for alternative metal kingpins System of a Down. Unfortunately, that band is currently not producing any new music. Malakian fills that new music void with his side project, the equally manic and equally great Scars on Broadway. The band just released their second LP Dictator in July with much of the erratic and just plain catchy songwriting that Malakian’s become known for.
Except unlike the last album, with Dictator, he had the feverish task of playing all instruments and overseeing all production over a 10 day recording period. He’d been holding onto the songs that would eventually become Scars on Broadway’s second record, saving them for the System of a Down album that never came and by recent reports, likely never will. As bad as fans want a new System of a Down LP, Dictator is not a watered-down version of what that record could have been. It’s all Malakian—thoughtful, blistering songwriting that stands on its own, but will nevertheless be compared to his previous band. mxdwn spoke with Malakian discussing the new record, his father’s cover art and of course, the elephant in the room that’s System of a Down’s future.
mxdwn: Your new record, Dictator, is a really dense record. I know the songs on the record were written a while back, and I wanted to ask what prompted you to revisit those songs and release them now as opposed to when you wrote them?
Daron Malakian: Well, I’ve been sitting on those songs for a long time along with a lot of other music that I’ve written. That album is actually a really small piece of what I’ve written in the last few years. The album was done, and I just was sitting on it waiting to see what’s happening with System of a Down. There was a lot of back and forth of maybe getting back together and making an album or not, kind of sitting on that and waiting to see how that turns out. It just got to the point where I was like, “I made this album a while ago, I think it’s really great.” I’ve had a lot of people ask me about the album through the years, and I just decided I just wanted to get it out there, get it off my back already. Yeah, and so it was ready, it was there and I was ready to put it out. Here we are, and it’s gotten a really good reaction from people. Feels good to put out music finally after all this time.
mxdwn: I read that the song “Lives” is actually about Armenian genocide, which is strange because it was recently named one of Rolling Stones’ song of the summer.
DM: The song, it stems from Armenian genocide, but it’s not necessarily about the genocide. It’s more about people who survived the genocide and that’s why the up-tempo. The dance and the festive feeling to it is more about raising morale and race pride in people who survived the genocide. We usually focus on the people who died during the Holocaust or the genocide or any kind of atrocity like that. But we tend to forget that they’re people and generations that survived and had to move to other countries and start a new life and struggle. It’s more of a song about having pride in that survival.
mxdwn: And the digital version of that song “Lives,” has the proceeds going to an Armenia Fund, Lives First Aid Kits Campaign for a part of the country called Artsakh. What would you like your fans to know about that particular area and that that fundraising effort, and what does it mean to give back to that region?
DM: Well, Armenians consider Artsakh part of Armenia. It’s its own republic but it’s been—we’ve had conflict with the Azerbaijan government over there and there’s supposed to be a ceasefire but that doesn’t always work out that way. You have a bit of a conflict going on between Azerbaijan and Artsakh. For me, there’s a lot of innocent civilians that get caught in the fire and the war and the fighting. From what I heard, a lot of the deaths seems to happen by people who are just bleeding out. If they have something as simple as a first aid kit, you could save a lot of lives. That’s really where I was going with that whole thing and trying to get people over there more first aid kits, so you have less deaths to gunshot wounds and people bleeding out, just getting caught in the crossfire. Since this song had an Armenian theme to it and it went back to genocide and survival, I thought it made sense to give back in some way to Armenia and the people who were struggling there.
mxdwn: With your projects, whether it be Scars on Broadway or System of a Down, the philosophy feels like you try to fit a ton of energy into a three-minute song, but the songs have a very progressive feel. Is that how you approach songwriting?
DM: A lot of that is my approach. I think of music in a very progressive type of way. But I also…one thing I don’t like about progressive and I guess “musician type” of music is sometimes…the song gets lost or like you have a really great part and that part never comes again. You have to wait like five minutes into the song to hear that part. I listened to a lot of different kinds of music, I wouldn’t just say progressive music, but for me, I just want to be able to express myself any way I want to. I don’t want to be like, “Well, I play heavy music so this song has to be angry and the lyrics have to be angry. It always has to be something I’m angry about.” It’s not the case. Life has a lot of twists and turns. You’ve got happy moments, you’ve got angry moments, you have sad moments and for me, I like to touch on all of that stuff. But what you said about trying to cram in a progressive style in two minutes, that’s really for me the challenge. It’s more challenging to make it interesting in like two or three minutes.
