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Serj Tankian Reveals System Of A Down Auditioned Replacements For Him, Admits The Band’s Live Shows Can Be “Like Visiting The World’s Most Generous ATM”


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Serj Tankian, vocalist for multi-platinum alternative metal/nü-metal oddity System Of A Down, has shared an excerpt from his upcoming memoir of sorts, ‘Down With The System‘, which is due to be published tomorrow, May 14th.

System Of A Down have been notoriously unproductive in the creative department amid the second half of their career, with their current full-length album having arrived back in 2005. A hiatus from 2006 to 2010 would follow, and while the band continue to play sporadic shows, only two new songs have emerged from the group in the nearly 20 years since the 1-2 punch of “Mezmerize” and “Hypnotize“.

In 2020 the group released “Protect The Land” and “Genocidial Humanoidz“, both of which were issued to benefit the Artsakh victims of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. While the band quickly raised over a half a million dollars with the proceeds from those songs, no new material has emerged from the band since.

Noble intentions aside, neither song fully represented where the band were at creatively in 2018. “Protect The Land” was a repurposed track originally penned for Scars On Broadway — an offshoot led by System Of A Down guitarist/vocalist Daron Malakian. Meanwhile, the groundwork for “Genocidial Humanoidz” had come about 3-4 years earlier during writing sessions the band held without Tankian‘s involvement.

At this point, the creative and financial differences between the band’s members have been well documented. In 2018, Tankian issued this statement, outlining his issues with his lack of creative input in the band’s music (Malakian often serves as the chief songwriter.) Tankian also took issue with the resulting financial splits behind the band, and expressed his waning interest creative in the band overall.

In 2017, Tankian also suffered a lingering back injury, which would go on to limit his personal comfort when it came to the rigors of touring. That ailment has led to the band’s lessened touring activity in the year’s since.

While the above has been discussed a number of times in the press over the years, Tankian‘s new excerpt reveals that not only did he offer to step down from the group several years back, but that his bandmates also secretly auditioned replacements for him.

Rolling Stone have shared this new excerpt from Tankian‘s memoir, with some of what was put out by the aforementioned publication shared below.

On his back injury:

Daron, Shavo [Odadjian], and John [Dolmayan] were always pushing to do more with System of a Down. I’d been the one holding them back, mostly because I didn’t really want to tour. I’d never loved life on the road much before, and now I had a wife and a young child at home.

To make things worse, on that European run in 2017, I messed up my back pretty badly. After a rough flight and who knows how many different soft hotel beds, I woke up one morning in Belgium in extreme agony, barely able to walk. I saw a chiropractor backstage who worked on me for a while, but I had to Tiger Balm my way through the rest of the tour.

Even after getting home, I was in serious pain for three or four months. My back has never really been the same since, and the constant travel that comes with being on the road always seems to aggravate it.”

On touring paying the bills and being dissatisfied with the album/touring cycle grind:

“Even when the band was making new music, I didn’t find the life cycle of a major-label artist particularly satisfying. We’d typically spend six months writing, six months recording, and then two to three years touring and promoting. That means that two-thirds to three-quarters of your time as a signed artist is spent doing things that didn’t feel very artistically fulfilling or creative.

The obvious riposte to all this is that if you’re successful, you get paid quite well for your trouble. System is lucky enough to make royalties from selling music, and that income is reasonably consistent. If you outspend that income, you can always refill the coffers with big checks from touring. Playing live can become a bit like visiting the world’s most generous ATM.

But remember: I’d never wanted to be someone who made decisions because of money. I recognize it’s a tremendous privilege to be in a position to not have to do exactly that, but I can’t ignore the fact that not making decisions based on money was what had led me to that privilege in the first place.

As it happened, I was pretty good at staying within my budget anyway, so the financial lure of touring was never going to outweigh all the negatives. With music, I’ve never made compromises and it’s always worked out, so why start now?”

On offering to step down from the band and training a potential replacement:

“Toward the end of 2017, we had a band meeting at [System manager] Beno’s office. When I arrived, I told everyone that I had an item I wanted to add to the agenda. We went through the rigamarole of regular business discussions, and then it came time for my item.

‘So, who’s going to throw me a going-away party?’ I asked the group. ‘Do one of you guys want to be the master of ceremonies?’ I laughed a little, but I was serious. ‘Look guys, I’ve been very clear that I’m no longer interested in touring both due to my back and because it’s just no longer something within my vision.

‘The thing is, though,’ I continued, ‘I don’t want to hold you guys back. This is your dream. This is what you’ve worked for your whole life. You deserve to have this.’ I looked at Daron, Shavo, and John, knowing what I said next would hit hard. ‘I think you guys should find a new singer.’

