Enter Code Orange's Twisted and Hellish Abyss

Enter Code Orange's Twisted and Hellish Abyss

The day before Pittsburgh hardcore titans Code Orange unleashed their claustrophobic short film What Is Really Underneath?, they posted a screenshot to order a free t-shirt. The only problem was it required a password. For the first time in many years, I dug down the rabbit hole with countless other fans on the messaging and community-building platform Discord to try to crack the code. After nearly two hours, I was one shirt richer and a bit closer to the growing network of fans invested in the band's ever-changing multi-sensory landscape.

For 15 years, Code Orange has shape-shifted throughout time and space, going through a controversial name change, honing into other parts of their sound and transitioning into adulthood amidst the chaos of heavy music. Since their 2014 sophomore record I Am King, the band began planting seeds for what would eventually become a rich, deeply interconnected network of characters, references and more that go from macro to micro.

On March 13, 2020, the same day that former President Donald Trump announced that the world would go into lockdown, Code Orange intended to celebrate their record release for Underneath. Not one to let anything stop them and armed with the resourcefulness learned from being a group of teenagers in a metal band, they were perhaps the pioneers of live-streamed pandemic concerts, a lucrative avenue for musicians who were anxiously awaiting for tours to begin. Vocalist and drummer Jami Morgan ripped through the band's set streamed live on Twitch from an empty venue, screaming for people to get up. Pandemic be damned, Code Orange wasn't going to let their work go unnoticed.

It worked. And as the world opened back up, so did even more opportunities. The band was even set to hit the road with Slipknot, but bowed out in light of heightened COVID protocols set in place early on in the return to live music. Nonetheless, the band has kept itself busy by maximizing Underneath to its full potential, from DVDs to live streams, alternate reality games to cryptic videos. There's even a dedicated network of fans online who piece together the breadcrumbs scattered throughout their discography, building out Code Orange's twisted Wonderland piece by piece.

Today, the band releases Underneath's companion album, What Is Really Underneath?, which grabs onto threads of the source material and forms a new body of work. Hooks change and seconds-long melodies turn into full sections. Each song turns into millions of tiny parts, ready to be put together and expanded through the vehicle of Code Orange, which exists as a living and breathing entity as much as it is a regular band. It is accompanied by the short film of the same name, which shows one of the band's characters, Mudman, journeying to his maker in hopes to be cleansed of sin.

Below, read on for a conversation with Jami Morgan about the creation of What Is Really Underneath? and the ever-changing beast that is Code Orange.

At first glance, this looks like a remix album but it's more of a companion to Underneath. How would you explain it?

Yeah, it's a remix album for all intents and purposes. I guess the way I imagined it, when we were coming up with the concept was like, what if we were basically making a soundtrack to the album? So there's some imagination involved there. We wanted to build out other elements of the sonic world that we were only really able to touch on in the album because, when we're making an album, the priority to us is always that we want the songs to be entertaining. When we're writing, we're going down different rabbit holes of sound and creativity but we want the songs to contain what makes it fun to listen to the kind of music that we play, whatever corner that is. So this was a way to explore more elements of that world that we were building at the time of writing. There's straight remixes on here, some I kind of see as reimagining a hook, and some we recorded a new hook for. There's even character themes like what you would hear on a soundtrack. The character on the cover of Underneath, we call The Cutter. It's kind of this monster or a gross, parasitic ego that has been growing throughout the music videos that have accompanied the last couple albums. He's encased in this glass exoskeleton that we always call "the shell." I like to view it as a mixture of a remix album, a soundtrack and a score. That's why I've viewed it as a companion piece to the initial album as opposed to just a straight remix. And plus, it doesn't really include anyone else besides Shane and I — we made the whole project.

How did that expansion process work? Did you immediately know during the recording sessions that you wanted to hold off until later to build out an idea you touched on, or did you revisit the album with the intention of remixing it?

