System Of A Down's creative powerhouse catches up with NME to talk about his first Scars On Broadway record in a decade
As primary songwriter for both System Of A Down and Scars On Broadway, Daron Malakian is one of rock’s most prolific figures. The on-stage guitarist and in-studio multi-talent is responsible for countless rock club classics, and yet still refuses to rest on his laurels – as we hop on the phone to talk through his time at the top of the alt-rock auteur pile, he’s prepping a whole new bunch of material to take into the studio.
As he readied the release of his second Scars On Broadway record, ten full years after the first, we caught up with the rock megamind to talk all things ‘Dictator’, the lessons learnt a year on from Chester Bennington’s passing, and just what’s happened to that long-rumoured new System Of A Down record (it’s not good news, we’re afraid).
You’ve got a new Scars on Broadway record ready – I understand you’ve been sat on it for a little while?
It feels great to finally be putting it out. It’s been a long time since I’ve put anything out – on my own, I mean – I’ve done some collaborations with people, but I didn’t put a record out on my own, whether it was with System [of a Down] or Scars, so it feels nice to let these songs loose and hope that people enjoy it.
How long have you been sitting on it?
Well, I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen with System when it came to making an album, so I kind of waited. I saved a lot of my songs – this album and a lot more songs – just to see if there was going to be a System album or not. That’s the main reason why I held onto it, and then so much time had passed by. So I just said, ‘You know what, man? I’m just gonna release this album and stop waiting’.
Is it material that you think could have been used for System, then?
Yeah. Most of the stuff could be used for either. I always tell people that a lot of the stuff off ‘Mesmerise’ and ‘Hypnotise’ could have very well been Scars songs, and then there’s a lot of Scars songs that could have very well been System songs. My writing style – and my style in general – works for both bands, and I’m the main writer for both bands. So I just waited to see what was going to happen, and now that I have a clearer picture of what’s going on it made me feel more comfortable to release these songs under the Scars banner.
You’ve recorded everything yourself too – what brought that on? Was it just to have that kind of control?
It wasn’t control, it was more like… it was easier at the time when I recorded the record to just go and do it myself. It was a last minute decision for me to go into the studio, so I didn’t really have the time to put the band together and see who was going to play what instruments. I mean, even on the first Scars album, I play everything except for the drums. On this album I also played the drums – the drums are pretty much the difference.
How was that? Was it challenging not to have anyone to bounce ideas off?
It was actually easier! I usually know the structure, and the song doesn’t change too much from the time of me writing it in my house to me presenting it to the band, no matter what group of musicians it is. I really have a vision of what the song is gonna be like – I know what the drums are gonna be like, I know what the vocals are gonna be like, and in some cases I know what the keyboard will be like; I know the arrangements. I just went in there and tracked the guitars to a click track, and I just played the drums to my guitar track and listened back and decided if there needed to be any changes or not. It was kind of easier, at the end of the day, to do it myself.
Is that something that you’d like to stick to?
I don’t know. I have a whole batch of other songs that I plan on going into the studio and recording, hopefully within the next year or so. So I’m not sure, but I have a guy who’s part of the Scars live band – an amazing drummer. So there’s some stuff that he can technically pull off, that maybe I can’t. I may have him come in and record with me next time. I’m not sure – I haven’t really decided.
What’s the plan for this record? Will you be touring or is going to be like a studio project for now?
I’ll play live if tours come up, if that makes sense. It’s expensive to tour, so if tours come around that make sense to me – in every way, business wise, financially and I see it as good exposure for the band – I’ll get on the tour or I’ll do the tour. As of right now we’re playing a show in LA. We have a show in Mexico City as well – it’s a festival in Mexico City in October – System will be playing the first night and Scars will be playing the next night.
Sounds like you’re pretty busy.
Yeah, so I’m kind of doing both bands at the same time. I’m sure there will be other festivals and things that Scars will be a part of that, once again, System will probably play one night and Scars will play the next day. As of right now, System’s just kind of playing live and Scars is the project where I’m getting new songs – everything that I’m writing is going into Scars. For me, that can co-exist. If System was doing an album then I could maybe have a hard time seeing them co-exist. System needs my songs so I would probably focus on that if that was case. But since System isn’t making an album, Scars and System can co-exist – as of right now.
There was a bit of to-and-fro about whether System were going to do another album. Have you decided that you’re just going to stick to touring for now?
