UNIVERSAL CITY, California — Ever since System of a Down emerged in 1998 with their self-titled debut, many people have struggled to come up with a name for the band's unique blend of sounds.
To our credit, System have never been much help.
"It's funny, I think we are one of the first bands to figure out how to be aggressive and poppy," guitarist Daron Malakian mused midway through a recent interview backstage at the band's Souls 2005 benefit (see "System Of A Down Make The Political Personal At Souls 2005").
"We're proppy," bassist Shavo Odadjian interrupted. "That's it! We're proppy!"
So maybe it's best the band just continue on without a descriptive adjective. Ambiguity is, after all, the essential component to the lyrics accompanying System's insane mix of metal, world music and dance-pop.
Just as one is better off not trying to define System of a Down — especially on the schizophrenic, just-released Mezmerize — figuring out what the tracks are about is just as much of a lost cause.
"A lot of the songs that seem really obvious aren't that obvious if you really get into them, like 'Radio/Video' for instance," drummer John Dolmayan said, referring to a Mezmerize track seemingly about musicians who are in the business for the wrong reasons. (Lyric sample: "Hey, man! Look at me rockin' out/ I'm on the radio.") "There are a lot of things that are deeper and they take a lot of searching."
"It's funny because some of the saddest songs that I have written are some of our funniest songs," Malakian added. "['Radio/Video'] is more a personal song than it is about anybody else."
Odadjian looks at System's music as being like abstract art. "Every human being sees something different in a painting, so I want every single person to have their own thoughts about our songs," he explained. "When people tell me [what they think a song is about], I will say, 'You are right, man.' I don't know half of it myself."
"I'm telling you, me neither at times," Malakian said. "Sometimes it hits me right after songs come out, or it hits me a year later — or maybe never, as far as what these songs are about. But it's pretty crazy: I bring in a song and me and Serj jump lyrics off each other and even if Serj doesn't know exactly where I'm coming from, he writes stuff that fits perfectly without even knowing."
Tankian calls the technique "ping-ponging." "Sometimes we put in an idea with another idea that doesn't belong next to it, and see how they dance together and what comes out of it," he explained. "It's interesting. Everything that already has relationships with each other has been tried and tried again. It's good to find new relationships."
It's widely assumed that "B.Y.O.B.," the first single from Mezmerize (see "System Of A Down Shoot Fiery 'B.Y.O.B.' Clip, Find Inspiration In Fistfights"), is an anti-war song, and Tankian admits the band was concerned about releasing it "because we've been pegged as such a political band, and it's something we've been trying to shy away from so people will understand the different aspects of the band." However, Malakian says not to make assumptions.
"I don't see it as a political song," he said. "The lyrics sing, 'Why don't presidents fight the war?/ Why do they always send the poor?' But that's not a thought to politics or anything else. That's just a viewpoint. That's just a question. And I think, more than politics, we try to spark questions that the powers that be don't want you to ask. It's more about a social commentary. I think it's about a few different things as opposed to being pointed at one thing."
The guitarist credits "B.Y.O.B." 's infectious chorus, easily the poppiest moment in System's history, to "listening to a lot of different kinds of music," but insists there was no thought put into it.
"A lot of people think we have specific intention in trying to do stuff, but I think it's just very natural," Tankian added.
For more on the making of Mezmerize check out "System of a Down: Doubleheader."