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System of a Down’s Shavo Odadjian: The Gibson Interview

Chris Gill
|
09.05.2007

It’s been a year since System of a Down played their last live show. In that time, the band members have engaged in separate projects, leading to the inevitable speculation of a band breakup. Bassist Shavo Odadjian insists that the group is merely on hiatus before their next major onslaught. In the meanwhile, Shavo is keeping plenty busy. In August, he toured Europe with the Wu Tang Clan; earlier this year, he spent seven months in the studio with the Wu’s RZA, cutting an album for their new band, Achozen, which will be released later this year.

One particular project is taking Shavo well beyond his role as a musician and songwriter. Along with his childhood friend, Narb Avedissian, he’s formed a unique new online digital record company called urSession, which provides independent musicians with an outlet for uploading their music and sharing it with the world. Unlike Myspace, which is primarily a social network, urSession enables the most talented artists to rise through the ranks through a voting system where users choose the music they like best. Artists receiving the most votes will also share a percentage of income generated by the website’s ad revenue, and a handful of musicians from various genres of music will be signed to urSession, who will distribute and promote their music online. The Reverend William Burke, a hip-hop artist who previously appeared on the RZA’s Afro Samurai soundtrack, is the first artist signed to urSession.

While Shavo has enthusiastically adopted his new role as president of a major new website and digital record company, he still remains a musician to the core. Over the last year, he’s collaborated with Gibson on the design of a new Shavo Signature Model bass. “I’m proud to be part of the Gibson family,” says Shavo, who has played a Gibson Thunderbird since the early days of System of a Down. “I’m glad they gave me the opportunity to do a line of basses.”

Just back from his European jaunt with the Wu Tang Clan, a jet-lagged Shavo sat down with Gibson.com to talk about urSession and his upcoming line of Signature basses.

What inspired you to start urSession?

About a year and a half ago, my friend Narb and I were brainstorming ideas. I knew of so many artists all over the world who had no means of being recognized and heard. There’s MySpace, but the problem with that is, unless you search for something in particular you’re not going to find anything new there. The only way people are finding out about new artists is through American Idol, and that’s just people singing covers of other people’s songs in a certain style. There are so many other artists out there—guitar players, bass players, singers, DJs, songwriters. I wondered why, with all this media sharing out there, there wasn’t a platform for musicians to have their songs be heard. I decided to start a record company that was a digital label and was also a community like MySpace. People can communicate with each other and share ideas and music, but it’s also a place where artists can upload their music and be heard.

Specifically, how is urSesssion different from MySpace?

I thought it would be great to have people who are online choose who they want to hear. I wanted to make it democratic so people could vote for the artists that they like. Every month, we are going to promote the top ten-voted artists, and we’ll sign three or four artists from different genres who get the most votes.

Also, the artists get paid. We share the revenue we make selling ads with artists. If you’re on the site and you bring in friends and get a certain amount of clicks, and if you receive a certain amount of votes, we pay you back for that. I’m okay with sharing revenue as long as I’m doing something righteous with it. There are all these people on MySpace who have like 500,000 friends, but that’s a dead end. So you’ve collected a million friends. Then what? If you’re on urSession and you have 500,000 friends, you’ll be receiving a share of some of the revenue. We’re trying to give people a reason to go to urSession and an incentive for putting their music there.

Why not just start a conventional online digital label?

The fans are the ones who are buying the records and listening to the music, so why shouldn’t they get to choose what gets released? It’s not the guy with a ponytail and a suit in some record label office that should be making the decisions about what the rest of us get to hear. Right now radio is stale. Music is stale. I can count on one hand how many new bands I like that I’ve heard on the radio. This way we can discover some crazy new bands and beautiful singers that the fans picked.

What other benefits does urSession offer to musicians?

We’re adding this new feature called urBand. Remember how you used to have to search for band members in classified ads in newspapers and magazines? The online community offers a great way to put the perfect band together. If you’re in a band and you need a guitar player, you can do a search for guitarists within a 10-, 25-, or 50-mile radius of where you’re located. All these available guitar players will pop up, and you can search through videos that they’ve uploaded. You can see what the guitar player looks like, see and hear how they play, and you can send them a message to see if they’re interested in joining your band. It’s a combination of music classifieds and webcasts. This saves you a lot of time because you can see and hear a player before having them audition.

Let’s talk about your playing. How did the Gibson Thunderbird become your main bass?

When System of a Down were recording our first record, we went out to buy some equipment. I found this non-reverse body ’66 Thunderbird somewhere in Hollywood. I ended up using it on the entire record. It just felt right. Before that I was using a bass from a different company, and they gave me as many basses as I wanted, in any color I could imagine, but I didn’t like any of them as much as that Thunderbird. Those old Gibsons are the Rolexes and Cadillacs of guitars. They’re all about quality. Just holding that bass made me feel different. You have to fight with it a little to make it your own because it has a heavy headstock that dives to the ground if you let go of the neck. But once I mastered that bass I couldn’t go anywhere else.

What is the story with your new Gibson Signature bass?

For the last year and a half, I’ve been working with Gibson to design a Shavo bass. I just got the first prototype a few weeks ago. It’s my idea of what a bass should be. I used a 1976 headstock because it’s bigger and has more body. It has neck-through-body construction, but I changed the neck so it feels like this Jazz Bass neck that I like. It also has a toggle switch on it so I can hold a note with my left hand and cut the sound on and off with my right hand like a DJ would do with a fader. The tone is already set the way I like it, so it doesn’t have any tone knobs—just two big volume knobs for the bridge and neck pickups. If you like the sound, you’re going to buy it. I didn’t put my name all over it. It’s just a cool-looking bass that sounds great.

I’m already working on a second model, which is a five-string fretless bass. It’s the perfect bass for what I’m playing with Achozen right now, which is more hip-hop-oriented. The System bass is a regular four-string, and the Achozen bass is a five-string fretless.

You’ve been going non-stop ever since the first System of a Down album came out. Why don’t you take long vacations like other musicians?

I’m happiest when I’m creating something. I write music. I make videos. I draw. I paint. Right now, I’m working with my favorite artists, like the RZA. I’m touring. And I want to go further with whatever I do. I’m 33, and 95 percent of everything I’ve set out to do, I’ve done. The only reason I haven’t accomplished everything is because I’m constantly setting new goals.

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