The first time I had a conversation with Shavo Odadjian, the indefatigable leader of legendary heavy metal band System Of A Down, I was struck by how easygoing he was, something I didn’t expect, frankly. If you didn’t know that this slight of-frame husband (to Sonia) and dad of three residing in the Los Angeles suburbs was, in fact, a Grammy-winning, killer bassist and legit rock star, you wouldn’t have a clue. Odadjian is a soft-spoken, super funny, good-vibes-only dude who’s also genuinely concerned for your needs ahead of his own—again, not something typically attributed to rock gods.
Oh, and he’s Armenian.
Descending to LA from New York City to engage Odadjian once again and discuss all things cannabis (he’s the founder and chief marketing officer of 22Red, one of the industry’s hottest celebrity brands sold in California, Nevada and Arizona), I can’t help but hark back to our initial meeting and how much of it centered around his Armenian heritage. And the Kardashians.
As a first-generation child of Cuban immigrants, I was struck when Odadjian first spoke to me about his childhood growing up in LA in an Armenian household and how closely it mirrored my own experience some 3,000 miles away in Miami. Sometimes, the clichés are true. For us, the rock star and the editor, each of our parents solid believers in the American Dream (work hard, get ahead) who emphatically prioritized education above all else, all the while insisting on retaining our respective native cultures (the food, the music, the stories) and, most especially, our native tongues. That’s a lot for any school kid trying to keep up with the Joneses, but for both Odadjian and me, we agreed how grateful we are for having lived that experience. It made us more than just a better version of who we were then but gave us the tools to imagine who we might yet become. A powerful lesson for the future rock star and magazine editor.
Leaving The Hollywood Roosevelt before sunrise—trust me, Hollywood Boulevard is a not-so-pretty sight predawn—I begin to mentally prepare for the sure-to-be long day ahead, a day where I’m not only interviewing the gregarious Odadjian, but most urgently, directing the photo shoot at two separate locations more than an hour apart (LA traffic, Oy!). I spot my Uber and we head to the top of the Hollywood Hills to meet the photographer and his team prior to driving to the San Fernando Valley for photo shoot location No.1.
Walking into 22Red’s impressive indoor grow facility, the brand’s cannabis sparked something familiar. I began to realize that most of the grow team there that morning was Armenian, and another a-ha moment struck: Of course, they’re from Odadjian’s motherland. If I owned a cannabis company in Miami, I’m pretty sure my weed would come from the people I trust the most, people from my motherland. This, I have no doubt, is another byproduct of our similar childhoods and the savvy indoctrination instilled to us by our respective families.
When I bring this up to Odadjian shortly after we begin chatting, he seems a little surprised by my observation. “We’re a very proud people, and we hold our culture very dear, near to our heart,” he says. “I’m Armenian, and I speak the language and my kids also speak it. Most of the time when I’m home with the kids, I try to speak it. But being from my country isn’t something that’s a major part of my work or my business. Coincidentally, I do work with a lot of fellow Armenians who are in the cannabis industry because that’s just how it happened. I love all races, all creeds—I’ll happily work with anyone who shares my work ethic and honesty.”
I then mention the planet’s most famous Armenians—the Kardashians—and want to know Odadjian’s assessment of Kim, Khloé, Kourtney and if the rest of the supernova siblings help or hurt that country’s awareness, particularly as it relates to its horrific ongoing genocide that stems all the way back to the Ottoman Empire’s repugnant attempt to systematically vanquish the entire population during World War I.
“I think awareness is better than not having awareness, right?” Odadjian says. “The Kardashians were essential in exposing the Armenian genocide in a massive way by shedding light on it. Most people didn’t know System Of A Down were Armenians. In the early days, people kept asking us if we were Albanian or Argentinian. We just kept on saying, ‘No, we’re not,’ and they’d say, ‘What’s Armenian?’ ‘It’s a country,’ I’d say. And the horror of the genocide was something I wanted people to learn about. That’s a very big deal to our people, and we were able to shed some light on that.”
