Home Music System of A Down’s Shavo Odadjian On New Band, Sneakers & Armenia

System of A Down’s Shavo Odadjian On New Band, Sneakers & Armenia

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Ask any Armenian how they’ve been feeling over the past two months, and you’re bound to hear stories of pain, trauma, and grief. The war in Artsakh, the ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, has resulted in thousands of dead soldiers and indigenous people being forced to leave their ancestral lands. As the world turned its back to the atrocities committed, Armenians across the globe came together. I wasn’t expecting to interview Shavo Odadjian, the bassist for Los Angeles-based nu-metal band System of a Down, but was connected to him after I posted a video of hundreds of Armenians leaving their homes in Artsakh. 

Aside from our heritage, we also have sneakers in common, and I thought it would be good to talk to a fellow Armenian about a bond beyond watching death and destruction. 

“I’ve always been a collector. Right now, I have 13, 14 pairs of shoes in my office,” Odadjian says. “Just because I have no room in my bedroom.”

He’s been into sneakers since the ’80s, when he was an immigrant growing up on North Kingsley Drive in Hollywood, skating in Vans, Converse Pro Leathers, and Air Jordan 1s. His career with System of a Down, which recently had its massive 2001 single “Chop Suey” video surpass one billion views on YouTube, has afforded him sneaker deals with Puma and connections to people like Kanye West.

The war in Artsakh was also a turning point for Odadjian and his fellow members of System of a Down, who reunited after 15 years of inactivity to make two new songs, “Protect the Land” and “Genocidial Humanoidz.” The former was accompanied by a video that featured soldiers, mer herosner as they’re referred to, and was a powerful display of the Armenian spirit. 

“It’s not an Armenian issue,” says Odadjian. “It’s a humanitarian issue. This is not a race thing. This is a people thing.”

We had the chance to talk about all of it, including his project with his new band, North Kingsley, which releases today, Dec. 4, and features a single with RZA.

Being born in Yerevan, [Armenia,] were shoes even a thing to you? I know you moved when you were five. But coming to America, was that when you first got introduced to sneakers?

Pretty much. I used to always wear Vans back in the day. I had every type of Vans and Converse there was. I was a Chucks guy and a Vans guy. I started, around 10, 11, 12, I started wearing these Converse, the high-top, the basketball shoes, and I would skate with those. And then I moved on to Jordans. I would skate in the ’80s. I started skating with Jordan 1s, and that was a big deal. I looked different, because no one was getting with Jordan 1s. That became my little thing. I grew up in Hollywood. It’s a short film on the guys I used to skate with called the L.A. Boys, Paulo Diaz and all those kids. We were all neighbors, and the Powell-Peralta team. We would skate, and I was the kid with the Nikes. 

I was a Puma guy for a while. When System got signed, we got a deal with Puma, and they would just give me carte blanche, bro. I would walk into the Puma office and they would just give me whatever I wanted. I would just take it. I’d walk out with boxes and boxes, so I had every color, every style that I wore. I wore the Suedes a lot. That fed my addiction of being able to get it for free and wearing every color there was and style there was.

But somewhere in the last year and a half, two years, I got back into my Nikes again. Right before that, I got into Yeezys. The Yeezy 500s and 700s, I started wearing those a lot. I don’t know what was the attraction, but I thought they were so different that I was all about them, with the big bulkiness. And I started wearing more cargoes and stuff like that, so they went well.

I got back into my Jordans and wished that I kept my old pairs. And also Dunks. I can’t believe where Dunks have come. Throughout the last year, Dunks have tripled in price and tripled in hype. I’ve given away so many of my old Dunks that are now worth thousands of dollars. It’s crazy.

People nowadays are nostalgic for the nu-metal style from the early 2000s, with the band T-shirts selling for a ton of money. Is that crazy for you, that there’s a market for that?

They are. It’s tripping me out, bro. I’m seeing the A-list people just throwing on System shirts. And then I’m looking at them on eBay, and they’re costing like $500, like a medium from the first tour. I remember we sold those for $13. It’s a trip. And, actually, the style is coming back. It’s weird, after 20 years. I see new metal bands coming out, like, new, nu-metal. Brand new kids playing that style. Here’s what I think, bro. If something’s good once, it’s always going to be cool. It just has to be quality.

Do you have a stash of all the old System T-shirts that you’re like, “Oh, maybe I should sell these one day?”

No, I’m not going to sell them. But I have a bunch of each I’ve ever made. I did all the creative shit, so I did all the T-shirts. I designed most of them. I’ve always put one of every or two of every size away. I have a storage space, and it’s packed. From day one, I have everything that we’ve ever dropped, including all the old cassettes, all the old records that we did. We did a lot of picture disks. We did a lot of cool collector stuff.

I saw you had the Union Jordan 1s?
My grail was that at the moment, because I have the “Black Toe” pair. I’ve had that. That was one of my first grails I ever purchased, and I got it used for $300, $400, a while ago. I was just tripping on those. I loved those, put the yellow laces on those. I didn’t like the blue ones for a while, and I always buy shit that I wear. You have to make that clear. I wear all my shoes. I don’t put them away and look at them deadstock. 

