Interview || The One with Cory Brandan of Norma Jean

Norma Jean is a household name in the post hardcore scene. Their earlier records are considered seminal, having helped define an entire genre and nurtured a complex sound from underground scenes to gaining respect from much wider audiences. On October 25th 2019, Norma Jean released their 8th studio album titled "All Hail" and we had the opportunity to discuss its creation and changes within the band with vocalist Cory Brandan.


© Michelle Ritzmann photography

U: You recently released your 8th studio album, “All Hail”. How's the reception been so far?

Cory Brandan: Yes. Very excited to finally have this out. It was a long process that we took almost all of 2018 off to write. The reception has been way beyond our expectations. Just with comparing to past releases, we can see that it has a great life of its own. Very thankful to all of our fans for embracing the new era of our little collective. 

U: Let me start with the easy questions. Most people are familiar with the story behind the title. How do you feel when, after all these years, people are using the phrase “all hail the almighty Norma Jean” knowing they mean it in a deeply personal way?

C.B.: Our fans and their stories are a huge inspiration behind this album and the title is really dedicated to them that made that title come to life. They threw around “The Almighty” years ago and we adopted it using it on our box set and many other ways, and “All Hail” came around the same way. It’s really all become part of our identity and its been amazing to watch it all fall into place. but hearing their stories really made us zoom out and now we feel like what we do now isn't just riffs in a row. Its important. I think this about anything anyone does. What you do is important and all I want is for more people to know that. When you create something whether it be building something, having a family,  or just making music with that in mind, it forces you to make sure you do it with intention. We’ve been inspired by them, and we wanted to turn around make something inspirational in return. Again, just so thankful for all of them. 

U: Structurally, the album is divided in three parts. Was that a conscious decision?

C.B.: Somewhat. We just feel like sometimes an album needs what we call “palate cleansers”. A lot of our records have places where if you're doing a full listen, there's a purposeful break. On "All Hail" we pointed that out blatantly with one of the titles even. But overall it was meant to gradually tyransform into something completely different by the end with songs like “if [Loss] Then [Leader]. "Careen", and "Anna". You might be able to hear how it starts to foreshadow that transition throughout without it being too obvious. 

U: The transition from “Polar Similar” to “All Hail” also saw a new lineup for Norma Jean . How did the dynamic inside the band change?

C.B.: I could probably write an essay on this haha. We have a pretty laid back approach to who is involved. There are pros and cons to that. There’s always a learning curve when theres new chemistry to be made so some things take longer here and there. At the end of the day we’re talking about people and different lives and inspirations. but also there are staples to how we write and people that are a part of it all that hold it down. Like, my brother, Matthew who has worked with me on almost every album since "O’ God..." was a much bigger part of the writing and preproduction process for "All Hail" start to finish. Matt Marquez who was with us post-"Meridional"/"Wrongdoers" era made a come back and contributed in great ways. SO instant chemstry there. Grayson Stewart is on guitar and really showed up to prove himself with songs like “Landslide” and “Errors”. I’m here as well and I do a lot of the structural and dynamic work within the music. Jeff as well. It’s just hard to explain because it looks like chaos I bet. So yeah, theres some ups and downs to it. Can’t lie, but it ends up adding fresh air to the project in the end.


© Dearohwell photography

U: You worked with Will Putney for the record, who is known to have Midas touch. How did this collaboration come about?

C.B.: Will was the best. We really just let him in and treated him like another member. He has a great process and seems to cater to the bands he’s working with individually. We like a looser feel and he was able to make that happen without loosing the “punch” we wanted. And overall, he’s the reason we were able to beat everything else we’ve done in a sonic way. Can’t say enough good things about Will. I knew once we got into the studio that I could chill out and just be a singer and that he would take good care of the album. All Hail to  Will!

U: There is a certain darkness surrounding “All Hail”. Can you guide us through the ideas that lead to the creation of the album? 

