Interview: Code Orange’s Jami Morgan on Corrupting Rock’s Past to Solidify Its Future

Jami Morgan photo credit: Tim Saccenti
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Code Orange are conquerors. From their starts in the world of hardcore to their turn to big-room heavy metal, every decision the band makes is centered on domination. Their next target? Upending rock music’s stagnation.

From jump, the Pittsburgh, PA band has never quite fit in with any one particular scene. Since their formation in 2008, Code Orange has made for a fascinating blend of sound; there’s the hardcore elements alongside that of metal, and then something a little more artsy – something underneath and working its way into the band’s aggression.

In the 15 years they’ve been a band, Code Orange has consistently pushed their music forward, never being ones to settle for one scene or sound. Sure, they will probably always be a heavy band to some extent, but they’ve become masters at weaving in other in genres. Their debut album Love Is Love/Return to Dust in 2012 was an exciting merger of the thoughtful hardcore happening on then-label Deathwish Inc. with an underlying love for caveman riffing. As the band progressed, their instinct for changing things up was clear: the noisy interludes and intros on I Am King evolved into the hip-hop textures on Forever, coalescing into a metallic nightmare of electronics on their 2020 album Underneath. 

Their hunger for change has earned both praise and derision from listeners. On one hand, they’re one of the only hardcore bands to ever be nominated for a Grammy award, which happened twice. They’ve also crossed over to bigger audiences, including a fruitful relationship with WWE which lead them to perform at the brand’s premium live events as well as craft two entrance themes for the late Bray Wyatt. On the other hand, that experimentation and crossover has alienated the band from many of the hardcore faithful. But it’s a risk they relish: either you’re with what they’re trying to do or you’re obsolete.

For their new album The Above, Code Orange has looked to the past for guidance on how to navigate their new target: present-day rock music. Per frontman Jami Morgan, the ’90s represent “the last time period where great things that were also artistic were able to be popular in rock music.” With The Above, Code Orange is focused on the attitude of what made ’90s music so impactful; it’s not nostalgia but rather a corruption of the past to create something meaningful.

Guiding them through this journey was Smashing PumpkinsBilly Corgan, who joined the band for a guest spot on the song “Take Shape.” The album was engineered by Steve Albini, who produced many of the albums The Above pulls influence from. Albini’s approach gave the record a raw foundation to expand from. Guitarist Reba Meyers is at her creative peak, both in writing some of the band’s heaviest riffs to date on songs like “Grooming My Replacement” to taking them to their trippiest moments ever on “Circle Through.” Elsewhere, the programming of Eric “Shade” Balderose has metamorphosed out of the cold mechanical underpinnings of Underneath to far more organic textures. Sounds of bugs and wildlife pepper through the record, switching on a dime from beautiful to unnerving.

In a conversation with The Pit, Morgan discusses the thematic threads and concepts at work throughout The Above. He opens up about the craft of his writing and visuals, and how Code Orange provides a unique take on the concept album. We discuss the ’90s and what he misses about that era, a Code Orange short film, and more.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Pit: How long have you conceptually sat with The Above? Not in terms of working in the studio, but in terms of ideas and themes, how long has this record been stewing for you?
Jami Morgan: I think some of the themes and the sonic ideas were planted pretty early. What we tried to do this time that was different was allow a lot of the puzzle pieces to form themselves at first, and then look at all of them. Then my role is just to absorb my life, our music, what we’ve done in the past, thematic ideas, philosophical ideas, whatever. Then it clicked in at a certain point, there was a synergy between what I wanted to do aesthetically and what I was feeling emotionally; what themes were interesting to me, movies that were interesting to me, the way they looked and felt, and some of the songs we were doing. It was a long period for me piecing it together so that it makes sense to me; if it doesn’t make sense to me, then it doesn’t check the box as a Code Orange piece of art.

I can see now that a lot of the ideas were planted on the last record, and making this a spiritual successor to that, but also completely different from it is what made it exciting. But we didn’t necessarily start with that point.

