Two weeks before the Grammys, Code Orange drummer-vocalist Jami Morgan is admiring the outfit he’ll be wearing on the red carpet: a bespoke black fur coat. He never thought he’d possess something like this, let alone sport it during such a high-stakes occasion.
“After we announced the nomination, I got a message on Twitter,” recounts Morgan in his band’s three-bedroom home in Pittsburgh, less than a mile away from where the members grew up together. He pulls up a photo of the coat on his phone. “This lady Bonnie Resinski, she’s a costume designer. She offered to make me whatever I wanted to wear at the Grammys. I just hope nobody throws a can of red paint at me.”
The thunderous title track from Code Orange’s major-label debut, Forever – an album that masterfully blends aggro hardcore, brooding alt-rock and sleek industrial textures – had been nominated for Best Metal Performance. As the genre’s rookies of the year, Code Orange would compete against a plethora of veterans, such as Southern prog-metal outfit Mastodon, Ice-T–fronted Body Count and Swedish heavy hitters Meshuggah (who invited Code Orange to open their recent West Coast tour). The Grammy nod was unusual for a category long monopolized by grizzled legends like Metallica and Slayer. In another plot twist, Code Orange guitarist-vocalist Reba Meyers would become the third woman ever nominated in the metal category, offering a tiny jolt of morale after an otherwise disheartening year for women in music.
“With much respect to the other bands,” Morgan says, “we have to go in there like we’ve already won.”
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Morgan’s bravado can seem like little more than hot air. Yet the 24-year-old’s deep-seated ambition, coupled with his uncanny ability to harness the law of attraction, often gets the goods. The Grammy nomination was just the latest of major strides for the band: They signed to major label Roadrunner Records; they’ve made it onto a billboard in Times Square; they became the first band to perform at WWE’s NXT Takeover: Brooklyn; and they’ve opened for influential bands like Gojira, Deftones and System of a Down, and even joined mathcore legends Dillinger Escape Plan in their final run of shows. In light of these developments, the words to “Forever” start to seem like a mantra: The freaks will finally have their say/There is nothing you can do to take it.
“The whole band has become about self-actualization by visualizing it,” says Morgan, leaning back into his leather recliner. “You visualize where you want to be, who you want to be, and become it. That was the impetus for our last record, I Am King. The Forever record was very much about the reaction to that new power, learning about yourself, and each other in the process. Growing into that power as a unit … and creating a legacy.”
The band formerly known as Code Orange Kids – a throwback to post-9/11 panic – started while its members attended the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School. Today, their members are Morgan on drums, Meyers and Dominic Landolina on guitars, Joe Goldman on bass, and Eric “Shade” Balderose on synths and guitar. “This is the core,” says Morgan. “This is the best lineup we’ve ever had.”
During the late 2000s, the band established a rapport with other outfits in the Rust Belt’s DIY punk and hardcore scene, even sharing a stage with local anarcho-punk heavyweights Anti-Flag. But theirs was a mold Code Orange couldn’t quite fill from the start. “Our early songs sucked,” Morgan laughs. “We dabbled in some Rock Against Bush-type shit, but that wasn’t us. I’m not gonna shoot my mouth off about anything I can’t explain.”
Some members later embarked on a fleeting venture through emo with their popular side project, Adventures. Worlds away from their work in Code Orange, that group took its cues from Nineties indie rock bands like Knapsack and Helium. “I was still learning how to play guitar and sing at the same time,” says Meyers, who is also a classically trained flutist. “Every song we wrote in Adventures sounded like a different band … but not necessarily the band we wanted to be.”
Years of experimentation and technical discipline drove the band deeper into the trenches of a fiercer sound. “Our old records were about me feeling very depressed, dealing with all these feelings,” sneers Morgan, the band’s chief lyricist. (Meyers, Code Orange’s resident grammarian, duly edits each line.) “But I didn’t feel any better; it didn’t do anything for my growth. So I decided to write songs about feeling good about myself and about the group. Then the songs just got heavier.”
While opening a Braddock, Pennsylvania, punk fest in 2011, Code Orange piqued the interest of the headlining band, metalcore architects Converge – a crucial influence on the Code Orange sound. Frontman Jacob Bannon, founder of independent label Deathwish Inc., signed Code Orange just a few months later; guitarist Kurt Ballou would become their long-time engineer and co-producer. Along with Adventures producer Will Yip, Ballou would help produce Forever. “I know I made terrible music at their age,” Ballou tells Rolling Stone. “So to see these young, proficient songwriters with such raw talent and potential was impressive to me.”
