Chaka Malik of Orange 9mm on re-releasing 'Pretend I'm Human' and learning to love yourself

Smiling through the bulls*** of the pandemic with a positive outlook, and plenty of creative outlets
Chaka Malik
Photo credit Joel Dowling Photography
By , Audacy

Joining us for a chat today is the frontman for the early influential NY Hardcore band Burn and the post-hardcore outfit Orange 9mm that followed. He's also the co-creator of 1989's New Breed compilation (which was a massive undertaking at the time), as well as a recent podcaster, solo artist, and collaborator... Could there be anything that we might have missed? "I mean, I don't know. I'm a guy, man,” says Chaka Malik from his home in Brooklyn, NYC. “I love you, and hope you love me back. That's all I would add.”

For fans who may have missed the most recent news, an Orange 9mm Instagram account was launched not long ago, and the band is releasing their third album, Pretend I'm Human, to a wider audience on August 13 via Thirty Something Records, marking its first time on vinyl, cassette, and digitally (on June 18) - fully remastered and with new artwork.

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To top it off, the most recent guest on his EffWithMeShow podcast was Orange 9mm guitarist Chris Traynor, who in the years since working with the band has played for the likes of Bush and Gavin Rossdale, Helmet, Rival Schools, and many more. It would seem as though they're trying to tell us something. Could there be an official reunion in the works?

“You know, I mean, maybe," Chaka tells Audacy. "I think really it just kind of bubbled back up. Sometimes bands have inherent friendships attached to them, and, you know, people move away and life happens. Then maybe 15, 20 years later, you're like, ‘Oh, how you doing, man?’ You're on maybe better terms with people, and you're kind of feeling certain sounds are in the air again for you maybe, or bouncing around the ether. You're like, ‘wow, that reminds me of kind of how this thing felt.' I think that's where I put the Orange 9 stuff. We've talked about doing some shows, and even a short tour right before this, kind of whatever you want to call it thing happened, the situation that we're in with people being inside their houses. That f***ed everything up, we were ready. Myself, Davide [Gentile], and Chris [Traynor] were on email. Matt [Cross] I'm gonna call but I haven't spoken to Matt in a minute. I love Matt; Matt was like a brother to me when he lived out here. I've lost touch with him over the last decade or so. I think people were feeling a bit creative and maybe like they want to touch on it. We'll see. I think this stuff had a feel that was relevant to then and relevant to today. It’s kind of like, pre-Internet enough and maybe it is fresh for some people, you know?”

You've had some great guests on the podcast. Who’s coming next and what brought this project about?

"Coming up next is Dennis from Refused, my friend Mike who's a famous chef out here, he has a couple of restaurants -- Meatball Shop and Seymour's. When it comes to having people on there, honestly, it's just kind of who comes to mind. My thing about it is, we’re having conversations where two people engage. There's mutual interests and there's vulnerability, and then there's things that are shared. That’s what makes this thing work. I'd rather have a conversation with you, where we learn about each other, we have a free-flowing discussion and people can say ‘I enjoyed that. I never knew that.' Like the one with [Deftones/Quicksand bassist] Sergio [Vega] -- [singer] Walter [Schreifels] was like, ‘I've been in a f***ing band with Sergio and I didn’t know half that s***.’ At a certain point, I think to make things interesting you abandon some of the normal stuff, and you just jump into a line of discussion that allows people to put their feet up, get their cookies in their milk, and get to yappin’. For me, that's just way more interesting."

Why did you guys choose to re-release, or release to a wider audience, the band’s third album Pretend I'm Human now?

“I think that's a great question. You know, I think that the record we had recorded (and I think we did a wonderful job), we made some mix choices that I don't think really helped the record present itself in its best light. I know a lot of folks said to me that's some of my best lyrics on that record; some people even say that's their favorite Orange 9 record. But my thinking was just to give it some light, it was a great bit of work. Our friend Michael Chambers stood behind the band back then. He had NG Records, and we did Ultraman vs. Godzilla with him as well. I think it's great for these songs, especially coming out now, where there's a song like 'Facelift,' which covers some racial stuff and talks about private prisons and things that people talk about a lot today. I mean, these are things that I don't even talk about as much now, you know? I think the record has a lot to offer, maybe it fills in some gaps.”

