Code Orange’s Heel Turn
Pittsburgh's punishingly heavy lightning rods on new album 'Underneath'
The results of Super Tuesday have not lightened Jami Morgan’s already dim view of American politics. “We were watching it last night and it fucking sucks, dude,” the Code Orange drummer/vocalist/primary mouthpiece grumbles, and like just about every worthwhile artist who’s publicly endorsed a presidential candidate, all five band members — Morgan, guitarist/vocalist Reba Meyers, power electronics whiz Eric “Shade” Balderose, bassist Joe Goldman, and guitarist Dom Landolina — voted for Bernie Sanders. (“I voted for him last time, it didn’t work either.”)
There’s nothing explicitly political about the music of Code Orange, which draws on the most antisocial variants of popular heavy music from the past three decades — prime Nine Inch Nails, proggy post-hardcore, abrasive underground hip-hop, the most avant-garde bands in AJ Soprano’s T-shirt collection — to sublimate indiscriminate disgust with humanity into self-empowerment: “You are ready to rid yourself of inner negativity by reinforcing yourself negatively,” read their opening salvo for 2014’s I Am King. But they have a clearly vested interest in Sanders’ platform, as the Pittsburgh band is nursing a list of injuries that looks like something you’d see from the Steelers: dislocated knees and arms, cartilage tears, broken toes. This is the kind of band that could really use universal health care.
The hyperbolic violence of the band’s music has not slowed their perpetual rise: 2017’s Forever marked their debut on a major label and the Billboard 200, and in the time since, they’ve been the oddball metal band at mainstream festivals like Made In America, remixed alt-J after that band’s drummer repped a Code Orange T on Conan, collaborated with JPEGMAFIA, Injury Reserve, and Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, become the first band to perform live for WWE NXT, and wrote Bray Wyatt’s walk-up theme. Oh, and they earned a Grammy nomination for Forever’s title track. “There’s a tiny cadre of bands who came out of the DIY basement scene and managed to grow to the point where they get booked at gigantic rock festivals with people like Metallica and Slipknot,” Tom Breihan recently wrote regarding the likes of Knocked Loose, Turnstile, Vein, and Higher Power — and really, Code Orange opened that lane with Forever.
Likewise, Code Orange’s popularity has not come at the expense of their hyperbolic violence. Our founder Scott Lapatine caught a glimpse at a recent gig: “Someone showed me their tongue that they partially bit off in the pit,” he enthusiastically shared in an email about a Code Orange gig two summers ago. As a matter of fact, those two aspects of the band are in a symbiotic relationship: Like the heroes in John Wick or the Fast And Furious franchise, Code Orange bind themselves to an ethical credo that critics find inordinately self-serious, but they continue to reward fans that get it by funneling their bigger budgets and artistic leeway into an ever-escalating arms race of batshit, blow-shit-up stunts.
Underneath is, accordingly, the most extra Code Orange album in all forms. “I’m really not fucking exaggerating, we worked 24/7 every goddamn day for a year and half until every last millisecond of it was accounted for,” Morgan claims. That extends to everything from the artwork to the mind-boggling amount of digital information in each track to the impending live show to the pair of Max Moore-directed videos for the title track and “Swallowing The Rabbit Whole.” I mean this as the highest compliment: Both take me back to watching Headbanger’s Ball, or at least make me want to chug a six-pack of Surge and reenact my favorite Tekken 3 moves. I have absolutely no idea how to describe the plot of these videos — there’s bassist Joe Goldman pulling spin kicks, lots of broken glass, translucent humanoid beings straight from a Tool clip, references to the I Am King cover art — but I do agree with Code Orange’s assessment that it’s “the sickest shit ever.”
The album itself is something of a conceptual piece about online poisoning, and the experience of hearing it on headphones is akin to getting torn limb from limb by cybernetic terminators. Once again working with Will Yip and, now, Deftones/Mastodon/Foo Fighters collaborator Nick Rasculinecz, there is barely a 10-second span that goes by without a face-scrunching, digitally defaced riff, a hydra-head of competing, blackened growls, or their trademark trick, a split-second, physically impossible split second of silence that sounds like a computer glitch. Is it a bit gaudy? Of course, but I’ll leave it to YouTube commentariat for “Swallowing The Rabbit Whole” for the final verdict: One user writes, “The riff at the end is illegal in my country,” while another concludes, “The groove that starts at 4:18 is absolutely uncalled for. I’m calling my lawyer.”
Both singles build off of “Bleeding In The Blur,” Forever’s most accessible and, consequently, divisive song. “We’re not trying to make the most nonsensical, extreme record,” Morgan says, qualifying that they could if they wanted to. “We like music that you can listen to and remember. I like choruses.” Aside from their dedication to occasionally clean vocals, Code Orange’s success can largely be tied to the integrity of their image, which was already in place when they were teenagers going by Code Orange Kids and associated closely enough The New Wave Of Post Hardcore and revivalist emo that they managed to feasibly fit on a split EP with Tigers Jaw, Self Defense Family, and The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die.
