This interview originally appeared in Vulture Hound Magazine Issue #13. You can read it, on all devices, here.
After months on the road and in the air as part of their recent Summer European tour, Norma Jean vocalist Cory Brandan is back home in Arkansas, and he’s just received some bad news. Luckily for us it’s not too serious and he’s more than happy to talk. Which is good, because it’s been a busy year, or so, for the metal-core band. After last year’s 10th anniversary tour of breakthrough album O God, the Aftermath, the departure of founding member Chris Day and their return to Solid State Records, they’re just about to release their 7th studio album, Polar Similar.
What’s it like to be getting some rest back at home after a pretty intense tour so far?
It’s awesome. It’s always amazing to come back from a long tour especially when you’ve been so far away and it’s been hard to communicate. I guess the only bummer is that I found out I have strep throat today! I think I got it from that tour because I was feeling kinda sick and then I came home and felt terrible.
Can you pin-point where on the tour you might have picked it up?
My best guess is gonna be Dublin, because our backstage room was literally inside of a walk-in cooler. Like, where they keep the kegs. And they said “oh yeah, come in this way!” and we walked in to this walk-in cooler with kegs everywhere and they said “here you go guys!”, and it was freezing cold so there was no way that was good for me, no way (laughs).
Looking at the places you did play, especially in the UK, there was a lot of smaller, intimate and packed out venues like The Anvil, Bournemouth.
Yeah, we had a blast that night (in Bournemouth), that was a lot of fun. At first it was a little sterile but by the end of the set everyone was jumping up and down and hanging upside down from stuff, it got roudy! And those shows are always a blast, packed in small capacity rooms.
New album Polar Similar is out pretty soon, it’s your 6th with Norma Jean and last year you celebrated 10 years since the release of O God, the Aftermath. Does it really seem like 10 years you’ve been doing this?
It’s actually been nearly 13 cause I joined in early 2004, but no, it doesn’t really. It’s kind of strange because when I joined time just sped up, and before I knew it it was 2006. I think one of the reasons that happens is usually in a band you know exactly what you’re doing months in advance, so you kind of get in this timeline of scheduling and budgeting for things in the future. You’re always looking forward to this thing that’s gonna happen. I mean, I know what we’re doing in March of next year, so when that comes it’ll be like – “oh yeah! I remember us talking about this months ago” and suddenly it’s a whole new year. So time moves super fast.
And talking of moving fast, last year you did the O God, the Aftermath 10th anniversary tour, and then straight off the back of that you announced you had moved back to Solid State Records and announced this new album. Do you see that tour as a ‘bookend’ to the first 10 years?
Yeah, for sure, it definitely seems strange looking back on it. There was kind of a nostalgic thing to it as well but that tour was so much fun. We hit all the cities of old members that were on that record and they all came out for the shows, and of course we’re all still great friends. One thing I always tell people is that I feel like Norma Jean is more of a collective than a band.
You’ve been through quite a few members, and in the past year guitarist Chris Day, the last founding member of Norma Jean, left the band. But with Norma Jean things always just seem to keep going.
Yeah, and like I said all those past members came out (on the tour) and even they felt this nostalgic thing. And the thing about Norma Jean is we’ve never applied to the ‘boy band’ structure of being musicians like – “here’s a set of faces that goes with this music”, no! We don’t really know what a band is, we just know we want to write music with our friends. It’s always been – “hey, do you like the sound that we’re making or not?”, so it’s kind of irrelevant who’s in the band if you think about it like that. That idea of person worship of people in a band is kind of an old idea, whereas for us it’s about the music first.
(Photo Credit: David Jackson 2016)
And is that something that everyone buys into when they join Norma Jean, the fact that this is all about the band and not individuals?
Yes, absolutely and it’s something we talk about all the time. We always try to fill the spots in the band with someone who gets that, someone who’s like minded in a way. That’s always been the goal. It’s never been – “hey let’s get the guy who’s technically the best guitar player we know”, no, I would definitely rather have a guy who maybe couldn’t play guitar as well but musically he stands out in a way which fits with what Norma Jean does. Someone with a passionate drive and that emotional connection to the music rather than just technical ability.
And that recruiting process obviously works and has an effect on the music, because time after time and album after album you guys come out a step above.
I’m not going to lie, it’s hard to lose a member. When someone leaves a band, you have a chemistry with that person, especially as a songwriter, you know what to expect from them, and they from you. But it’s also good to start over with someone and it’s kind of refreshing in a way, so there’s kind of a weird balance to it. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of finding the right people to come in, but at the end of the day we can’t just expect people to want to be in a smelly van with 4 other dudes for their entire life (laughs). So people sometimes want to move on and do other things, have families and we have to allow them to do that as well as continuing to do what we do. So we just try to keep that going, keep it alive.
