The roots of System of a Down lie in the band Soil (not to be confused with SOiL), a group from Los Angeles that included Serj Tankian on vocals and Daron Malakian on guitar, as well as Dave Hakopyan (Bassist for Apex Theory) on bass and Domingo Laranio (Local Hawaii Drummer) on drums. Shavo Odadjian joined Soil quite near the end as a guitarist. After three years, and only one live show and one jam session recording, the band split up.
After Soil split up, Tankian and Malakian then formed a new band, System of a Down, calling on Shavo Odadjian whom they knew from when Soil shared a recording studio with Odadjian's previous band and when Shavo was their short-lived guitar player. Odadjian was originally the band's manager and promoter. Odadjian quickly accepted the offer to join the band as the permanent bassist. Since then managerial duties have been undertaken by highly successful Velvet Hammer Music and streetwise founder David "Beno" Beneviste. One of their first releases was "Sugar!” which was found on the first demo tape and they have played it at every live performance since then. They found a drummer, Andy Khachaturian, who joined the band. They then quickly made an early Untitled 1995 Demo Tape which had very early recordings of "Mr. Jack," "The Metro," and "36.". After this they made Demo Tape 1 which had early versions of: Sugar, Suite-Pee, and P.L.U.C.K, as well as the rare track DAM. Demo Tape 2 was released in 1996 and had a rough demo of the song Soil as well as the most known unreleased tracks known as Honey and Temper. At the beginning of 1997 they recorded the final demo tape, Demo Tape 3 which had rough work of Peephole, War?, and Know. In mid 1997, Andy Khachaturian left the band due to a hand injury. Soon after playing at the Whisky A Go Go and Viper Room with new drummer John Dolmayan, producer Rick Rubin caught their attention and told them to keep in touch with him. Showing great interest, near the end of 1997, they made a Demo Tape 4. This demo however was not released in public or at shows rather it was made to be sent to record deals and it later leaked onto the internet. After Rick wanted them to be signed on to American/Columbia records, they began to record with his studio. Prior to 1998, their live shows were called, "The Dark Red Experience" and their logo was different from what it is now. In 1997 they won Best Signed band from the Rock City Awards.
In the summer of 1998, System of a Down released their debut album, System of a Down. They enjoyed moderate success with their first single "Sugar" becoming a radio favorite, followed by the singles "Spiders" and "War?". After the release of the album, System of a Down toured extensively, opening for Slayer 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 2000, the group contributed their cover of the Black Sabbath song "Snowblind" to the Sabbath tribute album Nativity in Black 2. System was scheduled to play the 1999 Family Values Tour, but were kicked off by Fred Durst over his inability to sign the band Taproot. Fred Durst has since admitted that he was a "complete wanker" in relation to this "oversight" The band have yet to comment on Durst's involvement or commentary.
The group's big break arrived when their second album Toxicity debuted at #1 on the American and Canadian charts, eventually achieving multi-platinum certification. The album has since sold 6 million copies worldwide. It was still on top in America on the week of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the political environment caused by the attacks added to the controversy surrounding their hit single "Chop Suey!" causing it to be taken off the radio as it contained politically sensitive lyrics at the time such as "trust in my self-righteous suicide." Regardless, the video gained constant play on MTV as did the 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 of 2006, VH1 listed Toxicity in the #14 slot in the 40 Greatest Metal Songs.
In late 2001, a few unreleased tracks made their way onto the Internet. The group released a statement that the tracks were unfinished material. Soon after, the band released the final versions of the songs, which were recorded at the same time, but hadn't been used for Toxicity. The result was Steal This Album! 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 and as a message to those who stole the songs and released them on the Internet. Dolmayan said in an interview "I don't care if fans download our songs from the internet but I don't like it when fans get our songs before the release date". The singles "Innervision" and "I-E-A-I-A-I-O" were released as radio-only promos 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.
From 2004 to 2005, the group produced a double album, Mezmerize/Hypnotize with the two parts released six months apart. The first album, Mezmerize, was released on May 17 2005, to favorable reviews by critics. It debuted at #1 in the United States, Canada, Australia and all around the world, making it System of a Down's second #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 war, 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 #1 in the US, making System of a Down, along with The Beatles and rapper DMX, the only artists to ever have two studio albums debut at #1 in the same year. Their second single off the Hypnotize album, "Lonely Day" was released in March in the United States.
In February of 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. The band headlined Ozzfest 2006 in cities where tour founder Ozzy Osbourne opted not to appear or wasn't playing on the main stage.
In May of 2006, the band announced they were going on hiatus. Daron Malakian has confirmed the break will probably last a few years, but insists that the band is not splitting up. 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 a rest."
During their performance in Houston, Malakian also took a moment to say, "There's been a lot of rumors about us breaking up. Well don't fuckin' listen to them. Us four right here, we will always be System of a Down!"
During the hiatus, Malakian will be in a band called Scars on Broadway, and will work on its debut album in the fall. Odadjian will also be participating in the project. He will also be working on a project with RZA of Wu-Tang Clan. Tankian plans to keep recording as a solo artist/producer in "Serjical Strike", while Dolmayan plans to open a comic book store online, which should be up online in November 2007.
System of a Down's final performance before their hiatus 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."
Tankian recently said that he has wanted to work on his "solo record for years". As for the future of the band, he said that he does not know whether System of a Down is over or not. He also stated that "maybe in a few years" the band would "want to make another album. It's impossible to tell right now. It'll be later down the line; then we'll be able to tell what might happen."
For the 2007 Grammys, System of a Down was nominated for Best Hard Rock Performance for "Lonely Day."
System of a Down’s main influence is mostly from early alternative rock bands, as well as from heavy metal, punk rock, jazz, fusion, Armenian folk music (Harout, Paul, Armik), classic rock, blues, industrial genres, and Middle Eastern music. The band has used a wide range of instruments, including electric mandolins, sitars, 12-string guitars and Middle Eastern ouds. They have heavily used drop C tuning in their first three albums.
Daron has stated on several accounts that his songwriting is inspired heavily by The Beatles. Shavo's and Daron's first influences were Kiss. Shavo has also stated in a video interview at Big Day Out that he would not like to do any collaborations, because they don't want to use other people to make themselves famous. Then he quickly changed his answer and said "Mike Patton" and that they would love to do anything with him.