Code Orange Discuss Aggression, The Thin Line Between Art and Pain, Success
There’s a thin line between exhilaration and peril. It’s the thrilling truth that’s fuelled a million reckless mosh-pit two-steps; the painful lesson etched across every bloodied face that’s ever spilled from the front-row fray. For Code Orange, it’s a fact of life that’s infiltrated every aspect of their art, ingrained by nine years of the chaos and hardship of life on the road.
It’s become their mission to consolidate a fanbase of like minds and drive them to – and occasionally across – that threshold.
Rolling up to NY’s Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park, it seems there’s sometimes a thin line between throwing down and going shopping, too. An anonymous unit, wedged between a discount grocery outlet and credit union in one of America’s countless sprawling strip malls, tonight’s venue has a blank-canvas quality, perfect for the imprint of violent art. Opening for Floridian sludge-masters Torche and French metal titans Gojira, the Pittsburgh quintet are last to soundcheck, but interrupt a rendition of Bleeding In The Blur that tugs up goosebumps, even behind closed doors, to welcome Kerrang! in.
“Hey,” waves Joe Goldman, the band’s bald, bearded, badass bassist and current tour manager, ushering us towards a side entrance. “This way.” A well-worn Cro-Mags shirt and deep gouge over his left brow – smashed with his bass, then again with his fist – reinforce a manic onstage image, but there’s warmth in his handshake and excitement in his aura.
Inside, guitarist and newest recruit Dominic Landolina paces the front of the corner stage with nervous energy, sporting a crew cut as severe as his gaze, and grey combats tucked into army boots. Guitar and synth-specialist Eric Balderose nods laconically from behind his set-up, bright eyes behind pitch-black, poker-straight hair. Reba Meyers – guitarist, singer and secondary ‘face’ of the band – shakes our hand enthusiastically.
The architect behind the kit, Jami Morgan – drummer, vocalist and de-facto frontman – watches everything from beneath the brim of a Nine Inch Nails trucker cap, before extending his tall, muscled frame off the stool and striding over to talk.
He’s checking Kerrang! hasn’t come all this way simply for a fluff piece, plainly sick of answering questions about favourite foods and the inside of his house. “Everything nowadays seems to be over-exposed to the furthest degree,” he glowers. “I don’t want this to be about all the things around the band and in our lives. This is about our music; what we’re putting forward artistically. We’re about creative control: real, raw performance.”
Two hours later, we get to see that reality in full flight. It talks plenty for itself.
“Wake the fuck up, New York!” screams the drummer, gouging into the unsettling My World.
For a Thursday night crowd who’ve thus far confined themselves to a little bloodless push-and-shove, it’s the invitation to violence they’ve been waiting for – a scoop of chum to trigger stirring sharks.
Code Orange - Forever
Limbs spin. Skulls clash. A force-five circle-pit fulfils the forecast of headbang-hurricanes and scattered bleeding. Business as usual, then. And still picking up as Kill The Creator spills through Spy and into a cataclysmic, shit-yourself I Am King, Kerrang! takes four knuckles to the base of the skull from one enthusiastic latecomer, drawn from entrance to oblivion in four seconds flat. We’re practically unscathed, though, compared to the punter who’s flipped headfirst into the concrete and dragged unconscious from the melee, or the bloke retired to the bathroom with head pressed against crimson-drenched towel. All the while, broad-chested, well-versed security staff keep watch, arms crossed, waiting for shit to get really out of hand.
“Hardcore’s not supposed to be the safest thing in the world,” grins Jami in the electric afterglow. “It should be scary. That’s what we like. That’s what gets us out of bed. Our live show is controlled, premeditated, unfiltered chaos: raw energy channelled through a new lens.” An evangelist for extremity, his eyes widen as his fervour grows. “We’ve got this lyric: ‘The line between art and pain no longer exists.’ The world is getting scarier. We’ve got to get scarier with it…”
“It wasn’t always like this,” smiles Reba – as important an assuasive centrepoint for her bandmates as she is an aggravated performer – surveying the post-show wreckage and rolling back the years to the band’s high school beginnings as Code Orange Kids. “I remember starting off in Pittsburgh, where we had our own little scene. We’d play places like Helter Shelter – this old, broken-down house with washing machines up on the wall – or friends’ basements that were barely the size of our dressing rooms now. There’s always separation in the hardcore scene, but we brought people together. Naturally, we got the young kids out, but the older crowd respected us, too.”
Expanding scope early, the then-quartet’s first forays out of their hometown included shows in nearby Ohio – many booked by Homewrecker guitarist Matt Barnum: the band’s current merch-hand and only on-tour support staff. Although loaded with excitement, those first miles weren’t overflowing with glamour.
