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SPIN 30: System of a Down Revisit Nu-Metal’s Greatest Album, ‘Toxicity’

Serj Tankian of System of a Down

On March 19, 1985, the first issue of SPIN hit newsstands. To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’re revisiting a handful of records that the staff has previously awarded “Album of the Year,” a distinction the magazine started giving out in 1990. 

System of a Down already stood out drastically from the so-called nü-metal pack on their self-titled debut album in 1998, with their lopsided name and bizarre single, “Sugar,” which loosed bizarro singer Serj Tankian on free jazz verses between crunching refrains, while the rest of the album toyed with oom-pah circus music (“Peephole”) and thrashabilly (“DDevil”). It sounded nothing like Korn, Slipknot, or many of the other acts that matched their volume or seven-string impact at the time; except for maybe Faith No More there were few precedents for this brand of try-anything metal.

While their unpredictable and darkly dadaist nature won them immense popularity among alt-metal fans, no one predicted that System of a Down’s next album, 2001’s Toxicity, would be a huge critical and commercial success yielding three unlikely hit singles in the harmonized whiplash of “Chop Suey!,” the jangly-versed “Toxicity,” and the hypnotic dirge “Aerials.” Unfortunately, this success would be forever tied to the week of September 11, the week the album went to number one.

With Rick Rubin overseeing its concrete-brick production, the album featured protest music (“Prison Song” has so many words squeezed into it that some of the lyrics are yelled, college-campus style), bizarre sketches (the pogo-stick uh, tribute “Bounce”), and even some pretty ballads (“ATWA,” a Charles Manson reference that raised eyebrows). But its melodic sensibility was the most shocking thing about it, with Malakian harmonizing on several songs and traditional Armenian instrumentation brought in on a few tracks. SPIN named it 2001’s album of the year, and it’s widely considered to be the rare popular metal album of the era to stand the test of time.

We spoke to Serj Tankian via email to find out about the making of Toxicity, as well as the band’s current tour and whispers about a new record, which would be their first in a decade.

What was System of a Down’s mindset when it was time to start writing songs for Toxicity?
We had just spent a couple of years doing heavy touring for our first record while building a following, so we were excited about settling down and writing another record. Our first record, though recoded in a studio, had a very live sound as Rick Rubin loved our sound at shows. With Toxicity we dove into taking our shared vision deeper. Mind you, Toxicity and Steal This Album! were written at the same time. We decided what songs belonged together and that became Toxicity. We later released Steal This Album! with the remainder of the songs (we never considered Steal a B-sides record).

I remember that we were heavily influenced by the political climate of the time, as we generally are, yet still had the odd calamity with us musically and lyrically from the past.

Obviously, you and Daron began harmonizing, but what else changed about your approach to songwriting in making that record?
I can’t speak for Daron but I started adding other instrumentation, like piano, strings, ethnic instruments and the like, and more deeply explored the spiritual function of music.

Do any particular songs from the album stand out as having a ridiculous origin?
The award for ridiculous origin would have to go to the song “Needles,” the origins being the lower intestines and the ridicule being pulling a tapeworm out of them 🙂

A symbolism for releasing oneself from the toxic control of society, etc.

What sort of contributions did Rick Rubin make in the studio?
Rick Rubin’s contribution was essential to all of our records. His technique with us has always been to create the most comfortable and suitable situation for creativity in the studio. He digests the songs like an avid fan and subtly and gently makes only those suggestions necessary for making the songs better. He immediately hears the strength of a song and tries to use that quotient in our favor.

That opening chord of “Prison Song” is one of the most memorable openings I’ve ever heard on an album. But the power comes from that pause. Who came up with that?
Daron, I’m sure since he wrote the music for it. The power of sound into silence replicated over and over again is very daunting. We’ve been opening our live sets with it [again] as well.

What’s your favorite lyric on Toxicity?
It may have to be the lyrics from “Prison Song” since it’s more of an essay on the three strikes law than customary lyrics to a song.

Toxicity holds the bizarre distinction of becoming the No. 1 album in the country when the September 11 attacks happened. What could that have possibly been like?
Interesting and scary at the same time. After all, a band name like System of a Down with a single that talks about self-righteous suicide during that time seems too ominous in retrospect. We were touring a few days after September 11 while the danger alerts went from orange to red.

I had also penned an article called “Understanding Oil” on September 12th as a way of understanding how something like that can happen and that brought us a lot of criticism in a time of reactionism in the U.S. The article seems logical and tame now but at that time people were afraid to speak out about rational approaches and foreign policy blunders. Our single, “Chop Suey!,” along with a huge catalog of political songs (or anything mentioning sky, plane, etc) was taken down by Clear Channel. So you could say we had a number one record with a number one single that was half off the air at the time.

System’s currently on the Wake Up the Souls tour, in recognition of 100 years since the Armenian genocide, which has been called “the blueprint of all genocides,” and a cause close to your heart for a long time. Was it difficult to put aside band differences to make that work?
Our differences were more with how to achieve it rather than whether we should do it or not. We were given the opportunity to play in Armenia for the first time for the 100th year commemoration of the Armenian Genocide and use the opportunity as a chance to educate people about the atrocity, Turkey’s shameful denial, and the need to attain justice for past crimes. The Nuremberg trials, the U.N. Genocide Convention and scores of political action committees around the world have not been sufficient to stop genocide in our lifetime. There are no executable mechanisms for isolating such a regime from its allies, etc. There is much work to be done.

Were you raised in a politically outspoken family?
Not really. My parents were not very political. My leap into activism occurred as a result of the hypocrisy of a well known democracy (U.S.) using the genocide of the first World War as political capital in its dealings with Turkey. That opened my eyes to other injustices around the world.

You worked on the score for the movie 1915, about the denial of the genocide. What would you say is the biggest misconception about the Armenian genocide today?
[The movie] 1915 is a unique psychological thriller dealing with the trauma of loss and the unmistakable continual pain that denial of a genocide can bring to the children of survivors. I really enjoyed composing the score for it, diving into sounds and colors I had scarcely used before, in some cases. It will be released this month in the States.

The sad truth is the government of Turkey uses its clout (NATO member, U.S. ally, Incirlik Airbase, purchaser of weapons) and money to perpetuate its shameful denial and evade responsibility to avoid handing out reparations or the return of property to the victims. It has instituted a gag rule in the U.S. and Great Britain so much so that Senator Obama — who criticized George W. for not using the g-word as president — dropped the same word when he became president. Genocide should never be used as political capital to appease an ally in this way. It’s morally reprehensible and serves to stifle brave voices for justice in Turkey regarding the genocide and other matters. This is what we’re fighting against.

I would be a bad journalist if I didn’t ask about the status of a new System record.
There is an openness to working together again when we all have material that is mutually accepted. We don’t have a set timeline or anything else to report. One think we do all agree upon is that it’s gotta be a leap from what we’ve done before.