What lies ahead for System Of A Down? Here’s our one-on-one conversation with Shavo
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
January 1, 2018
Photos by Greg Watermann
Armenian-born Shavarsh “Shavo” Odadjian is a multi-instrumentalist, DJ, songwriter, producer, editor and director, best known as a member of California-based heavy metal band System Of A Down. The Grammy-winning band has sold over 40 million records worldwide, with megahits including “Toxicity,” “Chop Suey!,” “Aerials,” “Sugar” and dozens more. Shavo has collaborated with rapper/producer RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan for a project titled AcHoZeN, featuring George Clinton, John Frusciante and Killah Priest among its star powered lineup. Odadjian has also worked with German film scoring mogul Hans Zimmer, composing music for Babylon A.D., which starred Vin Diesel. Shavo’s gear includes Warwick basses, Ernie Ball strings and Ashdown amps.
FBPO: Let’s start from the beginning. You were born in Armenia, right?
Shavo: I was born in Armenia. We moved to the States in ’79, when I was 5 years old. I moved to Hollywood and that was it, man. My life started right there, my rock & roll life. I saw KISS on Solid Gold at 5 years old and that was it for me.
FBPO: What are your earliest memories of your exposure to music? How much do you remember from the Armenia days?
Shavo: From the Armenia days, I remember a lot of snow, I remember cold, ‘cause it’s a mountainous area, where we lived. The Caucasus Mountains go through Armenia, so I remember that. Musically, I remember the Beatles, ‘cause my mom had an Abbey Road record from Russia, all in Russian. I have that now. All the writing was in Russian, all the credits and stuff on it. And then, I remember having an ABBA record. I remember the song “Money, Money (Money)” for some reason. And there was a badass group, a German group called Boney M., that I remember, and I listen to it till today.
FBPO: Were you playing anything? Were you fooling around with guitars or pianos or drums, or any musical instruments at all?
Shavo: No, actually, I wasn’t. It’s funny ‘cause I’ve been a fan of music since I was a kid, you know, since around age 4, and I don’t remember begging for a guitar, piano, anything. My mom didn’t want me to be a “starving artist,” so I always denied that. Isn’t that funny? So I was always denied an instrument because, like, you go to school, you study, you become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer… And I just always wanted to play music, so I always kind of like banged on pots and pans and tennis rackets until a certain age when I was given a guitar. I got my first Kramer, and that was it. I never got lessons and I started playing.
FBPO: How old were you?
Shavo: I was, like, 10, 11.
FBPO: You were a guitar player for quite a while before you became a bass player.
Shavo: Very true. I played guitar till I was around 18, 19 years old. I was diggin’ it. I didn’t want an acoustic guitar. I wanted that electric guitar, you know. I wanted to jam. I thought in my head the second I grabbed a guitar I was gonna start jamming. I didn’t even think of how to learn. I got the guitar and I just played all night, all day. I just didn’t stop playing. I actually did get lessons for one or two weeks. It was like two lessons. First one, they taught me three or four chords. Took off! I had a friend that also played guitar and we used to get together and jam. That’s how I learned how to play guitar, with someone else, and by playing other things. So, the lesson happened, I learned three or four chords. As I was with my friend the rest of the week, until the next lesson, I practiced and learned like ten chords, a bunch of things, so by the time the lesson came again, I was already way advanced for what he was trying to teach me. He told me to slow down. I said I’m not going to slow down. I’m going, you know. I’m learning. So, that was it for lessons. I didn’t want anyone to tell me to slow down and learn ‘em better. I’m going to learn ‘em as soon as they come and I’m gonna go. I’m gonna learn, learn, learn and I’ll get forward, forward, forward. And that’s what happened.
FBPO: What kind of music were you playing?
Shavo: I was playing rock tunes. I was always playing rock. I was covering rock. For some reason, whatever I heard, I could play. And of course, once I learned how to hold the strings and play notes and stuff, I don’t know if it took months or a year, but I was already hearing music and playing it. Kind of like I’d hear anything and I’d be able to like jam it out. I wasn’t a virtuoso or nothin’ like that. It’s just that I had the passion and I had the time, so I did it.
FBPO: Who were you listening to?