“The artistic vision for Code Orange Kids started from the first take,” Morgan boasts. “You can look at the first CD-R we did all the way to the 7″s to the splits. The fonts, the imagery, it all built up to the first record,” 2013’s Love Is Love / Return To Dust. A year later, they dropped the “Kids” and began the promotional cycle for 2014’s I Am King with a viral campaign titled “Thinners Of The Herd” (often hashtagged as #TOTH). “You are ready for independence from emotion, fear and social struggle,” read the accompanying manifesto, advancing what Pitchfork’s Zoe Camp called “Darwinist vengeance” against metalcore posers. “See the world with Code Orange vision/ Carve the words into your skull!” they barked on the actual song “Thinners Of The Herd,” which is exactly what Goldman did on the album cover.
Since then, Morgan in particular has relished playing the heel; he’s a reliably great quote, often in the service of Code Orange’s greatness (“[Underneath] is more relevant than anything that’s coming out in rock and metal this year. Period.“) and at the expense of bands like Asking Alexandria. Combined with the band’s acrobatic aggression, the frequent shirtlessness of Goldman, and some indelible branding, they were a natural fit with the WWE. The synergy certainly helped expand their fanbase, but nonetheless goads the classism that’s long been leveraged against popular metal bands like Code Orange.
Morgan is aware of how the association rubs people the wrong way, especially when most bands tend to let their arrogance show in subtler ways. “We’re definitely competitive, but not in a way where we want to get rid of anyone that’s coming from our era,” Morgan explains — particularly as they’ve been consummate collaborators and omnivorous in their touring support, gigging with SoundCloud emo-rapper Wicca Phase Springs Eternal and Tumblr-pop icon Nicole Dollanganger for Forever, and now, warehouse DIY nihilists Show Me The Body and hardcore bruisers Jesus Piece. But by showing up at the Grammys and Coachella, do Code Orange run the risk of becoming the kind of target at which the next Code Orange might take aim? “I think we want to make way from some of the bands that have been around for a long time,” Morgan surmises. “It’s the same bands, and a lot of them I really like, but it’s the same thing you were talking about politically — what the fuck’s gonna happen?”
STEREOGUM: So now I always have to refer to Code Orange as “Grammy-nominated Code Orange.”
JAMI MORGAN: Whatever [laughs].
STEREOGUM: Code Orange has always been very antagonistic in its approach to pop culture, so how did actually attending the Grammys change your perspective on that machinery?
MORGAN: We are always hunting for a new platform, a new building to scream at the top of, that hopefully more people will hear and start flocking to us. We believe that there’s not necessarily a built-in audience for Code Orange to come in and be the “next band.” It’s gonna be a mixture of a lot of different groups. The Grammys thing was a chance to gain a platform that’s different from a lot of bands and make a moment out of it. That’s always what we intend to do with things like that, and if we would have won, that would’ve been even more of our intention. We wouldn’t have been going up there saying we’re “just happy to be there,” because we’re not. The goal is to turn things into things. We’re never gonna adjust our music to get somewhere, so the only way we’re gonna get somewhere is by continuing to expand our platform. Our music’s gonna be what it’s gonna be.
STEREOGUM: The thing about the Grammys is that it tends to reward bands that have been there before and metal in particular feels really arbitrary — Deftones won a Grammy for “Elite” of all things.
MORGAN: I don’t care what song it’s for, I just wanna get up there and talk and show people what we’re all about and that there are still new things cookin’ in heavy music. The same way we take so much from other kinds of music, there’s so much taken from [rock and metal]. We want to get heavy music more out there for being the giant influence it is on literally popular culture, whether it’s stylistically or aesthetically.
STEREOGUM: Have you ever had a chance to go to Coachella before this year? [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Coachella was postponed; there’s no word yet as to how the lineup will or won’t change.]
MORGAN: I can’t get to that shit, hard no. It’s expensive. But I’ll be going this time! There’s some cool people going on, I want to see Charli XCX. I’ve never seen her before, I’m a big fan. We just plan to grind it out, get on there and kill everyone, that’s it. That’s my only plan. I literally don’t care about anything except that.
STEREOGUM: What’s been your experience playing to crowds at festivals like Made In America where Code Orange might be the only metal band on the bill?
