Cody Carson of Set It Off

by Corey O'Flanagan

Formed in 2008, Set It Off has never been your traditional emo band. Borrowing their name from a Fall Out Boy lyric, the band gained a following on YouTube as a pop-punk act and issued their debut album, Cinematics, in 2012. Over the years, their experimentation with more pop and electronic elements has rocked the boat with some of their edgier fans, but they've managed to strike a balance between light and dark that makes them unique. Their new single, "Skeleton," proves it with happy, poppy tones mixed with smart and dark lyrics. The track teases their upcoming album, Elsewhere, which is set for release in 2022.

In this episode of the Songfacts Podcast, we chat with the band's energetic frontman, Cody Carson, about the new track and go back into the Set It Off catalog to discuss some of his favorites.


"Skeleton"

I think vulnerability has always been important to me, because in this industry, you're met with a lot of facades of people - who they want you to think that they are. It's daunting to me because you're always feeling like you're guessing with somebody, and I don't want that to be a part of my characteristics. So it's always been really important to me to wear my emotions on my sleeve. But it's also not always been my choice to wear my emotions on my sleeve. I just like to tell it like it is and how I'm feeling about certain things specifically. Especially in songs, because it's like the songs are my punching bag - it's where I can get everything out that I can't usually talk about. And I appreciate when you can find different levels of openness you can find within yourself with certain people.

This song started out as being about my fiancée and that sort of connection you have with somebody where you can be ... all of your flaws. You can be all of your highs, all of your lows, and you can be that bare with somebody, and you can relinquish all fear of being judged. I think there's something really beautiful and special about that. Now what's funny is this song kind of worked in reverse. What I mean by that is, I got into the studio with our producer for this track, Bruce Wigner - he's incredible, first of all - he was showing me this chord progression on the piano and we're like, "Oh, this is really cool." I was immediately drawn to it. And we Zoomed in a friend of ours who was out of town who I love working with, Cam Walker, and we just named that little chord progression "Skeleton" because it was the skeleton of the track. And he's like, "Oh, that's a cool title." That's when we started laughing so hard, like, "No, this isn't the name of the song. This is just a skeleton of what we think it could be." And then we're like, "Well, wait, what if that was a title?" So what I usually do is, if we think of a cool title, I'll look it up on Spotify. I'm like, is it already a huge song? Because I don't want to try to battle another song with the same title. Turns out no, which was surprising. So I'm like okay, so what could that be about? We sat there for a second, and that's where we're like, you know, what? Skeletons are bare, they have nothing to them. What it's like in the form of an analogy is being so vulnerable that you have nothing left to peel back. That's where that started topic wise, and I've never done that before. I mean, I guess I've started with the title before, but I've never taken just a word and been like, alright, let's turn this into something. It almost felt like an improv exercise. Like, here's a topic. All right now, what does it mean? Like, find the guts of the story.

I usually write songs where I have a whole notepad in my phone called Song Topics. I just check them off if I ever write them, so I don't try to write it again. It usually starts with a title and then under the title I'll do a synopsis and maybe cool lyric ideas, or one liners that can go into it. But I've never done it like this before. It ended up being that I liked the song so much, I was like, "We've got to lead with this." I loved it. And it was still something that I could deeply connect to, and hopefully other people could as well.


How The Band Feels About Fan Theories

We love this stuff so much that it actually was the inspiration for what the "Skeleton" music video is. Our last album, Midnight, was not by any means a concept album - we were just writing what we were feeling. We put out music videos, and people theorized and came up with good stories and background stories.

Maxx [Danziger, drummer] and I were thinking of this annual event that we would go to all the time when we lived in Florida called Halloween Horror Nights in Orlando. They were so good at marketing and getting you excited with their cryptic lore that was in the background. We would be like internet sleuths and go onto their website and look for clues as to who the icon would be that year. And we're like, "Man, I wish that we could make them feel like that again." That's kind of where this started.

So we put up a website called Welcome2Elsewhere.com, and it's like a '90s retro website with an 8-bit version of skeleton. That's how we started teasing the new songs. We let them go on there and there was cryptic information to pull stories from because we're like, all right, if they want to theorize, let's give them something to theorize about. Let's give it a baseline. Maxx has such an eye for this visually. He's a very creative guy, and visually, aesthetically, he just gets it. He created this story and these characters and what they mean and what the storyline is. Now that we have the pieces there, we're kind of dropping hints and Easter eggs. So it's like a work in reverse - the songs were done first, and then we've turned them into a story instead of having a story and writing songs to the story. That way, you're not forced to know the story or go seek out concepts and theories, you can enjoy the album on its own. Or you can dive deep and figure out what this all means if you really want to.


How The "Skeleton" Music Video Represents Their Evolving Style

It's kind of a marriage of everything. The song is about the conflict of emotions with being vulnerable, and also trying to just be comfortable going all the way out. Our Creative Director, Danin, who goes by Deathcats on Instagram, has this incredible style of bright imagery mixed with macabre imagery. It's bright and happy, and if you didn't know the contents of the image, you'd be like, this is a happy photo. Then when you see what's in it, you're like, "Whoa." It kind of throws you off guard. That's inspired by the fact that over the years, we've had so many different sounds because we've been constantly trying to find ourselves, and that's the overarching theme of being an artist - trying to figure out who you truly are, where you truly stand. But it's always been genuine the whole way.

