“All hail the Almighty Norma Jean.”
Over the years, this phrase has been canonized as a salute to one of the all-time giants in metal music. The 22-year old band, whose rich and storied history is encyclopedic, recently released their eighth studio album, All Hail, and, in an embrace, Norma Jean has turned their focus back to the fans with an album to honor their stories, their loyalty, and the community they’ve built.
Three years since Polar Similar, All Hail is a hard-hitting behemoth – something you’d expect from the band – a work of pure, violent, heavy sound that tangles you up in its technical weeds and holds you under with its massive waves. Speaking with frontman Cory Brandan, he describes to me the sacrificial nature of his writing process and the ebbs and flows of living life while writing and performing music alongside your best friends. It’s impossible not to think about how rewarding and exhausting it is for Brandan (et. al.) to release something that so effectively captures the agglomeration of heart, mind, creativity, struggle, and existence – an album is never just an album. And All Hail is much more than just an ode to a phrase set in motion by any single fan. It’s a movement, rippling from generation to a new generation of those who choose to believe in what a band can do for them. It’s a reflection, distinguishing what’s real from what we are able to see. It’s a mirror, held up to the unchangeable past and looking into the wild unknown.
First, I wanted to ask what you’ve been listening to.
I recently got into this band called Don Broco. I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s like UK heavy pop. It’s just fun. Another one I’d recommend checking out is the newest Bring Me the Horizon album. I think it’s great. It’s kind of the same thing, and, after discovering that that’s a thing, it’s kind of become a little bit of an obsession.
I get that. When you’re so immersed in heavy music, sometimes it’s nice to listen to other things, too.
Yeah. And the thing is: Those records are heavy. I mean heavy, like, not necessarily guitars and drums. They use a lot of pop elements, it’s really catchy, but they use a lot of dark, heavy vibes. It’s really cool. So definitely check those out.
You guys were in the K! Pit recently, and you also played a super tiny venue here in Memphis not too long ago.
Oh! That was one of my favorite Memphis shows, by the way.
I was so bummed to be out of town, but I heard it was nuts. Even though the AC was out.
At least they had some pretty good ventilation. It wasn’t horrible. I’ve played some shows where it’s like, you play one song and then you think, I want to go stand outside. NOW. I need to get out of this room. So it wasn’t too bad. We had a lot of fun, and our new guitarist is from there.
Yeah, he’s a friend of mine actually.
Oh, cool! Yeah, Clay’s a good dude. (Editor’s Note: Clay Crenshaw joined the band as a touring guitarist in 2019.)
He is a good dude. Memphis is super proud of him for making it on with you guys. Do you like those smaller shows, or do you like having a little more elbow room?
I like having a bit more room (laughs). I think it would be nice to have both, honestly. But if you’re going to play a smaller show, I’d still like to have more room. I don’t necessarily have a preference, as long as there are good vibes. That sounds like a cliché, but that really is (best) if everyone’s having fun and they’re loose.
The biggest show on the tour we just did was actually a Norma Jean hometown show. Our fans really, really rolled out, and Fit For a King’s fans really rolled out. It was a cool, great show, one of the biggest on the tour, but I don’t know if the vibes can really beat some of the smaller shows, you know? So, it really does come down to that. I mean, playing in front of a lot of people is really awesome. The more the merrier.
You also released a few new songs this summer. … Do you think those songs are a good representation of All Hail?
Yeah, definitely. The second half of the album is kind of hard to explain. Typically, when we make a record, we try to do the normal peaks and valleys with the track listings. This record has a much different flow. It comes out swinging and transitions into a lot more atmosphere toward the end of the record. There’s a slow transition, and it was done on purpose. The record was really meant to be listened to from the beginning to the end, at least one time. There’s a story to be told, a theme, and a concept. We hope people know that, and, if they don’t, I mean, it’s still a rock album.
“We do whatever we can to serve the album. The album is in charge.”
Can you tell me about the major themes and influences that played into the writing?