MORGAN: That is the way it looks on paper right now, so when we played Made In America, did we have a big crowd? No. But that’s not the way we approach it, I think that’s the way most bands approach it and I totally get it. We’re not going to be a token band, we don’t accept that — down the road, it’s gonna be totally normal for us to play Coachella, WWE, Slipknot Fest, that is our lane. We can do all that stuff, whether it’s having a wrestling theme and playing Coachella in the same year, doing a song for JPEGMAFIA and Injury Reserve and opening for Slipknot. Who’s done that?
A lot of bands play the token spot, but we’re not the token band. This isn’t the same thing. Right now it can look like that, but people are starting to see, this is our own lane entirely. When you’re in that [token] spot, it’s basically worthless. And for now, a lot of those festivals aren’t gonna be that great. But as we continue to build this repertoire of things we’re doing and planning on doing, I think people will see that it makes sense in its own weird way. This record is another step towards that because it has all of those things on it. Even Made In America wasn’t really that weird to me — the set was definitely bad, but it was a building block to get to this and this is a building block to get to the next thing.
STEREOGUM: Did the success of Forever lead to more external expectations, more artistic freedom, or some combination of the two?
MORGAN: The only aspects that we’ve ever seen as restricting are skill set, which we’ve improved immensely, and resources. There’s never a mental barrier about what we can and can’t do. When we go do this headline tour, we have our own version of production — every minute of the set, there’s something different going on, it’s never going to be phoning it in and having screensaver shit and whatever. I think that’s what a lot of bands do because they don’t even know where to start. We’ve worked for months now on how to bring a big-level show to small places. That applies to everything. We just want more resources — we have an endless amount of ideas, we just want to make it happen.
STEREOGUM: When I see backlash for Code Orange, it’s not just due to the addition of clean choruses, but also the idea of being in a band that’s competitive is somehow distasteful. Do you read the reviews?
MORGAN: I do, definitely. It plays into a lot of what the record is about. The world is this echo chamber of criticism and analysis and voice on voice on voice on voice. There’s this constant whisper around you, and of course I’ve heard everything you’re saying. What do you take in and what do you discard? It’s just getting so much more confusing. For me, I really try to do my best to trust the people around me, and we always check and support each other and understand what we’re trying to accomplish. That starts with the art being the absolute first and foremost thing. I think if we were “competitive,” but not putting in an immense amount of effort into our art, I could see why that would be distasteful. When every second of our day is spent trying to improve and expand our art, whether it’s making every element of this album, even the promotion, fun for the people who are into us, it’s hard for me to understand why that is a negative thing. I think our competitiveness is just us pushing ourselves to be the best band we can be and the best band. That’s how I look at it.
STEREOGUM: I often see people conflating the association with WWE…
MORGAN: That’s what I don’t get — because we did one song? What does that have to do with anything? I don’t understand that either, we just did that three months ago!
STEREOGUM: …but sometimes bands get judged on a classist perception of who they’re reaching out to. I saw it also happen with bands like Slipknot and Korn.
MORGAN: I think people looking at us through that lens are looking at it so small, they aren’t looking at what we were talking about before. I have nothing but respect for those bands, but we don’t sound anything like those bands. When the lens starts to unfog for us, time will continue to tell the story. I don’t even mean this in terms of popularity; maybe we don’t get one inch more popular, which is very possible. But we’re gonna do things on a broad level and be involved in a lot of places. I find it hard to call us “WWE” when we’re playing Coachella. The thing that’s already going on contradicts the next thing, and that’s the way I enjoy it.
Again though, whatever! It doesn’t weigh on my heart. I absolutely do see it, and I’ve thought about it, and my conclusion is that I say things that make me go, “OK, that’s not what I meant.” I need to learn how to revoice our messaging — that’s totally true. And that’s the only way to grow as a normal person and not be a sociopath. I totally believe in what we’re doing, and it’s so deep-rooted, it’d be hard to cut that tree. Even if we stopped doing this, I’d still believe in it.
STEREOGUM: Having started the band in your early teens, are there any songs that you can’t revisit?
MORGAN: No. Not at all. I find something in all those songs. There was a story, even as a teenager — and the story ran out, and there was nothing else for me to say. I really felt there was nowhere to go with it, so we started something that was longer-term and more broad with the following record [I Am King]. And the reason I like to have [Code Orange Kids and Code Orange] split up is because it’s more to me about the art. These records all build on each other like a story, thematically and artistically and aesthetically, and I want all those things all together. I don’t feel embarrassed about anything other than… obviously we sounded like shit on those records, we literally sound horrible. But as far as the content, there’s a lot learned from those records, there’s elements [of Code Orange Kids] even on this stuff more than on I Am King — because I Am King was rebuilidng the house, Forever was furnishing it, and this record is expanding so far that it came right back around.
STEREOGUM: With the “Underneath” and “Swallowing The Rabbit Whole” videos, how did the band have to prepare in order to physically act for a script in a big budget video?
