After nearly three years of touring behind their self-titled debut, System of a Down was ready to give the mainstream a wake-up call. In fall 2000, the heavy rockers headed home—a rehearsal space in North Hollywood called The Alley—to work on what would become their masterpiece, Toxicity.
System of a Down had grown from local heroes selling out shows on the Sunset Strip to the most-buzzed-about band across the country. Prime slots on Ozzfest ‘98 and ‘99 alongside metal gods like Black Sabbath, Tool, and Deftones didn’t hurt. Nu metal’s popularity was near its peak, and while System of a Down was tossed into that category, the band was a different beast: They painted their faces, were influenced by Slayer, and proudly sang about their Armenian heritage. The first time famed producer Rick Rubin saw the band perform in front of a sold-out crowd at the Viper Room in 1997, he couldn’t contain his excitement.
“They made me laugh,” Rubin says, mentioning the band’s mix of Armenian folk dancing and heavy guitar riffs. “They blew my mind. They were unlike any hard rock or metal band I had seen previously.”
Though Rubin signed the band to his label, American Recordings, it’s hard to fault him for his initial reaction. Take the band’s first single, “Sugar,” which mixes jazz-style drums and Cookie Monster growls about “Kombucha mushroom people” that combusts into frontman Serj Tankian manically yelling, “How do I feel? What do I say? In the end, it all goes away.”
“Sugar” wasn’t exactly a hit, peaking at no. 28 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart. A follow-up single, “Spiders,” featured on the Scream 3 soundtrack, reached no. 25. Even without a hit, the self-titled album went gold by February 2000.
Tankian credits nonstop touring for the band’s rapidly growing following. Even as the album cycle wound down, System of a Down was on the road through July 2000 on the Summer Sanitarium Tour with Metallica and Korn.
After that string of dates, drummer John Dolmayan remembers having to turn down Iron Maiden. He was disappointed, but “it was time to make the second,” he says. “We had gone as far as we could with the first.”
To prepare for Toxicity, the band wrote more than 40 songs. In spring 2001, the band went to Cello Studios in Hollywood and recorded nearly all of them. Anticipation grew as rumors about new material leaked to the press. One song was reportedly called “K.I.T.T.,” an allusion to the Knight Rider car with satirical lyrics about the show’s star, David Hasselhoff. Another song was about pajamas.
If fans were worried about the new direction, guitarist Daron Malakian crushed those concerns when he told MTV that the band remained heavy. In the same breath, he compared songs like “ATWA” and “Version 7.0” (later renamed “Toxicity”) to Radiohead and Pink Floyd. As much as the guitarist was aware of the buzz, he was hellbent on avoiding the second album slump.
“I didn’t want to make the first album part two,” Malakian says. “The sophomore record is something I think people pay attention to. It was important for us to deliver. I put a lot of pressure on myself, which maybe made me a little bit hard to deal with. But I felt like I had to take the bull by the horns.”
Studio time was fraught with tension. Some arguments were over a single word in a lyric. Others turned into hospital visits. On the outside, fans were just as impatient. Anticipation boiled over during a free show on September 3, 2001, in a parking lot on Schrader Boulevard. Fire marshals shut down the concert before the band could play a single note. A riot ensued.
As the band escaped to hotel rooms, they watched the events unfold across CNN. Helicopters circled the scene, zooming in on police with riot gear and fans destroying the stage. Dolmayan remembers thinking, “What the fuck?” as he saw people run down Hollywood Boulevard with his drums: “My manager is like, ‘Something big is coming.’”
His manager was right. In its first week, Toxicity sold 220,000 copies. That landed the album at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. However, celebrations and upcoming dates with Slipknot would be put on hold as the news of the chart triumph came the same day as the September 11 attacks. Days later, in response to 9/11, Tankian published an essay called “Understanding Oil” as an attempt to understand the attacks as well as confront the United States’ foreign policy problems—a decision the singer would have to defend with the band internally then publicly on The Howard Stern Show.
The album’s hit single, “Chop Suey!”—which included the phrase “self-righteous suicide”—was immediately taken off radio airwaves as part of an infamous list from Clear Channel program directors who felt certain songs shouldn’t be played after 9/11. Other songs on the list included P.O.D.’s “Boom,” Alien Ant Farm’s “Smooth Criminal,” and Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.”
