Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian attended Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School as children, although due to their eight-year age difference they did not meet until 1992 while working on separate projects at the same recording studio. They formed a band named Soil with Tankian on vocals and keyboards, Malakian on vocals and guitar, Dave Hakopyan (who later played in The Apex Theory/Mt. Helium) on bass and Domingo "Dingo" Laranio on drums. The band hired Shavo Odadjian (another Rose and Alex Pilibos alumnus) as manager, although he eventually joined Soil as rhythm guitarist. In 1994, after only one live show at the Roxy and one jam session recording, Hakopyan and Laranio left the band.
Demo tapes and signing (1994–97)
After Soil split up, Tankian, Odadjian, and Malakian formed a new band, System of a Down. The group took its name from a poem that Malakian had written titled "Victims of a Down". The word "victims" was changed to "system" because Odadjian believed that it would appeal to a much wider audience and also because the group wanted their records to be alphabetically shelved closer to their musical heroes, Slayer. Odadjian switched from guitar to bass and passed on his managerial duties to Velvet Hammer Music and Management Group and its founder David "Beno" Benveniste. The band recruited drummer Ontronik "Andy" Khachaturian, an old school friend of Malakian's and Odadjian's who had played with Malakian in a band called Snowblind during their teens.
In early 1995, System played as "Soil" at the Cafe Club Fais Do-Do, a nightclub in Los Angeles. Shortly after the event, System of a Down made what is known as Untitled 1995 Demo Tape, which was not commercially released but appeared on file sharing networks around the time of the band's success with Toxicity about six years later. Demo Tape 2 was released in 1996. At the beginning of 1997, System of a Down recorded their final publicly released demo tape, Demo Tape 3. In mid-1997, drummer Khachaturian left the band because of a hand injury (he subsequently co-founded The Apex Theory, which included former Soil bassist Dave Hakopyan). Khachaturian was replaced by John Dolmayan.
The band's first official release of a professionally recorded song was on a collection called Hye Enk ("we're Armenian" in English), an Armenian Genocide recognition compilation, in 1997. Soon after playing at notable Hollywood clubs such as the Whisky-A-Go-Go and Viper Room the band caught famed producer Rick Rubin's attention who asked them to keep in touch with him. Showing great interest, the group recorded Demo Tape 4 near the end of 1997. Unlike the previous demo tapes, however, Demo Tape 4 was made only to be sent to record companies (although it has since been leaked onto the internet). Rubin signed the group onto his American/Columbia Records, and System of a Down began to record in Rubin's studio with engineer Sylvia Massy, laying down tracks that would eventually be released on their debut album.
Also in 1997, the group won the Best Signed Band Award from the Rock City Awards.
Self-titled album (1998–2000)
In June 1998, System of a Down released their debut album, System of a Down. They enjoyed moderate success as their first singles "Sugar" and "Spiders" became radio favorites and the music videos for both songs were frequently aired on MTV. After the release of the album, the band toured extensively, opening for Slayer and Metallica before making their way to the second stage of Ozzfest. Following Ozzfest, they toured with Fear Factory and Incubus before headlining the Sno-Core Tour with Puya, Mr. Bungle, The Cat and Incubus providing support.
In November 1998, System of a Down appeared on South Park's Chef Aid album, providing the music for the song "Will They Die 4 You?" Near the end of the song Tankian can be heard saying, "Why must we kill our own kind?" a line that would later be used in the song "Boom!" Although System of a Down is credited on the album, South Park character Chef does not introduce them as he does every other artist featured on the record.
System of a Down's former drummer, Ontronik Khachaturian, briefly reunited with the band at a show at The Troubadour in 1999, filling in on vocals for an ill Tankian. In 2000, the band contributed their cover of the Black Sabbath song "Snowblind" to the Black Sabbath tribute album Nativity in Black 2.
Toxicity and Steal This Album! (2001–03)
Guitarist Daron Malakian
met Serj Tankian for the first time in 1993 before forming the band a year later.
On September 3, 2001, System of a Down had planned on launching their second album at a free concert in Hollywood as a "thank you" to fans. The concert, which was to be held in a parking lot, was set up to accommodate 3,500 people; however, an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 fans showed up. Because of the large excess number of fans, the performance was cancelled by police officers just before the group took the stage. No announcement was made that the concert had been cancelled. Fans waited for more than an hour for the group to appear, but when a banner hanging at the back of the stage that read "System of a Down" was removed by security, the audience rushed the stage, destroying all the band's touring gear (approximately $30,000 worth of equipment) and began to riot, throwing rocks at police, breaking windows, and knocking over portable toilets. The riot lasted six hours, during which six arrests were made. The band's manager, David "Beno" Benveniste, later said that the riot could have been avoided if the group had been permitted to perform or had they been allowed to make a statement at the concert regarding the cancellation. System of a Down's scheduled in-store performance the next day was cancelled to prevent a similar riot.