For the longest time, System of a Down was about the four of us. We’d built it up from nothing, we’d been through all the battles together along the way, and if any one of us left, it simply wouldn’t be the same thing anymore. A couple of years earlier, I’d even tried to codify this with a legal document that stated that if someone left the band for any reason — other than, God forbid, dying — that the remaining members couldn’t use the band name without him.

Everyone else resisted that idea, probably because they sensed I was looking for a way out of the band at the time, and they weren’t ready to kiss it goodbye. I’d initially been upset that they didn’t see System the same way I did, but after a while, I stopped being so precious about it, and just thought of these three guys not as my bandmates but as my close friends.

That’s who they are to me still. Shavo is one of the nicest, happy-go-lucky guys I’ve ever met in my life. He gets along with everyone, even at the worst of times. I can remember riding in the back of a bumpy camper van once with a bad flu, and as soon as I started to feel sick, he insisted on giving me his seat on another band’s more comfortable bus so I could recover. That’s Shavo: joyful, hopeful, helpful.

When I first met John, we got along due to our mutual sensibilities. We both appreciated reading and reason. By the time we all sat down together in Beno’s office in 2017, John and I weren’t just friends and bandmates; we were brothers-in-law. In a fairly unlikely turn of events, he’d married [my wife] Ange’s sister, Diana.

In a somewhat more concerning development, he’d also grown into a fervent Trump supporter. Yet even though I was at the far opposite end of the political spectrum, backing Bernie Sanders at the time, we could always sit at the dinner table and laugh with each other. No matter what happened, John always had my back, and I had his.

And Daron and I … well, we have always had a long, complicated relationship. The love of music welded our unique friendship early on despite our age difference. Artistically and even politically, we were like-minded partners at first. We both had a punk-rock ethos from different sources and experiences.

Musically, we’d often finish each other’s sentences and had this incredible harmonic resonance in our voices. But it was almost impossible to separate our personal relationship from our creative one. It got messy at times, though neither of us ever let it fall apart.

He had a possessiveness I didn’t always understand or appreciate, especially when it started affecting my relationships with others. I think he viewed me like an older brother, and I was protective of him, as I felt he was emotionally vulnerable. He has always made music the priority in his life and remains stubbornly true to his own artistic vision.

Even though that has sometimes put us at odds, I have a lot of respect and love for him. So what did I want for these three people whom I was closer with than anyone outside my own family? I wanted them to be happy. I wanted them not to have to depend on my health, my back, or my willingness to spend months on the road each year for them to have this band that they wanted so much. These three guys meant more to me than System of a Down had ever meant — and they still do.

Of course, I wanted me to be happy, too. It seemed like the solution was to ease myself out of the band while they invited in a replacement. I told them I’d even help train a new singer.

‘Think about it,’ I said. ‘We can be the unique band that’s able to make this transition amicably, where the member of the band who’s leaving is 100 percent on-board with the new direction. I’ll do press and talk about it positively. I’ll make it clear that I support you guys.’ I don’t think the guys were totally shocked by my announcement.

In fact, I almost sensed they’d expected it, or at least something like it. They didn’t dismiss the idea outright, but their collective response at the time was for me to essentially pump the brakes. They asked me not to announce that I was leaving the band. They promised not to pressure me into touring anymore. Management would merely present show offers as they came up. If I said yes, we’d do them. If I said no, we wouldn’t. End of story.

It sounded reasonable enough to me. I sort of thought they’d forgotten about the whole idea of hiring a new singer, but a year or so later, John, Shavo, and I were at a fundraiser in Glendale, and this singer I knew got up and sang this beautiful Armenian song. Shavo was sitting next to me at the table. He leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder.

‘By the way,’ he nodded toward the singer, ‘we tried this guy out as a singer. The only problem was that he couldn’t scream and growl.’ I was taken aback. Not that they had been auditioning replacements, but that they’d kept it a secret.

‘Why didn’t you guys ever tell me?’ I whispered. Shavo shrugged. ‘I dunno.’ I turned toward Shavo, now looking directly at him. ‘Listen, he’s a good singer,’ I said. ‘I can literally take him in the parking lot right now and teach him how to growl. You should really consider him.’

In more recent years, I pitched another friend to them as a potential replacement that they ought to seriously consider. But I don’t think they ever did.”

You can find more from ‘Down With The System‘ over at Rolling Stone. As for System Of A Down, the band’s live itinerary remains characteristically sparse, with four shows having been played in 2022, one in 2023, and thus far one show down this year. A second live set from the band will take place with this summer alongside Deftones, The Mars Volta, Viagra Boys & VOWWS at the Golden Gate Park In San Francisco, CA on August 17th.

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