Recently, those Unions, the blue ones, been on my mind. I put a [low] bid on StockX on that pair. [I don’t want to pay] two grand. It’s not really about the money, if I can afford it or not. It’s not that. It’s more about the principal. I like to get a deal here and there, but I was just looking at them. A friend of mine from Banned LA, the owner, was like, “Yo, I got a pair for you. I will just hand them to you for an undisclosed amount.” That happened this weekend, and I was like, “OK, I’m going to come through and grab them.” Bro, I woke up in the morning just to go grab those and someone accepted my low offer, my low bid on those blues. So I have two pairs now. I had zero pairs, now I have two pairs over a 24-hour period.

Do you get the hookup? Because I know there’s a lot of Armenians who sell shoes, especially in L.A. 

No. Introduce me to those guys, please, because I don’t, I try to get them. Because, like I said, bro, it’s not about affording them, but three grand for a pair of shoes is kind of out of this world. And then, since I’ve been getting more and more into Dunks, dude, they’re crazy, bro. I love those Kruegers. That shit’s fucking, like, 25, 30 grand, man. I’m like, fuck, I have three kids. It’s not about affording them, it’s more about, this is going to put 30 grand on the shoe. I could put that 30 grand on family trips somewhere.

I can set you up. It’s funny, that’s how I got more connected with my Armenian heritage, through Armenian sneaker guys in New York.

Please.

Instead of opening jewelry stores, now they’re just becoming sneaker resellers.

That’s hilarious. I need a plug, bro, bad. I need a retail plug, because I love all the shoes dropping, and the SNKRS app don’t get me shit. By the way, in the last year, the one pair that I was able to land was the “Mocha” Jordan 1s. But I haven’t been able to land any other pair on those, man. I end up paying resale, which is kind of sad, man. I’d love to have a plug.

Did you see that Kanye West made an “Ararat” Yeezy?

Yeah, of course he did. I know Kanye well. I was friends with Kanye before he even made a sneaker. I met Kanye in Europe in Germany. I was playing on stage, and I noticed these guys next to me going off, and they were in the backstage area. They looked like hip-hop heads. And I was like, “Who the fuck are these hip-hop guys, amped on System?” I’m a hip-hop guy. I’ve been a fan of hip-hop since day one. After the show, I met all these guys, and one of them was Kanye. I think Virgil was there even. It was just a bunch of the crew. And he was like, “I’m Kanye West.” At the time, I had just heard about him over there. He had that one video where his jaw was bolted. And I was like, “That’s you?” He’s like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Amazing, bro.” In 2011, he picked me up from my house, took me to his own show at Staple Center. I was hanging out, and then he would bring me back home, we’d kick it. He was a big fan. We just kept on being friends until about maybe six years ago. I haven’t seen him for six years, but until then, we were homies. Until the Yeezys came out. And then he went his way, I went my way. 

I lost touch with him. He’s a really cool guy. I can’t believe all the shit going down. And, of course, he married Kim Kardashian. You know Kim’s Armenian. The “Ararat” Yeezy came out, I was tripping on that. That was funny. I was like, “That’s funny.” Because I’m not a big fan of that. I don’t know the Foam RNNR. I don’t know them well. I don’t own one. Do you have one? Have you tried it on?

I personally just wanted it because the shoe was called Ararat.

People would call it the Crocs. I think one of my homies got it. But yeah, I’m not about paying resale on that one.

I think people made a joke that they said that the shoe actually looks like an Armenian nose.

That’s the one I haven’t heard, but that’s hilarious. That’s great. Yeah, it’s a weird one, bro. I don’t know if you know. Before he fired his Calabasas crew, they were all Armenians. The [shoe pattern makers] of the 500, 700? Those were Armenians, all of them.

Oh, really?

Yeah, dude. I just posted something that you check out in my stories. A girl who helped work on the Wave Runner, she hit me up. She’s Armenian, bro, and her dad’s up there [working on the shoes]. I just put some pictures up recently on my stories on Instagram saying, “Look, Armenians are just designing Yeezys.”

Oh, that’s crazy, man.

Isn’t that crazy? An Armenian helped make the Wave Runner.

I want to ask you too, with System of a Down coming back, after 15 years you guys put out the two new songs. Obviously, you guys didn’t want to have to put out those two songs, but how was it to make the comeback, given everything going on with Artsakh?

We did not expect to do what we did at all, but the common bond we have is that, that’s one common bond that will never be broken, our hearts that always reside with the Armenians. Because we’re a beaten race, bro. We’re a race that’s been around for 7,000 years and people always look the other way at us. We’re a very innocent race, when it comes down to it. We [don’t start] wars. We’re not angry. We have natural resources. We don’t bank on them. We have gold mines we don’t even bank on. But we’ve just been this country with a good heritage and a good history and this and that, very religious, with the first country to accept Christianity as a national religion. We’re bombarded by [Turkey and Azerbaijan]. We’ve been tortured, we’ve been beat, we’ve been genocided. There’s the 1915 Genocide that I’m sure people know about it at this point. Just Google it.

