The Abused, The Abuser, The Bystander

On Norma Jean's seventh album, the tour de force 'Polar Similar,' vocalist Cory Brandan opens up about previous abuse in his life. The result is a stunning sonic and emotional powerhouse.

Photo by Rachel Putman

To paraphrase Francis Bacon, heavy music is an armature upon which to hang our dark emotions. It is also a vehicle that lends itself quite naturally to addressing difficult and dark topics. At its best, it does both simultaneously.

Polar Similar, Norma Jean’s seventh full length album, does just that. Recorded in the dead of winter at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, the album is brutally raw — musically and thematically. Produced by Josh Barber and mixed by Jeremy Griffith, the Atlanta band’s latest work incorporates elements of each previous Norma Jean album while seamlessly embracing the icy landscape and eerie stillness of the winter timber in which it was recorded; it begat an album that is equal parts atmospheric and aggressive. With drum tones that conjure up the ghost of John Bonham from IV, with a vocal delivery that goes from a detached drone to an unrestrained howl — and still, somehow, incorporates melody — and with guitar tones that have perfectly balanced filth and decay, you’ll be listening to a sonic masterpiece.

Yet a distinct sound that has been honed over (and helped shape) two decades is only half of what makes Polar Similar so profound. Though it exudes emotional darkness, thematic weight abounds. “Polar Similar is about abuse,” the direct quote from the band’s press release — it’s how they’ve specifically chosen to color the first lens through which we see the album. With a timeliness that reveals an acute awareness of the cultural atmosphere, lead singer Cory Brandan has allowed the story of his abuse to become Bacon’s collective armature where we can all hang our experiences. Publicly working through his issues helps others to cope, even if it is privately. Brandan’s angst-filled crooning and exasperation perfectly portrays the deliberate detachment of contemplation, inviting you to consider your own wounds and join the melodic scream that waits around the next musical phrase where, hopefully, we’ll all be screaming together.

It was never intended to be an inequitable affair. While the opening cut, “1. The Planet,” begins with “I hope you burn,” the decade since Brandan’s experience of abuse has given him perspective, and his excellence in lyricism and maturity paints the album with songs from all sides: the abused, the abuser, and the bystanders.

Make no mistake: Polar Similar is not just an outlet for Brandan’s catharsis. This breadth of vision does not, of course, undermine the effect of the music. If anything, it enhances the effort, affording Norma Jean the space to brood, to reflect, to lament, and then — inevitably — to lash out with the musical fury so intensely connected with the band’s chosen genre. It’s the depth of this emotional dynamic that gives Polar Similar its undeniable intensity. This is a heavy album, but heavy does not imply hopeless. Instead, Polar Similar offers victims of abuse the opportunity to acknowledge their own experiences and continue the journey towards healing with others. There is power in speaking of our experiences, as that action opens us up to the company of others; Polar Similar reminds us that we are not alone in our pain.

Who engineered produced the record?
The record was produced by Josh Barber, who did Wrongdoers, which turned out really great. We were in a really small studio for Wrongdoers, and that record came out sounding huge. We just thought he was great; he’s a really good mix of artistic direction and, even more than that, extreme studio knowledge. For lack of a better word, he’s a studio nerd, and that’s exactly what every band needs if you’re gonna go make a good record: someone who knows how to run a studio. It was mixed by Jeremy Griffith, who also mixed Wrongdoers, and he also produced Meridional. He just puts the magic on there. It’s the guys we worked with before, so, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Tell me about Pachyderm Studios.
The studio is where Nirvana did In Utero, Failure did Comfort there, PJ Harvey did her first record there — just insane records came out of this place. And talking to the owners and manager, they said the place just went to crap. They let it go, basically. It was abandoned, and they let it get taken over by wanderers. I don’t want to say homeless, because it’s more like they chose to live that way. They would just gather there and live in the house and have a big party and live on the property. He said that once they actually got back into the place, they had to remodel it, which is what we were in: a remodeled version of that studio. There were still people trying to live there, like hiding in attics and stuff! Super crazy.

