Code Orange: “The Above comes from a more personal, emotional point of view… it completes the journey we started on I Am King”

Three-and-a-half years after dropping stunning third album Underneath into the claustrophobic void of lockdown, Code Orange are primed to unleash its successor The Above into the great wide open. Frontman Jami Morgan and guitarist Reba Meyers explain that, more than simple “sister record”, this is a defining statement from the indomitable Pittsburgh brutalists…

Code Orange: “The Above comes from a more personal, emotional point of view… it completes the journey we started on I Am King”
Sam Law
Tim Saccenti

Even more than normal, there is a nervous energy crackling between Jami Morgan and Reba Meyers. Fidgeting on the roof of Manchester’s massive Depot Mayfield, Code Orange’s frontman and guitarist might be hours from their long-overdue first UK show in support of incredible third record Underneath – K!’s Album Of The Year 2020 – in front of a raucous Outbreak Fest faithful, but their focus is already trained on the road ahead. Timescales are driven home, not just for the release of new music, but for when we can talk about it. Complex creative agendas are unpacked. Far more than a companion piece to their previous album, they stress, The Above is both defining statement and a conclusive chapter for their journey under the ‘Code Orange’ banner thus far.

And what a body of work it is. While the band are at pains that we don’t unwrap too many of the surprises to come, it is safe to say that the cross-pollination of their trademark industrialised hardcore with the strains of alt. rock so obvious on epic lead single Take Shape (featuring Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan) feels like a watershed moment. A bold, bruising statement, it feels like a make-or-break shot at greatness. And Code Orange don’t seem to know how to miss…

Is it an oversimplification to say that The Above is a counterpoint or continuation to Underneath?
Jami Morgan (vocals):
“It’s definitely a brother or sister record to Underneath, with a lot of shared themes. But this comes from a more personal and emotional point of view, with a lot of sonic differences – both by design and via the feelings we wanted to convey. Underneath felt very digital, technological, claustrophobic. This album is more open and natural. There are still tinges of the digital in there – like a sci-fi through-line – but The Above is more human, in how we made it, what its about, and the whole aesthetic. It completes a journey that we started with I Am King.”

What was driving that new, more personal, emotional purpose?
Reba Meyers (guitar):
“We’ve always been this way, and had this in us. It’s more that now we’re willing to get everything out there. During the whole pandemic period, we were able to dig into ourselves more and more: figuring out what we wanted to write, how we wanted to feel. Touring kinda stunts you in a way. You’re stuck out there living the same thing every day, not growing your relationships, not growing as normal people do. Being at home writing helped us figure out that this is who we are and this is what we want to do. The older we get, the more we’re not afraid of anything.”

Jami: “There are a lot of things drawn from the pandemic experience and everyday life, but, ultimately, it stems from the same thing that all our records do. There is a continuity between this and our other three albums [2012’s Love Is Love/Return To Dust excluded as a ‘Code Orange Kids’ release]. It has a lot in common with I Am King, particularly, in that both records are about self-worth, self-confidence, self-assurance. I Am King is about forcing yourself to feel that. This record is the other side of the coin: accepting whatever 'yourself' is, regardless of where it leads you. There’s a lot of synergy, but, in the end, it’s all about the journey of self.”

Song titles like The Mask Of Sanity Slips and A Drone Flying Out Of The Hive feel particularly narratively driven. Is this a concept album?
“It definitely has a narrative in the same way that my life has a narrative. And it’s definitely conceptual in that there is that conceptual through-line. But it’s very important to me to walk a tightrope where we’re not playing in fantasy land. It’s not some wizards and warlocks shit. Every line needs to mean something to me personally. I love films and TV shows and art. I like building out those conceptual layers in my notebooks and in my head, and there are probably more of those here than ever before. But you don't need to have access to them to be able to connect. I don’t want that kind of barrier to entry. If you’ve enjoyed our records on a deep level, there’s a lot of payoff here. You’ll find things in the art and the videos. You’ll hear them in the recurring motifs. And if you haven’t enjoyed our records before? You’re getting access to kind of a new band…”

Compared to the machine imagery and sounds over the last couple of albums, was there an active effort here to have these songs feel somewhat more organic?
“I think of the records like sci-fi movies. Where Underneath had that very underground, digital aesthetic, this one is based much more in reality. I think of films like Vanilla Sky or The Truman Show: stuff that’s kind of about what beauty really is. But then there’s also the buggy side [with flies crawling all over the artwork]: that violence that we always deliver; the parasitic hate and drive that we always feel. It’s about these two aesthetics colliding – sonically and visually.”

