The long-overdue solo debut from System Of A Down drummer John Dolmayan is filled with great songs and truly timeless classics. Granted, he didn’t write any of them. 

But that’s half the point of recording a covers album. Since the songs were already written, maybe These Grey Men should have arrived long before its Feb. 28 release date. The indie release’s Kickstarter page was estimated to drop by January 2015. But Dolmayan is a busy guy. And recording a quality cover version is not easy or simple.

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John Dolmayan masterminded the project but stays behind the drum kit. His backing band are Scars On Broadway bandmates Danny Shamoun and Franky Perez, with bassist Tom Copossela and guitarist James Hazley (Cockeyed Ghost). A battery of A-list guests provide the vocals, including SOAD’s Serj Tankian, Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello and Avenged Sevenfold’s M. Shadows.

The Grammy-winning, multi-platinum SOAD remain one of the biggest draws on the international festival circuit despite an ongoing 15-year gap between records. That hiatus has no end in sight, which left Dolmayan to pursue his first love, comic books—collecting them, selling them, reading them and now writing them. In between brokering six-figure deals on collectible classics, the drummer and his friends drilled down to the psychic core of classic tunes by AFI ("Beautiful Thieves"), Radiohead ("Street Spirit"), Eminem, Madonna, David Bowie ("Starman") and others. Some of the interpretations are surprisingly faithful. Others are wildly and unconventionally unpredictable.

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Dolmayan discussed the art of covering songs, talked about System of A Down's future, plugged his forthcoming comic and teased a possible second chapter in his solo career. Now that the album is done and almost out, this might just be the beginning.

I was personally interested in your album, because I make compilations of cover songs, and I’m still into making old-school mixtapes.

I used to do a lot of that when I was a kid. I would just sit there with tapes and put together albums that set different moods. Moods are important.

What are some of your favorite covers by other artists?

I don’t really know. I’d have to think about it. Drums make or break a song, in general.

Why make your solo debut a covers album?

Primarily, I generally don’t write songs. But I’m pretty good at arranging [them]. So having a covers album makes sense in that I don’t necessarily have to create something brand new.

Did you actually record 30 or 40 tracks for the album?

We had a list of 30 songs we considered. I recorded 14 to 17 songs. I wasn’t sure which songs would work. Even for [System Of A Down’s 2001 breakthrough album] Toxicity, we recorded like 44 songs and whittled it down to the 15 that made the album. For this project, in the limited time we had to do it [over] four or five years, we were able to come up with 14 to 17 songs that I thought were good enough.

And each of those songs I had earmarked for different singers. Some of them were not available. Some didn’t want to do it. Some didn’t respond at all. Some didn’t quite work. That’s why I decided [on] eight of the songs.

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Do you have a standard for the difference between a good cover and a bad one?

My rule is probably different than other people’s. I think if you make a cover that sounds exactly like the original, what’s the point of doing it? You’ve got to make it your own song. Part of the goal is for people to enjoy it. Part of the goal is for people to listen to it and not know it’s a cover. Think of it as an original.

Some of your covers are similar, but others are totally different. The Radiohead one is pretty close. How do you decide on an approach for a song?

With the Radiohead one, I love that song and the video in particular. I thought, “How would John Bonham have played that song?”

All respect to M. Shadows—I’m not knocking him—but I was pleasantly surprised that The Guy From Avenged Sevenfold could pull off Radiohead that well.

That’s where you have to give people the ability to be artists. He’s very talented, as well as a very nice guy. I like Avenged Sevenfold. But if you put him in a different band, you’ll get a different M. Shadows. I think he hit it out of the park.

Talking Heads rub me the wrong way. But you made me hear something in “Road To Nowhere” that I never noticed before.

It was Serj’s voice, I think. Music, like everything else, is basically a spice. You don’t necessarily like the same spice as I do. But if I mix it up right, maybe you’ll like it. Maybe you’ll get a taste for it.

Is it intimidating to put yourself out there and cover a Bowie song?

No. Why would I be intimidated? If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. But there’s gonna be people who like it and don’t, no matter what you do. If I had that mindset when we were putting out System albums, I would have played trying to keep people happy instead of trying to make the best song possible. There’s gonna be a lot of people that listen to this album and say, “This is shit.” The only thing I can say is, “Don’t listen to it if you don’t like it. You already have the original. Listen to that. And if you don’t like that, listen to whatever makes you happy. The point of this is to enjoy it.”

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The Bowie cover works because you nail the feeling of it. Other people could play that song or make it sound the same. But yours pushes the same emotional buttons. And that’s hard, because your version made me realize Bowie songs usually have more than one emotion going on: They’re not just happy or sad. That song is melancholy, and it’s hopeful.

That song is sad and morose. Music is a good way to get in touch with those feelings and explore them and come to terms with them. And Serj is so different and recognizable when he sings that he’s going to make any song he’s a part of very different. He makes you smile. That’s what he does.

The Eminem cover is a brilliant artistic choice. But, like the Bowie cover, the heart and the feel are in the same place as the original.

It’s just a drum solo.

Right. To ask about that decision, I’m kidding when I say this: You do realize that when you’re covering a song, it’s considered customary to recreate some aspect of the original song, maybe the music or a hook or a melody or some of the lyrics, right?

[Laughs.] I’ll give you credit: That is the funniest question I’ve been asked. You’re right. We could maybe get a different version at some point. I still think there’s room for rapping on it—and I might not use Eminem’s lyrics. There’s a guy I found after we recorded it. He’s very talented, not that well known. I don’t want to give his name yet.
I wanted [rock icon Carlos] Santana on that song. But I’m the drummer of a band that hasn’t released an album in 15 years or so. And already, the drummers are looked at like the unimportant member of the band.

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It’s so next-level to cover a song without covering it—except you are, but it’s a nine-minute drum solo that sounds totally different. And has no words.

I wanted to do a drum solo. And I wanted it to be very old school. That’s why I used very little cymbals. A lot of people have asked for a drum solo over the years, and I don’t see that happening at a System show. That would bore the audience, quite frankly.

But what leads to the idea of interpreting an Eminem song as a nine-minute drum solo? Was there an element that inspired the leap to your version?

When I heard it, I thought, “There’s something about the syncopation.” Eminem has an incredible way of syncopating his lyrics. He’s very percussive. I thought, “What if that [song] was a little Latin-y? That would work.” 

Are we any closer to a new System Of A Down album?

We’re further away. We were getting close for a little while. Shavo [Odadjian, bassist], Daron [Malakian, guitarist] and I were in the studio—this is two, maybe three years ago now. We finalized the music for 12 songs. They were very good. But due to internal problems and rifts, I don’t see that happening.

Is that problem artistic, logistic or financial?

It’s not artistic. It’s not logistic. And it’s not financial. It’s personalities. It’s mindsets. And it’s ego.

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You own a comic shop, and you’re working on a graphic novel.

It’s a monthly series. It’s coming out in April.

Who’s publishing it?

I am. I’ve got the biggest marketing tool possible: I’m the drummer for System Of A Down. We have a hundred million fans. I don’t need a publishing company to take 90% of the money.

Who’s drawing it?

I have [Eisner Award nominee] Tony Parker doing the interiors. And the covers are all different artists, like [industry giants] Ben Oliver, Jae Lee, [DC Entertainment Co-publisher] Jim Lee, Frank Cho…

Jim Lee?

He’d better do it. He’s one of my best friends.

These Grey Men is out Feb. 28. System Of A Down are playing a one-off show with Korn, Faith No More and Helmet at the Banc Of California Stadium in Los Angeles May 22. Tickets for the event go on sale Friday Feb. 7 via Livenation.