"The record's heavy, but it's not the heaviest Orange 9 record -- Like a ‘90s experimental, heavy music, and kind of more -- but I think that's my rappiest vocals on there. There's some stuff on there where people from very big bands have told me, “Yo, I f***ing love that record, that record was inspirational.’ Kind of a combination of folks sharing with us, 'hey, that f***ing record is awesome,' and, let's give people that wanted to give this record a chance to have a little while. It's a remaster too; The guitars are heavier. I mean, the record, which is a very timid sounding record, even back then, I think, sonically it's a very safe sounding record. I'm not sure why we made those choices. But I think this record just sounds a lot more open. A lot of the guitars are obviously a lot louder; the bass frequencies are much louder and more felt, which is how I like my music. I want to feel it a bit, too. The remaster satisfies that and just gives it the edge that the songs always had, I think, but that the recording process maybe smoothed over. Nothing new was added to this, it's the old recording, just remastered. I would be f***ing stoked if there was somehow that we could have added new material, it just wasn't an option. I was even thinking of just laying in some extra tracks, vocals, or updated things. I have the multitrack, but we just did a remaster and not a full-on remix. I mean, that might be something that people can take up in the future, but that's a whole different set of potatoes, or whatever the saying is."

Are there any other unreleased Orange 9mm tracks out there? Or is the package complete until something completely new comes along?

“There's some stuff that we had towards the very end, and there's a couple of Orange 9 songs. I think there's maybe some things from 'Tragic' that might be floating around. But that's so long ago, and unless you're releasing a record and you're trying to give people something new for people that had the record, I don't really think about old music like that. Like looking for a lost nugget somewhere, you know? I feel like I'm thankful to make music today, so, whatever we have we can make the older stuff better. Which is what we've done, sonically, with 'Pretend I'm Human.' Great. But also recognize that before 'Pretend I'm Human,' there was 'Tragic.' So, we had to keep going in order to make 'Pretend I'm Human.' Every musician, artist, whatever... you got to keep going and make your next thing that maybe you re-release in 20 years."

Have you put any thought into dropping songs, or this album, or anything as an NFT?

“I'm very, very interested in that type of exchange. Very interested. It really empowers the artists in a sense. Because I think what happens with the internet, with file sharing, look at the joke that people talk about with Spotify or whatever it is -- the picture of a penny with like 1/3 chopped off, and it says 'congrats on like, 17,000 plays.' At a certain point, you're like, ‘OK, am I just a commodity out here?’ One of the first things you learn in business is if you commoditize yourself, you will never serve the best clients, and if people won't value your work… Yeah, so you take yourself seriously, and exclusivity is a part of that. I think that for certain things, especially now you have all these tools to create really unique things of all length. If you could make soundscapes and songs that last for 30 minutes, you can make things that are five minutes, things that are 30 seconds, or single stills as an NFT like a JPEG. So, I think it really empowers the artist as well as a potential collector to be able to connect, create, and then curate the kind of pieces that move them, and have them maintain their value, obviously, due to the exclusivity. I would, I mean, honestly, I wouldn't look at any of the NFT things for old stuff; I just feel like that's just too rearview mirror. But, there’s plenty that's happening in the future."

Speaking of the future… Tell us about your solo work as Ghost Decibels, which is quite New Wave-ish. Did you have that same musical taste back in the Burn and Orange 9mm days?

“Yeah, just a different context. A lot of people don't know, but those are break dance songs, those ‘80s songs. They relate to a lot of people, but they were break dance songs for kids in the city. You know, New Order’s ‘Confusion,’ Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls,’ these were songs that were big in the hood, these are songs that we had our own thing with. It had nothing to do with overseas, it had nothing to do with New Wave. I wasn't listening to Joy Division at all back then. Honestly, I got into Joy Division, I don't know 15, 20 years ago. So very, very recently. The Ghost Decibels thing was born out of me; I took a break from music and I ended up buying myself this Korg synthesizer. I just loved how it sounded when you f*** with the knobs and that got me writing with synth and guitar, maybe five or six years ago. I started this Ghost Decibels thing, originally, I was kind of wishing I was Bowie for a while. Nevertheless, for a couple of years I've been just kind of waiting, letting myself settle into a thing, and let myself come into my own groove. I think that's starting to happen with the Ghost Decibels stuff."

You did a killer collaboration with the band Swim The Current -- are there any more similar collabs for fans to look out for?

"Absolutely... Shout out to Swim The Current and those guys! It's something that I'm interested in, but I've been talking to other musicians about doing other kinds of music that still end up being kind of aggressive in its own way. I'm a huge fan of a lot of the heavier stuff with guitars, and I would like to find a new way of dealing with that kind of sound, whatever kind of a new envisioning of that sound is for me. It would be something different; I haven't done it yet, and I haven't heard it yet. I'll put it that way. I do have one thing, but this is not a band, this is like a collaboration that we kind of put together with myself, a guy named Charles, a straight-edge cat that plays in Bystander with Greg Bennick from Trial, and also Matt Russell. We have this thing called Tether Me, which is kind of like Alt straight-edge. Maybe Alt-Hardcore. I mean, it sounds pretty hardcore, but it's also not, you know? It has some other kind of elements in it, it's not trying to be nothin', and I really enjoy it, people seem to enjoy it. So we're working on an EP with that group and I really like working with them. It's fun to collaborate and deal with different artists and how they see stuff."

