John Dolmayan, drummer for Grammy-winning alt-rock band SYSTEM OF A DOWN, has set his sights on his most ambitious project to date. Teaming with long time friend and collaborator James Hazley, formerly of the band Cockeyed Ghost, they have formed THESE GREY MEN. Turning to Kickstarter to bring the project to life, they aim to produce a star-studded covers album and tour. The album will include new renditions of songs by artists such as Radiohead, Outkast, David Bowie and many more, recorded by a band of all-star players (lineup to be announced) led by Dolmayan and his collaborator James Hazley, formerly of the band Cockeyed Ghost. The project offers fans a unique opportunity to share in the creative process, be a part of the inspiration and watch it build from the ground up. Dolmayan is offering various investor incentives, ranging from personal drum lessons and an opportunity to attend a recording session to a private backyard concert and a chance to guest-produce one of the album’s tracks. Rewards also include watching the creative process in the studio via Skype, owning instruments used during the recording, receiving credit in the album’s liner notes, and more. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with John Dolmayan to discuss the origins of this unique project, his creative process for creating the covers, the challenges of bringing These Grey Men to the masses and much more!
Any time we sit down with a musician, we like to hear a little about their formative years. What are some of your first memories of music in your life?
We have to go way back to when I was about two years old in Lebanon. My Dad played, and still does play, saxophone. He actually started on the drums, so that is probably where I got it from! He used to play in jazz bands and Armenian traditional, French, Mediterranean standards in night clubs. Back in the 1960s, when my Dad was growing up, it was a different scene in Lebanon than it is presently. It was very French influenced and it was a popular place for people to go on vacation for people who were European or from the Middle East. He got his love of music there and gave it to me. When I was born, all I heard was music. He had a reel-to-reel player that he would play music on and my Mom would take me to the clubs he played. Now, that might seem a little bit weird to have a two or three year old child in a nightclub but over there it was no big deal. It was clear, even from a very early age that I was going to be a drummer to both of my parents. I used to mimic drummers even before I knew what a drummer was with the hand movements and all that stuff. Nobody really had to push me into that world. It came completely naturally.
Was there a particular catalyst that made you pursue music as your career, as opposed to going a different route?
The funny thing is that I never really pursued a career in music; I just wanted to play drums. I finally convinced my parents to get me a drum set when I was 15 years old. I started to play and would play for three to six hours. I am not recommending anyone does this but I would ditch school and just go play drums. That was my primary interest. I found a few like minded individuals in my school and was interested to new artists through them. The people who surround you introduce you to new kinds of music. I have been very fortunate in that I have had a very diverse range of friends throughout my entire life and because of that I have been introduced to a very diverse range of music which helps solidify my style.
What do you consider the biggest challenge of being an established drummer at this point in your career?
It is difficult. The longer you play, the more you learn, so the tougher it is to learn something new. You have to put in more effort in your later years because in the beginning, I would be able to play for four hours and accomplish something I had never done before. Now, it takes four hundred hours. The muscle memory is there and I am in tune with it. I have been playing for so long it is really difficult to make advancements at this point; it’s not impossible but certainly difficult. It is just a matter of whether or not all of the other things that happen in my life take away from my ability to focus on improvement.
You have a very cool new project in the works — These Grey Men. What can you tell us about how this project came about?
As you may or may not know, System Of A Down has been touring on and off for the past four years with shows here and there. There haven’t been any major tours but we have been doing ten shows here, 15 shows there. It was really fun and it was nice to play again with the guys and it was a lot of fun to play those songs again but it wasn’t satisfying and I wasn’t sure why. I just came to the realization that it was because I haven’t gone into the studio and produced anything artistic since 2008 with the Scars On Broadway album. I was just unfulfilled. I suppose if you eat the same thing every day you will be satisfied and survive but there will be something inside of you gnawing away and wanting something different. That is kind of what it is like for me when it comes to being on the road and in the studio; you kind of have to have both to really be happy. You have to produce something different and then you want to share it with the world; that is what the process is. First, you go into the studio and spend a few years on it. You put everything you have into it and it defines who and what you are at that period of time in your life. Then you move forward and you go and play it for people. It actually grows from the point where you finalize it in the studio to when you are playing it live. There is never a time when I don’t go through that process and say “Fuck! I wish I would have done this or that.” However, at a certain point, you have to let it go.
The album you are creating is billed as a “star-studded covers album.” What inspired you to go this route?
