After the third time MySpace deleted their band's page, Matt Mihana, then age 17, and Nabil Moo, then age 18, considered abandoning both the site and the band. It was impossible, the site's police said, that one song was garnering 50,000 plays a day; the duo was obviously using software to ratchet up the numbers. So they got deleted once. Then again. "After the third time we got deleted," says Nabil, now 19 years old, "we were like, 'Should we give up?'"
But the numbers were improbably, insanely real. Kids could not stop listening to one of only two tracks uploaded under the duo's moniker, I Set My Friends on Fire. And the track was a hastily uploaded joke, a brutal, screaming version of a pop-rap song whose popularity was also largely Internet-propelled: Soulja Boy's "Crank Dat." To date, their version of the song has been played on MySpace more than one million times and has spawned numerous copycat sites, further spoofs, and tribute videos.
It has also, in the process, drawn a lot of attention to the band's other songs and landed it, on the strength of just a handful of those, a bona-fide record deal with punk rock's holy grail: Epitaph Records. I Set My Friends on Fire's debut album, You Can't Spell Slaughter Without Laughter, will be released October 7. Welcome to the crowd-sourced method of A&R in 2008. "The Internet's a powerful thing," Nabil says, laughing, aware he's just uttered the understatement of the century.
I Set My Friends on Fire
The duo is chipper and animated on a recent afternoon at — where else? — a Starbucks in their stomping ground of — where else? — Kendall. Although the guys have done several e-mail and phone interviews, this is their first real-life sit-down, so they're refreshingly eager to talk. They're also bolstered by the presence of Nabil's 28-year-old brother, Kamal, an L.A.-based entertainment lawyer who has become the band's manager and minder/chaperone. He distributes frappuccinos and slices of marble loaf cake before settling down with his iPhone, which he'll use continually to check — what else? — the band's MySpace page.
Matt's parents are Egyptian, and Nabil's are Jamaican, but both boys grew up in Miami; Matt attended Palmetto Senior High, and Nabil went to Palmer Trinity. They met about three years ago as members of a more traditional, straight-ahead band called We Are the Cavalry — "cavalry, like the guys on horses, not Calvary, like the cross," Matt is quick to point out. That band broke up when the guitarist moved to Texas to attend college and the drummer "went to the Rocky Mountains to find himself."
That left only Matt and Nabil, who decided to branch out on their own, just the two of them and a fuck-the-world 'tude. "We decided there would be no limits and we'd do whatever we wanted. We wouldn't care what people said; it would start off with our own pleasure," Matt says. Nabil had inherited a small home studio setup from Kamal and began teaching himself how to program beats using Propellerhead's Reason software. Thus was born the band's division of labor: Nabil twiddles knobs and plays some live instruments, while Matt writes lyrics and then alternately sings and howls them. "He does his own thing; he sends it to me through e-mail, and I come back, and we put it together, and that's it," Matt says.
Matt and Nabil decided in August 2007 to create a MySpace page for the act. But they didn't yet have anything recorded. Then Matt was listening to the radio one day when he heard Soulja Boy's improbable hit. "I was like, 'Whoa, what's this? It's stupid and it's funny. How funny would it be if we just did a cover of it?'" He recalls. "At first we didn't agree on it. Even my girlfriend at the time said it was a bad idea. But I said, 'I promise you, something good will come out of it.'"
Nabil hit his home lab and quickly re-created the song's distinctive, but easily copied, calypso-grind beat. Quickly they recorded Matt's vocals, a groaning, mocking, growling take on the rap. They uploaded the track to MySpace and called it a day, intending to try to grow their friends list and promote the track some other time.
But somehow, somebody found it and told two friends. And they told two friends. And the whole thing snowballed as the tune became people's profile song, so it instantly played when their own pages loaded. "My ex-girlfriend and I took a nap, and then we woke up, and I saw all these plays and I thought, No, no, that can't be right," Matt says. By the end of the first week of the page's — and the band's — existence, they had 10,000 Internet "friends." By the end of the next week, that had grown to 20,000. And then MySpace deleted their page and they were back to square one. Then it happened again, and they created a new page again.
