The 8-track album sees the SOAD time-keeper joined by instrumentalists James Hazley (guitar), Tom Coppossela (bass), and Danny Shouman (keys) for the majority of the album – but with a rotating cast of singers, including his SOAD bandmate Serj Tankian on the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" and David Bowie's "Starman," and Avenged Sevenfold's M. Shadows on Radiohead's "Street Spirit."
And regarding the project's mysterious title, Dolmayan explained: "A buddy of mine is a former Navy SEAL, and he was staying at my house when I was making the album. He's a very introspective guy and a really good person. We'd have these long conversations. He told me SEALSs would always try to be nondescript. You would never notice them in a room. In other words, they were 'Grey Men.' He said, 'They're kind of invisible - similar to a drummer.' We thought it would be a great title, because many people don't necessarily notice the drummer unless there's a mistake."
The SOAD/TGM drummer spoke with Songfacts shortly after the release of his solo debut – speaking about how the project came together, how he selected the songs, and his thoughts on some standouts of the SOAD song list.
John Dolmayan: It was pretty much at random. On long drives, I would play my iPod or Satellite Radio, and just whatever songs came on shuffle or random. As I was doing that, I started to listen to songs and kind of fantasize about how it would have been if those songs were presented to me and what kind of drums I would have written for them, and how the songs would have changed arrangement-wise. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be cool to approach a covers album in that way - looking at it as if they were just random songs brought to me, and what would I do with them.
Songfacts: The two covers that stuck out for me were Radiohead's "Street Spirit" and the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere."
As far as the Radiohead song, that's my favorite Radiohead song. Always has been. And I love the video of the original. I always wanted the drums to come in a little earlier, and I approached it with John Bonham's style of playing in mind.
Songfacts: Have you gotten the opportunity yet to play any of your cover versions for the original artists?
Dolmayan: I haven't. I would hope they enjoy it, but I'd be a little nervous to play it for them directly. But if they get to hear it, I'll be happy if they enjoyed it.
Songfacts: How similar or different was working on These Grey Men to a System Of A Down album?
Dolmayan: It's pretty different, especially since every decision was made by me. And also, I produced it. Whereas with System, there's four of us and we all have equal say as well as having input from our producer. So, those are the primary differences.
Songfacts: What's your interpretation of the "Chop Suey" lyric?
Dolmayan: Most of the time when I listen to music, I listen to the melody and the way the lyrics syncopate within the song, but not necessarily the lyrics. I'd say the closest lyrics I pay attention to are Rush lyrics – those are more like stories.
Songfacts: Which System Of A Down song do you most connect with?
Dolmayan: Off the melody, I think "Revenga" is one of my favorites. I just like the different things that happen in that song. But lyrically, I'd say the only song that I really play close attention to is "Soldier Side." To me, that's more like a story.
Songfacts: What is the hardest System Of A Down song to play?
Dolmayan: Probably "Sad Statue." I'm not the best double-bass drummer in the world and that song is the most challenging on double bass. It goes from double bass to blast beats with really no break or opportunity to rest. So, I think that's the hardest, but we are able to play it, so it's not that much of an issue.
Songfacts: What's the most misinterpreted System Of A Down song?
Dolmayan: Some idiots thought that "Jet Pilot" was about the 9/11 terrorist attack. We released that song before that happened!
Songfacts: Other than something you did, what's the sickest drumming you've heard on a song in the last 20 years?
Dolmayan: I would say live, I saw blink-182 with the present lineup and I was very impressed with how Travis Barker played live. But it wasn't necessarily a song, it was kind of like a Keith Moon vibe happening.
Songfacts: Will you play live in support of These Grey Men?
Dolmayan: The problem is that a few of the singers live internationally. For example, Jonathan [Dorr] lives in Brazil. So, it's just a matter if I can get everybody in one place at one time to be able to do a show. But I am seriously considering doing a show.
March 23, 2020
Listen to These Grey Men at smarturl.it/TheseGreyMen
To see what John's up to, find him on Twitter: twitter.com/JohnDolmayan
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photos: Greg Watermann
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