Norma Jean

After many frustrating minutes struggling with the bane-of-our-digital-existence that is a miserable Skype connection, was finally able to get a solid, direct line with Norma Jean frontman and all-round top bloke Cory Brandan, to discuss the band’s latest record ‘Polar Similar’. In a long and earnest chat, we talk about touring in the lesser known (and potentially dodgy) parts of the world, sleeping in venues, album themes, writing with emotion, along with the pleasures and perils of anniversary tours.

‘Polar Similar’ is the seventh full-length record for Norma Jean, and it’s been out for a little over a month now. What’s the response been like to the new album? And how do you feel the new songs are being received, when incorporated into the band’s set?

So far, it’s been amazing. Even from when we first dropped the new record, that whole week was insane, with reviews coming in and fans talking about it. All the reviews were great. We did some shows but we’re yet to do any U.S. shows since the record’s been out. We went to South Africa, and we went to Russia recently, and the newest songs were the loudest sing-alongs of the night in some of those places. It’s going really well and we’re definitely excited to get on the road and start touring for this record.

You mentioned going to South Africa and Russia just now, two places that are typically ‘off the map’ for most bands, who might generally stick to the main or ‘popular’ touring circuit. Are they places where Norma Jean has played before or were they new experiences for the band?

I’d say it’s probably the fifth, or maybe sixth, time that we’d been to Russia. We definitely include Russia as a regular touring market at this point, because it’s just so good for us there. You know, you gotta go where the people are right? It was our first time to South Africa though, and it was great. It was really cool to go there, but I don’t think it should be ‘off the map’ for a lot of bands because it’s not much more money to go there. It might seem like it is, but we actually found that it was a lot cheaper than we expected. The economy is just so different over there, and we were able to afford everything quite easily, other than flights. So, it was relatively inexpensive.

I think most bands would probably consider South Africa — or touring anywhere in Africa really — as not being very safe. Did you guys have any trouble while you were over there?

Yeah, for us it was great. We didn’t have any problems at all. There’s definitely some ‘unsafe’ places, but I think there’s ‘unsafe’ places pretty much everywhere you go. We actually went and looked up some of the worst cities in the world, and there’s quite a few that are in the U.S.A., that we go to all the time, on that list. So, you know, it’s like you stay out of trouble and you won’t get into any trouble. Don’t be out where you’re not supposed to be at 3AM, because nothing good is happening. Anywhere. That’s kind of the way I see it. What do you need to be doing, at 3AM, anywhere in the world? [Laughs.]

Absolutely! My grandparents are from the States, and I remember telling my grandmother about how I went through Baltimore on a trip a few years ago, and she was like, ‘Oh, why would you go to Baltimore? It’s not safe there.’ Which I thought was crazy. I was like ‘Well, it’s a city, I’ve never been, and there’s cool stuff to see there. So, why not go?’

Exactly! There are so many unsafe areas in Baltimore, but you know what? Just don’t go there. Don’t go to those places. I mean we just play shows, so we kind of stay in that area. But you know, we’ve been in some bad spots before too. We played a show in Greece once, and they just straight up told us, ‘Don’t leave the venue. For any reason.’ And it was kind of a pain in the ass too, because the backstage room they gave us was, no joke, the exhaust room for the air-conditioning [laughs]. So, it was just burning up in there, and there was no way we were going to hang out in there. We were all exhausted, because we had to fly to Greece and fly straight out again after the show, so we were super tired from travel. We’re all trying to get some sleep in before the show, so we could actually play it, and we all fell asleep right next to the merch table.

So, literally, all five of us are lined up asleep on this couch, next to the merch table and in the middle of this bar. And then we all just wake up to fans just staring at us — and this is our first time there too by the way — and they’re all just standing over us like that [laughs]. And I thought, you know what if my favorite band came to town, had never been to my country before, and I walk into the venue and they’re just asleep there, in front of everyone? I’d totally flip out [laughs].

That’s awesome! I think that’s a great example too because you guys are just normal dudes, who also happen to be in a band like Norma Jean and travel the world for a living. And it’s funny that when things don’t go exactly per schedule, that fans can rock up for a show and catch Norma Jean in their natural habitat: just a couple of guys, sleeping on a couch between gigs.