You put a lot of care and detail into the narrative of Code Orange’s music. Throughout Underneath, there’s somewhat of a fantastical edge, even a little in Forever. Where does that passion for writing come from for you?
JM: The only place I would disagree a little bit is that, to me, fantastical deals with things outside of self. While we get there in our visuals and in thematic threads, the records are very personal. It’s a really weird tightrope for me, which is where I feel like there’s a cool little place for us, niche-wise. The records are conceptual, the records have threads of continuity, but they’re about me, they’re about us, they’re about what we’re going through personally.

I wouldn’t say [our music] goes into full character territory; I’ve never really written narrative. I don’t even really read fiction. I love movies, art, and concept records – I think our take on a concept record is much more personal and a little looser in that regard. All of our records tend to be about the same thing at different periods of my life. They’re mostly about the search of self; the last record is more society reflected in a way. I feel like this record even has the most in common thematically with our record I Am King, but it’s from a different perspective; that record is very much about search of self in terms of manifestation and forcing. This record is about battling yourself and having to be at peace with self, no matter what the outcome is from the outside world. I tried to thematically and sonically weave all the records together on this one without trying to cram it in too much.

Well, diving deeper into the thematics, when “Take Shape” came out, you expressed the following about The Above: “It was to feel rooted in the ‘analog’ world, but with threads of digital reality binding things together.” Can you expand on that?
JM: [Regarding] the world the record inhabits, we’re playing with this idea of something that feels more natural, analog, and open, but has this underlying, almost sinister thread of more modern, digital reality that we live in – without being overt and mechanical in the way that the last record was. I think that the metaphor of light is the best way to describe it. It’s kind of about two lights: It’s about borrowing towards the light of perceived purpose and acceptance, trying to make something of yourself, and trying to be loved. It’s also about the parallel light of inner self and having to live with whatever there is left when there is none of those things, when none of those things may necessarily come to fruition, and being okay with that.

Another metaphor that I think you’ll see on the record, and you’ll hear sonically, is this parasite metaphor. I was reading a lot about parasites and one thing I thought that was really interesting was that there are these parasitic beings that attach to certain kinds of bugs that are supposed to stay underground, supposed to stay in the dark, but push them to the surface to where they’re then consumed, and the life cycle goes on. I saw that as a metaphor for some of the things, not just that we’ve gone through, but about what you go through when searching for success, adoration, and understanding.

Aesthetically, I saw [the album] in two sides: I saw the heavy dark stuff as this buggy, more natural as opposed to mechanical, but still with a tinge of that, parasitic. Movies that came to mind for me were nasty true crimes or like [David] Fincher or something about like a character who’s very alone and at war with themselves, like Taxi Driver or King of Comedy. Then on the other side, I saw these two sources of light, this pull towards, sonically and visually, the more digital natural world. As the record goes on, it reveals something a little more natural, which is the island of self.

I get the sense you care about art direction. Something I noticed with the new music videos you’ve released is that there are small motifs that could work together to formulate some kind of narrative throughline for a short film.
JM:  There totally is. In the process of this record, I wrote a music video film that hasn’t come to fruition but [included some] of the music videos that you saw, “Mirror” and “Take Shape.” It had like five or six more, but we couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t get anyone to pay for it. We’ll see what happens – if people listen to the record, maybe we’ll be able to make it happen.

Would you be open to “Kickstarting” a Code Orange short film?
JM: I hate that fucking shit. I don’t want to beg people for shit unless I’m about to die or something, I’d rather just try to keep figuring it out. We have an awesome label, it’s an independent label that’s been really supportive of us and doing their best, and definitely going above and beyond. We just couldn’t make it happen – but we made something happen.

Another visual aspect I wanted to touch on is the collages associated with The Above. What’s the process behind those?
JM: I have a mood board in my room of all these collages that I made, along with photos from movies and stuff. It all keeps me on board with what the aesthetic of the record is and what I’m trying to say. I have a very crazy ADHD brain that has so many thoughts, [and these boards provide a focus]. I think a lot of people that make music decide to go down one lane and that is the best, easiest way to do it; that’s kind of the easiest way to make something quality as well. I can’t do that. I have to grab from all this stuff and make it work and make it all make sense to me. So that kind of keeps me on track and I was making collages and stuff throughout.

