John Dolmayan: 'I Never Wanted Us to Take a Break in the First Place'

Here, the drummer talks about System of a Down, These Grey Men and how to make a cover not a cover.

John Dolmayan: 'I Never Wanted Us to Take a Break in the First Place'
System of a Down drummer John Dolmayan has been pretty upfront with his feelings about the band’s extended hiatus and reluctance to go back into the studio to work on another record. "I never wanted us to take a break in the first place," he says. "I think a break is five or six months and not four years. I've always talked about that and I've been very vocal about it for a long time. I tried to get the guys corralled and do it but everybody's got their own lives and you've got to learn as you get older to work around everybody else's as well as your own needs." He finally relented and decided to put together his own project called These Grey Men.

A lover of music of all types, Dolmayan hit upon the idea of recording an album of cover songs but not in any traditional sense. Taking tracks from Eminem, Madonna, Radiohead, the Beatles, ELO, AFI and others, John has reimagined the music in his own image. "They're kind of rewritten in a lot of ways," he explains. "I've changed parts and rearranged the order of the verse and chorus and all that stuff. I've extended things and put in guitar solos where none existed. They're not your typical cover where somebody just plays the song kind of like a standard the way it is on the original and then that's it." Here, the drummer talks about System of a Down, These Grey Men and how to make a cover not a cover.

UG: In 2010, System of a Down got back together after being apart for four years. What was it like when you first met up again?

JD: Anytime you take a long time away from each other, it's a little weird when you first get back together like an awkward feeling. But it went away pretty quickly and after the first tour or so, we were pretty much as close as ever if not closer.

It must be frustrating to work with a band for so many years trying to succeed and then once you do everybody wants to go in a different direction.

I think it's natural. I don't know of a single band in history that had a career from beginning to end and they were all single-minded and as focused as they were in the beginning. A lot of things happen not only as you get older but as you gain a certain level of success and you have your own life you have to live. I remember feeling relieved when we took our break initially because the only thing anybody ever wanted to talk about was System of a Down.

Isn't that how a successful band thinks?

When you're an individual after a while you're like, "Well look, you knew me before System of a Down. Let's talk about something else. That doesn't encompass every part of my life." There's positive and negatives to it. Of course we were extremely lucky to be in a band that was as popular as we were especially for a band that had the kind of sound we had. Who the hell expected us to be successful? Not us and not to that level. It's an amazing thing to have happen to you but it can become irritating when you're not remembered for anything else.

As an individual you get swallowed up by the machinery of the band?

I get it. I get the need to go and do your own thing and produce other art and come back to it. You come back to it eventually. I just don't agree with the timeline.

In 2013 you first brought up the idea for a covers album?

Maybe even longer. I've always wanted to do a cover album and talked about it with the guys. We were talking about maybe later on doing a cover album we well.

What happened?

I just didn't want to wait any longer. What happens when you're touring is you kinda miss recording and then if you're recording for too long you miss touring. You gotta have a balance of the two to be fully fulfilled. Because I didn't have the recording since 2008 when I did the "Scars on Broadway" album and that was the last time I was in the studio. After that I took a long break from drumming period. I didn't play drums for nearly a year straight.

Why did you do that?

I was concentrating on other things to kind of, I don't know, reestablish my passion for it or whatever you want to say. That's what I did. I took some time off. But doing a covers album was something I was always interested in and was on the backburner.

So System of a Down could have done this covers album or it was always going to be an outside project?

It could have been either way. It could have been with System or it could have been with other people. In some ways it's good I'm doing it not necessarily with System because it's also my vision on this album. When you're in a band you have to share the vision but this is something that's just singular to me.

Which is why solo projects are always different than band albums.

It's the way I want it to be. Of course James [Hazley] has input who's my partner on this. But it's something I came up with from beginning to end and I get to explore whatever I want to explore. When you're in a band you can do that to a certain extent but you also have to have a respect for what everybody else has a vision for and make sure everybody's included in everything and all that stuff. This is something where I can be completely selfish and just do exactly what I envision.

You never had a desire to do an album of originals? It was always going to be a covers album?

