Scars on Broadway's Daron Malakian takes a read of the times
With fellow System of a Down vet John Dolmayan, Malakian strikes some dark notes on Scars' debut album.
FIELD OF ENDEAVOR: System of a Downs John Dolmayan, left, and Daron Malakian lead Scars on Broadway, whose debut album arrives Tuesday. (Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
This most wholesome and mainstream of settings probably isn't the place you'd picture as Malakian's chosen refuge, given the apocalyptic, dissident, disillusioned, angry, irreligious scenarios that belch from the self-titled debut album by his new band, Scars on Broadway.
"You've never seen the sky like this / You never want to die like this," he sings in "Universe," a grand anthem that describes what might be an environmental catastrophe. In the Bowie-tinged ballad "3005," he watches from a spaceship as civilization and "resurrection junkies" -- his term for those addicted to religion -- sink below the surface. And what is it they say in the band's single "They Say"? They say "it's all about to end."
"It's what's around me. It's what I hear, it's what I see, it's what I'm absorbing like a sponge," says Malakian, 33, eating a pregame hot dog and garlic fries in the bar of the stadium's Dugout Club. "It's the times we're living in, and I think as an artist I'm just trying to put my finger on that."
Not that he's on a mission. In fact, when he writes -- always alone at home in Glendale -- it's more like a mystery.
"I consider myself a medium to it all. There's something there and then there's a song and then there's me. A lot of times, I don't feel responsible for the songs myself. But that's my job or my place in life, to keep my search and catch the ideas before they pass me by."
Malakian's methods helped make his other band, System of a Down, one of the most commercially successful and critically admired groups in hard rock, and that audience is primed for Tuesday's release of "Scars on Broadway." Malakian isn't the only System mainstay in the group -- he brought bandmate John Dolmayan into Scars as co-leader after a couple of other drummers didn't work out.
Along with Metallica's upcoming return, the Scars album figures to be one of the hard-rock highlights of the second half of the year. "They Say" registered 100,000 downloads when it went up free on iTunes, and the group (rounded out by guitarist Franky Perez, keyboardist Danny Shamoun and bassist Dominic Cifarelli) made a few buzz-building appearances in the spring, including sets at Coachella and the KROQ Weenie Roast.
On stage, Malakian is an imposing figure, seemingly possessed and almost demonic in his intensity. At the ballpark, though, he's small in stature and low-key in manner -- just a bearded, black-clad L.A. sports fan.
"All four members of System are very different in temperament, unique personalities," says Dolmayan, 36, slipping into the bar for a break during the fourth inning. "I'd say that me and Daron are the alpha male types. I think he's always been looked at as kind of a leader among friends, and I've kind of experienced that. Actually, me and him got along the worst. . . . We both have a lot of drive."
An only child, Malakian was born and spent his early childhood in Hollywood in a family of Armenian heritage. They moved to Glendale, where he and his friends at one point noticed swastika-like designs engraved in some old lampposts near his high school -- the scars on Broadway that would later give his band its name.
He and flamboyant singer-songwriter Serj Tankian formed the front line and creative core of System of a Down, which began in 1995 and whose combination of aggressive power, musical eccentricity and political outspokenness made it one of the most popular hard-rock bands of this decade.
In 2006, the group announced that it would take an indefinite break, and "Scars on Broadway" follows Tankian's "Elect the Dead" as the second album to come out during the hiatus -- a term that seems all right with everyone involved except Malakian.
"I see it as a separation," he says. "We're separated but didn't get divorced, and there's a door that's open that someday we may get together and play. But I'm headed down the Scars highway right now and that's it. I don't have any plans, and nobody I think has any plans, to re-create or do anything with System right now."
"Not bad" is the way he describes his relationship with Tankian.
"We don't really see each other very much because we're doing our own things. 'Happy birthday,' 'Merry Christmas' on pagers sometimes. I saw him at Coachella, said hello, there's no enemy thing."
So if System's legacy has created high expectations for Malakian's new outlet, its shadow is adding to the pressure he admits he's feeling.
"It's starting over. People get very fixated on name brands, and System became a name brand that people became a fan of. I think that's the challenging part, getting people to accept these songs the way they accepted those System songs. I put in just as much of myself, and I feel they're just as powerful as anything else I've ever written in my life.
"In my opinion, they're more rock-oriented, they're more melodic in a lot of ways," Dolmayan says of the Scars songs. "There is a darker tone to a lot of the stuff, which to me is reminiscent of like the Kinks or bands like Pink Floyd. I've always been attracted to dark melodies, so that aspect of it really works for me."
The songs are definitely more varied, ranging from the raucous to the reflective and exposing a new array of influences, from a musician who cites David Bowie, Roxy Music, Brian Eno and '60s pop on one side, and the Stooges, the Ramones and the Dead Boys on the other. Malakian even suggests the late punk provocateur GG Allin as the inspiration for the caustically explicit "Chemicals."
Then there's "Babylon," a measured, atmospheric ballad with a big finish and a tender refrain: "I like the way we slept on rooftops in the summertime / If we were all marooned again I'd give my soul to save your life."
"My family is now out of Iraq, but when the war was just starting, a big part of my family lived in Iraq," Malakian explains. "That song kind of came out of me at that time. I just felt helpless, I really wanted to save them and get them out of there. That helplessness I think comes out in the song.
"In the Middle East in the summertime, to keep cool a lot of people sleep on the rooftops. When I visited Iraq when I was 14 years old, we slept on the roof. It's just kind of me talking to my family."
Like the solace he finds in the images and musical textures of "Babylon," the serenity and order of a baseball game might represent a relief from the chaos that seems to surface when he sits down to write. No wonder Dodger Stadium is his favorite place.
He got to play out there himself once, in the Dodgers' celebrity exhibition game a few years ago. Not surprisingly, it led to a song.
"I wrote a song for System called 'Old School Hollywood Baseball' that was inspired by this place. I played baseball here, and I went home and I picked up my guitar, and bam, it came out. . . .
"You've just got to catch the influences when they come at you. Every song I've written is luck, I think, it's luck -- 'How did that just happen?' "