While attending college for classical clarinet, Cody Carson began teaching himself how to play guitar by posting song covers to his Youtube channel. Eventually, he attracted the attention of All Time Low, and back in 2008, got the chance to perform the song “Coffee Shop Soundtrack” on stage with the band.
From that moment, he had the bug for performing, and Set It Off was born.
The band released its first full-length record, Cinematics, in 2012, which was followed up by Duality in 2014, an album that boasted such hit singles as “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing,” and “Why Worry.” in 2018, Set It Off signed to Fearless Records and released their latest album, Midnight, in 2019. Recently, the band released a deluxe edition of Midnight, which features several new songs and several acoustic versions of tracks on the album.
Read on for our interview with Set It Off frontman, Cody Carson, who gets deep into the mentality and process behind Set It Off’s music and sound, while giving a teaser for the band’s upcoming record.
Can you talk about your background in music, how you ended up taking classical clarinet to the collegiate level, and where that shifted into “I want to do a rock band?”
Cody Carson: Yeah, how much time you got? Basically, I started playing clarinet when I was in second grade because I saw my sister getting lessons from my grandfather on saxophone, but it was too big for me, I was a small kid. He taught me how to play that and I stuck with it for 11 or 12 years to the point where it was going to be my career. But I’ve always loved bands because my mom and dad were in a band, so when I was a kid I would get to see them perform. I always was obsessed with the drums, so when they were soundchecking I would get on the drums. Then eventually in high school, I got into my first rock band. Technically it was ska, and then I started as just a drummer, then drummer and background vocals, then my next band was drummer and co-lead vocals. And I was in love with it. It was the first time I found my confidence and felt I had a real purpose as to what I was here to do, the performance aspect. My last band in high school was called One More Shot. Because it was literally, in our opinion, at the time, “this was the last shot, and if we don’t make it before we graduate, I’m done and I’m going to college and then that’s gonna be my life.”
When I went to college, I realized how little I fit in. No one listened to the music I listened to. They were talking about Beethoven, that’s great, but I wanna be like “yo, but what about Newfound Glory? What about Fall Out Boy?” And, I eventually, through Myspace, discovered All Time Low. I started filling my time by borrowing an acoustic guitar from the dormroom across from me, ‘cuz I didn’t have one at the time, and just learning songs, and trying to learn how to write. I was very new to it. Where I should’ve been spending more time practicing clarinet, I found myself in my room writing songs about things I was going through, trying to learn how to record, and doing Youtube covers, and I figured I’d give it a full shot and asked Alex if I could sing on stage. Later, he said yes, and I got to experience what that was like as a vocalist and as a frontman. It was like a drug. I know that’s such an overused analogy, but it’s the only way I can think to describe it.
I was hooked. From right there. Through that, I got my parents’ blessing. But the crazy thing about it, if we want to get real serious, my dad was battling cancer for the longest time, and his path in life was he went to college, to Berklee for trumpet performance, and dropped out to be in a band. And so I asked for that blessing while he was battling cancer and he was terrified of it and so distraught that he had to get up and take a walk. And I was like, I can’t, I can’t do this. I got the blessing to perform, called my mom at four in the morning and was like, “a lot of people took videos of it, it’s on Youtube, just show it to him please.” And she did. And he was just smiling from ear to ear. And they saw that it’s definitely hereditary, it’s their fault, you know. They called me the next day and told me to take a year off of college. A week after I got his blessing he passed away. I left college right then and there. I didn’t even finish my first year, I just immediately got to work. I knew exactly who I wanted to call first. I wanted it to be about good friends playing music together. I know from the bands I was in before, it’s so important that you really love who you’re in the band with. It’s always crazy to relive it.
Looking at the way you got started, as a classical clarinet player, did some part of you always consider yourself to be a singer? Did you go through vocal lessons or coaching to get to a point where you felt like a singer?
Carson: Oh no, I was not a singer, initially. If you go back and listen to our first EP, the one I did in college on an iMac on garageband with no producer skills, it sounds like trash. You really start to hear a switch in my voice in the EP Horrible Kids. What’s funny about that EP, there’s like three tracks on there that were recorded before we got into the studio, which was called “@reply”; “End in Tragedy.” If you just listen to those two compared to the rest of the songs, you can tell my voice was different; I sing all in my chest. If there’s anyone listening to this or watching this that is playing an instrument currently and you’re fully self-taught, you should be proud of that, that’s really awesome. But take private lessons. I cannot stress that enough. If you can find somebody that can teach you something that you don’t know right now at an expedited pace, why not do it? And I think that really comes from my high school background. I was really blessed to have the band director that I did.
