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System of a Down’s ‘Toxicity’ Turns 20: The Inside Story of a Landmark Album

The band's members, manager and producer Rick Rubin recall how the record's message, a televised riot and, tragically, 9/11 converged around its release.

System Of A Down
Danny Clinch, Courtesy of Sony Music

System of a Down released “Toxicity,” its second studio album, back on September 4, 2001, unleashing onto the world a unique concoction of hard rock with Armenian folk influences and Middle Eastern melodies. A relentless assault of crushing drop tuned guitar and bass riffs, intricate and powerful drumming with dynamic vocals ranging from frantic guttural screams to beautiful and complex harmonies, the LP is arguably among the best hard rock/heavy metal albums to be released over the last two decades.

And it stands the test of time, sounding as urgent and poignant as it did in 2001, while lyrically, it touches on political and non-political themes that could be considered even more relevant today than they were when released in a pre-9/11 world.

“Toxicity” debuted atop the Billboard album chart, moving 225,000 copies its first week out, but with the terrorist attacks devastating New York City, impacting Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania and shocking the country and the world, the band had no time to celebrate that morning. Two days later, despondent frontman Serj Tankian wrote a truth bomb in the form of an essay titled “Understanding Oil,” which he posted on the band’s official website. He hadn’t discussed it with the group prior to its publication, but in the essay, Takian essentially blamed the attack on the U.S. on the country’s longtime interference in the Middle East. He wrote, in part: “Bombing and being bombed are the same things on different sides of the fence,” and, “What everyone fails to realize is that the bombings are a reaction to existing injustices around the world, generally unseen to most Americans.”

At the time the country was united with grief and swelling patriotism, and his rhetoric was poorly timed. While the essay was quickly taken down by Sony Music, parent company to Columbia Records, which had signed System, the damage was done. The rest of the band, and many Americans, were furious with Tankian.

The events surrounding the album’s release played a major part in the trajectory of the group. Rewinding slightly, System was set to play a free show for Los Angeles radio station KROQ the day before the release in a parking lot in Hollywood. Promoters expected about 2,000 fans, but over 10,000 showed up, which forced police to cancel the concert. After learning the show was off, fans rushed the stage, destroyed the band’s gear and a riot broke out. CNN and other news outlets went live covering the turmoil, which lasted hours and resulted in multiple arrests. At the time, it was considered a complete disaster, but thrust the group into the global spotlight and suddenly System of a Down became a household name.

The news coverage of the riot, along with the success of their single “Chop Suey,” released earlier that year, propelled “Toxicity” to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart on September 11, 2001. But in the aftermath of 9/11, Clear Channel Radio compiled a list of songs that were deemed “lyrically questionable” — and them banned from airplay in fear of triggering listeners. “Chop Suey” was among them and quickly disappeared from the airwaves, thanks to the lyric in the chorus: “I don’t think you trust in my self-righteous suicide.”

All the attention, both negative and positive, created a perfect storm to shoot the band into the stratosphere. The band played on and hit the road to support the album. Eventually radio and MTV came around and began airing the tracks and videos for “Chop Suey,” “Toxicity” and “Aerials.”

“Toxicity” went on to sell three million copies in the U.S. and over 10 million units around the world. It changed everything for the band, including laying the groundwork for creative differences and an uncertain future.

Variety spoke with System of a Down’s vocalist Serj Tankian, guitarist and vocalist Daron Malakian, bassist Shavo Odadjian and drummer John Dolmayan, “Toxicity” producer Rick Rubin, as well as the band’s longtime manager David “Beno” Benveniste, ahead of the album’s 20th anniversary.

What are your initial thoughts on the 20th anniversary of the release of “Toxicity?”

Serj Tankian: I find it incredible that time is slipping by so quickly. The release was so dramatic and life-threatening and stressful, that kind of sticks in my memory more than recording it. It was a beautiful process. We worked with Rick Rubin, who’s produced all our records, at Cello Studios in Hollywood, which is now called East West studios, in room number two, which is an incredible sounding room.