After more than a moment of silence, Odadjian continues, in a somewhat softer tone. “When System Of A Down began in 1998, the word ‘genocide’ was never used regarding our people’s genocide,” he says. “Look, there’s a reason why I’m alive. I know my past. I know that some important people had to survive and I’m here because of their survival. Talking about and reflecting on the genocide helps put the souls who perished to rest. And, yes, having the world recognize the fact that people got massacred is incredibly important.”
“So, you’re saying that information is power?” I ask. “No, I’m saying knowledge is power,” he says. “There’s a difference.”
In the ever-increasing crowded universe otherwise known as California-based celebrity cannabis brands, I wonder what really separates 22Red’s offerings from the many other famous weed connoisseur options seemingly sprouting weekly.
“That’s a simple question, Richard, but it’s kind of hard to answer because it’s my brand, right?” Odadjian says. “22Red just stands for quality, consistency and trust. I think a good brand is one you can trust that everything they do is going tobe something you’re going to like. If you love a brand, that’s because you trust the brand and you’ve liked more than one thing that the brand has done. I think that’s what I’m building here with 22Red. My goal was to build something trustworthy.”
I tell Odadjian I don’t believe there’s a brand—successful or not—anywhere that doesn’t say they’re trying to build something trustworthy. The difference, as always, lies in the execution of that goal, no?
“Yes, of course,” Odadjian says. “I have a good reputation.I don’t want to mess that up. I think everything I’ve done is quality—and made with real passion. I always do things that I’m passionate about, and I don’t believe in just doing things simply to make money. I realize I’m lucky enough to be able to choose what I do and what I work on—not everyone has that option. So, I choose things that I’m passionate about. And I’m very passionate about cannabis and 22Red. I waited a long time to decide if I even wanted to do a cannabis brand. It took a while to find a good grower and to find goodpartners that did that job well. Since I’m not a grower, I only want the best around me. And that’s another special thingabout 22Red is the incredible team we’ve put together.”
Assembling the right team isn’t easy, particularly in the cannabis industry (take a quick look at now-defunct celebrity brands who found out too late). But not unlike starting System Of A Down—and managing the band’s scheduling, contract negotiations and other business-side issues in the early days—I tell Odadjian that he seems naturally gifted at the business side of cannabis as well.
“I just knew I was good at business because I instinctually knew how to do it,” he says, smiling that wry smile of his. “It wasn’t ever taught to me. I don’t come from a business family whatsoever. I used to always watch my dad and think: ‘Am I ever gonna be this powerful?’ because everything my father did, he did extraordinarily well. Also, his work ethic is unmatched—even now.”
Since 22Red scales state by state, each with its own rules and stipulations surrounding cannabis, Odadjian says there are real challenges as the brand looks to expand into other markets. “Since I believe in consistency, I want every state to have the same quality product,” he says. “But in every state, we need to package differently, we need to label differently. The taxing is out of hand. It doesn’t let anyone legal make any real money. So, yeah, 22Red is facing plenty of challenges. You know what would change everything? Federal legalization of cannabis. That would change a lot—for the better.”
But the question must be asked: With different facilities in the three states, how can 22Red possibly keep the product consistent? If I go to a McDonald’s and order fries, shouldn’t the fries taste the same in New York or LA?
“Yes, as I mentioned, it’s tough, but I’m doing it,” he says forcefully. “We have similar strains, if not identical, in every state now. And I’ve kept it up to par because we haven’t had one negative review—ever. No, it’s all been good because I don’t put anything in the jars that’s not vital for smoking. And that’s very important. I don’t just stamp my name on 22Red like some other brands. Yeah, I mean, I’m just a celebrity by default. I’m very passionate about the product. I’d never want someone to go purchase 22Red just because they’re a fan of System Of A Down and a Shavo fan. I want them to purchase 22Red because they’re a fan of the product they’ve tested and loved.”