"I also have something called Sex Prox-Z with this woman named ModularMarie. She's better with synths, and so, me not having to focus on writing everything and just being able to pull up something that inspires me and cut a vocal, I think is the best iteration of what I'm trying to do with a lot of the Ghost Decibels stuff -- in terms of, the sonics, the aggression, the sexiness. It really covers a lot of those bases, and it's just deeper than me."

"Honestly, I'll say this, my main challenge, my main thing with Ghost Decibels I hope it's doing, is I hope that it's preparing me to be a better musician so that I can collaborate with others that excel at other instruments beyond my capabilities. Then we can combine forces, and we can have something that's better than me stacking up a bunch of my ideas, and then singing on top. We have 'Core Skin,' which is very sexual, but very beautiful. The lyric is a bit about your lower self, more about understanding that you have a lower self."

An avid physical and mental health proponent who addresses similar topics on his social channels, Chaka offered some parting words of encouragement in navigating our own wellness and helping others.

“People sleep on the simple golden rule of ‘do unto others as you would have done unto yourself,’ or ‘love thy neighbor as you would love yourself.’ I think then the question that begs is, ‘do you love yourself?’ When you look at yourself, do you say, ‘holy s***, I don't even love myself, look how I'm treating myself.’ Then you can get your act together. But I think it's window dressing, to run around and try to act like you give a hoot about people, and you have incredibly low self-esteem yourself. I think that you’ve got to have a healthy self-esteem, and that takes work. A lot of things in society tell us that we should be shamed, unforgiven. That it was our fault; you did it wrong. There's always something that can be improved upon and I think, even like today, where I'm realizing, ‘Hey, you know what, I want to get that video ready for premiere. But it's not going to be ready, and I'm going to release it on my time. That's got to be good enough. Why is that good enough? Because I stayed up all night editing this video. I got literally one and a half hours of sleep between 5:30 and 7:30 or so. I had a job interview. I worked on the video, my computer crashed. I'm home with you like, ‘Hey, man, I'm showing up. If something happens that f***s up my timeline and maybe crushes my expectations. OK, I just have to look through it."

"I bought a wonderful f***ing tea, and these are small things, but it's the small things that stack up. You know, like one of those $6 teas with CBD, kombucha, and everything else under the sun. I was walking home from the store and my shoelace is untied. I put the bag down, and I guess I put it down too hard, didn't realize it. When I got home, I put my juice in the fridge. When I was finally ready for that citrusy drink, it's gonna be so healthy, I open up the fridge and I see that the bottom of the glass had broken. Okay, you know what? I just cleaned it up slowly. Yeah, that broke; we lost the juice. What are you gonna do? Sometimes you just got to smile through the bulls*** and realize that maybe it's compulsion. Maybe you can apologize to yourself. ‘Hey, man, you know, Chaka, I'm sorry that I've been so hard on myself.’ Forgive yourself for being hard on yourself. I think it's got it's got to start with you, and it's got to start with love. I've been lately just trying to focus a lot on, ‘What does that look like?’ Honestly, sometimes without friends, it's hard. I think this is relevant, the pandemic. You don't have a lot of company over. You’re busy, you're doing music, you have a day job. So, the room’s a mess. But you know, your friends are gonna be in town. ‘Oh, s***. Yeah, what time are you coming by? Two o'clock?’ It's like ten to two, you look up, you're like, 'if you let anybody see this room, you're a f***ing idiot.' You gotta clean it up. It's not that it was that bad, right? But you're that bad, and what you're willing to present to other people. I've taken selfies with the horrible pile of clothes on the bed and s*** on the floor. But when you see that, that's a good sign. Like, ‘hey, man, if you're taking a selfie, and you got s*** all over the place and your mirror is dirty, that's a good sign. Maybe take a look into yourself and say, ‘okay, am I loving myself enough right now? Am I giving myself an environment that's going to allow for sane thoughts? Am I cleaning my mirror, so I can at least give myself a clean slate to look at?’”

Orange 9mm's Pretend I'm Human will arrive on August 13 via Thirty Something Records, digitally on June 18. Pre-orders are available now with special merch bundles.

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