Code Orange: “I would love for this band to be as visible as possible. We have more to offer than in the bubble we currently live in”

In the shadow of their formidable album The Above, Code Orange return to the UK this weekend, laying waste to one of the biggest stages of the summer. But despite being one of heavy music’s most abrasive acts, armed with perhaps their darkest record yet, the Pittsburgh punishers know they belong in the big leagues – and they know how to get there…

Code Orange: “I would love for this band to be as visible as possible. We have more to offer than in the bubble we currently live in”
Mischa Pearlman

Human zombies might be the stuff of fiction, but in the animal kingdom they’re actually pretty common. In fact, there are a number of parasites that can infect the brains of their hosts and consequently control their behaviour. This rather horrific practice something that inspired a lot of the imagery, themes and sounds on Code Orange’s fifth album, The Above.

Frontman Jami Morgan had been reading a book about parasites and realised that, in some ways, it was an apt metaphor for the existence of the Pittsburgh-based band and the way their uncompromising and often challenging music has – somehow – burrowed its way into the brain of the mainstream. Indeed, their third and fourth albums – 2017’s Forever and 2020’s Underneath – were both nominated for Best Metal Performance at the commercially-minded GRAMMYs. They didn’t win either time, but the fact they were shortlisted shows just how far a band intent on doing things their own way – and whose music is anything but commercial – could transcend boundaries.

“The book talked about how parasites will attach to a host that’s supposed to be underground,” begins Jami, “and mind-control them to go to the surface, where they get consumed immediately but the parasite’s life continues. And I saw something in that as it relates to music, or as it relates to going towards acceptance or popular opinion, or just going towards, like, outer-love vs. the light of self.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that thought alone, and it’s something that Jami and the rest of Code Orange – completed by founding members Shade (keyboards / programming / guitars / vocals) and Reba Meyers (guitars / lead vocals), plus bassist Joe Goldman, guitarist Dominic Landolina and drummer Max Portnoy – do to discomforting effect on The Above’s 14 darkly disturbing songs. It’s the sound of a band truly leaning into (and looking at) itself in an attempt to reveal who and what is at its heart. Gruesome and dystopian, it’s a record that sounds like a Saw movie, but despite the horror aesthetics and parasitic imagery, it’s entirely based on Jami’s own life, experiences and feelings. Not, he says, that he has any choice.

“My personal life is very intertwined with my band life,” he admits – and perhaps this is a good time to point out that he's talking to us while wearing a Code Orange T-shirt – “because I put pretty much every day since the last record into creating this piece of art. A lot of it is about getting older, trying to really determine what your values are, trying to determine what you really want out of life. And what I’ve determined – and not achieved, of course – that I would love out of life is what most of us want: to be able to live on that island of self and be okay with whatever happens, and be able to look at the person in the mirror or look at myself in retrospect and be proud of myself and who I am.”

To that end, despite the grotesqueries that dominate this album, in many ways it’s actually their most human record, and Jami’s most personal set of lyrics since the band first formed as Code Orange Kids back in 2008. He just uses that parasitic conceit to examine the nature, purpose and reason for why he makes art. On top of that, the whole album is him reacting to, and trying to come terms with, his life in relative limelight since the band became more popular.

“I feel vulnerable in the way that I think any human being feels vulnerable who’s really fully expressing themselves,” he says. “When I talk to my family, they think it’s interesting because most people don’t have these moments like what I’m having now, where you basically build this whole thing for years and years and years, and you kind of hope, and you put so much work into it, then you put it out there and whether people like it determines what route you go.”

Code Orange could have taken an easy route. Or at least an easier one. Having received such acclaim for those last two records, they could have pandered to the mainstream, toned down the extreme abrasion of their sound for something a little more palatable and made a record that might have actually won a GRAMMY. But that’s not who the band are and that’s not who Jami is. Instead, they made one of the most challenging albums of last year. It’s a record that, sonically and lyrically, lets you inside Jami’s head – in much the same way those parasites get inside their hosts – in an attempt to explain why they made what you’re listening to as you’re listening to it. It all sounds very post-modern and self-aware, and it kind of is, but Jami and the band aren’t being pretentious. Nor are they just pushing boundaries for the sake of it. It’s much more important than that.

