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  • Interview: Scars On Broadway

    Tue, 20 May 2008 06:43:50

    Interview: Scars On Broadway - And so it begins

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    The Whisky-A-Go-Go lurks beyond the storied glam and gloss of the Sunset Strip. It's a dark and dank little club that sits at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and San Vicente. Other than its large neon sign and prominent marquis, there's nothing flashy about it. It's dimly lit, and it's got a distinct, strange smell that only history and stale beer could foster. Yet, at the same time, it harbors an immense creative spirit. This is where Led Zeppelin, Guns N' Roses and The Doors all cut their teeth live. There's more rock n' roll history associated with this building than anywhere else on the Strip. The Whisky has a supernatural vibe from years of classic bands gracing its stage. That dark, creative spirit is characteristic of the "real" Sunset Strip, beyond the hairspray, rock star rehab stints and Behind the Music façade. That creativity is also characteristic of Daron Malakian, and he feels right at home at the Whisky.

    A Los Angeles native and diehard music fan, Daron's always felt summoned to the Whisky's stage. System of a Down would go from that very stage to the forefront of hard rock. Through his strangely entrancing vocals and schizophrenic, polyrhythmic guitar playing, Daron helped the band become one of the genre's most important acts. After System carved their multi-platinum legacy, the band went on an indefinite hiatus after headlining OZZfest 2006. However, once Daron's new band Scars on Broadway hit the Whisky stage for their debut show in April, it was apparent that he's been far from quiet. As he ended the set by belting out the lines, "They say it's all about to end," everyone in the room could feel his rebirth on that stage.

    In late 2006, Daron commenced crafting songs for Scars on Broadway with System drummer John Dolmayan. Now, their debut (Due out July 29) sees Daron at his most melodic and metallic, all at once. Songs careen from gnashing, chemically charged thrash to catchy, somber melodic ruminations. At the center lies Malakian's unmistakable voice and rapturous playing. Now, Daron and John both reflect on Scars, their philosophy and this spirit for ARTISTdirect. Prepping their debut, the two delved into everything in this exclusive interview.

    "Thank God, it's all about to end."

    It sounds like you've found the perfect middle ground between Slayer and The Beatles with Scars on Broadway. The songs are often like a train about to derail, but at the same time, they have pristine melodies.

    Daron: [Laughs] Thank you so much! When I used to do interviews for System of a Down during the first record, that's how I tried to explain the direction that I go in. I used to say, "It's everything from Slayer to The Beatles." It's so funny that you said that. Have you read any of those old interviews? [Laughs] I always used to say my writing style falls between those two bands.

    That vibrant, violent energy comes out in songs like "I Like Suicide." Then tracks like "World Long Gone" have some huge hooks. It's completely diverse.

    Daron: Thank you, man. I appreciate that. I really do. The best stuff all comes out at one time. In a lot of cases, those songs just came out, whether I was playing, keyboard, guitar or another instrument. The whole thing just puts itself together sometimes. Other times, I go back and re-touch some things. For the most part, I've got the ideas of what the guitars, bass, drums and even the keyboards and vocals should do. The song is already in my head, in its entirety. So when I'm playing my guitar and singing, I can hear everything else going on naturally, in my head.

    So is that the general process behind the songs for Scars?

    John: Daron brings in the songs about 85 to 90 percent done. He spends most of the time crafting the songs before he gets in the studio. Once we get in there, I might make a little suggestion here or there. Sometimes the suggestions work great, and sometimes they don't work at all. It just depends on what the suggestion is. For me, making this record wasn't different at all. I did the same thing for Scars that I did for System. It went a little easier, because there were only two of us making the decisions. So that's a little less complicated, but it really wasn't that different from System. I'm pretty much always in the zone. If you put me behind a drum set right now, I'm in the zone. When I'm playing, the more melodic the music is, the more I feel it. It just becomes like I'm not even in power anymore. It just happens. It's just a natural thing that happens, like breathing or walking. You don't even really think about it, but it just happens.

