To hear drummer John Dolmayan recount things, the last five years have been good ones for the members of System of a Down. The much-respected metal unit might have been inactive, but the timekeeper and his bandmates—vocalist Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, and bassist Shavo Odadjian—had no shortage of projects on the go.
When he wasn’t sharpening his already admirable poker skills in professional tournaments, Dolmayan busied himself behind the kit with the side projects Scars on Broadway and Indicator. He also found time to oversee a comic-collecting company which outbid all competition in 2009 for the original Action Comics issue featuring the debut of Superman. (The price? A whopping US$317,200.)
Scars on Broadway would take up a good chunk of Malakian’s time as well. The guitarist formed the project with Dolmayan, leading to a well-received eponymous full-length in 2008, after which the group hit the road. Odadjian, meanwhile, embraced his inner iconoclast by teaming with Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA in Achozen, a collaboration that led to the two scoring the Vin Diesel vehicle Babylon A.D.
Busiest of all was Tankian, who released two wildly different solo albums, Elect the Dead (2007) and Imperfect Harmonies (2010), the former hard-hitting enough for the most demanding of forward-thinking headbangers, the latter a gorgeously symphonic, meditative rumination inspired by the singer’s previous live collaborations with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. System’s frontman and leader would also spend much of his downtime connecting with nature in New Zealand, where he maintains a second residence.
All those pursuits were fine and dandy, but, reached at his home in Los Angeles, Dolmayan suggests they were no substitute for playing in System of a Down, which is now officially off hiatus and set to tour again.
“I’m not opposed to side projects and stuff, but ultimately this is our band,” says the outgoing drummer. “This is what people are interested in, what people want to hear, and this is what I want to play. I really enjoyed doing the Scars album and touring with Scars, but Scars is Scars. System of a Down is, in my opinion, the true love of everyone in the band—all four of us.”
Even so, SOAD knew it was ready for a break in 2006, when the then 12-year-old group wrapped up touring for the double-whammy releases Mezmerize and Hypnotize. One might have assumed that System blew its creative load with those records, both of them receiving universal raves for their hyper-kinetic blend of art-splattered thrash, jet-roar folk, and schizophrenic metalcore. Dolmayan suggests it was more that he and his bandmates came to the realization that, as fantastic as the life of a rock star is, there are downsides.
“You have to understand that, when you’re on the road and in the studio all the time, it’s kind of like travelling at light speed,” he says. “When you come back, it’s like 20 years have passed by, and you’re only one or two hours older. We’d go on tour and stay the same, but when we’d come home, things would have changed. It’s off-putting—you feel like you don’t have any roots anymore. You’re living a nomadic life, and you lose touch with people because they have grown away from you. People get older, get married, die—life is still going on.”
And in case all that is a little too philosophical for you, Dolmayan is happy to put things in terms that the average punter will be able to relate to.
“There’s some really amazing things about being on the road, but there’s also a lot of sitting on buses, staring at walls,” he says. “It can get really boring. I mean, you can only go to so many strip clubs, bro.”
Despite that, Dolmayan spent three years pushing his bandmates to end the hiatus. If it took him longer than he would have liked to get what he wanted, that shouldn’t have been a surprise.
“There’s no real personality in the band that can be pushed to do anything that they don’t want to,” Dolmayan notes. “We are four very strong individuals.”
That might explain why SOAD was ready for a break in the first place.
“We all have our moments,” the drummer says. “We all have our idiosyncrasies and things that irritate the shit out of each other. Some of Serj’s stuff irritates me, and I’m sure some of my stuff irritates the shit out of him. That’s natural. You’re in a relationship when you’re in a band. You’re making music together, on the road together, and with each other a lot. But look at us—we’ve been together longer than most marriages last.
“And a band is a marriage,” Dolmayan continues, “except that you don’t have one headache, you have three to four headaches, and, on top of that, everyone having other people that influence each member. It’s almost like a congress, there are so many people involved. Ultimately, though, we make the decisions because we are the band. Our relationships are all intact, and we always have a great time together. The other day, it took us 20 minutes to start a rehearsal because we were all too busy laughing. I don’t even remember what was so funny, but that’s a sign that we don’t take things too seriously. We like to just get up there and play.”
And it’s the idea of getting up there and playing that’s got Dolmayan stoked about returning to the road with System of a Down. Tellingly, what has him most excited is the one thing that Scars on Broadway and Indicator were incapable of delivering, namely the chance to connect with the fan base that made SOAD one of the most respected names in metal. A lot of artists like to claim that they are nothing without the people who turn up at their shows. Dolmayan, however, actually seems to mean it, to the point where he suggests that System of a Down’s return to action will be defined by the reaction of those who are hopefully excited to have the band back.
“We haven’t played for a while, so of course we have some fire right now,” he says. “But generally, if you’ve been playing for a long time, and you’ve been touring for a year or so, you’re mostly playing the same songs every night. So what makes them different? It’s the audience—the more rabid they are, the more rabid we’re going to be.”