With lockdown surrounding us all, many of our favourite musicians have bedded down and been hard at work. While Shavo, the bassist from System of a Down and a mercurial musician in his own right, has been beavering away at his new hip-hop project North Kingsley for a lot longer than that, during this time of reflection it can be easier to really knuckle down and execute your art effectively.
North Kingsley was founded by three longtime friends: Shavo Odadjian, producer Saro Paparian and vocalist Ray Hawthorne. Initially, the trio’s collaboration intended to make music for other artists but, as they began working together, their fusion of quick-fire lyricism which seamlessly blends trap, rock, metal and rap, found fruition and the band was born. It appears that now they are more ready than ever to let loose with their explorative new sound.
“I come from the school of Rick Rubin,” Shavo tells Far Out, “I saw Rick mould and polish System of a Down until it began happening by itself. It’s weird, I never thought I could do what he did with my own band, but I just hear something and know when it sounds good and how to make it better.” Years in the business has honed his talents for producing, “It’s like a well-oiled machine. I do something, the guys know exactly how to react. I know how to respond to them,” it’s a clear organic and authentic working partnership, “The more you hang out with someone, the more you understand them and get into their groove. As we worked, the sound developed.”
But, as we invariably have done when speaking to anyone over the past year, we find Shavo, sat in the office next to his home studio, staring at the lifeless webcam. Surrounded by artwork and framed System of a Down album covers, he admits that until recently, he had never used the room at home, despite its convenience, instead choosing to work away from home at a nearby office. He’s just returned from Las Vegas, promoting the launch of 22 Red; his own “boutique quality cannabis brand that involves aspects of music, clothing and culture,” but now finds himself slap-bang in the middle of a pandemic.
Life in lockdown hasn’t been much fun for anybody, rock star or otherwise. Shavo has been equally frustrated about setting up Zoom calls for his children as they attend numerous different online classrooms during the pandemic, “I’m entering codes, printing things, scanning papers, WiFi is all over the place, it’s nuts, it’s a full-time job,” he said. “I don’t know how parents who have to go out and work are doing it. Luckily, my work can be done at home, I can play here, I can talk here. But parents who have to go to work, how do they manage?”
The musician admits he prefers being a member of a band, working in the background of a project, rather than taking centre stage as a vocalist. “I’m good as a musician,” he reflects, “When I did Achozen with the RZA, I put vocals on there, but listening back years later I was like ‘I wish I hadn’t’—I’ve never been fond of my own voice.”
With such an extensive working knowledge of the mechanics of making music, grabbing the mic would mean taking the whole sound by the scruff of the neck, “People always say I should do more vocal work, but if I tried to do everything myself, it would end up as a solo project. I love collaborating, sharing ideas and hearing new ideas. That’s what does it for me.”
As a man with many years touring and a vast collection of sold-out shows under his belt, Shavo is used to being the focus of the media’s attention. However, this time around, he is more than happy for his band members to take the limelight. He says watching Ray Hawthorne’s first interview as the voice and frontman of new project North Kingsley was a really proud moment for him: “It was like watching my little brother get recognition for his hard work.”
The band was keen to go against the flow and concentrate on developing their own unique sound when they first sprung up. The group even took the dramatic step of making sure whenever they thought that a track even had a hint of sounding like another band, they would bin it and start again. “There are so many songs that we scratched because they sounded like someone else,” reveals Shavo. “It was intentional, we wanted a new sound.”
“As time progressed, we got better and better and more presentable. When Kids Love Guns happened, (as of yet unreleased,) we looked at each other and said ‘we’ve got something here,’” he continued. “I’m very satisfied with our output, it is something that people can relate to, they can understand and get it.” The bassist is well aware of the upcoming comparisons with his previous band, “Coming out of a band like System of a Down, it’s hard for anybody to accept anything [I do] because it’s not System. We still have those people out there, which is cool. I’m proud to be in that band just as much, if not more—that’s my band too.”