“My goal in making music with this band,” he says, “is to fill the void of what I would like to hear and see that’s not out there. With that comes the idea that you do have to push forward in some kind of way. Obviously, we’re playing with a lot of familiar elements, but I think you’ve got to rearrange them into a new puzzle to have a right or reason to exist at this point. Because for me, it’s not really about just playing or enjoying it. It’s about trying to put something out there that isn’t there, that I would like to be there.”

For most of the interview, Jami seems – emotionally, at least – quite reserved. He speaks in an almost monotone and his answers are very considered, though you sometimes get the sense he doesn’t want to give too much away. But when asked what he’s been searching for with his music, he embarks on a passionate discourse about the nature of self and how it’s represented on the record, split between “heavy, disgusting” sounds and songs that are “brighter and stylistically different” to what they have done before.

He makes special reference to Mirror – a song that’s sung by Reba, which Jami describes as “this kind of beautiful but digital thing being overtaken slowly by this kind of disgusting buggy thing”. It’s in stark contrast to the coruscating, punishing intensity of A Drone Opting Out Of The Hive, an experimental industrial metal track that sounds like a brain both imploding and exploding at the same time, as the narrator attempts to discover who he really is. ‘I am the main character,’ Jami sings. ‘I am the player and the narrator, I’m the symbolic and the actual.’ All of it, he says, coalesces to offer an accurate representation of not just how he feels, but who he really is.

“To me, Mirror is this stripped-down song of the soul,” he says. “It represents that conversation with self, where you’re almost like battling that parasitic inner voice that’s coming back to play throughout the record in the form of heavy music. And A Drone Opting Out Of The Hive is the full realisation of that – it takes place in an interrogation room or something, and it’s you interrogating yourself and trying to push that monster back down. It’s the ego really coming into play. And I do feel like that at times – I’m a person who’s split in two in a lot of ways.”

By capturing that split so well, Jami has revealed his true self – his whole – with The Above. The album represents, he explains, the intertwined, inseparable journeys of his life and the band. But he’s keen to point out that despite its insecticidal conceit, every last word and every last piece of music is very, very real.

“I’m telling my truth all the time,” he stresses. “When I sit there and write, it has to feel cathartic. I have to be able to point out a line and know what I’m really referring to in my own life or in our journey. Because this is our outlet. It’s corny because everybody says it all the fucking time, but this is how I express myself. This is 30 years of expression. That’s why sometimes it can feel really personal when people can be critical. And it really shouldn’t. But, depending on your role in a band, if you’re someone that’s putting your soul to the forefront and putting everything you have out there, you have to harden up. You have to protect your inner building, your inner space.”

Intentional or otherwise, that last sentence fits neatly into Jami’s bloodsucking analogy. It can’t have been easy given the machinations of the music industry, but so far, he and Code Orange have prevented being turned into something other than their authentic selves. With the exception of an appearance by Billy Corgan on this album, they’ve resisted the lure of the entertainment industry and the promises of the mainstream – but it’s not been easy.

“There’s a part of me that desires a lot more of it,” admits Jami, “and that’s also something I’m grappling with, because it’s a dangerous game to play with your own emotions and your own self value. I would love for this band to be as visible as possible, because I truly believe we have a lot more to offer in that position than in the bubble that we currently live in. I don’t know how much more we have to offer to the bubble, honestly, because we’re always adjacent and don’t really fit into it – and haven’t for a while. So I think we have the most to offer on a higher level, but it’s a tough game to play because you then put your value on that and your eggs in that. Which is fine as long as it doesn’t affect the art, which it certainly didn’t. This was made pure and true from the soul.”

Long may that continue.

Catch Code Orange on the Apex Stage at Download Festival on June 16

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