Famed producer Rick Rubin, the man responsible for signing the now über-successful System of a Down, recently told the L.A. Times that 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 responds from his home in Glendale, California, "but the way he explained the way I live was pretty right on."
As it turns out, there's at least one other thing that Malakian is passionate about.
"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 rocker 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 artists 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, go out of their way to stand apart. Mezmerize, System of a Down's latest disc and the first half of a double-album pair being released six months apart, furiously propels a signature mix of hardcore, metal, opera, and Armenian folk riffs behind vigorous political invective. And yet the group's singular amalgamation of sound has certainly found an audience. Its first three albums have all gone platinum -- 2001's Toxicity has done so four times.
"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 fiery, ground-floor politics are often painted with an overreaching brush. Take the line from Mezmerize's first single, "B.Y.O.B." -- "Why don't presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?" -- which raises questions it can't or won't answer. Still, it's a discourse that, in the past, has been pursued only 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 System of a Down 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 the band's self-titled 1998 debut, 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; do you want to do it?' And I was like, 'Cool, man,' because I was such a big fan," Malakian recalls. "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 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 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-and-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."
If Malakian's extracurricular activities aren't what you'd expect of a heavily-tattooed heavy-metal firebrand, neither are his influences.
"Keith Moon is my biggest guitar hero," he says. A surprising choice, since the legendary Who drummer 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-and-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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