That these events happened within a week of each other was overstimulating to System of a Down’s manager, David Benveniste. More confusing was the band’s popularity continued to rise, Benveniste says: “It all worked to the band’s favor.”
Toxicity’s singles—“Chop Suey!,” the title track, and “Aerials”—dominated rock charts and crossed over onto the Billboard Hot 100 charts. “Chop Suey!” received a Grammy nomination in 2002 for Best Metal Performance. In 2003, the band received its second Grammy nod, this time for Best Hard Rock Performance with “Aerials.” To date, Toxicity has sold nearly 3 million copies stateside and 12 million worldwide.
Twenty years later, the album has maintained its status as System of a Down’s magnum opus. Metal Hammer named it the fourth-greatest metal album of the 21st century. Metallica loves it, as does Melanie C of the Spice Girls. A scene from a Nigerian wedding in 2020 went viral as guests moshed and sang along to the title track.
“That says everything you need to know,” says Sasami Ashworth, a classically trained singer-songwriter who covered “Toxicity” last year, about the wedding video. “It says so much that, in a completely different continent, people know the lyrics and are raging to it.”
The years since Toxicity’s release have been fraught with public infighting, prolonged hiatuses, and exhaustion. However, in 2020, System of a Down released the songs “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz.” The first material from the band in 15 years came in response to attacks on the member’s cultural homelands of Artsakh and Armenia. It’s a preview of what could have been had the band not gone on hiatus in 2006.
“It was all about the evolution of the band, and I felt like there was more to go when it came to that,” Malakian says, commenting on the band’s extended break. “That’s the part I’m most sorry about.”
As Toxicity turns 20, SOAD members and others discuss the events that turned Hollywood’s hometown rockers into one of music’s most dangerous bands.
Part 1. “Ministry Used Drills … I Used a Vibrator.”
After System of a Down proved themselves on tour with Slayer, Ozzfest, and Metallica, the band reconvened at their rehearsal space, locking in songs for what would become Toxicity.
The band wrote riffs, songs, and lyrics at home, then showed them to each other during rehearsal. When a group of songs was ready, the band would invite Rubin to hear them. Before recording, Rubin would give his advice. Malakian compared the bearded, guru-like producer to a doctor: “I go to Rick, and he tells me, ‘Try a couple of these and tell me how they feel.’”
The writing and recording process generated a ton of material, and the band grew “tighter and tougher,” Rubin says. However, they would need more than the producer’s magic to deal with some of their pain.
Rick Rubin (producer): From the beginning, we talked about the benefit of over-writing. If you write four albums’ worth of material to make one album, each album released functions as a greatest hits album—the greatest hits from four unreleased albums. The artists who truly love making music enjoy the healthy process.
Daron Malakian (guitarist): There was a lot of music. I’m not comfortable in a situation when you go into the studio with no material.
John Dolmayan (drummer): We had like 44 songs total.
Serj Tankian (singer): I didn’t feel any pressure except time pressure. It’s not like our first record was a great hit, as it didn’t have much radio play. Though, we built a solid following from touring it.
Rubin: From the incessant touring, the band’s playing got tighter and tougher, and Serj grew tremendously as a vocalist. There is no better boot camp for a band to focus their skills than playing often in front of people. Also, getting to open for Slayer is a challenge, nearly impossible for any band to succeed at—a true gauntlet. The System lads rose to the occasion.
Shavo Odadjian (bassist): Serj wasn’t really a singer prior to joining System of a Down. He was a keyboard player. He developed his style and sound with us. He sang and got so much better. All of the sudden, I could see him feeling freer with his voice. He tried things nobody was doing. Rick really got a kick out of that.
Tankian: Rick’s production and confidence in us was essential in our rise as a band from clubs to the world stage. With the first record, his production was based on replication of our live sound. On the second, it was more traditional recording techniques.
Odadjian: Daron took on that role of guiding things through, and you need that in a band. Daron is way more critical than Rick.
Malakian: I liked songs like “Aerials,” “Toxicity,” and “ATWA” that brought an evolution to our sound. It wasn’t just about trying to start mosh pits anymore. I was writing open songs with big choruses.