Daron Malakian: It feels like yesterday. I’m just glad that people still recognize the band and the album after such a long time. You know when we decided to play live people still show up so I’m grateful that so much time has gone, and the band seems to still be relevant.

Shavo Odadjian: It feels like yesterday, but yesterday was a long day (laughs). I just can’t believe it’s been so long. I remember when we were in the studio writing it. I remember when we were in the studio making it. I remember directing the videos and when I came up with the concept of the album cover. It’s when everything changed for us so it’s just a big thing and I can’t believe it’s been 20 years.

John Dolmayan: Well, the first thing is we got old very quickly. Where did the time go? Then you start thinking [about] what you were doing and where you were in your life at that time. Obviously, this is long before I had children, before I was married. I think about the relationships that I had during, before and after “Toxicity.” Back then we had complete solidarity in the band, and we had the Three Musketeers mentality — we had one mission: to be the best band we could be. We had a lot of power both emotionally and physically on stage. I think ‘Toxicity’ showed that power. It was an excellent example of what a live band could do in a studio, if they’re basically playing live.

Rick Rubin: I remember we laughed a lot making the album. Fun high spirits. Focused, well-rehearsed bursts of musical energy. System of a Down’s music sounds as modern and original to me today as the first time I heard them. They are a singular rock band.

David “Beno” Benveniste: It was an arduous process at times, but we got “Toxicity” out of it. If you listen to that record, it’s more important today than it was when it came out. The songs, the production, all the things that created a common piece of art, a brand, and a cultural phenomenon. You have those rare records and “Toxicity” is one of them for sure.

Can you describe your working relationship with producer Rick Rubin?

Dolmayan: The guy was very artistic and just a very capable producer and in many ways a visionary, because he can listen to your song and make the smallest suggestion that makes all the difference and completes the song in many ways. He’s also a wonderful human being, a very sweet and caring person and truly a fan of music — somebody that gets music, somebody that lives it. I could not imagine anyone else ever producing System of a Down. If it was up to me, he would have produced everything any of us ever worked on.

Odadjian: He has such an ear. He doesn’t need to change your style, but he knows how to make your style pop. For example, Daron brought in “Aerials,” we played it for Rick and he was like, “Eh, it’s good.” Our egos dropped as he said there was something missing in a song we felt was our masterpiece. Rick came in and said, “you know that main riff, you never play it heavy. Somewhere in the middle, why don’t you break it down and play it.” It made the song. He just threw it at us like a bird whispering something in our ear.

Malakian: He’s not a technical guy, he’s not a musician, so he listens to the song outside of the musician’s shoes. When he’s in the room, you trust his opinion and you try things — some that work, some that don’t. But even a tiny thing always made a big difference in the song. I told him, “you’re like a doctor. I come to you and I tell you this, this and this and you say take this, this and this; try this, this and that and come back to see how you feel.

Benveniste: I am so grateful to have had the mentorship in the studio from the creative end, which I actually use now with Korn and Deftones and Alice in Chains. I’ve just learned so much from Rick creatively. He told me once, “Beno, a billion things have to go right for a band to explode the way System did” and he was right.

Rick, what was the working relationship like from you perspective?

Rubin: We had a great open honest dialogue. Everyone was on the same page as we all wanted to make the very best thing we could and were all happy to do whatever it took to get there. We played or sang things as many times as needed to get the best performances and it was fun. The band was coming off a breakthrough debut album and had great momentum going into this project and they knew how much they had grown as both writers and a well-oiled machine from touring so there was an air of confidence and excitement about this new level of power the band was now able to harness.

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Bob Berg / Courtesy of Sony Music

The band recorded a ton of material, which ended up being “Toxicity” and “Steal This Album.” How did you go about the arduous task of choosing which songs would make “Toxicity?”