It was always gonna be the covers because I really just don't have the talent to write on the level I need to play to as far as songwriting. I can play to anybody's songs but I have to write something worthy of the other people's songs I play to. For example if I wrote a song and it was subpar, why would I bother? I have Daron, Serj and Shavo who've written such great songs that I've had the opportunity to play to. So why would I want something subpar out there when I already have something exceptional.

What about the idea of working with other songwriters?

That could be a possibility if I do a second album. That's something I hadn't thought about. Because you can't continue or well I guess you could but I don't know if I want to continue to make cover albums with These Grey Men. I know James has some songs he wants to play and we can explore that and if we solidify the rest of the band they might have some songs. But if it isn't exceptional, I just think we won't release it.

Why did you want to work with James Hazley?

James and I have been friends since we were 15, 16 years old. Pretty much when I started playing music and the same for him. He was also in a band called C-ckeyed Ghost, which was like an alternative, underground band from the '90s. He was the first one to get signed out of the two of us. He was the first one to go on tour and he was the first one to go to Europe. I was very proud of him back then and lived through him and his experiences. He was very supportive of me when I joined System so we've always had an admiration for each other and we've always been supportive of each other's careers.

Those kinds of relationships are hard to find in the music business.

Unfortunately he fell from grace and got into some addiction problems and that kind of put a halt to his musical aspirations. It's one thing to get to the top of the hill and then have those problems. It seems like the world is a little more willing to deal with it. But if you're getting there and you're on your way there, it seems like the patience isn't there for people.

That's true.

So he wasn't quite there and f--ked it up. Then he struggled a long time paying the price for that. He's been sober for seven years but really hasn't accomplished much musically since that deal aside from doing some producing and being in a couple of bands here and there. I just felt that was a crime and I was in a position to help remedy that. I think he would have done the same for me if not more.

You've talked about riding in your car and hearing songs on the radio and being inspired. Explain your vision.

I have a large music library and I put a small portion of that on numerous iPods, which I can constantly lose and find again. I have like five of 'em. So I have one or the other in the car and I drive from Las Vegas where I live to Los Angeles where my family and friends live often. That's a three-and-a-half hour drive and a lot of time for solitude, thinking and listening to music. I did that quite often probably once a month if not more. I put the iPod on shuffle and whatever song would come on I'd listen to it or maybe skip it and another song would come on. I don't know if you have this experience but when I listen to music I'm constantly dissecting it and thinking about how I would play it.

That's a musician thing.

Thinking about where their mindset was when they were recording it and where the writer's mindset was when they were writing it. What were the times like? It takes me on an adventure. It's not just listening to a song. It's deeper than that. I did that with a lot of these songs and then I started thinking about what I would do more on them as opposed to the other things.

You started rearranging these songs in your head?

If there was a song that particularly stuck out where I could rearrange it to make something interesting happen, I would make a note of it. Sometimes I took pictures of it 'cause I was driving and sometimes I would write in my notes in my phone, "Hey, interesting cover idea. Here's the person I would imagine singing it."

You really had this whole concept happening?

Yeah, this happened more and more often and pretty soon I had 30 songs on my list.

You've talked about songs by Radiohead, David Bowie and Outkast. What else can you tell us?

Yeah, there's Madonnna and Eminem.

Which songs?

I don't wanna give that up quite yet. I'm gonna be releasing that information later on as I solidify the list a little more. Some of the other artists are Thin Lizzy, Neil Young, f--k I can't remember any. There's no Sabbath, Zeppelin or any of that stuff. There's a Beatles song though it's almost sacrilegious to cover the Beatles. I'm thinking about doing a Beatles song if the Who did it. That's how I'm approaching it.

What a cool idea.

I'm so mindless right now. Give me a second and let me think [there is silence for a couple seconds].

Can you pull up your iPod and take a look?

That's what I'm about to do. One second, hah hah. Steve Winwood, Alan Parsons Project, Talking Heads, ELO, AFI and a ton of different things.

When you talk about the Who doing a Beatles song are you thinking about how Keith Moon would approach the drums?

Yeah, that's basically it. Keith Moon is my favorite drummer of all time. By the way, I am by no means comparing myself to Keith Moon.

I didn't think you were.

If I was mimicking Keith Moon, that's how I would imagine him playing if he was in the Beatles. Because that was actually a very real possibility back then. Keith Moon could easily have played for Zeppelin or Keith Moon could easily have played for the Who or Keith Moon could have played for the Stones or the Beatles. They were all around each other creating music at the same time.

