System of a Down – Interview [2001]

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System of a Down

I got the press release this morning that Toxicity went platinum.

I know, it’s really weird considering it took us three years to sell the same amount of records for our first album. Our second sold platinum in a month and a half. That’s just wacky.

I also read on your site that you canceled the European tour.

Yeah, but you know, in retrospect, I don’t think we should have done that. But it’s for our personal safety. We want to be around to make music and be with our loved ones. We weren’t really afraid of our safety but that if we got into a long drawn out war that it would stop flights coming into the country. We don’t want to get stuck in Europe.

Did you come into making Toxicity with a lot of songs?

Yeah, we had something like forty songs and recorded like thirty-three of them. We had a lot of songs to choose from to make the best album possible.

Is it hard to narrow the songs down?

Yeah, but it’s a better place to be than not having enough songs. (laughs) Believe me, it’s a good problem to have. I’d rather take our time and make a really good album and have a lot of choices than make a mediocre album and have a lot of fillers.

When the album was sitting in your hands and done, did you expect this kind of attention?

We never expected anything, actually. I think we still don’t expect anything. We were proud of the album when we finished it, so whatever success it has we are just like, ‘Wow, cool.’ It’s not going to change the way we work or think. I’m as proud of this record now as I was when we finished it.

I don’t think fans realize this, that you make a record for you, and then if it’s a hit it’s like having your child win some award. It’s a wonderful surprise.

It is. If you write for the fans or for the press, then everything your fans really loved about you disappears because you are trying to come up with something you don’t enjoy.

The album is really intense. When you were narrowing the songs down, did you choose songs that fit together or did you rate them and pick the best?

Some were just a given. We just knew which had to be on the album and then there were others that fit so well with those songs that they had to go on. We like to make an album with a vibe so that you can listen to an album from beginning to end. Kind of like a Pink Floyd album where you listen beginning to end and don’t skip to track five.

That’s how I feel about Beatles albums too.

Yeah, you just listen to it. When you are done, you are done or you listen to it again.

Do you feel like that is missing today? Not only are albums still full of one good song, but now it seems artists want to sound like five different genres.

It’s not that I dislike that so much, but there has to be continuity. You can’t just do different music to be different.

Or to win fans.

Right. What drives me crazy is that a band will write one or two radio friendly songs and the rest of the album is crap. I won’t buy an album unless there are four or five songs that I love.

It seems like forever that has been the case though, always these one-song albums.

It’s something that I’m not interested in doing with our band. We want to be around for a long time and not risk our integrity for a hit. There is something to be said about being timeless and outlasting your fame. Nobody cares how many houses or bitches Beethoven had. His music is all that matters.

Which brings us back to Pink Floyd and the Beatles. Those albums still sell today.

They still have an importance today because the music is still good. Even a hundred years from now, people are still going to be wondering, ‘How the fuck did they come up with this shit?’

How would you feel if twenty years from now someone is talking about System in the same sort of way?

If we can inspire someone to approach music differently, then that is all I want to know.

Does it come down to the difference between artists who care about their music and those who just make it for the sake of money?

Music is a craft. You have to care about it and set aside your life for it. It consumes you and can destroy the rest of your life. But if you do something timeless, it will live on beyond you and will define you.

Is that feeling what keeps you going on tour as well?

Totally, but that is a totally different animal.

What keeps the intensity every night?

It’s a different audience every night and they have a totally different energy than the group we played in front of the night before. But it’s just as powerful because it’s theirs. We feed off of them.

How has life changed?

We’re getting recognized a lot more. And people back home are seeing things change more than we are because we are on the road, and they are tripping about what is going on. They tell us we are blowing up and we are like, ‘We are?’

Speaking of blowing up, when you heard you sold a million albums, what went through your head?

‘Should we be selling this many albums?’ and if it was going to change the perspective of our true fans. But we figure when we put out another album and it changes music in a different way, then they’ll realize we aren’t changing our style to fit anything. We aren’t changing to fit radio or Mtv, they are changing to fit us.

Doing something you love that people are enjoying is always satisfying.

If we ever do something I don’t enjoy, I’ll stop. I’d rather end on a high note than make albums just to make albums.

Is being able to make music and do something you love for a living the greatest gift?

It is. And it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was born. Now that I actually get to do it and make a living and not have to make ends meet and this is my job, it’s a dream come true.

And although you are in a good place, it took a hell of a lot to get here.

People have no idea what we had to give up or no clue about how hard it is to get your music heard. If they knew how hard it was, no one would try to do it. (laughs)

Is it the ten years getting there or after you get there that’s the hardest?

When you get there, that is the tough stuff. Getting there, I never thought how hard it was going to be. I knew it would happen. I knew if I didn’t give up, it would happen.

Was it something you just did because it was fun or was your goal to get signed?

I didn’t know what it was to get signed. Once you get signed, that’s when you realize all the bullshit that is involved. People think you get signed and you have a big mansion. It doesn’t work like that.

There is a lot of competition for that gold ring.

There’s something like twenty-seven thousand albums released each year and only about two hundred sell more than a hundred thousand and about one hundred go platinum.

Knowing that you broke that barrier has to be so satisfying.

It is cool, but if we get caught up we change the way we work and think, and the reason people love you disappears.

Being as big as the band has gotten, can you still interact with the fans?

You’ll still find me out in the audience watching the opening bands. Fans always come up and we sign autographs. The other morning we were on the bus and some fans were outside and I came out and asked them if there were any comic book shops in the area. I collect comic books and I asked them if they could take me there. (laughs) They were tripping out. I’m just a normal person who wanted to buy some comic books.

+ charlie craine

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