"There's Nobody Like Us": Code Orange Stake Their Claim on the Future of Heavy Music | Revolver

"There's Nobody Like Us": Code Orange Stake Their Claim on the Future of Heavy Music

We visited the visionary young band at home in Pittsburgh to untangle their complex masterpiece 'Underneath'
code orange jimmy fontaine 2020 PRESS, Jimmy Fontaine
photograph by Jimmy Fontaine

Code Orange are fighting. 

Drummer-vocalist Jami Morgan and bassist Joe Goldman are throwing each other around the room, whipping into walls and yanking one another to the ground. Guitarist-vocalist Reba Meyers is struggling her way out of a headlock while her opponent tries dragging her down. Guitarist Dom Landolina has another guy pinned in a tactical hold. At one point, Morgan — who's well over six feet tall — gets flipped into a metal cabinet atop a concrete floor. Goldman has a pinched nerve in his neck, but it doesn't stop him from launching a gargantuan man into a metal water bottle. It makes a loud panging noise that reverberates throughout the room. They both laugh. 

Perhaps fighting isn't the best word. The Pittsburgh band are known for intraband skirmishes that raise the hairs of those who bear witness ("We're fucking insane," Morgan says. "Literally psychotic."). But in this instance the crew are channeling their intensity into their jiu-jitsu class. It's one of the only activities they do outside of the band, but even this brief respite from the thing that consumes their lives is still tied to hardcore. 

Their instructor is a lifelong hardcore guy who used to play in a band with members of the Pittsburgh crushers Eternal Sleep. Many of their classmates look like metalheads (one of them has face tattoos) and the soundtrack to their hour-long session is mostly Bad Brains songs. The logo for the place where they train, True Believer Jiu Jitsu, is a traditional tattoo drawing of a ferocious panther with blood dripping from its mouth. Everyone there is extremely friendly and they all speak highly of Code Orange, both as a band and as opponents on the mat. 

"Jami is a savage," their instructor says with eyebrow-raising emphasis. One of the guys Morgan sparred with that evening chimes in. "He's like rolling with a dinosaur." 

On the way home from class, the band pack tightly into Landolina's tiny Honda Civic and tease Morgan for always being the one who gets knocked off the mat and into cabinets and chairs. After spending the afternoon chatting with him about Code Orange, it's not surprising to learn that the obsessively driven, perpetually wired and uniquely self-assured Morgan is the token mischief-maker. He's always up to something. They all are. 

It's nearly 9 p.m. as they pile out of the car — sweaty, sore and drained — but they're talking about cleaning up and getting back to work making merch. The four of them and their synth wizard Eric "Shade" Balderose (who's taking a break from jiu-jitsu due to an injury) were working on Code Orange stuff all day, but for them the grind never stops. They estimate that they've already practiced for 50 hours this week. It's only Wednesday.

"We don't really do anything besides the band," Morgan says while sitting in his living room earlier that day. "That's not even me trying to sound cool — we really don't. It's pretty pathetic honestly." 

He and Meyers are on two different couches in the house Morgan splits with Goldman and Landolina in the residential Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. The apartment is extraordinarily normal-looking. Nothing about the space indicates a band as aesthetically intricate as Code Orange operates out of it. It's a few weeks before the release of Underneath — their fourth album overall and their third since changing the band's name from Code Orange Kids — but there's no time to kick back and celebrate a job well done. Morgan uses the word "complicated" half-a-dozen times while describing their multi-stage approach to running the band. It feels like an understatement. 

Right now, he and Balderose are creating an hour's worth of unique video content for their upcoming live sets. Meyers is in charge of running the webstore, which she designed and coded with Balderose. Goldman is in charge of shipping out all of the merch. They outsource the actual printing, but the band recently overtook mail-order operations to cut back on costs. They still design everything they sell. 

"We can't pay anybody to design the merch, and even if we did, we wouldn't like it," Morgan says frankly. 

