Daron Malakian Wants to Give Armenian Kids a Voice With ‘Dictator’
If you don’t believe in fate, at least concede to serendipity. On April 23, Daron Malakian’s Scars on Broadway project debuted the single and music video for “Lives,” from the band’s first new album in a decade, Dictator. That same day, Serzh Sargsyan resigned as Prime Minister of Armenia following eleven straight days of citizens protesting in the streets -- demonstrations dubbed the 'Velvet Revolution.'
“They were peaceful, there was no shots fired and there was no killing, no violence, and I’m really proud of that,” Malakian told us with a thrill in his voice. The Armenian-American musician, best known as lead guitarist for System of a Down, has maintained a close kinship with his homeland since System’s first album, notably addressing the Armenian genocide (and Turkey’s longtime denial of the atrocity) in the song “P.L.U.C.K.”(which stands for "Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers").
Twenty years later, Malakian still desires to give boost the morale of Armenian kids, especially the politically active ones, through music. Though “Lives” and Sargsyan’s resignation may have been a coincidence, the rest of Malakian’s timing is not, having finally found the right time to release Dictator after sitting on the album for six years.
This is the first new album from you in a decade. I saw on Facebook that you wrote a letter to your fans saying you were nervous initially to release new music, then “Lives” came out, and you were really happy with the reaction. Did it feel almost like going onstage after a long break from touring, releasing music again?
I don’t know if I can compare it to going onstage. I think any time you release music, whether you do it ten years later or a year later, two years later, what people need to know is, you’re really kind of keeping yourself open when you’re showing people new material. Your feelings are in the song, your expression is in the song. So I think I’d be nervous if it was a year later or ten years later. I don’t think it makes a difference. It’s something that means so much to me, and I was anxious. It’s not a System album, it’s a Scars album. Ten years have passed, is anyone actually there? I tried to get the reaction from people, and the amount of hits that the video got was really cool. So I’m really happy with the reaction from people.
A lot of the songs seem to be about the Armenian genocide. I read that you didn’t grow up reading about the Armenian genocide in your schoolbooks, so how did you learn about it? When was the first time you were aware that this happened?
I grew up going to an Armenian school, so at the Armenian elementary school, I did hear a lot and learn a lot about Armenian history and also the Armenian genocide. Then somewhere around seventh grade, I went to public school and there was nothing in the history books about Armenians, Armenian genocide, Armenian history. There was no mention of Armenia at all. I realized that it was something the American history books had completely ignored.
For the first time in my lifetime, a lot of people are paying attention to Armenian politics and its socio-political environment with the Velvet Revolution. Can you speak to me a little bit about the importance of reaching the youth, not just with music, but with politics and activism? The Velvet Revolution seemed to be very much supported by young people.
Well, I don’t think Armenian youth had a voice. When System of a Down went and played there in 2015 for the 100th anniversary, there was a certain energy there. Everyone was telling us they’d never seen people with this kind of energy and excitement. And then when we left, they had a protest, because there was something going on with Armenian people were getting ripped off with the electricity in Armenia, so the kids got up and they protested what was going on. A lot of people gave us credit for giving these kids some kind of motivation, a little bit of rebelliousness. The kids and even the people who were protesting had signs of our pictures at the protests.
Usually, Armenian pop singers sing about love and these kinds of things. They don’t really sing about politics and what’s going on in the world. So I think we kind of helped push and motivate a lot of these [young people], just being Armenian, having the change that we’ve had, not being shy about talking about our culture, our history, genocide. I think it gave the kids in Armenia a bit of a voice. And that feels good.
What a weird coincidence that you ended up releasing “Lives” the same day that Sargsyan resigned. Was that a crazy feeling for you?
Well, it definitely wasn’t planned [laughs]. The song wasn’t so much about the genocide as it was survival and surviving as an Armenian after the genocide. For me, I wanted to put something out that was a morale booster. I got a lot of feedback from a lot of Armenian people and kids in Armenia saying, ‘Your song is perfect for this time.’ It’s just cool how things worked out that way.
I’m really proud of the people in Armenia that stood their ground and made a change. They were peaceful, there was no shots fired and there was no killing, no violence, and I’m really proud of that. In other countries, you would see stuff like this happen and the government busts out the tanks. It’s nice to see that all the transition happened in a very peaceful way and a calm way. It would be sad to see the opposite of that happen.
That was really inspiring to watch, absolutely. One of my favorite tracks on the album is 'Til the End.’ Who did you write that song about?
I have certain friends, and I have certain family members that went through some troubled times. It’s also about just friendship and how all around you, they hold you, and they affect who you become as a person growing up. So it was a mix of having family members going through some tough times and also looking back to my close friendships that I’ve had with a lot of my close friends that I’ve had since junior high school.
