The lines have been drawn in hardcore. You can write heavy, fast, simple music or you can write creative, interesting, dark music — but never the two shall meet. Lean too far in one direction and watch half your fanbase head for the door. Successfully mixing heavy, aggressive mosh-heavy hardcore with layered, intricate songwriting and non-traditional sounds is more than a feat, and Pittsburgh’s Code Orange (who recently axed the word “Kids” from the end of their name, which seems like the perfect metaphor) have done just that with their new album, I Am King.
Surely to end up on most everyone’s end-of-year Top Ten lists, I Am King is quite the rollercoaster. Bludgeoning one minute, darkly intimate the next, Code Orange pulls you in and you begin to understand why they are kings of their craft. We spoke with drummer and vocalist Jami Morgan about life and hardcore, our somewhat familiar look into their world.
I Am King has had one of the more in-depth, mysterious, long marketing campaigns I’ve seen. Was that the plan from the beginning?
The record has some really strong ideas behind it, and we were thinking of how we could get that across, aside from doing the music videos. Aesthetically, we wanted to do something different, so we all got together and tried to figure out how we were going to do this thing with the website (thinnersoftheherd.com) and tie it all in — rewarding people along the way who happened to be following the whole thing. The original plan was to send everyone who signed up for our list different materials — so many people signed up we couldn’t do it without losing thousands of dollars. We wanted to do something cool that people would remember and get the idea of our record across, which is really important to us. It’s not just a hardcore record. We love hardcore, and in no way want to downplay hardcore at all, but we wanted to do something different.
Interesting you say that it’s not just a hardcore record. You guys kind of run the gamut musically — you have a lot of fans who are tough-guy hardcore kids, fans who are of the more artistic type, even metalcore fans. Do you guys see a lot of crossover of people who show up at your shows?
The deal with Code Orange is this: what we wanted to do with this record is break that down. I mean, I hear kids say “this band is a tough-guy band” or “this band is too artistic” or whatever, but we didn’t want any of that. We wanted to make the toughest music in the f-ckin’ world by the smallest people.
And we’re artists. We wanted to make the most artistic music we could. I wanted us to make music that would break down that barrier so people wouldn’t have to look down on hardcore. You don’t have to look down on bands that are doing cool, interesting stuff. We want to put perspective on the whole thing.
We love all kinds of things, and there’s no reason you can’t be all kinds of things and put out a record that’s interesting. You know?
It’s like a line I hear all the time: “These guys are f-ckin’ tough guys.” Or from those tough guys I’ll hear, “Oh those guys are weird,” or whatever. And it’s like, we’re all of those things. I love f-ckin’ mosh hardcore, I love f-ckin’ weird sh-t. There’s no reason not to do it all. So hopefully there’s a crossover of fans at our shows because that’s the only way it should be.
It’s funny because — for me coming originally from the “weird side” of things and then getting into more heavy hardcore or whatever people are calling it — I see a lot more of that criticism from the “weird” or artistic kids than I ever do from the hardcore kids. I know tons of hardcore kids who are into a ton of different things and a lot of the kids who are into the more artistic side of things get so judgemental toward hardcore. Both of those things are cool to me.
And that was a big thing we wanted to do going into this record, being clear where we stand on that line. We’re not this f-ckin’ weird band that’s going to look down on anyone. We’re just us.
Listening to your music, specifically I Am King, has been a breath of fresh air for me. It brings me back to metalcore’s heyday, from the mid-’90s to the early 2000s, a time where there weren’t a lot of barriers. Bands like Disembodied who was incredibly heavy and mosh-y but also incredibly interesting.
One hundred percent. Disembodied is one of my favorite bands. They had the hardest f-ckin slams, but they also did the weirdest sh-t. Bands like that have influenced us the most. Even though not every song sounds like that — that’s the point.
You’ve led in advance of the record with two incredibly dark music videos. From the “T.O.T.H.” acronym (“Thinners of the Herd,” a song on I Am King), to two very dark overarching themes — torture/murder and suicide. Is there a big picture to this record? Is it conceptual?
The imagery we’re using is much more just to convey the thematic idea for the record than anything. The first video (“I Am King”) is definitely gruesome, but in our minds, it wasn’t even about murder. I mean, the imagery in the video is very amped up.
We obviously don’t think anyone should do any of the things in that video in real life; it’s more the idea of “you can be whatever you want to be.” We aren’t held back by perceptions of ourselves and we should eliminate — figuratively, not literally — the people around us that hold us back. That’s what Thinners of the Herd is. There are obviously more levels to it than that, but that’s the big idea.
One thing that has always bothered me is perception, and this is critiquing these perceptions we have of ourselves. That’s what we wanted both videos to portray. At some point we’ll probably explain both videos in depth, but, in general, the idea is, What other people think? It doesn’t matter. This is us. Us doing the things we think are the right things to do. And I think that’s what everyone should do.