“It was horrible,” laughs Eric, nostalgically disgusted. “Touring in a pick-up truck with a cab on the back. We’d be playing underground spaces where people didn’t even know there was a band on, parties where we’d just get a portion of the beer money. It was absolute hell.
“I’ll never forget rolling up to this show in Milwaukee while we were still in high school, where the first thing we saw was this bunch of kids around a computer watching porn. We told them, ‘We’re playing in the basement…’ and they were like, ‘News to us!’ We loaded in anyway, but there was this funny smell. It turned out that that was the smell of crack. There was this whole crack party going on – hanging out, watching porn, doing all the things young crackheads do.
“Joe wasn’t in the band back then, but he was on tour with us. We had him stand at the bottom of the basement stairwell and ask for money. I think the average he got was about $3 per person. At one point, I jumped up and landed [awkwardly], breaking one of my metatarsals and had to finish the show standing still. Afterwards, we gave ourselves stick-and-poke tattoos in the parking lot, then it was like, ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here!’”
“We’d play anywhere,” chimes Reba. “We didn’t care if it was shit. We didn’t care if there were five people there. They’d remember us. And next time, there’d be 10 people.”
Check out this gallery of candid photos of the band on tour shot by Angela Owens:
High school’s end heralded a semester at college in Philadelphia for most of the band. Eric – pre-empting drop-out and debt – travelled with them, but pursued employment in political activism. Reba remembers a period of uncertainty and depression – the lingering feeling they’d taken a wrong turn. When the offer of a nationwide tour with genre overlords Terror presented a route back on track, not much thought was required. “We didn’t have to have a discussion,” Reba recalls. “The only question [Reba having recently migrated from four strings to six] was, ‘Who’s gonna play bass?’ That’s when Joe joined.”
And so, an abrupt plunge into hardcore’s deep end.
“We had to get out there and put ourselves in uncomfortable positions,” Reba continues. “We had to play shows where no-one liked us. I was 18 on that first Terror tour; we were the oddballs. Was it a struggle? Sure. We didn’t know anyone and we were shelling maybe 50 dollars a night. But, having done
that, you feel like you can do anything. A huge moment was having [Terror vocalist] Scott Vogel and [This Is Hardcore promoter] Joe Hardcore pay attention – proving to them that they should show us some respect.
Hardcore, of course, doesn’t do overnight success. “This band raised us all,” reflects Joe. “But it took years more of playing bunkers and weird, sketchy places; putting a lot of emotion and energy into it and the people literally not being there. I remember playing this DIY spot in Fresno, California to literally two people.”
Such outings, however, generated vital fuel for launching a juggernaut into motion.
Piling our bags into a bulging trailer and hopping aboard the band’s low-key white Ford van (in which they split the driving, Joe tells us, with something like 200,000 miles already on the clock), we hit the I-90. The latest Curb Your Enthusiasm is heatedly dissected. Eric’s insistence that Rick and Morty is high-IQ programming gets roasted. Game Of Thrones spoilers are skirted around. Jami contends that American Horror Story’s scary clowns are all “bait’n’switch” – no competition for Stephen King’s It.
“We’re hardcore outsiders,” smiles Reba, begging comparison with Derry, Maine’s coulrophobic finest. “Four skinny kids and a girl.” Code Orange, though, is no Losers’ Club.
“Other bands want music to be fun. I don’t care about music being fun,” stresses Jami. “For a lot of bands, being hardcore means being sloppy or uncontrolled. We’re different. We want to create a three-dimensional experience of the varying, dynamic levels and layers of aggression.”
The first real benchmark of that dynamism came with November 2012’s Love Is Love // Return To Dust LP. Recorded with the legendary Kurt Ballou and released through the venerable Deathwish Inc., it was as much a statement of ambition – grounded but fast-growing – as creative daring. “We had chances to sign with big labels and bypass all the shit,” Jami reflects, “but we made the decision to go with Deathwish because we wanted that culture. It’s harder, but that’s what lasts.”
By the time work on 2014 follow-up I Am King – a record themed, appropriately, around self-empowerment – hit pace, a restart was required. June saw the ‘Kids’ dropped from Code Orange ahead of an earth-shattering September release. “It was time for a change, to shake the snow globe and see what happens,” Jami justifies. “We didn’t have the opportunity to join a bunch of bands when we were teenagers, so this was our ability to be in a new band.” So definite was the restart in the frontman’s mind, he even hounded Spotify to ensure the pre-existing material was catalogued, separately, as that of the earlier band.