Tankian: Thematically, my music and lyrics always expounded on egalitarian principles and/or stream of consciousness, especially on [Toxicity].
Malakian: There were plenty of heavy, hard-hitting songs like “Needles,” but what works is something that you never know until you play with the band.
Odadjian: I brought in “Toxicity.” I called it “Version 7.0.” At the time, AOL was around, and it was at Version 5.0. I was like, “When this song comes out, it’ll be on Version 7.0, and we’d be telling the future.” Of all the songs, “Toxicity” fell through the cracks. We didn’t work on it. I felt so good about it, and it wasn’t taken well.
Towards the end of writing material, Daron goes, “Remember that song, ‘Version 7.0’? I kinda did my thing to it, and here it is.” And the dude played “Toxicity.” He chopped it up and said, “Drums should go there, and this and this.” All of the sudden, “Toxicity” was really born. The last song that got submitted was the title track.
Dolmayan: I was trying to figure out beats. Shavo was right in front of me and wouldn’t stop talking. I was like, “Shavo, give me a second to try and come up with something.” He was like, “Why don’t you try it like this?” He was moving his arms up and down. To mock him, I did what I thought he was doing. That beat came out of complete irritation. It was very much just, “Get the fuck out of my face. I’m going to do this so you leave.” It ended up being one of the beats I’m most known for.
Odadjian: During pre-production, we thought “Aerials” was perfect. Rick was like, “It’s missing something … You know that riff that goes throughout the song? How come you don’t play that heavy?” The middle part came out of that bom-bom-bom, that part that blows up the song up, and then “Aerials” became that song.
Malakian: I wrote a lot of that stuff at home, when I was still living with my parents. There were some songs that were written on tour, like “Chop Suey!” I wrote the opening riff and pretty much structured the song while we were still touring in an RV.
In February 2001, the band recorded more than 30 songs at Cello Studios. An early standout was “Prison Song,” reportedly about Malakian’s short time in jail after being arrested for traffic warrants and marijuana possession.
Sessions were as intense as the lyrical subject matter, filled with arguments, some of which turned into brawls. The band wanted to sound as huge as possible—even if that meant butting heads or resorting to experimental techniques.
Malakian: I went a little overboard on Toxicity. We had the big budget, this rental stuff … I don’t layer 12 tracks of guitar anymore. I was young.
Steve Appleford (journalist): Daron is clearly influenced by Slayer and other extreme metal acts, but he has a range of surprising tastes. His favorite song is “Sailing” by Christopher Cross. That sounds ridiculous, but it says something about his attraction to melody, shading, and subtlety.
Malakian: You can hear me playing guitar with a vibrator on the intro of “Psycho.” It gave the song a little bit of industrial flavor. Ministry used drills. I used a vibrator. [Laughs] We’ve never been shy to be a little wacky.
Tankian: “Bounce” was originally about pajamas, which didn’t fly well with the other guys. Pajamas aren’t tough enough, I guess.
Malakian: The original lyrics were something like, “PJ, PJ, PJ, PJ, Pajamas.”
Rubin: It’s funny in retrospect, but in the moment, band tempers were running high, considering we were all on the same side with the same goal of producing and releasing the best work we are capable of. When there is friction, it only means we haven’t gone far enough to solve the question at hand.
Odadjian: There was that “not knowing what mood everyone’s going to be in” every night. There was the psychological aspect to it, like, “Here I go from being on the road, kind of sick of everything, and now, I have to go back to the studio.”
Dolmayan: Writing and recording wasn’t easy. In the winter, it got a little harder. I was not the easiest guy to get along with at the time.
Malakian: John and I got into it. We’ve always gotten into it through the years. It’s a brotherly love. I think he said something about my personal life, and I was like, “Don’t bring that up anymore!” He brought it up again, and I swung my guitar at him. He swung at me, then an elbow hit my mouth, and I took a microphone stand and hit him in the head. It was kind of stupid. [Laughs.]
Dolmayan: There may have been a murder that day if two other band members didn’t come to that person’s aid. We were in two adjoining hospital beds, getting our stitches. We laughed about it while we were in the beds. Would that happen today? No, I’m 49 years old. I wouldn’t allow it to get to that place.
