System of a Down Drummer John Dolmayan Talks New Project These Grey Men
A few weeks ago, System of a Down drummer John Dolmayan announced the new project These Grey Men. The experimental covers outfit featuring Dolmayan and fellow musician James Hazley has launched a Kickstarter campaign, with the duo offering some awesome incentives to fans who donate.
We recently chatted with Dolmayan, and he talked all about These Grey Men, crowd funding as the future of the music industry, how the inactivity of System of a Down in the studio prompted him to launch the new project and much more. Check out our exclusive chat with John Dolmayan below:
I’m really intrigued by These Grey Men because you mentioned how you were feeling a bit incomplete after doing the System of a Down reunion tour and that you felt you needed to give something new artistically to the world. How did that translate into making a covers album rather than some sort of original release?
The primary reason is that I’m not really a songwriter. I’ve never written songs, I’ve never brought any songs to System, but as far as arranging, I’ve always had arrangement ideas. I constantly rearrange songs in my head that I heard on the radio or from my list of 10,000 or so songs on my iPod. I’d listen to a song and something about the song would hit me a certain way and i’m like, “Wow, I wish they would have done this,” or “If I played it, I would have done this.” Those moments started to happen and I started to question, “Why not do something?”
"I felt like if I didn’t do something artistic soon it was really going to impede my future growth."Clearly I haven’t recorded since 2008 and I have that zeal to do it. So, why not do it? It took almost two years to happen. The process was very slow and methodical. Also, I was kind of waiting around to see if we were going to get in the studio for System. Clearly that wasn’t happening within the timeframe I was comfortable with. At a certain point you have to release what’s inside of you. I felt like if I didn’t do something artistic soon it was really going to impede my future growth. If you don’t get under that microscope every now and then, you kind of lose that bit of edge you have.
You need to keep reigniting yourself as a creative person.
Yeah. First of all, you have to continually reinvent yourself. You have to expand on your style, you have to expand on your technique. There are so many things that go into it, because the audience, they’re very intelligent. They want something better than what you did last time or where it’s not different enough to where it something new to them. It’s not like the old days where bands put out albums that sounded almost exactly alike, album after album. You gotta tweak it a little bit, you gotta give somebody something to say, “This is my era’s album.” You also have to take into consideration that every five years there’s a new generation of kids hearing you for the first time.
Your partner on this project is James Hazley. Can you tell me a bit about his style and technical skills and how that’s going to translate onto this record?
James is a close friend of mine since we were in high school and one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen. He’s playing guitar on this project, because he can play pretty much any instrument he wants to. When we were kids growing up, it was all about drums. That’s all we talked about and it’s all we played. We shared drumming ideas. He was actually the first one out of the two of us to get signed. He was in an indie band called Cockeyed Ghost in the early ’90s. He had the shot to make it with that band, they were a good band, great songs, of course he was an amazing drummer. He got into drugs and kind of f—ed everything up for himself. They weren’t big enough to be able to get past it, know what I mean? They were an up-and-coming band and they couldn’t get past that and it broke the band up.
He was fairly disenfranchised with music since then. Sometimes you only get one shot at the brass ring. He had his shot, and not to say he won’t get another one, because of his talent and that he’s been sober for seven years. His talent is so immense that he was a perfect guy for me to contact. He was disenfranchised with music, I was becoming disenfranchised with my career and we started talking. I told him some of the ideas and he had some trepidation about it in the beginning, but then started to get really into it. Then I sent him my track list of the songs I wanted to do, to re-imagine. [Laughs] I think it kind of shocked him, he didn’t know what to think. Imagine that, I sent him a Madonna song and was like “Hey, learn this song.” He’s like, “What do you mean, Madonna?!” [Laughs] But when he came in with the riffs and I rearranged them, and gave them the direction I wanted them to be in, then he got it.
You were talking about playing with These Grey Men in your own style. In System of a Down and Scars on Broadway, I’ve always enjoyed your powerful approach. I’ve enjoyed the way you accent the other instruments of the band and a lot of your fills are always really exciting. Can we expect a System-like style with these upcoming songs?
It’s going to be my style. So whatever part of System my style is, it’s still me playing the drums on this stuff. I’m not taking a complete departure from my regular, normal style of playing drums. I’m just trying to diversify it, go in a few different directions. Probably the direction I was going in anyway. Lets say, for example, we made a System album last year. The style of drums is pretty much what would have existed for that album. So whatever growth I’ve had in the last eight years when we haven’t released an album, that growth you’re going to see in this album. Also, on this one I’m going to play a little more drum-centric. Normally, I play for the song and although I’m still playing for the song, I’m also playing more for the drummers out there. I’ll be going off a little more, its going to be a little more complicated with more technique.