Malakian: I always bring in a lot of songs, and we felt like a lot of the material during the “Toxicity” time was good stuff, but we didn’t want to make a double album for our second album. So everyone wrote their own list of what songs they thought should be on the record and that’s kind of how we picked them. It wasn’t that difficult because a lot of us are usually on the same page when it comes to which songs we feel are the strongest and everyone was involved in that decision — Rick, Beno and the band.

Odadjian: We did it very democratically. We anonymously rated songs and put them in a pot. We had six people that had a right to vote. I think it was grades with A, B, C. All the A’s make it and if we don’t have enough A’s we pick a few B’s. We had a lot of A’s and a few B’s. There were a few B’s that some of us were like, “How did that song become a B? No one knew, everyone kind of secretly put a letter to a song and put it in the pot and then we counted and that’s how it got made very democratically. I think it was done well and Daron really is good at also sequencing so he went in and kind of like melded those songs together with all of us involved.

Dolmayan: It was down to two songs at the end of it. The one that I wanted was “Innervision” and I fought really hard to get that on the album, but got outvoted. I still think it should have been on the album, but it ended up on “Steal,” and “Steal” is a pretty damn good album. Rick would voice his opinions, my manager was involved as well, and we would all talk about it. Technically we could have just added one more song but we’ve always been very careful that our albums don’t go past 45 minutes — primarily because we are very heavy band and it’s hard to listen to that music for a long time and stay focused on it, but we also wanted people to be satisfied and want more, as opposed to, “I’ve had enough.”

“Chop Suey” was a breakthrough hit for the band and many consider it to be System’s signature song. Can you tell us the genesis of the track?

Odadjian: I didn’t think it would become what it became, not because it’s not good — I love it to death — it just didn’t feel that way at the time. I remember it was called “Suicide” and Sony came back and was, like, that’s not gonna work, especially if you’re dropping it as a single. Suicide is not something you wanna push. I have a memory of why we named it “Chop Suey” differently than Daron. He said that he suggested the name because in the ’40s mob movies they would say, “I’ll make chop suey out of them,” like they’re gonna kill someone. I think that happened and then we also said “Chop Suey” is the word suicide chopped in half, so I think it’s a combination of it but I think Daron’s interpretation was the mobster thing and mine was chopping suicide in half.

Malakian: The label didn’t have a discussion with us, we kind of self-edited ourselves on that one. Once we knew that song was going to be the single, we didn’t want anything to get in the way of that … or  any reason for radio stations to come back at us and say, “Well, we can’t play a song called ‘Suicide.’” I think it was me that suggested “Chop Suey” because of those old gangster movies.

Dolmayan: I really didn’t like “Chop Suey” when it was first brought in, mainly because I didn’t like what I was playing on it. But I didn’t give up and kept working on it and finally came up with something really special.

Tankian: I was stuck on lyrics at one point for “Chop Suey” and I remember going to Rick Rubin’s house and him saying, pick up a book, flip to a page and see what you see. It’s quite incredible, I did that and we ended up with the [bridge], “How have you forsaken me / Father have you forsaken me.” I like using the universal method sometimes because when you’re on the right path the universe conspires with you.

There are a bevy of non-traditional instruments used on “Toxicity.” 

Malakian: There is a mandolin, there was some banjo and there was an actual sitar on “Aerials.” I had never played one before so I kind of winged it. In the beginning of the “Psycho,” if you listen to the guitar intro there is this kind of whizzing sound in the background. I took a vibrator and I put it next to the [guitar] pickup and I kept you know turning the top of the vibrator and the power would make that noise so that’s in the beginning of the “Psycho.” Why was there a vibrator in the studio? I can’t remember.

“Toxicity” doesn’t sound dated. Why do you think that is?