I also love catchy vocals. I like catchy hooks, and I want to hear it again. So just all my tapes come together as my style whether it’s like the real heavy stuff or like a song off the first Scars album, “3005,” has almost kind of like country rock feel to it. It’s all part of me. I can’t just play music [that’s like], well, you have these two colors you can choose from and you can’t use any other colors. For me, I want to be able to use all the colors that I want to use in my songs. One thing that I do in my writing that I feel like a lot of people don’t do is mix the humor. I feel like there’s a handful of rock bands that I think can get away with mixing the humor, for me that’s just as much a part of life as the angry stuff or sad stuff, the stuff that’s light on its feet a little. Honestly, a lot of times, it might sound kind of funny or humorous, but it’s singing about something that’s really serious.
I say pay attention to the bands that you don’t get at first, that you might even not like. A lot of my favorite bands I grew up listening to, I probably didn’t like them when I first heard them because it was so new. But when you sit with it and you give it a chance, those are the types of bands that end up becoming your favorite bands, because they are doing something different and they are doing something new. It was just so new to your ear that you couldn’t understand it at first. I tell people, “Keep giving bands a chance, keep giving things a chance.” You see it when someone puts out a song, and you see people commenting right away…just right away. It’s like “I can live with it for a second.”
Yeah, and music needs that. Music needs a little bit of time in your life and you’ve got to live with it. Then when you live with it what ends up happening is like four or five years later you listened to a song and it reminds you of that time in your life. I mean, when I heard Faith No More, nobody had ever heard of them before. I saw them on stage opening up for Metallica in California. They got booed off the stage…this is like back in 1989. Nobody knew who they were, they got booed off the stage and then a year later they were like the biggest band. At that time people didn’t accept rapping with metal. It took at least five or six years later for people to accept bands like Rage Against the Machine.
But in the late ’80s especially, bands were trying [mixing rap and metal], like Anthrax was the first band. They actually had a song called “I’m The Man.” It was like this rap song that they put out and I don’t know if the fans accepted it that well, they had a video for it and everything. Then Faith No More was the next band that I saw do it and that song became a hit eventually, but at first people didn’t take too kindly to it. Then by the time the ’90s built around, Rage Against The Machine was doing their thing and they broke the ice and it became a thing. Then it became the most popular thing for a second…it became like the good thing. Music, it’s interesting like that. Something that may not be great at the moment, 10 years later it becomes a huge thing.
mxdwn: You wrote and played and produced everything on this record. Was it difficult to assume that role rather than on your previous records when you worked with a System of a Down drummer, John Dolmayan, doing all the instruments yourself?
DM: No, in some ways it was easier. It was just different, I can’t say it was difficult. When I write a song and I bring in a song to the band, I usually know what I want the song movement to be like. I usually know what I want, how I want the drums to move and how I want the songs to move. I usually know what the melody lines of the vocals are going to be. Going into it, I knew what the drums were going to be like. I made the album a lot faster than I made it in the other album.
I guess because there weren’t a bunch of musicians that I was showing the parts to it happened quicker. But it’s also different working with a drummer too because sometimes that drummer will add in their own flavors and maybe something I didn’t think of myself. That’s also cool too, so either way, it’s fine. It works fine. I don’t think one way is better than the other, it’s just the way the album…I went into the studio very last minute. I didn’t have a band together at that time, I just wanted to go in and record. I went and got a bunch of a weeks worth of studio time and just really get it myself. It was cool; it was fun to do.
mxdwn: Your father is a well-known artist as well and he did the album art for a couple of SOAD albums and this album. I want to know—does he enjoy your music as far as Scars on Broadway and System of a Down, is he a fan of those bands?
DM: He is. Since I grew up in the house and I was always listening to rock and metal, my parents have grown to try to understand what rock and metal is, you know what I mean? They really get into it actually and I guess, I’m their son and it’s music I’m putting out, so I think my dad kind of…I always, when I go over to my parents’ house, I catch him humming one of the songs. My parents have always supported me, I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for them.
Both my parents are artists. My dad just so happens to do the album covers and stuff, but my mom is an artist too. I’ve been very lucky to have parents who understood my passion and they get into it. For me to have my dad do the album art, it’s a real treat for me because he’s not much of a self-promoter. He just does it, he doesn’t really do shows or anything for his art. For me to get a chance to show people what my dad does and where I came from, that’s pretty much why I am what I am, is because of my parents. Art was always something that was spoken about or being done in the house, whether my dad was painting or my mom was sculpting, and I was playing music, so there was always a lot of creativity and art in the house.