To be honest with you, when I was in that first Ska band, I got made fun of by one of the friends of the band and he was like “you should stick to drums.” Genuinely that was the case. But that stuff kind of fuels me. I was like alright, I want to go take lessons from the best person I can. I took lessons from Ron Anderson for a while; I had to save up for sure. He’s incredible. One hour of a vocal lesson will teach you so much about yourself. It’s been so important to me. I now have a new vocal coach that I just had a breakthrough with, Rachel Laurence, because I ended up eventually having a vocal injury, which was terrifying to me. But because I knew I wasn’t a naturally gifted singer, I always wanted to work towards just being the best I can. And that’s why I have so much respect for all those vocalists out there that can do all the things that I feel like I can’t at the moment, but something I strive for.
Your vocal performances on every track are so dynamic—you really use your voice like an instrument—is there a kind of purpose and thought behind the way you sing, or do you more so just do what feels right?
Carson: I think it’s case by case. If it’s a live show, I’m not thinking about a thing, we’re just feeling the moment. But a lot of the time, I noticed, I can be really particular about the texture of the voice that I’m trying to accomplish. It depends also, from album to album. We have an album called Cinematics which is really neurotic and crazy sounding and there’s times that I really wanted to capture that insanity, but I also wanted it to sound genuine. If you can’t tell, I overanalyze so much. The growl thing is funny you brought it up. My mom, who is an amazing singer, would always really love and comment about it when she would hear someone would have a good rasp or a growl. What I would do is I would listen to a lot of my favorite singers who were all different.
Started with Beyonce and Destiny’s Child. N Snc, which are very talented vocalists but they’re more about just singing purely, and I always appreciated the vocalists that can do vocal runs. I want to be able to see all these different things that all of my favorite singers can do and try to add it to my arsenal. If I feel confident enough, and I feel like that part of the songs lends to it, then I’ll try to throw it in.
Set It Off songs are very musically dynamic—as a general rule of thumb, most of your songs have a lot of motion and drive. With that, can you take us into your songwriting process? How do you turn an idea or a story into its finished product?
Carson: That’s another thing that’s evolved for me, quite a bit, as far as the overall process. In fact, that first EP, I think what I was really afraid of when I first started writing was living in space. I felt like I had to be stimulated nonstop in order for a song to be good. That was one thing, I need to be able to live in space more. Before Duality happened, I went into this research mode, where I was on Youtube looking up roundtables. There’s this really cool roundtable with Sting and Justin Timberlake and Pharell, all these amazing writers sitting around, and I was treating it like a college course. My favorite is Max Martin and he really is the king of melody. And I realized that was my priority. I used to think I wrote lyrics first and turned it into melody, I noticed my favorite approach is to write the melody over a guitar part with nonsense words. Usually, what it’s all about is just nailing a melody that gets me bobbing my head. And then I’ll go in and treat it like a crossword puzzle.
I got all my blanks there, I know the exact amount of syllables that I want. That’s something I’m really particular with. If one of the lines was seven syllables, those words have to fit into seven syllables and it has to emphasize as if it’s a sentence. Over time, I love doing cowrites, I love working with other people. When we’re going back and forth on melodies, when you feel that genuine moment, it’s easy to have that moment, get excited and forget it and move on. What about that moment we just had? And that’s what it really comes down to with anything creative, if you love it, other people will love it. And that’s always been what’s most important to me. I want to really listen to all of our songs.
I want to bring up the track off of your latest album, “Unopened Windows.” Where did that message come from and what does it mean to you, personally?
Carson: This is one where I should probably talk deeper, ‘cuz before I talked about how I only start with a melody but that’s not necessarily true. I have a notepad I keep on my phone called song topics; if I think of a concept just through conversation, even in interviews. I don’t know where the idea incepted, but the concept of unopened windows; my father passed before I feel like I got to do a lot of the stuff with him that I wish I could’ve done. Like he was a huge Eagles fan, loved the team so much. But I didn’t get into it until 2010, two years after he passed. And now that I’m a mega fan, I’m like man it would be so cool to go to a game with him, but I can’t. He passed before we could go have a drink together. It would be so cool to have a beer with my dad. There was all these different things. I conceptualized it as you’re in a house and you’re seeing all these things playing out through the window, but you’ll never be able to open it. I wanted to comment on that because I don’t think I’ve heard a song about all the things you wished you could’ve done with someone expressed in that way. I knew once I wrote it down it was gonna be a challenge; whenever I would explain the concept, I realized how many words I had to use to get the point across. And I realized that could be the song. You have three or four minutes to tell the story.