The untethered punk stylings of early Code Orange tracks like “Flowermouth (The Leech)” – from the band’s 2012 debut, Love Is Love/Return to Dust – gave way to the sludgy, lurching grooves of I Am King‘s “Dreams in Inertia.” Forever unveiled a more sculpted brutality enhanced by Balderose’s increasingly prominent electronics. The album as a whole harks back to metal’s Nineties makeover, when heritage acts like Korn, Slipknot and Marilyn Manson introduced a digitally enhanced form of heavy rock with an affection for the grotesque.
“We didn’t really see that metallic Nineties influence coming,” says Ballou. “But I think that each generation of musicians needs to find a way to set themselves apart from the generation that came before. It was important for them to forge ahead and maybe even confuse some of us older people in that pursuit.”
Whatever macho theatrics Code Orange absorbed from their predecessors is offset by Meyers’ inimitable snarl, which cuts through the melee of Morgan and Balderose’s death growls. She takes the lead on “Bleeding in the Blur,” a melodic, grungy interlude amid Forever‘s aural horror show, and wades trance-like through the gothic fugue state of album closer “dream2.”
“There always was this layer of internal pressure from being the only girl involved in the heavy music scene,” Meyers admits. “But I used hurdles like that as motivation to overcome the expectation. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but since it is, I take advantage.”
Meanwhile, in the spirit of John Carpenter and Trent Reznor, self-taught mastermind Balderose adds a chilling ambient wash to Morgan’s evocative tales of vengeance and isolation.
“I design everything with the live performance in mind,” says Balderose. “[Morgan] gives me an adjective for every song and I think … ‘OK, this is the spot where everyone can take a breath, and this is where everyone wants to jump out of their skin.'”
The band convenes at Mad Mex, a Southwestern joint in Pittsburgh’s snowcapped Shadyside neighborhood. The first Grammy-nominated rock band from Pittsburgh spars over the minutiae of their high school careers – beginning with their school’s contentious Battle of the Bands. “The kids had to vote for you to compete in the first place,” says Morgan. “Nobody voted for us that year, but we’re cool with those kids now. Our city’s been very supportive.”
The band has little desire to leave Pittsburgh, much less the enclave they’ve built around each other. After all, they’ve done nearly everything together for years; for some, even dating back to grade school. They compare old GPAs and bad-behavior reports, one of which they distinctly recall had Balderose banned from recess. “They called me overtly aggressive,” Balderose snickers from behind a veil of long brown hair, which he’ll dye a shocking, alien blue in time for the Grammys. “I threw dirt over a fence.”
Balderose is recouping from a massive setback. The previous week in Tampa, a backpack containing his passport, computer and other electronics – even a hard drive with backup files – went missing after their one-off show at FYA Fest. This meant the loss of original materials dating back to I Am King, which left Balderose just one week to replicate every track before the West Coast tour.
“It’s like rewriting the record for me,” says Balderose. “I have to rebuild and remix the auxiliary sounds of Forever, including voice samples and drum sounds and everything else, from memory on a new computer. The whole ordeal has almost driven me to a psychotic break, but my setup and my workflow is better than before.”
Just as Balderose begins to describe the process, Morgan interrupts and brings up an unrelated bit of band business: the color of their merch, which he designs with the help of Balderose. “Every record has a color associated with it,” explains Morgan. “Our merch is currently lime green, but the color should be hunter.” Back at his apartment, Morgan pulls out a book of Pantone swatches for reference, signed and gifted to him by Roadrunner’s retired art director, Lynda Kusnetz. He unfurls the swatches like a paper fan and points to the color. “You have to give them the name, otherwise they won’t get the right one.”
As the son of a union organizer, Morgan grew up making signs and attending marches with his dad – an experience that seems to inform his cutthroat leadership style. “We worked mostly with the janitors’ and security unions,” Morgan says. “I was out there all the fucking time, no matter what kind of weather. Now I feel some type of way when people just throw their shit around.”
“You visualize where you want to be, who you want to be, and become it.” –Jami Morgan
In spite of their label’s in-house resources, the band finds it hard to relinquish the doggedly indie approach that sustained them for years. “All our favorite bands are on Roadrunner,” says Morgan. “But I had meetings with every department and told them we already did everything ourselves.”
“People who like our band, and know our band, know that [signing to] Roadrunner was a good move for us,” adds Meyers. “The label has been super helpful, but they understand that we gotta do things our way. For 10 years we wrote our own shit, designed our own shit and promoted it. We’re not doing this stuff from inside an office – we see how people engage with our stuff on the road, in real time. This job is really a bunch of different jobs.”