Malakian: We weren’t trying to be like the sounds of that time. A lot of people call System of a Down “Nu metal” and I never felt part of that, to be honest. Yes, we came up in L.A. with a lot of those bands and, yes, we played on those early Ozzfests with a lot of those bands, but I never felt like we really sounded like a lot of those bands. I have a broad music taste, and that’s why System of a Down goes in and out of a lot of different feelings, moods and styles — it wasn’t stuck to just metal. For example “ATWA,” the chorus might be kinda heavy, but it’s the verses are very Beatles-esque and pretty. For me, it was about, how can I write a song that’s as interesting as a prog rock song would be and try to take different flavors from different places and make it sound like they belong together. It sounds fresh to you because it wasn’t trying to be the sound of that time. We were just trying to be System of a Down.

Odadjian: We spent a lot of time in the studio developing the sound. I remember watching Daron, who would do, like, four tracks with different types of guitars buried under each other to make a sound you wouldn’t be able to get from one guitar. It was the right recipe — the right amount of salt, pepper and spice that made it what it is.

Dolmayan: Part of that could be attributed to Rick Rubin. He was not a fan of using sounds or things that would make you a prisoner of the times you’re in. For System we just use basic sounds of the drums, bass, guitars, and use some you know like flanges and distortion pedals and stuff like that but nothing that would say, “This was made in 1997 or 1998 or 2000.” It could have been made in the ’70s or the ’80s or yesterday. The System sound is so unique that it can’t really be associated with any particular era. … It’s hard to replicate our sound although there are bands who have some System influences, which I find a huge compliment.

Rubin: System of a Down has such a singular voice as a band, it’s impossible to compare them to anyone else. It’s the specific personality of the band. Music can’t evolve past it since it’s so far outside what everyone else is doing. It’s innovative rhythmically, harmonically and lyrically. And it lives within a genre that rarely if ever does any of those things. It’s also rooted in an ancient traditional music older than we hear the influence of.

Lyrically, the album feels almost more relevant today as it was in 2001 in how it touches on many current political issues and universal non-political themes. Why do you think the lyrics still resonate?

Odadjian: It speaks on everything from war to suicide to spirituality to sex. We are a social band. Sometimes you wake not wanting to think about politics; sometimes you wake up horny, or angry, or grateful, or miserable… These are things [anyone] can relate to. I think politics-wise, shit’s going down right now that’s not so different from what was happening then. It’s different people playing the game, but it’s still politics. It’s one team against another, instead of uniting and saying let’s do this together and make our country the greatest. We’re very divided — we were then and are now.

Malakian: I think it’s still relevant because the lyrics come from a place of everyday life. Times change, but there’s things in society that stay the same. … It comes down to: we’re all living on this planet and have our own experiences, and if you can feel your experiences through our songs, that’s what I was trying to achieve lyrically.

The “Toxicity” album cover is iconic. How did you come up with the idea to replace the Hollywood sign with the band’s name.

Odadjian: We were recording at Cello Studios in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard in studio two and there was a big wooden “2” on the door, so my concept was, let’s put that door on the cover. It’s called album “2,” like the second album, because the first album was self-titled. So, we were debating everything going back and forth and I walked outside kind of frustrated and I lit a cigarette — I was smoking back then — and I looked up and there it was, I just saw the Hollywood sign and it hit me. I was like what if we put our name up there. I used to live on North Kingsley Drive in L.A. and every time I’d look up, I would see the sign, so just made it still perfectly clear to me. I brought the guys outside and said look, “System of a Down instead of Hollywood” and everyone looked at me like, “You son of a bitch.” There was a song that I had brought in some parts for, it was called “Version 7.0,” and it was like the last song we worked on. Within the lyrics of “Version 7.0” Daron said, “The Toxicity of our city,” we changed the title to “Toxicity” and became the title track. It just worked, that’s how it became “Toxicity,” because of the city vibe and the album cover.

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Days after 9/11, Serj wrote the essay “Understanding Oil” and posted it to the band’s website. It was taken down by Sony, but not before the damage was done. What are your memories of that and the ensuing backlash?

