"Sure, we missed a few boats, but if you are willing to push yourself to the bone, you’ll get the next one.” How Code Orange's refusal to stand still helped them craft masterful - and catchy as hell - new album The Above

Code Orange's Jami and Reba
(Image credit: Future (Kevin Nixon))

March 14, 2020. As Covid chaos sweeps the planet, Code Orange become the first band to play a livestreamed gig. Towards the end, Jami Morgan, obviously infuriated, confused and likely more than a little scared by this new and remarkable situation, looks into the camera and addresses his audience.

“This is what happens when the rat fucks that run this world don’t care about you, they don’t care about me, they don’t care about any of us”, he spits into his mic, as he swings the camera around to show the eerily empty Roxian Theatre venue in the band’s native Pittsburgh. “They’ll take and take until there’s nothing fucking left. So when you wake up, hopefully next to your loved ones, maybe alone, you have to look in the mirror and tell yourself... I am King!”

And with that, Code Orange launch into a scathing version of their song of the same name. If there was one metal band that had the right to be apocalyptically angry about the events of 2020, it’s Code Orange. The day before that livestream, around a week before entire countries began to isolate, the Pittsburgh hardcore crew released their fourth album, Underneath. Critically lauded (it became the first album in half a decade to earn a perfect 10 in the pages of Metal Hammer magazine), beloved by their peers (the band had been handpicked as openers by everyone from Slipknot to System Of A Down), and praised by fans, its combination of crushing groove metal, modern hip hop, broken-beat electronics and, crucially, arena-ready hooks was set to make it a breakthrough release. But even an album as spectacular as that couldn’t pull focus from the end of the world.

“Do I feel hard done by?” muses Jami, repeating our question back to us, three years on from that day. “It would be easy to... but I think we’re better than that. I think we’re better than just a moment in time, we’re undeniable. It was hard, and it informed a lot of the art that we’re making now. Things happen to everybody, you have to move forward. It was difficult, but it didn’t break us.”

With society mostly back to normality, Code Orange are picking up where they left off. Today they’ll play their first UK show in five years, at Manchester’s Outbreak Fest, with their new line-up: Jamie made the move from singing drummer to full-on frontman in the aftermath of Underneath in 2020, while Max Portnoy – son of Mike – became their full-time sticksman earlier this year. They’re also poised to release a new album, fittingly titled The Above.

“That time left me with no regrets”, guitarist Reba Meyers tells us, as we sit at a picnic table on the roof of Manchester’s Depot Mayfield venue, surrounded by an unusual mix of winding corrugated iron staircases leading to other levels, concrete, rubble and, in the corner, a bar and the neon entrance to a cabaret show happening in one of the complex’s many rooms. Only an umbrella protects us from the pounding sun and sweltering heat. “When everything shuts down, some people shut themselves down. We kept finding ways to fill that time, and I think you’re about to hear the growth we made on this new album.”

It’s to Code Orange’s immense credit that, rather than wither away and feel sorry for themselves, they’ve remained in the public eye via a series of livestreams,
a remix album, new material and other miscellaneous projects.

“Challenges and challenging times reveal people’s true character”, Jami says, warming up. “There are times when things don’t feel good, and how you react to that reveals how you feel inside. There are always doors and opportunities for you to quit, but are you a quitter or not? Sure, we missed a few boats last time out, but I have to believe that if you are willing to push yourself to the bone, you’ll get the next one.”

Jami Morgan is full of quotes like this. Full of quotes that, when written down, look like inspirational slogans from sports brands and could make him appear cocky. Actually, he’s a warm, articulate and thoughtful man... just one who’s hugely driven and full of unshakable belief in a band that has consumed his adult life.

He and Reba are unquestionably the most recognisable members of Code Orange, and make for an interesting partnership. Jami, a shock of peroxide hair atop his hulking frame, is as loud as he is tall, and we could hear him chattering about his excitement for this evening’s show before he reached us on the roof. Reba is slight, measured and quiet, but equally friendly, only ever interrupting Jami when his musings start to run out of steam. Whereas Jami is full of kinetic energy, endlessly fidgeting in his seat, Reba is calmness personified. The only obvious thing they have in common is their intensity and unflinching commitment to Code Orange.

The pair met at Pittsburgh performing arts high school CAPA and formed the band in 2008, originally as Code Orange Kids, when they were 14 years old. So young were they that, when asked about a life prior to this, they look puzzled about the idea there was even a time when their band didn’t exist.

“My first band was when I was 11”, shrugs Jami. “I was playing with adults, and then a few years later I was in this band. I am the sort of person where I believe I need to follow my path, and my path is this band. I think about it every day, that’s my soul. So, do I remember a world before music? No, not really.”