The group's big break arrived when their second album, Toxicity, debuted at No. 1 on the American and Canadian charts, despite the events of 9/11. The album has eventually achieved 3x multi-platinum certification in the United States It was still on top in America during the week of the 9/11 attacks and the political environment caused by the attacks added to the controversy surrounding the album's hit single "Chop Suey!" The song was taken off the radio as it contained politically sensitive lyrics according to the 2001 Clear Channel memorandum at the time such as "(I don't think you) trust in my self-righteous suicide." Regardless, the video gained constant play on MTV as did the album's second single, "Toxicity". Even with the controversy surrounding "Chop Suey!" (which earned a Grammy nomination), System of a Down still received constant airplay in the United States throughout late 2001 and 2002 with "Toxicity" and "Aerials". In May 2006, VH1 listed "Toxicity" in the number 14 slot in the 40 Greatest Metal Songs.
In 2001, the band went on tour with Slipknot throughout the United States and Mexico. Following a performance in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Odadjian was allegedly harassed, ethnically intimidated, and was physically assaulted by security guards backstage, who then dragged him out of the venue. Odadjian received medical attention from police and later filed a suit against the security company. Despite the incident, the tour was a success and System of a Down and Slipknot went on the Pledge of Allegiance Tour with Rammstein in 2001.
In late 2001, unreleased tracks from the Toxicity sessions made their way onto the internet. This collection of tracks was dubbed Toxicity II by fans. The group released a statement that the tracks were unfinished material and subsequently released the final versions of the songs as their third album, Steal This Album!, which was released in November 2002. Steal This Album! resembled a burnable CD that was marked with a felt-tip marker. 50,000 special copies of the album with different CD designs were also released, each designed by a different member of the band. The name of the album is a reference to Abbie Hoffman's counter-culture book, Steal This Book as well as a message to those who leaked the songs onto the internet. The song "Innervision" was released as a promo single and received constant airplay on alternative radio. A video for "Boom!" was filmed with director Michael Moore as a protest against the War in Iraq.
Mezmerize, Hypnotize and separation (2004–06)
has gained a reputation for his large vocal range along with his unusual delivery.
Between 2004 and 2005, the group recorded the follow-up to Steal This Album!, a double album, which they released as separate installments six months apart from each other. The releases notably included album cover artwork by Malakian's father, Vartan Malakian, and were designed to connect the two separate album covers. The first album, Mezmerize, was released on May 17, 2005 to favorable reviews by critics. It debuted at No. 1 in the United States, Canada, Australia and all around the world, making it System of A Down's second No. 1 album. First week sales rocketed to over 800,000 copies worldwide. The Grammy Award-winning single "B.Y.O.B.", which questions the integrity of military recruiting in America, worked its way up the Billboard Modern Rock and Mainstream Rock charts. The next single, "Question!" was released with Shavo Odadjian co-directing the music video. Following the release of Mezmerize, the band toured extensively throughout the United States and Canada with The Mars Volta and Bad Acid Trip supporting.
The second part of the double album, Hypnotize, was released on November 22, 2005. Like Mezmerize, it debuted at No. 1 in the US, making System of a Down, along with The Beatles, Guns N' Roses, and rappers 2Pac and DMX, the only artists to ever have two studio albums debut at No. 1 in the same year. In February 2006, System of a Down won the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance for "B.Y.O.B.", beating out other established artists such as Nine Inch Nails and Robert Plant. Their second single off the Hypnotize album, "Lonely Day" was released in March in the United States. System of a Down released "Kill Rock 'N Roll" and "Vicinity of Obscenity" as their next promo singles. The band headlined Ozzfest 2006 in cities where tour founder Ozzy Osbourne opted not to appear or was not playing on the main stage (with the exception of the show at Randall's Island, where Ozzy Osbourne headlined the second stage before System of a Down's performance that night).
Whereas on System of a Down's previous albums most of the lyrics were written and sung by Tankian and the music was co-written by Tankian and Malakian (and sometimes Odadjian), much of the music and lyrics on Mezmerize/Hypnotize were written by Malakian who also took on a much more dominant role as vocalist on both albums, often leaving Tankian providing keyboards and backing vocals.
System of a Down's song "Lonely Day" was nominated for Best Hard Rock Performance in the 49th Grammy Awards in 2007, but lost to "Woman" by Wolfmother.
May 2006 saw the UK publication of a biography of the band entitled System of a Down: Right Here in Hollywood by writer Ben Myers. It was published in the US in 2007 through The Disinformation Company. Also in 2006, concert footage and interviews with the band concerning the importance of helping create awareness and recognition of the Armenian Genocide were featured in the film Screamers, directed by Carla Garapedian. An interview with Tankian's grandfather, a survivor of the Genocide, was also included in the film as well as Tankian's and Dolmayan's meeting with (then) Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert during which the two musicians campaigned for the United States government's official recognition of the Genocide. Footage of Tankian and Dolmayan marching with protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington D.C. was also used in Screamers.