 A week into it, we were on a text thread, talking about what’s going on. And John [Dolmayan], our drummer, out of the blue went, “Yo, man, this is so bigger than all of us. We need to get together. There’s no one else that could do what we could do.”

 The reaction from all members was immediate, and it was urgent. It was just like, boom, let’s go. And you don’t know how I felt on the other end of the phone, because I’m the guy in the band that doesn’t have a problem with anybody. I’m like, “Let’s go. Let’s do this. Whatever it takes, I’m in.” I’m the guy that doesn’t want to disband, ever. I want to keep going.

When that happened, I was like, let’s go. So I took the lead again. Daron [Malakian] actually responded with, “I have something I’ve written for another project, but it’s about the topic, and we can save time instead of getting the studio and trying to write a song and getting over all our differences. I got something.” I’m talking about “Protect the Land.” We all agreed, boom, let’s get in there. We got in there a week later, bro. Three days after, we had two new songs. The second song, “Genocidal Humanoidz,” was a song that John, Daron, and I got together about three years ago and we worked. We just wanted to make music. We didn’t know if it was going to be for an album or not, but we just got together. It was like no time had passed. It felt like 15 years ago, but it was today. We knocked it out of the park.

And you had the video for “Protect the Land.”

I co-directed and executive produced the video to open minds and open eyes and then show support to our soldiers, because our soldiers were out there fighting against ISIS. I don’t like war. I don’t like anything aggressive. We’re a country of three million people, and Artsakh had 150,000 people in there. We were up against Azerbaijan, who was 10-million strong, or I should say 10-million weak. We have Turkey with 80 plus million people helping Azerbaijan daily with everything, and they were also recruiting mercenaries, ISIS motherfuckers, coming to fight against us. I’m surprised we lasted as long as we did. We suffered a great loss. I felt broken, as every Armenian is broken, still broken. You’re going to need therapy. That’s the biggest trauma. It’s traumatic as fuck to lose land that’s ours for thousands of years. We just gave it up so we can keep the lands we have and also to not lose more 18 year olds. We’re losing hundreds of kids a day. That’s so sad to me.

The last thing to talk about is North Kingsley, your new project. How’s that going?

Going good, bro. Dec. 4, it’s coming up this Friday, we’re dropping Volume Two. Here’s how it happened. About two years ago, I was searching, wanted to do a new project, just didn’t know who to do it with. So I decided to do it on my own, because I got a lot in my head, a lot written down. I met this cat, Armenian guy, Saro Paparian, whose family was fighting on the front lines. He had a cousin and brother fighting this last month. So he was amazing at Logic. He knew it back and forth like the back of his hand. I invited him over to the studio. I said, “Come through. Teach me, please. Show me a few pointers. I’ll take it from there, because I want to do all my projects on this now.” From the first day he came in, we started making music. My ideas came to life through his hands, and I was like, “This is incredible, bro. Maybe we could keep doing this.” So that was the birth. That was 2018. And he had this vocalist friend he was working with, Ray Hawthorne, and the kid was amazing, dude. He’s very prolific. He could sing, he could rap, he could scream. He could do everything I need someone to do to represent my music. And his topics were so relevant, so political, so socially aware. I was like, dude, this could be amazing. So we brought him in.

But at first, it was really hard, coming out of System of a Down, to do something new and say, “I’m in a new band,” because dude, it’s like having a wife and then having a girlfriend. It’s kind of weird.

Everyone knows you for System of a Down.

I have to let everybody know me for this. It’s kind of awkward, but it had to be the bomb for me to do that. And just our team effort made it the bomb. I remember, I think it was the first song, it was called “Kids Love Guns.” It was about the school shootings and shit going on. I really felt like we had something. And then that’s when we were like, “OK, well now we need a name.” 

I was like, maybe we could just make music and have vocalists, take it like a DJ Khaled. Let me make the music and then find a vocalist. I have a lot of friends out there, B-Real, RZA, Serj [Tankian], Jonathan Davis. I was like, “Man, we can bring everybody on board and have them do a part, and it could be one of those records of an all-star crew.” But what happened was Ray is so good that he just filled all the empty areas that were needed to be done, and I felt like we had something.

And Volume Two?

[The album] is a full record of 12 songs, but I’m dropping it in four pieces, four volumes, one through four, just so people could marinate on each song, because I feel like we’re a new band, new act, and I didn’t want any songs to fall through the cracks.

We actually have a badass feature on it, on the first track coming out, and I’ll reveal it now, is RZA from Wu-Tang. He came through with the fucking heart. Because me and RZA been friends. I met him in ’99 or 2000, and we became friends. We’ve been friends ever since. His kid was my ring boy when I got married. We’ve just been bros. Our wives are friends. So when I told him about the new project, he was like, “Dude, let me get a verse on there.” I’m like, “Fuck yeah, dude.” So the first thing is with him. That comes out this Friday, “False Idols.”