To keep the business fires burning, Odadjian hired an old friend and successful business executive, Harry Kazazian, as 22Red’s chief executive officer. Even without prior cannabis industry experience, Kazazian was decidedly bullish when discussing his fellow Armenian’s brand.
“The 22Red business strategy has always been steady and below will make us a strong brand and get us to the finish line,” he says. “Too many companies in cannabis expand at breakneck speed, without considering if the growth makes sense or is even sustainable. We focus on quality above all else and seek partners who share that value system while strategically choosing our products and the markets we sell in. Unlike other brands that come and go, 22Red will be a forever-lasting brand.”
As we leave the first photo shoot location at lunchtime, I sit next to Odadjian, dressed in head-to-toe black, leather jacket included, in his black-on-black, state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz—the interior resembles a private jet’s cockpit—and settle in for the hour-long trek to 22Red’s HQ in the heart of Old Pasadena. I decided I wanted to move off cannabis for the duration of the journey and ask a couple of I-just-want-to-know questions to the nice guy currently expertly navigating the intricacies of the Hollywood Freeway. I asked what you probably want to know as well: What was the coolest thing you’ve experienced with System Of A Down?
“Oh, I could name a few, but when we were the musical guest at Saturday Night Live, that was amazing,” he says, smiling. “Now that was ridiculous. That’s a moment I’ll never forget. Also, when we played Rock In Rio for the first time in front of a sea of people, an ocean of humanity and energy with 300,000 fans screaming and singing our songs back to us. So great. The third has to be the Grammy we won. We didn’t go to the actual award show that year, something I now kind of regret. I would’ve loved to experience it. I was at home having a burger when I got a call saying ‘Congratulations, you just won a Grammy’ and I called my brother, my two cousins and a friend and rented a limo. It took them to all the Grammy after parties because I was definitely going to take family to this, something they’d never experience otherwise. We had a great night.”
After three decades, the band must have experienced some low moments, too, I ask Odadjian. “The low moments are only the human moments when we don’t do as many things as we want,” he says. “Because it takes four of us to agree on everything and not all of us are on the same page.”
As we arrive in Pasadena and enter 22Red’s immaculately clean corporate home, I’m struck by how inviting the open floorplan environment is, much more awesome lounge than typical office, and as if to prove it, Odadjian suddenly sits at the drum set next to the media room and goes into three-minute virtuoso drum solo worthy of any early 1980s hair band (admittedly, my limited knowledge of both rock drum superstars or early 1980s hair bands makes me not-so-qualified to linger on this particular topic). Odadjian looked like a kid having a ball. And it was, in fact, a perfect moment.
After a hurried lunch—Odadjian ordered for me his go-to favorite from Tocaya Modern Mexican (Burrito Mexicano, notice, double achiote chicken)—and as the photography assistant finished preparing the lights for what will prove to be the last setup of this unforgettable day, I ask this easy-going, good-vibes-only dude where he wants to be in five years. “Well, I want to be healthy, and I want my family and my kids to be healthy,” he says, quickly. “I want to have the passion I have now—if not more—and still be doing all the stuff I love—still working, and still grinding away writing music and, hopefully, touring with System Of A Down and making an album. How’s that?”
I can’t help but think about how far we’ve come—Odadjian and I—even from our first encounter just a couple of years ago. It’s clear that the Armenian-American rock star and the Cuban-American magazine editor still have a lot of growing and experiencing left to do. This happy thought makes me feel forever bonded with this cannabis soon-to-be mogul. Who would’ve thought we’d be two peas in a pod?
As we get ready to finish this, our own LA story together, I ask Shavo Odadjian to finish these seemingly contradictory sentences: Life is scary because… “Because it ends, man—that’s it,” he says, smiling. OK, life is beautiful because… “Because it’s awesome, brother—that’s it,” he says, laughing hard now.
You know what? The rock star is absolutely right. Life does end. Life is awesome. And that’s it, brother. That’s it.