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by Tim McMahan

Just the Facts: For the diehard System of a Down fans, click here to read an edited transcript of the full 1,400-word interview with Shavo Odadjian.
Go ahead and say it: Heavy music is back. And louder than ever.

Turn on the radio and you'll hear some of the heaviest, dirtiest, grungiest, meanest, angriest, most disturbing music ever created by bands like Limp Bizkit, Korn, Kottonmouth Kings, Kid Rock and last but not least, System of a Down.

For System of a Down bass player Shavo Odadjian, the return to heavy music couldn't have come sooner. Spawn from the Los Angeles rock netherworld in 1995, the band made a name for itself playing that city's grueling club scene. Their unique style of backbreaking high-energy rock -- a mixture of hardcore and classic Sabbath-style heavy metal -- quickly caught on. After a few years, the labels came a knockin' and Rick Rubin's American Records waited out the competition, signing the band and releasing their self-titled debut filled with angst, pain and a clear political agenda. It's loud, proud, in-your-face mosh-music that makes Metallica sound like Lawrence Welk.

 

Odadjian points to a foundation laid by Tool and Rage Against the Machine for the current popularity of heavy music. "(They) were doing it in '92, when heavy music was dead," he said from a Knoxville Holiday Inn, the night after a sold out show in Memphis. "They came out and proved everyone wrong; they were the forefathers of the new heavy music."

Next up was Korn, who Odadjian said brought heavy music to the mainstream, proving that a head-pounding, violent band could sell as many albums as America's sweethearts, the Backstreet Boys. Anyone who's listened to the radio over the past year knows that the arrow has tilted back to aggressive bands, but what's driving the change?

"There's just a lot of good bands out there," Odadjian said. "And there's a lot of crap, too. The kids know what's going on. If you're a teen-ager, you have some anger or confusion that makes you want to release the tension -- not in a bad way, just letting loose emotion -- and heavy music does that. All the young fans that were into Nirvana and Pearl Jam are into Coal Chamber and Limp Bizkit, so things really haven't changed."

In fact, Odadjian said, all the hype about the return of heavy music is just that: hype. As a genre, the '80s are viewed as the time when heavy metal both peaked and ultimately died, thanks to the predominance of glamorous and ridiculous "hair bands." Anyone remember Cinderella or Warrant?

"It got cheesy," Odadjian said, "and all the kids started swaying away from it. Alternative and grunge took over, but heavy music was always there, just in a different style. It wasn't dead, it turned into grunge, which had a lot of anger and frustration at its core and helped kids let loose. Nirvana and Soundgarden, to me they're not alternative, they're heavy bands."

 

"There's just a lot of good bands out there, and there's a lot of crap, too. The kids know what's going on."


 

"The first time around, the radio stations said there was no way they were going to play it. Now they're playing it everywhere, every day."


 

Regardless of the past, there's no question that the market has never been hotter for heavy music. "Labels are signing any heavy band with potential," Odadjian said. "If we started out now, instead of five or six years ago, we would have been signed even faster. But all the hard work gave us time to learn and grow. We didn't get spoiled."

It took System of a Down so long to decide what label to sign with -- a year and a half -- that many gave up and walked away. "We said if you're going to stop wanting us, then just stop. We don't want that kind of label," Odadjian said.

Rubin signed and produced the group as the first new act on American Recordings under a pact with Columbia Records. Engineered by Sylvia Massey (Tool) and mixed by Barkmarket vocalist/mixer Dave Sardi, the recording manages to capture the intensity of the band's live shows, Odadjian said. When it was released two years ago, when pop bands like Sugar Ray, Matchbox 20 and Smashmouth ruled the radio, the band couldn't even buy air time. "We've toured it a year and a half," he said. "The first time around, the radio stations said there was no way they were going to play it. Now they're playing it everywhere, every day."

More impressive to Odadjian, however, is playing sold-out arenas opening for Limp Bizkit or playing the main stage at last year's Ozzfest. "We're actually a live band, not really a recording band," he said. "We like releasing albums, but our main goal is to play live. We started out as a live band, we didn't expect to be huge. We just wanted to play music and have fun. It was a hobby for me, a dream of mine all my life. It's so rare for a band to get in a position where we are or above. I didn't expect it, I wasn't looking for it."

While bands like System of a Down, Limp Bizkit and Coal Chamber might be riding high now, Odadjian knows that heavy music's popularity is a very precarious thing.

"There's always that chance that heavy music could become cheesy again," he said. "It could happen very quickly if enough terrible bands enter the scene. Just look at grunge: there were some great bands when it first started, then it got huge, and the next thing you know, there were all these terrible bands and it just faded away."

Regardless of what happens with heavy music, System of a Down will continue on the path is started on all those years ago. "It's all about honesty," Odadjian said. "We'll keep on doing what we want to do and living out the dream."


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Printed in The Reader November 18, 1999.

Copyright 1999 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.