Yeah, totally. It’s hard to explain because the content on the album was a lot of actual soul searching and straight up, almost college-thesis-style research based on ideas that were coming to me for the album. The way I write is very stream-of-thought, so I’ll write down a lot, and I don’t even know what it’s all about; I’ll just find meaning in it. I think with every record we’ve done, it’s like the song tells us what it’s about. We just embrace that. So that theme wasn’t necessarily planned, but once we saw that a couple of songs fit with that, I went in hard and embraced that idea. I almost forced it in a way, but I didn’t have to. It came pretty naturally.
I would say the album has a mirror theme. That’s what I call it. It’s two sides, and it’s meant to be interpreted from that perspective. If you think of a mirror (or something you see all the time) and if you’re looking at yourself, you’re used to the same room all the time. We don’t think about what’s necessarily behind us because it’s the same thing every day. And we’re used to that.
That’s very cryptic.
I love it. The album art is also very Norma Jean, but also super bold and unique. It really reflects what you’re talking about. As you say all this, it makes more sense. Where’d that come from?
It all goes together. The hands on the front are basically mirror images of each other but not really. I love this theme because what we see is actually all flipped. It’s interesting to think that we are used to a flipped version of ourselves, and that’s all we’ve ever seen. You see an opposite version of yourself every day when you look at a mirror. It’s just an interesting concept when you think about it from the perspective of our lives and even history.
You know, one of the bigger concepts on the album, for instance, is that coincidence is not real. Even down to what it means to coincide, the word doesn’t even work like we think it does. So yeah, I don’t believe in coincidence. I think there are consequences to things, and if you question everything and think, Oh, that wasn’t a coincidence, that was on purpose – yes, you’re right. But it was based on somebody’s decisions.
What’s your favorite moment on the record? One part or one line that just felt so good and came out exactly how you wanted it.
I think when we’re writing an album, there’s so much technical work that goes in, and there’s definitely a lot of emotional work that goes in. The way we write, we try to match the emotional content to the technical work in a song. We’re not just translating emotions into words, we’re translating them into sounds as well, for those specific parts.
And something that we really dive into on this album – I think it’s still something we’re experimenting with – is when you have an idea and sometimes it’s the opposite. It’s that mirror theme again. You think, “This part feels like this, so this is what I’m going to write.” There was one song called “Careen” on the album. Not to get too personal, but all the guitars and structure were written by Jeff (Hickey, guitarist and bassist) when he was going through a struggling time. And within that year and a half, there was a struggling time for me, as well. So I matched him on that. It’s one of those, “I don’t want to but I’m going to to serve the song” moments. That’s how we think of it. It’s not just a bunch of cool riffs.
We do whatever we can to serve the album. The album is in charge, so that song is the really special moment for me, where we’re talking about the most real thing. It just came so easy, too. He put the song down and I put the words down and it was like, “Here you go. It’s done.” It turned out to be so cool. Those are always the best to me.
This band has been around (as Norma Jean) for more than 18 years in various chapters and capacities. How do you keep yourself inspired to make new music or to find new ways to approach songwriting?
It changes every album. And it really comes down to trying, for each album, finding at least one thing that we haven’t done before. It can be the simplest thing.
On this album, there was a pretty simple idea to set a goal for ourselves to sonically beat everything we’ve done. We wanted it to be very big sonically, loud and heavy, and have a lot of punch to it. That’s one of the reasons we went to Will Putney. I think that was a way for us to step out of what we were used to and experiment with something else and try it. Stuff like that is how we do it. We’re getting to hear a new version of ourselves, you know, and there’s discovery involved. It’s not just, “Well, this worked last time so let’s do it again.” I think that’s where a lot of bands tend to fail because they’re not having fun.
And really, on this album, inspiration-wise, it was our fans. The album was essentially named by them. They didn’t know it was, and it wasn’t like we asked them to name it and they picked something. They kind of started doing the “All hail the Almighty Norma Jean” thing, and it’s been a fun thing over the past several years. There’s also a few songs on the album inspired by fan stories, so we thought they were the biggest inspiration for this record. It made sense for us to name the album after them. So many things like that. For this one, we felt so much love for our fans, and we wanted to put something out there for them. It’s a “for them, by them” kind of thing.