“I Am King was the start of the era that’s going to last. We saw what wasn’t working and wanted to re-tool the whole set-up. We built the Thinners Of The Herd website – this weird cryptic thing with ideas learned from movies and video games. It was a deliberate attention-grab, about creating something that really mattered.”
The gambit, of course, paid off.
“At our first I Am King show, in Indianapolis, we sold eight times more merch than we’d sold before, ever. The crowds were doubled. We went from not meaning shit to meaning something.”
A jarring van stereo shift, from Dying Fetus to Liam Gallagher, as Reba guns the throttle, facilitates Jami’s segue onto the worship of creative daring that fuelled those records’ progression. “I love Liam,” he grins, enjoying our surprise. “I love Kanye, too. I love people who can be so unfiltered but still create beautiful things – eccentrics who’ve accomplished a lot.”
A fight fan also, Jami cites MMA’s Conor McGregor and the Diaz brothers as role models. He and Joe have even started training in jiu-jitsu. “I’ve been told our shows can feel like a fight. That’s the energy I want to apply. I want it to be violent – not in the crowd, per se. It’s about us giving everything to win. The onstage adrenaline dump can be similar [to being in the ring]. Likewise, the need for practice – you can’t apply a discipline you’ve learned the day before and expect success.”
Joe contemplates that intrinsic violence with measuredness. “Hardcore’s not always positivity; it’s not always [performed] with the best intentions. Some people can convert negativity into positivity, but some use it to fuel self-destruction.” Unsqueamish about brutality, the bassist perceives it as a bond. “We played Buffalo a few years ago, when I was in a place of real negativity. I smacked my bass off my head hard. Then I kept doing it.” He fumbles to find an ugly scar on his shaved scalp. “I kept doing it because that’s what I was feeling. I don’t know if it [invoked violence] in the crowd, but it definitely intensified the connection. The realness – that intensity – was obvious. There was blood all over me, and people were coming up so I could smear it over them, too.
“That’s the way I want it. If I’m in the audience, I’m with the guy onstage. If I’m the guy onstage, I’m with the audience. It’s an exchange of energy between people on the same fucking page.”
Arriving at East Hartford’s Webster Theater – a grand, old, repurposed cinema in a neighbourhood that’s seen better days – it’s easy to appreciate the appeal of a band to believe in.
“I don’t think it’s as simple as the fact that a certain person is president and everyone listens to crazy music now,” says Reba, mulling the question of why an organisation built on such undiluted, avant garde extremity have found such acclaim – and why now.
“Extreme aggression has been building in music since the birth of hardcore – and far before that,” reasons Jami. “We just want to put a different form of aggression through our own filter. We make the music we’d want to listen to; the shirts we’d want to look at. Why are people responding to us? It’s our honesty; our investment; our understanding. We know we’ve got to work harder than anybody else – and we do. We believe in this. Is there anything more authentic than doing the thing you love?”
That said, there’s still an exceptional, clear-eyed connection to the music here that these insular players perhaps can’t quite comprehend. The strict straight-edge ethos to which Reba, Jami and Joe subscribe (Eric and Dom also, when touring) removes any buffer from that connection.
“I’ll have moments where I’ve snapped and can’t control myself,” agrees Reba. “Part of that is because I am straight-edge and don’t have that looseness other people have. I don’t feel comfortable handing over my control to anything else in my own head. I don’t want to chill out. If I want to get through something, I want to know that I got through it without something else helping me.”
“Maybe I feel a little rawer,” nods Eric, “Maybe the nerve is little more open. But this is about the people involved, not what they put in their bodies.”
“We’re five weirdo kids who play weird music that doesn’t make any sense,” expands Reba. “We are where we are because we’re real and passionate. That’s what fuels me. That’s what motivates me. If I didn’t think we had that, I wouldn’t have the confidence to go up there and play a show. I don’t want to be here because I got lucky. I want to have earned it.”
“People ask if I’m surprised at our success,” asserts Jami. “I’m not surprised. This was all part of the plan.”
Unloading amongst the boarded windows and collapsed roofs so indicative of deep-set urban decay, however, in a scene soundtracked by screeching tyres and (not so) distant sirens, with a background cast of extras shuffling shadily in the corner of our eye, there’s something more: the refreshing sight of a successful outfit touring from friends’ floors to ’roach motels, living and working out in the same downtrodden spaces as their fanbase. “It all comes down to feeling real,” nods Jami, “to touching that nerve in a different kind of way.”
If outside represents grim reality, inside is a warzone cast in shadow; red and blue searchlights picking out punters clasping injuries and beating their retreat or dancefloor warriors punch-drunk only a couple of songs in. Connecticut has turned out for a Battle Royale: bulging veterans scattering flailing newcomers like skittles on a bowling alley. With a soundtrack like tonight’s, it’s impossible to resist the pull towards the fray.