That second video (“Dreams in Inertia”) was quite intense.
Well, in the sense of music videos, you kind of have to be intense or over the top. If it was just a video of the four of us sitting around talking about what I just told you, no one would care. We wanted to get that vibe of the things we loved, like old Alice in Chains videos or old horror movies. It’s all about that big f-cking melting pot. There’s a little bit of f-ckin’ late ’90s hardcore, a little bit of pseudo-goth, a little bit of f-ckin’ horror sh-t.
We wanted to take our little melting pot, put it on screen, and really push the vibe of the record. Like, “This is our vibe. This is who we are,” you know? Because it is. That’s who we are.
You mentioned that this record is conveying some “strong ideas.” You got into it a little, talking about “Thinners of the Herd,” but can you elaborate a little more on some of these strong ideas?
Overall, we wrote records in the past — lyrically, I wrote them — about dealing with things mentally, inside your own head. You know, friendships, relationships with other people, stuff that most people write about. This record is about saying “f-ck that.” It’s about making the decision to be better than the things that hold you back. Not letting, like I said, perception — specifically your perception of yourself — control your output.
And we deal with all different levels of that on this record. “My World” is about how I’ll read reviews from these spectators of hardcore so far removed from the f-ckin’ planet we are on. All they are trying to do is pick one name out of a hat, get variety in their mix. And to me, the way that I see judgement passed on certain bands by people who are not even 1 percent connected to it made me a little bit cynical. So that’s what that song is about. You know, this is my world.
“I Am King” is about being the king of your own mind, the king of your own world, and the king of everything that happens to you — including what you do to others, in your own environment. As opposed to our last record, where everything was dealing with this or dealing with that, this one is about kind of putting emotions aside and finding a logical solution to things. I mean, it’s still an emotional thing, I guess.
To summarize: rather than dwelling on your current circumstances, I Am King is about rising above those circumstances and not being defined by them. At least that’s what it sounded like to me.
Totally. And realizing whatever is happening to you is happening to someone else, and it’s f-cking worse. And you can rise above it like many people have. Don’t blame other people; take ownership yourself. Get rid of the people around you who are fake and aren’t ever looking to help you. They are just working to further their own agendas. That’s what it’s about.
This is your second time recording with Kurt Ballou (guitarist for Converge) at his studio, God City. Can you talk about the choice to go with him again?
The first time we went, we just didn’t know what our sound needed to be, tones and style-wise. But we knew his arsenal and knew the way he works would be really helpful to us to get the sounds we needed. But on this record, we were like, “Kurt is going to engineer this because he’s one of the best f-ckin’ engineers in the world.” And we’re going to come in with our fully-fleshed out ideas and we’re going to know every sound we’re wanting to have.
Lastly, tell me about Harm Reduction Records.
Harm Reduction is me and my friend Pat from the band Self Defense Family. It’s an imprint of Deathwish (Code Orange’s label home). We wanted to do something a little different than what Deathwish is doing. They’ve allowed us to have a niche of really heavy, sick f-ckin’ hardcore bands but in a similar vein to what we’re doing, taking hardcore and doing something creative or different with it. And stuff that’s really influenced by ’90s Victory Records stuff.
The reason I ask is because Torn, whose 7” EP is your first release, means a lot to the readers of HM, with vocalist Joe Musten being the former vocalist of Advent.
I absolutely love Torn and absolutely always loved Advent. I’m totally not a Christian, and nor is anyone else in Code Orange, but they have always been a great an example of people who are super cool about their beliefs. They believe what they believe and I’m happy for them that they believe that. I think it’s f-cking awesome. And they make heavy as f-ck, awesome music. If they are not in the hardcore conversation because of what they believe, then that’s f-ckin’ ridiculous. Because they are insanely talented. I heard that record and immediately said that this is one of the first records that we do.
I really wanted to release a bunch of records from where I’m from, because our scene is amazing and I want it to thrive. But Torn has a really strong connection to Pittsburgh from when Advent used to play here. One of the first bands I saw. I absolutely love Torn. They are amazing.
Torn is an example of a band that’s kind of rising above their circumstances, or “thinning the herd,” as you say. Many Christians deal with that all the time, trying to separate themselves from what would hold them back, namely the Christians who are the loudest and most hypocritical.
Yeah! They believe what they believe. They aren’t hateful in their beliefs. Do what you want! That’s what it’s all about. Do what the f-ck you want. I’m not a Christian. I won’t ever be a Christian. That’s not my thing. But I don’t f-ckin’ care if other people are as long as they respect others. When it comes to Torn, that’s their f-cking thing, and that’s awesome. It’s great for their lives, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Code Orange was posted on September 13, 2014 for HM Magazine and authored by Collin Simula.