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The interview with System of a Down's Bassist Shavo Odadjian was conducted in support of a Nov. 21, 1999, show at Omaha's Civic Auditorium. Though it was 1 p.m., the Q&A was Shavo's wakeup call for the day, and he sounded a bit groggy at first. Before long, he was talking a mile-a-minute about the rise of new heavy music, how the band made a name for itself in L.A., and life on the road. shavo.jpg (27121 bytes)

 

Lazyeye Interview:
Shavo Odadjian, System of a Down

 

Shavo, where are you?

We're in Knoxville. We played last night in Memphis. It was one of the best shows of the tour so far. Hopefully Knoxville will top it. The crowds have been really responsive. It doesn’t seem like we're the opening band.
What's it been like touring with Limp Bizkit?
We've been friends since the '98 Ozzfest. They treated us really good, not as a stepchild. We've had nice dressing rooms every day. If we need it, they give it. We've been having a lot of fun. The first few shows we were getting in the swing of things, and weren't able to party because we haven't toured for a while. For the past week, we've been hanging out, drinking beers and talking to a lot of people.
You guys have been doing it for a while, well before heavy music became popular again on the radio. How has the rise of heavy music affected your band?
We've been doing this for five and a half years. When we started, heavy music wasn't nourished. The late '80s killed it for all heavy music. All the hair bands set a bad example, it got cheesy, and the kids started swaying away. Then 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.

In the beginning of the '90s, Rage Against the Machine and Tool came out, and that was the beginning of where we are now. There's always that chance that heavy music could become cheesy again. 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.

Right now, labels are signing any heavy band with potential. 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. There were a lot of bands that came out after us that are doing as good as we are.

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.

So you got your start doing the L.A. club scene?
We called clubs in Hollywood and nagged to get shows. We brought in the people, then got a second show and sold more tickets. They found out that we weren't a band that was going to come and go. We hooked up with Coal Chamber and My Ruin, a lot of bands that were starting out. That helped us out and got the L.A. scene going. This was right after Korn stepped up and released their album. We were doing the club thing. Finally, the labels started biting. We took our time and were very diligent about it and ended up years later signing to American Records. A year and a half after all the labels wanted us, we said if you're going to stop wanting us, then just stop. We don't want that kind of label.

At the time when Rick Rubin approached us, he was going from Warner Bros. to Columbia. It was a totally different style. Now there are only a few people at American, and the A&R work is done by Columbia people. It's all controlled through Rick and us. That gives us a lot of freedom to do what we want to do artistically. They're the machine that goes ahead and works it. Rick didn't have many bands at the time. He was starting a new roster and we happened to be the first one.

Two years after we recorded it, the album is taking off. We've toured it a year and a half. 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.

So what do you think is driving this return to heavy music?
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. 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.

Rage and Tool were doing it in '92, when heavy music was dead They came out and proved everyone wrong; they were the forefathers of the new heavy music. Korn broke it to the extreme mainstream, where a heavy band could sell as many albums as the Backstreet Boys. Every band has a place in the music scene, unless they're a cheap sell out. Selling out is when you change your music to change album sales. Selling out is not writing good music. It's all about honesty. We'll keep on doing what we want to do and living out the dream.

Being a heavy band, and after some of the problems Marilyn Manson faced last year on tour, have you had any local backlash when you rolled into a town?
When we were out with Slayer, we had activists outside. It didn't really affect the show. I can understand why conservatives would be against Manson, he's made obscene comments, but who's to say what's obscene? He's talking about religion, about things that are part of everyday life. That's why they ban bands like that from their cities. Fuck them. They're trying to sensor a guy who's trying to speak his mind, that's his thing.

We're trying to open a lot of eyes and mouths. By opening eyes, you open mouths to speak out against things and not be closed or confined. Once you teach them and let them know it's wrong, they'll tell more people.

Do you draw a connection between your style of heavy music and punk rock?
Our music is as much punk as metal, we have a big punk influence. I went through a phase where I was listening to Black Flag, The Misfits, the Dead Kennedys, bands with drive that are guitar-driven. Daron (Malakian, lead guitarist) was also influenced by that and metal freaks, KISS concerts, Motley Crue. You mix those   together with the Beatles, Alien Sex Fiend and Bauhaus and you get our sound. If you come on our tour bus any day, land ook at CDs -- 800 to 1,000 -- it's like a CD store. We've got everything from folk to Cannibal Corpse to techno. I DJ on the side and do a lot of electronic music from bass and drum to hard techno house. It all comes out in the music and will in our second album. The drive will always be there.
Have you ever been to Omaha?
We've been through Lincoln. I'm not sure if we've hit Omaha. Some places you don't exactly remember, you play a show then go to sleep and don't realize where you were unless something happens.
You mean like get busted by the cops?
I don't know. What have you heard?
I haven't heard anything, I just assume part of this lifestyle means having to deal with cops.
We're all good boys, we don't get into trouble. I had a couple fans smoking pot around me at one show and a guard came and had a badge, pretending he was a cop, and he wanted to throw the kids out of concert. I took the blame, I said it was mine even though it wasn't. I didn't want the kids to miss Ozzy. I got handcuffed to a wall and was there until Ozzy's daughter came and rescued me. When you see a bald dude with a goatee... cops expect trouble. I realize that. When I get home I get pulled over once or twice a week, but I've managed to stay out of trouble.

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Copyright 1999 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.