We've heard before that people would be like, "Well, we don't quite know where to place you, like we've heard you poppy, we've heard you dark, we've heard you use all these different elements." It used to scare us and bum us out and now we're like, no, that's what makes us special. The fact that we can have variety and be all over the place is what makes Set It Off, Set It Off. This is us leaning into that - that we are bright, we are dark, we are all of these things happening at the same time. And that's fine.


"Wolf In Sheep's Clothing"

It's so hard to put my finger on what the song is about, but if I had to guess, it's right there in the title, "Wolf In Sheep's Clothing." There's a lot of people that put up facades. When I'm writing a song, it's usually a selfish endeavor - I'm writing about something I'm going through, something that has personally affected me. I was writing about two people who have done this sort of thing where they came across as super nice people, and then they totally screwed me over in the harshest way possible. And I'm like, man, I came into the industry so naive, thinking everyone's gonna be nice. We're all rooting for each other. And don't get me wrong, there are people out there that are incredible and they deserve all that credit. But I was just like, well, there's some bad people out here. So I was venting into that song.


You know, once you start hitting your late teens, you start getting really introduced to those types of personalities. When you see it in high school or middle school, it doesn't really hit you like that. It's just, oh, there's good guys, and there's bullies. And then you go to the real world and you're like, no, those are just good people and bad people. They're everywhere. That song really lets people vent about their personal experiences with that. But what made the song blow up ...it was weird, man. We were with Equal Vision Records at the time, and I think we got a text message from our A&R person, Francesca, who I love still to this day, and she was like, "What's going on with 'Wolf'?" And I was like, "What do you mean?" So my first reaction was, I'm gonna go check YouTube.

First of all, this song was not a single. We didn't have a music video, it didn't get intense promotion - it was just a song on the album, which is insane. So it got this organic gravitation from this subculture on YouTube that would take songs and create their own videos with cartoon clips from their favorite animes, or different shows of that nature. I was going on there and finding these videos, and they had multiple millions of views. This subculture just latched on to it, and propelled it up and it started getting used in tons of videos like that. Then it starts to live now more on TikTok, and everywhere, and it just seems to get bigger and bigger. It's the coolest thing to me. It also makes me go, "Fuck... we should have made it a single," because that's the hardest part, too. When you release an album, you never know if the songs you choose are going to be the ones that really are going to blow up. But it's just so cool, and it's such a little mini victory for me and all the people involved that wrote that song to see that even though maybe the label at the time wasn't like, "This is the one," that it really was. It really blew up like that.


How The Band Chooses Singles

It doesn't really affect us in a financial way. It's more of a competitive mindset of, "Damn it, I wish I got it right." We're in the process of that right now. We've already decided our first two singles with no analytics or data. I think a great way to express this is going into Midnight. When we were starting our previous album, Midnight, we knew we wanted to start with "Killer In The Mirror" because the album before that one was called Upside Down, and it was very bright, very poppy. Some of our fan base weren't okay with that, because they're used to me being angry. As an artist, you get conflicted because you're like, "Well, screw you because I was happy." I wanted to write about happy stuff. So that's what I was feeling and that's what I did. But then you're like, "But I also need to think about them and I need to write for them." So Midnight was me discovering and finding this balance.

When you start a song, you're usually just in a room and it's only about you, and you're just trying to do it because you love to do it, and then it starts to become something that you share with everybody else. Now, your songs are everybody's and you want to make everybody happy. And being a people pleaser becomes even more difficult because I'm also overly analytical. So you get into your own head about the decision-making process of this sort of thing, because you want to pick a song that you think is the best song, but will they agree with you? Are they going to also think that? Is this their type of song? Now we understand what they look for in a Set It Off song, but also, I know what I look for in a song - what I like to perform, and what I deem is a good song.

"Killer In The Mirror" was that marriage of aggressive anger rock, and then we started to move over to "Lonely Dance," which was more of my feelings, and I remember some of the bandmates were like, "I don't know, man, this seems a little outside of the box. We're getting flashbacks from Upside Down." But I was like, "No, trust me." If you take a poppier feel or catchy melodies, but you sing about things that are really bothering you, it's still going to connect with them in that way. Them being our personal fan base.

So right now when we decide on singles, we're thinking between two things. Because we want to further our career, we want to level up, and obviously, we'd like to get alternative radio. Thankfully, we just announced our new tour, and we're upgrading venues. We're not playing House of Blues venues like we're still moving up, which is all we could ever ask for. So we want to give them what they want, but if we constantly give them only what they want, we'll just stay at the same level. It's this unknown formula that there's no answer to and we're just figuring that out. So we knew track one, "Skeleton," is going to be what they like, but I also feel that that is an alt radio song. So it's kind of weighing everything at the same time without having any sort of sure answer - you're trusting your gut. You're trusting your gut and you're talking to your team.