Yeah, a little bit of both. When we imagined these records initially — and this is actually something that I'm trying to work with our next record — I see the world around the record as a lot bigger than how it would come off to anyone listening, mainly because of the scope of what we're able to deliver. Even if you see our live set over the past many years, every little bit in between everything is stuff that we've put together to go along with these albums. And then they in themselves are like companion pieces, like loops and transitions. That's something that really matters to me almost as much as anything. The visuals inform a lot of what we do on an album, and on this album, we had about 50 minutes to keep people entertained and didn't necessarily want to always take them on sonic dirge. That's why it's such a jam-packed and dense album because it's really meant to take place in this claustrophobic techno hell. Things are happening all the time! There are lots of headphone bits that you can find after two, five or ten listens that they're not going to hear initially. It's just taking those little bits and examining them further and being able to put them all under a microscope. When we wrote it, you know, many of the ideas were incepted while we were writing the album. Some things are new or they're ideas that me or Shade think of. It's like painting the world around the album and the album is really just the core. In my head, there's scenery and characters there, and that's not always stuff that I feel is that interesting to people when they're first digesting something. So I thought, what better place to drop a project like this in our current career? We had an all-electronic project with our last record, Forever. That was a tape that we had sold exclusively on the road and it never officially came out. It was kind of meant to be this cool "if you're there, you're there" kind of thing. And so I thought that we really need to take that idea, expand on it, and really deliver it as a project that people can go back to.

It's incredible how you've really built this lore around the band, and I'd assume you had the idea going into it that you'd want to create something larger but didn't know what it would be until the ideas came to you.

It's a little bit of both! There is a long-term continuity that we have been building since I Am King that came out in 2014. You can see that in an obvious way in terms of the layouts and the art direction and how it's all stayed down a certain line. But musically, like on Forever, there are melodies from I Am King, there's lyrics, there's things built into the videos that are built off of other videos. And then with Underneath, that's even taken a step further where. And as you exactly pointed out, it's not like everything is meticulously plotted out. We follow the ebbs and flows. But Underneath starts with the melody that Forever ends with, and Forever, I believe on the second track, has one of the melodies from the end of I Am King. We try to build ideas and motifs and we've only kind of been going further and further down that path. I wanted to put a little more of a microscope on some of that because I think that it's not necessarily noticed by most people who listen to our music, which I totally get. They don't owe us that in any way, shape or form. But I just wanted to show people that the layers are there if you want to peel it back. Some of those layers are things that were done during the process. Some of them are things that came after. All the live stream stuff we did after Underneath was part of that. There's some element of lore and continuity to what's going on. I find it cool to give fans secret things, like our EP called The Hurt Will Go On. We did this alternate reality game and we send people USB sticks with that EP before it came out along with a bunch of alternative stuff that doesn't really surface either. So I just thought that this time, we need to make something official that people can actually grasp onto and point to, and then let some of the breadcrumbs be on our YouTube channel. We're kind of working on retooling that now under this Mud TV concept, which we started around Under The Skin, which has Riki Rachtman hosting this weird found footage Headbangers Ball thing but stuck in some strange nightmare. I'm trying to connect some of the things together a little more for our fans and put it in front of people's eyes if possible.

What has it been like to work with both more temporary work such as the tour-only remix record and more permanent projects such as this companion album?

I just believe in everything in the long term. My idea in my head has always been that and I'm gonna plant all these seeds everywhere. We just did the theme song for the WWE wrestler Bray Wyatt and in those lyrics, there are all kinds of connections to this project. We plant seeds believing that if at some point, we were to become more popular, that all those seeds will come to ground and our fans will find all of it. When we changed our name, we took a lot of flack. It's because I wanted to start the foundation for a new project! I knew that we were committing to that idea. And while that idea ebbs and flows, you can look at all our stuff and you can see that we have committed to that idea for the better part of 10 years. If we're able to achieve more levels of popularity in the future, then I think all that stuff will be really fun for people to dig up and find. I fucking buy DVDs just to watch the behind-the-scenes stuff or watch the bonus features! There's the mainline stuff, which is the albums and the videos. and even that stuff I find to be misconstrued. A lot of it is that I feel like people don't really connect those dots in details, which I probably wouldn't if it was something that I was not really interested in either. But for our fans, it is there and it'll continue to be there.

