“We don’t make bad records,” Code Orange’s Jami Morgan declares to NME with the unshakeable confidence of a man who believes he’s dealing in solid fact. “I feel like this is a record that [heavy] music needs, I don’t see anything out there that’s like it.”
Zooming in from his Pittsburgh home, the bleached blonde, drummer-turned vocalist and band leader is speaking to us a few weeks before the hardcore innovators release their brilliant fourth album, ‘The Above’ (out Sep 29). It’s the record that could be the band’s biggest moment, their mainstream rock breakthrough after years on heavy music’s bleeding edge.
Code Orange (who are completed by guitarist and co-vocalist, Reba Meyers, bassist, Joe Goldman, multi-instrumentalist, Eric “Shade” Balderose, drummer Max Portnoy and guitarist Dominic Landolina) began their rise through the ranks with their major label debut, ‘I Am King’, their first release under their current moniker after being known for years as Code Orange Kids. While it was a solid metallic hardcore record that showed flashes of ingenuity, the band’s next two albums, 2017’s nihilistic ‘Forever’, and the more avant-garde follow-up, ‘Underneath’ (2020) changed the game on impact. Smashing together industrial metal, hip hop, goth and steel toe-capped punk with frazzled electronics, Code Orange redefined the very meaning of hardcore, opening the door for other bands, from Turnstile to Scowl, Militarie Gun and Zulu to come through and smash the genre’s previously rigid boundaries.
‘The Above’, takes the band’s sound and reimagines it once again. While their bloodthirsty intensity and ruthless precision remains intact, there are shoegazey, mellow textures, clean vocals and a ton of melody. It’s a bold statement, one that diversifies the band’s sound and should open them up to a brand-new audience. Already, that’s raised eyebrows in some corners of the fandom.
A few weeks before our interview, Code Orange dropped their swaggering single, ‘Take Shape’. Picking up where 2021’s crunchy standalone single, ‘Out For Blood’ left off, it sounds like nu metal on steroids, and boasts a chorus big enough to soundtrack WrestleMania with a dreamy feature from Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. Their fans had thoughts. “I thought it was going to be worse, honestly,” Morgan shrugs of the reaction. “I expected everybody to fucking hate it because it feels like anytime we step out, we get reprimanded.”
Morgan has gained a reputation for combative interviews although his bullish manner is really just an all-consuming belief in his band. As far as he’s concerned, pulling the rug out from underneath people’s feet and pushing buttons has been Code Orange’s MO from day one. By now, fans should know to trust in the process: “I never let that positive or negative influence what we’re going to do. We made the exact record we wanted to make.”
After meeting Corgan through mutual acquaintances, he and Morgan had struck up a conversation over text. Corgan’s otherworldly vocal was laid down in Nashville where the band joined him for late night sessions in the studio. “Working with him was a dream,” says Morgan. “I mean, he’s one of the last true icons left of that era. He’s written so many amazing songs and we got along really well.”
‘Take Shape’ isn’t the only time where ‘The Above’ takes its inspiration from the ‘90s. The album was engineered by Nirvana and Pixies producer, Steve Albini. “I think he enjoyed working with us because we just had all our ducks in a row in terms of practice and he was able to just do what he loves, which is hit that play button and make it all sound great,” Morgan laughs. “That doesn’t help my whole case for this not being a big nostalgia trip. But hey, man, he’s Steve Albini, if he wants to do it…”
Sonically, too, the hallmarks are there; recent single, ‘Mirror’, employs a wistful vocal from Reba over moody, skittering trip-hop. Flashes of nu metal muscle rage behind the glitches on ‘The Game’ and closer ‘The Above’ gurgles into being over bubbling, Nine Inch Nails electronics. Even the highly conceptual and vivid music videos released so far, which Morgan co-directed with producer Max Moore, were conceived as a throwback to a time when music videos were visionary statements that could sell a song.