Interesting idea.

They knew each other and a lot of 'em were studio guys. It could very easily have been that. It would have been a very different band and I think Ringo was the perfect drummer for the Beatles. I wouldn't change that for anyone and I wouldn't change anyone else for the Who aside from Keith Moon. He was just perfect for the Who.

So you were just conceptualizing the idea of you as a drummer looking at another drummer from one band playing the music of a third drummer in yet another band.

I don't know. It was just interesting to me. Play a Beatles song and how would it sound if Keith Moon was playing it? If I was doing my best Keith Moon impersonation, what would that be like? It creates an interesting thing and I'm not sure if it's gonna end up on the album but I'm doing it anyway and I'm gonna record it.

You will get rid of your hi-hat for the Keith Moon performance?

Yeah, you gotta go to the crashes if you're gonna do Keith Moon, hah hah. I'm gonna have to do that. I'm gonna do the best job I can so please don't be too hard on me.

You bring up another interesting point when you talk about it being sacrilegious covering a Beatles song. That is difficult territory to explore. Right?

The idea is and for what I'm doing here is that they're reimagined. The idea is you won't even be able to tell that it's that song. My goal is for people to listen to it and like it or dislike it or whatever it may be but feel like they know it but they don't know it.

You're changing the songs?

If these artists brought the songs to me and said, "John, create drums to this," I would make the same suggestions. So it's not just a cover album and you can't call 'em originals 'cause they're not but you can't call 'em covers. I came up with the reimagined covers.

As you're dissecting these songs, have you really dived deeply into what these drummers were playing on the original tracks and the sounds they'd created?

Well what I tried to do is pretend those tracks don't even exist. That Steve Winwood brought me that song and said, "Hey John, I came up with this song. Can you write some drums for this?" That's how I look at it because that's really how I've been trained.

You learned by writing drum parts for songs?

Through the years, the way System works and the other bands I've worked with work is that somebody would bring in a song, I would listen to the song and then I would write drums in my head as they were playing it for the first time. Try to bring out something that made sense for the song that anticipated the needs of the song without overwhelming it.

Understanding arrangement and composition is something a drummer has to feel.

That's really the trick. When you're a drummer, the greatest trick is to do something interesting and rare but not overwhelm the song.

Was that your approach on a song like "Suite-Pee" from the "System of a Down" album?

Well I didn't actually write the drums for "Suite-Pee." There was a gentleman named Andy Khachaturian - good luck with the last name - and he was the original, well, the second drummer for System or the third. They were going through drummers in the beginning and he was the first solid drummer for System. He was involved in the writing process for most of the songs on the first album.

Andy obviously didn't remain in the band?

It didn't work out with Andy and I came into the picture and then I took those and reworked those and put my style into 'em. But he came up with the basics for those songs and I give him full credit for that. He's an excellent drummer but of course everything post that was me. You just brought up that song as an example and I just wanted to make sure he gets the credit he deserves.

So "Chop Suey" on "Toxicity" are all your drum ideas?

Yeah, everything after that was me and in fact about 30 percent of the first album was me as well as far as new songs. We just want to make sure the people who are putting in the work get the credit for their work. Andy was an excellent drummer and System wouldn't exist if it wasn't for him. In the beginning he did a lot to push the band forward and his skills are appreciated.

Your performance on "Chop Suey" was so seamless even though there were tempo changes and various rhythmic parts.

You gotta look at it like a piece. First of all it's a credit to the songwriter. When you look at a painting of a dramatic setting like a war or something like that, there's parts of that painting that are very busy and have a lot going on and there's other parts that don't. But they all encompass the painting. It's one image you're getting from the painting.

That's how you approach the drums in a song?

Same thing with a song. Yes, there are different parts of the song and yes there's different beats but the all coalesce into one song. So when you're painting the picture of your drumming, you have to think about the overall image when you're doing it.

Did "Chop Suey" immediately suggest different drum ideas?

I didn't even like "Chop Suey" when it first came in. That was number one on KROQ for like a year. When that first came in, I hated it. Really I didn't like what I was doing on the drums when it first came in. That's really what it was. Finally I figured something out and then actually after three or four days I figured out something I really liked and then after that it was all good.