    So Daron, you have these thoughts and ideas in your head waiting to be unearthed?

    Daron: Sometimes I don't even know what the thoughts are. It's almost like I don't know what I'm about to say in my next three or four sentences. You ask me, and then my words come out. You can't predict it. I don't really sit down and say, "I'm going to write a song like this." The lyrics just come out randomly, in the same way that the music does.

    John: I don't know where Daron comes up with this shit, to be honest with you. I couldn't write a song to save my life, but he has a great balance of melody and angst within himself. He seems to get it out in the most interesting ways. He doesn't write typical songs, and I give him credit. I couldn't do it. I wouldn't play to music that didn't challenge me. Everyone wants to be a drummer. So Daron, in his mind, writes a lot of music that he thinks would be challenging for a drummer. At the same time, if I overplayed it as a drummer, it would become more about the drums than the song, and I don't believe in that. It took me a long time to come to the understanding with myself that the song is more important than my drumming, but I didn't realize it until about 10 years ago.

    It seems like everything comes out naturally, and you really don't have any boundaries.

    Daron: I just don't like putting walls around it or saying, "Well, we do metal, or we do rock." It's what the song asks from me and from the rest of the band. That's what we do. We follow the song. If I write a song that needs a little bit more synth or if it needs to be more "metal"—whatever the Hell it is—I'll add it. It's whatever the song is asking for. That's what we've got to cater to.

    John: It really depends on what the music calls for. A lot of this music is more rock-oriented as opposed to metal. I have to play to the music. I was a big fan of John Bonham for sure, as well as Dave Lombardo and Keith Moon. You're going to see a lot of different styles coming out. It just depends on what the song calls for, in terms of what influences come out.

    That's why the songs stand out, because you let them take center stage.

    Daron: Thank you. My approach is not that "technically" difficult, you know what I'm saying? It's more of an emotional thing. It's about being in the right state of mind at the right time, and it's a moody thing. That's how my approach is. It has nothing to do with the technical side of anything.

    How long did this album take to make?

    John: The record took about a year to a year and a half. Nothing really happens too quickly with us. Of course, nothing worth doing happens quickly and half-assed. It's better to take your time and make sure you're doing it right. Once it's done, it's done. So we make sure it's the best it can be, because once it's out there in the universe, we want to make sure it's the best it can be. We had to fight those urges to want it out quickly.

    The best music is definitely based on feeling. It's emotional, and it can't really be quantified.

    Daron: Some of the ridiculous lyrics that I write can't be written on paper [Laughs]. The lyrics I've written just came out in my head. Sometimes, I have to write them on a piece of paper for reference, or for memory's sake. Some of the lyrics like "Chemicals," or in the past, "My dick is much bigger than yours," if I sat down and actually wrote those lyrics, I'd probably be like, "I can't sing those. I'll look stupid." [Laughs] When you don't actually write them down, they're more like a thought, rather than a line that you wrote.

    The lyrics come directly from the songs that way.

    Daron: Yeah, they just come out at the moment. I never sit there and say, "I want to write a song about this" or "I saw something in the street today, and I want to write a song about that." I let it all happen. All of the stuff that I see, and do, comes out in my lyrics. However, it comes out subconsciously rather than emerging in an intentional fashion. It comes out from the back of my mind, and things mix together. My personal life will mix with the wars in the world, politics and religion all the way down to a kitty cat that walks by my house. It's all part of the world, and it's all part of my world. I don't put any censors on it. There are no rules that say I've got to only write about politics, or I've got to only be mad all the time. The music can go from being extremely happy, to being extremely frustrated, to mad to whatever. That's all involved in my life. It's all there. I let it come out subconsciously. A lot of times, I write something, and I don't actually know what I'm singing about. Then it hits me, like a year later. I'll say, "Wow, now I know that's what that was about. I didn't know it, but now I know."