I never wrote a song about that topic before; it just kind of came to me after I had a visit with my uncle, and at the time he wasn’t really doing so well. He was kind of going through a depression and when I came home, I just wrote that song. So it has a lot to do with depression and dealing with depression with a friend or with a family member. When I came home after that visit with my uncle, it just kind of came out of me.
This record is something you penned in 2012. What was your relationship with these songs during the last six years, before you decided to release them?
The only times I would really go back and listen to it was if I had a friend over and they would ask about Scars, and I’d be like, ‘Well you know, I have a whole Scars album recorded that I’ve never released. Do you wanna hear it?’ So that’s when I would hear it back, and when I was listening to it back, I’d be like, ‘Damn, this stuff’s really good.’ But at the time, we would still be talking about, maybe are we gonna do a System album? Maybe are we not gonna do a System album?
So I kind of was in a limbo state where I didn’t know which direction and where I was gonna take my writing. So maybe I’ll just save these songs until we figure out what’s happening or what’s not happening in that situation. It’s way overdue, but I had my reasons why I kept it quiet for so long.
In this album and in many albums that you’ve written, you’re constantly balancing humor and fun stuff with some really heavy and tragic topics. How much technique on your part does it take to walk that line? Is it a difficult line to walk in any way?
I don’t find it difficult. For me, I just express what’s out there, what I see. There’s a certain pulse that as an artist, as a writer, I try to take that pulse of the world that’s going on around me, whether it’s the faraway world or my immediate close world of people that are around me or the life that’s around me. Sometimes I mix it together, the faraway world and my personal issues, and it all kind of comes into one in a song.
But in the world there’s war, there’s humor, there’s everyday life, going to work and doing that grind from nine to five. There’s just so many different things going on in the world at the same time and I try to really find that pulse. Sometimes it’s on purpose, sometimes it’s not on purpose. Sometimes it just comes out, but I try not to make things one-dimensional and be like, I just write about politics or I just write about love or I just write about the bad things. No, I write about happiness, I write about sadness, I write about love and war and friendship and just everyday things that exist in the world. I just try to kind of bring it all together, either a song or a few songs.
It’s never something I stress on too much, I don’t put too much thought into it. Sometimes I’ll write lyrics as I’m writing the song; the lyrics are kind of coming out of me. There are times that I write lyrics that I don’t realize what I’m writing about until a month or two later, sometimes longer. I’ll be like, wait, that’s what I’m talking about. I didn’t realize that. Subconsciously that’s what came out.
I’m really fascinated by the Stamatis Kokotas cover ‘Gie Mou,’ it is an old Greek classic that probably a lot of people have never heard. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with that song and why it struck you so hard?
My uncle lived in Greece for a long time, so when he came to the United States when I was a kid, he brought a lot of Greek music with him on cassette. And so it was kind of there through my life, Greek music and Arabic music, Armenian music. Sometimes if we went to an Armenian gathering or an Armenian wedding, they would play Armenian music, they would play Greek music, they would play Arabic music, Persian music. So this kind of style and this kind of music has just been in my life for a long time. And with ‘Gie Mou,’ I never really knew what the song meant. I’ve just always loved that song, I loved the melody. Until I did the cover I didn’t know that it meant ‘My Son.’ I didn’t know it was a song about his son.
I did it live, I think it was at the Troubadour years back, we played it live. It was something that I thought would be a really cool little interlude to do live, and whoever is maybe Armenian or Greek or someone in the audience would know what it is, but if they don’t know, it’s just a really beautiful vibe to add to the set.
So when it came time to record the Dictator album, I was like, ‘You know, man, let me record it and see how it sounds.’ You don’t hear too many instrumentals anymore on albums. So I thought that would be something different to do. Aside from my songwriting, I’m known to be a guitar player, so I think it gave me a chance to show people my soloing style, I guess, which is not too complicated. I’ve always loved simple melodies, simple solos, so it gave me a chance to have that outlet.
There’s another cover on the album, a Skinny Puppy song that kind of came out the same way. It was just supposed to be this cool thing we did live, and when we did it live, it sounded so awesome that I just recorded it. It’s very different. Both covers are extremely different from the originals, and that’s also something that I like to do.
Is there a new Scars lineup and some tour dates we can look forward to?
There is a new lineup, really cool dudes, great musicians. We rehearse at my house a couple times a week. We have a show in Hollywood on August 4 (at the Fonda Theatre). But there will be more things happening live and more action going on with Scars in the next year or so and beyond.
Scars on Broadway's Dictator will be released on July 20. To pre-order the album, click here.
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