Local punk rockers Code Orange Kids have a respectable list of accomplishments for a band that's only been together for two years: dozens of shows, two CD releases, East Coast and Midwest tours, and support slots at most of the city's mid-size theaters. Yet they are forbidden to enter almost all of the venues in the Post-Gazette's club listings.
What the Code Orange Kids run up against is a type of music-scene apartheid involving Pennsylvania's liquor and smoking ordinances. But they can't vote or drink either, since everyone in the band is 17 years old and a senior in high school: drummer/singer Jami Morgan and bassist Reba Meyers at Pittsburgh CAPA, guitarist Bob Rizzo at Baldwin, and guitarist Eric Balderose (the son of bagpiper and Calliope Folk Music Society founder George Balderose) at the PA Virtual Charter School.
Yet the band has made hay of their underage situation, according to Jami, and gleaning the best from what a teenage band in this city can attain -- the alternative network of DIY spaces (Helter Shelter, Mr. Roboto Project, 222 Ormsby) and small basement shows, as well as landing on bills in front of hundreds of kids, opening The Misfits, The Bronx, Subhumans, Nekromantix and Anti-Flag.
Pressed for a description, the Code Orange Kids say they're "doomy, abrasive" hardcore punk in the vein of Black Flag, Integrity and Converge with some metallic tinges. But that sound has evolved considerably since 2008. "We started out with really straightforward punk stuff from being introduced to it through friends," recalls Jami.
"We went to some shows and saw bands that really seemed to have their stuff together," adds Reba, "so we decided to try playing music. Jami and I definitely come from the punk side, which transformed into what we are now."
The hardcore switch emerged as they attended small shows (sometimes as the only under-18s in the crowd) and recognized what other touring bands purveyed. Straight-up punk seemed less interesting, and then a member change brought in Bob Rizzo. "I met Bob from going to shows at Roboto," relates Jami. "We became close friends, and that influenced the direction of the band."
"I was into more of the heavier hardcore stuff," adds Bob. "You find out what they're talking about at shows and check it out, and [expand your interest] gradually over time as you get older."
In the post-Lollapalooza era, when Green Day can stage a Broadway musical and regularly sell platinum units, one might assume that with the Internet at its fingertips, Gen-Y kids have grown more sophisticated than previous generations of high school bands. You'd be wrong, says Jami -- it's the same old sloppy "funk rock" you grew up with, and the Code Oranges stood out like a sore thumb. "We didn't sound like any bands we knew at CAPA and Allderdice."
Jami doesn't shy away from the high school audience entirely. Last year, he co-directed the Youth Arts Project, which provides a performance space for young people at Squirrel Hill's Church of the Redeemer. But between semesters, the Code Oranges have spent more time hitting the road, occasionally with older Pittsburgh/Johnstown punkers The Last Hope, and selling 200 copies of 2009's "Winter Tour" demo.
"We've played in Cleveland, New Jersey and Philadelphia," lists Reba. "The farthest we've gone is New York City -- a little bar called Sidewalk Cafe which was really awkward and didn't work out."
Even an epic fail like that allowed the band to grow. "We've learned more about our abilities, stagewise and playing-wise," says Jami.
"Doing a lot of shows helps us step up to our potential -- people say we've gotten better, because we find things that are wrong and just hammer on them and fix them until they're the way we want them to be."
Frankly, it's surprising that more teens aren't in punk bands, given the catharsis Jami gets from writing lyrics about social frustration.
"Some of it is about being in high school, but it's also about looking at our peers and feeling that you're not on the same page as them in what they feel or in their capacity to action. I've never been interested in going to parties and sitting around, but a lot of people don't think the way I do, and it makes me frustrated."
"The band is something to identify ourselves with, among other high school kids who mostly spend their days doing nothing or preparing for their business life," adds Balderose, while Bob comments, "We take it seriously, but where I go to school, not many people know about the music that we do."
Jami doesn't traffic in the nihilist mode that many older punk rockers are immersed in, either. "I also feel dissatisfied with punks that do this whole '[expletive] you' thing and don't have anything to say that's legitimate. People pretend to care about one another, but don't really act on it. I don't really feel that I can relate to a lot of people, no matter their age."
With a new self-pressed six-song EP they're simply calling "Demo 2010" to be released this Saturday at Garfield's Most Wanted Fine Art all-ages artspace, the Code Orange Kids hope to further their aims of breaking free of cliques and clichés. "Someone who only saw us with the Misfits has no idea what we're doing right now, because we've figured out what we're interested in and found stable ground," explains Jami. "We're putting out this record because it's a foundation."
"Our last [CD] was cool, but we changed so much since then, so this one is more representative," adds Reba, "although we're probably going to change again."
Their goal is to work 200 copies of the CD until they're all sold, and hopefully garner more attention through it. "If somebody wanted to help us put out a 7-inch [record], that would be great, but if they don't, we'll still tour around it in December and April."
Statistically, the vast majority of high-school age bands break up when members depart for higher education or careers. So with Jami and Reba headed to college, Bob to a trade school, and Balderose still "figuring it out," how do the Code Orange Kids intend to beat those long odds? "We're working on that right now, but the only thing we know is that we're going to stick it out after high school," says Reba.
"When Reba and I started the band, we agreed that we wanted to try to do this to whatever point we could," adds Jami. "I don't know if I can speak for everybody, but I know we're going to try to stay together as long as possible."
Manny Theiner is a freelance writer.