David Benveniste (manager): What makes them incredible is that heat between them. It’s no secret they have inner turmoil as does Rage, Aerosmith, and many of the all-time great bands, but it works. It’s not by design. That’s why they’re so powerful: Everything is real.
Dolmayan: Maybe [the fight] was positive for us because the week after hospitalization, we went in, and “Chop Suey!” and “Toxicity” were completed.
Part 2: “Doesn’t Somebody Own That?”
In summer 2001, the band and Rubin whittled down the tracklist from the more than 30 songs recorded for Toxicity. Sony Music’s in-house art director, Brandy Flower, began working on ideas for the album cover.
Pre-Toxicity, Flower remembers System of a Down being a part of “this nu-metal lump with a zillion other bands.” When he heard an advance of the band’s sophomore effort, he was shocked.
“It was fucking amazing,” Flower says. “Everybody knew that this was going to blow up. There was a lot of internal anticipation. At a corporate label, that didn’t happen a lot.”
As much as the album was a headbanger’s ball, the path to its title and album cover was a frustrating interlude.
Brandy Flower (art designer): Each band member had a different idea of what they wanted for the album cover, and Rick was the fifth band member. Rick came with a photo of a crowd from the 1960s at some political protest. It spoke to the energy of the band’s live shows, but I don’t remember the band liking it.
Odadjian: We tracked all the music in Studio 2. There was a wooden door with a wooden no. 2 on it. I took a picture of that. I was like, “Dude, this 2 looks badass. This is our second record. We should just call the record ‘2.’” That was the first idea.
Flower: Each band member has an aesthetic, and they’re all miles apart. Serj was just like, “We should get [Armenian artist] Vartan to do the cover. Everyone knows Vartan.” Daron wanted some of his father’s artwork for this. John was this comic book nerd. He probably wanted something illustrated.
Odadjian: I was picking a bunch of names, and nobody was agreeing with it. For some reason, our band agreed to be unanimous always—so fucked up.
Flower: One of the guys working with them, Mark Wakefield, had designed a web banner—a lo-res image of the Hollywood sign, but it said System of a Down. It ended up being something that resonated with Shavo.
Odadjian: I walked outside of Cello Studios and saw the Hollywood sign. I ran back in, and I was like, “Guys, I got it.” I brought them outside and said, “Look … what if that said System of a Down? We’re from here. This is our hometown. We’re always L.A.” That was it.
Flower: The problem was Mark’s image was this blob of pixels. As I’m trying to recreate this image, the other bad ideas started gaining traction. So it was like, “We gotta figure this out.”
Eventually, they all got on board for the Hollywood sign idea. Then, my boss says, “Can you do that? Doesn’t somebody own that?” Sure enough, we had to reach out to the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, because it was a copyrighted thing. To get the album and merchandising rights was like $20,000.
Odadjian: When the album cover became the Hollywood sign, the art that goes behind the CD is that 2 on the door. The puzzle pieces were all there. We just had to fit them in the little holes.
Flower: It was a perfect album cover because it was something people were familiar with, but they made it their own. There’s a bit of rebellion in it. It was a lot of Photoshopping hours.
As more details surfaced about Toxicity, the release date was pushed from mid-August to Tuesday, September 4, 2001. Changes were made to the tracklist, too, as the label pushed back on the name of the lead single, “Suicide.”
“Daron came in and was like, ‘Chop “Suicide” in half—“Chop Suey,”’” Odadjian says. “I was like, ‘Are you crazy? Yes, you are. I love that.’”
As decisive as Malakian appeared, he was his own worst critic. “I don’t need anyone to tell me it sucks,” the guitarist says. “I’ll tell you it sucks.” By the summer of 2001, however, the then-26-year-old couldn’t avoid public reaction.
Flower: Looking back, you could tell how fruitful this moment was. They wrote a double album, and they wanted to put that out, but the label was like, “You can’t do that. You have to put out just one album.”
Appleford: When a band or artist was finishing an album, they’d invite Rolling Stone or some other publication to check it out. I went down to Burbank where they were mixing. They took me in John’s SUV and started playing some songs from Toxicity.
Daron was in the backseat, and his eyes were getting wider as we were listening. It was an intense experience for him to play this for someone for the first time. Later on, I asked him about it, and Daron said, “A lot of people will read that shit, dude.”