C.B.: It’s hard to say. It tends to seem like it just comes out that way. We’re just  more drawn to that vibe. We also have some specific chord progressions that we use a lot and lots of atmosphere underneath. More than anything, it’s important that the part matches the emotion of the song. Writing with that intention forces you to pay attention to things that you might not before. At the end of the day, there’s not really a specific process we do, but there’s a method to the madness. 

U: You have two (for lack of better word) power-ballads, both exceeding five minutes in length, and to close the album with an acoustic instrumental track. First of all, what was the biggest challenge when you started composing “Careen” and “Anna”? Did you intend to produce bigger songs (both sonically and duration-wise)? And finally, do you think it was a step out of your comfort zone when you chose to make a last impression with “The Mirror And the Second Veil” instead of using  yet another pummelling song?

C.B: Haha. Power ballads works! It wasn’t really that intentional besides that we wanted a lot of dynamics on the album. Just some noticeable ups and downs. "Careen" started as that bass line with Jeff doing all his high reverb type atmosphere on it. I had an idea for something to sing on it and we eventually turned it into a full song. We figured since it was already a low dynamic that we might as well do whatever we wanted. I think "Anna" was a bit more the direction that we’ve been headed for some songs for a while. Anything "Meridional" and beyond. I think those two songs are a natural direction coming from "Polar Similar". The outro after "Anna" was a hot mic and Grayson jamming around on an acoustic. That was just what he was playing at the time so we slapped it at the end and added a piano note under it and some random noises. From all the planning we did, it was just a good opposite “mirror” to end the album with. Starts one way and ends another gradually over the course of the album. Definitely meant to listen to it all the way through at least once. 

U: Over time, the sound of Norma Jean expanded, all while maintaining the idiosyncratic core that nurtured an entire scene. Although that change feels organic, did it come naturally as members changed and/or grew older, or was it a prerequisite to break the mold/expectations of “how Norma Jean should sound”?

C.B.: We’re always saying that we want to break away from the thing we did before, but everything tends to still seem like a “next chapter” rather than an ultra clean break. One way we do that is to find at least one or two things we can focus on to change up or add to the overall idea. So for "All Hail" it was to have a bigger sound sonically and paying attention to the dynamics in volume, contrast, and really diving into the story and concept more than ever. and I think thats something we feel we can expand on even more. We do have a foundation for how we do things but there’s more of a sour mash technique to making sure we learn as we go. We never want to be in a place where we think we got it all figured it out and can’t push each other to be better. 


© Dearohwell photography

U: If you could cast each member of the band as a superhero, who would each member be?


C.B. I’m pretty terrible at all the less popular super heroes and I think I’d need to know that that to really get this right, so ill just let others decide that. Grayson would maybe be someone that can morph into different people or something. He has a really good skill where he can have ideas that can be whatever you’re looking. Just has a great ear for music and is always able to adapt to anything. Matt would be someone that can teleport maybe. He just has so many projects he’s always working on and is always down to jump somewhere and pick up a new thing on a moments notice. My brother Matt is more of a behind the scenes member. So maybe he’d be the invisible guy that keeps his ear to the ground and brings back all the info we need to keep us grounded. I’d probably be that guy that yells and you explode. or maybe you just get annoyed and leave. Who knows? Why doesn't that guy just make the other guys lose their hearing though? 

U: If you could have a one-minute phone conversation with a younger you, what age would you call and what would you tell yourself?

C.B.: I’d call me at like 14 and tell me that high school is bullshit and to just stop going.

U: What do you want the band's legacy to be?

C.B.: Whether its the music we make, or our live show, I think I’d want to be known as a project overall where anyone is welcome and can get away for awhile. And if anything, be entertained. As much as we dive into our work, and how we want the music we create to be honest without cutting corners, at the end of the day, it all boils down to that same idea we had from the beginning. A bad ass rock show and some sick riffs. We still have so much fun and our fans are the best people. Wrongdoers crew!

U: Thank you for your time. Any final words?

C.B.: If you haven’t listened to NJ in a while, check out the new album or any of the last few we’ve done. Worth a shot. Thanks!

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