[Laughs.] That’s true man! I think many bands stop thinking that they’re regular dudes. I’ve seen a lot of musicians get into this ‘royalty’ stage, where they think, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing this for twenty years.’ And I’m like ‘Yeah, me too. I don’t act like that.’ You know? You’re not more important. Every band is made up of regular dudes, and if anything, the only difference is being more or less anti-social, rather being some kind of royalty.

That’s an interesting point you brought up there Cory, and something I was going to touch on with my next question. I was listening to an episode you did for the 100 Words or Less podcast with Ray Harkins from Taken, where you talk about people trying to do music full-time, but not necessarily taking it seriously enough or working hard enough at what they do. And you specifically mention the element of ‘sacrifice’ it takes, to make a band push forward and be successful at almost any level. So, with the current musical climate the way it is, with kids making Facebook profiles and merch and music videos before they’ve even played a show, what advice or perspective can you offer younger bands from your own experience, on what it takes to achieve that type of longevity and consistency in a full-time band?

I think it all goes back to the core rules of being a musician: you have to play shows for people, you have to leave home, and you have to go on tour. I don’t think we’re ever going to shake those. I think a big part of it, is this… instant-gratification, ‘microwave’ society that we all live in. People don’t understand that you have to grow something. If I was going to grow a tree or a plant or something and started with a seed or a plantlet, you have to plant it and water it. It’s not going to grow into an apple tree the very next day.

Yeah, I know what you mean. You have to put down the roots.

That’s the best metaphor for it, and I know it gets over-used, but it’s just the way the world works. It’s how nature works, and it’s how people work too. You’re not going to have any kind of success without it. I mean we have viral videos now, but that stuff isn’t very long-lasting. There’s no longevity in that; those things come and they go just as quickly. It’s funny and cute for a second, and you might sell some t-shirts, and you might make a little money. But if you really want to have an impact on people, and have an impact on the music industry… Which is what I want. I want to have a legacy, and I want people to get something from our music. I don’t just want to be a parting thing or a ‘punk rock thing for the kids.’ I’m not into that. I want longevity, and I definitely want the work that goes into growing a band, and the fans that are dedicated to that, then have something transitory that appears for one second and then goes away. Even if it was brighter than ever.

I’ve seen in other interviews, where you talk about how Norma Jean doesn’t have to tour as much, or as frequently, as the band used to, and to me that comes as a direct reflection of the hard work you guys put into the band in the beginning. I mean, ten years ago, you guys were touring non-stop, on every big festival, and hitting the ground running with every release. It’s that type of commitment and that work ethic, that I think allows you guys as a band, to be in your position now. And that type of ‘long view’ is something that I feel most younger bands are missing too.

Absolutely man. If there’s one other thing that I’ve said plenty of time before, it’s that ‘I’ve seen them come, and I’ve watched them go.’ I’ve seen a lot of bands explode, and be much bigger than us. They might ask us to go on tour with them, when a year or two ago, they might have been on a first-of-four bill with us. There are some of those bands where we took them on their very first tour ever, and that’s happened a lot. We like them, so we take them out, and next thing you know, they’re huge. And they blow up for a while, and then they fizzle out and go away. I think there’s two different kinds of band’s out there, where one might be in some kind of trend, and they’ll follow that and pump that out for a little bit.

But there’s really something to be said about the ‘longevity’ thing, because you can put out a great sounding record, with little to no effort these days. ProTools is insane, and you don’t have to pay a whole lot, to get a good sounding recording. And if you’re a good musician too, you’re going to write good songs. Then it’s a matter of getting that out there, and the Internet’s a great tool for that and you should definitely use it. But if you want real longevity, you have to put that work in and stay away from those trends and experiment a little bit.

For sure. Going back to the new record now, in the press cycle for ‘Polar Similar’ you mentioned that Norma Jean as a band, are looking for something different, to try and make your music more of an emotion that matches the lyrics and helps to tell a story. You also mentioned how ‘Polar Similar’ in your opinion does this better than any other Norma Jean record. So, I wanted to ask what exactly is that ‘story’, and the overall thematic narrative behind the new record?

Oh man… good question! It’s one of those things, that I think is always changing. In all the interviews that I’ve done over the years, one of the most common questions, starts with: ‘What is your favorite [Norma Jean album]?’ And I just can’t answer anything that has that in it.