Malakian: I was so focused on doing my part to deliver. I wanted to put out something strong with this band, but I didn’t want to repeat myself. The public, the pressure, the press, and the hype made me become more of a hermit. I just never left my house.
Tankian: We never had anyone else in mind but ourselves when we wrote and recorded.
Dolmayan: The deck was stacked against us. We were not commercially viable. We didn’t fit the mold. We looked different. We’re Armenian. You name it. But there was something undeniable about our sound. We were different enough but pop-centric and melodic enough to break through the barriers.
Tankian: Given our left-of-center music, performance, and inability to fit in, our success is still a mystery.
Part 3: “The Biggest Underground Band Was Launched.”
“Chop Suey!” was a hit, climbing Billboard’s Hot 100 singles charts. The music video also dominated MTV, much to the band’s surprise.
“At a certain point, ‘Chop Suey!’ was played the equal amount of times as Britney Spears,” Dolmayan says. “This was not the early ’80s or ’90s when rock music was dominant. This was still a very pop-centric market.”
Ahead of Toxicity’s release, SOAD partnered with KROQ for a show on September 3, 2001. If the response to “Chop Suey!” was any indication, this free show would be truly wild.
Those who had seen System of a Down live knew how fierce their shows could be. Flower remembers when the band was still unsigned, and playing on the Strip, feeling like he had time-traveled to the ’70s punk scene: “Those shows were almost dangerous. It was intense as fuck.”
The September 3 show, to be held in a parking lot on Schrader Boulevard in Los Angeles, was meant to be a celebration of the hometown heroes and a “thank you” to fans. The result was anything but.
Flower: We all went to the album release show, and the tension was thick. Knowing how big these guys had already gotten in a few months, the way that the area was laid out, the presence of the police … it felt like a setup.
Dolmayan: I went to that place the week before and I said to my manager, “This place looks a little small. Are you sure this is big enough?” He was like, “Yeah man, it’ll hold almost 3,000 people.”
The night before our show, I heard there were already some fans there so I went. By the time I got there at 10 p.m., I saw 1,000 people. After signing autographs and greeting fans, I call my manager, and I’m like, “This thing is going to be packed.”
By morning, there were 6,000 people. By the time we were supposed to play, there were 10,000 people in a place that could accommodate 3,000.
Odadjian: It felt like half of L.A. was there, and the fire marshal wouldn’t allow us to play.
Benveniste: I don’t think anyone outside of our immediate cluster realized how powerful this band’s draw was in Los Angeles. It was no longer about music. It was a very rare cultural phenomenon happening.
Appleford: I was in the photo pit. There was never a moment while we were waiting for the band where I was thinking, “Uh-oh, this is dangerous,” until they started bringing the banner down.
Odadjian: We had this banner that was like 100-by-100 that said System of a Down on the wall of this six- or seven-story building. They got rid of that. We were supposed to play 30 minutes before that. The crowd was getting restless. They realized we weren’t gonna play. At that moment, you could tell something was brewing.
Flower: I don’t remember it being violent, but I remember the cops taking it there.
Odadjian: I started talking to the fire marshal: “Please let us play two songs. Let me get up there. .. If you don’t let us up there and talk to them, something bad might happen.” He was like, “Go away. I’m gonna cite you.” I was like, “You’re gonna cite me? I’m in the band. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to prevent something.”
Tankian: I was ready to get arrested to play the show, but, ultimately, we didn’t want to put any of our fans in danger by our actions, given the fire department had shut down the free concert event. It turned out tragic anyway.
Odadjian: They put us in a van and took us to the Roosevelt Hotel, and the riot started as we’re driving to our rooms. It was just psychotic. Chaos.
Appleford: People started smashing things. Some guy took a swing at me. I ducked. Later on, I saw that same guy had been shot in the face with a rubber bullet by police.
Malakian: We had a full-on fucking riot in the middle of Hollywood where the cops were shooting rubber bullets at our fans. They took us away to some hotel room, and I’m watching it on CNN. It’s on all the channels. I was watching some of our fans walking off with our equipment.