Reba recalls more about a pre-Code Orange world, but still credits their formation as giving her a real pathway in her life. “There was music that we liked before this”, she says. “But really, it was just about finding a way to get this thing out of both of us. We were both super-energetic kids who were really motivated and active. We had a lot going on up here [she taps her temple with her finger], school didn’t really activate or inspire us. I think that’s why Jami and I found each other. It wasn’t about what the bands were, or the music, it was just about us finding things to help us create and discover more about the world. I was very shy and introverted before I joined the band – it’s been the only way I could ever truly express myself.”

One thing we do glean from Jami, regarding his early years, is how discovering hardcore solidified a set of values in him that had been instilled by his upbringing.

I feel like we have this special recipe, and if people just taste it they would love it”, he nods. “But it isn’t coming from a place where we think we’re owed anything or we’re special. I don’t feel like I am more special than, say, my dad, who gets up first thing in the morning every day and goes to work. We put in the work in this band. You’re not entitled to magazine covers or record sales when you choose to make this music – you have to do the best work you can. I learned that from growing up, I learned it from hardcore too.”

It’s obvious Code Orange have been working mighty hard on fifth album The Above. It’s an extension of everything that was great about Underneath, but with more instantaneous hooks. It’s more palatable, it’s more... rock. That might sound like an insult, but it isn’t – The Above slays, but might also appeal to those who were previously turned off by the complexities of Code Orange’s music.

Some of the choices will confuse those expecting pure, manic hardocre. Opening song Never Far Apart is half heavy industrial banger and half smooth, orchestra-led, melancholic ballad, while Mirror has more in common with the trip hop of Sneaker Pimps than it does with Hatebreed, and Circle Through could have come from a mid-90s Smashing Pumpkins album. It’s another brave jump into the unknown by a band who still seem repulsed by the idea of standing still.

“The new album has all the things that I think people seem to like. It’s got a bit more of that alt rock vibe”, explains Jami. “So I feel like that should maybe make it click. I just know that, in life, you have to keep rolling the dice.”

Speaking of The Smashing Pumpkins, frontman Billy Corgan guests on recent Code Orange single Take Shape. Jami says Billy is “a great guy... once you get him warmed up”, adding that he resonates with him as a man with something of a reputation.

Rightly or wrongly, Billy Corgan has ruled the Pumpkins with an iron fist over the years, firing and hiring members in a cut-throat manner with shocking regularity, allegedly being something of a taskmaster in his pursuit for musical perfection and, famously, belittling many of his musical peers, from Soundgarden to Pavement. Go back to old Code Orange interviews and social posts, and you can read Jami’s barbs about everything from not wanting to tour with “bargain bin deathcore bands” to slamming Asking Alexandria’s “fake rock star mentality”. Today he seems far more focused on himself and his band, although the edge is still there. At one point, he infers that Code Orange are only playing Outbreak to show everyone who questioned them that they’re on another level to the other hardcore bands on the bill.

The band have long had an ‘us against the world’ attitude. When we ask about Code Orange’s jump from Roadrunner Records to newly formed label Blue Grape Music, Jami’s quick to say it was due to the people who signed them for Roadrunner having set the label up, and that “there’s only a few people in this industry that we trust”.

Do you think you’ve been misrepresented then, Jami?

“No, I don’t think we’ve been misrepresented, I just think that I have stuff that I have to learn from”, he shrugs, referring to his previous proclamations. “I’ve maybe been
a little jarring in the past, sure. But you know me, you know what I’m like to hang out with, our fans know how much love we show them. I spend six hours chatting to some of these kids on our Discord. Every show, I’ll go and talk to every kid... I will again tonight as well.”

Reba almost instinctively jumps in: “We have a lot going on, a lot of strong personalities”, she says, “but the music is meant to showcase that. Talking is not really my means of expressing myself – music is. I hope people can tell that. It expresses your soul... that’s the point of it.”

And with that, the pair retreat to prepare for their set as subheadliners for Death Grips. As Code Orange come onstage, images from Martin Scorsese’s violent cult classic Taxi Driver appear onscreen, soundtracked by Shania Twain’s pop banger I’m Gonna Getcha Good! – the type of outside-the-box beginning a performance this manic deserves. The band make everyone else look like local support acts, their huge stage production – featuring everything from electric-blue lasers and dazzling, sensory- overload video sequences to the quantity of dry ice you’d see at a Celine Dion concert – making them seem the most professional band on the bill. But, as Jami and bassist Joe Goldman prove by ploughing into stagedivers during songs as painfully brutal as Spy, Swallowing The Rabbit Whole and June’s single Grooming My Replacement, they’re still savagely untamed. It’s painfully clear they’re ready to step up to bigger stages.

After the show, true to his word, Jami can be found with fans, chatting and posing for photos. He grins as he sees us approach.

“That was the best show we’ve ever done!” he smiles. Worth the wait, then?
“Oh, you know me”, he chuckles. “I’m happy to play the long game...”

Originally published in Metal Hammer #379

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.