MORGAN: I love that aspect where you can see our fucking faces. That is one thing I think we wanted to bring back, let’s fucking shine in this video like bands used to. It’s not just a video that a band is in, this is a fucking music video, you know what I mean? We didn’t have that big of a budget, we stretched every fucking cent of it, and I’m so proud of how that came out compared to what we spent on it.
The reason it came out so great is because it was so planned out, it was written like a fucking movie script. There was no, “You gotta do this,” we talked and talked and everyone knew what they had to do. We had two and a half days to get the videos done, so every minute of every day was planned out. We hardly slept and [director Max Moore] barely got paid, and I really respect him for that. The first time I read the “Swallowing The Rabbit Whole” idea to the band at the house, they were like, “OK, why don’t you go ahead and get Christopher Nolan on the phone.” They were all just, “Dude, what the hell are you talking about?” Not in a negative way, just, “If we can do this it’ll be the sickest shit ever, but it’s pretty much impossible.” We shipped out some aspects that were literally impossible, and Max is just the fucking guy. If you come to that guy with an idea and a true vision, he will get it done passionately, as long as you’re willing to work those 20 hours a day and just grind out in this freezing ass warehouse. Nobody came to us, “What if we do this sick video, you guys act in it.” We fucking detailed that shit, and he made it come out way better than we wrote it. It’s such a win when you get that.
STEREOGUM: Another thing that comes across in the videos is just how physically demanding this music is to perform, have you all developed a personal training regimen?
MORGAN: We’re literally all hurt at all times. Me, Reba, Dom, and Joe train in jiu jitsu, me and Joe have been training for five and half years, Reba started a year ago and Shade [guitarist Eric Balderose] trained for a couple years, that helps cardiovascularly. Joe lifts a lot, I lift as well a little bit. Reba actually just ran the Pittsburgh Marathon a couple weeks ago. We definitely try to keep in shape because it’s more for cleaning of the mind, we’re not fitness freaks. But to be honest, doing that working out causes you to get more hurt. I broke my toe, I dislocated part of my left knee in jiu jitsu, there’s cartilage in the back of my knee that got ripped up as well, Eric got his arm ripped out of his socket, Joe has had an insane list of injuries, some of which are so dark, I don’t want to say — pinched nerve in his neck, tissue in his elbow he had to get surgery on, it sucks ass for sure. Sitting in the van for years and headbanging has fucked all our necks up, and from talking to other bands, it’s probably gonna get worse, there’s really no hope.
STEREOGUM: When the opportunity to work with Injury Reserve and JPEGMAFIA came about, what was expected of Code Orange in the collaboration?
MORGAN: We’d been talking to Injury Reserve for a long time, I love them. I had heard about JPEG a few years prior, talked to him on the phone one time for a while about some music industry crap, and I remember he mentioned us once on Twitter, just saying he was a fan — that surprised me. That was a while ago! He was on it for a minute. I started listening to him more and I was literally, “This is my favorite rap thing ever, this is unbelievable.” It clicked with me super hard and I was super desperate, and still really am, to work with him and Injury Reserve.
We have one mutual friend that told us [they liked Code Orange], we followed them online and hung out with both of them at Made In America. We talked about making a track, we sat on it for a while — we actually did a remix of a song of theirs called “See You Sweat,” it didn’t come out because they wanted to move on to new shit. But they told us about this new idea they had, we worked on it for a while and then JPEG did his stuff. We messed with it, and I was worried he wouldn’t like it. The one we originally made had a lot more crazy stuff going on, and they took a lot of it out, but yeah — it was great. This probably wouldn’t work on their end, but I’d love to do an EP of songs with both of them, an actual collaborative project. I love both of them so much, and they’re doing something different — it’s very inspiring to us.
STEREOGUM: Having done this collaboration, are there other rappers you’re looking to work with?
MORGAN: There’s tons, but that’s the other thing — we’re trying to approach that element of it differently as well. The best way to put it is that my goal is not to combine rap and metal. That already happened and it’s called rap-metal. Nobody needs to hear that ever again, and there’s a lot of people doing it right now, and I don’t fucking listen to them. No offense to them, but it’s not for me. I’m more interested in learning and collaborating on the production side in different lanes, not me screaming on a rapper’s song or whatever. I find that nauseating to even think about.
If it appears in the right way, there’s so many people I’d love to work with, but we’re not trying to slime our way into that world, which I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of, it’s pitiful. That’s not the Code Orange goal, obviously. I’d love to work with people I like who like us, but we’re not gonna beg these rappers to let us on their song. With artists like [JPEG and Injury Reserve], though — how can you pass up? They’re both pushing their genres forward. That’s all anyone can hope for, and that’s what we’re hoping to do with our genre as well.
Underneath is out 3/13 on Roadrunner. Pre-order it here.