Ever since COVID-19 put a hold on real-life concerts, livestream performances have become an everyday part of the music industry apparatus. Without the ability to tour and play in front of in-person crowds, artists of all genres have tried trekking forward in the digital realm to give fans a piece of what they're missing from normal times. There've easily been thousands of livestream performances since the onset of the pandemic, but none of them have looked anything like the ones Code Orange have put on.
Back in March, while musicians from all over the map fumbled with Instagram Live and lo-fi acoustic performances, the Pittsburgh band streamed professionally-shot footage of themselves playing from an empty venue — lights, video effects, and all. It was less than a week into quarantine and Code Orange had already carried out a set that was more ambitious and entertaining than what practically any other act — mainstream, metal or otherwise — has been able to pull off since. They didn't stop there.
Throughout the spring, Code Orange hosted various mini-performances on their Twitch channel that blurred the line between livestream set and conceptual art piece. Then, over the summer, they put together a full-scale event called Under the Skin that channeled the vibe of classic MTV Unplugged performances through their nightmarish world of horror aesthetics and visual storytelling. It wasn't just a musical set, but a through-composed video production that's been completely unparalleled in both the heavy and greater music universes. Now, they're taking that another step further.
On Halloween, the Grammy-nominated act will be hosting a new event called Back Inside the Glass that will feature their own full-band set, even more intense visuals, and three additional sets from their friends in Jesus Piece, Year of the Knife and Machine Girl. All four of those groups (along with the NYC band Show Me the Body) were supposed to tour together back in March, so part of Code Orange's impetus for having them on this event was to make up for that.
"The other thing is, I can count the bands that I like on two hands," says Code Orange's outspoken vocalist-drummer Jami Morgan. "So it's kind of like, these are bands that I like, these are people that I like."
Morgan is on a Zoom call with representative members from all of the other groups: Jesus Piece drummer Luis Aponte, Year of the Knife guitarist Brandon Watkins and Machine Girl frontperson Matt Stephenson. While YOTK played a bare-bones livestream show early in quarantine, and Stephenson has done solo DJ sets, none of these support acts have done anything of this scale amid the pandemic. In fact, linking up for a Code Orange event was the only way any of them would even consider doing it.
"I think Code set the tone for how livestreams should look," says Aponte, who was also on the videography team for Code Orange's last livestream. "We've got asked a bunch but I've been like, 'Nah I don't want to do any' because if you're not doing it crazy or big and unique then it's pointless. I just didn't feel like standing in a studio and doing something like that."
Code Orange's goal going into this was to make it as far removed from the typical livestreaming format as possible.
"We wanted to create more of an environmental experience akin to an art installation or some of the fashion shows we've seen, or even a haunted house kind of thing," Morgan says. "We're using projection to put us amidst all of these different environments that we've created. But it's in a really cool surreal way, but a lot more realistic than something like a green screen kind of thing. So I think it's going to a whole new level of visual spectacle mixed in with a whole new set of songs we haven't done."
Creating a production that's as much a visual spectacle as it is a musical performance has been an exhausting undertaking that they've been planning for literal months. Like everything Code Orange involves themselves in, it's been a distinctly DIY operation, but the whole thing has been intensely collaborative with the other bands. Stephenson, who's also based in Pittsburgh just a short drive from Code Orange's outpost, even enlisted a friend of his to help construct the physical space where it's going down.
"We built the fuckin' stage," Morgan says. "Matt's guy is really helping us — him and Shade [Code Orange's electronics guru and visual mastermind] are building the whole situation. Reba [Meyers, Code Orange guitarist] is handling fucking everything. She coded the damn website because we didn't want to get a website designer or anything to make the landing page. From top to bottom it's a DIY operation, so it makes sense to have people from our community playing."
Thankfully, Morgan and the others were able to take a pause to have a roundtable discussion with Revolver about what it was like to put this whole thing together, the challenges hardcore bands face in a world without shows, and what they think the heavy-music landscape will look like once things return to "normal." Our conversation has been slightly condensed for clarity.
