System of a Down formed when lead singer Serj Tankian, and guitarist Daron Malakian jammed together in a recording studio, way back in 1993. They were both there to record with the bands they were in at the time, and upon discovering that they shared Armenian heritage (Serj was born in Lebanon with family in Armenia, Daron had lived in Hollywood all his life, but his parents, and most of his family were Armenian) and more importantly, similar ideas, musically, they formed a band named Soil, with two 'un-named' people. The name Soil probably came from a poem that Serj Tankian wrote, and the band later recorded a song under the same name for their first album. The poem and the song, however are completely unrelated.
The band met bassist Shavo Odadjian in 1994, who was also of Armenian descent, and had attended an Armenian private school in Hollywood, along with Daron and Serj. He hung around with Soil a lot and was originally going to be the bands manager, but in early 1995, he became the band's bassist. The original drummer was replaced by Andy Khachaturian in 1995, (lead singer of The Apex Theory until 2002, now lead singer of VoKEE), and the line up remained this way until 1997.
In this time period (i.e. up until 1997, when the band was signed to American Recordings by Rick Rubin) the band achieved quite a lot, recording three demo tapes, playing many live shows and undergoing a name change, first to Victims Of A Down (after a poem that Daron Malakian wrote) and then to System Of A Down. Serj Tankian explains the reason 'System' was chosen instead of 'Victims'; "System was chosen as a better, stronger word, and it makes it into a 'whole'. Instead of people in particular, it's the society."
The band's first ever recording is believed to be a demo consisting of 2 songs; Flake and Toast. Very little is known about the recordings, as it would seem that nobody outside the band has heard the songs. System of a Down's earliest surfaced recording is a demo of the song X (also known as Multiply) which is dated around early-1995. The version lacks any snare drum and is of very rough quality. Despite the fact that it was first recorded and performed in 1995, the song didn't see official release until it was re-recorded for the bands second album, 2001's "Toxicity".
It is believed that also during early 1995, the band recorded 3 other songs that would later be used on official System of a Down releases; Roulette, 36 and P.I.G. The latter would later undergo a name change to "Mr. Jack" and the songs would be re-recorded for the 2002 release "Steal This Album."
The band's first release was a demo tape recorded the same year, that was sold at early live shows. The demo (which was of poor quality) had four songs on it, three of them (Sugar, Suite Pee and P.L.U.C.K) were re-recorded for the bands 1998 self titled debut. The remaining song, Dam, has never been re-recorded, but was played live very often at early shows. The song is a Daron Malakian solo-song, that consists of creepy robotic vocals, muttering "Everyone is sleeping", over a middle-eastern guitar riff.
The band continued playing live shows and writing new material, and in 1996, released another demo tape, this one of much higher quality than their 1995 tape. However, of the three songs, only 'Soil' made it onto an official release (a re-recording of the song was used on the band's first album). Honey and Temper, like Dam, have never been re-recorded, but many live versions of the songs exist.
1997 brought a lot for the band. A new 3 song demo tape was released, featuring Know, War? and Peephole (all three tracks were re-recorded for the bands debut album), Andy Khachaturian left the group, and new drummer John Dolmayan joined the band. Then, on July 30th, the band was signed to American Recordings by Rick Rubin following a show at the Viper Rooms in Hollywood. Rubin commented on the band I was blown away.
The band set about writing and recording new material for their debut album, and in late 1997 recorded many new tracks as well as re-recording old ones. As well as re-recording 7 songs that had seen release on demo tapes (Sugar, Suite Pee, P.L.U.C.K, Soil, Know, War?, Peephole) the band recorded 6 new tracks that were included on the album, Suggestions, Spiders, Devil, Mind, CUBErt and Darts. The band also recorded many tracks that never have been officially released and are only available on bootlegs; re-recordings of 36 and Friik (a song supposedly first recorded around the time of Toast and Flake), as well as Blue, Storaged, Marmalade, and a cover version of the pop-song, The Metro, which was originally performed by the 80's pop group Berlin.
The International version of the album contained a bonus track, Marmalade, that was written some time in mid-1997. The Japanese import version of the album included,
as well as Marmalade, Storaged, from the 1997 recording sessions. The song is a short, heavy noise blast, where Serj sings about the moral issues relating to abortion.
Three days before the release of System's first album, the band played at the Ozzfest Festival, the first time the band had played to a large audience. When the first album was released, it got a good response. The band started gathering a large fan-base, and in 1999 released the Sugar EP. The EP featured the album version of Sugar, along with live versions of the song, live versions of War? and the studio version of Storaged. In 1999, the band also performed on the Conan O'Brien Show, and chose to play Spiders.
