With System of a Down having seemingly settled into its current role as a live-only enterprise, guitarist and songwriter Daron Malakian needed to do something with the songs he'd been banking for a potential new System album. Playing all the instruments himself, Malakian hammered out a dozen tracks in 2012, and once it became clear that there was no current path forward for a new System of a Down album, Malakian tweaked the name of his side band to Daron Malakian and Scars on Broadway, and delivered The Dictator: 44 minutes of bouncy, tuneful hard rock more overtly reminiscent of System than the first Scars album was.
While System of a Down might make another album one day, Malakian is ready to move ahead with more Scars on Broadway music beyond The Dictator, which was released in July. He's also happy to let the bands coexist, evidenced by System of a Down and Scars on Broadway performing on back-to-back nights at Mexico's Force Fest in October. Malakian spoke with AllMusic about returning to the songs he'd recorded six years ago, his trajectories as both a lyricist and a singer, and why professional wrestling is "the greatest sport of all."
AllMusic: You've had these songs basically complete since 2012, what's your relationship to them now as you're finally putting them out?
Daron Malakian: They join the rest of the songs that I’ve written in my life, and you enjoy playing them live. When you pick up a guitar here and there you might play a riff or a part from one of the songs, but apart from that, I don’t put too much thought into them. I let it go once the album is sequenced: it’s done. This has been a different experience for me just because I waited so long to put it out there.
AllMusic: Have you had to go back and listen to them to remind yourself what they are?
Malakian: No, I’ve listened to them through the years, like if somebody came over and I’d be like, “Hey, you want to hear the Scars album I never put out?” Through the years people would come over or I’d give them a listen on my own here and there. They were pretty complete, they were done, I was just waiting around to see what was going to happen with System, and then just decided that it’s time for me to release these songs. Now I have a lot of newer songs I’ve written in recent years that I give a bit more attention to than these songs.
AllMusic: Are you going to take some time before those, or dive right in?
Malakian: No, I’d like to get started working on those. System has a few shows that are going to happen in October, Scars has a show, and once those are done with, I’d like to start focusing on some of the new material and putting out some of that, which I’m really excited about. I think the new stuff kind of continues where I was going more with the first Scars album, more than a continuation of The Dictator.
AllMusic: You were doing a lot with different guitar tones on that first Scars record.
Malakian: Yeah, there were a lot of keyboards, too. I think The Dictator took a direction that would work with System and songs that would maybe work with System, only because there was a bit more rock and metal textures to those songs, as opposed to the first Scars album, which had different influences, from the Kinks to psychedelic music, so I want to explore more in that direction with this third album that I’m going to be putting together.
AllMusic: On the first System album, your lyric credits were pretty sparse. As the band went on, you wrote more and more, and now you're writing them all with Scars. Do you enjoy writing lyrics?
Malakian: The melody lines come first, and even though I didn’t write a big amount of lyrics on the first record, I did write a lot of the vocal melodies and the rhythms of the vocals and how they move with the songs, and I would scat those out. I wouldn’t have lyrics, but I’d give the direction of how the vocals could go when I showed the band the song, in some cases. Writing lyrics, to me, isn’t foreign. When it came to the first System record, I just wanted to give Serj [Tankian] the room to do that and to write those lyrics. As Toxicity came on, you could say the lyrics were almost half and half, and I wrote a good amount on Steal [This Album]. At that time, it was a matter of giving him space to write lyrics, and I really enjoyed the lyrics that he wrote at that time. When he wrote something I thought was amazing and was helping the song, I just let him do his thing.
AllMusic: As a vocalist, too, your early System contributions were more frantic backing vocals, which gradually evolved into more full-throated singing and practically a co-lead vocalist position. Was that you gaining confidence over time?
Malakian: I could have sang the stuff that I sang on the later albums on the first record, but I just didn’t think it was time. I wanted it to be part of the band’s evolution. I knew I was going to sing more, I just didn’t think that that was the time yet. But when it comes to my vocals, the guitar and vocals for me have always gone hand in hand, that’s how I write songs, that’s how I wrote songs with System, how I write with Scars, it’s usually me with a guitar and I’m singing out what the vocals should be like. So it’s always been part of what I do, but in the early days of System, I wanted to establish the band in a certain way and give Serj his identity and have my identity as the writer. I’m a big fan of what Pete Townshend does, and I kind of wanted to be the Pete Townshend of my generation, you could say, at that time, or even Jerry Cantrell, guys who are the writers of the band who sing as well, but there’s also a lead vocalist. I could have sang more if I’d wanted to.
AllMusic: There's an immediacy to your guitar sound that I've always appreciated, it's very direct and unadorned. Do you think of yourself as a no-frills player?
Malakian: The way I play is very rhythmic and very primal. I use these really big triangular guitar picks. Recently, other guitar players who have played around me have said, “You know, that pick might be a big part of why you sound the way you sound,” and I think they might be right, because the way I attack the strings is different with this pick than it would be with a smaller pick. I have to give credit to the big triangular guitar pick when it comes to part of what makes me sound the way I do, I guess.