You seem to have a good idea of what works because you’ve just resigned to Solid State Records, how did that come about?
It really comes down to people. When you’re signing to a label, and this is advice any band should take on, you’re not just looking at a piece of paper and who gives you the best deal, you look at the people behind it. It’s like that team of people are joining the band and doing the business work for you, so that team is invaluable. The people Solid State have there right now are really aggressive and passionate about what we’re doing. Just to see that excitement was appealing to us, so it was kind of a no brainer.
You’ve dropped a few tracks from your new album Polar Similar so far, including ‘Synthetic Sun’, ‘Forever Hurtling Towards Andromeda’ and the track ‘1,000,000 Watts’, and on that track, I’ve got to say – wow, that riff!
Yeah, that riff! When we start writing we’re just like – “hey, what have you got? What have you got? What have you got?” and we sit around showing each other riffs and playing guitar, and I had actually written that riff during Wrong Doers and it wasn’t completed yet, so it was 3 or 4 years old. I showed it to John (Finnegan, Bass) and he said – “that’s the one!”, and then we started building off that and it became ‘1,000,000 Watts’. It was actually one of the earlier songs that was written for the record.
(Photo Credit: Jon Estay 2016)
So are we getting a good insight into the album with the aggression of ‘1,000,000 Watts’ and the technical work on ‘Synthetic Sun’?
There’s a few other things we do, but that’s kind of what we’re going for. The record has a very haunting atmosphere to it and that all comes from the studio we recorded at – Pachyderm Studio. It’s a really old, huge, rickety kind of place and we really utilised the size of it, the echoes and all the reverb you hear and the haunted, creaky feel is really just natural. So once we got to the studio we fashioned the record to fit that vibe.
That atmosphere more that comes through, especially on moments like track five, ‘II The People’. That’s a freaky track!
(Laughs) Ok, yeah that track freaked us out and it happened by accident while we were there. It was pretty late at night, and there’s this pool room in the house, a really echoey room. We had mics in there permanently and the studio connected to it so we could track there all the time, and Jeff (Hinkly, Lead Guitar) had gone in there that night, just making up stuff, riffing a little bit, and Goose (Clayton “Goose” Holyoak, Drums) heard this tone in it and it reminded him of the sound of these Numbers Station things from the cold war which put out messages and can be picked up on short wave radios, and I still don’t think anyone really knows what they mean, but it’s this really creepy thing. So we got it (sound of the Numbers Station) and kind of threw it up against the mics. We didn’t even try and place it and that’s what you hear. We didn’t change it at all since that moment. We finished it right there and then. It was done! Just a really weird and creepy thing that happened by accident.
And it’s an atmosphere that permeates throughout the album. There’s a definite focus on the emotional, natural side – it doesn’t feel ‘over worked’. Was that your perception of the recording process?
I think we wanted to get some of that aggressive feel out for sure, so that’s in there, in the technical way, and once we got to the studio we were able to focus in on the emotional aspect, the atmosphere and intention behind the songs. Working on matching the emotion and content in the lyrics with the song so they work together. It’s a really cool way to record an album rather than just going in and saying ‘okay, good tone, press play, cut everything on the computer and we’re done’. Here, everything was very natural with all the acoustic sounds and we really just tried to find that emotional attachment to the song to make sure the record flowed in that kind of way.
As a band Norma Jean have never been afraid to evolve, be it member changes, sound changes. What would you say was the most prominent change since the release of Wrong Doers in 2013?
Wrong Doers kind of was the evolution. We see that record as our transitional album into Polar Similar. Of course, at the time we were saying it was the best thing we’ve ever done. But if I were to look back even further I think The Anti Mother is a transitional record for Meridional, which I think is more what we were trying to do. So Wrong Doers was more of a searching record as well, into Polar Similar which is what we were reaching for and what we were trying to achieve. But like I said, it’s also down to chemistry because we had a lot of member changes before Wrong Doers, that’s where it all really happened. That’s where we were really fighting to stay alive. But for this record we now really know each other, and we’re going in the same direction, so the process happens much more naturally, without trying to figure out what the other guys are thinking all the time.
What about the name of the album, Polar Similar? Was that based on all these changes and transitions?
