February 28, 2020 Interview – John Dolmayan of System of a Down
Without inspiration, the soul of an artist will wilt and die. A dramatic, yet truthful statement, anyone who yearns to create simply cannot stay stagnate for too long. Just ask System of a Down’s John Dolmayan and he will tell you that his desire to craft art has boiled over, paving the way for his debut solo album These Grey Men.
Famously known as the unmistakable force behind the drum kit for System of a Down, Dolmayan’s new album is a unique collection of cover songs that are far from ordinary. The product of his own creative urges searching for something fresh and exciting in between touring with System of a Down, he is also penning on his own comic book series. Conjuring inspiration, even though System of a Down has not released any new music in years, this drummer has worked hard not to skip a beat. Proud and humbled by success, Dolmayan recently sat down to talk about his time with System of a Down, the decision to put out a solo album, his outlook toward music and performing, future plans, plus more.
Cryptic Rock – You have spent most of your life involved in music. Working professionally for over two decades, you had tremendous success with System of a Down and have done various other collaborations. First tell us, how would you describe your career in music to this point?
John Dolmayan – Successful. Successful without limiting myself artistically or doing things I didn’t believe in.
Cryptic Rock – Having integrity is very valuable. You joined up with System of a Down back in 1997. How did it all come about for you?
John Dolmayan – We were all rehearsing in the same space. System had half the studio and my band were sharing the other half because all of us were pretty much broke; I think Serj was the only one who had a real job. You are talking about a couple of hundred bucks a month for a studio; that was hard to come up with back then. We were all in the same space and would hang out afterwards. They just weren’t getting along with their drummer who was a very talented guy – he went on form a band called The Apex Theory with my old bass and guitar player.
I think very early on the guys from System were looking at getting me as a drummer. We just got along better and I think they liked the way I played drums, as well. I want to say a couple of the guys spoke to me about joining the band within about a year of me doing so. Then their drummer broke his arm and they needed me to replace him for a little while, I said okay. That was that, I just never left. I don’t know if I ever technically joined the band. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Well the rest is history, and System of a Down have had amazing success. The self-titled album in 1998 caught a lot of attention, but it was not until Toxicity in 2001 when things really went to a new level of success. What was that time like having number one records, going multi-platinum, and touring all over?
John Dolmayan – It was absolutely surreal; the fact that anybody was listening to us was just an honor. I don’t know how the other guys felt, but I never took it for granted that people were listening to us, because I remember when it was my girlfriend and the bartender listening to us. Before System, we would go, setup, do a whole show, and we would play our hearts out, we used to call it live rehearsals. The fact that a million people bought our album and thousands of people at the time would come us see us play, well that was amazing, because I knew I didn’t know that many people.
It was pretty special, especially when you’ve dreamed about doing something your entire life and pursued it. All your heroes, the people I idolized like Zeppelin, The Who, The Stones, were all signed by like 17-18 years old. Here I was 22-23 and still not signed. Prospects were getting small: you don’t know if you are going to make a living doing what you want to do and you have no backup. Anyone will tell you if you want to make a living doing something you better put 100 percent into it, otherwise you have a very unlikely chance of making it.
It was just one of those things. We were going on tour and we were at one hundred thousand records sold after a year, then the songs went to radio and were doing very well, and all of a sudden we sold a half of million records! What? We always knew we were good, and we could put our live show up against anybody, but it was a surreal time and it was a lot of fun. There were negatives, of course, like with any band, stupidity, but for the most part it was just a lot of fun. It was a joy to be on the road doing what you love doing.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like it was amazing and you took none of it for granted. In between System of a Down you have done other things – you worked with Scars on Broadway and now you have your solo album. This new solo record is a bunch of cool, unique cover tracks. What inspired the selections?