But the place is really old. It has a lot of history. It’s two separate buildings; there’s a house and studio on the same property. So we woke up every day in this really cool house — it has a really old, kinda creepy The Shining vibe to it. Sort of dark and hollow, and I think being in that environment really comes through on the record.

“The thing we’re looking for in Norma Jean is not just a sonic power, but to be emotionally powerful as well. And that’s something you can’t get out of a computer or all the stuff we use in a studio. You have to find different ways to do that.”

Did you guys do any work to make that come through, or did you just let it happen, trust the engineer and go?
No, we absolutely changed the record completely once we were there. We talked every night, and there was this big table, a big, wooden, Vikings-style table that we would all sit at and eat together. Some of my favorite memories in life are going to be sitting at that table with all the guys and everyone that worked on Polar Similar and just talking about it. We were developing the theme, the idea behind it. And just being in that environment, we made up things to suit the environment. We didn’t have those ideas until we got to the studio. Even though the record was technically finished, we went and changed a lot of things and added some things. And a lot of that came from actually recording inside the house, rather than in the studio.

I’ve got to ask: I grew up in Minnesota, so were you there in the winter or in the summer?
Dead smack in the winter, man. It was January, it was cold and snowy, and it was insane, but I loved it! My room had a balcony on it, so I went out there, and, when you go out there’s a trout stream, and you could hear it the whole time. No matter where you stood outside, it was so quiet out there, you could hear that stream. It’s always running. It was -18 degrees one time, and that stream was still running. You could still hear it. And so I have really cool memories of standing on that balcony, and I just loved it. It didn’t matter how cold it was, I stood out there in my underwear and barefoot. In the snow. Just to say I did it. Mission accomplished.

You didn’t do a polar bear plunge or anything, did you?
No. No. I have a really cool story about that, though. We were in Sweden once, on the northern coast, and they had a big block off of this water, and it was freezing cold. And we did jump in that — it wasn’t ice though — and then ran and jumped in a hot tub. Just freaky to go between the two.

The cold. Something that stood out to me listening to the record is that you hear the cold in there. How do you get “cold” on a record?
Well, I’m glad that feeling and vibe comes through, because it was intentional. You just really have to dig in and do it. I mean, we live in a time now where you can record at home, and your demo can sound better than records that cost millions of dollars to make.

The thing that we’re looking for in Norma Jean is not just a sonic power, but to be emotionally powerful as well. And that’s something you can’t get out of just Pro Tools or a computer or all the stuff we use in a studio. You have to find different ways to do that. It really is just about recording that environment. We did put mics outside, and the songs were written to be cold sounding. We want the songs to match the emotion that the lyrics are telling.

Speaking of sounds, I hear elements of your previous records on Polar Similar. Was that intentional or just a natural progression of writing and being Norma Jean?
I think that’s just a natural thing. I mean, when I came into this band in 2004, I started writing for it, and I ended up writing 85-90 percent of the music. And it wasn’t really until Meridional came around that Scottie (Henry, former Norma Jean guitarist) started really writing a lot of stuff. And then Daniel (Davison, former Norma Jean Drummer) was a strong songwriter before, and now Jeff (Hickey, guitarist) is a very strong songwriter, and he writes a ton of our music. And it really comes down to the fact that you can’t help but be yourself.

As much as we want to change every record and try new things and experiment with new things, you’re still gonna come through. I mean, I don’t really hear that necessarily, but listeners will hear it. That’s kind of a cool thing, too: Listeners get to hear a record for the first time. We never get that. And that’s kind of a sad fact about being musicians and writers is that you never get to hear your music like anyone else will. It’s kind of this depressing, weird thing, but it’s also cool because you get to hear about your record from people in different ways that you wouldn’t have thought of it.

Norma Jean photo by David Jackson

Norma Jean photo by David Jackson

The topic of abuse is timely for a lot of people in this country. And as more and more stories of abuse come out, there’s a critical mass that starts to happen. And, first of all, thank you for being a part of that and lending your voice. I think that’s really important. It’s important to have men talking about it, too, because it tends to get stereotyped. So thank you for doing that.