Odadjian: There was one scene on TV where this girl had a hammer and was bashing my rig. They found one of my bass cabinets off Hollywood and Vine—like they took it that far and couldn’t go any farther, and they left it behind.
Benveniste: Could you plan a more perfect storm for CNN and every news channel coming to promote our record release? No. At that point, the biggest underground band in the world was launched.
Odadjian: I remember one of the broadcasters saying, “My son’s been telling me about this. He wants me to go to the store and buy him the CD tomorrow, and I’m gonna go do it now that I know it’s this big.”
Malakian: You could feel that shit was going to the next level with the band. It was like, “Damn, man, we were a club band a year and a half ago. Now, there are riots in the streets of our hometown.”
Our fans and our music are causing some kind of stir. We felt like we were stirring it up. We were becoming, to some people, important. That’s where everything went downhill.
Part 4: “Dude, People Are Taking Us Really Fucking Seriously.”
If the Schrader Boulevard show was any indicator of System of a Down’s burst in popularity, Toxicity had the potential to upend the Billboard 200 album chart. Sure enough, the sophomore album debuted at no. 1. The band received word of its “Hot Shot Debut” on September 11, 2001.
Odadjian: I was trying to sleep a little past 9 a.m. My phone kept ringing off the hook, and it was my mom. She told me to turn on the TV, and I watched a [World Trade Center] tower fall. I was like, “Is this really happening? Is this live?” As I’m watching with my mom on the phone, the phone beeps. It’s my manager, and he goes, “Congratulations, you’re no. 1 on Billboard.”
Dolmayan: Any positivity, happiness and joy got deflated. We were devastated. It’s like your world is turned upside down. You can’t be happy. It’s like losing a family member, and you refuse to be happy. You feel guilt-ridden over it.
Odadjian: It was one of those bittersweet moments for me. Even one of the plaques they gave us says “September 11, 2001” on it.
Dolmayan: Here we were, with the no. 1 album in the country, and here’s this incredible tragedy. How are you supposed to deal with that? How are you supposed to be proud of your work, happy for your success and fearful of what’s going to happen in our country and our society?
Malakian: At this time, the internet was kind of a brand-new thing. [Fans would link 9/11 to our lyrics] like “Aerials in the sky” and “self-righteous suicide,” and song titles like “Jet Pilot.” People thought we wrote this shit about shit that hadn’t happened yet, like we were prophets. We were like, “Dude, people are taking us really fucking seriously.” I was all for it, too, like, “If they think that, fucking go with that.” [Laughs.]
Benveniste: It was a storm of events. Through all this, the band got bigger and bigger. It all worked to the band’s favor. I don’t know how or why, but it did.
Dolmayan: You can’t predict that a band like us is going to be no. 1 ever.
Tankian: I didn’t have any doubts about the band or touring at that time, but it was tricky given the threat level. That said, the thought never occurred that we should stop.
After the September 11 attacks, Clear Channel circulated a memo containing a list of songs that were deemed “lyrically questionable” to play on the radio. The list contains “Chop Suey!,” which was subsequently removed. Dates on the upcoming “Pledge of Allegiance” tour with Slipknot were canceled. Two days after the attacks, Tankian took to the band’s website, penning an essay called “Understanding Oil.”
“Terror is not a spontaneous human action without credence,” Tankian wrote. “People just don’t hijack planes and commit hari-kari without any weight of thought to the action. No one in the media seems to ask, ‘Why did these people do this horrific act of violence and destruction?’”
The essay questioned America’s foreign policy in the Middle East and how the short-term economic interest of the United States overrode goals of fostering peace overseas. Tankian was speaking on five decades of history, but later received death threats and had to defend himself and the band on The Howard Stern Show.
“I remember the band got me in a room, and they said, ‘What are you doing? Are you trying to get us killed?’,” Tankian said on Rubin’s Broken Record podcast. “I said, ‘It’s the truth.” They’re like, ‘Yeah, so what?’ I was naive to think that the truth was the most important thing, and I’m still that naive. It’s just who I am.”
Dolmayan: Serj used to do a lot of that shit back then without taking into consideration how the rest of the band would feel about it. You have to commend and applaud him. Although, in some ways, I don’t think he’s right, and he clearly doesn’t think I’m right very often about politics. We have differing opinions.
