“I mean, I’ll say this: it ain’t a f—ing contest, but if it is, we were A1 first. No question,” says Jami Morgan, the vocalist of the Pittsburgh hardcore band Code Orange. “Maybe if we were bigger I wouldn’t say that, but I’m saying it now.”
Morgan is talking specifically about Code Orange’s approach to still playing live shows in a pandemic. They still get on stage and play their songs, but the audiences are at home. Using Twitch, Code Orange has been able to maintain a presence as a band in a pandemic through technology and forward thinking. At first it was livestreaming their shows, designing their own merch, things like that. Now, it’s DIY music-video production at home, using, of all things, the Xbox Kinect and PlayStation Move controllers.
Like a lot of bands, especially those that rely on touring to make their living, Code Orange found themselves in a tricky situation in 2020. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to get worse, the band had to face facts: Touring and concerts were done – at least for the time being. To make matters worse, Code Orange was in the midst of promoting their then-upcoming album, Underneath, which would go on to nab them their second Grammy nomination for “Best Metal Performance.”
In a lot of ways, Underneath was the culmination of everything Code Orange had been working towards for, well, their entire careers, which technically started all the way back in 2008 when they were still in high school under the name Code Orange Kids. The band had picked up a lot of steam with its 2014 album I Am King and broke through to more mainstream success with its 2017 follow up (and major label debut on Roadrunner Records) Forever, which got the band their first Grammy nomination and prime spots on tours with metal bands like Gojira, Slipknot, and System of a Down. Underneath was what came next, their first album since gaining widespread attention, and more significantly, their most cohesive, yet experimental album to date, drawing in elements of rock and electronic music. The first single, also titled “Underneath,” has 1.3 million views on YouTube. The second single, “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole,” has 1.9 million. To capitalize on this, Morgan says the band had some serious shows lined up for 2020.
“We were going to do Slipknot, we were going to do Coachella, we had f—ed with WWE,” he says. “We were going to do some of the craziest s— we’ve ever done.”
Of course, COVID prevented any of that from happening. It didn’t stop Code Orange, though.
While it’s certainly more common these days, a year into the pandemic, Code Orange was one of the first bands to take advantage of the situation, to pivot from touring to remote events. In March 2020, they played their Underneath record-release show. Because of COVID, no one was in the crowd. Instead, the band invited Sandeep “Sunny” Singh (who runs hate5six), a videographer and archivist known for filming and preserving hardcore sets, to livesteam the event for free on Twitch for anyone to watch. According to Pitchfork, at its peak, the set had 13,000 concurrent viewers (far more than the original venue’s 1,400 person capacity). As of this writing, the archived version on YouTube has over 300,000 views. The set uses the band’s performance in tandem with 3D animated and live-action visuals, each feeding off each other and amplifying the songs in a way that might not translate as well in person. GQ, Forbes, and even Time all covered the event.
Code Orange has since gone on to become active on Twitch, with their Under The Skin stream, an acoustic performance akin to MTV’s Unplugged, Mudbanger’s Ball, an homage to MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, hosted by the show’s Riki Rachtman, and Back Inside The Glass, an “all-immersive environmental experience,” as the band put it in a press release, among others. Through inventive ways to promote their most recent album and stay within the cultural zeitgeist, Code Orange has proven themselves as resourceful, crafty, and able to adapt to ever-changing situations.
For example, when the band wanted to make a new music video for Underneath, they obviously couldn’t do a full production the way they had in the past. The solution was to make a 3D animated music video. The product is the video for “Sulfur Surrounding,” concepted by Morgan and animated and directed by Code Orange guitarist/electronic programmer Eric “Shade” Balderose. When the band wanted to do another 3D video for the song “Autumn and Carbine,” this time with motion capture, Code Orange started to explore their options.
“Initially, I looked into getting a real deal set up – renting one or doing something like that – but the budget wasn’t there, and I didn’t think I’d be able to make the money back any time soon,” Balderose says. “So I was like, ‘Alright, well, I have an Xbox Kinect.'”
In the video game world, the Kinect is often seen as a failure for its developer, Microsoft, which invested untold amounts of money into making the motion-based peripheral while stumbling with its promotion the entire time (you can read an in-depth story I wrote about the making of the Kinect, with insight from Microsoft and first- and third-party developers, right here). It was expensive, the games weren’t great, and Microsoft never did a great job pitching it to the proper markets. The technology, however, was remarkable. Utilizing skeletal tracking, voice recognition, and depth sensing, the Kinect, initially released in 2010, was ahead of things like Amazon’s Alexa and the iPhone’s forward-facing camera (which uses depth sensing to sense the user’s face).
The Kinect itself has had a sustained life far beyond video games. It’s been used for translating sign language, helping stroke victims, and even monitoring the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. And of course, it’s a great tool for at-home motion capture, which is something Balderose says he discovered while Googling around.
“I eventually ended up having two Kinects, and they’re both aiming in my office and they both run on the same software,” he says. “It’s just pretty cool how it all works together. I never would’ve figured that out if times weren’t perilous. It was kind of a cool discovery.”
Set up in Balderose’s home office, Code Orange members would take turns performing “Autumn and Carbine” for motion capture. For the band’s guitarists and bassist, Balderose had them hold a broken mic stand to mimic the instrument, keeping their hands in the right position for when he put a 3D guitar on their models later. While the Kinect allowed Balderose to track most of his band members’ bodies for motion capture, he also used a PlayStation Move controller for more minute movements.
