Saro Paparian was living in Armenia and teaching electronic music, when he saw System of a Down in concert celebrating the nation’s centennial.
“I was on Shavo’s side of the stage,” he said about bassist Shavo Odadjian.
“I remember getting this feeling like, ‘I really love music and I think it might be worth giving it another shot, outside of teaching it. I want to be a part of the process of music, popular music.’”
The Pasadena native didn’t anticipate ever being “the guy on the stage.” He worked as a music producer and preferred to stay behind the scenes.
He returned to Los Angeles and spent time writing songs between his home state and Armenia. He pushed Armenian bands through an LA management company.
In 2017, he decided to go for broke, called a longtime friend Ray Hawthorne and the two decided to give their music a shot.
After an unexpected meeting with Odadjian, the three formed North Kingsley, a new musical collaboration that also features lyricist/vocalist Hawthorne and producer Paparian, who joked he plays the laptop. Odadjian plays bass as well as guitar for North Kingsley.
The collective released its debut single, the hard-hitting, hip-hop-inspired “Like That?” followed by its parent three-track EP, “Vol. 1,” on August 14 on Odadjian’s 22 Red label.
“I’m an Armenian American kid from LA,” Paparian said. “I love this.
“It’s nice to finally see it out. People are responding well to it. Ray and I are new to the game. I have a lot of confidence in how he’s guiding us forward. We’re a bit insulated to it (the response), Ray and me. We’re just in the studio working, keeping our heads down.”
Paparian said the project is very much a partnership, however, he and Hawthorne are following Odadjian’s guidance. Fans can expect to hear music that is a departure from System of a Down.
“It’s something Shavo’s adamant about,” he said. “We’re making music that we want to hear. That’s the fun part about it. This isn’t Shavo’s first rodeo. Even though he’s guiding the ship, when we’re working on the music, he isn’t calling the shots.
“He approaches us as bandmates. As a result of that, the music is a nice representation of the three of us. It’s a nice witches brew of all of our backgrounds and creative inclinations. Shavo’s a big hip-hop head and there’s a lot of that going on.”
Born and raised in Pasadena, Paparian is thankful for his childhood environment. His father, Bill Paparian, was Pasadena’s mayor from 1995 to 1997.
“I was exposed to a lot of events,” he said. “Politics was a standard discussion in the house. My mom, being the kind of Armenian warrior that she is, had a weird mix as I look back now. We had Armenian and American dynamics in the household.”
Paparian attended High Point Academy and La Salle College Preparatory. After graduation, he studied at Pasadena City College for a few years and then Cal State Northridge.
He worked at the Apple Store while studying at Cal State Northridge and it was there that he met Hawthorne.
“We were talking in the store one time when it was slow,” he said. “We found out we were each into hip-hop. I would go every Wednesday to this old beat-up club/bar called The Airliner, which is closed. Ray would go to that as well.
“We were doing our own things. I was a guitarist. We just started working together. Ray was doing the production work when we were messing around. I learned a lot about studio production from him.”
Three days after graduating university, he told Hawthorne he would see him in six months because he was headed to Armenia.
“I didn’t come back for six years,” he said.
“I studied sociology with the plan of going to law school to follow in my dad’s footsteps. That six months turned into six years. I kept music as a hobby. I was going to do music on the side as a hobby.”
Paparian is a fourth-generation Armenian American. His great-grandfather, Nishan Paparian, came through Ellis Island from Palu, Western Armenia, moved to the United States in 1907 and married an Irish woman. His mother, Sona, and her family left for Syria to escape genocide.
“My dad doesn’t speak a lick of Armenian, but my mom does,” he said. “I went to non-Armenian schools.”
Paparian headed to Armenia to get to the family’s roots. His three cousins moved to Armenia from Pasadena when they were young and Paparian was in middle school.
“I look at my cousins and I see them as Armenian,” he said. “I was trying to get to my roots and relearn the language. I know both dialects now.
“The city (Yerevan) was beautiful. You know, you grow up in Pasadena, you go overseas, and you’re just struck by the romance of the whole thing.”
He was offered a job the first summer at the “massive” nonprofit school Tumo Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan. An administrator told Paparian the music school’s staff and the students wanted to learn more about electronic computer-based music.
“I learned so much of what working with Ray,” he said. “They hired me to build up their music department. I got to work with kids and talk to them about music and music production. The job was really fulfilling. My oldest brother still works with Tumo.”
When he arrived home, he called Hawthorne to work on music together. They rented a studio from Odadjian’s friend.
“(Odadjian) walked in the studio one day and he started talking to me because he saw me working with Logic,” he said about the digital audio workstation and MIDI sequencer software application for the Mac.
“He said, ‘I really want to learn this. Would you mind teaching me?’ I love his personality. He has great energy. We struck a really nice rapport. We met up in the studio the first day so I could teach him, and he said, ‘Let’s start making a track.’”
That was two years ago, and now North Kingsley—named after the gritty Los Angeles street on which Odadjian grew up—has come to fruition. The band still spends most of their days in the studio creating new songs.
“All three of us really care about this,” he said. “Shavo is very detail oriented. He’s an older brother figure for me. Every once in a while, when we’re recording a song, I’ll watch him play guitar and I have this moment of bliss, ‘That’s Shavo from System of a Down.’”