    As for the songs, "Whore Street" and "Universe" really were amazing. What songs stand out for you guys?

    Daron: My dad likes "Universe" a lot [Laughs]. I feel like my style was still there, but I didn't want to go at it as copying anything that I've done in the past. I also didn't want to let go of my identity as a songwriter, and that's what I tried to achieve with Scars. I wanted to give Scars its own sound, but at the same time, I didn't want to completely lose touch with my past as a songwriter.

    John: The songs are all so unique. I guess my favorite, if I had to pick one, is "Babylon." There's really no way to explain it. It's not like verse-chorus, verse-chorus. It's very different. It's more of a piece than a song.

    Well, you're evolving, but you want to maintain your identity.

    Daron: I guess that's what I'm trying to achieve, and it's not that easy, man. It really isn't.

    Do you feel like there's a lot of pressure coming into this record?

    Daron: There is, because of the expectations that come from System. I've always said the odds are against me and Scars. If you look down the line at guitar players that started new bands, there aren't too many success stories in there [Laughs]. It was a challenge like no other. I always felt challenged though. We did the first System record. Then Toxicity was one challenge. Hypnotize and Mezmerize were another challenge. To keep evolving was a challenge. In the case of Scars, I was trying to evolve, but not make it completely a System evolution. I wanted to make Scars its own thing at the same time. It was a challenge, man. I have to say. That's why it took me awhile. This project started in my head, while I was still writing for Mezmerize and Hypnotize. So I wanted to put it together in the way that it should be put together, with the right form, band members and songs. It took awhile. I feel I do have the best band members and everything right now.

    John: There's a certain sense of pressure, but I never really succumb to pressure. I thrive under it. If you're not pushing yourself though, what's the point? If you don't grow, you're dying. That's how I look at it. If we were putting out another System album now, we'd still be under the same pressure, because you're only as good as your last work. If we put out a piece of shit record, no one would want it. The only difference between the bands is that there's a different vibe. It's not the same members. The music is different. It's not necessarily characteristic of System, it just touches on it. The biggest pressure for us was beating what we've done in the past. As long as we feel like we're doing that, it's all good.

    You killed it live at the Whisky, and that was the very first show.

    Daron: Yeah, we got a great response, man. To be honest with you, I was nervous as Hell. I felt like I swallowed a tennis ball that day. There were a lot of butterflies. Once I got up there, I was fine. The response from the crowd, during and after, was amazing. I don't really go online and read blogs on the Internet, but my girlfriend and friends tell me that people seemed really into the show. We got compliments on how tight we were. That means a lot to me. This has been a work-in-progress in terms of getting the right people into the band. Some people worked, and some didn't. The fact that it comes off on stage means a lot to me. I didn't want this band to be like, "We're Daron and John. We're from a big band. Come listen to us." I wanted this to prove itself on its own. When you see it, you feel it for real. It's not this band that these guys from another big band are doing. I want all of those thoughts hopefully erased when you see Scars.

    You need each member of Scars to have his own identity.

    Daron: It's important. It's not easy to start a band. Just because you get five guys from big bands, it doesn't mean you're going to be good, and it doesn't mean you're going to have chemistry. So we didn't do that. We didn't go and pick out the guitar player and bass player that we liked from platinum selling bands in order to get publicity. We wanted to get a band with the right chemistry. How does he affect me? How do I affect him? The chain goes on and on until it comes full circle. That's the way I feel this band is. I feel everyone fits his part and complements the other band members. While I'm on stage, I feel that.

    There was a palpable energy at the Whisky. People could feel that this is a re-birth.

    Daron: Cool man! What you're telling me makes my day, because I've worked very hard on making this band that. For me, the songs are most important. It's important that they get out there. It's really important for me that the songs get their chance. The things you're saying really mean a lot to me.