How do you want the record to empower people?
The whole reason behind me even coming out about it is that: That’s the purpose of it. Normally, I would never divulge what a song is really about. I mean, I might here and there, I might if a fan asked me, but generally I like people to interpret them on their own. I think it’s a cooler way to listen to music and you get more out of it that way. Me telling people what a song’s about kind of ruins it a little bit.

But with this topic, I think it’s one of those things that hits close to home for me. I mean, I was in an abusive relationship for some years, and — being a man — that’s not easy to say. And — also being a man — you get that, “Don’t be a pussy” kind of thing. But it is a very real thing, and I’m very detached from that now. Not hurt by it anymore. I’m a totally different person from those times, and I feel like, (when) thinking about that, it’s not something I have to dig up or something that hurts to think about. It’s now something I want to use to talk about — in a real way — and, hopefully, someone can get something out of that. Man, woman, or child. I think the most important thing is that when it comes to an abusive relationship or any kind of abusive behavior, a lot of people just don’t know that they’re there. They don’t know that they’re in that situation. And I think that’s the first step, to notice that and to start figuring out what you’re going to do about it.

So, there are a few songs on the record that are written from different perspectives, from an “outside looking in” perspective, which is most people. And I think that’s very important because being on the outside looking in makes you feel trapped, and it can tear families and friendships apart, because you don’t know what to do about it. And why would you? Usually a victim will be very protective of someone that’s abusing them — to the point of separating themselves, or being separated. And so it’s a hard thing, and I really wanted to get it from a couple different perspectives.

One of the songs is actually from the perspective of the abuser, what’s going on in their mind, and how abuse will carry on to other people who were abused. It’s a crazy, crazy subject that I think goes deeper than a lot of people think. It isn’t just a “wear this ribbon,” you know? It’s something that people have to really think about and realize where those situations are. Not to overreact, you know, you’re not in an abusive relationship just because you got yelled at. Don’t go too far. But abuse is a real thing that we need to take seriously.

What do you think about the genre of metal for dealing with this topic?
I have to go back to when I first started listening to heavy music in general — I’ve told this story quite a few times — and the first time I ever went to a show where someone was yelling into a mic. I was like, “What the heck was that?” And the guy was reading the lyrics because he couldn’t remember them, and he was doing that but he still had all this energy. And in between songs, they were yelling about what the songs were about. And that’s how I know heavy music.

Screaming isn’t a vocal style to me. It’s more of an emotion. I looked at that dude, and I was like, “He means this so much that he has to yell about it. He has to scream it.” And the band knows what that song is about, too, and they play harder. But if you were to take that and take the gain off, it would probably be really bluesy or something like that. I think it’s the best type of music to get out those kind of emotions, when you want to be angry about something, to be dark about something. Sometimes I find that just being as dark as I can lyrically is cathartic, because you’re getting it out there for everyone to hear. Even on topics that I don’t want to talk about one-on-one, I’ll put it on paper and talk about it in front of thousands of people. It’s this really strange relationship between music and listener that comes into play. And heavy music, not just metal, but heavy music in general is the best way to do it.

I agree.
Adele can suck it. I don’t want to hear you whine about your break-up. Like. Shut-up.

Can she scream about it?
(Laughs) Yeah, go scream about it.

(You’ve talked about) how the music needed to match the subject matter. Do you want to flesh that out a little more?
Yeah. The main thing about that is that it makes the writing process a little harder, because you want to find out what themes you want to talk about early on. So once we got those themes, we would try to write parts to surround that emotion. Usually it’s the other way around; you write all the music so it sounds cool, and then you write lyrics over it. And you get great songs that way! There is nothing wrong with that at all. Every band should do that. But doing it thematically is just a cool thing to experiment with and change things up a little bit to try to find the emotion first for certain parts. And then write the parts based on that. And so all of Polar Similar is that. I think it comes out, it’s just a lot harder to do. It’s pretty nerve wracking at times. And we may not do that on the next record (laughs).