I am not necessarily a songwriter. I have never written a song that I have brought to System Of A Down, or anyone else for that matter, but I am very good at arranging. It is a talent in its own right. Arranging isn’t the easiest thing in the world but it comes pretty easily to me and it always has. With being around someone like Rick Rubin, you kind of learn by watching him work. He is a guy who doesn’t write songs either but what he does when it comes to arranging and rearranging songs is a magical thing and can take a song from being just OK to brilliant. It really is just a matter of honing that skill. I would be driving around a lot because I live in Las Vegas and drive to Los Angeles a lot, at least once a month, to visit friends and family and to do a little business. I generally listen to ‘The Howard Stern Show’ but sometimes I switch it up and listen to music. I have about ten thousand songs on my iPod and I just put it on shuffle to see what comes up. I would listen to songs and for one reason or another, a song would hit me and I would focus on it. I would start rearranging it in my head, start thinking about what I would do drum-wise to enhance the song or I would think about putting it together with another songs. Sometimes songs would come back to back and I would think “That is really interesting. What if those two songs got put together?” There would also be times I would hear songs like “Vegetables” by The Beach Boys. I don’t know if you are familiar with it but it is a really far out, fucked up song but there is brilliance in it! I thought “What if I took that and expanded this part, make that part shorter, and add that part here or there.” It is just rearranging the individual parts into different patterns. You can almost look at it mathematically but artistically it creates some interesting variables. I decided “Ok, I am not really doing anything with System of a Down at the moment. We have no imminent plans to record and I feel the desire and need to create. The passion and fire are there.” I talked o my friend James Hazley, who is a brilliant musician, and that was the beginning of it. I started thinking about it more and more. These things take years to come together and coalesce. I didn’t wake up one day and say “I am going to start a Kickstarter program tomorrow and raise money to put together some album. This is something I thought about for a year before I did anything. I am going to take great pains to make this exceptional, otherwise, I am not going to release it and I will refund the money. If it isn’t incredible; why bother doing it? That is how I feel!
You mentioned James Hazley. How did the two of you first cross paths and what does he bring to the table for a project like this one?
I would like to create an elaborate story about how James and I met in a prison somewhere or something fun but the reality is that we met in high school. He was a 6′ 4″ awkward black kid at the time, now he is like 6′ 6″. I was a 5′ 1″ Armenian kid. We met on the court playing basketball. Obviously, there was an advantage for me because I was a lot faster! [laughs] We both had the same sense of humor. After a couple of weeks playing basketball, you sit there, talk and really get to know them. We both realized we were drummers and that opened up a whole friendship which has lasted 25 years now. He has had his own ups, downs and successes like I have had and we have a very close bond. He was one of the first people I thought of when this project came about because he was completely disenfranchised with music. I think the thought of that was very sad because someone with his potential and talent should always be involved with music regardless of their level of success. He is an amazing talent and I am glad he is a part of this project.
What is the meaning behind the title of the project, These Grey Men, and how did it come about?
When you think about band names or album names and all of that stuff, you come up with the dumbest names, you know? It is always the thing that comes naturally that makes the most sense. From what I know, the stories I have heard, Keith Moon named Led Zeppelin. It wasn’t necessarily a positive thing he was saying. I was with a friend of mine name Mike Fozzio. He is a former Navy SEAL and Bronze Star recipient, which by the way, he gave one of them to me when we went on tour. It was a huge gift! We were talking about life in the SEAL program and all of the things he did in his line of service. He was telling me about how the SEALs looked at themselves and trained themselves to be inconspicuous and the guy you don’t notice, hence the term “Grey Men.” That is exactly how he described it to me and I said, “That is the name of the band!” Originally, it was “The Grey Men” but I couldn’t get the copyrights on that so I changed it to “The Grey Men,” which I feel added even more strength to it. It signifies more than just me, it signifies us. There was also a bit of a double meaning for me there because if you think about it, not too many people know who the drummer is in any given band and usually he is the least known member of the band. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule but generally speaking people don’t care and don’t know. They only realize it when there is the lack of a great drummer. In a lot of ways, drummers are the “grey man” of the band. I like to point this out to people, look at every great band in history and you will notice there is an exceptional drummer; whether it be Ringo Starr or John Bonham, they are exceptional and their talent level is impossible to gauge. With artists of that caliber, what they bring to the table is impossible to value. You can have a phenomenal song but without the drummer to accent it and bring life to it, you don’t have much, in my opinion.
When you look at this project there are many moving parts from the creation of the music to the crowdfunding element. Have you encountered any challenges along the way?