That said, nostalgia is an uncomfortable fit for Code Orange. They’re a band who look steadfastly forward rather than taking their cues from the past, and Morgan insists ‘The Above’ is anything but an exercise in sentimentality. “I want to stress that we’re looking at quality,” he says. “We’re not trying to just fucking wear a costume and be the ‘I love the ’90s’ band.” Citing that era as a “cultural peak when heavy, innovative, music was popular”, his goal was to take inspiration from his favourite bands, but mould it into new shapes. “What did Oasis want to be? They wanted to be The Beatles, but they did it through their lens,” he continues. “There ain’t no ’90s records that got hard parts and soft parts like [our album] on the same record.”
The band started piecing together the ideas for ‘The Above’ during the pandemic’s lockdowns: immediately after recording their 2020 ‘Back Inside The Glass’ livestream and only seven months after they had released ‘Underneath’, a record they had been unable to tour. “We pretty much missed a whole generation,” says Morgan bitterly. “If you look at 2018 and 2023, because of the world and because of horrible timing and bad luck that we always have, we pretty much missed four or five years of kids.”
While Morgan had written a 25-page manifesto to help him set out ‘Underneath’s knotty concepts, this time around, he created a “mood board” drawing on films to help him “connect the dots of how things should work together and what songs don’t fit.” During our chat, he carries his laptop through his house to show us the board itself: a collage of images and movie stills from Vanilla Sky to The Truman Show, Requiem For A Dream, One Hour Photo and Midsommar. “They are movies where there is this beautiful, sometimes naturalistic backdrop, but there’s something more sinister going on underneath,” Morgan explains. “That’s exactly what the record is to me. It starts in discomfort and ends in something beautiful.”
This is quite a change in tone for Code Orange. While the steely, “parasitic” tone of ‘Forever’ and ‘Underneath’, represented a band raging against society, ‘The Above’ is more personal, riddled with self-doubt, anxiety and vulnerability. Morgan says the aim was to “peel the layers back” to reveal the human heart beating under their impenetrable exterior: it’s a side to the band and to Morgan that he’s rarely shown before.
“I don’t know that I’ve had the opportunities to,” he says, noting that, until now, most interviews have focused on the band’s groundbreaking sound and their position at the forefront of the scene. “I’m no doubt confident about our abilities,” he says. “But on a personal level, I struggle a lot. I have the mind that’s yelling at me all the time. Whatever movie my mind is watching, whatever theatre I’m sitting in, there’s always another one playing next door.” He notes the inescapable dualities that have come about as a result of the band’s rapidly growing profile.
Focusing on success, numbers and external validation had made him feel like he was on “a path [towards] artificial life”, a theme that weaves throughout the record. “Even the promo picture for the record is of us with this water that’s totally surreal. It looks immersive but … you can just see just the top of the screen, telling you that something’s not quite right.”
Later, Pixies-esque penultimate track, ‘But A Dream…’, contains the lyric: “You can give it all, but it’s never enough/You can count it up, but it’s never what you want.” He explains: “It’s trying to battle back against this feeling of never enough, of constant consuming, of constant needing, of constant want,” he says. He describes the album as a journey of self-realisation, discovering what really matters and making peace with the hand you’ve been dealt. “You have to be able to look in the mirror and be OK with who you are, [whether] you failed at your goals, if you succeeded, and to live on the island of self and embrace yourself.”
On the other hand, ‘The Above’ is the band’s most accessible, commercially-minded record to date, and deliberately so. This is a band who refuse to acknowledge the limitations of hardcore and openly want to take this band to the biggest stages possible. “What’s frustrating to me is to be contained in the fishbowl that we’re currently in,” says Morgan. “We have so much more to offer, and I feel like there are so many people out there that really would like what we’re doing, we just haven’t been able to get to them.”
Throughout our conversation, Morgan seems irritated that Code Orange haven’t already achieved everything he knows they’re capable of. “Why can’t these songs swim with the big sharks?” he demands, although there’s not a single doubt in his mind that this album will be the one that takes them to the next level. “I really do believe that, in a lot of ways, we are ahead of the ahead,” he says. “Our records and visuals show that. We might be there again for this one. But I think it’s everything we have at this moment in time on the table, every stitch of it and whatever’s next, is going to be a new chapter for us.”
Code Orange release ‘The Above’ on September 29
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