"Steal This Album!" was your favorite record?

It was. Look, I love all our songs but "Steal This Album!" was special because it was recorded during the same sessions as "Toxicity" and we had such a wealth of songs for "Toxicity." I think we still have like 10 songs we didn't release from that album that could probably make at least an album on their own but we're very particular about what we release.

There is another SOAD album sitting in the can?

A lot of that stuff got leaked. You know how it was back then and still is. We just didn't like the way they were leaked and they weren't finished. It wasn't a finished product and we didn't feel that's how we wanted to be represented so we got forced into making that album because of that but I'm really happy we did. Some of our best work is on that album in my opinion.

"Innervision" was one of your greatest grooves ever.

That was a three-day argument by the way. Yeah, I argued for three days for that to be on "Toxicity." It didn't make it. I'm not gonna say which song I wanted off the album for that to fit but it was three days of back and forth. It was just me against the band I think on that one. I was like, "This is our big hit. This is it. This is the one that's gonna take us to the next level."

You heard the potential of that song from the beginning?

"Innervision" from the first hit I was like, "This is it. This is the song that's gonna take us to the next level" and I was completely wrong, hah hah. It was "Chop Suey."

You won a Grammy for "B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Bombs)" from the "Mezmerize" album. That must have felt amazing.

That f--ked up our record.

In what way?

We had a record of losing Grammys like Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin has never won a Grammy. So I thought, "Well, we're in good company." Who would you rather be in the company of? Let's face it some of the people that win Grammys ... [hesitates] Let's not get into their music but Led Zeppelin who are godlike never won a Grammy. I thought, "If we're not gonna win Grammys and we're in the company of Led Zeppelin, I think I can handle that." Then we f--ked up and won one.

"Question" was one of the acoustic-based songs on "Mesmerize" that was very cool.

Another nightmare the first couple days. Serj brought that song in and there was almost no structure to the song. It's like he played it for me and Daron - Shavo was sick - and he played it three times and didn't play it the same way twice. I was like, "Serj, is there a structure anywhere in there as far as the timing in the beginning of the song?" So I sat there with him and we worked it out and after the second day we had pretty much the whole structure. I said, "How about this timing?" and I gave him a couple different beats that would work. He liked one of 'em and we kinda went from there. Daron brought in the end part [sings the riff] and it coalesced and came together. Shavo showed up eventually and he learned it in like five minutes and there you go.

Daron did some singing on "Question," which was something pretty new for the band?

Yeah. Daron started singing more and more on "Mesmerize"/"Hypnotize." I don't know how people feel about it but that's the direction of the band. I think the more people we have doing things artistically the better off we are. It just expands your range.

If Darol Malakian had been a terrible singer then that decision wouldn't have been so smart.

Let's just say there's a reason why I don't try to sing, hah hah hah.

Drummers don't sing anyway.

Tell Phil Collins that.

Did you know when you recorded "Hypnotize," it was going to be your last album?

We never know what's gonna happen with these records. We go in and we do the best job we can to please ourselves first and we're really not thinking about anybody else. I hope people aren't disappointed by hearing that but we're making these for ourselves first. That's why we don't compromise anything and we don't listen to the trends or anything else. We just make music we would listen to ourselves and then we put it for the world. Then it's no longer ours - it's yours.

There haven't been too many Armenian/Lebanese rock bands with the kind of success System of a Down had.

We're the only one I know of. Name another one?

I was being facetious. Did that shared cultural heritage impact on the sound of the band?

It certainly didn't hurt. I've had a lot of different girlfriends in my life and a lot of different nationalities, races, you name it. I'm presently dating an Armenian girl and it's been the easiest relationship I've been in because culturally she understands everything that I have been taught my whole life. Look, being with a woman is never easy. Don't get me wrong. She's a nightmare but this relationship is a lot easier than the other nightmares I was in. This nightmare has at least some semblance of happiness in it, hah hah hah. She would probably say the same about me.

I understand.

Being in a relationship with a band is the same thing as being in a relationship with a woman except you have to multiply it by four.

So it was the shared experiences System had rather than the musical approach that helped define the sound?