Reba: “For some of us it was intentional, but for some of us it was just a natural thing. It felt like this album needed to be a release of all that anxious pressure. We came into it just fuckin’ going for it as we usually do, then finding the goal to try and make it feel more natural and alive. As we were writing it, we found ourselves pushing into each of our individual strengths. You can hear that on the record. Part of the reason it sounds more fully ‘across the spectrum’ – with more surprises and more contrasts – was that each person could be themselves more so. It always comes from inside of us. We just have to find the ways to get it out.”

You dropped Grooming My Replacement and The Game at the start of June. They feel like the most conventionally heavy songs on the record. Was that an active attempt to wrong-foot fans?
“They’re not really singles. They’re the trick singles: definitely the most conventional songs on the album – not necessarily in terms of Code Orange, but in terms of heavy music in general. We wanted to kind of put out something a little more red meat: the underbelly of what we’re going to deliver. This next phase is more about us revealing the plan, which will come with our main song [Take Shape] and the video. Then we’re going to run with it – hard.”

Indeed, Take Shape feels far more representative of the big picture. Was spending time in the studio with Billy Corgan a major influence on the broader alt. flavour of things?
“It was amazing to work with him. His band is very inspirational to our band, but [that alt. feel] came together on its own. I guess that may be why somebody paired us. They were hearing that synergy. I wouldn’t say – and I don’t think that he would say, either – that he implemented that into our music in any way. But he did teach us a lot of cool stuff, in finding cool new directions for our songwriting and helping colour the parts that we’d already built.”

How exactly did you get paired?
“It was just mutual friends putting us together. But it was also about him hearing some of the stuff we were doing, being interested by it, and hearing something in it that made him want to help and support us. That just led to us being together in a room.”

He doesn’t come from the same metallic hardcore world as you guys, but he is a similarly uncompromising creative force. Did you gel easily, or was it about friction creating sparks?
“There was no friction!”

Reba: “We gelled pretty well. He has a very free, personal way of thinking about songs. He would be able to hear the way that we write, tell us when what we were doing was right, and how we should embrace that. Plus, he just has that amazing ear for melody. He helped us embrace that side of our sound, which can be difficult for us sometimes because we’ve just got so much going on. It was good to find a balance where we could really heavy it up one moment, then have the melody truly shine the next, rather than having everything constantly fighting for the spotlight.”

How do you think that Code Orange fans will receive that new blend of beauty and brutality?
“I truly couldn’t care less. That’s the beauty of it, which lends itself to the idea of the record. This is a release of the pressure. I would love for people to be able to connect with this album in the way that I connect with it. It makes me psyched; it makes me proud; it feels great. But we’ve also been working on it for three years and, in a way, I’m almost past that [worry]. When you’re in the middle of making a record like this, you’re not really sure what it means. But being out the other side, closing it up, I feel so confident in that period of my life being represented in this way. I feel so good about it, that no matter what anyone could say, it wouldn’t affect me.”

Jami: “I’m not past it at all. I’m very ready to embark on it and bring it to the stage and give it its full realisation in the way that we weren’t able to for Underneath. But at the same time I agree with Reba that I’m not going to allow myself to be controlled by other people’s opinions. It’s a departure. It’s challenging. It has hip-hop, alternative, trip-hop, ’gazey stuff, hard rock, breakdowns. There are a lot of cool hardcore parts in there, but there’s also a lot of melody, a lot of melodic songs that are hard in the way that rock music should be hard. Generally speaking, we’ve never fit in with any group of people for more than a short period of time. We come from the hardcore scene, and that’ll always be the spirit of our band, but we didn’t really fit into that on our first record before we’d met those people. We’ve always done it the same way, just with different balances. We always build upon what we’ve already done. And we don’t build backwards.”

Given the stifled unveiling of Underneath, does this feel like two records’ worth of release?
“We’ve had enough time to write the last album, then to move past it and get onto this one. In many ways I see The Above as a culmination. I see this as the crest of something. I don’t know what’s on the other side of that, but for certain I know that there is another side. And I can’t say that I felt that way about the last album. On Underneath, I was looking for an ending, and it almost ends on a lyrical and musical cliffhanger. It chops off. That record’s closing title-track is saying, ‘Are you ready for this?’ This one ends off with a question, too, but there is a finality to it. It’s either a book closer or the beginning of a different journey. That’s what we intended from the start.”

The Above is released September 29 via Blue Grape Music

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