    What was most striking about The Whisky show was the ebb and flow of emotions. Everything from happiness to sadness came out.

    Daron: They're all part of me [Laughs]. I can't put only one feeling in my songs. I have many feelings and many moods. I would be bullshitting my own art, if I put up a wall that said, "I only can be mad all the time." A lot of bands do that, and I'm a fan of a lot of those bands that do that. I just can't do that.

    You guys have an amazing chemistry between you, too.

    John: You've got to realize that Daron and I have played together for so long. It's hard not to become one person on stage, in a sense. We feed off of each other's energy too. I've always locked in with guitarists more, because I lock in with melody and vocals more than I do bass. It's not that Shavo and I weren't pretty locked in, we were always locked in, but I've always played more towards the melody. So it's completely natural for me to play with Daron.

    The live set played out like a movie in terms of sequencing.

    Daron: The album will flow in that same type of way where the songs fit into each other. The pressure's definitely on for us to do something significant.

    How was going back to The Whisky with Scars?

    Daron: I love The Whisky. I think that's my favorite club to play in L.A. When we were playing clubs with System, I enjoyed playing that stage most. I've always loved playing there. I like the history that it has. I love being on that stage and knowing that Jim Morrison and so many other people down the line have played that stage. There's a spirit there. So I like playing there. It's a bit grainy and dark. It's not all pretty and flashy. Most people that walk in there usually say, "This is it?" I'm like, "That's the way it should be!" People expect more out of it, because it's "The Whisky," but it's just a grainy, dark old club.

    John: The first show that we did with System of a Down was at the Whisky, and I wanted the first show that I played with Scars on Broadway to be at the Whisky. It is kind of surreal, because when you look back, you're so busy being involved with it that you don't realize what's going on and what you've accomplished. When you get a second to think about it and take it all in, it is pretty crazy. We accomplished a lot, and it's nice to have the opportunity to do it again.

    The Whisky's vibe worked with the mystique of Scars, because you're carving your own history. How was the Coachella show?

    Daron: The show went really well. The energy was good. I feel very confident when I go on stage with this band. That's really important. You've got to turn around to the left and right and feel the energy. I have no doubts when we get off the stage that we kick ass. I feel it, and I felt that with System too. That's what I was looking for in this band, not necessarily the feeling that I was getting with System, but the spirit that was with us when we played. You have to have that spirit and chemistry together. You can't just get any Tom, Dick and Harry to join the band and feel like, "I'll carry it." No, when people are watching you, they're watching the whole band. They're not just watching me or John. Everyone's got to step up. They've all got to have their own vibe and their own feeling that matches the songs. If you just get up there and jam, it's not much of a show, but if you want to get up there and feel that high of playing a show, you've got to have people surrounding you with that same energy. You can't just get on the basketball court and have everyone but one player just standing around. Everyone has got to have that fire and passion.

    In the '60s and '70s, the bands had individual characters.

    Daron: I think rock has lost a little bit of that character somewhere down the line. People sometimes focus so much on the frontman. In some cases, you don't even know who the rest of the guys in the band are. In the early days of rock, you had Little Richard, The Beatles, Pete Townshend and so many more unique characters. Now you have people that are trying to copy characters of 30 years ago. People are like, "He's good, because he's got this Bowie thing going on for him." Or, it's, "He's good, because he reminds me of T. Rex." It's like, "No." It should be good and not remind you of shit [Laughs]. That's something that impresses me. It should maybe have hints of something, but sometimes things are such copies of other bands that it's unbearable. There are 50 bands that sound like Joy Division out there. It's unbearable. Joy Divison was Joy Division, and they stood on their own. That's why they're good.

    That's why no one is selling records anymore. What new young band has made that great record that's going to be timeless?