Shavo: Oh, my first initial band, once I was in America, and I was a kid and I was forming my musical inspirations, KISS was something that I noticed. I was a big fan of ‘cause they were theatrical and at that age I was like, “Wow! What are they doing? That’s amazing!” And at that time, the time I discovered them, they were falling apart. They were not a big band any more. They were KISS, but their heyday was over with. That’s when I discovered them. So, to me, it was ’75, ’76 again, but it was in 1980. I was watching the old videos from Love Gun and stuff. It was just anything I could find.It was a big thing. I remember seeing, on Sunset Blvd., there was a building and there was a big KISS mural on it at that time, in the ‘80s, and every time my parents drove me by there, I was plastered to the window, looking at it, this cool thing. I thought, “Wow, there it is. I wanna be like that.” And then one night I remember they played on Solid Gold and I made my mom wait with me until like 11:30, or whenever it was on, and watch it. And that was it. Once I watched that, I was like, “I gotta do that. That’s what I wanna do.”
FBPO: Who else were you listening to, other than KISS?
Shavo: I remember some Black Sabbath, I remember Judas Priest, I remember Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe… My first album I ever bought with my allowance – I bought two records. I bought Lick It Up from KISS in ’83, and I bought Metal Health from Quiet Riot. Those were the first two records I bought with my money.
FBPO: How did you eventually become a bass player?
Shavo: Well, when I was like 18, I was in and out of bands and, I don’t know, the band that I was forming, all the bands that I was forming had a hard time finding a bass player. It was always either the bass player was trying to be Les Claypool, and that’s something that would bury the music, or the bass player was a rookie, started five months ago and wasn’t working, you know, wasn’t keeping the groove well. I kind of knew how to do that ‘cause I’m a rhythm guitar player and I always had the backbone of the band. So, I said, “You know what, dude? Out of the experience of trying to find bass players, I found like fifteen guitar players. Why don’t I just pick up the bass, do what I want a bass player to do, and then have these guitar players play? There’s too many guitar players, and not enough bass players. That’s why I started playing bass.
FBPO: Did you start listening to music differently after that, isolating the bass?
Shavo: Not then, not just then. I would play bass just like a guitar. I would just kind of like keep it going, like a rhythm guitar player. It wasn’t until, even after I was in System, where I started loving the bass. I started listening to Kyuss, I started listening to bass in Zeppelin and I’m going, “Whoa,” and then in Sabbath and I’m listening to Geezer Butler, saying, “Wow, what’s going on here? He’s keeping it flowing, he’s keeping the groove going.” I used to hear KISS and in most bands, you don’t listen to the bass player or the guitar player. You listen to the song, ‘cause KISS is a song band. They’re like entertainment. You’re just seeing the whole thing. Now I started listening to artists where the bass is driving the stuff, so that kind of got me going. In any music, just going and listening to the bass now, everything changes. The music, the song changes. You start appreciating it a little more, I think. Well, I did.
FBPO: So, your influences included Geezer, John Paul Jones…?
Shavo: Yeah. I was listening to Peppers. The newest band I listened to was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That was the newest era that I really loved in the ‘80s. And I thought Flea was a wizard! And he still is a wizard.
FBPO: How did you hook up with the other guys from System? Didn’t you go to the same school, without knowing each other?
Shavo: Somewhat. We were all in different grades. Except for John (Dolmayan). John wasn’t in the band. We had another drummer that started with the band that used to come to that school too. We were all in this private Armenian school in Hollywood. It was in ’93 or ’94, we were at a rehearsal space in Burbank and I was in a band called Roswell, playing bass for them. They were doing some stuff and I remember Serj (Tankian) started jamming with Daron (Malakian) and I was always around, playing with my band. And they asked me, ‘cause I speak well, I’m kind of like driven, you know, so they’re like, “Why don’t you help manage us?” And I really loved what they were doing. They were in this band called Soil. So, I was gonna manage them and one thing led to another and something happened with the bass player. I was friends with the bass player and he hit me up and said, “I think there’s going to be a change within Soil and I think they want you to join the band.” I said, “What do you mean? You’re the bass player.” And it was kind of a hard thing. It was my friend telling me that I might be taking his place. I don’t know what happened, but they didn’t want to continue together. They were like, “You know, Shavo’s a bass player. He would be perfect for us.” They had talked about it before I even knew.
So, when I went in, when they asked me to do it, I kind of knew, ‘cause the bass player had said something. It was just as long as I had the bass player – his name was Dave – as long as I had Dave’s okay, blessing, to do it, I was going to do it, but if I didn’t, it was like taking someone’s girl, you know. I didn’t like that. It’s not our style (laughs). So I wasn’t gonna do it and he said, “Dude, if anyone’s gonna do it, I’d rather it be you because you’re a buddy. I personally don’t want to do it. I love the band, but I don’t want to do it any more.” So, that led me to saying, “Okay, let’s try.” And the second I got in, the drummer got into something, had to move away to a different state, so we kind of were at square one again. Now we have a singer, a bass player and a guitar player. No drummer. So we decided to scratch the name Soil, put in a new name and start new music. Hence was born System Of A Down.
