Interview: Set It Off's Cody Carson talks about their newest album "Midnight"
Words by: Ally Cassidy
Time and time again, Set It Off has put out versatile and musically unique albums that always, without fail, surpass the last one. “Midnight” is no different. From personal, heartfelt songs about coping to fun, darker songs that are easy to relate to, Midnight is extremely diverse and is easily Set It Off’s best album so far.
Recently, we had the pleasure of talking to the band’s lead singer, Cody Carson, about the success of the album and where it all started.
Let's talk about the album cycle for Midnight and how that's been so far!
Cody Carson: The response has been incredible and beyond expectations and so obviously that's what you want to be able to say and I'm able to say genuinely which feels fantastic. Our tour is going the best we've ever done on a headliner. We've sold out most of the shows. This isn't me trying to be all braggy- it's just more like when you're putting together an album all you can ever hope for is that people receive it well because if it doesn't, it can tear you down. This is your baby- all you want is to be successful and to see it being received in a positive way. It's really really encouraging. And everyone's really happy.
I've noticed some connections to the theatrical moments that you guys do and most of your albums. What makes you want to go a little overboard and do something more theatrical?
CC: To be honest I feel like a lot of the time when I'm writing like melodies or anything it's just like a reflection of who I am as a person and I'm kind of a theatrical person. I auditioned for many plays, I did a lot of roles, and it's always been a passion of mine. I think that also reflects in my performance style. Like my hands are constantly moving and I exaggerate motions but I also wear my emotions on my sleeve as a person just outside of music. If I am feeling a certain way, you're going to know. You don't really have to guess with me. I've always treated my life that way and it feels like it's easier to live that way. And so in music, I've always never had a problem with being vulnerable or talking about how I feel because I know I'm not alone. I know that a lot of the things that I go through other people go through and it's easy to be able to relate to other people when you just bear yourself out there like that. And I feel being theatrical is a way to kind of reach out to others.
Going forward with wearing your emotions on your sleeve, can you tell me more about Unopened Windows and the decision to put that song on Midnight?
CC: So my father passed away due to cancer 2008 and it took me about four years to write my first song about him because you know, I'm going to be myself writing about such a serious thing. That was called "Dad's Song" and that was on our album “Cinematics” and I haven't written another song about him since until this record. Unopened Windows is about this concept I've been sitting on for a while about memories you wish you could have or experiences that you can't. it's like watching them play out in your mind like you're trapped in a house without windows. So there was just this visual of the whole thing and I couldn't shake it. So finally I was like "you know what? its time." That was a really hard one to get through like lyrically, melodically because I wanted it to be perfect. I remember I thought I walked across the street to the grocery store and bought like a bottle of Chivas whiskey which was like one of my dad's favorites and I was like "I'm gonna drink up and spill my soul out into this song." And I did and I'm really proud of how that song came together. It's the first time a song has ever made me cry live and I mean CRY. I barely got through the song in Orlando. I was singing it in front of my mother, my sister, and my newborn niece. I just broke down hard. It was hard to get through but I think that's what makes Set It Off who we are. We talk about real things that we're going through and we never try to hide anything or holier than thou or cooler than anybody, you know? We grew up being a bunch of nerds. It is our chance to be ourselves.
That brings me to “Happy All The Time”! As a fan, I see it as a song about like depression and kind of understanding you have a grip on it and knowing that it's okay to not always feel okay. And so I'm wondering from your perspective, what does it mean?
CC: I think you nailed it right there honestly. Before going into this record, I was in a really dark place. I was very depressed. I broke down in a grocery store- and I'm going to seem like I just cry all the time but I promise it is hard to make me cry. We felt abandoned by our previous team and it really hurt because we got dropped by our management and that sucked. It is never good to feel that way. We were like "oh, no one believes in us." And I started believing that and I started teaching myself that that was the truth. It started breaking me down. Every time I would get to that dark place, I would just bring myself down more and almost pin myself down. I'd get in this depression and I'd start talking about all the negative things in my head instead of trying to rationalize why am I here in the first place and is it okay. And believe it or not, the inspiration is from an episode of South Park where there's this quote- basically Butters is talking to these goth kids and he's like "you know what I am sad but it's kind of a beautiful sadness because I feel this sad right now that means I must have felt something really great before." That was one of the greatest quotes I've ever heard in my life. That's so true. Like if you can feel this sad then you have to have known what it feels like to feel very happy. You have to have that extreme happiness to feel extremely low and it gives me hope and lets me know that I'm not always going to be down because I know that I've been back up before. So it's just a matter of time to push through and literally get through it and get back to the happy self. And I know I'm going to get down again and I'm okay with that because it's normal. It's part of life.
There is also a collaboration in that song with Sky Acord from Issues! Tell me about that!
CC: He's such a great guy. Kind of got in touch with him while we were at our friend Clayton's birthday party at Tyler Carter's house and we were in the pool just talking about our favorite music and how fun it would be to write together. We didn't know when that would actually happen but he was in L.A. and I was like "hey man if you're out here, come on out." He was like "sure!" He picked a date, came through, and we wrote the song in a day. It was really fun to watch him work. He'd start with these chord progressions on a piano then I got to see him play bass. It was just a very perfect collaborative process and we were all satisfied with every part of the song. I think that's always the biggest part when you're collaborating, it is easy to kind of get in your own head to think about what you want. It wasn't like that! Everyone was thinking about the greater good of the song and everyone was happy with the lyrics, the melodies, the instrumentation, everything. I kept getting excited like every time I got an update about the gospel part. We just got to see the song come to life together. I think that was another really fun part of that.
Midnight has a really strong aesthetic that sets it apart. Why is that?