John Dolmayan – The first thing is, because of the inactivity of System of a Down, I didn’t have an artistic outlet for a long time. It didn’t look like System was making an album anytime soon and I didn’t really want to make another Scars album. I was just driving back and forth from Vegas to L.A. to visit family and friends, listening to music for most of the trip. Songs would come on shuffle or on the radio, I would listen to the songs, and being of an artistic mind you start to daydream a little bit.
I started thinking about what it would have been like if those songs were presented to me and I had to come up with drums for them, or how I would have effected those songs if I was in the band when they were created. That was the beginning of it. I thought more and more about it, then I started making a list of songs I thought I could put a different spin on. It grew from there. 1-3 months later I eventually ended up recording about 15 songs. I couldn’t get all the singers I wanted within the time frame I had to work on it; there were certain songs I had earmarked for certain singers.
Cryptic Rock – It came out very well and is a blast to listen to. Out of curiosity, what are some of the other potential covers you wanted to do but couldn’t get who you wanted on vocals?
John Dolmayan – There was The Alan Parsons Project song “Eye in the Sky.” I really wanted Brandon from Incubus on it. He has a beautiful voice, but I guess he couldn’t do it. Maybe it will happen one day, I’ll convince him. It’s perfect for him! I wanted Maynard from Tool to sing “25 or 6 to 4” from Chicago. It would be perfect for him. I just put out the eight songs I thought worked best.
Cryptic Rock – Totally. These are not typical covers. You do them differently: you know what song it is, but it sounds different.
John Dolmayan – Yeah, I never understood the point of doing a cover a song and having it sound exactly like the original. Why do it? The original is there. Why do it exactly the same? I guess people do it for whatever reason, I just think it’s lazy. Take it, make it your own; take inspiration from it. The best compliment someone could give me is, “I really liked your album, but where are the covers?” If there was any motivation, it was to make it interesting enough to where they can rest on their own laurels, opposed to resting on the laurels of the original creators.
Cryptic Rock – That is a very good outlook. Let’s talk the cover you do of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” It is so different than the original, but very good.
John Dolmayan – Thank you. The first time I heard that song was on a TV show in the ’80s called Crime Story. I loved it the first time I heard it. It was so different and interesting; the lyrics were kind of dark, sad, and morose in some ways. I have actually done covers of that in several bands I’ve played with over the years. We went completely different for the album version. We kind of made it into a fusion song. It was one of my favorite songs off the album. It works really well, especially with Franky Perez singing it – he’s exceptional. It kind of showcases a little bit of my fusion background because I do like fusion Jazz.
Cryptic Rock – It works very well. You have this new album, you have a few System of a Down shows, plus Scars on Broadway shows. What else is coming up for you in 2020?
John Dolmayan – I’m hoping to get more System shows, it’s always fun playing those. Outside of that, I have my own comic book coming out that I wrote. It comes out in April and it’s an original concept. It is basically if you had the opportunity to become immortal, who would you leave behind? How would it affect your moral outlook? Who would you betray to get there and stay there? It is about what decisions you would make and how your life would change.
Cryptic Rock – Very interesting. Have you always had an interest in writing and comics?
John Dolmayan – I’ve been an avid comic book fan for years. I used to write creatively when I was younger – when I say younger, I mean 5-10 years old. Then I gave it up and pursued drums, but of late I’ve gone back to it. I have a real passion for it and enjoy it immensely. I think you will be surprised with what I created here because it’s a real expansive world. It’s going to be a monthly series that I’m self-publishing that will be available in most fine retailers nationwide. I am also talking with some potential producers to make it into a TV show, so who knows, it can take off and become something really cool.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds extremely compelling, and it is a very different outlet from music. How would you compare playing music opposed to writing?
John Dolmayan – It is a different outlet. Both are extremely difficult to do. Writing is very hard: there will be weeks where I have nothing to write, and days I will get out three issues of the comic book as far as the outlines. It is a matter of there is nothing you can do about it – if the inspiration hits, it hits. If it doesn’t, there is nothing you can do to bring it out.