Benveniste: The band was never afraid to speak their mind. Daron takes an artistic approach to political issues. Serj is more politically inclined and outspoken. That’s also what makes the band incredible: They have different perspectives on how to convey that message.
Malakian: A lot of people see System of a Down as a political kind of band. It’s not my favorite part of it. I never want to be a propaganda artist. The songs never tell you how or what to think. But sometimes, some of us in the band, when we’re outside of the band, talk about what it’s supposed to mean.
Tankian: I have never apologized for that essay, and I’m still proud of speaking truth to power especially when unfashionable. The truth doesn’t recognize retreat nor compromise.
Part 5: “The Only Thing We Really Have in Common Is That We’re Armenian.”
Toxicity racked up critical acclaim. Spin called it the best album of 2001. Further accolades came when the band picked up its first Grammy nomination in 2002 for Best Metal Performance for “Chop Suey!” To Appleford, the album was “the emergence of an important band.”
“They brought an international, folk flavor to heavy music,” Appleford says. “Here it was on MTV and mainstream rock radio, reaching kids outside of L.A. for the first time.”
What Tankian described to The Ringer as “one of the most stressful times of my life” has inspired many, including a folk musician.
Sasami Ashworth (singer-songwriter): System of a Down taps this super-dark energy then puts it towards something they have real rage about, like all the insecurity and political toxicity of their homeland, and the state of human existence.
Rubin: There is nothing else like Toxicity. The songwriting is great. The performances are on fire. The singing is passionate. A tremendous amount of emotion is contained in the totality of what’s in the grooves. The metal power mixed with the traditional folk rhythms is so original. Most people didn’t understand it.
Sasami: It’s the kind of music that could truly be just performed by a four-piece band. There isn’t a lot of glitz and glamour. It’s all about the lyrics and arrangement of these songs. It was inspiring to me because their music is very focused. Nothing is fluff. Every part of every song is essential.
Appleford: When they came out, it was possible to have a record like that at the top of the charts and to generate the kind of excitement that it did. The world is not as rock-focused as it used to be.
The album’s final single, “Aerials,” hit no. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock Tracks charts, and received a Grammy nod in 2003 for Best Hard Rock Performance. When asked if the band would perform at the Grammys, Malakian responded, “That’s something ’NSync and Britney Spears do, not System of a Down.”
As the band toured through 2002, demos of unreleased tracks from the Toxicity sessions were leaked. At the time, Benveniste says the issue of illegally downloaded music was difficult to attack.
“It was tough to think about it financially and how it’s intellectual property and the violation of privacy,” Benveniste says. “On the other hand, when records leak that are fucking incredible, it promoted the band. You couldn’t eradicate the issue. You had to play into and off of it. Hence, Steal this Album! was released.”
Hitting stores in November 2002, the 16-track collection featured tracks like “I-E-A-I-A-I-O” (formerly “K.I.T.T.”) as well as politically charged staples like “Boom!” and “Fuck the System.” Though widely considered a collection of B sides, Steal this Album! went platinum. System of a Down’s rock revolution was all the rage, but it would end sooner than anyone expected.
“We only recorded three times,” Dolmayan says. “We got five albums out of it.”
That third time would be for Mezmerize and Hypnotize. Both albums were released in 2005 and debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 before going platinum. In 2006, the band won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance for “B.Y.O.B.” Celebrations would be short-lived, however, as the band announced a hiatus after its summer 2006 tour.
During Ozzfest 2006, Malakian improvised lyrics to the band’s “Lonely Day,” while gesturing to Tankian: “Such a lonely day, hanging out with the band / This motherfucker I can’t stand.”
The band reunited in 2010 and continues to tour, but a new album was repeatedly discussed then dismissed. While Tankian established himself as a solo artist, Malakian went to work with a new band, Scars on Broadway. Attempts to make a new System of a Down record ended in disputes.
By 2018, band tension boiled over across social media and in interviews. In a lengthy Facebook post, Tankian admitted his responsibility for the initial 2006 hiatus as well as wanting to leave the band prior to the 2005 releases. According to the post, Tankian proposed the band have equal creative input and publishing split, the songwriter getting final say on their song, and development of a new concept or theme to create a “full experience.”