FBPO: You’ve gone on record, saying System Of A Down is not a political band, but your music is full of all kinds of messages and social commentary.
Shavo: Yes. When I say we’re not a political band it’s because we’re a life band. We’re a social band. We don’t just talk politically. There’s bands out there that just drill politics into your head, but that’s all they drill. They don’t talk about sex, they don’t talk about love, they don’t talk about other things, hate and love, everything else that is in society. And since we’ve been a band, politics has played a very important role within our society. Hence, people call us a political band because we speak of those things that have been happening. We were around for the Bush administration, so we spoke a lot about that. We were against that. So that’s why we became a “political band,” but if you hear songs like “Bounce,” we’re talking about a five-some, a six-some, an orgy with a bunch of girls. There’s a lot of different types of songs. Between Toxicity and Steal This Album, we had a lot of political stuff. That was the time. That was ’01, ’02, ’03, 2000… That’s when it was happening.
FBPO: I’m tempted to ask you what inspired the song about the five-somes and six-somes.
Shavo: (Laughs!). Ha! That’s a Serj thing. I wrote that song musically, Daron helped me arrange it and then Serj threw the – it’s funny ‘cause that song had totally different lyrics before, and once I got a hold of Rick Rubin and I told him, “Listen, dude, this is song that needs some serious – I don’t know. It was a totally different. It might not have even made the record. That song was called “Pajamas” or something. “PJs,” talking about something else. And when I talked to Rick, I was like, “Listen, I need the song to have a bounce on it. I wrote this ‘cause I see a crowd jumping in the middle, which happens now, every show. But that was in my head before I wrote that part. I was like, “Hmm, what can I do to make them bounce?” And then, when the song was called “Pajamas,” I was like, “It’s not bouncing, it’s not doing it.” When I told Rick Rubin that, he went and talked to Serj. Next thing, the song’s called “Bounce” and he put in that whole “pogo, pogo, pogo” vibe – pogo stick meaning you-know-what – and a lot of innuendos.
FBPO: When the band took a hiatus around 2006, how long had you planned to be apart? Was there ever a notion that you might not ever get back together again?
Shavo: No. Serj wanted to take a break and we were forced to take a break. We thought we’d be coming back in a few years, but we didn’t, making an album-wise. We just decided to tour more. I can’t talk about why we didn’t have a record, why we still don’t have a record, but that will all be dealt with. We’re not broken up, we’re not a broken up band. We just haven’t made a record together. We’ve been touring every now and then, staying together. I’m dying to make a new record. We have written songs, but we haven’t recorded them. So, I guess when the stars align, it will happen.
FBPO: Well, I know you’ve been keeping busy in the meantime. Tell me about AcHoZen.
Shavo: In ’06, when this all happened, I was friends with RZA from Wu-Tang. I’m a huge Wu-Tang fan, a huge hip-hop fan in general and I’ve always been interested in beats. We decided to put a group together. We named it AcHoZen, meaning the five percenters that are righteous, benevolent, they don’t think of hurting people, they just live, you know. They’re powerful people. It’s like a concept. We made a concept record.
So, my first producing job was to produce AcHoZen with the RZA, the mighty RZA. I decided to bring a bunch of (guest artists). I was meeting Masta Killa, GZA, Killah Priest… I met a lot of cool people. I said, “Why don’t we involve all these people and make an amazing compilation record about righteousness, teaching kids. (To) everyone that put a rhyme on the record, I said, “Give me a story, a righteous one, about lessons. No cussing. I didn’t want fucks, I didn’t want boobs, I didn’t want bitches. I didn’t want any of that on this specific hip-hop record. I wanted it to be about good things, listening to elders. I was just having kids at the time. I was thinking about stuff like that. I was growing up, so I wanted it to be like a not a dirty record, ‘cause hip-hop is highly messed up these days, with the lyrics and everything. It’s really bad (laughs). So, it happened. It took us a long time. It took us years, actually. I don’t even have a great explanation for why it went sour. We just never got around to releasing it the right way. We made it, he did his projects, I did my projects. We never got a label behind us. We never released it ourselves. One thing we did do with the record is we gave it to this company called Boombotix and they released the music, eight songs, on a speaker, with the music embedded inside the speaker. They released 5,000 of those. They sold out in like a minute. And that’s it. So if anyone owns one of those 5,000, they got eight of our songs.
FBPO: Tell me about your bass technique. You’re primarily a pick player, right?