Ringing ears and bloody teeth never get old, nor roundhouse kicks swinging past our temples and elbows landing in our ribs. We’ve barely got our wind back when an elder troublemaker under a Warzone shirt jabs us again, gleefully pointing to a sign over the stage.
‘No moshing. No crowdsurfing. No stage-diving.’
“Well,” he grins, a drooping moustache unable to disguise his delight, “that went out the window fast.”
With this year’s Forever LP – the band’s third album and Roadrunner Records debut – the parameters were pushed farther than ever before. Dom’s addition – another layer of guitar – shored the foundations, before Eric’s expanded, electronic texture daubed on the colour. “We don’t have a sound guy,” Eric explains. “I’m the sonic engineer. It’s on my shoulders to make things as abrasive or as calming as possible – to control exactly what the crowd feels. We’ll go to hardcore shows now and ask for something in the monitors. They’ll say, ‘It’s a hardcore show; it’s never going to be perfect!’ That’s my least favourite response of all time.”
Eric points, too, to the meld of metal and hardcore crowds – something that became blatantly apparent following 2015’s Mayhem tour alongside Slayer and King Diamond – as essential to that live friction. “It’s definitely gotten more intense,” says Dom. “Sometimes I think that’s in my head, but then I’ll watch a YouTube video from three years ago and see it.”
“That first Forever headline run was insane,” concurs Eric, “people jumping off shit and getting their faces smashed open. There was an ambulance at the show almost every night.”
Parallel to that heightened sense of chaos, Code Orange’s rising star has attracted heavyweight tourmates: Killswitch Engage; Deftones; tonight’s headliners, multiple times. Nothing has affected them more, however, than this summer’s European arena shows with System Of A Down. It’s a working relationship that Reba recalls beginning with SOAD guitarist Daron Malakian chastising a sound-engineer from side-stage at their last, gremlin-plagued, LA headliner, and peaked with performances to tens of thousands. “If Forever was the point we realised we could really do this,” she grins, “SOAD was the point we knew we could reach anyone…”
Those sprawling occasions presented fresh challenges and perspective, too. “We’re taking you through our gallery of horrors: building a moment, giving it, then taking it away,” explains Jami. “A hardcore show is like a haunted house where you’ve signed a waiver that allows you to be touched. These bigger shows are like where we’re not allowed to actually grab you, but we have to deliver that same impact and somehow amplify it times 1,000. When you’re the big band, you can give nothing and get everything. When you’re in our position, it’s still possible to give everything and get nothing.”
Code Orange - The Mud
Loading up for another long night-drive, recently-retired Bane guitarist Zach Jordan springs from the venue to ask the band for a photo. It’s a poignant inversion of circumstance, a touching show of fandom from one of the past masters responsible for thrusting Code Orange down their path.
They’re uncomfortable, however, with the idea of themselves as future figureheads.
“We want to write our own story,” Reba says. “We want to – and already do – work harder than anyone else. If we’re part of a scene, we’ll use it to roadmap out the direction no-one else is travelling in.”
“We don’t want anyone else’s two-cents,” Eric nods. “Metal and rock are dying on the vine,” adds Jami. “We’ve got to take it in a new direction.”
“This is the only thing I’ve ever truly cared about,” Joe adds, looking us straight in the eye. “I’m in, 24/7. I’ll leave family gatherings for my brothers and sister. I’ll walk out on a date.”
“Realistically, this doesn’t end until one of us dies,” stresses Eric. “It’s not about numbers or social media following, either. It’s about people truly understanding our mission.”
“I walked into Roadrunner and said, ‘We need to be the number one band on this label,’” spills Jami. “That’s what we’re gonna do. We’ll work our asses off. We’ll tour all year. We can already go toe-to-toe with any band headlining any stage anywhere in the world – and we don’t have shit: no production, no sound guy, nothing.
“We can stand out anywhere,” he concludes. “We can rock any venue. We can scare any crowd. If we get in front of Slipknot’s audience, or Nine Inch Nails’…” That belief shudders from the ground up. “Man, I get chills thinking about how hard we’d smash that shit.”
They’ve rode this far on unyielding effort and raw uncompromise. It’s only a matter of time until Code Orange’s merciless bludgeon strikes paydirt. We can’t wait to see their New Reality: fully-realised, unabridged, in the bruised and battered flesh.
It’s going to be bloody beautiful.
CODE ORANGE’S ALBUM FOREVER IS OUT NOW VIA ROADRUNNER RECORDS
Words: Sam Law
Photography: Angela Owens