I find certain times of the day I’m more inspired than others. I will try to sit down at the computer around those times of the day if I can. Sometimes it will flow. Sometimes I will sit there, look at the screen, know nothing’s going to happen, and so I will just go downstairs and play with the kids instead. It’s just a matter of attacking when you have that inspiration. With music, because I’m not primarily a songwriter, it’s a little easier. I can go in and rehearse songs whether I feel like it or not. It’s just good for me to do it; I get some cardio out, keep the chops up, maybe take a couple of songs from other bands and have some fun with it. It’s a little bit different.
Cryptic Rock – Right, and you cannot force writing. It will just discourage and frustrate you.
John Dolmayan – The worst thing in the world is to write something and be like that’s crap. Sometimes it can lead to other inspiration. John Lennon said he liked to sit at the piano for two hours a day and play, it could be the last four seconds that you come up with something. You have to have the will power to sit there, be focused, and do it.
I don’t know how true that statement is, but it can help with the process to say, “Hey, I’m going to dedicate a few hours a day to do something artistic.” Maybe the writing is not working so you go play drums. Maybe that’s not working so you go play with legos and build something out of your head. As long as you’re exercising that out of your brain you are going to come up with something at some point.
Cryptic Rock – Very good point. The big question which has been rattling about for years is the prospect of new System of a Down music. This has been addressed by you, among other members of the band, but is new music still possible?
John Dolmayan – I don’t think it’s going to happen, personally. For years I was the main flag-bearer for it in trying to push the band to do it, but I’m so disheartened with it at this point. It’s very much like pursuing a girl you really want to be with, but at a certain point you say I’m not going to waste my whole life. If the person doesn’t want to be with me I’m going to move on and find somebody else.
That’s kind of my philosophy with System at this point. I cannot be the wave hitting the rock anymore and not being able to make any headway. It’s just too frustrating for me, takes too much energy, and it makes me feel bad. I try to focus on things I can have an effect on and pursue whatever artistic endeavors I can. For me, I don’t even know if I want to do it anymore, it’s so disheartening. That’s how I feel right now; I go through different emotions, depending on when you talk to me. Right now I’m so tired of it all and tired of getting my band to do what I think is the right thing to do. It’s too much energy, too much negativity associated with it; it made me not like the drums for a long time. When I sat down behind the drums I was thinking what I was not doing for the band, or what the band could have been doing instead of me sitting in a room playing by myself.
Even making this solo album there were times I was thinking, “Why am I not doing System?” At the end of the day, I can only be responsible for myself. Some of my band members don’t want to do it for whatever reason; maybe they have good reasons in their heads. I just can’t focus on it anymore. I appreciate people still care though. It’s a testament to what we could achieve if we wanted to, but refuse to.
Cryptic Rock – Your mixed emotions are very understandable. That being said, System of a Down has played shows in recent years. What has the energy been like on stage?
John Dolmayan – We’ve always been a really good Rock band live and we still have that. I don’t know how much longer we’re going to have it because we’re all getting a little bit old. For as long as we’ve got it we might as well do it, right? Even that’s hard to convince people to do. We only tour a month a year or so, and that’s like pulling teeth to get people to do that. Once we get out we really enjoy it though.
Cryptic Rock – Hopefully there will be more shows coming. You have always stood out as a very unique drummer – you see it in the live show and hear it in the performance. Last question, if you are a fan of Horror and Sci-Fi films, do you have any favorites?
John Dolmayan – I think Dune (1984) is exceptional for Sci-Fi, probably one of the best Sci-Fi movies ever made. As far as Comedy, Animal House (1978) is one of my all-time favorites, but I also think Step Brothers (2008) is just a classic. When it comes to Drama, there is really nothing better than The Godfather (1972) for me.
When it comes to Romantic Comedy, Notting Hill (1999) is probably the movie I’ve watched the most. Other movies: Star Wars (1977), The Lord of the Rings (2001), but also The Princess Bride (1987) – what a brilliant film. Also, you can’t really say anything without talking about Groundhog Day (1993) too.