Code Orange Are Ready to Be Metal’s New Icons

Code Orange
Tim Saccenti

Code Orange

They’ve earned approval from the Grammys, Coachella, and a WWE champion. Their indomitable new album delivers on the hype.

Code Orange vocalist Jami Morgan doesn’t talk like most twenty-something rock frontpeople. There’s no aw shucks slackerism or deference to some bygone era. The vibe is more of a rapper on the eve of a hard-earned major label debut or a process-obsessed Olympic athlete.

Is he hoping Code Orange’s fourth album Underneath changes the direction of heavy music?

“I don’t hope anything.”

Is Code Orange eager to be one of the bands inspiring younger metal and hardcore musicians?

“I don’t think we’re eager to be anything. I think we are; so we will be one of them.”

Code Orange was booked for Coachella 2020, when or if that might be. What’s the vibe Morgan has in mind?

“I think we’re gonna smash people.”

Perhaps Morgan is extra focused because he literally just became Code Orange’s de facto frontperson. After pulling double duty as drummer and vocalist since the band’s formation in 2008 (guitarist Reba Meyers and keyboardist/programmer Eric “Shade” Balderose also do plenty of singing and screaming) Morgan will come out from behind the kit and focus on the mic entirely, beginning with a hometown Pittsburgh show to open Code Orange’s Underneath Tour March 14. What’s his mindset for the evening?

“Keep pushing it, connect, kill.”

When Morgan says Underneath -- out Friday (Mar. 13) on Roadrunner Records -- is simultaneously Code Orange’s most heavy, complicated, and accessible album, it’s no press sheet hyperbole. Listening to Underneath feels like going to a theme park and riding all the roller coasters one after another without waiting in line, fever dreams your transport in between. There are catchy, clean-vocal choruses and moments that feel like your entire body is being pummeled by paintball pellets.

Meyers has grown into a specialist for the former (see “Autumn and Carbine,” “Underneath”) alongside her and Dominic Landolina’s chaotic guitarwork. Morgan -- still the band’s studio drummer -- joins bassist Joe Goldman and Balderose's eletrco-theatrics to form a 360-degree rhythm section that mixes manic, stop/start percussion with an underbelly of samples and ambience linking the 14 tracks with nary a moment of silence. “A lot of times when heavy music tries to get more artistic it loses a lot of its immediacy,” Morgan says. “Everything has to work together. We were able to build it into one big orchestra.”

Morgan doesn’t claim nu metal as a conscious influence on Underneath, but like other modern day hardcore innovators such as Boston’s Vein, Code Orange’s maximalist approach to sampling and percussion has drawn comparisons to the genre’s late-‘90s heyday. Fortunately, it never sounds backwards-looking -- Morgan and co. were kindergarten-aged when bands like Korn and Slipknot were at their commercial peak anyway.

That said, they have formed a meaningful relationship with the latter band. Code Orange welcomed Slipknot singer Corey Taylor as a guest vocalist on its bloodthirsty 2018 track “The Hunt” and signed on as openers on this summer’s Knotfest Roadshow. "He's seen a lot of bands and he's not going to waste his time with anybody he doesn't like,” Morgan says. “We intend to do the same thing.”

Morgan isn’t trying to get upstarts everywhere to sound like Code Orange, but he does see a dire need for heavy music to move forward in the new decade. He's played plenty of metal and hard rock festivals and knows how rare it is to musicians his age in headlining roles -- and while killer female players like Meyers are not uncommon throughout the metal universe, they're extremely underrepresented in its more mainstream sectors. “Heavy music has to have new figureheads, bands for kids to look at and build off," he offers. "That’s how hip-hop has moved forward so hard. There’s guys who came up three or four years ago who already feel like icons. You can’t say that in heavy music.”

Code Orange formed in 2008 as a scrappy hardcore-tinged punk band. Their members averaged about 14 years of age (they literally called themselves Code Orange Kids until 2012) which presented obvious obstacles for playing live. When they finally did start touring, things didn’t get much easier. “We’ve done countless tours playing to literally no one around the world,” Morgan says. “It’s nothing to brag about, but that’s the reality, and hardcore bands know that. It teaches you to do everything yourself. You do it because you love it.”

In the early 2010s, Code Orange's sound matured to molten-rock hardcore. They signed to Deathwish, the indie imprint co-founded by Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon, and Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou produced their first two full lengths:  2012's Love Is Love/Return to Dusk and 2014’s I Am King. Touring behind the latter, Code Orange caught the attention of Roadrunner, Warner’ long-running metal imprint. Morgan bonded with two reps in particular: veteran A&R Dave Rath, who eventually signed them in 2016, and Cody Verdecias, a younger A&R whose aesthetic-over-genre approach -- he also manages buzzy pop-experimentalists 100 Gecs -- facilitated Code Orange’s appearance on last year’s left-field loosie “HPNGC,” alongside avant-rap artists Injury Reserve and JPEGMAFIA.

With Roadrunner's help, Code Orange regularly adventures outside metal’s traditional confines. Their Grammy push helped “Forever,” the blistering title track off 2017’s major label debut, earn a surprise nomination for best metal performance, a field typically reserved for acts old enough to have played the Ozzfest and Family Values tours in their heyday. They didn’t win, but Morgan and co. enjoyed a day spent “trying to be as psychotic as possible” during banal red carpet interviews. “We were getting stared at, and people kept taking pictures of us on their phones. [Landolina] had a ski mask on, so that was probably part of it.”

But the calls keep coming. Coachella reached out and ultimately booked Code Orange for its 2020 festival, despite the near-zero presence of heavy rock music elsewhere on the bill. “In a couple years, doing something like that won’t even seem abnormal. We’re slowly being understood.”

Code Orange’s budding relationship with WWE makes a lot more sense, yet is still the stuff of legend. Back in 2017, they were called on to join 15,000 wrestling fans at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center at NXT Takeover, performing Aleister Black’s theme “Root of All Evil” prior to a winning bout for the Dutch brawler. When another popular wrestler, Bray Wyatt, followed the band on Twitter, Morgan shot his shot, DM’ing him about collaborating on a song. Wyatt agreed. “[The WWE] didn’t give us any permission to do it, so it was basically me and him,” Morgan remembers.

A 5:00 a.m. recording session birthed “Let Me In,” a chant-along hardcore punisher eventually approved to introduce Wyatt’s new Fiend persona (picture a ghoulish wrestler in a Slipknot-style mask with the alter ego of a deranged, Adult Swim-ified Mr. Rogers). Shortly after the premiere at SummerSlam 2019, Wyatt won WWE’s Universal Championship belt for the first time. Code Orange could well be along for the ride: “They got a big event coming up you’ll hopefully see us at,” Morgan says.

As it unleashes its most anticipated project yet, Code Orange is kind of like an NBA star who went pro after just one year of high school; lifetimes of centerstage experience are on their side, yet Morgan and company are still in their mid 20s. “We have that veteran mentality, but we still have that young mindset, that hunger,” Morgan says. “I feel impenetrable. When the word tries to bring you down, [I’m part of] a five-person community that brings me back up.”

He’s technically the frontman, sure, but Morgan’s devotion to the group transcends how they divvy up vocals. Or music entirely: He's played with them since he was 14 and known them even longer. He lives with Goldman and Landolina.

“This isn’t some band s--t,” he insists. “This is my actual family. I see them every day. We fight hard and we obviously love hard. I would die for any one of them in a heartbeat.”