That’s an extremely difficult question.

It’s impossible! And I know that this isn’t one of those questions, but it comes back to it in a way for me, because I can’t pick a favorite or anything, and I can’t make my mind up. Being a part of this band for so long, the main thing for Norma Jean is kind of knowing that I’m never above reproach musically. There’s always more to learn; there’s always more to do. And so as far as the musical content that comes out of that, it’s just a constant learning process. ‘Polar Similar’ definitely fits in there somewhere, where it’s us experimenting with sound and experimenting with emotion.

In saying that, I don’t there’s an overall, ‘Here’s the lesson learned’ or ‘Here’s what the story is.’ I think it’s better to let fans interpret it on their own, and often times, they’re better at it than I am. I’ve had fans come up to me and say, ‘Is this song about this or that?’ And they’ll come up with the craziest thing, something I personally would never have thought of, and I’m always like ‘Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.’ And sometimes I’ll be like, ‘Yes, it is about that because that’s what it means to you.’ It puts life into the music for me when someone interprets it and adds it to their own life, even though the lyric started as something entirely private to me. I think if there’s any story to be told, it’s that. And we just want to relate to our fans, the way that bands did, that we listened to growing up. You listen to a song and it seems like it’s perfect for your life at that point in time. I don’t think that’s a coincidence; it’s meant to be. You were meant to listen to that song, and even if you look back on it now and think that it’s terrible, it did something for you then and there was an intention behind it, an emotion. That’s what I’m always searching for; how to best do that, and create that, especially for music that isn’t for everyone.

That makes a lot of sense Cory. I was going through the track listing for ‘Polar Similar’, and there’s definitely a concurrent theme around astrophysical terms or concepts: like ‘The Planet’, ‘Forever Hurtling Towards Andromeda’, ‘Synthetic Sun’, ‘The Nebula’ and ‘The Nexus.’ Was there any reasoning or influence behind those, or just something that fitted the music and the ‘vibe’ of the record?

I’d say it was very organic. I think the whole story would be pretty long if I tried to tell it, but the short version is that we had the title ‘Synthetic Sun’, and then the title for ‘Forever Hurtling Towards Andromeda’ came later. There’s definitely a story or larger theme hidden in there, and I think I just wanted a way to kind of tie it all in together. But, the main theme that we wanted to do with this record, is to write something that was meant to be listened to, from beginning to end.

A lot of times — at least with any band I’ve been in any way — you just write a bunch of songs, and then you’re like ‘That’s track one!’ And it’s kind of a joke, like trying to figure out what’s going to be track one for the record. Well, with ‘Polar Similar’, ‘The Planet’ was specifically written to be track one from the beginning, and ‘The Nexus’ was written to be the last. When you write like that, something else happens entirely. That song is almost not even a song, it’s like an intro track, but it’s still its own thing. And lots of really cool things happen with that. So, those song titles are there to just show that there is a story there and that you should listen to the record as a whole. From beginning to the end, and in that order. We even have those little instrumental tracks in there, to kind of break it up a bit, and it’s all been planned in advance. But I really do think that ‘Polar Similar’ is the best thing we’ve ever done, and I know that a lot of bands say that about their new record. It’s the most thought-out thing we’ve ever done, and it’s meant to be experienced in one sitting.

I definitely picked up on that sense of ‘cohesion’ when I listened to the record, and I think it’s a very important aspect too. I’ve listened to the whole record a bunch of times now, and each time was a start-to-finish run, all the way through. In many ways, that’s just how I personally enjoy records, but it certainly adds to it when the record itself is almost designed for that type of listening experience. 

Man. That’s so cool that you say that. We’ve had a lot of people come up to us since the record has been out, and say the same thing. They either enjoyed from the beginning to the end, or they listened to it that way, and kind of ‘got’ that we did it that way on purpose. Which to us, you know, is like ‘Success!’ I think it’s so cool that people picked up on it. In the past when we tried to do stuff like that, there is stuff people don’t know about the other records that we’ve done. We just let it go, and maybe they’ll figure it out some day you know? [Laughs.] There’s some hidden stuff on ‘Meridional’ and there’s some hidden stuff on ‘O’God The Aftermath’ too.