The Band's Commitment To Music Education In Schools

Music education is really important to me because my high school band experience is what shaped me as a person. I hear about all of these programs that get funding cut, and they just don't care about their band program because they don't look at it as a way to shape an individual. It makes me sad, honestly. I went to Tarpon Springs High School in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and I am so fortunate to have gone there. I lived five minutes away from the high school where all my friends were going to, and that's the one I wanted to go to. But I'd been playing clarinet since I was in second grade, and my mom and my dad were like, "You should really look into Tarpon Springs High School," and I was like, "I don't want to go there for the band program, I want to go there to be around all my peers." And my dad's like, "No, they're doing a silent auction event, we're going to go to it. Just hear me out." So I went and I sat down, and I heard them playing. I was like, "Oh, my God, they're so good," and I changed my mind. I decided I'll go, and we drove 30 minutes every day. I took a bus that picked me up at 5:20 in the morning, first stop, and got dropped off last just to go to this band program.

The band director, Kevin Ford, taught me work ethic. He taught me that I need to work on being okay with holding myself accountable and working on myself and understanding that no one's going to work harder than me. He would tell me stories about these different musicians that would give away their secrets and be like, "I don't care if I tell you all my secrets because I'm going to be in the practice room more than you. I'm going to be working more hours than you." Hearing stories like that, when you're a teenager, you're like, "Whoa, okay, this is what I got to do." It was just a really incredible experience for me while growing up, and I want everyone to be able to have that in their life because it's the camaraderie that you form, not just the leadership, and there are so many life skills that are there and those jobs are so important. So yeah, it is very important to me.


What Is The Song He's Most Proud Of?

It might be "Skeleton." I know, that sounds so cliche to say the newest song that came out. But there's one lyric in "Skeleton" that's so simple that I'm really proud of, and it's just the lyric, "Love me like I'm dead." I feel like there's so much that happens where we see these celebrities die... and all of a sudden, now people really care. And it's like, well, why do we have to wait till someone's gone to really appreciate them or show them we appreciate them or care about them? It's this really daunting thing to hang over your head.

Usually you think your favorite lyrics are these long, extended interwoven, internal rhymes that tell a story and like, "Wow, how did he create this analogy?" It's just the thing I wanted to say, and it happened to make sense with the song sculpture and the theme of it all.

My favorite thing about songs is that you write them with the intent of something you hear or feel in your head, and somebody else can take that and apply it to themselves in a specific manner. That's the coolest thing about this job by far. I wrote a song called "Missing You" a long time ago about how when I would go away on tour, I would miss the girl I was dating a lot and I wanted to write a song about that. And somebody at a show is like, "Thank you so much for the song, my husband is deployed, and this song is our song and it helps us get through his deployment." It's like, I would never think somebody in that situation would apply that song. I think that's so cool - that interpretation is beautiful.

The second answer to the favorite lyrics I've written, I have to go to a song off of Midnight because I just am so damn proud of this, it's called "Different Songs."

It means so much to me because I had this long-term relationship that I was in, and it's my first time ever experiencing this and hopefully, the last, where you're with somebody for so long and in love in the honeymoon phase, but then after the honeymoon phase fades, so does your actual love for each other. And because you start to realize - was it just the spark initially? Was there any foundation there? Do we really have a lot in common? Do we have enough to get through the arguments and really fight to make this better? Are we capable of compromising and reconciling and making things as best as they can be? And that song is basically comparing that situation to a song you've heard 1000 times - like a song you first hear and it's like, "Oh my God, it's my favorite song ever." And then you don't even realize it, but then, you know, three or four years go by and you hear it again, and you're like, "Oh my god, I used to love this song. But what happened?" It just faded away into the background. Or the first analogy is a brand new guitar and you're getting it in tune and then eventually that instrument wears down over time.

That was like one of those days when writing, because sometimes you're really on it and sometimes you're just struggling to find what's going on, and that was one of the times I was able to not use my phone and it just started coming out. I'm really proud of that song for that. I wish I could talk about more songs on this album but we haven't announced anything yet.


On Preparing To Go On Tour

Words cannot describe. This is my favorite thing to do. I love writing, I love doing music videos, I love all that - performing is what I feel like I was born to do. I love that interaction with the crowd. I love brainstorming ideas. Hell, when I write songs, like we were writing "Skeleton," I'll be in the studio and I'm jumping to the song like okay, cool, this is jump tempo. The crowd can jump to this so this would be exciting. Like I'm thinking about that song and how it starts with just the vocals, and I'm imagining hearing them sing that. I just can't wait. I love the lineup so much - Stand Atlantic from Australia are just incredible and have a laundry list of bangers of songs that they've written. They're good friends of ours who we've toured with before, who are incredible and have a ton of new songs that everyone needs to check out. This newer artist I found, No Love For The Middle Child, is an immense talent - I actually did a song with him called "Older" that I featured on. So, the lineup is great. It's our biggest tour yet.

November 23, 2021
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