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Q&A: System of a Down’s John Dolmayan on His Covers Album and System’s Future (‘It’s Really Stupid That We Haven’t Made An Album’)
John Dolmayan is known as the drummer for System of a Down, the dynamic and irreverent rock/metal act that burst onto the scene in the late 1990s with a truly unique sound, the result of musical innovation from vocalist Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and Dolmayan.
There hasn’t been a new album from System since 2005’s Mezmerize/Hypnotize records, but the band remains relatively active, playing a handful of shows per year on a regular basis. The lack of recording and musical output drove Dolmayan to the studio on his own terms, however, the result being a well-crafted new covers project, These Grey Men, tackling some rather unexpected songs and transforming them into entirely new listening experiences.
Dolmayan spent a few minutes on the phone discussing These Grey Men, System of a Down’s inability to get back into the studio, political expression in the social media age, the coronavirus pandemic and more.
Rock Cellar: These Grey Men is your new covers EP, and I have to admit — when I first heard that the drummer from System of a Down was making a covers record, I expected certain things. But not only are the songs you chose somewhat surprising, the way they’re arranged is very different from what listeners might expect.
John Dolmayan: Well, I think it was inherent. Just what was inside me came out. I’ve always had a knack for arranging, though I didn’t have to do much of it with System, because the guys were really strong at it as well. But I’ve always enjoyed dissected songs, taking them apart, and really when I listen to them it’s what I do.
Rock Cellar: In particular, what you did with the Eminem song, “Rock Bottom,” that’s a pretty random Eminem song that I’ve actually thought about a few times for whatever reason, so it was wild to see it turned into something like this.
John Dolmayan: It’s a good song. I really wanted Santana for that song, to do a solo and make it a kind of Latin-based, solo/jam with the congas and all that. By the way, I’m not opposed to putting lyrics on it at a later time, but I’ve been asked for a long time to do drum solos. My dad is a big Joe Morello fan, he’s a jazz drummer, back to the ‘50s and ‘60s, and he always liked the fact that Joe used very little cymbals in his solos.
My dad being a jazz musician, of course I respected that. He would always tell me it’s easy to do a solo with cymbals because they cover up so much space, but if you take the cymbals out of it, it’s hard to do a creative solo that’s interesting with just the toms and snare.
I did it in part to make my father proud, which of course is what every son wants at the end of the day, and I also wanted to appease the people asking me for a solo for a long time, and I accomplished both. Actually, Mike Portnoy, a drummer I have a lot of respect for, reached out to me complimenting me on it, too, saying “We need more of that type of stuff.”
Rock Cellar: You recorded the whole thing at Studio 606, the studio owned by Dave Grohl out in the Valley. Is that place fun?
John Dolmayan: Yeah, it is. It’s set up really nice, really comfortable, it’s a very warm vibe, but of course coming from Dave Grohl, what do you expect? He’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in the music business, and for being as talented and successful as he is, he’s extremely nice.
Rock Cellar: Have you had his barbecue?
John Dolmayan: I haven’t, he invited me but I didn’t have a chance to go.
Rock Cellar: You should go, it’s great.
John Dolmayan: You know, in general, drummers are really nice. Usually, very welcoming people as well, that’s also why you haven’t seen me go play for another band. Since drummers don’t usually get kicked out of the band, they’re the guys who are always there.
Rock Cellar: Along those lines, it was cool to hear you and Serj making music together again on two songs from These Grey Men, like “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads, which has some very unique vocals.
John Dolmayan: And that one had very unique vocals in the original version, as well, which is why I had always earmarked Serj for that song. When I originally gave him a choice of songs, he wanted to do “Starman,” which I understood, and he was great on it — but I said, “Serj, you’re welcome to do that one but I also want you to do this one,” and he reluctantly agreed and I think it came out exceptionally well.
I wouldn’t have wanted anybody else to sing that song other than Serj.
Rock Cellar: I met Jonah Nimoy at an art event last year and it was neat to see him turn up as well, and on an AFI song that not a lot of people might know since it’s relatively newer, “Beautiful Thieves.”
John Dolmayan: Well they’re certainly not going to recognize my version, that’s for sure.
Rock Cellar: And it was wild, listening to “What I Know,” your version of the Two Door Cinema Club song “What You Know,” it felt familiar but I knew I hadn’t heard it before, because your version was so different.
John Dolmayan: And again, that really is the point. I didn’t want to make a covers album that sounded exactly like the original versions. Because what’s the point? I do not understand why bands keep putting out songs — maybe they’re too lazy? — they do a carbon-copy cover of some classic song. Why do we need the cover?