There really haven’t been any challenges for the project because I have no timeline for it and no pressure. The only pressure involved with the project is the pressure I put on myself and that is always the way I approach music. I am not concerned with how anyone else views it, likes it or dislikes it because this is purely for me. Once it is done, it becomes purely for everyone else. That is what art is; a selfish endeavor. I am not in any hurry to get it done and I have invested plenty of my own money into the project. I want people to understand we do this for a number of reasons. First of all, I think Kickstarter is an excellent program. I have and plan on continuing to invest in other projects of lesser known people but also people who are well known. Some misguided fans will say “You are a wealthy rock star. You have sold millions of albums. Why do you need our money?” These are the same people who rarely pay for anything and get all their content for free. They are used to that mindset and they don’t realize that if they continue to do that there will be no content to get. People will not produce bands or take a chance on a band like System Of A Down, for example, if there is no monetary gain for it. Trust me when I tell you that when we got signed to American/Columbia, which is basically a Sony label, they were hoping to make money, just like we were. We don’t want to be poor and we want to invest in ourselves. To take a chance and become a musician as your career isn’t exactly the smartest move on the planet! I had to put in just as much time in to hone my craft as a doctor does. It took me twenty years to get where I am at today. I don’t want people to disregard that just because they don’t have an understanding of the scope. For this Kickstarter program, if you don’t want to be a part of it, no one is forcing you. For the naysayers, feel free not to be involved and feel free not to listen to it for free when it comes out. I highly doubt they will say, “Well, since I am not paying for it, I am not going to listen to it.” Those people actually really irritate me because they are close-minded and don’t understand the way life works.
With the exception of those people, I already have quite a bit of attention towards this program. We have already had over 150 people donate and I appreciate every single one of them. Now I have the pleasure of not only putting out something for them but also having them involved in the process. Another reason I went with Kickstarter was that it, number one, it garners a lot of attention but secondly, it enables me to involve people in the process the way I wish I was involved with the making of some of my favorite albums. Some of the behind-the-scenes things you see are my favorites. For example, there is a six DVD box set on the history of The Beatles. It gives you so much information and insight into their lives, which wouldn’t have been possible if someone wasn’t rolling tape or taking down notes because life just happens. Whether it is music or artistic history, if someone isn’t paying attention and taking notes, it just goes by unnoticed. This project allows people to be involved from the get go. I am really happy about that! One of the incentives I put up was to help produce one of the songs along with me. That is already gone but imagine if somebody in a band that you idolize asked for your advice on how to work on a song!
I am glad you brought that up because you do have a great take on this project and are offering some unique incentives. Clearly a lot of thought went into it.
Yeah, even the process of deciding to go with Kickstarter took six months. I don’t do anything quickly or nonchalantly; everything is thought through. When I decided to do it, just deciding what to offer took two months. It was a case of “How much is too much? How much is not enough. Is this something people are going to enjoy? Are they going to get something for their money that is relevant and worthwhile.” A lot of research went into it and it was a long process. I think we came up with something really enjoyable that people can be involved with, invest in and really feel like they are a part of the project when it is all said and done.
Looking back on your career, how do you feel you have evolved as an artist since first starting out?
Evolution is devolution, right? [laughs] I don’t know. I have evolved in a lot of ways and devolved in a lot of ways as well. I used to be a lot faster when I was 19 but I didn’t have as much weight behind me at that age and my skill level now blows that away when it comes to timing and that type of stuff. I have been a sponge to different types of music. I am constantly listening to things I haven’t heard. You can spend 20 lifetimes and not hear everything, ya know. As long as you are open to it, you are always going to grow. You also gain more confidence as you get a little older. The first time I was in the studio, under that microscope with every single missed hit, rim shot I didn’t want to hit, fuck up or time difference I didn’t want, it was all magnified a thousand times. The first time you are under that pressure is very intense. Keep in mind, nothing happens until the drum tracks are done, so everyone is sitting there looking at you. It was very difficult. Now, I couldn’t care less! There could be a million people watching and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to me. I know what I am doing, I know how to do it and I have the confidence to achieve what I want to achieve, which makes it that much easier to get that magical take. That is what it is all about. You go into the studio, you play the song 75 to 100 times or whatever it is and you look for that one take that has the right feeling to it.
You can serve as a great inspiration to young musicians. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to those looking to make their career in the music industry in today’s climate?
The best piece of advice I could give to anyone isn’t my advice; it’s Lemmy’s of Motorhead. When I was a kid I was watching MTV, back when they played music, and Lemmy came on and someone had asked him a similar question. He said, “Somebody’s got to make it. Why not you?” There are a number of ways you can “Make It.” It isn’t all about money or stardom. If you are pursuing it for those reasons; don’t bother. You can make more money as a lawyer, generally speaking, so pursue that. If you are doing it because you can’t live without it and it is your passion, it’s what you want to do for your life, you want to give something to the world and want it to be your epitaph; that is why you should pursue music or any other art form. Otherwise, you are wasting your time and you are going to be a blip, as opposed to having some real substance and creating something people will enjoy for 100 or 200 years, however long it lasts! I never look at Mozart and say, “Wow. How much money did Mozart have?” Who cares! Who cares how many chicks he fucked, his lifestyle or whatever else? You care about the music! I am intrigued by what inspired him. That is what I am interested in! Eventually, all the money gets spent. The women grow old right along with you and all of these other things but what is left is your music, so leave something you want future generations to hear.
So true! Thanks again for your time today! We look forward to spreading the word on this project. Keep up the good work!
Thank you, Jason. I appreciate your time!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.