[Showing off a booklet that comes packaged with the vinyl for The Above]: The booklet is all these collages that my sister and I made of everything from behind-the-scenes photographs to AI images, to stuff we shot on a screen in a studio to outside stuff. It’s the most beautiful book we’ve ever done. It’s the process, the art itself. It’s all these things, our path, our future, like pouring together in a way that we’ve never really done. I’m really happy with how it turned out.

Among the amalgamation of styles present on The Above, there’s an array of ’90s sounds. You also have the whole “Mud TV” thing. What is it about ’90s music and pop culture you’re drawn to? Is there anything from that time you miss?
JM: For me, being from heavy and weird music – this record is really experimental, but every song has a hook; every single solitary song has a hook that comes back, it’s meant to be as catchy as we can make it without making it devoid of that art. To me, [the ’90s were] the last time period where great things that were also artistic were able to be popular in rock music. I don’t really think that that’s happened at all since then; I can’t even really think of one single solitary example of a band, for my taste, that’s both great artistically and also very popular.

There are a lot of bands that are popular that are art-minded in the sense that they’re doing stuff that is artsy, but the songs aren’t. That’s probably my fondness for it, as well as it’s just an era where things were chaotic in terms of music was in your face. It had the energy of hardcore in a lot of ways but in a more mainstream setting. I’m not sitting here fucking wearing an All That shirt – I’m not just like some ’90s guy – but at the same time, a lot of my favorite bands that have culture and that are also really popular, and some that weren’t popular, are from that period. I think hardcore has had a lot of great stuff since, but more regular and popular shit, it all ain’t really that good to me.

There is a nostalgic aspect to the record, but I think that when the songs get kind of nostalgic, you hear us push them forward. At the same time, you hear production that wouldn’t be done at that time period. That’s different. You hear breakdowns on a record that has a lot of rock stuff and you would never hear both those things on the same record. I think we innovate at the same time still.

I agree – what Code Orange is doing is not simply reflection, but innovating and revitalizing of styles that have been sort of lost to time.
JM: That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to pull from the things we love and then also push it forward. That’s stuff that I really love, I’m really fond of, and think is awesome in many genres of music, especially rock. When I look at [music] now, the stuff everybody tells me that’s supposed to be the best stuff, it’s not for me. I might be in the minority there; I see a lot of kids who like this new sound of metal that is a little bit more processed and it’s artful in a way of being like visually – but musically, I just don’t hear it. I don’t feel it. I don’t feel any emotion. I don’t even feel heaviness, even though people say it’s heavy because it’s loud and low. To me, that’s not really heavy. Everybody has a different opinion, but we’re trying to be a voice for people who are looking for that next thing that is dangerous because we are dangerous. We’re not behind a computer, we’re in your face. If you see us live, you’ll know the score with that. I like that, that’s what it should be. It should be artful. It should be chaotic. It should be in your face. It should be nuanced. It should be all of it.

Code Orange has been on a hell of an artistic journey and you’ve grown your artistry over 15 years. When it comes to this journey – is this the band you’ve always envisioned it to be?
JM: In some ways. There’s wrestling with that on this record, like not feeling you’ve achieved the things you want to achieve, which we all feel in life. But artistically, I feel like we’ve made great records. The inside of the I Am King record […] I wanted it to say real big: “No boxes, no boundaries, no fear” – that was like the tagline. We were trying to plant seeds on that record; the record before that was more artistically challenging but was lacking a core place to build from. With the I Am King record, we rebuilt the house in the foundation of it. I was like, “Okay, we need to rebuild and build up,” and I think we built up maybe not the exact way I would have thought then, but I think if you listen to the records in a row, I think it all makes a lot of sense. They sound different, they definitely feel like they’re from different eras.

I think artistically we’ve made great records, I don’t think we’ve put out a bad record. I think this is our best one. In terms of goals, things go up and down. We don’t really know what will happen from here. This definitely feels like the closing of one journey and maybe the beginning of another one in some kind of way. It feels like thematically, ideologically, we have taken things full circle, and I think there are other ways for us to go for sure. I think we wouldn’t spin the wheel anymore, this feels like the seal.

[Where we are at now], it’s different than I would have thought but it’s also the same. That’s the best way to put it. It’s like Underneath and The Above: It’s a thin reflective line. We’ll see what happens.