Heavy metal has been through a tumultuous time in the last couple of decades. Before 1990 or thereabouts, you either wore spandex or denim, and you either liked Poison or Metallica. You only had two basic directions and everyone was happy. After that, grunge came along and wiped most of the slate clean, after which many metal musicians found themselves flipping burgers and waiting impatiently for MTV to start playing 80s metal again. Sadly for them, grunge begat alternative metal, which itself morphed into nu-metal, a hip-hop-influenced variant which dominated the airwaves until 2002 or so.
But it wasn’t all bad news. Although nu-metal quickly faded from view when people realised how useless most of the bands were (only Slipknot and Korn have managed to retain a significant fanbase), a handful of completely different bands had slipped into the public consciousness simply because of the general open-mindedness of the metal scene at the time. The Los Angeles-based Armenian-American quartet System Of A Down were simultaneously more progressive, more confident and more head-scratchingly unlike any of their contemporaries, and quickly pulled in several nations’ worth of fans with their self-titled debut album in 1998. Alongside frontman Serj Tankian, guitarist Daron Malakian and drummer John Dolmayan, bassist Shavo Odadjian presented the metal-consuming public with music that refused to be pigeonholed: while full-fat riffs were the cornerstone, the band also deployed jazz, prog and straightahead anthemic rock elements that no-one really understood but which sounded pretty epic.
System went on a career break back in 2006, during which all of the members worked on solo projects and contributed to various causes – some of them political in nature, in line with the band’s public stance on several issues. Live dates have been sporadic, but we bagged an interview with him thanks to a request from Ashdown, who make his signature amp.
A Warwick Streamer and his Ashdown amp combine for Shavo's thunderous tone. As he explains, “Ashdown made me a rig called the Shavo 1000, which is like their last rig, the 900, but two steps above it. You can control 1000 watts of tube power, which is great. We were rehearsing one day and [producer, guru and all-round industry legend] Rick Rubin came in, and I usually don’t hear compliments on the bass – I usually hear ‘Oh, the guitar is sounding really great – but this time they said ‘We’ve never heard your bass sounding so good’. I really have to thank both Ashdown and Gibson for doing these things for me, because they’ve really improved my style. I can actually hear every note I play, it’s not wobbly. We tune down to C: we used to go to C#, but now it’s C again, so the old songs sound like the old songs again, and it really helps. My tone cuts through everything: it’s grungier, but you can hear every note and it’s got more low end to it.”
Asked how long he’s been delivering the goods via Ashdown gear, he remarks: “It’s been a long time. I was with Ampeg before then, but then I met [Ashdown head honchos] Dan and Mark Gooday, who told me that they believed in me and that they’d like me to be part of the family. It was really great. They’re a cool team to have on your side and they’ve been nothing but good to me. You can call some companies and they’re like ‘Not now!’, but I can call Ashdown at 2am and they’ll be there. I’d advise anyone to play their gear.”
Shavo’s signal will be pretty pure at the live dates, he adds. “I have effects at home, but I usually don’t use them on stage. Hardly ever, in fact: I don’t really need them. I played with the Wu Tang Clan a couple of times, and it was fun to have a moment going crazy with effects on stage. But with System Of A Down I just go straight through: I have a SansAmp DI that I use for a bit of overdrive and not really anything more than that. That’s it – that’s all I use.”
Ask Shavo to revisit his beginnings as a bass player, and like so many others before him, he reveals that he switched from six strings to four out of necessity rather than choice. “I guess I was like 18 when I picked up a bass,” he recalls. “I’d been a guitar player since I was 11 or 12 – and I still am a guitar player, I have more guitars than basses – but at that time I was trying to get into a band. Guitar players in LA were a dime a dozen at the time, and when I teamed up with some guys in a band it was the time when Rage Against The Machine and Tool were coming out, in 1991, ’92. We were auditioning for bass players, but most of the guys who came in were either too good for the job – they all sounded like Les Claypool – or they sounded like they just picked up the bass a month ago. There was no middle ground for meat-and-potatoes guys who just grooved, where the bass is supposed to be.”
The fateful decision came on the spur of the moment, he adds. “One day I just said, ‘What if I play bass while we’re looking for a bass player?’ and so I hit the bass right away. It didn’t take long. The single regret of my musical career is that when I switched to bass, I traded in some guitar equipment – and I have a lot of equipment – that I wish I still had. It was a Randall guitar amp which I traded in and got a bass. That’s my one regret. I wish I’d just saved some money and bought the bass instead. I miss the sound of that Randall.”
He continues: “In the beginning I played Ibanez BTB basses. I don’t know if they’re still around. I was the first person to ever play them, I think, when they were still at the experimental stage. Those were great basses, but back in those days I would get kinda destructive on stage and break stuff with my bass, and it was good because I could get those basses real easy. Then, when I switched to the Thunderbirds, I said to myself ‘Hold back, little brother’ because those things break fast: you only have to touch the bottom of the neck when it joins the fretboard and it’ll snap off. My new model has some extra wood there, so it’s stronger.”
When SOAD’s career took off, Shavo found himself in demand as a guest musician on various side projects. One of these was everyone’s dream gig: a slot in Parliament-Funkadelic mainman George Clinton’s band, with whom Shavo played a handful of shows. Although his education in the world of bass hadn’t necessarily included icons such as the great Bootsy Collins (“When I got into my jazz phase, it really worked my brain when it came to the music, but I wasn’t really into the individual players: for me it was more about the feel and the sound”), he fitted perfectly into Clinton’s band. Looking back, he laughs: “I tried to do a Bootsy impression: I came out on stage with a big-ass full-length fur coat! George invited me to play in Vegas and LA with him, it was really fun stuff. He was just like ‘Do what you do!’ I asked him what my bass part was and he said, ‘You don’t have a part: your part is you – because when you do you, you do it right, because you’re not trying to do someone else’. Isn’t that great?”
So how does Shavo write his bass parts? Sometimes they come about by mistake rather than design, he says. For example, of the descending bass hook in System’s 1998 song ‘Sugar’, he tells us: “That part was much slower before, kind of like jazz or swing. Now it’s much faster. When we wrote that part originally, it wasn’t in a song, but then we dug it out again.” One thing is for sure, SOAD’s long-time producer Rubin doesn’t play a part in the bass tracks: “He’s more of an inspirational producer than he is hands-on. He makes you do your best, but he doesn’t try to force something that isn’t there. Like they say, find your niche and be the best at it. That’s his model.”
No, Shavo does it the old-fashioned way – jamming out a line, working on it and finding the best way to suit each song. “I don’t write bass-lines as such,” he confides. “I just play the song and if the bass part works I commit it to memory. I just do what the song requires, whether a nice heavy bass-line is needed, or a bouncy one that goes alongside a guitar. If the guitar part is high up, I’ll compensate and play the low end. I need to be on the money.”