I Set My Friends On Fire were on their first tour and already sidestepping away from the spotlight of their own making. "We did that song for fun, you know? We said "Hey, let's do this." We didn't even really listen to it," clean vocalist/guitarist Nabil Moo remarked in a 2009 interview. Matt Mehana was quick to add this spin on their unexpected rise: covering Soulja Boy's "Crank That" — one of the earliest smashes of the first YouTube generation — was "like a grab at the beginning of a book to get people's attention." After Moo and Mehana uploaded their version to Myspace, they would have their profile repeatedly removed due to suspected streaming manipulation. After all, their experiment was racking up 50,000 plays a day, even on profiles duplicating their data and pictures. Epitaph Records would soon call, booking time with From First to Last's Travis Richter to record their label debut and sending them on their first cross-country runs. They were running into a problem, though. "People assume we did all the screamo rap covers, so people will ask to do 'Toxic' and 'Low,' but those aren't ours."
You Can't Spell Slaughter Without Laughter shipped in October 2008, complete with "Crank That." Despite its allegiance to the genre's themes du jour—relationship troubles flipped into comic mischief, a ticked box next to "Flip Video-ready dance track," running the Art of Screaming highlight reel—the LP was widely panned. Critics slammed the band's kitchen-sink approach, including a half-star flipped bird from Alternative Press. (It must really suck to be Phil Freeman right now.) Less prolific writers latched onto the album's intentional ridiculousness, but it's bizarre why the big wigs missed it. It's all right there on track one. After a packed show, Matt and Nabil head backstage, where they're greeted by an alien. The E.T. convinces the band to play a show on their home planet, the band agrees because there's no shittalkers there. See, music journalists: they're not laughing with you.
Slaughter's setup could explain the half-hour head rush that follows it: an endurance test primed for Warped Tour teens in balloon-text graphic tees. The album's anthemic centerpiece, "Things That Rhyme With Orange," circles around Nintendocore synths and gang vocals to celebrate, and then circumvent, the attention economy that got them a record deal. Mehana's screams are more strategically placed, the hook a classic Away Message finger point: "Blame it on the corporate skyscrapers in the clouds / but if it wasn't for you, we wouldn't have these multiple crowds." I Set My Friends On Fire knew they waged war from inside the same mall, just from the Hot Topic instead of the Hollister. Later, Mehana would ask what exactly the fuck they were playing on "Ravenous, Ravenous Rhinos"—is it farts? does it matter? can we sell this to kids?—knowing their own challenging game and laughing at the losers from above. (ISMFOF's strategy would pay off again when Epitaph introduced the pair to Smosh, another wacky and off-kilter duo of creators, resulting in the short "Sex Ed Rocks": another viral, defiantly br00tal sensation.)
And what about that kitchen-sink approach? ISMFOF's dime-turn dynamics swap predictability for chaos, so a moment that storms off immediately, like the grindcore whoosh on "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beerholder," shoves in a piano in time for the act break. Even the set pieces are jarring, like the horror-show antics creeping through "ASL" and "But the NUNS are Watching…" It's less reliable than the other swoopy-haired lineup fillers playing 200-cap venues at the time, but that's the point. "Our music is very eclectic," Mehana defined, "all this crap jumping out at once." If that isn't for you, it never was going to be.
We Are the Cavalry—the project that precede "Crank That"—has a song called "My Maserati Goes 185." It's a jagged slice of Myspace-core: stuttering riffs start the track, thorny notes rock a haunted carousel of aggression to life, etc. It's more an origin for ISMFOF's name than any other fan theory. (The song begins with Mehana screaming "the altitude is higher / we have something to set on fire / your face!") As the second verse clicks into focus, Mehana continues, "if you can't bear my opinion, don't complain in the first place!" For all its tough-guy posturing, the line made a few points. You can't spell innovation without a couple nos.