HARDCORE IS A GENRE THAT'S SO CLOSELY TIED TO THE LIVE ENVIRONMENT. SO MUCH OF HARDCORE CULTURE COMES FROM SHOWS AND THE RELATIONSHIP THAT'S FOSTERED THERE BETWEEN THE BANDS AND THE CROWDS. HOW DO YOU THINK THE COMMUNITY AND THE CULTURE HAS OR HASN'T CHANGED IN THIS YEAR WITHOUT THOSE SHOWS?
JAMI MORGAN Everyone involved [with this stream] are very creative people and I feel like it's going to take that kind of creativity to bridge that gap that you're talking about. And a lot of bands, it's not going to be possible for. Because they're going to have to make a record or wait. And that's no fault of their own, it's just the way that they're structurally built is not for this situation. Whether it be they're all spread out, whether it be that creatively it's really about the live show, or about the record that happens every couple years.
Hardcore — and punk and everything, Machine Girl's obviously from a different side of it — in some ways does lend itself to this situation: the DIY mentality that you can then apply to the internet and apply to what you're doing with a stream or something. On one end, hardcore and punk is going to be the most difficult [to adapt] because it most relies on crowds. On the other end, it's full of the most creative people — not even artistically necessarily, but just creative at figuring out how to make things happen. All of us here have booked our own tours, done our own everything.
LUIS APONTE In 2020 I've noticed that a lot of bands either have given up and are laying low … In this time you really gotta get with the times or you're going to get left behind. Those are really the only two choices.
LAST YEAR, THE HAVE HEART REUNION SHOWS WERE ONE OF THE MAJOR HIGHLIGHTS IN HARDCORE, BUT WHAT DO YOU GUYS THINK HAVE BEEN THE MOST EXCITING AND/OR IMPORTANT MOMENTS IN HARDCORE IN 2020? WITHOUT ANY EPIC LIVE BILLS TO POINT TO.
BRANDON WATKINS Definitely the last Code Orange livestream, Mudbanger's Ball, all that shit. I mean, what else is there? Sunny [Singh, of Hate5six] does livestreams and they've done One Step Closer and those kinds of things, and I think that's what people are really looking forward to. All the video footage and everything.
MORGAN Like you said, it's a live environment. That's what hardcore is, it's based in that live spirit, so when you cut that out of it it's gonna be tough. A lot of bands aren't geared to being super creative and it's not even their fault because based on what they're doing, there's really no need to be. They're putting something out there that's pretty primitive and raw, and that's all it needs to be. It doesn't need to have a fuckin' livestream with visuals and all that shit, because it wouldn't make any goddamn sense. So it is difficult in that way for the scene.
MATT STEPHENSON I feel like there's so much shit being made that we don't know about. I feel that the other side of COVID's hardcore and aggro punk aggressive music — electronic, guitar, band-driven stuff — there's going to be such a huge wave of that and I'm really excited for that and I don't know what it's gonna look like. Because something I've been thinking about a lot is younger kids that are, like, 16, 17, that maybe just started going to shows or something right as this hit.
And on top of that, there're kids that are now stuck at their house, they maybe wanted to go away to school and now they can't, the world's falling apart, there's so much shit to be frustrated about and it's pent-up. Now you can't even go to the show to get your frustration out, you have to get it out somehow in your home. And I feel like there's so much shit being made right now and I'm so excited to hear that.
MORGAN I agree. There's definitely so much cool shit being made and I think my band's job, as having already made the piece of art we were trying to make — because we went underground to do that a couple years before this — is to find ways to give people a blueprint of what can be done for as long as this goes on in a way that can hopefully be entertaining and not just make things feel more stale.
Respect to everyone who's given it a shot, but some of the livestreaming stuff has made things feel even more depressing. Because it's like, "Oh, I don't want to see this." You see it and you think, "Oh god, this is what we have to go on? A band playing in a stale room." Even the big bands playing with their pyro and shit — it ain't the same, man. So it's almost like a third thing: You got live performance, you got what was considered livestreaming, and now you almost need a new genre, which is what I'm hoping that we're able to be at the forefront of. Which is adding a cinematic element to that so it almost feels like you're watching a movie that still has the same energy as a live performance because it's raw and it's real and it's live.