The precursor to this is this is the second song I wrote about my father. The first one was called Dad’s Song. And it was the hardest song I ever wrote because I was such a control freak about it and it was never good enough until I learned to let go a little bit. I had to let the producers help me more. On Unopened Windows, it was my first time reapproaching the topic, but with that mindset. I didn’t really touch the piano. I just focused on how am I gonna convey this message. It was a really great experience getting it out. It’s also nerve wracking ‘cuz we knew this was gonna be the ballad of the record. It’s honestly the most emotional song I’ve ever played live on stage. That broke me down the first couple times.
There’s this moment at the end, in Dad’s Song, where we play Danny Boy. Me and my dad had this moment once, I was doing my high school spring concert and we played Danny Boy. My dad was already diagnosed. He was driving me home. He pulled the car over and he just started sobbing, telling me about the story of it. That whole song is about a father telling his son who’s about to go off to war that when he comes back he might not be alive anymore. And he saw a relation to that because I was about to go off to college and he was afraid of what eventually did happen. So that song Danny Body, that melody, I inserted that in the song.
This time, we inserted it again, ‘cuz I wanted it to be tied in there. I think if I ever write a song about my dad, it’ll be hiding in the background somewhere. Live, I bring out my clarinet. I let all the instruments fade out and it’s just a spotlight and I’m playing Danny Boy and I don’t wanna sound corny but I feel like he’s present every time I do it. And then the crowd, when they hum along, it just becomes the most overwhelmingly emotional feeling ever. I’m getting deep here, damn. I just wanted to do the song justice, and I’m really proud about how that song came out.
Music, for a lot of people, is highly therapeutic. In writing these highly personal, emotional songs, does it really serve that therapeutic outlet for you?
Carson: I’d say songwriting is the introduction to your therapist and performing it every are your sessions. You get to go in and talk about your problems. There is catharsis in doing that. Writing it all down and feeling that satisfaction of creating that perfect line that gets across how you’ve been feeling and really feeling good about the song when it’s done. From the starting process to the finished product, how in love with the song am I? And if I’m just over the moon for it, it’s the best feeling ever. You can compare it to so many creative processes. I love to cook. You start with nothing and then if you really nail a dish, you’re so proud of yourself. It’s that sort of feeling. But the performing of it is really where I get to have my therapy. Obviously, I miss it right now. When I’m on the road, whether it’s a song I wrote about a specific person, I might have made amends with that person and now someone else fits the bill of these lyrics and now they’re in my head when I’m singing it. I try to do that, live. I want to feel it. I want to emote exactly how I’m feeling. It’s the catalyst to the therapy, yeah.
Looking at where you started, just a little over 10 years ago to now, where you currently have hundreds of thousands of subscribers on Youtube and generate millions of monthly listeners on Spotify, what is it like to have generated such an audience and fanbase?
Carson: It’s hard to put into words. I often go back and remember what it was like touring in the van, booking our own tours, headlining every time ‘cuz no one wanted to take us out and playing to 10 kids. I’m looking forward to these next tours and I’m seeing the capacity of the rooms we’re booking now and it’s really satisfying ‘cuz I know that we never got a hand out. We just worked really hard for everything we have and we’ll continue to do that because we absolutely love what we do. And we absolutely love all the people that support us. And we feel that there’s a real genuine connection there. Because I think they know we’re just being us. There’s no veil up or anything. Seeing the connection that we’ve been able to make with our fanbase over the years, and how it just genuinely feels like a family. There’s a part of me that’s so grateful for where we are now, and there’s the part of me that’s just insatiable and I won’t be happy until we’re headlining sold-out stadiums, but you need that sort of drive. But I am very, very grateful for how far we’ve come and where we are right now.
I know you’re working on the new album—is there anything you can tell us about it? What it might sound like, sonically or thematically?
Carson: I can say we’re in the process of narrowing them down. Sonically, I like to show my demos to people who are gonna shoot me real straight. And everyone unanimously has said this is the best stuff we’ve ever written. And that’s what makes me the happiest so far. With every album, we grow or we change with who we are as people. I think whereas the age I was for Cinematics, I was really intense all the time and crazy and dramatic, I’m not that as a person anymore. You’re gonna hear some songs where I’m a bit more relaxed vocally. I think I’ve expanded my emotional dynamic range in this album. I have my anger but I also have … just being content in the moment. It’s a side I think no one’s ever heard from me before. It doesn’t dominate the record, but it’s featured, and I think it’s cool to hear Set It Off with that sort of flair for the first time. There’s songs that are similar as far as vibe goes to the previous record, there are songs that kind of push the envelope to things we’ve never done before, and there are songs that are experimental but songs we think, not to sound cocky, but we think are gonna smash. And we’re really excited, man. That’s where we’re at now.
You can listen to Set It Off’s latest record Midnight (The Final Chapter) here.