But it is cool that people figured that out for ‘Polar Similar’, and now going to be writing new stuff, we’ll have a better handle on that. There’s always more to learn. There’s always more to do, and I think a lot of musicians forget that. There’s always so much more you can dive into when it comes to emotion, and making it that listening experience as a whole.

I know that you guys finished up a tour run some time ago, for the tenth anniversary of ‘O’God The Aftermath’. What was it like returning to that record in a live setting every night? How is that different from say recording an album from start to finish, but then having to actually play the entire record from start to finish on stage?

There were some cool things about it, and then there were some things that I didn’t like, to be perfectly honest with you. The cool thing about it was that those songs go together so well — played like that in their entirety — than they do, say if we throw ‘Murderotica’ in a set with a ‘Redeemer’ song and a ‘Meridional’ song. That whole record is jagged riffs, and staccato parts, and just kind of nuts. Being able to play it in its entirety, just made sense. It was part of an era, where that’s what we were trying to do for a whole record. It doesn’t really take many other turns until you get to the very end. And a lot of those songs we’ve never played live before, ever. First time on that tour. So it was really cool to see that.

The thing I didn’t like about it, was that the tour was six weeks long. By the end of that tour, I was like ‘I am completely over promoting this record.’ I think it was good that it was like that, and certainly, it wasn’t a negative thing for us because it kicked us into gear to write the new record. Here’s a good example: I went and took vocals lessons, years and years ago. One of the things they taught me, was that if want to hit a high note, that you just can’t get in the studio, sing that same note as low as you can possibly go. You’re just pushing your voice to be really low, and then bam! That high note just comes out. So, that’s kind of how I thought about it. We’re out playing this old, old record — my first ever Norma Jean record, 11 years old this year — and we were just so excited coming off an old record, to just write something new.

It’s weird, because that example you just gave, of doing something old and familiar and then swinging into new territory, almost parallels the title of ‘Polar Similar’. At least to me anyway. It’s similar in the fact that it’s still heavy, and it’s still Norma Jean. But there’s also that notion of a polar opposite, and the band being open to new approaches, new directions, and new things.

And see? There you go, proving my point! [Laughs.] Dude, it happens all the time! Someone always has a cooler or a more detailed explanation of what I just said. That’s awesome, and actually is a very cool observation that I hadn’t really thought of. Coming off that old record, everyone was so tired of it, to be honest. We had a blast on that tour, but we were all burnt out and just so amped to write new stuff. And maybe it’s something that we’ll continue to do.

Well, ‘Redeemer’ just turned ten this year too…

Yeah, ‘Redeemer’ has come and gone actually [laughs]. It did turn ten this year, put we also put out a new record this year, so again it’s just hard to try and push something older when you have something new out. As much as I love that record, and I know that tour would kill and people would definitely come out for it. We want to do something for ‘Redeemer’ though, so we will down the road eventually.

Lastly, I know that you’re busy man: a husband, father, and full-time musician with Norma Jean and now Hundred Suns. Congratulations on hitting your crowd-funding target for Hundred Suns by the way. But I have to ask, will we ever hear this Fear Is The Driving Force record?

[Laughs.] I did not see that one coming! We actually wrote a bunch of new songs, and they’re complete, and we put the demos up. And a lot of those songs are going to be or were at least meant to be re-recorded. Those songs are just demos. That was supposed to fund our recording, and it did, and we managed to do the tracking. But we just didn’t have enough to cover the rest of it. Beyond that, now it’s been a few years since we tracked, so now we’re kind of over those songs [laughs]. So, we kind of have to start all over now. But I have built a studio now, in the last couple of years, so as soon as I get some time off, that’s definitely something that I want to do. It’s just a matter of finding time between Norma Jean, Hundred Suns, and home life. So, someday [laughs].

Awesome! I’ll keep my ears peeled in anticipation. And I think that’s us wrapped for today. Thank you very much for your time Cory, and best of luck with the new record!

Thank you very much, man! I appreciate you guys making time for me.

Polar Similar‘ is out now through Solid State Records. Read our review of the killer new record here

2 Responses to “Norma Jean”

    • Owen Morawitz

      110%. Cory was incredibly humble and a great conversationalist. I definitely got the impression that he’s well-grounded when it comes to walking the fine line between embracing creative artistry and being a full-time musician.

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