Well we made it up, and I think if you google ‘Polar Similar’ you would only find this record, so that’s a cool thing, but it does have a history to it. Meridional had this weird name and this very strange story behind it which was kind of hard to explain, while Wrong Doers was the complete opposite – very simple name, simple explanation. For this record though, we wanted a little of both, a little complexity but easier to explain.
With the word ‘polar’ I visualise the earth’s two poles and the way they’re still connected, the unseen element to it, which I think reflects the world climate right now. A lot of people are pointing fingers at each other, pointing out all of our differences, but if we were to look inside ourselves, we would find way more similarities. Those poles may be opposites, but they’re at least similar, in a lot of ways. I like that idea. We don’t have to be the same, think the same, look the same but there’s something connecting us.
(Photo Credit: Evgeniya Osipova 2016)
On that point of how turbulent things are all over the world right now, it’s a good time for a Norma Jean record to come out! To get some positive, emotional connection going.
If you ask anyone about Norma Jean I know they would say the same thing about us – we look for that more emotional connection rather than the technical connection. We have a looser feel, and we don’t play everything perfectly, we’re feeding off the energy coming out. Which is important, otherwise you just sound like every other single record. If everybody played perfect, using the computer to fix everything, every band would sound exactly the same. So we just make sure we sound like ‘us’ and when you hear the record you think – “oh that sounds like Norma Jean, that’s what they sound like”. And there is a positive thing behind it, and it might be messy and it might be nasty but we sing about our lives, past experiences, which have been equally nasty in a way. I think that we try to find a way to help each other out. We’ve always been like a family. Earlier I said “collective” but I do prefer the word family, it’s just a bit overused and people often don’t understand what I mean by it, so maybe “collective” makes more sense.
There’s a therapy in there then? A cathartic outlet.
Yeah, the music is therapeutic to us and we’ve seen it be therapeutic to others too, in the fanbase, and that’s the coolest thing that can happen. Once I experienced that for the first time being in Norma Jean I didn’t want to do anything else. Just knowing we’re going to write this song in a basement somewhere, with one lightbulb hanging down – you know most of our records were written in rooms with no windows and a lightbulb in the middle of the room – knowing we will write that song and reach somebody or touch somebody in a way and have them interpret that song, on their own without us telling them how to feel. They just sound it out on their own and that’s the coolest thing for us.
Your faith is an important part of your life, but do you consider Norma Jean a ‘Christian’ band, in the sense of its members and collective beliefs?
I don’t think we ever really have. We’ve had Christians in the band, throughout the history of the band, but it’s one of those things where I can’t speak for every single person in the band. They’re their own individuals, I can’t say – “everyone in this band is a Christian”, I don’t know what everybody really believes, that’s for them to say. It’s probably one of the bigger problems we have in the world – everybody wants to be this one big thing, whereas we tend to think more in terms of individuality. Also, musically we’re creating a sound, and a sound can’t have a belief. If I clap my hands, you can’t tell if it’s Christian or not, or evil, or good, or vegan or straight edge. It’s a sound. It can’t have a belief. Only the content can, and when it comes to that I am a Christian and if i’m writing about what I believe in I’m no different from any of my peers.
And the Contemporary Christian Music scene, as massive as it is, does suffer from some ‘quality issues’.
It’s terrible (laughs)
And I think it’s coming from a good place but I’m not always too sure.
I don’t know! And it’s a frustrating kind of music for me because it is a ‘genre’, and I’m like – “well how do you know what music God wants you to write?”, no one knows that. You write the music you want to write and just do that because that’s what He wants you to do, not – “let’s write the Christian style of music”, that doesn’t exist! It’s like saying – “We’re a Christian band”, well what do you sound like? – “A Christian band”, and what is that!? Cause it’s not a sound. It’s so frustrating to me. I do belong to a church but I always skip the music part cause I can’t stand it. And I have no qualities for it anyway. Plus a lot of the time that ‘genre’ is written for Christians, and that’s fine, but I think for us we want to be kind of in the trenches, we want to play The Anvil in Bournemouth, we want to play the dirtiest bar in town, that’s where Norma Jean wants to be. Wherever strep throat is, that’s where we want to be! And that’s how it’s always been. We’ve never catered to the Christian industry, although Solid State has been a part of it, for sure, but it’s more coincidental that we’ve ended up with them because they know that some of us in the band have similar beliefs. But at the end of the day we don’t think ourselves any different from any other band out there. We are just trying to create great music that speaks to people, speaks to us and that we think is fun, because we do want to have fun. We want to write music with our friends, in a room that doesn’t have air conditioning in it.
Polar Similar is out this Friday, September 9th via Solid State Records.
(Feature image credit: Rachel Putman 2016)