Rock Cellar: This relates to my relationship with System of a Down’s music, overall. Toxicity was one of the biggest albums of my life at the point it came out in 2001 — I was in high school, I was all about bands like Linkin Park, then System came along … and even then, you guys had such an innovative, unique sound. You didn’t sound like anybody else, and even now that’s held up.
It’s been 15 years since System of a Down last released a song, but there still isn’t anybody out there that sounds like you guys did.
John Dolmayan: Yeah. It’s not something we tried to do, it was just the music that came out of it. Our music was different, our lyricist was different, his lyrics were different, my drumming was different than a lot of the other drumming you heard at the time. We came from such different places, listening to a diverse range of music. All of us did, and we had no limitations as far as where we were going with our music.
And we also had something to prove. A lot of people told us, “You’re not going to be successful. You’re not going to get signed,” and all that.
Rock Cellar: You’re also deeply into comic books. Did your store close yet due to the coronavirus?
John Dolmayan: We just shut down the one in Las Vegas. They did a mandatory shutdown, but we’re trying to get creative because I’m trying to pay everybody and not have to lay anybody off.
Rock Cellar: It took Vegas a while to shut everything down, too, because it’s such a huge decision for that entire area.
John Dolmayan: It’s devastating for the Vegas economy, but it’ll rebound. At the end of the day, what matters it that people are healthy.
Although I think this is all overblown, it’s better to err on the side of caution in general. And we have to protect our older people, just like we have to protect our young people. It’s the responsibility of the people in the middle.
Rock Cellar: And in the meantime, while we’re stuck at home you can do phone interview after phone interview.
John Dolmayan: Some are more fun than others, that’s for sure. I’ve had some that … well, they try to make it a little too much about System of a Down.
And I’ll talk about System, don’t get me wrong — it’s a big part of my history and I’m proud of it — and I’m in agreement with most people, it’s really stupid that we haven’t made an album.
Rock Cellar: There are plenty of headlines out there about you, or Shavo (Odadjian), or Daron (Malakian), talking about the lack of new music, you made that Instagram post challenging everybody to “put the egos aside” and all that, but despite that lack of studio work and what others might view as a band “fighting,” you guys are still active.
View this post on Instagram
Three of these bands can get out of their own way and work together for a common goal , maybe the fourth can as well. Perhaps it’s time to put all the bullshit aside , check the massive egos at the door , and do together what none of us can do alone . Maybe , just maybe a Christmas miracle will happen. Maybe it can be a System Of A Down
You play shows — maybe not a ton, and maybe not every year — but you’re still a relatively active touring band, despite all the other stuff. And I suspect that activity fuels everybody’s hope for new music to actually happen one day.
John Dolmayan: In a way I wish we were fighting, because if you’re fighting there’s something to repair. This is worse, because … I’m telling you man, it’s all ego-based. It really is.
There’s nothing important stopping us from doing anything. It really is just stubbornness and ego, I’m not gonna say where it comes from, but it doesn’t come from me.
Rock Cellar: Is there any difference in who you guys were individually, maybe, 15 years ago, versus who you are today, that might be part of it?
John Dolmayan: I really think it’s drama that happened almost two decades ago, that still hasn’t been dealt with. People are clinging to that stuff like it matters, and it doesn’t.
I know what you’re talking about, by the way, you’re alluding to the political differences in the band, right?
Rock Cellar: Yeah, it’s rather inescapable given the lyrical content of much of System’s music, and other headlines out there. Daron says certain things, Serj says certain things, you all say certain things. It just seems like it might be hard for that to not be a part of it.
John Dolmayan: I take a lot of flak for my conservative views, and quite frankly it doesn’t bother me because other people’s opinions are not the driving force in my life.
But I tend to have friends on every side of the realm — some super conservative, some very religious, others are ultraliberal, atheists, and everything in between — and I get along with all of them, which is what we’re supposed to do.
We’re supposed to have differences of opinion but still be able to maintain relationships, and produce a greater perspective. And I find very close-minded people on Instagram, talking shit, reminding me of our lyrics and all that. Well, number one, I didn’t write the lyrics, and number two, just because Serj wrote lyrics, most of them are open to interpretation, and a lot of the political lyrics he wrote I agreed with at the time.
I change my opinions depending on what agenda the political parties have at a particular time. Just because you call yourself a Republican or a Democrat, doesn’t mean you have the same ideals that existed 200 years ago.
And I will tell you, when the pendulum swings hard one way, it tends to swing hard the other way. So when you have really stupid policies being put forth by one side, you can have even stupider policies from the other side to compensate.