The song leaked to the Lime Wire file-sharing service. A number of fake pages sprouted up, all claiming to be the real band, and in many cases adding their own spoof songs.
"The thing that made me think this wasn't worth it is that the third time after we got deleted, someone made an exact replica of our page and even used our pictures," Nabil says. "Matt's phone was off or something, so I wrote to the page, and some kid pretending to be Matt wrote back saying he'd call me. Then Matt finally called me and was like, 'What's up?' And it turns out those kids with the page were writing to everyone who said they loved us, and saying these hurtful things."
Kamal intervened, encouraging the guys to keep going, and sent a "strongly worded letter as a lawyer" to MySpace, which restored the last version of the page with 5,000 of its friends. Today the band boasts more than 97,000.
Of course, not everyone has loved them. As soon as the Internet heat began building, the hate e-mail started rolling in. "We've learned there are a lot of angry kids out there," Nabil says.
"We thought it was really funny," Matt adds. "We got so much c-r-a-p." He spells out the word. Kamal has warned him to curb his infamous potty mouth during interviews.
I Set My Friends on Fire is having the last laugh, though. During the initial fuss, they quickly uploaded another track, their first "real song," "ASL," a hiccupping epic that transitions from sped-up trip-hop to pseudo-death-metal without warning. Matt and Nabil were worried they would permanently be seen as a novelty. "We try to distance ourselves from it now, because we don't want people to just think we're a joke," Matt says. "And we do write other stuff." Then came a third song, "Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beerholder," a piano-laced shriekfest. Then came a forth, "HxC 2-Step."
And soon after that, labels came sniffing around — but mostly just sniffing. Then Kamal received an e-mail from Brett Gurewitz, Epitaph's famously hands-on label head and, almost more important to the bandmates, a founding member of legendary punk act Bad Religion. This was December, only four months after the band's inception, and Gurewitz wanted to offer the guys a multi-album deal.
The ensuing months were even more of a whirlwind than the first few. The band got a call from The Bamboozle, an annual multiday music extravaganza in New Jersey that is the top event of the post-posthardcore scene. I Set My Friends on Fire had yet to play a live show, though, so this past May they scrambled to get a local booking as a warmup. They scored one at Drake's, an unlikely sports-bar-cum-live-music-venue in Kendall, and played their first headlining show the same day Matt's girlfriend broke up with him.
The next week, they were on a cold, rainy field in Jersey, setting up their amps on a stage when they realized the crowd before them was slowly gaining critical mass. Some 2,000 would eventually assemble, despite the fact that Snoop Dogg, Jimmy Eat World, and fellow MySpace celeb Jeffree Star were all performing at the same time. And in an almost creepy, Borg-like move, the crowd was prepared. "We had a new song, 'W.T.F.W.J.D.,' and the first time anyone heard it was at that Drake's show," says Nabil. "Someone took a crappy recording with their cell phone and put it on YouTube. I guess a bunch of people saw that recording, because right before the breakdown of the song, everybody knew — they were opening pits and stuff. Everyone went crazy."
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"It was one of those things that was so shocking, you had to laugh," Matt says. "I was screaming and laughing at the same time. My wire actually came out of my mike."
After that triumphant gig, they flew directly home so Nabil could take his finals at the University of Miami, where he was a freshman (he's since taken a leave of absence). A few weeks after that, Matt graduated from high school. And that evening, they were packed off to Valdosta, Georgia, to record in only two weeks their first full-length album, with producer Travis Richter, of the Orlando band From First to Last.
There's no sign of a slow-down yet, either. Their third show will be November 10 in Nashville, which will mark the kickoff of their first national tour, a two-month continental crisscross they'll complete, they hope, in a hybrid SUV. A European or Japanese tour might follow; there have already been several offers. Somewhere in there, everyone involved says, they'll hopefully find time to breathe. "The thing I've noticed with this business is that it's a whole lot of nothing, and then you run for your life," Nabil says. "It gets kind of stressful, but it's always exciting, because you really don't know what's going to happen next."