What’s changed for you guys over the years, sonically, or even just the way you do Norma Jean? I know you’ve had some member changes and whatnot, but as far as where you’re at right now, what’s changed even since the last album?
That’s such a cool question. I think one thing with what we have going on right now, in some conversations we’ve had, is trying to make sure we’re at least all growing at the same rate. It’s impossible for five people from different places in their lives, even if you’re siblings. (Maybe it’d be easier, but even then.)
We want to make sure that at least we’re communicating with each other. I think 100 percent of keeping a band together comes down to communication. The whole phrase: “You don’t grow together, you grow apart.” We’ve been trying to focus on that and be better at that. I mean, it’s hard to do, and we’re not always going to agree on everything. But most of the time we will if we talk about stuff. I think that if we’re holding a bunch of stuff in, a bunch of little problems can seem like a big problem when, really, those are all tiny little things that could have been worked out when they came up.
“It’s music. And we’re drawn to heavy music, so that’s what we’re going to make.”
That’s kind of our thing. No being offended allowed. We have to be able to talk to each other. There has to be stability to the conversation, even if you’re blown away by what someone thinks or feels. Now we can at least talk about it. When things are hidden, I don’t think that’s a good way to show kindness to people, because you’re important, too. You shouldn’t be holding stuff in, you know? So for us, that’s it. Be better friends. We have to be with each other so much, it’s important that we make sure it’s constructive and not just a job.
I always say there are two different groups of people in your life that you can’t walk away from: your family and your band.
Yeah! And Norma Jean has had member changes, but I know for me, it’s always been friends in a band. That’s really how I think of it. The friendship is more important. Our family dynamic is more important than “the band.” The band is five important people, and it’s a band because we are five guys who made an agreement with each other to do a project together, work on music together, tour together, and write about real things. We believe that what we do will be important to at least someone, so we want to make sure we’re doing it right. I feel like there’s always pressure from both sides – to create something new and evolve as individuals, but also deliver the same sound and nostalgia that people think they want. I feel like it’s getting better, but that dichotomy definitely still exists.
Do you feel that tension as a band?
You really know what you’re talking about, this is so cool. I think we do feel that, and I think it’s okay because I don’t think music is competitive – necessarily – but it is in different ways. I’ve seen some bands compete. Like, “we have to have a better show” or whatever, and that’s okay. But competition isn’t envy. It’s never like, “I don’t want them to do the same thing as us.” Every band can get “this thing reminds me of this band or this type of sound.” But, for me, it’s awesome you even think that because even if I don’t know what that is, there is probably some kind of inspiration behind it.
Just trying to find a positive way to think about it. At the end of the day, it’s music. It’s entertainment, you know? There is supposed to be a fun aspect to it, even if that fun is diving into a rabbit hole or getting a creepy feeling at a show, like a horror movie. There are so many ways you can think about it if you go about it that way. But yeah, there’s pressure for us to keep up. We don’t have loyalties to genre or sound or recording style or anything like that. There’s no traditionalism necessarily. It’s music. And we’re drawn to heavy music, so that’s what we’re going to make.
Sometimes, a new record can really define where a band is at – or where they’re going.
Do you think this is one of those albums? Where is Norma Jean going from here?
Yeah, I think – for us – it’s always that. There are some records that are way more transitional and some that we’ve tried new things to experiment more. I think a big record for us was The Anti-Mother transition because we kind of felt like we had to catch up with ourselves a little bit. There was so much that we wanted to try, and it was a big roll of the dice. But if we didn’t make that record, Meridional wouldn’t have happened. We couldn’t have learned all the things on that record, and yeah, it might be misunderstood, but it’s still cool and it had a purpose. It got us to the next thing.
I feel that with records every once in a while. They’re not always the album that is misunderstood, though. I think Wrongdoers was transitional to Polar Similar. And I think this album is transitional to get us to what we’re doing next, but I don’t think it’ll be misunderstood. It hasn’t been so far at least. We came out of the studio with this one, excited to do more.
Norma Jean was posted on December 1, 2019 for HM Magazine and authored by Nao Lewandowski.