Rock Cellar: I’ve used the word “overcorrection” a few times lately regarding this sort of concept, regarding the pushback from both sides on nearly every possible topic these days.
John Dolmayan: That’s a great way of putting it, as well.
Rock Cellar: Everything with the discourse is so reliant on social media, too. Do you like social media, or would you say it’s part of the problem?
John Dolmayan: It’s not, it’s just a way for cowards to vocalize something that they’d never say to you in person, in a way they’d never say it to any person. It’s nothing new, cowards have always hidden behind walls and gone against people that have a different opinion — I’ve tried to explain to people, your opinions are based on the information you have gone and researched and understood. That doesn’t give you the full perspective, you have to look at it from different points of view.
And also, you have to understand that just because you’re taught something right now doesn’t mean it’s true. People were taught at one point that the world was flat, that the earth was the center of the universe. That’s not the general belief now, people in Nazi Germany were taught that it was OK to exterminate people that were different. And likewise, in Turkey during the genocide of the Armenians, the Assyrians, the Greeks and other ethnic minorities. Just because you’re taught something in school, doesn’t mean that history is going to look back on it favorably.
You have to question things, and wonder why a virus comes out of nowhere when there’s a whole world protesting and basically stifling and destroying any protest that was taking place because people can’t even be on the streets.
You should question things a little bit. Having a real dialog and discourse is fine, I’m all for that.
Rock Cellar: The music business is a bit different now than it was when System of a Down broke out back around 2001, to say the least. Things were different. Was there a moment that made you realize “Wow, this band is a big deal” back then?
John Dolmayan: Honestly, we’re bigger than ever now. I’d say selling out two shows back-to-back in 2020, on a bill with Faith No More, Korn, Helmet, that’s pretty great.
And we sold those shows out in like a day. And let me tell you, similarly in Europe, System of a Down is a massive band and I think in some ways bigger than we’ve ever been. So every time I get on stage, I’m like … wow.
You gotta understand something, I was playing in front of my girlfriend and a bartender when I was coming up. We used to call them “live rehearsals,” we’d take all our gear to a show to play and there would be two or three people in the audience. But we didn’t care, we’d do it anyway.
I played in a band where we didn’t have a singer for a year. We practiced seven days a week.
So now, months in advance, a year in advance, we have sold-out shows. It’s surreal for me to have that experience, and I appreciate every moment of it, I appreciate every fan, I try to do the best I can to give the best performance I can.
Because I know there’s a kid out there who was just like me — saved up his or her money, took time off from work … I got fired from jobs because I went to see concerts. That’s just how I looked at it.
Rock Cellar: The era in which System of a Down broke out, there was a lot of aggression, angst, and emotional expression in the bands of the day, and that spawned some discussions about mental health as it relates to music — a few years later, maybe.
And as we’ve seen with Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, unfortunately, and Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, two really high-profile examples, it showed that mental health struggles don’t care who you are or how “successful” you might be. Anybody is vulnerable.
You guys were obviously pretty close with bands like Linkin Park over the years, so that had to be tough to see. And with Chester, specifically, they got a lot of flack back in the day about their lyrics not really “meaning anything,” or people dismissing them outright just because of their whole aesthetic.
John Dolmayan: Again, who is one person to judge the level of integrity of somebody else’s lyrics and where they came from, and what pain they felt inside? And look — who cares? There are people who love that band, and they were moved by those songs. Who cares if it’s “real” or not to you?
At the end of the day, I know some very wealthy people. They’re miserable, they’ll always be miserable. True wealth is when you wake up everyday, you smile, you enjoy your life, you live each day as it’s the only one you have left. Enjoy, live, love.
That’s real wealth.
The most pleasurable feeling I have in life? Everyday I see my kids’ faces. That gives me more pleasure than anything I’ve done in my life. Getting a Grammy gave me about five seconds of pleasure. I was actually proud of the fact that we had four losses.
Rock Cellar: There was a quote in an older article about how you guys turned down a Grammy performance for not being “part of what System is about,” or something along those lines.
John Dolmayan: Well, quotes like that you have to take with a grain of salt. I don’t represent the band, Daron doesn’t represent the band, Serj doesn’t represent the band, Shavo doesn’t represent the band.
We represent ourselves [individually], and there is no blanket mindset or statement that represent everybody in the band -– the only real representation of the band is the music we put on those records.
Rock Cellar: And hopefully that eventually leads to new music at some point.
John Dolmayan: Yeah, well, if we can get out of our own way maybe it can happen, but I find that very unlikely.
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