Landolina makes a lot of the clothes they wear onstage and in their videos. Morgan tugs on the black pants he's wearing and gestures to a sewing machine in the dining room behind him. Landolina also built the translucent guitar he's using in the video for their single "Swallowing the Rabbit Whole," and the band either constructed or scavenged for deals on all of the props in their cinematic visuals. They handle virtually every aspect of the band themselves, even the incredibly complex audio setup that they're using on this upcoming tour. Meyers' midi configuration is particularly convoluted. 

"It's something that you gotta pay people to do for $30,000, but we can't, so she had to learn how to do it all from YouTube," Morgan says. "Basically, the same as everything that we do."

Ten years into their career, Code Orange are arguably the biggest band in hardcore. They're signed to a major metal label, have toured with the likes of Slipknot and Gojira, and were nominated for a Grammy back in 2018. Their music has evolved from blistering metallic hardcore to a sound that genuinely transcends genre while somehow getting even heavier. After recording their first three records with the lauded hardcore boardsmith and Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, they went with bigwig rock producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson, Ghost) for Underneath. The record is one of the most colossal and best sounding hardcore-adjacent albums of all time. And a lot of that is due to how organically the electronic elements are woven in with the traditional metal instrumentation. 

A casual onlooker might make some assumptions about Code Orange's popularity as a band that emerged from hardcore — an inherently niche genre that doesn't view success in commercial terms — and their bigger, more elaborate and, in some ways, more melodic sound. However, any suggestion that the band are financially cozier, or less artistically authentic, now that they've attained some level of notoriety is patently false. Morgan half-jokes that they'd all be making more money if they quit music and started working at Wendy's, and the effort they put into making Underneath sound, look and feel the way it does is unparalleled in the world they come from. They spent a full year just writing and demoing the record, which Morgan describes as a simultaneous process rather than two separate stages. 

"This was really made more like a hip-hop record," he says. "They weren't demos like, we go record [with] somebody. They were hundreds of tracks mixed by us to basically show somebody and say, 'This is what we want to rebuild from the ground up.'"

After crafting demos that were denser than most bands' finished product, they travelled down to Nashville to work with Raskulinecz for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for two months straight. 

"Nick would take off on the weekends, but we would keep working with the assistant engineer on our own," Morgan says. "Because a lot of the leads on the record are these weird, digital sounds [Reba] had developed over the course of the demos. So they were recorded directly in [to the mix]." 

Once they were done with Raskulinecz, they headed to Philly for additional production work from their longtime collaborator Will Yip. Morgan describes Yip as someone who's "built for nonstop 24-hours-a-day," so he's able to keep up with the band's relentless working pace. 

"He works so hard to make himself the most efficient he can be," Meyers says. "So he'll wake up at four and start working around six. He'll go until late in the night, especially with us."

But even after working with two other producers, the band still took the whole hard drive back with them to Pittsburgh and tinkered with it for months afterwards until everything was just right. Balderose's thumbprint on Underneath is perhaps its most impressive quality. The band introduced industrial electronic elements on 2017's Forever, but on that album, they sounded like eerie embellishments. Here, the myriad programmed drums, horror soundtrack synths, and other atmospheric details are as integral to the songs as any other instrument or vocal track. Balderose taught himself everything he knows about electronic production and instrumentation, but he did bring in former Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson contributor Chris Vrenna for some programming assistance.

"Shade needed someone to work with — he was going fucking nuts," Morgan says. "He was gonna lose his mind. Literally." 

Beyond Balderose's handiwork, Morgan and Meyers each employ a handful of vocal styles on the record, and they're often layered on top of one another for contrast. There are plenty of pounding breakdowns on here, but there are also tons of quirky harmonic licks and even some shreddy guitar leads, which are new to their sound. There's so much quick cutting and pasting of various parts that it's often hard to decipher what's what and who's who. That disorienting sensibility was completely intentional, and it provides a fitting analog to the album's dichotomous concept that Morgan meticulously constructed. 

"I wanted every song to almost have a dual meaning," he says. "What it kind of means on the ground, every single line, verbatim level. And then what it means to the story of the record and the arc of our three records."