APONTE Even besides the livestream shit, I've been seeing a lot of individuals either fold under this or expand in themselves. I've seen some kids who were super hardcore through and through start experimenting with producing or even rapping, or all sorts of shit. And I think that's really cool because I think a lot of hardcore is, it's very hardcore or nothing else. It's kind of looked down upon to expand on your things and your interests, so I think it's beautiful that people are opening their minds to a lot of things and how they're viewing music in general.
JAMI, MATT AND BRANDON, YOU GUYS PUT OUT NEW MUSIC THIS YEAR, AND, LUIS, MAYBE YOU COULD SPEAK TO THIS, TOO: DO YOU THINK FANS HAVE ENGAGED WITH YOUR MUSIC DIFFERENTLY THIS YEAR THAN THEY HAVE IN THE PAST? IN TERMS OF NOT BEING ABLE TO GO MOSH TO IT, DO YOU THINK THEY'RE MORE FOCUSED ON THE LYRICS THAN THEY WERE IN THE PAST?
APONTE I think a lot of people used to view us as a mosh band, which is fine if you just want to see us that way. But our lyrics are really fueled by Aaron [Heard, Jesus Piece vocalist] and mine experience as being black or brown. And a lot of stuff has been going on with social politics, and I think a lot of people have taken the time to really respect and understand where he was coming from with a lot of the songs and what he was speaking on. And so I think people in that way have paid more attention, which I really love.
WATKINS This has been a different record for us. It's an evolution of sound and everything so I'm hoping people are looking at it like we're not just a fucking mosh band. We're a metal band, we're a hardcore band, we're whatever the fuck. But it's hard to say because you don't have shows, you don't have kids buying your merch. You have kids supporting you through livestreams and supporting whatever you do but it's just totally different.
MORGAN For us, we're lucky in some ways in this situation because we in no way had the foresight of anything like this, but just the headspace that we were in trying to make the record — and more so even in the buildup for the record in the way that we built the campaign — was very digitally connected. We built a community on Discord, we built a community through doing an alternate reality game. The goal of that truly was, "Let's bring everyone in who's interested in what we're doing and try to center them all in one place before we drop this bomb that'll be with the record." And, of course, go out on tour and hit them, but have a stronger connection with the people who support us, which I felt in the past we were kind of lacking.
In doing that, and in writing a record that, sonically, lyrically, visually, was about, in a lot of ways, the connection between reality and digital reality and the cocktail it creates in your mind and in our band and in life. When this situation hit, it didn't feel good because the rug was pulled out from everything we were gonna do just like these guys. But it felt like, "Shit, we worked so hard on this other element that we're geared, we're ready to go for this." Not only does it make sense with what we're doing thematically, but we've rounded our people up and we can build on that instead of having to start at scratch.
OUTSIDE OF THE PANDEMIC, THIS YEAR HAS ALSO FEATURED A TON OF POLITICAL UPHEAVAL AND ACTIVISM IN THE U.S., WITH THE BLM PROTESTS AND ALL THAT. WITHOUT THE ABILITY TO TALK ABOUT THOSE ISSUES FROM THE STAGE AND IN PHYSICAL SPACES WITH FELLOW FANS AND BANDS, WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE TO CONTRIBUTE TO THOSE ACTIVIST CAUSES IN THE WAY HARDCORE HISTORICALLY HAS?
APONTE It depends how you want to look at this activism, because a lot of it is performative for a lot of people. They're like, "OK, it's popular to talk about this? Let's talk about it." But in our regard, it's our experience, especially with Aaron and me. That's how we live day to day. We've been out individually doing our own thing when talking about race politics. But as a band, we supported Philadelphia, our home, getting people bailed out. We sold some shirts and raised something like $40,000, which, thankfully, was because of everyone else who supported us. Other than that, we keep fighting the fight. There's nothing else to do — we just live day to day.
It was pretty encouraging to see a lot of bands doing shirts where the proceeds went to various BLM and bail fund causes.
APONTE Yeah, that was a thing, everyone was doing that. For me, I just get skeptical about that kind of stuff because I'm not sure at what point are you doing it to keep your band relevant and be performative, and at what point do you actually give a fuck?
WATKINS It's different when you have those messages actually in your music and in your songs. I know that we have a song and Jesus Piece has songs. Losing the live element, that's all you're losing — you're still putting your message out there and you're still spreading the word and you're doing all those things like raising money with T-shirts.
