The System of a Down drummer and successful comic book publisher has released an album of diverse, reimagined covers as well as an exciting new original comic book with an epic story line.
Before the coronavirus lockdown, John Dolmayan was still performing festivals with hard-rock juggernauts System of a Down fifteen years after their last studio release, but when MD spoke to him earlier this year he was happy staying at home and embracing his role as a husband and doting father to two young daughters. The owner of comic book stores in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Orange, California, Dolmayan has been a fixture of the comic scene on the West Coast even longer than he’s been a successful musician. After establishing a lucrative business buying and selling rare comic books while in his early twenties, Dolmayan has managed to thrive in both worlds, as System of a Down’s hundred million worldwide fans and 2005 Grammy win for the track “B.Y.O.B” attest to.
Recorded at Dave Grohl’s Studio 606 and various friends’ studios over a four-year period, Dolmayan’s new solo album includes eight intriguing cuts as diverse as Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” featuring Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and M. Shadows of Avenged Sevenfold, and David Bowie’s “Starman,” which features System of a Down vocalist Serj Tankian. When asked about the surprising set of songs included on These Grey Men—a phrase inspired by a friend who is a former Navy Seal—Dolmayan says, “You should have heard some of the other stuff! I basically wrote down songs that I was listening to at any given time over the course of a year or two. I was thinking, ‘That would be an interesting song to cover,’ or about how I would have approached that song, etc. It boiled down to something that was inspirational to me, a song I enjoyed, or one I thought could be better.”
These Grey Men includes an instrumental version of Eminem’s “Rock Bottom” that serves as a backdrop for a sprawling, Joe-Morello-inspired drum solo. “I threw in the drum solo,” Dolmayan says, “because people have been asking me for one for a long time.” Dolmayan chose a rudimental approach focusing on the snare drum first, and then added the toms and eventually kick and cymbals as melodic elements, as a tribute to Morello’s inspiration. “That may not be the solo I do in the future,” he says, “if I do another one. My dad was a jazz musician, and he used to say, ‘John, it’s easy to do solos with cymbals all over the place. But listen to Joe Morello. He barely touches the cymbals. A real drummer should be able to create something interesting just using the toms and the snare.’ I tried to do that on this solo, and you guys will be the judge on whether I succeeded or failed.”
Playing with more of his usual fire and aggression, Dolmayan pushes and prods the rest of the material on These Grey Men with a laser-like focus on the melody. Dolmayan has developed an innate ability to read Tankian’s boisterous dynamic and rhythmic tendencies over the years, and the two songs the vocalist is featured on give System of a Down fans a sweet, if brief, taste of the musical personalities they’ve been missing since the band’s last release, Hypnotize.
“The drums on These Grey Men were all recorded at once,” says Dolmayan. “It was really the rest of the layers that took forever, like the vocals, guitars, and bass. The strings alone, which I’d never done before, took like three months. The rest was mostly [done at] friend’s studios. It was kind of an old-school process, and that was fun, because the last session with System was the complete opposite of that. We were at Rick Rubin’s mansion, and we had people going and getting us food and all that stuff. This was like, ‘Hey, call Postmates and have Jack in the Box come by.’ It’s fun to get your hands in the dirt and do the work.”
According to Dolmayan, he used two kits to record These Grey Men. “I used one of my touring kits,” he says, “a Tama that I recorded System of a Down’s Toxicity with. It’s a pretty big kit—double bass and the whole deal.
I also used the Gretsch kit that I recorded Mezmerize and Hypnotize with. The drum solo was with the Tama.”
An avid creative writer since childhood, Dolmayan is also self-releasing an original comic book series called Ascencia. “I’ve collected comics since I was about twelve,” he says. “I’ve always been one of those kids who was daydreaming in school, looking out the window, focused on something else, and thinking about the bigger world. Ascencia is about a meteorite that hits the Earth, and we think it’s bringing on the destruction of the planet, but it ends up just landing kind of harmlessly in the middle of nowhere. There’s an orb in the middle of this crater, and we discover that it has properties to make you younger. The closer in proximity to it you are, the younger you get, and more quickly. A society develops around this thing, and of course it’s limited to how many people can live there, so it becomes a matter of who deserves eternal life, what you’ll do to get there, what you’ll do to maintain that status, and who you’ll abandon during the process.
“I’ve got a great team,” Dolmayan adds, “and I’m self-publishing it because, quite frankly, System of a Down has a hundred million fans worldwide, and if I can’t sell 15 to 20 thousand copies of my book, then I’m doing something wrong. I think that people will gravitate toward this idea who don’t necessarily like comic books, and also those who may not know who I am in the music business, just because of the story not being about superheroes. It’s more about common, normal people that do uncommon and abnormal things to stay in a place that shouldn’t exist.”
Elaborating on his creative process, Dolmayan says, “I write while I’m listening to certain kinds of music. Usually it’s classical, but also a lot of movie scores and some softer rock stuff. It puts you in a certain mood. Sometimes I’ll put more morose music on when I go to a dark place.”
Dolmayan plays Tama drums, Paiste cymbals, LP percussion, and Sako custom-milled iron snare drums, which are made by his longtime drum tech, Sako Karaian. He uses Evans heads, his own signature-model Vic Firth sticks, and JH Audio custom in-ear monitors.