Like most things Code Orange, it's complicated. But to break it down as simply as possible, there are basically two thematic lanes in the lyrics of Underneath: meditations on music (the greater industry, heavy music, and where Code Orange fall within those two) and society, specifically from a technological standpoint. For instance, "Who I Am" references the simultaneous connect and disconnect we experience on social media, and "A Sliver" is about the false sense of importance we feel on those platforms. 

"Everyone feels like they have this big, loud voice now and really our voices have all been put into this box to be loud there and to not really matter," Morgan says.

The song "Cold Metal Place" sets the scene for the frigid underworld that much of the album takes place in. But in a more literal sense, the line "It's dragging me under but it's crushing you" is about Code Orange getting pulled into the extremely competitive music industry while other bands fold under the pressure. The line, "The whole world is laughing and you don't even know it," speaks to what it feels like to be under that duress. 

"I just feel like there's always noise, whether it's criticism or judgment," Morgan says.

"Somebody's perspective of what you're doing, especially nowadays, can be completely different. You can be a joke to some people. Everything's a meme, everything's a joke, everything's judgeable, everything's destroyable. And it's kind of about being pulled under by that."

Morgan's explanation for this meta-narrative is simple. The band is all he thinks about, so of course he's going to write their story into the record. And the most palpable struggle in his and his bandmates' lives is their desire to secure a career in heavy music.

"We want to live this as our lives and it's very fucking hard to do that in this industry for anyone," Meyers says. "You can't just fucking sit back — it's not how it used to be 15 years ago." 

They say they learned a lot from touring with Gojira back in 2017. The French progressive band are now a household name in metal, but Morgan sits there and counts the number of albums (six) that it took for them to get to that point. Even the staunchly committed Code Orange were blown away to see Gojira watch a video recording of their set every single night to fine-tune their performance. 

"They're the new age of how it works in metal and how hard it is to make it," Morgan says. "You have to survive."

Unfortunately, the challenge got even harder for Code Orange shortly after we hung out with them. Just as Underneath was entering the world, the coronavirus crisis escalated in the U.S., and the band's plans were massively derailed. Code Orange's hometown record release show, which was set to take place on March 14th and feature Every Time I Die, Zao, Jesus Piece and others, was cancelled the day before due to social distancing restrictions; the group's entire spring tour was called off shortly thereafter. Far from being defeated, however, Morgan and his bandmates have quickly adapted to the livestreaming era and, out of the gates, set the standard for the types of quarantine content that musical artists are capable of producing.

"At first when this happened, I thought, 'What a waste, all the hard work down the drain,'" Morgan says a month after our initial meetup. "Quickly, I realized what an idiotic thought that was. The work we have done technologically in terms of visual and audio capability these past few years are exactly what is going to carry us through these trying times. That work was training camp and this is now the game."

Code Orange went ahead and played their record release set — in a mostly empty venue, turning it into a livestream concert film, which was fittingly dubbed "LAST ONES LEFT: in fear of the end" and innovatively mixed performance footage with the band's backing video to cinematic effect. Nearly 13,000 concurrent viewers tuned in. A couple weeks later, Code Orange launched "YOU AND I ALONE: a livestream series," showcasing exclusive musical content (it kicked off with an "improvised performance/visual experience" from Balderose), allowing fans to chat with the band, and providing links to limited merch drops.

"Our creativity cannot be stifled and under no circumstances can this band be stopped," Morgan declares. "Especially since we have been building up to this exact period of time for a few years now. We have waited at the door too long to be turned away for any reason."

Although Morgan and Meyers say that they've gotten a lot better about handling both the mental and physical toll of the band, Code Orange — along with many other touring artists — have been faced with possibly the biggest challenge of their careers in the form of COVID-19 and the ways in which the pandemic has made an already byzantine music industry even harder to navigate. Still, Code Orange aren't flinching.

"We're unified," Morgan says. "We have each other, who all really believe what we're doing is special, and no one can tell any of us otherwise. We know it's special, we know it's different than any other band on earth. Every single one. There's nobody like us at all. And that doesn't mean we're better, but ... we think we are," he says with a snide chuckle.

"I'm kidding," he adds. "Well, I'm half-joking.