In May also, the band announced they were going on hiatus. Malakian confirmed the break would probably last a few years, which Odadjian specified as a minimum of three years in an interview with Guitar magazine. He told MTV, "We're not breaking up. If that was the case, we wouldn't be doing this Ozzfest. We're going to take a very long break after Ozzfest and do our own things. We've done System for over ten years, and I think it's healthy to take some rest." System of a Down's final performance before their separation took place on August 13, 2006 in West Palm Beach, Florida. "Tonight will be the last show we play for a long time together," Malakian told the crowd during Sunday's last performance. "We'll be back. We just don't know when."
During the band's hiatus, Malakian formed a band called Scars on Broadway, which was joined by Dolmayan. After one self-titled album the project became dormant and Dolmayan left the band. However, the band released their long-awaited sophomore album in 2018, under the name Daron Malakian and Scars On Broadway. Dolmayan, alongside working with Scars on Broadway, formed his own band, Indicator, as well as opened Torpedo Comics, an online comic book store. Odadjian pursued his project with RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, a hip-hop group named AcHoZeN, worked on his urSESSION website/record label, and performed as a member of funk legend George Clinton's backing band. Tankian opted for solo career and released his debut solo album Elect the Dead in the autumn of 2007. He has continued releasing solo albums, recording them almost entirely by himself, after System of a Down reunited.
Reunion and touring (2010–15)
On November 29, 2010, following several weeks of Internet rumors, System of a Down officially announced that they would be reuniting for a string of large European festival dates in June 2011. Among the announced tour dates included UK's Download Festival, Switzerland's Greenfield Festival, Germany's Rock am Ring/Rock im Park, Sweden's Metaltown, Austria's Nova Rock Festival and Finland's Provinssirock. The reunion tour commenced on May 10, 2011 in Edmonton, Alberta. System's first tour through Mexico and South America began on September 28, 2011 in Mexico City, ending in Santiago (Chile) on October 7, 2011. From late February to early March 2012, they headlined five dates at Soundwave festival. This was the band's first visit to Australia since 2005. The band have continued playing around the world. On August 11 and 12, 2012, they played the Heavy MTL and Heavy T.O. music festivals in Montreal and Toronto, respectively. In August 2013 System of a Down played at the UK's Reading and Leeds Festivals, among other festivals and venues that year.
System of a Down played their only 2013 US performance at the Hollywood Bowl on July 29; tickets sold out hours after going on sale on March 22.
On November 23, 2014, System of a Down announced the Wake Up The Souls Tour to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The tour included a free concert in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia on April 23, 2015, their first show in the country.
Possible sixth studio album (2016–present)
In a November 2016 interview with Kerrang!, drummer John Dolmayan revealed that System of a Down was working on more than a dozen songs for their follow-up to the Mezmerize and Hypnotize albums. Although he stated that the band does not know when the album will be released, he added that, "I want everyone on board and feeling good about it. That's what we're trying to accomplish right now. There's a tremendous amount of pressure on us, though, because it's been 11 years—at least 12 by the time it comes out."
In a video Q&A session with fans on July 2, 2017, Shavo Odadjian was asked about the status of the next album, and he responded, "I'm waiting for a new album too. It's not happening. I don't know. I don't know when it's gonna be. Not right now." In a December 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Serj Tankian said that System of a Down wrote some new material but was uncertain of what to do with it. He then said that he doesn't want to commit to a new album due to the lack of committing to longform touring.
In an April 2018 interview, Daron Malakian said that the band did not abandon the idea of making new material. While talking about his solo project in May 2018, he made a passing mention that System of a Down is not making any music at the moment. When speaking to Ted Stryker of KROQ-FM in June 2018, Dolmayan said that he is ready to start work on the next album, but that "certain members of my band haven’t been able to make it work for themselves." He then expressed uncertainty on if it would ever be made.
Shortly afterwards, Malakian singled Tankian out as the reason no new album had yet been released. In a post on Facebook, Tankian detailed his view of the band's past and present conflicts and their overall situation, saying "[A]s we couldn’t see eye to eye on all these points we decided to put aside the idea of a record altogether for the time being." Dolmayan then blamed all the members of the band due to the personal and creative differences that have been preventing them from recording a new studio album. Tankian also expressed uncertainty on if the new album would be made or not, but did not rule out the possibility. He then described on how the sound would be, "It's gotta be organic, it's gotta feel right in every way."
Odadjian said that the band has material written from "like the last 10, 12 years", but is uncertain on if it would form into a System of a Down album or not. He also says that Malakian and Tankian have visual differences on what the album should sound like, and that the band's inner tension have been building far longer than fans would be aware of, despite having love and respect for one another nonetheless.
In a December 2018 interview, Odadjian said that there is no conflict between the members, expressing confidence that System of a Down would eventually record a new album, and claims that they have material written which would be their best to date. However, Tankian stated that there was no talk of the band recording a new album.