Indie

System Of A Down Tells Us About Ending A 15-Year Drought To Benefit War-Torn Artsakh

Who had “System Of A Down record new music” on their 2020 bingo card? Probably not even System Of A Down.

The Armenian-American alt-metal band haven’t released an LP since the 2005 double-header Mesmerize/Hypnotize, and they’ve failed to see eye to eye on a follow up. The odds had never seemed slimmer: Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, music sites built an entire news beat from the chasm of American political ideology between singer Serj Tankian and drummer John Dolmayan.

The members have remained close as humans (Tankian and Dolmayan are brothers-in-law), though they’ve struggled to align musically as a full quartet. It took bloodshed in their ancestral homeland to help them rise above their differences.

In late September, war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan (reportedly with Turkish support) in Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh), continuing decades of tension and conflict in the region. “Armenia was attacked out of the blue during COVID, during a national election in the United States when people didn’t have their focus there,” Dolmayan says.

The grim news prompted discussions about how they could help — eventually spawning their two new songs, “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz.”

The band quickly issued a statement, declaring, “The world turned a blind eye during … the Armenian Genocide in 1915, the mass killings and pogroms of the 1980s and ‘90s, Azerbaijan’s invasion of Armenia in 2016. Now the world is turning a blind eye to 150,000 landlocked civilians under attack by Azerbaijan and Turkey.”

But they wanted to further utilize their massive platform, raising awareness and funds to aid displaced people.

“When the war started, I was in New Zealand,” Tankian tells Uproxx. “I was already starting to do interviews on my own about what was going on in Artsakh and Armenia. [Guitarist] Daron [Malakian] reached out first: ‘Hey guys, we should post something from the band’s site because we have reach.’ A couple days or a week after, John sent a text, saying, ‘We haven’t put out music in 15 years. It would be great if we could do something for the cause.”

Dolmayan had been deeply frustrated by System’s lengthy studio drought, and he’d previously given up on the idea of new music.

“For a long time, I tried to get the band to make another album,” the drummer says. “At one point, Serj and the rest of the guys got together, and we walked out of that meeting not being able to make it work. Because I’d spent almost 12 years working on that, I didn’t have any more effort to put into it emotionally. I just kind of let it go and figured, ‘OK, it’s not meant to be. I have to focus on things that are meant to be and make those things happen in life.'”

The war in Artsakh renewed his motivation — despite their creative stalemate, it was the perfect chance to galvanize the group for a unified purpose. But the music was secondary.

“I was very angry and wanted to do something about it,” Dolmayan adds. “I felt like we had to put things aside because this was greater than System. The needs of Armenia and Artsakh are greater than our egos or our ability to work together. It was hard for me to send that [group] text because it’s been such a negative experience trying to [motivate] these guys to make a new album. Everybody responded fairly quickly, but it was the usual difficulties of working in System. I had to put my emotions aside and say, ‘I’m not doing this for any other reason except for my people.'”

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Malakian already had two songs that felt like an ideal thematic fit: the operatic rocker “Protect The Land,” a tune he’d earmarked (and largely recorded) for his other project Scars On Broadway, and the brutally heavy “Genocidal Humanoidz,” which began life as a System idea.

“‘Genocidal Humanoidz’ is a song Daron, [bassist] Shavo [Odadjian] and I had worked on three, maybe four years ago specifically for a System album that never happened,” Dolmayan says. “We had 12 or 14 songs that we’d worked on, so that [track] was meant for System but never actually got recorded because we couldn’t make it work.”

This time, with extra momentum, they did. Once Tankian returned home to L.A., System entered the studio and knocked out the songs in three days — aiming to release them as quickly as possible.

“It was easy,” Tankian says of this “one-two punch.” “We’re all friends. We see each other all the time. It’s not like estranged people seeing each other. My drummer is my brother-in-law. There was no emotional interplay on my part.”

Dolmayan admits he felt the band’s collective power “at a diminished level” because of the accelerated time frame.

“We also didn’t have the benefit of [previous producer] Rick Rubin being involved,” he notes. “And he’s instrumental in making those small suggestions that make those massive differences. It wasn’t the perfect situation. But I’m proud of what we did. I know the fans were happy to get some new material. And at the end of the day, it’s about the cause.”

Tankian concurs with that bottom line. “As someone who produces a lot of music, generally you spend a lot of time trying to perfect it,” he says. “In a lot of cases with music that’s very intuitive and intentional, doing it quickly is fine. As long as you’re fully presenting it, you don’t have to sit on it for months and think about it. Sometimes that has an adverse effect. The timeline was more important than nitpicking for another week or month. The music was a weapon for the cause.”

System of a Down have been fighting for their homeland since day one, referencing the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian Genocide of 1915 in songs like “P.L.U.C.K.” from their self-titled 1998 debut. (In 2015, they joined with Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff to push for formal recognition of the genocide, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. In October 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to formally recognize what Speaker Nancy Pelosi described as “barbarism.”)

The new songs are just the latest, most obvious chapter in that ongoing story. By mid-November, the band had raised over $600,000 — all focused, Tankian says, on helping “rebuild and revitalize” after the devastation. But it’s just the beginning: They’re already planning virtual fundraisers for the coming weeks and months.

“That [dollar amount] is peanuts,” Dolmayan says. “It’s going to take hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild what was destroyed. I think our goal was $2 million to $5 million. And we’re still working vigilantly trying to raise that money. Within the band, we’ve donated hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

It’s unclear if “Protect The Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz” will lead to more System songs — or, perhaps, that elusive sixth album. But right now, that question is the last thing on their minds.

“We didn’t get together for the band’s sake, for our sake,” Tankian says. “We got together for our people.”

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