“The Kinect is for tracking your general body,” Balderose says. “Neck and arms and legs and torso and everything. But it doesn’t do your ankles, and it doesn’t do your wrists, and it doesn’t do your jaw [and] head movement. So the PS Move controllers are for the rotation of individual extremities. I have them hold a PS Move in their strumming hand, and that way it captures their wrist rotation so I can keep their wrist synced to the beat. And then I’ll have Joe and Dom [Code Orange’s bassist and guitarist, respectively], I had them put on a hat with a PS Move taped to the back of it, sticking straight up like that.”
“Because they do a lot of head movement,” Morgan adds.
“If I didn’t do that, everyone would’ve been like, moving around with no neck rotation and their arms would’ve been like this,” Balderose says, using his arms to imitate stiff movement. “It’s pretty cool. I mean, it was a pain in the ass. They die every five minutes. I’d get about two takes and then I’d have to recharge them.”
For the 3D models of each band member, Balderose used his iPhone to scan and create a texture map of each member’s face, employing Morgan’s sister to help stylize and shade each model. For the performances, the iPhone was used again, this time to record Morgan and vocalist-guitarist Reba Meyers singing “Autumn and Carbine” to track mouth and face movements.
“That iPhone technology, it’s the same [as] Instagram filter technology, so it’s creating points on her face, around her mouth, and everything, and it’s tracking those points,” Balderose says.
For an at-home set-up, done by someone with no formal training, the “Autumn and Carbine” music video is a competent and entertaining product – and scanning the comments on YouTube shows that, for the most part, Code Orange’s fanbase agrees. Told through a dream sequence, the music video is a fantasy of sorts where Code Orange winds up in a dystopia where the poor perform for the rich. The band is there to essentially save the day. It’s tongue-in-cheek, to be sure, but Morgan says it’s also inspired by the band’s real-world experiences with the music industry.
“It’s just about us going through and exacting the nice revenge that we would like to exact on all the people that have just made this much more difficult than it seems like it needs to be,” Morgan adds. “I think in the current world, I think everyone can relate to that. Everyone more than ever right now on all sides of the aisle hates their f—ing boss, hates the people that seem to have all while everybody else down here has none or little.”
Despite being on a major label, Code Orange retains a surprising amount of authority over their music, merch, and the general direction of the band. They take advice from Roadrunner, owned by Warner Music Group, but in general, no one is telling the band what to do. If they want to make a 3D music video at home using old video game peripherals, that’s what they’re going to do. In fact, the all-controlling record label isn’t as common these days as it used to be, Morgan says.
“This is something I would like to set straight – at least in the position we’re in with kids,” he says. “In 2020, I really don’t think record labels, unless you are a truly mindless artist that has been brought in as a pawn or something, they don’t tell us what to do.”
Point being, Morgan and Balderose don’t see the “Autumn and Carbine” video as a one and done deal. They have put a lot of time and effort into learning how to properly conceptualize, animate, and direct their own music videos. When the two started with “Sulfur Surrounding,” Balderose says he got a general idea from Morgan, “basically an iPhone Notes thing,” and he put it together in two weeks. On “Autumn and Carbine” he got a full one-page treatment that the two iterated and worked on over the course of six months. “I’m sure the next time it’s going to get even crazier,” Balderose says. “Like, we need to start storyboarding and s— the next time.”
Moving forward, Morgan and Balderose say they will continue doing this kind of direction and art for Code Orange. But also, they’ve started their own production company, Nowhere To Run Productions, named after a sound clip often used in their songs (or others’ songs, such as this 2019 Code Orange-produced Injury Reserve song, “HPNGC”). The hope is to be able to do audio and visual production for other people in the future, while adding the Code Orange angle to it.
Morgan particularly gives credit to his bandmate for taking the initiative to learn these skills on his own. It’s something he says he hopes people take away from this article and video, that they can make stuff on their own, without the time or people they might think they need.
“There’s a really s—ty part of this fast and furious world that we’re in where everything’s at your fingertips, but this is the awesome part that is so amazing,” Morgan says. “I always thought that you needed f—ing a bunch of people or a bunch of money, and you don’t. I mean, you need a little bit and you need to really think about it and plan and work hard, but outside of that, it’s doable for anybody reading this s—. Which I think is pretty incredible.”
Touring and concerts are not coming back for the foreseeable future, but if it didn’t stop Code Orange in the past, it’s not going to stop them now. Morgan says 2021 will be a year where Code Orange spreads their wings and tells people not to underestimate what the band can do. They might not be making millions of new fans, at least not the traditional way, but they’re building a new base, showing what they’re capable of, and preparing for their chance to get back on a stage.
“It ain’t about money for us because there certainly ain’t pretty much any money involved currently,” Morgan says. “It’s just about creativity and bringing something different to the table. Obviously we know we’re not the f—ing first people to 3D animate or do any of this s—, but I think we have a cool twist on it. I think we can bring our twist to music and to visuals and do it all at the same time. That’s the thing about us. We’re a 365 [band]. So we’re gonna be making music and doing this all at the same time. There’s no pause button, we just keep going.”
“The Code Orange stock is going up, there’s no denying that,” Balderose says.
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