I’m planning on putting a drum solo in there, which is something people have been asking me for a long time to do. One of the things I don’t like about drum solos is a lot of times, if it’s a written drum solo its kind of the same thing every night. I’m not a fan of that, I like drum solos that are impromptu, short but show-like; a technique that the drummer isn’t capable of showing within the songs because it’ll ruin the songs.
When it comes to rearranging these very famous songs, how exactly do you plan to rearrange them? Is there an example you can tell me about?
It’s really difficult to explain. Let’s just say that some of them are unrecognizable. The hope is that you think it’s a new song, but then there will be something familiar about it, and not until you figure out who the original artist is. There are others that are more obvious. Like the David Bowie song I chose is more obvious, because I didn’t take it apart as much as I did some of the other songs. It’s on a song by song basis.
What about that Madonna song? Is that going to be more recognizable or weird and experimental?
"Everything I’m going to release is going to be exceptional or else I’m not going to release it."
That’s going to be less recognizable. [Laughs] Everything I’m going to release is going to be exceptional or else I’m not going to release it. It’s got to be something that, emotionally, takes people on a roller coaster.
You’re using Kickstarter to help to crowd-fund this release. I think it’s cool to see a high-profile musician using crowd-funding, not just indie bands. Do you feel like this is going to be the future of the music industry?
It could be. It could be an amalgam of this and the traditional forms of raising money to make albums. The bottom line is that making albums is very expensive. The technology is there to have your home studios and all that, but you’re generally not going to be able to produce the same level of quality, especially when you’re recording drums.
You can’t compare with a Neve board. It’s just not possible. To rent those per day is very expensive and it’s becoming increasingly expensive because your options of studios are less great these days. I think there’s a number of reasons I decided to go with the Kickstarter program. It took me months to decide to do it, by the way. Obviously, there’s always going to be backlash of people who are kind of, “Why do you need the money? You’re rich!”
For those people, it’s simple. You don’t have to donate a dollar to it. You’re welcome not to be involved. Those people are probably going to end up ripping the songs anyway and getting it for free because thats what they’re used to doing. I’ve already put $50,000 of my own money into this. I’m not just saying, “Hey, fund my thing so I don’t have to.” I’m not sure I’m going to go the route of a traditional label for this. I don’t know if I’m going to go the traditional route of distribution. Plus, there’s the other end of it, which is something I was a big fan of growing up is the behind-the-scenes stuff. I don’t know about you, but I would always go out and buy behind-the-scenes footage, documentaries, all the stuff. I was fascinated. If someone gave me the option of paying $10 to be involved in the process, to know what’s going on as their doing it? I would have paid that, and I had no money growing up. It would have come out of my comic book spending money, but I digress. [Laughs]
I’ve put so many things into this Kickstarter program as far as things people can invest in and there’s a lot of them that, for a nominal amount of money they can get involved in a real way. I’m planning on putting up the track listing once the recording process is done, for them to pick the songs they’re really interested in hearing. There’s going to be a lot of participation from people who otherwise would have absolutely no way of do participating in something like this.
One of the things you’re offering is a trip with you to Las Vegas. If you have one night in Vegas and you want to hit the town, what do you usually do? What’s that night like?
There’s a lot of things that I can’t talk about. [Laughs] It’s going to be a wonderful night for whomever comes out here. If anyone ends up picking that, they’re going to have a great time. It’s going to be memorable, they’re going to have a world class dinner. They’re going to go out to the best club, maybe a strip club later; we’ll see what happens. It’s going to be something that’s going to be memorable for them. Hopefully they’ll have the time of their lives, it’s something they can take home and think about and enjoy those memories.
Changing topics, I noticed your company Torpedo Comics is undergoing a massive reorganization right now. Can you tell me a little more about that and what’s to come in the future?
That’s something I’ve been working on for two years now. Basically, I want to come out with something that fits today’s market. I’m in the process of creating an app where it makes it really easy to do your ordering anywhere in the world on your smartphone. Revamping the website, putting up new merchandise, all that stuff. By the way, I really enjoy the comic book business and all these comic book movies, I couldn’t be happier right now. It’s the best time to be alive, they’re coming out with all this great stuff.
The only thing I demand of HBO is when ‘Game of Thrones’ is done, they need to do ‘The Silmarillion’ by J. R. R. Tolkien. It’s basically the history of Middle Earth. The history of the Elves, where they came from, how everything was created. That’s something I don’t think can be done well in a movie, but if you give it like five years and 11 hours airtime — if you want to start a Kickstarter for that, I’ll donate every penny I have. [Laughs]
Maybe you could be executive producer.
I don’t even care about that, just make the damn thing!
Check out the Kickstarter campaign for These Grey Men to put your money towards Dolmayan’s new project and receive some awesome incentives! Of course, we also discussed the status of System of a Down with Dolmayan. For that very captivating portion of the interview, click the button below:
Check Out These Grey Men’s Kickstarter Campaign Video: