Code Orange: The Uncompromising Vision of Heavy Music's Most Heralded Young Band | Revolver

Code Orange: The Uncompromising Vision of Heavy Music's Most Heralded Young Band

How five hardcore kids from Pittsburgh are changing the game according to their own rules
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Code Orange, (from left) Shade Balderose, Jami Morgan, Reba Meyers, Joe Goldman and Dominic Landolina, Brooklyn, 2017
photograph by Reid Haithcock

It was a week before WWE's NXT Takeover Brooklyn when Jami Morgan got the call that his band would be performing there, live. Code Orange knew that "Bleeding in the Blur," the breakout single from their January 2017 major-label debut, Forever, was going to be the show's theme song, but this invitation was unexpected. Morgan's a wrestling super-fan — he'd drive 15-plus hours to attend Wrestlemania tapings, even if he just got back from tour — and playing a wrestling event was something Morgan had dreamed of for years. Now it was really happening.

Four days later, the Pittsburgh-based band — Morgan on drums, Reba Meyers and Dominic Landolina on guitars, Shade Balderose on synth and Joe Goldman on bass — were in New York. "We practiced our ass off for three straight days," Morgan says. They'd just come off a string of arena shows in Europe, playing metal festivals and opening for System of a Down, so they were used to venues the size of Brooklyn's Barclays Center. But this wasn't just another gig.

Onstage for the televised live performance, everything clicked. Code Orange let their theatrical sides take over — Meyers whipping her long hair, Goldman loosing his Frankenstein's-monster stage persona on the crowd — as they unleashed the catchy, cacophonous "Bleeding in the Blur." "It was a beautiful thing," says Morgan. "It was awesome."

The moment was the culmination of years of grinding it out. All the members are just 23 or 24, but they've been going for a decade strong — since they were in ninth grade, when Morgan and Meyers met Balderose at a magnet arts high school in Pittsburgh. Together they discovered punk and hardcore and created a crew within their small-city scene. Things have only become more intense; for the last two and a half years, Goldman and Morgan have been training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and for the drummer, it's taught him to take the band even more seriously. "Honestly, it's a little bit militant," he says. "That's how I approach the band." 

Code Orange have worked hard, taking the blue-collar ethos of their city with them wherever they play — small clubs or arenas — and practicing almost every day to create music and an aesthetic that fits Morgan's vision. This year, since they released Forever, the mainstream began to take notice, as heavy hitters including Slipknot's Corey Taylor and Lamb of God's Randy Blythe raved about them on social media. They'd progressed, it seemed, past the hardcore label they'd grown up with, into something much more melodic, more metal and more widely compelling — industrial textures and alt-rock melodies swirling amid their mosh-fueling spit and venom. But for all their success, Code Orange are still grinding it out — and dedicated to doing so. "[Forever] was a very complicated and ambitious record," says Converge's Kurt Ballou, who has produced all three of their LPs. "But they are a complicated and ambitious band."

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photograph by Reid Haithcock

"I just learned really early that you gotta basically sign a blood contract for life," says Jami Morgan, pushing a turkey-and-egg-white omelette around his plate. It's a bit after 10 a.m., two weeks since their appearance on the WWE special, and the band is in Amityville, New York, for a show. They'd come from Pittsburgh overnight (their merch guy driving their van so the band could sleep in the back) and were gearing up to embark on a three-day tour through Canada immediately after that night's show in Long Island — riding 1,500 miles over 72 hours in an aging white van dragging a matching white trailer. They've been touring at this grueling pace since they left high school, but as Morgan explains, that was exactly what they committed to at the beginning.

"I told Reba in ninth grade," Morgan says. "'I want you to be in the band, but if you're in the band, you can't go to college.'" He says it matter-of-factly, though it's hard to tell if he's entirely serious. He says most things that way, with the good-natured excitement of a kid who likes to be the center of attention. His manner is endearing yet intense — "kind of obnoxious," he jokes of himself later — and one can only imagine what he was like at 15, putting together a band for which he already had a long-term vision.

"I was like, 'You have to start touring as soon as we're done with high school,'" he continues. "And [Reba] was like, 'All right.' And she literally did it, which is psychotic."

Morgan moved to Pittsburgh in 2000, the son of Gabe Morgan, a union organizer from Chicago. Gabe and his wife, Jajean, were high-school sweethearts who had their first child, Jami's older sister, when they were still teenagers. Having such young parents was trying at times — at one point the family was stuck living in his grandparents' basement, Morgan says — but it taught him to work hard, take his decisions seriously and always keep looking forward, no matter what.

"They always just figured it out," he says of his parents. "They always just took care of it." 

At 10, Morgan started his first band, and immediately saw it as his calling. "I felt we should be really serious," Morgan says. "And then when they were, like, 12, they just didn't want to do a band anymore. I was really hurt. But then I realized like, 'Wow, I was trying to force [them] to be, like, a career band at 12.'"

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Jami Morgan, 2017
photograph by Reid Haithcock

Morgan and Meyers met in junior high, at the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts magnet school. Meyers was there for flute, which she'd been playing since she was eight. (She picked up a guitar at 12.) Her parents weren't particularly musical, she says, but there was always music playing in the house: Often Eighties bands like Depeche Mode and the Cure. "I didn't even realize at the time that I was into it," she says. "Much later, I figured out that was what [my father] was playing that whole time, and I was like, 'Oh, shit. You actually like some good music.'"

Meyers and Morgan quickly hit it off. Morgan would discover punk bands like Operation Ivy and Black Flag, and industrial acts like Nine Inch Nails — who he still calls his favorite — and pass them along to Meyers. Together they worked their way through the pantheon of 1980s punk. They also found out that avoiding drugs and alcohol the way they'd been doing had a name, "straight edge," and that brought them even closer. "We were just playing music together, but we weren't really a band yet," says Meyers. "When we met Eric, that was when we created Code Orange Kids."

For Eric Balderose, who still goes by his childhood nickname Shade, music was everywhere when he was growing up. His family's home was in Manchester, one of Pittsburgh's rougher neighborhoods, but the 10-room Victorian was legendary. His father, George Balderose — a professional bagpipe player and teacher — had established a folk venue there in the 1970s called the Calliope House. By the time Shade, George's fourth child, was born, there weren't many shows in the home, but there were always musicians hanging out — revivalists like John McCutcheon and Robin and Linda Williams. "I never wanted to be anything in that world of folk music," he says. "[But] there was just always music playing, and that geared my mind towards it at a young age." He preferred watching horror movies — especially John Carpenter's — paying careful attention to how the soundtracks built up suspense and emotion.

When Balderose linked up with Morgan and Meyers, he was ready to dive fully into band life with them. He wasn't down for the straight-edge commitment, but loved making music. He'd been taking guitar lessons, and he, Morgan and Meyers would meet up every day after school, practicing in each other's basements and going to shows. It was the waning years of the George W. Bush administration, so Morgan's dad suggested the name Code Orange Kids, an allusion to the terror threat levels so pervasive at the time, with a nod to their status as the little kids of the scene thrown in at the end.

Morgan, Meyers and Balderose spent all the time they could focusing on the newly christened band, and their parents were incredibly supportive. Meyers' mom bought her a pickup truck to tour in (which they soon traded in for the van); Balderose's dad offered to put them on his label. ("I'm pretty sure he actually wanted us to sign a physical contract," recalls Morgan. "We were like, 'No dice!'")

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Reba Meyers
photograph by Reid Haithcock

But the band was still having a hard time pinning down exactly what its sound would be. "Punk scene, hardcore scene, noise, metal — it was just all the same shit to us," says Morgan. "It didn't feel super divided at the time." So they took them all as influences. When it came time to make a demo, it ended up sounding like a compilation disc of Ska, hardcore and Irish punk. "It was like a different band per song," says Meyers.

Through it all, Morgan was adamant that the band play out as much as possible. They gigged anywhere they could around Pittsburgh and took one-offs in other cities. Their first show in New York ended up not even happening — they made the eight-hour drive during a blizzard, only to get to a Brooklyn DIY spot and discover that no one had bothered to plan the show. Their second trip there they played at the SideWalk Cafe, a remnant of the downtown folk scene that paid performers by passing around a tip jar. They opened for the Snails, an "adult-contemporary, jazz-ska" group, as Morgan recalls, who had reached out to them on MySpace. They received no tips. 

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Shade Balderose
photograph by Reid Haithcock

Besides Code Orange Kids, which was going in an increasingly hardcore direction, Meyers and Morgan were making more emo-tinged music with their friend from CAPA, Kimi Hanauer, under the name Adventures. They got that going with their other friend, Joe Goldman, a tall, quiet kid who was at CAPA for stand-up bass. He brought along Dominic Landolina, who was there for visual arts but also played guitar.

Goldman had been a "classic rock burnout," as he puts it, and had gotten himself into trouble by his early teens, finding alcohol and psychedelics and "stuff that you do if you're a moron," he says, like huffing glue. It was around then that he met Morgan, who took him to his first heavy-music show: Japanese noise band Melt-Banana at a local college auditorium. "I had only been to, like, a Bob Dylan concert," Goldman remembers. "I didn't love the music, but I loved the scene and the vibe." At 16, he decided to get clean.

Goldman met Landolina during their junior year, in a remedial science class. "We were both in, like, the dumb-kid classes," says Goldman. "It was called, like, 'Earth and Space,' where they straight-up tried to teach you the planets. And people were just throwing stuff at the teacher." Landolina was a quiet guy who preferred to be at home than hit the high-school party scene — straight edge as well, though he didn't yet know the term, despite having been exposed to plenty of punk rock. His father had been into the 1980s hardcore scene in Pittsburgh, and told his son about seeing T.S.O.L. and Black Flag. But Landolina was more interested in bands like Slayer and Metallica — he got his first guitar at 14, and would sit in his room and jam along to their records. When he and Goldman linked up with Morgan and Meyers and began to play in Adventures, it brought Landolina out of his shell — their first show was the first time he played in front of someone who wasn't in his family.

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Code Orange Kids, Democracy Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2012
photograph by Reid Haithcock

Then came graduation, and the crew had to figure out what to do next. They decided on college at Temple University in Philadelphia. Morgan, Meyers and Goldman got in. Balderose — who was kicked out of CAPA in 10th grade and got his diploma from a school online — decided to skip college, and got a job in Philly through Morgan's father, working for a local social-justice organization, painting signs for protests. Landolina didn't get in; he stuck it out in Pittsburgh instead.

In 2011, Code Orange Kids caught a break when they were discovered by Kurt Ballou and Jacob Bannon of Converge. "We were blown away at how intense and powerful this band of really young people were," says Ballou. "To see a band that was pretty much a fully formed idea at such a young age was really impressive and inspiring to us."

Shortly thereafter, Bannon signed Code Orange to his label, Deathwish Inc. They booked their first U.S. tour and left Temple after just one semester. The decision was easy for Morgan, to whom the band was always No. 1, but for Meyers, this was when she had to choose between her classical music career and her life with the group. Flute had taken her to Temple — but with flute, she was forced to practice alone for hours on end, and being part of a band meant she got to put in that time and effort with a group. Plus, "people in the flute world were so square," she says. "So I chose Code Orange Kids." (She still plays flute.)

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Joe Goldman
photograph by Reid Haithcock

Though he wasn't yet officially in the band, Goldman had been joining them for practice occasionally, and had been around to discuss ideas and songs for years. He hated college, so when they asked him if he wanted to join them on the road as their merch guy, he decided to drop out, too. When the tour was over, they headed back to Pittsburgh to get started on their first album — and Morgan realized Goldman was a perfect fit to play bass in their band. He had the obsession-level commitment that was needed to be part of Code Orange Kids. Even better, he was one of their best friends.

Ballou eventually signed on to produce their first album, 2012's Love Is Love/Return to Dust, and the band members picked up jobs to support their music-making. Sometimes the only time for them to practice was between 2 and 6 a.m., after Meyers got off her shift delivering pizza, and before Goldman had to start his at a construction site. But they all sucked it up — that was just the price of being in the group. And it only made them closer. "It might be to my detriment," says Goldman. "But I never developed a life outside our weird cult." Their dedication made an impression in the studio, too. "There's not a single lazy bone in the band," says Ballou. "They're all driven and obsessive to a fault."

Before the band released its second record, I Am King, in 2014, the group announced it would be dropping "Kids" from its name and would henceforth be known simply as Code Orange. "We knew we were going to have a different visual vibe, sound vibe," says Morgan. "It wasn't really about the word 'kids.' We wanted to change, but we wanted to still keep our identity." They adopted a motto of sorts. "'Thinners of the Herd' just means, you know, there's only one, and we're gonna keep cutting through everyone," says Morgan. The band members take the slogan seriously enough that they all got matching T.O.T.H. tattoos.

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Dominic Landolina
photograph by Reid Haithcock

There was one thing in particular that notably changed their vibe on I Am King: Balderose, who had been building up an arsenal of guitar pedals, started to branch into synths. "I was never the best guitarist," he says. "But I really liked the idea of being able to mold the sound. I realized that [with the guitar] I was trying to do electronic programming with my hands tied behind my back." He bought a Moog Little Phatty then a Waldorf polyphonic digital synth, and started experimenting with them. Code Orange's approach got them noticed. After I Am King, they got a manager who helped them land a deal with Roadrunner Records —and they signed their first paper contract.

But it wasn't until their next record, Forever, that Balderose's growing interest in digital music started to really influence the sound of the band. "When we went to record Forever, by that time I had my whole modular setup," says Balderose. Given the addition of real synthesizer parts, they added producer Will Yip to the team, and he introduced Balderose to production programs like Omnisphere. "That created this transition between a dirty, aggressive, analog feel versus a more, like, hip-hop production style that we try to get," says Balderose. "Like that weird atmospheric stuff that most heavy bands don't really do too much." 

By then, Adventures — the side project featuring Goldman, Landolina, Meyers, Morgan and their high- school friend Hanauer — had started to peter out. "I haven't been saying 'broke up' in case we ever needed to bust it back out," says Morgan. "But yeah, we broke up. We just weren't — some of us weren't feeling it. [Reba] was, though." 

While they were all equally involved in the music of the band, it seems that it meant more for Meyers than the others. "I mean, I definitely miss it," she admits. For one, Adventures gave her the opportunity to learn to write rock songs — something that came easier than the layered Code Orange tracks, with their quick tempo changes and untraditional structures. "Melodic stuff comes to me more quickly," Meyers says. She also began to pay more attention to her voice, learning to sing instead of just scream. So with Adventures on permanent hiatus, she took these lessons to Code Orange, helping them to create a more accessible sound. "Bleeding in the Blur" was one of the first songs they wrote as a rock song. "It's good for first-time listeners," says Meyers.

Throughout his time in Adventures, Landolina was also Code Orange's biggest fan, the encyclopedic-minded music nerd who would talk them through band histories. So with Adventures over and Balderose branching into synths, the band brought Landolina in to help on guitar as they wrote Forever, and he ended up contributing some parts. Having him around felt so natural that Code Orange asked him to stay.

It's two hours before doors open for Code Orange's show in Amityville, and sound check hasn't started yet. Meyers has been onstage for the better part of three hours, practicing riffs. Landolina's up there, too, playing back, taking cues from Meyers. Balderose is setting up his rows of synths, while Morgan discusses band plans with a Roadrunner A&R guy in another room. Goldman walks around chatting with the opening bands that are arriving, good friends from nearby cities.

To this day — despite their big-time management and major-label deal — the band still takes care of many logistical and business aspects on its own. Morgan acts as the spokesman and oversees the operation, guiding the aesthetic decisions. Balderose designs the merch with Morgan, and does the actual production. Goldman manages the tours and Meyers deals with the money. Landolina is Morgan's sounding board, and the handyman of the crew, building things like a little bunk bed in the back of their van.

They work well together, but no matter how quiet four-fifths of them may appear, they all have strong feelings and care deeply about the band — and that results in a lot of bickering. "We literally fight over every single little thing," says Balderose. "Like someone botches a note, or we book a hotel out of the way." But those arguments, he says, are exactly what keep the group together. "Honesty is what makes it more bearable for us," he says. "Because it's a lot harder to live with somebody who's doing something that annoys the shit out of you and you can't tell them." The fighting seems to be only about the band, though, and not their personal decisions. For example, when Landolina decided to break straight edge last year, the rest of the crew was apprehensive yet supportive. "There was a little bit of an adjustment period," he says. "[But] they all took to it really well."

Either way, for those around them, the fighting within the group can be jarring. "Them making a record is a very intense experience for everybody involved," says Ballou. "They all really love each other, but watching how hard they are on one another can be uncomfortable. It doesn't seem to faze them at all. If all bands were that passionate, music would be at a much higher standard right now."

There are other complications with having the band be so close — for one, relationships. "Every girlfriend I've ever had, they've always come in and been like, 'Wow, you people are fucking crazy,'" says Balderose. Morgan, who lives with Goldman and Landolina in a shared house, has been dating the same woman for three years, and says he was up-front about his priorities from day one. "I was like, 'If the band calls, the band calls and that's it. It's first. For life. She basically is in a relationship with the band, as well."

"People I date understand the situation," says Meyers. "Anyone who's around us just knows that this is the most important thing in our lives, and that they can't fucking touch it." 

Sound check does not go well. Code Orange's setup is complicated, and the bar's sound guy is struggling. Goldman forgot to tell the opening bands they needed to bring their own drum stands, so they're in the back debating whether it's worth it to drive 30 minutes to a Guitar Center. When Code Orange finally get their live sound dialed-in, it's taken almost an hour, and everyone is visibly frustrated.

They're trying to stay positive, but it's clear the band obligations are wearing on them. They could really use a full-time tour manager, and a dedicated sound person. But they've found it can be hard for anyone outside the circle to get in close enough to help. "It's just difficult to find someone who's willing to work with us and put up with our bullshit for a low rate, and also find someone that we can put up with," says Balderose.

As show time approaches, these issues fade away, however. Meyers practices on a small amp in the greenroom. Goldman walks around seething, beginning the transformation from mild-mannered Joseph Goldman to his stage persona, the riled-up animal with bulging veins and fire in his eyes.

Finally, they're onstage. They blast through their 45-minute set, a few songs from I Am King that have been adapted for a five-piece, but mostly the hits from Forever. Morgan, the most forward member of the group offstage, sits back behind the drums, screaming his vocals but staying mostly covered by the band. The other four, introverts who are usually happy to stand behind Morgan, take over and become the best part of the spectacle. When they get to "Bleeding in the Blur," Meyers comes out from behind her wall of hair, singing the chorus into the mic as the packed house joins in. The last song, "dream 2," ends in a loud tangle of distortion, and they walk off stage mid-noise.

The crowd seems stunned, and backstage, the members of Code Orange do, too. The performance — and the planning, driving and whole business of being a band — is taking a toll. But they've got their mission, and they're pursuing it, obsessively. One night they're at Barclays Center; another night, they're at Revolution Bar on the south shore of Long Island; later this fall, on cross-country tours opening for Gojira and Hatebreed. No matter the venue, they're bringing 100 percent. "The world's gotta learn," Morgan says, right before their set. "And it's gonna take a long time for them to learn the kinda thing that we're doing. But ... we're not gonna quit until I know that imprint is made. And then we will quit. We will never come back. That's my plan."