Does it feel vulnerable?
Yeah, absolutely, but vulnerable on purpose. And I think it makes everyone involved on the project feel the same way. But after every day, we would come back inside and go, “Wow. This is going to be awesome.” We were blown away every day because we knew that we were making something special.

You guys are back on Solid State Records. Is that like a homecoming?
You know, we became free agents last year, and we just put it out there when we were able to. We were talking to several people, but — at the end of the day — when you’re talking about a label, you’re looking for a team of people that you see a passion in. You see that they want to work for the record and back it and get it. That’s what we were looking for. There are a lot of labels that can put great offers on the table, but how enthusiastic are they about it? That’s what we were looking for, and Solid State took the cake. Once we started talking to them, we knew that no one else was going to be able to compete with them because that team of people is invaluable.

It’s a totally different crew over there, and I specifically remember a conversation with me and our manager and our A&R at Solid State/Tooth and Nail, and we asked him, Hey, are you leaving? Because if you are, then we don’t want to have anything to do with this. Because we’re coming for you and what you bring to the table. Just that dude and those people — and they’ve been killing it. They’ve done such a great job for the record, and we’re excited to be back.

So you’ve got a new member. Tell me about that.
The new guy’s name is Philip, and he’s been a good friend of ours for quite a while. We’ve never really seen this band as, “Here’s some faces to go with this music. You should relate these people to this sound.” All of our records sound different. Basically, we don’t consider ourselves “a band” like that.

We feel like that idea of “here’s some clean cut faces or whatever you’ve got to go along with this music” was invented by a record label to market a boy band. And that idea, that marketing strategy, was taken worldwide and now that’s just normal to do. “Here’s our band.” “This band wears make-up.” “This band has masks.” “This band has a pirate theme. they wear bandanas and stuff.” You know what I mean? Norma Jean doesn’t fit that. We’ve always seen ourselves as a collective. A collective of friends that want to make music together. Honestly, we’re not good at the image thing. And never really have been. It’s a sad fact of Norma Jean.

It’s not that sad!
(Laughs) It’s kind of a funny thing. But the music was always more important. At the end of the day, if I sat a stereo in front of someone and played a band through it and you didn’t know what they looked like or who they were it was just, “Do you like this or not…” I think that’s the thing that people forget about music nowadays.

We have a loyalty to people sometimes, a loyalty to a sound or genre. But there’s so many different kinds of music out there. But I say be loyal to none of those things. Do you like the music or not? The people that made it, after they made it, basically become invisible. They become irrelevant, because the music has a life of its own. And in that same sense I always add in that there’s all these different kinds of music. Don’t just be a hardcore guy, like, “Hardcore for life!” C’mon, really? Just that genre? Nothing else? I mean, that’s ridiculous. I’ve never had any loyalties to genre or sound. And that’s what Norma Jean is. So the Norma Jean collective continues.

That’s what this is now, that’s what Polar Similar is. I challenge anybody that might be wary about old members gone and new members come to listen to the record, listen to Wrongdoers, and tell me if you like it or not. Listen to it with an open mind or an open heart, almost like you don’t know the name of the band. Check it out from that perspective, and you will like it. If you like heavy music, you will like this record.

Do you have a favorite song on the new record?
That’s a hard one. Polar Similar is kind of one big song. I think people will get that once they listen to it. It was intentionally written with a first track in mind — which we’ve never done before — and a last track in mind. When you’re writing and thinking, “This is going to be track one,” you write something different than if you were just writing songs and putting them in whatever order. So, I can’t pick a favorite. It’s just impossible. I suck at favorites because my mind changes too much. Extreme ADD. Some people can do it, but I can’t. I mean top ten lists? If you look up my top ten records of life, I’ve answered that a few times, and they’re all different (laughs).

What’s one question you never get asked but you wish you would?
You know, that doesn’t usually happen. But when I get asked an open ended question, I usually close with this: Support music by buying it. Support the music you love and keep it alive, and the way you do that is by buying records. Whether it’s online, iTunes, Amazon, a bookstore, or at the merch table, support the artists you love by buying records.

Norma Jean was posted on September 7, 2016 for HM Magazine and authored by .