Musically we're also used to listening to a little bit more of a diverse range of music. My dad didn't really play in an Armenian band but everybody was Armenian and they played international standards at weddings and stuff like that. My dad was the sax player in the band and they went to Florida and the drummer couldn't make it so they hired a professional drummer like a session guy. They were doing rehearsals and they said, "OK, do a bossa nova" and the guy couldn't do a bossa nova. Bossa nova is Brazilian. Right?

It is.

Yeah. We're Armenian but because we're used to a little bit of a different feel in the music, the guy couldn't play it. So my dad sat down - he's a sax player - and he played the bossa nova. So now you know where my drumming style comes from - it comes from my dad in a lot of ways.

By the "Hypnotize" album, you're using double bass?

Oh, I'm terrible at double bass. Horrible. I'm a mediocre double bass player at best.

You did all the System stuff on single bass?

No, there's double bass there. It's just not very good.

Why did you feel you needed to play double bass?

Because those songs need it. If the songs needed triple bass, I would learn how to play that. If a song needs something and I'm the drummer, it's my job to learn it even if it isn't my area of expertise. I've never really played double bass in my life but because some of the songs needed it, I had to learn it to a certain capacity. My hands have always been very fast.

So you learned double bass more out of necessity than desire?

When I hear somebody like Dave Lombardo play double bass and then I hear myself play double bass, there's no comparison. Dave Lombardo is a master and I'm a student.

You couldn't have pulled off System's music with a single bass and double pedal?

Well, it's the same thing. It's still double bass. Even if you have a double pedal, it's the same effect. It's just on one kick instead of two. It still requires the technique on it and muscle memory. But I have a couple of disadvantages.

What are those?

I have really big feet, which doesn't make it very easy to do fast double bass playing 'cause I got so much weight there. Another disadvantage is I trained my whole life to be right-foot dominant and my right foot is so much stronger than my left. Even with the effort I put in, the catch-up time just wasn't the same. Plus my left foot was used to a certain finesse 'cause hi-hat is more of a finesse instrument. So there was a lot of things to consider there and I did the best I could in the circumstances and will continue to try to expand on that.

That's all any musician can do.

There are so many double bass players that blow me away. But I challenge them to beat me on [hand] speed.

You mentioned Dave Lombardo as a master of double bass. What about Danny Carey?

Joey [Jordison] from Slipknot or formerly of Slipknot. I don't know what he's doing now.

Those types of players are on your radar?

Well first of all they're friends. Drummers have a community like no other.

Very true.

There's a brotherhood that exists with drummers that just doesn't exist with singers or guitar players. We're not in competition with each other - we're inspiration to each other. And those guys are topnotch guys and sweet, goodhearted people. Joey and Danny are phenomenal drummers. Dave Lombardo is a phenomenal drummer. All three of 'em have done something to expand on drumming and elevate it to a new level and show people, "Hey, you can still innovate even after hundreds of years of an instrument's existence."

Who else were you listening to?

You can go as far as Buddy Rich. These guys are all innovators and there's so much talent out there. There is so much talent you can spend an entire lifetime on YouTube just looking at clips and being mesmerized and in awe. All these guys were my teachers. That's how I learned how to play drums - I put on albums and I played along to 'em. Which would probably explain why I have decent timing. It's because of those albums and a lot of 'em were probably played with click tracks or not, but I played along with all of 'em. They were my teachers. Neal Peart was my teacher; Keith Moon and Stewart Copeland. Buddy Rich. Maynard Ferguson and his drummers were my teachers. I was a very hungry student and luckily my father had a lot of albums.

You've been playing Tama Starclassics for a while?

Yes, I've been with them since 2000. My drumset I recorded the first album with was stolen on tour with the rest of my equipment. I came back and went to Tama and Gene Provencio was the guy at Tama and we had a conversation and he said, "Hey, Tama is interested. We'd like to have you."

What was it about Tama that attracted you?

I'm sure Tama would like me to say that I couldn't do what I do on another drumset but the reality is it's not the drums, it's the drummer. An instrument is only as good as the instrument that uses it. Tama makes exceptional drums, top of the line stuff and so do the other companies. So it's just a matter of what works best for you. Tama's drums work really well for me. They're versatile and they have the feel I like in the bounce off the toms. The kicks are deep and they resonate well and it works real well for my solid drumming. It doesn't mean other drums won't but I endorse Tama drums and they work really well for me.