    Daron: It's tough to pick it out. There might be some band in the underground, but because they have no corporate machine pushing them, they'll never get heard. I try to write songs that I feel like haven't been arranged exactly. Not to compare myself to any great writers, but the great writers are my influences. When I look back at Bowie, I sit there and say, "This guy was a songwriter. He was writing songs in a style that no one heard before, at that point." What influences me more than his actual music was the mind frame that he might've been in. Even though I'm a big fan of the music too, his mind frame said, "I'm going to structure these songs, but they're going to be different from The Beatles or The Kinks. They're going to be David Bowie songs." So that's what I try to achieve. I want to be a songwriter, but in my generation. In my generation, you can't cancel out music. I've grown up on metal. I've grown up on goth. I've grown up on classic rock and all the rock and rolls that have pretty much existed in the last 50 years. Going back even further, I have an influence from Arabic music from the '40s and the blues from the '40s and '50s. I've absorbed all this music, and that's what makes me the songwriter that I am today. When Bowie was writing, there was no metal or Depeche Mode. I'm trying to be the songwriter of my day, not of his day or anyone else's. I'm not trying to copy a classic rock sound. A lot of those classic rock writers are big influences of mine.

    You've grown up living and breathing music, as a fan.

    Daron: Yeah, I have. I even had a label a few years back, and I named it EatUrMusic. That's pretty much how I live. I really care about creativity in general and art. I've grown up around it. My parents are both artists. So it's been a big part of my life since I was born. There have always been people around me creating. That's the big deal for me. I want to continue to create.

    It seems like you're coming through personally more than ever.

    Daron: Dude, I feel just as proud of these songs as I do of anything else I've ever written in my life. I know a lot of songwriters say that, and a lot of people say that before they're about to put out an album. I really feel that. I mean that. I feel confident about these songs. Some of them are the best work that I've done, and I feel that way. When I'm playing them I feel confident in that. I can't wait for everyone to hear them. I'm a little nervous, but at the same time, I can't wait. I know they're going to speak to people. The first test of a song is, "Does it speak to me? Does it do anything to me?" Usually when it moves me in a way, the track record is shown that it will speak to other people too. In every case, these songs have spoken to me and made me feel something. So in turn, I think they're going to make other people feel something.

    It's a record people will need to hear from start to finish.

    Daron: I hope so, because that's been lost too. People don't listen to records. They just listen to songs. The way I structured this album, and every album I've done, it's meant to be listened to from start to end. I know a lot of people don't have time to sit there and do that, but hopefully at some point they well.

    In every case, these songs have spoken to me and made me feel something. So in turn, I think they're going to make other people feel something.

    Where did the name come from?

    Daron: That's interesting. It has nothing to do with Broadway. There are these light posts on Broadway Street in Glendale, and I've always thought they were strange. As a teenager, I went to Glendale High, and there are these light posts that have Swastikas scarred on the bottom of them. It's not graffiti. It's actually in the design of the light posts. They're scarred in there. The name comes from that. "Scars on Broadway" are the swastikas on the light post. It just baffles me that they keep them. They're one of the oldest things that remain here in Glendale. I'm not sure that they're the Nazi Swastikas, because they might've been here before that, but I've always found them intriguing. It's just an image that's very interesting to me, and it's dark. I can take that name, and it means something else to me. People sometimes say, "All the world's a stage." Well Scars On Broadway can also mean "All the world's a stage, and all we are is a scar on that stage." It can take on a couple different meanings. The idea of the name came from that light post, but then when I actually sat down and thought about the name, the meaning of the name meant something absolutely different to me, and it had nothing to do with that light post anymore [Laughs].

    That phrase also means that everyone is always performing in some way.

    Daron: We're doing it right now. I don't like to do things one dimensionally. I like things to be broad that way. I want 50 different people to take 50 different things from my songs and from whatever I create.

    It's not that it makes people think, it lets people think. We're told what to think and what to feel so often. People can derive their own meanings from your art.

    Daron: I prefer that to explaining things. People put themselves out there too much, and things are too easy to get.

    —Rick Florino

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