Prior to their feverish year of big promos and tours, the band members made rent money through construction work, delivery and some other odd jobs. Landolina, who joined the band full-time upon Forever‘s release, just worked his final shift at the pizza shop last month. “I can get used to this,” he laughs. He pops in a VHS of Type O Negative’s After Dark video – a tongue-in-cheek look at life on the road. The group has watched it so many times that the goth band’s toilet humor hardly elicits a response. “Sure, we can fuck off sometimes,” says Morgan over the shrill sounds of an organ. “But we work hard. We’re showing Dom the ropes now too.”
Morgan relishes commitment, repetition and most of all control – which is why he and Goldman took up jiu jitsu three years ago. (Balderose did too, until his arm popped out of its socket a few months in.) When they’re not on tour, the guys attend class in a small gym across town, up to six times a week. “I’d be fucked up without the structure to be honest,” says Morgan. In addition to working out most days, he and Goldman (as well as Meyers) have adopted a substance-free lifestyle, which they say helps build the stamina for months of touring.
“Being straightedge is not our gimmick,” says Goldman. Onstage, the bassist adopts an impenitent, neck-vein-bursting Mr. Hyde persona, a foil to the even-keeled Dr. Jekyll he plays in the daylight. He drives serenely around the band’s childhood neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, his signature red beard stark against the snow banks. “Our music’s not about straightedge,” he says. “It’s not something we want to sell people. It’s a personal choice.”
In lieu of drugs and alcohol, the guys partake in other vices: Morgan stops by a café to indulge his inner coffee snob. Meanwhile, Goldman and I rifle through assorted sweets at the supermarket across the lot. “I’ve been straightedge my whole life,” explains Morgan on the drive home. “I never even tried anything, but I know I have an addictive personality. I just worry about acting like an idiot, losing control of myself and my life.”
“Not to be rude,” interjects Goldman, “but if one of you doesn’t open this bag of cookies right now, I’m going to lose my shit.”
The morning of the Grammys begins more like Night of the Living Dead, as the band recovers from a red-eye flight between LAX and NYC. All too aware of the scarcity of a Grammy invite, the band dipped out of their tour with Meshuggah to catch the ceremony. They are greeted by a crack team of hairdressers and stylists in a Manhattan hotel, but it isn’t until later that the results of the session really sink in. “We put on our clothes,” recalls Balderose after the ceremony, “we saw each other, and that’s just when we realized how insane we looked.”
On the red carpet, Code Orange nabbed media attention with looks fit for an elaborate heist film: Landolina in a ski mask and Type O Negative shirt; Morgan in his custom fur coat; Meyers’ comic-book–heroine locks; Goldman in a Kanye-approved Alyx vest; and Balderose in a blue trench coat and Doc Martens to match his hair. (He even got a nod from emo-rap prince Lil Uzi Vert.) But in a climate where this year’s pre-Grammys schedule included a counter-terrorism briefing, the band met the gaze of a hypervigilant security force.
“We came to steal that gold,” Morgan laughs on the phone the following Thursday. “Which is why they double-searched us.”
Code Orange didn’t walk away with the gold for Best Metal Performance that day – instead, the honor would go to Mastodon. But the band was determined to ride out the televised part of the ceremony as a learning experience: marveling over the radical theater of Kendrick Lamar, and fighting sleep during most everything else, with Landolina quietly stewing in his ski mask throughout the night.
“We were really just there to make a statement and call attention to what we do,” says Meyers. “Typically that world overlooks real heavy music completely. Even though we didn’t win, we were able to get noticed.”
On the red carpet, Meyers was routinely prompted to explain her own success as a young female musician. “Me just being at the Grammys speaks for itself,” she told Rolling Stone at the ceremony. “But I had a community that gave me opportunity in the same way as anyone. Young girls need to be supported and encouraged by their peers at a young age, and boys need to be shown a good example by their parents and role models. For me, my peers didn’t question our inherent equality and I didn’t either.”
The band is back home in Pittsburgh now – humbled, but ready to hone their focus more than ever before. On a welcome respite from tour, Morgan plans to spend the next two months home writing new songs, hopefully earning his purple belt in jiu jitsu and plotting the band’s next Grammys showdown. “I don’t want this to be our defining moment,” says Morgan. “I think it’s just our very first foray into a bit of a bigger world.”
“Why even tell the story now?” he asks. “In 10 years it’ll be a lot crazier than this. This story’s just begun.”