Norma Jean – Hail MetalThursday, 17th October 2019
A more unique entry in the metalcore/noise/whatever you’d like to call it genre is that of Georgia act Norma Jean. They’ve had an almost revolving door of members (and touring musicians) over the years, yet their particularly heavy style has prevailed for seven full-lengths, with the upcoming All Hail clocking in as number eight. Moments of the band’s monstrous heaviness suck in the listener, while some experimental melodies and dark atmosphere allow for some breathing room amongst the madness. With this in mind, we chatted with vocalist Cory Brandan, who caught us up on the impact of band turnover, insight into All Hail, as well as what has kept the band running successfully over the years.
Dead Rhetoric: With the band member turnover, how do you feel it has affected your output?
Cory Brandan: It really was a bit interesting, as Norma Jean has kind of a fluid, collective vibe that we have had to learn to embrace. It’s not something that we set out to do. Every band kind of dives into doing what you do. You do the promo pictures, and here’s the five guys – oh, these guys go with the music. I’m pretty sure The Beatles did that, and then everyone else just kept doing it. But I think we are a little more of a collective, if that’s the right word, but it’s just like friends & family jumping into a room to write music.
So we had a couple of guys come in that worked with us years ago, so some old members/collaborators – my brother being one, and Matt Marquez – he was in with us for a few years between Meridional and Wrongdoers. It’s interesting because we were able to keep a chemistry, instead of ‘here’s a few brand new dudes in the room, and we are going to have to figure this out.’ It was really cool because we had this old school chemistry and it fell together seamlessly in a way.
Dead Rhetoric: Any particular meaning to the title All Hail? I read that it was perhaps suggested by fans?
Brandan: It was not necessarily suggested, but it’s their phrasing. The story that I tell is that everything with the name of the band, Norma Jean, got thrown around and it just kind of stuck. That’s the story that Scottie [Henry] would always tell, because I wasn’t there for that. Eventually, I was in [the band], and the ‘Almighty’ nickname started happening, and we used it on a box set that we did. It was a fun thing that fans connected with. Then the ‘All Hail’ thing came from that. So that’s where it started, and it just kept popping up. The fans inspired it – they are the ones who did that. There’s a lot of content on the album that is inspired by stories that we have heard from fans. Even down to a song being named after a close friend/fan that we have known for years. The song is called “Anna.”
Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel that Will Putney brought to the table with production of the album?
Brandan: Oh man, so much. I think when we went into it, we didn’t really know what to expect. We kind of have a thing that we do – it’s a looser feel. What we are hearing come from Will’s studio, some of it is pretty, almost perfect and stuff. When we got there, we kind of figured out his process was making us play the songs over and over. But he had us do it as a band in a room, and then he would have ideas.
He really became like a sixth member I guess you could say. He had ideas for things like, paying attention to the lyrics. Not just saying, “Go.” He really cared about what we were doing, and just making sure that parts felt right. Not just getting away with filler parts – he wants so much to do with every single song. It really just made it a lot easier for us. We got another ear on songs that we have listened to for months. I think it was great, we had a lot of fun working with him.
Dead Rhetoric: You said that some of the songs were taken from fans’ stories. Did you find it inspiring to be able to take those ideas that were told to you and put them into songs?
Brandan: It’s kind of funny that you mention that, because it wasn’t necessarily planned like that. It’s almost two separate things. All Hail, that just sounded cool [as a title]. There’s something to say about art, or music in general, like I happen to make something, but there’s also entertainment and an aesthetic to it. Having that one was one thing, and then having the fan inspired things were just more overshadowing. Some of the stories are really intense. It was something we couldn’t ignore in a way. It just kind of fell together – it almost feels coincidental in a way. The way it happened felt like it was supposed to.
Dead Rhetoric: What characteristic is necessary for a song to be Norma Jean song?
Brandan: I think so, but it’s probably pretty, almost didactic in a way. We are heavy, we are going to write heavy music, and that’s what we are drawn to. It’s always going to kind of stay there. We typically like to experiment with darker sounding melodies – not the stuff that you would hear in a doctor’s office. Actually I would totally go to that doctor’s office [laughs]!
But I think that is one of those things, where we can say that we are experimenting all day long; it’s a really good question – it seems simplistic in a way, but I don’t think anyone’s really ever asked that so I’m having to face some harsh truths right now. There’s some characteristics for sure – I always think about AC/DC – they are always ‘that.’ I don’t think we are that far, where you can say ‘that’s definitely an AC/DC song’ with our music, but also that band didn’t sell out to make that. That’s what they sound like. It’s true to what they do. We might experiment with melody and darkness from time to time, but there is a mood definitely – it’s heavy, most of the time.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s important when it comes to having a breakdown in a track? There’s a lot of bands out there that just kind of toss them in.
Brandan: When I joined Norma Jean, we were young. We were in our early-to-mid 20s, and the conversation was literal in the sense of like, we were half way through the writing of an album, and there weren’t any breakdowns so far. I was like, “yeah, there are tons.” Then I realized that I didn’t know what a breakdown was. There’s kind of not really what Daniel would call ‘real live breakdowns.’ So I had to learn what that was. The truth is, it’s nothing fantastic, but as much as we want things to be about something real, we are entertainers.