For what it's worth, I remember hearing the new theme, "Shatter," that you made for Bray Wyatt and could tell you were working with fragments of earlier work.

I appreciate that a lot! That's just like, that's such a big part of what I love about this. There's two sides to the band: this animalistic live thing that's like the band performing, and then all this other stuff. There's so many connections and things that we've tried to insert. Even with the layouts of the records, you see The Cutter in Forever in a mask because his face is burned in the fires of what that record was. That kind of led to Underneath. And he's the scarred and burned thing on I Am King because it's the same person from the cover of that record. At the end of the day, no one really gives a fuck about that. It's something I enjoy. It's part of why I still do this, to be honest.

You have really maximized your time with these records, opting to flesh everything out and provide enough experiences to tour, live stream if you can't perform, make films and now this companion record. Why is that?

It just comes down to me being an obsessive person. This record, just like the one before it, is the foundation for what we are going to do next. I'm very aware that it's very, very different and it's a very different vision. And to me, I want to explore every corner of this previous vision, because I know that I'm never going to get to do that ever again. In terms of giving us that place to be creative, COVID was cool. But it was also really hard to get the record some legs, regardless of the fact that we did three of the coolest live stream specials you can do on a genuine shoestring budget. We weren't able to get it done the way we wanted. This is kind of the last piece of that. There are things on this that are seeds for what we're going to do next.

As you said, a lot of what you do is on a very limited budget even though you have more resources now, and it speaks to your roots as a band that began when you were all teenagers. From what I understand, Shade taught himself animation for this project.

Yeah, he made this whole film! It started out as an idea we had around the time of Underneath. And even before it and because of how the way things went, we cannibalized the initial version, which is literally like the N64 version compared to what we'd call the PS3 version of it. We cannibalized that for the live visuals that you saw, especially in the first live stream because we had to and it was important. It kind of inspired him to continue to get better and the better he got, we started to form the narrative around this film. This particular film is kind of like a splintered tail that's kind of built around the ethos of the album and the ideas behind it. He wanted to put out his most up-to-date visual style, and we had this story and we thought, wouldn't it be cool to score it to our own music? When he says he made this in four months or five months, that's gonna be this version. But I mean, there's been three versions before so it's really been like years in the making for him and I'm really proud of him. He's really talented and doing something like this totally by yourself is really hard. He has that that kind of talent. I'm just in awe of it. I can't do anything like that. I can use my mind and I can write, but I can't fucking make these ideas come to life the way he can.

Was it you who came up with the Mudman and his arc?

I came up with the concept, but we worked together. The concept is pretty simple. Essentially, the Mudman journeys in search of forgiveness from his maker and hopes to be reborn to get another chance. He's kind of going through this Dante's Inferno-esque hell that we call "Underneath," or "The Cold Metal Place." And he's going through visions of things that he's done or hasn't done and he's having to cope with that, relive memories or relive nightmares, until he eventually does get to where he's going. So it's pretty simple, but I'm just proud that Shade is able to really have a piece of work out there that's solid and that shows really how great he really is.

It's funny that earlier you said you wanted to create a "claustrophobic techno hell," because that is almost word for word what I wrote when I saw the scene when the character reached the second or third level with all of them dancing.

My favorite part was the dancing! It''s scary, but it's almost kind of funny and fun. I think that the film is obviously very avant-garde. There's no dialogue and the music is kind of speaking. We always try to keep this kind of stuff as entertaining as possible. The one thing that I personally dislike about a lot of bands that go on these long dirges into their intestines of art is that it can be really fucking boring. For me, we got a Cold Metal Place club scene! We ain't getting through this thing without that. So when he showed me, I was like, this is the coolest thing ever. It's kind of funny and wakes you up! For our records every now and again, we use what I call the "digital blackout," or the dead cut on the last record where all the noise just stops. It's a wake-up. This film will hopefully wake you up a little bit and keep you interested.

It's really appreciated when you say you want to keep it entertaining and interesting, because a big reason why I am put off by bands who have such intense back stories and lore is it can feel like a chore or like you're doing homework.