It would be a strange comparison to make, North Kingsley couldn’t be musically further from SOAD. While this isn’t Shavo’s first exploration into hip-hop: way back in 1998, System of a Down collaborated with P Diddy, Lil Kim and Ma$e on the South Park Soundtrack with the rap-rock fused Will They Die for You? System also covered a Wu-Tang joint with their version of Shame on a N—-,” it is his most purposeful footsteps into the genre.
Hip hop has been something that has always been a part of Shavo’s life, “I’ve been a hip-hop fan since I can remember. I was a big Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and N.W.A fan when I was a kid. I grew up in Hollywood on North Kingsley Drive.” The neighbourhood was a crucible of creativity and provided Shavo with a multi-faceted outlook, “It was a melting pot of people and styles and things. There were gangbangers hanging out with skateboarders, hanging out with average Joes. Everyone that lived on the street knew each other and hung out.” Aside from personalities, the meetings on corners often meant sharing music, “People’s musical tastes were completely different, and I took from everything. It wasn’t about a style of music for me, it was about what’s good. It’s the same today: it’s not about a genre, it’s about what’s good.”
North Kingsley released their EP: Vol 1 on August 14th, with volumes 2-4 set to be slowly drip-fed to the public over the course of the remainder of the year. The first preview has a run-time of 09:24 and features three tracks showcasing quality over quantity. Shavo reveals that this was always the plan: “I think we live in an ADD generation, it’s not an age thing, it’s a people thing. I’m in it myself. Everything is accessible through our phones, our computers, and tablets. People can pass hours on their phone without realising it, there’s so many things so your brain can’t focus.
“The focus is not there like it used to be when you could sit down in a room without your phone, because you didn’t have one, and then put a record on and listen to it.” It’s a different time, a time when we were all afforded a little more time to ourselves, “You’d be like ‘wow,’… you’d watch it spin, you’d watch the grooves, you’d read the sleeve and hear the lyrics and get so much into it.” For Shavo, it’s pretty simple, “Albums were made to listen to, to get the progression of songs from one to another: sequencing. I miss that.”
It’s a large part of why the band want to ensure releases are measured and sporadic, “I think that if we released an entire album mid-August, people would have found their three favourite songs. The rest of the songs wouldn’t have been given the time I think they deserve.” He means it too, these tracks are clearly precious,” Every song that we have written has been given the same attention as if it were a single with a music video.
“There are fillers in albums, we don’t have filler,” confirms the musician, clearly pleased with the group’s work. The delays in production don’t seem to trouble him either, “We have a head start as we have a years’ worth of material ready for release, in the meantime, we are writing so much more. By the time you have heard these twelve, there’s another twelve coming.” It’s a fully loaded few years ahead then, “That’s my plan, to always give you music from here on.”
The music isn’t for the faint-hearted either, bold and courageous, it isn’t afraid to stand up for itself and its values. The band’s song, ‘Die for the Pic’, is a politically charged analytical view of social media and the issues its users face, who according to vocalist Hawthorne, speaking out in a recent interview, “agree with whatever they are told the correct way to think is.” Shavo reveals while he himself would love to live without social media, but admits the world needs it right now, “I think the media, especially the big media right now, is sensationalised. They focus on certain things. I’m talking about America, mostly, but I’m sure the world is not far behind with that.”
“I think people feel the only real news they are getting is through their Instagram, their Facebook, and their Twitter. I wish social media was less important to people. We’ve given too much power to technology.”
North Kingsley is just the start of something big for Shavo and the rest of the group. With EPs dropping every few months and more music videos to come. It seems we can expect a lot more from the band, including a European tour once things are back to normal. “I’m so looking forward to touring again,” he beams, emboldened by the stunning performances he has always given his audiences.
“We are gonna talk about how we are gonna perform this live,” after debating the difference between a live drummer and the beats Saro is making for the group, wondering whether a live drummer makes it too much of “rock sound”, he does confirm, “As soon as we have a little catalogue we will think about where we are going to perform for you guys.” What’s more, there’s even a little added extra too, “I’m hoping when the restrictions lift on touring, System will be back too.”
What’s the plan for the next few months? “We plan to keep you guys on your toes.”
Research contributor: Chris Brown