By 2000, the band had to start thinking about a follow up to their self titled album. Their fan-base was growing bigger, and in this year the group enjoyed several movie-soundtrack appearances. They entered the studio to start recording their new album, and the product was 2001's multi-platinum selling "Toxicity." The album included:
A re-recording of X (Multiply)
Suicide (later re-titled Chop Suey! This is the song that made the band huge, and was the first single off the album)
PJ's (later re-titled Bounce)
ATWA (Air, Tress, Water, Animals)
Version 7.0 (later re-titled Toxicity and released as the second single off the album)
Aerials (this was the third single from the album)
Der Voghormia; This is an unlisted track that is commonly mislabelled as 'Arto', most probably because the song is a collaboration with a friend of Serj's called Arto Tumboyacian. The track is a traditional Armenian funeral song for the dead.
On the same day that Toxicity was released, System of a Down released a one-track single, 'Johnny'. The song was also released on limited edition versions of the album, and as a B-Side on the Chop Suey! single.
Toxicity sold quickly and soon after it's release, System of a Down had became a massive band, that had even slipped into the mainstream, thanks mainly to lots of radio airplay of the albums' three singles (Chop Suey!, Toxicity and Aerials).
As if any proof was needed that System were on the verge on conquering the world of alternative music, they were asked to headline the Ozzfest Festival in 2002. The year also brought (along with the release of 2 singles) Steal This Album! The release was a 16 track compilation of tracks from the Toxicity sessions that didn't make the album. Before the album was released many of the tracks leaked on the Internet, and the band re-recorded a lot of them. Although the album sold well in time, the album lacked the mainstream appeal of Toxicity. Nonetheless, System remained on top of the music world, and in 2004, announced that they would be releasing a double album.
'Cigaro' was the first song that fans heard from the new double album. By this time it was November 2004, and it was known that the double album was going to be released in two parts, and that the new albums were called Mesmerize and Hypnotize. One was going to be released in 2005, with the other being released about half a year later.
In January 2005, System played at the Big Day Out Festival in Sydney, Australia. Whilst playing that show, and various others that month, System of a Down debuted tracks from their new albums, BYOB, Holy Mountains and Kill Rock n Roll were played frequently around this time. Other than those few tracks, and the leaked version of Cigaro, fans were kept in the dark, hearing very little from the new albums.
About a month before Mesmerize was due to be released, a south-American website posted 30 second clips of all the tracks from the album. The clips were only up for less than a day, but that was enough for most fans who hadn't heard much System material since Steal This Album. Then, two weeks before the official release date of May 16th (17th for the USA) the whole album was leaked onto the internet.
The album travelled quickly and word spread. This was a big deal. After all, the album had been voted 'Most Anticipated Album of the Year' in an internet poll earlier that year. System heard about the album leaking, and posted a statement on their official web-site asking fans not to download the album.
Despite the album leaking, it sold over 500,000 copies in the week following it's release. Since then it has gone platinum. The album's two singles, BYOB and Question! are played extensively on rock radio stations. Whether they like it or not, whether they intended to or not, System of a Down are a huge band in the alternative music scene, and even in mainstream music. It all seems quite strange for a band who's first single included the lyric "My girl, y'know she lashes out at me sometimes and I just fucking kick her". Perhaps to show that the band haven't lost their aggressive edge, when playing a live performance of BYOB on Saturday Night Live, guitarist Daron Malakian, shouted "Fuck Yeah!" during a break in the song. The band were threatened with legal action, but nothing ever came of it.
Since the release of Mesmerize, System have mainly been doing press release for Hypnotize, part two of the double album set, which is to be released in November 2005, and touring to promote their new albums. They recently finished shooting the video for the first single from their new album, the title track, Hypnotize. The song has also been made available on the band's official website.
Hypnotize will no doubt sell platinum, thanks partly to airplay on the radio of the title track, but mainly to the success of Mesmerize. The album may even go platinum in it's first week!!
At this stage it's not too clear what the band have planned for the future. They've been touring fairly solidly for nearly a year now, and surely it's too early to be thinking of a follow up to Hypnotize?
The only thing it's fair to say is, that System of a Down have brought heavy music back into the mainstream, in a way that hasn't been done since Nevermind and Dookie, back in the early nineties. Not bad for a band whose most well known song , up until a few years ago, was about sitting in a desolate room, no lights, no music...