Shavo: I was primarily, only pick, but as my bass playing gets better and I get into the bass world, I’ve adapted with my fingers. I went from a guitar player to a bass player, so obviously I was going to play with my pick. But down the line, I started grooving, fingers. Now I can play everything with my fingers. It’s just when I do quadruplets and stuff, it’s hard. Our band requires a lot of speed metal, black metal riffs in there, so when I’m doing that, I jump on the picks, so I can make it sound crisp and clean and “cutty.” But if I’m doing groovy stuff, like a song like “A.T.W.A.” or a song like “Lost In Hollywood,” I’m fully playing with my fingers.
FBPO: Tell me about your gear. You play Warwick basses, right?
Shavo: About a year ago, maybe less than a year ago, I went to Warwick. I used to play Gibson T-Birds. I started off with Ibanez, went to Gibson, was in love with the whole Nikki Sixx/ Mötley Crüe bass. I love that whole T-Bird vibe. I took that and made it mine, made it my vibe. I did my own vibe to it. I played it differently. I hold the bass really low. I’m not the conventional bass player. I was sloppier at that time. I didn’t need to be so “on.” I just kind of was more punk rock in my head. As you develop as a musician, you want to have it all. So, a really good buddy of mine who I worship as a bass player, Scott Reeder from Kyuss and Fireball Ministry – when I was making the transition from guitar to bass, I was hearing a lot of Kyuss. So, he kept telling me, “I play Warwicks, maybe you should get a hold of one.” I had them send me a couple basses, and on the last tour I did, I said I’m gonna try this Warwick out. Bro, from the first rehearsal, I was like, “Are you kidding me? Where has this been all my life?!” It feels good, it sounds good and it looks good.
FBPO: Which model do you play?
Shavo: I’m playing the Streamer now. They gave me one of everything. I tried every bass out. Streamer, I felt really good onstage with. I love the Katana, it was just they gave me a version where it was not easy to play onstage. It was lacquered, so I can’t do that. I need un-lacquered stuff. They got a new bass right now, coming out, that I can’t talk much about, with me, so we’ll be releasing a new model soon.
FBPO: How much can you share about System Of A Down and the future?
Shavo: I can’t. The album will happen. I just don’t know when. People keep asking me every day. Our fans are so loyal. Twelve years, we’ve made them wait, and they’re still asking us for an album and still they’re there for us. And I want to say thank you to all those fans. All I can say is that I want an album to happen, and the future is bright.
FBPO: What about for you, personally? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
Shavo: I’ve actually been back in the studio now. The thing is, with me, I was blocked. When I was doing hip-hop and stuff, I wasn’t listening to a lot of rock, so I wasn’t coming up with riffs and ideas the way I used to for System, with songs like “Toxicity” and “DDevil” and “Bounce” and “Know” and “Mind.” Those are all songs I brought in. “Sugar.” I was blocked, man. Recently, though, in the last year, I’ve been flowing. I’ve been recording my ideas and usually I have like ten ideas and I’d take them to Daron. During the writing process, those ten ideas would become three, four songs. Now, I have like sixty of those ten. Sixty! That’s like two, three albums of stuff. And I’ve been listening back, so now I’m going in and recording those myself, so when time comes to present those, they’re gonna be done right. And the ones that I don’t present to System, I’m gonna have on the side. I’m kind of working with some partners to come up with some music because there’s too much coming out of me. I need to put some down, so more come out. I can’t keep piling up my riffs and my songs. So I’m getting together with different artists right now, since we have some down time, it’s the holiday, and I’m putting my ideas down, man. And it’s good stuff. I love jamming with people. System is always System and is always gonna remain System, but I kind of like doing these things while System is (off). I’m a worker, man. I can’t sit on my ass and wait. I need to keep doing stuff. But my number one priority is System Of A Down and will always be my number one priority. When they will need me, when we’re back, when we’re doing something, a hundred percent Down.
FBPO: With everything you’ve done, both inside and outside of music, with DJ-ing, directing, producing, editing, acting – I understand you majored in psychology and worked at a bank – what would you be if you were not a bass player, or any kind of musician?
Shavo: I have no idea. Probably something in art, ‘cause I also draw and paint and stuff. The stage production stuff I’ve been doing has really taken over. I really love that nowadays, especially with all the technology that’s out. I feel very fortunate to have been able to contribute to a lot of our videos and our stage production, especially on this last tour. I worked a month or two before the tour on that, and even during the tour itself. That’s something that I love. I’ve dabbled in a lot of stuff because I had the ability to. My folks were always like, “Try this, and try that.” I can’t just sit on my ass and see things happening around me. I’m very driven.
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