You're financing the These Grey Men project on Kickstarter. Can you explain why this is an attractive business model?

It's really just out of necessity. I've put in a little bit over $50,000 of my own money into this project so far. Doing the Kickstarter program is not only good to raise additional funds needed but it's also good to awareness of the project. You and I wouldn't be having this conversation right now if I wasn't doing the Kickstarter program. So it gets it out there. I like to feed information to the minds of the people that are interested because it gives them something to look forward to.

Kickstarter becomes a promotional vehicle.

I can't wait 'til December to see the new "Hobbit" movie. I heard a year ago it was coming out in December so that anticipation leads to my fervor for it when I go into see it and the same thing with this. Plus when in our lifetime have we been able to interact or be involved with the making of an album?


If you gave me that opportunity when I was a kid, I would have jumped at the chance to do that. There are a lot of naysayers that say, "No, you're a millionaire. Platinum albums, blah blah blah. Why you begging kids for money?"

What do you say to them?

Look, you don't have to be involved. I'm not holding a gun to you head saying give me money. You want to be involved? Fine. You don't? That's OK too. The bottom line is most people don't pay for music anymore and if you want music to be produced, at a certain point you need to pay for it. This is a way for you to pay for what you want. If you want them to produce something, help them to raise the money to do it. The traditional label route is kinda out the door.

Even for someone as successful as you? If you approached a label with These Grey Men, certainly there would be interest.

I could and I may still. But there's a couple positives to doing the Kickstarter program. One, I can do it immediately. I don't have to shop it. I don't have to get the best deal. I don't have to take months with my lawyer. Remember, I'm gonna have a lot of different people singing on this and there are a lot of clearances that have to happen. That could be a year process and I wanna record it now. Secondly, there are a ton of people that have never heard of Kickstarter that are now gonna be aware of it. That's good for all the other additional acts that don't have the recognition I have and don't have people calling 'em for interviews.

You see this approach as opening doors for lesser known artists?

Look, small minded people think in small minded ways, right? They've got the blinders on both sides and all they see is the picture in front of 'em. If they take the blinders off they'll see there's other things around 'em they didn't even take into consideration. So, that's all it is. Again, it's for people that wanna be involved in a process. There's a lot of things they could do. Somebody's gonna be producing one of their songs with me because they donated to Kickstarter. When the f--k have you had an opportunity to record with somebody important to you artistically and be involved in the process?

That is true. Does that mean you'll have to give up some creative control?

No, I'm not gonna give up any creative control. I'll listen to their suggestion; they're gonna be a part of the process and their name's gonna be on the album. Ultimately I have to endorse whatever's going out there. I'm not gonna produce crap. Whoever's gonna be involved will understand that and they'll know that going into it. It's gonna be co-produced by them and not just produced.

Can you talk about the different singers you'll be bringing in?

I can't yet because I don't want to utilize their names to raise the funds. But there's a ton of guys I have in mind and a lot of 'em have already agreed to do it. They're friends and they are people we've toured with. They're all people that are pretty well known but then there are some guys nobody knows that I just feel like they should be heard. They've got something to offer and they're talented. Being famous doesn't necessarily mean you're the best at something.

That's absolutely true.

But also on the flipside and the reverse of that is being unknown doesn't mean you shouldn't be known.

The plans at this point are to continue with the Kickstarter campaign and get the album recorded?

I've been working on it for the last year. In fact pre-production is almost done. We're gonna raise the money with Kickstarter and then we plan on going in and recording in August. Get the process started and hopefully have this thing out by January.

Will you produce this yourself?

I'm gonna produce this along with James who will co-produce. I'm gonna show it to Rick Rubin and I'm sure he'll have some suggestions and there's nobody better than Rick Rubin. Also I'm gonna take advice from everybody that's involved artistically from the singers to the banjo player. If they have a suggestion, I'm open to it because anything that makes it better is OK by me.

Interview by Steven Rosen
Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2014

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    The first thing I learned on the drums was Toxicity, so I've always loved John's drumming. Can't wait for his cover album. Really wondering which Beatles and AFI songs he's picked...