SANTA MONICA, California — System of a Down's Shavo Odadjian has co-directed some of the band's most successful videos, but he originally passed on doing the next single, "Question!"
"I was just like, 'I'm gonna let this go,' 'cause I didn't have any ideas," the bassist explained. "Then we were in Europe and I woke up startled by this crazy dream. I paged Serj [Tankian] right away and said, 'Dude, I think I've got something for "Question!" ' "
System and Columbia Records had already been looking at treatments from other directors, so Shavo wrote something out and submitted it to the label without a name on it. "I don't like having that upper hand because I'm in the band," he said. "I wanna be deserving of it."
As fate would have it, his treatment was selected and Odadjian had the opportunity to make his dream a reality, even if it meant dressing his band in tuxedos. "I cut mine, though, and wore these big combat boots," he said.
Shavo's dream consisted of the band performing in an orchestra pit, which seemed to make some sense once he woke up and listened to the haunting "Question!" (see "No More 'Questions': System Of A Down Name New Single").
"I was like, 'All this could be done as an opera, 'cause this song has an operatic feel, it's very triumphant and epic," Odadjian said. "Then I'm like, 'What if opera singers sing the song along with us?' "
Shavo also had an idea to have the band multiply and eventually become the faces of the entire orchestra. "Then I realized it's kinda Outkast ('Hey Ya!'), and I didn't want anything in the video to look or even resemble anything that's been done," he said. "You know, when I did 'Aerials,' nothing like that had been done."
Eventually, Odadjian sat down with singer Tankian and brainstormed more ideas. Slowly, the video became about reincarnation.
"I've always questioned death and birth and life," Shavo said. "Where do we go? Are we here now? Or is this just one of the lives that we live? ... It just happened, it wasn't really planned, I swear. Everything fell into place."
The "Question!" video opens with an image of a young boy that was inspired by one of Shavo's favorite movies, "The Omen." "We painted this little kid black and white and gray and his hair white, and then we filmed it in color," Odadjian said. "So instead of using CGI, we naturally created this black-and-white figure in a color atmosphere."
The boy spots a red crow and shoots it with a slingshot. Then the video instantly moves to an opera house, where the story of an older boy and a girl, wearing red, plays out onstage. Inspired by "My Girl," "Romeo and Juliet" and Adam and Eve, he gives her berries (as Tankian sings, "Sweet berries ready for two ghosts are no different than you"), which kill her.
"And then we end up in this hospital somewhere really awkward and this woman gives birth to a newborn child and the child is carried out with this blanket that's red," Shavo said. "So it's like life. So it starts with death and it ends with life. And the soul travels through three different beings: a bird, a girl and a newborn baby. So it's kind of my interpretation of reincarnation."
Odadjian insists, however, that the song "Question!" is actually not about reincarnation at all. In fact, he's not even sure what it's about. "I don't like videos that explain the song," he said. "I like it to be kind of abstract, like a painting."
Shavo co-directed the video with Howard Greenhalgh, best known for Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." "I needed to get someone on my team who knew effects because I'm a rookie," he said. "I'm used to being in a band and collaborating. I'm not one of those guys that's like, 'It's gotta be my way and this is how it is and f--- everybody.' ... If someone's interesting and has an artistic mind, he could make my idea better."
Along with directing the "Question!" video, Odadjian has designed the stage and lighting for System's upcoming tour with the Mars Volta, which kicks off Thursday in Long Beach (see "System Of A Down/ Mars Volta Tour Dates Announced").
"I like mirrors," Shavo said without revealing details. "And our light guy is like a fifth member. He has to know every move, 'cause I don't like programmed lights. ... And I love strobes and I hate pyro. So lights and color and vibe and art, whatever is classy."
System selected the Mars Volta because they "didn't do anything to be on the radio, the radio just accepted them, like us," Shavo said. The bassist also left open the possibility of an onstage collaboration between the two progressive rock bands.
"I've jammed with Omar [Rodriguez-Lopez] in England," he said. "We had a soundcheck and he was just there and he grabbed the guitar and we jammed for like two hours nonstop. That's when I knew they had it. A band is a real band if they can play not just their songs, but they can just play."
"Question!" premieres Friday at 10 a.m. on MTV.com, MTV2.com and mtvU.com.