Exactly. And not only that, you can take it or you can leave it. If you want to dig into that kind of stuff, great. There's even people in my band who don't want to dig into that kind of stuff at all. I completely respect and get that. I don't think that means it doesn't need to be there. The main thing we talked about for our next project is that it needs to be accessible to people that have no clue who we are at all, but just want to hear awesome songs. It's a tightrope. For instance, I have notebooks of this shit! I have a fucking full book of just hundreds of print-out pictures. I try not to make it feel like something you need to get on the ride. It's not the ticket. You can think it's stupid, you can think it's cool, you can think it's whatever you want it to be, but there's layers there if you want them.

It's very rewarding for the people who do seek it out, and it makes the music last even longer. There will always be another mystery to uncover.

I appreciate that. But if it isn't, whatever. I do this stuff because I enjoy it. This is what I like. Especially when I was younger, it can feel so personal and hurtful because, whether it's criticism or whatever, this is me in a lot of ways, for better and for worse. Every negative lyric I've ever said on any record is — I'm probably talking to someone else — but I'm probably talking to myself. I'm trying to jam every bit of creativity that I have and that the guys have to their different extents into this one thing, and somehow make it work and make it not feel like a fucking jukebox.

So what examples and inspiration did you go off of to help you?

So many bands. Movies is where I get the majority of my ideas. Nine Inch Nails is my favorite band of all time and we people can see that very obviously. I just love the world-building element, but I walk that same tightrope that they walk where there's great songs there and a killer live show there. But there is that world-building and it's never taken to the brink of what I would view as a super fan as annoying. Other people might see it as annoying, but I don't and I'm a super fan. I'm very, very committed to that through line. Like I said, that is the primary reason that we changed. As you can see in our EPs and stuff going up to our first record, which I consider almost like the prequel record, it's like the prerequisite. All the things that go into this band kind of fall into the dark arts, as I would call it.

My first introduction to an ARG was Nine Inch Nails! I remember they even had a mobile game and hidden USB drives for the rollout of Year Zero.

It's the greatest shit of all time! I also used to play the movie ones, whether it was The Dark Knight or Cloverfield. That's all been very inspirational to us. I think that for the next thing we do, we'll take that to a whole new place. We're always trying to build off our own backs and build off the backs of all the things that we love. I don't feel like there's really a band that fills that hole. In a lot of ways, that's what I hope that we can be and that's what I believe we are.

I feel like you and Death Grips are one of the few bands really taking these ARGs seriously right now and it's super refreshing. I remember it got to a point where fans began making up their own theories in the silence, oftentimes tricking each other in the process.
Death Grips are unbelievable. We're gonna play with them in the UK and a big reason we wanted to play Outbreak Fest is because they were playing. We're playing the same day, back to back. As for the ARG, I pray that our fans will do things like that! I love that stuff.

What has the community you build been like?

We have a discord if anybody wants to check it out, Thinners of the Herd, and I've gone in there before and done six-hour voice chats with the kids. I'm not saying that to pat myself on the back. I'm truly saying that because I love fans that are engaged on that level. There's nothing better in the world to me. Something I realized between Forever and Underneath was, I think something about the way that I'm presenting this is making our own fans like think we don't like them or something. I think that I was just very aggressive. I'm cool with that! That's a big part of my personality and the record. That's what I felt needed to come first. I felt like there was nobody in the ballpark that was willing to be that. I never wanted to take it to a level of going to an antagonistic place but in terms of music, I wanted to antagonize and poke the stick a little bit to try to shake the swarm of bees. That's something I love about a lot of rock bands like Oasis and Nirvana and Pantera. What do these bands all have in common? They're antagonists. There's some danger to it. And that's something that I love. But one thing I didn't love was — we needed to call our fans together and put them in a group because I love our fans! And if you go on that Discord and ask any kid, they'll tell you I'm there. I love talking to those kids, man. I think that's super important. Anything we can do in the future to continue to build on that I want to do because that's something I just really, really enjoy. It's not a curse.

Below, watch the band's short film, What Is Really Underneath? and keep scrolling to listen to their latest album of the same name.

Photo courtesy of Tim Saccenti