APONTE I think if you're using your platform for the justice of other people, I think that's amazing and I think that's responsible. If you have that platform and you're using it to empower other people in some way, I think it's beautiful. Especially in the hardcore community, it's always been like that. If friends needed help, it's always been like that, and not all music scenes are like that.
MORGAN I agree with everything Luis was saying on both sides of it. It's important to direct people to the artists who actually have a relevant message that is impactful and pointed and not just something that's thrown out at this spur of the moment to try and hide and stay in the mix. There's the obligational platform, but then there's also bands like Jesus Piece and Year of the Knife, as well, who are not only living it but their music has been telling that story for a lot longer than the past six months or whatever.
Even outside of the livestreaming, are there any heavy bands or artists in general who you think have really adapted to this time? Or any art in general that's been inspiring to you guys in this era?
APONTE Yeah, for me I've been seeing a lot of DJs and producers be out. One of my good friends, Ase Kilbourne, did a couple livestreams and has been releasing music still. She did something with Shade, she's been doing a lot of shits. I mean, Shade, he's been, low key, one of the craziest, most underappreciated people in hardcore for sure. Just people in the electronic world — since I was young, I've loved that realm of music and I've just been embracing it in COVID.
STEPHENSON I agree, I think DJing and electronic shit has been the most successful at the crossover of doing these live streamed events. Not always. I don't really love the Zoom raves and I feel like those are kind of weird.
APONTE Yeah, those are boring.
STEPHENSON Yeah, it's just awkward. I don't know why anyone would want to be on camera in their room, expected to dance and look like they're having fun. But the shit where there's visuals accompanying it and there's a chat and everyone's hanging out. There's a bunch of them that have been in Minecraft.
MORGAN In the rock shit, it's a big, old "N-O". People have been giving it a shot and I respect that. A lot of bands, especially bigger bands, have been trying and it's awesome that they've been going for it. But the result of it, for the most part, is that it's a boring version of what happened before. I'll get shit for saying that, but at the end of the day everybody knows it. There's some people that seem to be doing all right, but for the most part it's been a little bit of nothing on the rock side. We need to bring that shit back on the rock side.
On the electronic side and DJs and even some hip-hop artists, there's been some really cool stuff. Again, I think it's what Matt said earlier: These things lend themselves to this situation a little bit better. Rock and metal and hardcore, it's gonna be a lot more difficult. There's ways to do it. To do a full band and make it entertaining, it takes a lot of fucking work. So if bands aren't strapped up to do that kind of work, then it's almost like don't even do it because you're muddying the fuckin' waters.
APONTE Exactly, what you said is really true. Not all bands are even meant to be doing that kind of shit. We don't need to see a band in a room doing that, it's just not necessary. The thing about Code doing it is the entire aesthetic of them is very digital and of that realm anyway, so it bridges perfectly. But if some random beatdown band from Europe does it, it doesn't even make sense. So some bands have to continue doing them, maybe throw some music out there, but also make themselves known as individuals. An individual in your community. I think that's what everyone in Jesus Piece has been doing, expanding ourselves. I've been indulging in a lot of different things: being involved with Code in certain ways, tuning into the electronic world, and bridging gaps.
MORGAN And that is the thing, though, for this stream that we're about to do. Jesus Piece and Year of the Knife are gonna bring their badass, raw sets to the table, and Year of the Knife is going to play their record in full so people can get a glimpse of that for the first time. But then on top of that, I'm working on them, with Luis, with Maddie and Brandon and everybody, to get visuals from them and add visuals ourselves to try and visualize what it is they bring to the table visually, as well. Which can be difficult to do if you're not working as a team.
So what I'm hoping comes out of this is — let's say none of us get to do another set for a while — that we can say, "Wow, during the quarantine we got to do something that shows a different side of us. It shows that visual element, and it also shows how fucking hard we are and raw." It should be a best of all worlds if you have everybody overseeing it and thinking of it that way. So if you get a ticket to this thing, you ain't getting a ticket to just watch a bunch of people stand around and do a shit version of what they're gonna do in a year. It's gonna be something you're not gonna see in a year. This is something you're only gonna get to see now.