Songwriter Interviews

John Dolmayan of System Of A Down and These Grey Men

by Greg Prato

Share this post

On the songs he covered for his These Grey Men project, the System Of A Down song he'd love to play live, and the sickest drumming he's heard in the last 20 years.



It's always interesting to find out which musical artists served as an influence on other notable artists. And System of a Down drummer John Dolmayan has done just that on his first-ever solo album – a self-titled offering under the moniker These Grey Men.

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.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did you go about picking songs to cover for These Grey Men?

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."

Dolmayan: "Road to Nowhere" is a song that I've enjoyed for decades now. And I thought that David Byrne being an eccentric singer worked very well dichotomy-wise with Serj [Tankian], who is also an individual who is particular in his vocal tone and rhythmic selection – as far as style. So, I thought that would be a perfect song to cover. And of course, I changed the music a little bit – but the melody is still there.

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.

Just what is a "blast beat," you ask? It's a drumbeat that has become common in quite a few extreme metal sub-genres, but the first time yours truly ever heard it was courtesy of drummer Charlie Benante, in the 1985 Stormtroopers Of Death song "Milk," in which sixteenth notes are played rapid-fire style. There are different kinds of blast beats that a drummer can utilize, as seen and heard in this video.
Songfacts: What's one of the lesser-known SOAD songs that you really like?

Dolmayan: A song that I would like to play live that we have never played is "Dreaming." I think there are too many layered vocals on that song to play live, but that is one I would enjoy playing.

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

Further reading:
Remembering Vinnie Paul
Charlie Benante of Anthrax
Tomas Haake of Meshuggah
Chad Channing of Nirvana
Richard Christy of Charred Walls Of The Damned

photos: Greg Watermann

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments

Be the first to comment...

Mike Scott of The WaterboysSongwriter Interviews

The stories behind "Whole Of The Moon" and "Red Army Blues," and why rock music has "outlived its era of innovation."

Danny Clinch: The Art of Rock PhotographySong Writing

One of rock's top photographers talks about artistry in photography, raising funds for a documentary, and enjoying a County Fair with Tom Waits.

Part of Their World: The Stories and Songs of 13 Disney PrincessesSong Writing

From "Some Day My Prince Will Come" to "Let It Go" - how Disney princess songs (and the women who sing them) have evolved.

Scott StappSongwriter Interviews

The Creed lead singer reveals the "ego and self-fulfillment" he now sees in one of the band's biggest hits.

16 Songs With a HeartbeatSong Writing

We've heard of artists putting their hearts into their music, but some take it literally.

American Hits With Foreign TitlesSong Writing

What are the biggest US hits with French, Spanish (not "Rico Suave"), Italian, Scottish, Greek, and Japanese titles?