Bucking the system

Interviews tend to unfold the same way for System of a Down, which explains why the group doesn't do many of them. Although the Los Angeles-based quartet is arguably the most creative band working in the cookie-cutter business of rock, no one ever asks about the music. Instead, singer Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian, and drummer John Dolmayan find themselves peppered with questions more suited to CNN pundits.

The argument can be made that System of a Down has no one but itself to blame. Since blasting out of the L.A. underground in the mid-'90s, the group has been vocal on hot-button issues that get Democrats and Republicans slugging it out on Crossfire. Furthermore, the band's members are intelligent and informed enough to defend their positions on those issues. For example, when the Straight asks Odadjian about America's war on drugs, which System of a Down took dead aim at in "Prison Song", off its 2001 breakthrough Toxicity, he begins citing cases where the DEA has gone after everything from mail-order-bong businesses to U.S. suppliers of medical marijuana.

"And what do those arrests and court cases solve, really?" the bassist asks, on the line from L.A., where's he directing a video for the prolific System's second full-length this year, Hypnotize. "Think of all that work, all that tax money, all that time and effort it took to go after innocent people running legitimate, legal businesses. It solves nothing-new companies are popping up doing the same thing. That money and time could have been focused on things like foreign policy-things that could actually make a difference in causing less terrorism."

For a good indication of where System of a Down stands on America's war on terrorism-specifically the ongoing suicide mission that is Iraq-check out "B.Y.O.B." on the band's recently released Mezmerize. Over a bed of full-metal-jacket guitar and apocalypse-now bass and drums, Tankian rages against the injustice of the military machine with "Why don't presidents fight the war?/Why do they always send the poor?". Odadjian could easily go off on that topic as well, but he wonders what gives him the right.

in + out

Shavo Odadjian sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On writing Mezmerize/Hypnotize:
"The initial plan was to do one record. But we literally ended up with 200 songs, and they weren't B-side songs you could throw away. We decided to release them this way, in two parts, because no one had ever done this before."

On the type of acts he admires:
"I love a band like Clutch, which is not massively popular, and has been around longer than us. Every record of theirs is different. I respect that so much-they don't care that changing things up might cost them fans. They do what they want."

On how Mezmerize/Hypnotize go together:
"Here's a good analogy. Take an abstract artist who puts two canvases together and then paints this great, colourful work on both of them. He puts one up, and then puts one away for six months. The one canvas is great art, but when he brings out the second piece it becomes even greater."

"We're musicians," he says simply, "and despite that, we get more political questions than musical questions, which kind of irks me."

The bassist has a right to be bothered. For all that System of a Down has to say, it's the group's flawless fusion of nuclear hardcore, honed-razor metal, Gypsy-caravan folk, and operatic rock that's its main drawing card. Headed for year-end top 10 lists with a bullet, Mezmerize is a groundbreaker. Produced by Malakian and Rick Rubin, the disc finds SOAD bringing the noise with a rabid, fiercely original ferocity. The barbed thrash of "B.Y.O.B" casts Tankian as Enrico Caruso channelling Freddie Mercury, "Cigaro" is part death-metal meltdown and part Mothers of Invention art project, and "Radio/Video" pays homage to the band's Armenian heritage with a flying-folk chorus that's straight outta Echmiadzin. Ultimately, the strength of the disc is its unrelenting strangeness. "This Cocaine Makes Me Feel Like I'm on This Song" has Tankian pinballing between a possessed guttural bellow and a high-pitched squeal while raving on about gonorrhea gorgonzola. The thunder-gallop metal of "Revenga" gets an injection of perverse levity with free-association lines like "Bleeding in a sink/Trampling a shrink", and "Violent Pornography" is a media-brainwashing rant set to electroshock-therapy guitar bursts and impossibly punishing drums fills.

It's not all frothing insanity. "Sad Statue" counter-balances land-speed-record hardcore and woozy acoustic passages, and "Question!" is an almost introspective meditation on death and dying. Mezmerize's finest moment is ironically its quietest one, with the graveyard-solemn final track "Lost in Hollywood" updating Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" for a new, considerably more progressive generation of hard-rock aficionados.

As fans are well aware, Mezmerize is only the first half of an album that's being released in two parts. All Odadjian will say about Hypnotize, which completes the package later this fall, is to expect the unexpected. More forthcoming on the two-disc strategy, he explains that, recognizing most of America has ADHD, System of a Down wanted to make sure every song found an audience.

"Think of the songs as people," Odadjian says. "If you meet 12 people at a time, you'll remember them more than if you meet 30 at once. Our songs are like our babies, and we didn't want people skipping over them by putting them all out there at once."

If past outings like Toxicity and System of a Down established the band as one of the most boundary-exploding acts in modern-day metal, then Mezmerize serves notice that SOAD has officially outgrown a scene it was once lumped into.

"When we got signed and made our first record, people put us into the category of nu-metal because that was the big thing at the time," Odadjian says. "You had Limp Bizkit, Korn, Disturbed, and all those kind of bands. What I like about Mezmerize is that it's not a nu-metal album, and it's not a heavy-metal album. I never wanted to be in a heavy-metal band. I believe a band has to evolve rather than making the same album over and over again, because if you do, sooner or later people are going to get tired of you. I don't want to mention names, but bands we started with that used to headline 20,000 seaters are now having a hard time filling 4,000-seat rooms."

System of a Down, on the other hand, has never been bigger. What's gratifying about that is that Odadjian and his bandmates have orchestrated their rise by refusing to make compromises. For example, the band's label wanted Hypnotize and Mezmerize, which came out of the same recording session, to be released simultaneously. SOAD refused to budge.

"There's a reason we didn't sign a deal for the first three or four years," the bassist says. "We had labels offering us deals the first year we formed-1995-but we were afraid of them going, 'Let's change this and that.' We had labels telling us to get rid of our singer. I look back sometimes and go, 'Imagine if we had done that-what a shame it would have been.'?"

When he looks where he's at with System of a Down today, Odadjian has no regrets, but plenty to be proud of. What he likes best is the way that the band's songs have enough aggression for mosh-pit warriors, and yet enough musical experimentation for those who want something more. Citing "Needles" from Toxicity, he breaks into laughter when he says: "My mom is an old-school Armenian mom, and yet she'll walk around singing, 'Pull the tapeworm out of your ass'. She'll not only sing it; she'll sing it with pride. At our shows we see everything from 13-year-old kids who love the manic craziness of our songs to 50-year-old men and women bobbing their heads and going, 'Hell, yeah.' That's when you know you're making cool music."

System of a Down plays the Pacific Coliseum on Saturday (September 17).