CC: Since Duality, we've tried to be conscious of branding. You have to set yourself apart that helps you do that. You have to create this world for people to join. The diamond was the first time we did that. Then with Upside Down, we tried to dive into it more but it was more like light colors and bright blue and all white this and that was kind of like the extent of the aesthetic that we had. But before we even really started like hovering down of the writing of the songs, we were talking about the aesthetic of it and Maxx had the idea of like midnight being this cool theme because we knew we wanted to darken ourselves up. So we imagined like what if there was just like a knob on us- like a brightness and darkness- and we just turn the knob down. It is still a blue but it's a midnight blue now. And the whites have turned to blacks. We're kind of very aware of that. It started with that- just the idea of midnight and then using the hourglass as a symbol to kind of reach out and give a nod to all the fans that were there when we get our “Hourglass Love” song on YouTube. So we went with the hourglass and it was just an inverted version of our symbol so it's like we're kind of rebirthing, rebranding, reinventing ourselves. We started realizing that time is of the essence and it makes sense to kind of make that a centralized theme. Going in with that aesthetic in mind actually made the writing process even easier because there was a time we were writing a song- the song Hourglass actually- and it used to be called linoleum and had different lyrics for the chorus but the lyrics weren't as relatable and they were a little bit too out there just in the sense that you know- the chorus used to be: I thought I was Napoleon because I never lost I always won / plastic soldiers plastic guns they can really hurt someone / war on the linoleum. I thought the lyrics were amazing and they're really cool but it's just something about them- using Napoleon in a song would just be too historical. But because I knew what the concept of the record was I then went into it and I made it about falling through the hourglass and that allowed it to kind of propel it forward. So, it was actually kind of helpful start with the aesthetic rather than do that after the fact.
I think the bands that really succeed are the ones that are very aware of it- like Twenty One Pilots is very good at it. They have their symbol. They have the drumsticks that match that. You. When they were doing the red and black scheme all of the mic cables on the drum set were red and they would wear red socks and red beanies. And now it's Trench and it has this yellow thing. I pay close attention to other bands and how they do it. Prvis did that with the black and white aesthetic. If you're conscious of it, you're creating an actual environment that people can be involved in and kind of link themselves to and show “I support them” and they can talk and show it by wearing my team colors. It is nothing different than like the NFL, you know? I like The Eagles so I wear Eagles hats- that's how I show I support them. It should be similar for bands too.
Aside from aesthetic, what made you go with the time as a theme?
CC: Well you know, we've been a band for 10 years and the last record didn't propel as farther forward as Duality. So it's the first time in our heads we're like "well the time is of the essence. This next record better kill it." It makes you appreciate the time that you spent, the years you've put in, and the years we want to get out of it in the future. That's kind of where the underlying thing with time started.
You've spoken about this idea of struggle breeding creativity. How do you deal with that? Does it come in the form of writer's block?
CC: The thing is just writing while struggling. You need a creative outlet when you're feeling some sort of extreme emotion. So putting that into something while doing an activity is just gonna happen naturally. I don't care if you're playing video games. If I am angry and I am playing video games, I am going to scream at the TV. But if I am angry and writing a song, I am going to scream into the song. So I think that's what I mean by that. It's like: use your struggle in a positive sense in a creative world. Don't force it in there. Just feel it and let it come out.
Do you make it a conscious effort to stand out musically?
CC: We just try to write the best song we possibly can. I think the only conscious thing is I don't want us to sound like anybody else. I think that is everyone's conscious effort is just make sure they are sounding as unique as possible. If I am writing a lyric and I feel like I've heard it before, then I won't use those lyrics. It's not so much trying to be different. If you try to be different then you sound contrived. So just trying to be original in the sense that it's just who you are that is coming out of your brain while trying to avoid similarities.
How do you use your passion for music as a driving force in your life?
CC: Passion is everything. I actually said a while back "music without passion is like a rose without petals." It's just empty. You can't do something if there's no passion. I don't care what you're doing with your life. If you're living a nine to five right now, you better be passionate about specific nine to five you chose. Otherwise, why are you doing it? Life is fueled by passion. It absolutely is a driving force for us.
What advice do you have for struggling with mental health issues?
CC: I think the biggest lesson I can give with mental health is first of all just know that it's very rare that your friends are not doing similar things. We just all project differently. So I think no one should be afraid to talk about it ever because so many people that I know- I'd say all four of us feel anxiety in this band. I know that because I live with them and I see it every day. We have panic attacks. We struggle, we get afraid, and we get depressed. And then we have the opposite side where we're happy. It's being aware and learning. I think mental health gets easier when you just learn to accept that you're going to have issues instead of trying to fight it all the time- like kind of embracing it. That's how I deal with it. It's okay to not be okay. It's not really about like keeping negativity out of your like like I understand, I don't want anyone around me telling me negative stuff and trying to bring me to that place but I am going to naturally fall there sometimes. Maybe that's just who I am but I'm just always trying to know myself. So I think the best thing that you can do is when you do get into those dark places try to rationalize it, try to take a step outside of where you are in that moment, ask yourself kind of the question of why worry, and then honestly, going back to “Happy All The Time,” it is okay to feel that. Let it out. Feel it. It makes you human.
How do you feel like alongside the music you have personally grown and like what's the biggest thing that stands out?
CC: I am a totally different person. It's been ten years since the first EP. The way I had approached situations back then was entirely different. And I feel like I'm a lot stronger now than I was before. And I'm able to talk about that and I like that. Musically? I feel vocally I've grown a lot. I had to take lessons and I didn't have any before. I started off was pretty rough in my opinion. So I'm happy to see that I'm making progress there. And I hope I can continue to do so through practice. I wasn't blessed with any sort of voice that was meant to be a lead singer. I had to really really work hard at it. Each record is a reflection of how we were feeling at that time in our lives.