Tankian: It was a way of trying to understand how something like this could happen to us: from U.S. adventurism in the Middle East, to the popping up of dictators, to the need for multilateralism to the United Nations, Israel, Palestine and so many different issues that basically kind of created injustice for people that would plot revenge. I was trying to understand and even make recommendations for policy changes. At the time it was a lot of reactionism, patriotism, flag waving and so I got caught in the middle of it. As we were releasing our first single off “Toxicity,” Clear Channel at the time took our single along with a lot of other songs off the radio. So, it’s interesting because on the week of 9/11, we had the No. 1 charting record with no single on the radio because “Chop Suey” had the line “self-righteous suicide.” It’s hard to believe thinking back.

It was a very tough and stressful moment because. I was on the “Howard Stern Show” and they were talking negatively about my comments and misconstruing and misrepresenting it. I had to kind of defend my words there with the whole world listening while this backlash is happening against us. Meanwhile, we’re on tour the week after 9/11 with these orange and red danger levels on television and possible further terrorism in front of 15- to 20,000 kids every night, it was really fucking stressful. The band’s looking at me going, “Are you fucking nuts and trying to get us killed?” It’s not easy being an activist, and I feel bad because I put them in that situation. I don’t regret my writing because it was the right thing to say and only a few people were saying it at the time.

Dolmayan: Serj has always been outspoken, and he and I have very different political mindsets. This was a little bit of a bone of contention in the band because he didn’t necessarily speak for everyone, but he’s the lyricist, he’s the frontman and he’s got the voice. So we had numerous talks with him. I am a patriot, so I disagree with a lot of the things he said. But I understood where it was coming from. I just felt like saying that stuff right after 9/11 was out of line, irrespective of what truth lies within it. Serj was not motivated by anything negative, but I feel like he was so fired up and so sad and we’re all reacting differently. Everybody was devastated by what happened to all those poor people that died and all the firefighters that ran into a burning building and died with them. We, as Americans, were sitting there befuddled. We didn’t know it was going to happen next. So, his reaction was an honest one but just a little inappropriate… so I wrote a rebuttal and we posted it and then it kind of went away after that.

The album changed everything for the band. What are your memories of the success of “Toxicity” and the ensuing tours?

Dolmayan: It happened so gradually you know our success was a step-by-step thing. It wasn’t one day we were playing the Whisky and the next they were going to the Coliseum. Rick Rubin coined the phrase, “System of a Down is the world’s biggest underground band,” and I think that that statement rings very true.

Benveniste: The band was poised, we had done the groundwork the right way over four years — the band pounding the pavement, marketing, the uniqueness, the songs, the label, everything. It was the perfect storm — from the KROQ free show the week before the record came out that turned into a riot all over CNN, which by default promoted the record worldwide and we sold 225,000 records the first week and came in at No. 1. I’ve been in this business 26 years now and I can say with complete conviction and declaration that “Toxicity” is one of the most important and proud pieces of art that I’ve ever been associated with — not only as a manager in helping it come to fruition, but as a fan of music and culture. … I honestly put that record up there with the greatest hard rock records of all-time.

Malakian: The band was growing. We were starting to become recognized when we would go to places — that was new to me. … Those tours (for “Toxicity”) were great. The band was on fire. We were 20 years younger (laughs) and touring a lot so the band was really tight. We were starting to headline bigger places and we were living it up, man. I mean I was in my early 20s and in a successful rock/heavy metal band and that was my dream. We were making money. I bought a house and still live in it. I bought my parents a house. It was all coming true and it was a great feeling. But then, like many bands, once you start getting bigger and money gets into the picture and popularity and fame, things started to separate.

What’s the future of System of a Down?

Benveniste: You know there’s plenty underneath the hood that, as their manager, has been painful, laborious and challenging. They don’t operate like a normal band. This is an outfit that has a tremendous amount of respect artistically for each other, but altogether are separated a lot.

Tankian: Because we were unable to see a way forward creatively and philosophically, what System’s future entails is a mystery to me.

Dolmayan: I was very hopeful for a long time but there’s just too much drama and there’s too many other things that are easy and fun and light and remind me of what it was like in the beginning of System that I can focus on now. To get into the bullshit and all that, it’s just not worth it.