John Dolmayan wanted to get back to work on music — and so he did. The System of a Down drummer says that lack of output from the band is what led him to record his new solo album, These Grey Men, out Feb. 28 on Wake Entertainment.
“It came out of … just being extremely frustrated that my band isn’t working, isn’t making albums, isn’t making music — which is what we’re supposed to be doing,” Dolmayan tells Billboard.
That, combined with a fondness for doing covers — in this case eight of them, including Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” Madonna’s “Hung Up,” Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” Eminem’s “Rock Bottom” and David Bowie’s “Starman” — gave Dolmayan a conceptual vision for These Grey Men. Recording mostly at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606, he had help in the endeavor, with guest vocals by System’s Serj Tankian (Dolmayan’s brother-in-law) and Avenged Sevenfold’s M. Shadows, and guitarists including Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello.
Dolmayan — who also is in the band Scars on Broadway and owns two Torpedo Comics stores in Nevada — talked Billboard through the world of These Grey Men. He also commented on the status of System of a Down, which hasn’t released an album since 2005’s Hypnotize.
Listen to These Grey Men, which is premiering on Billboard.com in its entirety, below, and see what Dolmayan has to say about his solo effort:
What led you to do a covers album?
I always enjoyed doing covers. The fact is I don’t write songs, per se; I’ve written a couple here and there, but that’s not my forte. But I’ve always enjoyed arranging songs, so I said, “OK, here are songs that exist, but … I’m seeing the possibility of doing them differently.” That’s kind of the point to me of doing a covers album — you want people to question whether or not it’s a cover. I’m not a fan of doing covers that sound exactly like the original. If you’re going to take it, you’ve got to make it your own, one way or the other. So it was the process of exploiting that, experimenting with things and coming up with something unique out of something that exists. That was really the inception of this [album].
There’s a big universe of songs out there. How did you select these?
I have nothing but the utmost respect for all the artists I covered. I mean these songs to be tributary; I love their originals — that’s why I did the covers. But most of these songs are innovative in their own way, and it felt appropriate to try to be innovative with them.
Did you cast your guests to specific songs on the album?
Yes, I actually chose songs and worked on them with specific singers in mind. That’s why there’s only eight songs, ’cause I couldn’t get the people I wanted on the rest of them, so I didn’t bother finishing them. Originally [Tankian] was going to do one song; he wanted to do “Starman,” but I insisted he do “Road to Nowhere,” too. I covered that song with him in mind, so he was gracious enough to do both. He’s my brother-in-law, so he didn’t have much choice.
There are certainly some unique versions on These Grey Men. How did Madonna’s “Hung Up” become mashed up with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio”?
I was in a club in Italy, and it came on. I was like, “Wow, that’s an awesome melody line.” I went and listened to the song later and looked more into it and said, “OK, she sampled this ABBA line.” Then I listened to the ABBA song [“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight”), and I liked that even more than the Madonna song. Madonna’s lyrics are kind of formulaic, the same thing over and over again, and I’m not really into that. So I changed the lyrics and just basically took the essence of the song and expanded it and made it a little more derivative of my style. And then just to add a little spice and mess with it a little more, I put in a middle eight part [from “Ohio”].
And Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”?
First of all, I love the original, and I loved the video. I think Radiohead is a brilliant band, but I didn’t like that the drums come in nearly at the end of the song. I always want the drums to come in earlier when I listen to that song, so I did that and created this kind of Zeppelin-y feel to it. And then I got lucky ’cause I got M. Shadows and Tom Morello to agree to do it, and this is what came out of it.
What in Eminem’s “Rock Bottom” led you to make it sound like Carlos Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice”?
It’s funny you say that because I really wanted Santana to play on that song, and I reached out to him but I never heard back. But I don’t know, man. We have no lyrics on it. I basically made it a drum solo song, but I’m not opposed to adding lyrics to it, so I might release it at some later time with lyrics. I love Eminem. I think he’s really innovative. I like the way his syncopation works.
Could you do another album like this?
I have other songs in mind that didn’t get made ’cause I couldn’t get the singers for them, so I’d be interested in doing it again. There’s a few songs I really want to do, like [The Beatles’] “Helter Skelter.” I might record that one fairly soon and just put it out for fun. There’s one I wanted to do with Brandon [Boyd] from Incubus and something with Maynard [James Keenan] from Tool, but we couldn’t connect, so maybe those can happen.
I’m not going to make any money off this. I think that’s pretty clear. But you do things because you enjoy doing them, and I’m blessed to have made a lot of money in System of a Down. It affords me the opportunity to do projects like this strictly for enjoyment. It’s nice to have that in your life.
Why doesn’t System do another record?
I don’t know. Maybe because we’re stupid? Because our egos get in the way? Maybe because there’s too much drama from the past that people can’t get past. I don’t have a good answer for you because I don’t agree with not doing an album. It sucks.
Have you been close to getting something done in the recent past?
Some of us are closer than others, I think. Not all of us get along very well, but I say we all get along good enough. It’s kind of like having brothers, man. You have three brothers, you’re not going to like all of them the same. They’re not all going to like you the same. Each of us has our favorites, but at the end of the day, you’re brothers nonetheless. But I want to kill some of the guys in the band sometimes.
That could be a real danger. You’re the drummer and probably the strongest, right?
(Laughs.) Well, I’m bigger than everybody else. I weigh 215 pounds, and I’ve been playing drums for 30 years. They wouldn’t stand a chance! I could easily kick all three of their a–es at the same time. But I have a plan of attack … I would have to take out Serj first. I think he’s the most difficult to get past. He’s tall and very athletic. Don’t let him fool you.
System has announced a couple of shows with Korn and Faith No More in Los Angeles. Are more coming?
We have the tour in June in Europe, and I would really like to get back East, and we haven’t done Texas in forever. We haven’t been to Florida. We haven’t been to some of the Southern states in a long time. We haven’t played the Midwest in a second. So there’s a lot of places I would really like to get back to and play if my band will be willing to do it. But everything is pulling teeth in my band. Sometimes I have to literally get into arguments just to get anything done.
What’s it like when System actually is out and touring?
That’s what is so odd about it — we have the time of our lives on tour. We go to dinner. We go to museums. We’re in very nice hotels, and we’re playing these great shows in front of amazing fans who support us throughout our bulls–t. So it makes no f–king sense whatsoever that we don’t do more. None.
Anything new on the comics front?
I’m putting out my own comic book in April. It’s a sci-fi epic monthly series called Ascencia. In a nutshell, it’s about the choices one would make if given the opportunity to live in a place that keeps you immortal — like, who would you betray? Whom would you screw over and abandon? It would test your moral fiber and test who you are as a person and make you question everything about yourself.
This is an idea I’ve been working on almost as long as I’ve been working on this album, which is about five years. I’m very proud of it, and I hope people enjoy it.