“As we couldn’t see eye-to-eye on all these points, we decided to put aside the idea of a record altogether for the time being,” Tankian writes.
However, in November 2020, the band forgot their differences and released two new songs, “Protect the Land” and “Genocidal Humanoidz,” in an effort to raise awareness and money for the Armenia Fund and families displaced by war. The release raised nearly $700,000, according to Tankian. The band also came together to celebrate its heritage in 2015 when SOAD performed in Yerevan, Armenia. The free concert was part of the Wake Up the Souls tour, which commemorated and raised awareness of the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Armenian genocide.
Apart from songs and tours, fans expecting new material have heard hints in Tankian’s latest EP, Elasticity, which featured songs written with the band in mind. Malakian says he always had material for the next album, but what happens next with System of a Down is anyone’s guess.
Rubin: I believe their best work could be ahead of them if that was something of interest to them.
Benveniste: I’m the perennial optimist. Even the band will tell you, “Beno won’t let go. He’s a pain in the ass.” Those are four strong personalities. They always have my honest opinion. We’re not scared to fight about something we’re passionate about.
I’ve watched the highest of the highs of a band that has become one of the most important bands in the world, and the lowest of the lows of hiatus. But still, 25 years later, we put up two shows and sell 50,000 tickets in one day.
Dolmayan: I’m so irritated by my band in general. The desire to just put it behind me is greater than the desire to bask in our success and beauty of what we created. It makes me feel like we left so much on the table that we could have accomplished, that we were shortsighted. We stopped in our prime in a lot of ways. It’s like if Tom Brady quit football in 2010.
Appleford: It would be a shame if they never did another album. A band loses something when they stop making new music.
Malakian: Where we’re at right now when it comes to writing a new record, I couldn’t tell you. It’s not something that we really have talked about. The way I see it: We play live. The only thing we really have in common is that we’re Armenian.
Appleford: I’m sure Daron wants to go back to the way things worked before, and they had great success with it, but does Serj? I don’t know. He’s established himself as a solo artist, and he’s not in the same place as he was before.
Dolmayan: Serj basically wanted to quit from like 1998 to today. He’s always had a love-hate relationship with his position in the band. It’s been a difficult ride with him because he is so talented and capable, but, for whatever reasons, he’s tried to distance himself from System.
Tankian: By the end of this year, I will have about 12 releases of varying genres and styles. Regenerating the same genre with changes—even as dynamic as System of a Down’s—has never been my vision. That is not the reason we haven’t made a record in all these years. It is more of not seeing eye to eye creatively and ethically going forward.
Malakian: We are four of the most different people that you’ll find for each other. Even the musical tastes have changed. Where some people want to see the band go is not necessarily where other people want to see the band go, so there are a lot of artistic differences. But we’re still friends. Our differences are within the band, and that has made it a little difficult to move forward when it comes to writing or playing new material together.
Appleford: They just proved—when all the issues between them are swept away, and they focus on a mission as they did for those two new songs to support Armenia—they can be as good as ever.
Tankian: Recording those two songs was pivotal for us as Armenians in doing our part to raise awareness against the unjust onslaught brought forward by Turkey and Azerbaijan against Armenia and Artsakh. I am extremely proud of it and of my band family for it. But it hasn’t changed the dynamics and creative imbalances that ultimately would need to be rectified to make another album together.
Dolmayan: I have no desire to make a new System album. The last two songs were difficult enough for me. I don’t like putting myself through torture. There is a breaking point where you just give up, and I think that I’ve reached that. I don’t want to deal with the bullshit of System anymore. We’re a very dysfunctional band with serious issues. I am very angry about the position we are in.
Benveniste: These guys are all talented in their own right. But when they get in the room as System of a Down, that can’t be replicated in any way, shape or form. I’m going to push when I feel I should. At the end of the day, we’re 50-year-old men. There’s only so much I can do.
Odadjian: I still have hope, you know? We did those two new songs, and look at what we did. It didn’t even sound like we left. I don’t know if we will come back, but I feel like we can. I know we can do just as good, if not better, if we work together in the future musically. We still got it inside of us—that love and passion. It’s part of our DNA now.
Matthew Sigur is a writer, musician, and comedian based in Chicago. These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.