We talk about that in Norma Jean, and we embrace that aspect of what we do. We think of it more like, people are paying hard earned money to see us put on a show, so we are writing music that we are going to enjoy in that same way. That’s what we grew up on. Breakdowns are just fun. You can simplify everything that you can say in a song down to a phrase or a word, and in a sense, for hardcore/metalcore, we have invented our own chorus. Maybe it doesn’t repeat as much. Yeah, we have a chorus, but we also have this bigger chorus – this crescendo into something bigger.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel has been key to the band’s success over the years?
Brandan: I think there’s kind of two sides to that. One side is just our attention to detail. We don’t let the band become like a 9-to-5 idea. I’ve seen, and know bands that do that. It’s their career now, and they have to do it. We have to be happy with what we are doing, and make sure that we are pushing ourselves to do something that is interesting for us, but also not cutting any corners. That’s like the other side, which can be kind of boring. It comes into the technical details of not cutting corners when we are recording, and paying attention to how things sound.
Also, being a band that has been around for a while, we have to be able to do those tours that a lot of older bands would maybe say no to. I know that happened with us. When Norma Jean first took off, you get some heat – you get a buzz. The older bands, you blow up over them, and those bands didn’t want to tour with us. We learned a lesson from that, with us going up to bands and trying to get them to tour with us. We try to make sure that we don’t say no to tours – are people going to be there that don’t know who we are, then we need to be in front of them. It’s important to get in front of people and stay out there. People grow up and they stop going to shows.
Dead Rhetoric: You have to be able to adapt with the times.
Brandan: Absolutely, and be able to put your pride down a bit. Historically, you could say that Norma Jean is like a legacy, hardcore kind of thing. Right now, there’s band A, who just put out their first album and they are huge. They have a young audience. We need to go play for them, and now be like, “Whatever, we are Norma Jean and we don’t have to do that.” We say yes to those tours, and we do them. It has kept us alive.
It sounds like a seminar, but there’s something to learn from that. I encourage younger bands – things might be hot right now, but your fans are going to grow up. You have to be able to do those support tours, and until you can get those bigger ones…we don’t get a lot of those. I would love to tour with the Deftones! What’s the problem guys? But that’s not happening, but we aren’t settling for those tours either. We want to do those tours. Again, it comes back to us being happy with what we are doing, and we embrace it all.
Dead Rhetoric: I was watching your Alternative Press “Ruined Music” talk – how important is your personal viewpoint when it comes to listening to an album?
Brandan: That idea is something I have thought of before, but that’s really a piece that AP does. I found it to be really interesting. What’s funny is that day I had a really bad allergic reaction, so I was all fucked up and stuff. My voice was all screwed up and I was in bad shape. But AP liked us for a second so I knew I had to do this. But I don’t know if [viewpoint] is necessarily important. I think those things are going to happen, but they are going to happen for different reasons. For me, it’s more about being able to change your mind and being okay with it. I think that’s a deeper, more spiritual/emotional thing but sometimes I think that if you say something – like, “two years ago you said this.”
At that point, unless you are just contradicting yourself to get out of something, you should just say, “I changed my mind.” That happens! I used to like a record, and now I don’t – the reason could be totally different. I have really bad problems being able to pick favorites, because I change my mind too much. My favorites today could be totally different tomorrow. I’m never going to make up my mind.
Dead Rhetoric: How do you feel that having children and getting older has changed your perspective with music and the band?
Brandan: Yes, absolutely! I feel like I am the poster child for saying, “It’s okay to have a family and kids, while touring and living your dream – even if it causes you to be away a little bit.” That idea that, one – if you have kids then everything goes on halt. That’s a lie, I don’t think it’s real. Or the idea that if you are not there all the time, they will be ruined…I don’t think so. I know some people who have been through some of the worst circumstances, and they’ve turned out fine. At the end of the day, kids grow up and they start making their own decisions, just like we did. We all decided at a very young age to start doing things on our own. That’s what it all comes down to. Me helicoptering over them isn’t going to make them better.
There’s two other aspects where it enhances what I do. If I am going to spend time away from them, I had better be doing it right! On the other perspective, I am trying to teach them that they need to go after their dreams. I want them to have a happy life than I do. That’s kind of every parent/child dynamic. If I’m not doing it myself, then I’m not doing what my parents wanted me to do. So I need to lead by example. I am going to go live my dream job, even when it hurts or doesn’t work out sometimes. I am going to have two jobs at home sometimes, just to kind of show them that it does matter. I matter, and I need to go do my thing. For them, that’s also all they know. They don’t think it’s cool that I am in a band. They just think it’s my job. That’s such an important part of what I do. It has to be real, and it has to be right if I am going to spend time on it.
Dead Rhetoric: What’s planned for Norma Jean for the rest of this year, I know you have a tour coming up?
Brandan: We have a tour coming up with The Devil Wears Prada in mid-October to mid-November. Next year we are definitely planning a headliner in the spring time. We are doing summer festivals in Europe next year, and also some UK/Europe headlining tours as well, maybe in the winter. But if we don’t do anything there, we’ll try to do something else. But I know the headliner tour in the spring is definite, as well as the summer stuff.