Yeah, I think that’s where we’re at right now with System, which is fine. Everyone’s not on the same page, and if that’s the case, chances are we probably wouldn’t make an album that everyone believes in. I’m not going to force any one person to do something they don’t want to do – not everyone’s ready to jump into that right now, and that’s fine. My songs for the time being will go into Scars. I don’t know if there will ever be a new System album, or there may be a one in a few years – I just don’t know. We just haven’t gotten on the same page with that.
Is it nice to be creatively at the point in your career where you can say ‘no it’s not right, let’s just leave it for now’?
I feel very fortunate to have been in this music business now for over 20 years, and I just feel fortunate that I still have an audience – whether it’s with System or with Scars – that is interested in the songs that I write. I’m very proud that System has stood the test of time and the songs still resonate to younger people and a newer generation. Kids that are growing up now will probably be more familiar with stuff I’m doing with Scars. So it’s all positive – for example, Black Sabbath, if Ozzy never went solo we would have never had all those great albums. ‘Bark At The Moon’, ‘Wizard of Oz’, we would never have had any of that stuff if he didn’t leave Black Sabbath, and that’s how I see Scars. It’s a new beginning and a new thing and these songs will hopefully live with a new generation of kids.
It’s been a year since Chester Bennington passed and you played quite a pivotal role in that amazing tribute concert. How was it to be a part of that? Obviously you and the Linkin Park guys have quite an intertwined history.
It’s already been a year huh? Jesus. That song that I did with them [‘Rebellion’, from 2014’s ‘The Hunting Party’], I’m super proud of that song. I really enjoyed working with them, it was really easy. That show was cool to play – it was fun to play, but when you think back and remember why we were playing the show, it’s a little bittersweet.
They are good friends of ours and good friends of mine. Chester was a good friend, Mike [Shinoda] is a good friend. It’s a tough position to be in now for Chester’s band members – it’s kind of like, ‘What do we do now? Do we find a new singer?’ I’m sure they’re scrambling their heads with ideas and stuff, maybe how to move on, or maybe not to move on – I have no idea what they are planning. But yeah, him passing was a shock. I’m sure he was going through a lot of pain in his mind, and stuff that I guess I couldn’t understand. Being around him, he was always such an up-tempo person – he did not seem like a depressed person, to me, anytime I was around him. So it really, really was a shock.
Do you think it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes to the idea that someone who is like that could be depressed?
I think it’s a chemical thing that’s going on in people’s brains. I don’t think it matters when people say, ‘He had it all! He was a rock star and was in this big band’ and everything. Everyone lives in their own shell, in their own body. So you don’t really know what’s going on in his head on a day-to-day basis. I mean what makes a guy that has a bunch of kids, married to a great woman, has a great band, very successful – what makes a guy like that kill himself? It’s a bit of a mystery.
And what’s next for you? You mention that you still have loads of songs and ideas. Are you still writing? Are you looking to record and keep things going?
I write all the time. I’ve been writing even though I haven’t released anything for so long. For me, writing is just something I do. If I didn’t do it, it would feel like a very big thing was missing from my life. So, whether anyone hears my songs or doesn’t hear my songs, I’m writing. I have a lot of material. I’ll be going into the studio in the next year and recording some of it and putting out more Scars stuff. There won’t be a six-year wait or anything like that, so I’m excited about that. I’m excited about taking the band on stage, playing live. It’s been so long since I did the first Scars album that it almost feels like a whole brand new thing for me, all over again. I also have a whole new line-up in the Scars band so it just feels brand new, very fresh. It’s also fun for me to put some effort into Scars and watch it grow and watch it get a reaction from people. I stopped it a little short the first time around, so it feels good to push the band and just do something new and see how it goes – it’s fun. And at the same time I go out there and play System songs with the System guys – I got a cool thing going on right now as an artist.
I guess after taking a little bit of time away it’s nice to have so much going on.
Yeah, it actually does. You know there was a time when I really hated talking to press? [laughs] And now it seems like it’s almost refreshing for someone to ask me questions about the album and the songs. System came out, and the band really blew up, and there was a lot of press, a lot of touring. All of a sudden we all became famous and people were recognising us in the streets. I think some time away from that chaos made me appreciate some of that stuff a little more now that I’m doing it again… It feels great as an artist right now. I feel like I am in a very good place and I’m just gonna continue doing that. We released the video and it got a really great reaction from people that felt really great to know that there are still people out there interested in listening to what I do outside System. It feels really good.