AllMusic: The album includes an instrumental track, a cover of Greek musician Stamatis Kokotas' "Gie Mou." You've been playing the song live for years, what about it has its hooks in you so deeply?
Malakian: I listened to that song for a long time in my life, and I honestly never knew what the lyrics were about until I recorded it and was about to release it. I didn’t even know that the song meant “my son,” I don’t speak Greek. So I think it’s the melody that caught me, and the emotion. I’m not one of those dudes that wails on fast, crazy guitar solos, but I do enjoy soloing on the guitar, and when I do it’s kind of the style that you hear on that track. So this instrumental gave me the opportunity to showcase that, and I really enjoy playing it every time we do it live.
AllMusic: Do you write every day?
Malakian: No, whenever I have a hunger for it, there’s something in my body chemistry that makes me feel an urge to play, an urge to write. It comes on unexpectedly, and you get in this mood. I feel it in my chemistry, this urge to want to go in my room and play my guitar. It’s like a hunger you get for it. Sometimes you write stuff that you didn’t expect to write, but then you write it and it triggers that hunger, and you open up a door and start going into some kind of flow.
AllMusic: That hunger must make you feel like you chose the right path for yourself.
Malakian: I consider myself someone, as an artist, who’s just searching, and I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I find it, and that’s how I live my life. That’s pretty much how I live as an artist, as someone outside walking around, the back of my brain is always searching for a song, searching for inspiration, and when I find it, I’ll know it. When I find it, there’s a certain excitement that comes over me, and there’s no drug that can give me that high. I could sit down right now and write something, but it has to be something I’m impressed by, I have to be a fan. Everything I’ve written, I’ve had to be a fan of it first, and that has been the way that I grade my songs.
AllMusic: What's the longest you can go without touching a guitar?
Malakian: Sometimes I’ll go weeks, a month…I always tell people, I’ve never practiced music a day in my life. Practicing is boring. I’ve always just played, and I play when I want to play. I think there was a time when I was a teenager that I might have played every day for like seven hours, but as I got older, that changed, I don’t sit and play for seven hours every day anymore. I don’t force myself to do anything, if it’s forced, I don’t enjoy it. I’ll go in my room and play and I’m just not in the mood and everything I play doesn’t sound good, I’ll just put my guitar down, and it’s no big deal. I don’t beat myself up for it or anything. Maybe if I don’t write something for a really long time, that’s when I start getting a little down.
AllMusic: Does it ever make you chuckle that you put a song about a celebrity softball game on an album that went Number One?
Malakian: That song was just a day in my life, I lived that song. That softball game actually happened with Tony Danza and all these people. I was at Dodger Stadium and I actually lived that. Along with “Lonely Day,” I’ve lived that, and “Revenga” and “ATWA.” All the songs are part of my life, so it doesn’t feel weird to me. At that time, I was trying to experiment and take the band into different places. In both System of a Down and Scars, my writing has humor in it, and that’s something that not too many people in music can get away with, there’s a handful of bands, like Zappa and Primus, who can get away with humor. But to me, humor is just another emotion, and when the song needs that color, I’ll give it that color.
AllMusic: You've worn hockey jerseys onstage over the years, and you're a big fan of the Edmonton Oilers. How did a kid in L.A. gravitate to the Oilers?
Malakian: When I was really young, they were the team. In the eighties, that was the dynasty team, with Gretzky and all those players. I started paying attention to sports and music at a really young age, and I’m just a big sports fan in general. Everything from hockey to NASCAR to golf to WWE, I watch a lot of sports. I’m also a Kings fan, since I’m from L.A., I go to all the Kings games. I’ve learned a lot from sports; sports takes me away from music, it relaxes my brain to not think about searching and looking. Or sometimes I’ll find what I’m looking for in sports. It’s a way for me to get away from what my focus is, which is usually art and music. Most probably you will catch me at a sporting event more than you would at a concert, I never go to concerts.
AllMusic: The metal corners of the internet got a kick out of seeing you in the crowd at Monday Night Raw last year.
Malakian: I love wrestling. To me, wrestling is the only sport that actually mixes art with sports, the acting and the characters and all that is art, the development of the characters, the storylines…to me, wrestling it the greatest sport of them all.
AllMusic: If I'm not mistaken, you were wearing a Hellhammer shirt that night.
Malakian: For me, the black metal scene is one of the last great things that has happened in heavy metal music. Even though people don’t put these two genres together, black metal and nu metal kind of came out around the same time in the 90s – I’m talking about the second generation of metal, like Darkthrone and all that – since black metal and nu metal, there hasn’t been a scene in heavy metal music that has really impressed me and drew me into it.
AllMusic: Did you embrace it right away or did it take some time?
Malakian: It took a second, some of the imagery, when it was new to me, I was like, “Why do all of these dudes look like Kiss?” I didn’t know the stories, I just saw them on their album covers, and I didn’t take it too seriously at first. It wasn’t until maybe the late 90s that I picked up Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger album and I really felt what those guys were doing. Especially the classic albums from that genre, and there’s a lot of great ones, from Immortal, Gorgoroth, Darkthrone, Satyricon, there’s a lot of great music there that some people know about and some people don’t. It’s pretty underground.