It’s fun for me to show people where I come from, and show my dad’s art. It’s cool because we had a show at The Fonda two weeks ago in Hollywood and fans would have my dad sign their albums. It’s really cool for me to see that. Yeah, it’s really, really fucking cool for me when the fans recognize what he contributed and he gets happy too. He’s a 71-year-old man, and he’s got these kids asking him for his autograph, he gets a kick out of it.
mxdwn: System of a Down always seems to be under a microscope—Meaning anything the four of you do or say is immediately news. How does the band handle the stress of constantly being under that microscope and stay friends?
DM: It’s like a family. If you had four brothers, each one of you eventually is going to want to get out of the house and go in your different directions. Each one of you is going to have a different personality. Just because you’re four brothers, doesn’t mean that you got to agree on everything, doesn’t mean you got to approach everything the same way. You might have brothers that are…one of them is an artist, one of them is a doctor, the other one is in prison. You don’t know. That’s how I see ours as. The only problem is—well, it’s not a problem—the only difference is people in our family, I guess you’d call the System of a Down family, people are very focused on what’s going to happen. “Do they get along?” And then one person says something in an interview and then the interview gets sensationalized and the other person reads it and feels like they need to protect themselves.
I think the outside things cause friction sometimes between us more than when we’re together. On the inside, we get along fine, we don’t have any problems. We just don’t agree on how to make an album at this point. Everybody has gone a different way. It may be two of us agree, three of us disagree, one of us may not, or two of us agree on going, two of the other people may not. It’s tough. It’s gotten tough for us to get on the same page when it comes to making the album. At this point, I’m done trying to push making an album, and that’s very sad.
If you look back on some bands, Rage Against the Machine, they’ve got what five albums? Pantera possibly they’ve got like four, five, six albums. Not every band is I guess Metallica who makes, I don’t know how many fucking albums they have now, but realistically you go back and listen to the fucking four or five original ones, right? You know what I mean? I don’t know, not every band needs to consistently and constantly make an album.
It be would nice if that was the way that it happened to us, but it just didn’t happen that way. I’m sorry to say to some fans that, I guess those albums, that’s what you got. You know what I mean, it’s just a let me down. I don’t know if there will be another album, I can’t say yes or no to that. You never know what happens, but as of right now, we’re not working together on anything like that. But at the same time, it’s nice for us to get on stage and play the songs that we’re all proud of, we all contributed to and we all worked hard to make System what it was or what it is, and we go out on stage and it’s nice that there’s still a fan base that is interested in coming out and seeing us. That’s where it’s at, man. Now you got two dead band members in Pantera, you’re never going to get another Pantera album. Doesn’t take anything away from the other great albums that they left behind though. You’re never going to get another Beatles album. You’re never going to get another Led Zeppelin album. It’s like that with some bands. Then you’ve got bands like U2 that keeps going and keeps going and keeps going, and Metallica that keeps going, keeps going, keeps going. Every band is different.
If I’m going to listen to Metallica or Slayer or any of those, I’m usually listening to the first four or five albums. [That’s] not to say that “Hey if System made an album it won’t be good.” I’m sure it’ll be good. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, that’s just where I’m at this point. It’s been tough, not knowing what’s happening. Imagine if the fans are feeling a certain way; imagine how I feel as one of the writers in the band? It’s been a little bit tough here and there, but at the same time, it is what it is. We made those five albums, they’re still there, they’re there for people to enjoy. I’m sure a whole new generation of kids that are just discovering those albums.
mxdwn: Scars on Broadway have the new record, but what’s next after that release, is the band going on tour at all? Are you doing any other side projects that the fans want to know about?
DM: As of right now, we’re just going to keep doing Scars. I’ll probably put out more music with Scars and when it comes to touring, we’re exploring some options. We just got to figure out the right tour and the right way to do it. But as of right now we’re, we don’t have a tour plan. We have a show in Mexico City that we’re playing—System is going to be playing the first night and then Scars will be playing in the second night, some double shifting there. There will be some more live shows in the future, I just don’t have anything set in stone just yet to talk about when it comes to touring or anything. But if a great tour comes around or a great opportunity for a tour comes around, we’ll definitely take it.
mxdwn: You’re playing a couple shows in October with System too, right? Is that part of that Mexico City run?
DM: Yeah, Mexico City will start that off and then we got, I think it’s five shows in the West Coast with System, and then nothing really planned live for either bands, but I would expect to play some more live shows with System and Scars in the next year or two.