This is a Romance

How Norma Jean took love and made it ‘Wrong’

Photo by Spencer Chapin

Norma Jean is one of those bands that has made a reputation for being groundbreaking and influential. In the early 2000s, the trend was to sound like them – or Underoath – but no one could replicate what was as good as the original. Shortly after the band’s debut, then-frontman and founding member Josh Scogin dropped the bomb he would be exiting, that God had called him on to other things. Norma Jean found a permanent replacement for him in ex-Eso-Charis vocalist Cory Brandan Putman and the band crafted its long-awaited follow-up to that groundbreaking debut, Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child, with the fittingly titled O God, the Aftermath. Now, eight years and five albums later, Norma Jean is still pushing the bounds of what the music industry defines as metal.

Wrongdoers is Norma Jean’s finest album to date. Most bands would say that every record is better than the last, and when I talked with Cory about the subject, he agreed. “Yeah, I do think that every band says that,” Putman said. “It’s not from lack of evidence. Basically, what it comes down to is that there are elements of (Wrongdoers) that are definitely better. I think listening to it, fans will notice, sonically, it’s the most powerful record we have put out. It’s the loudest; I think the drum sounds and vocal sounds are clearer.

“As far as the actual recording goes, it’s definitely better than anything we have done. As far as the songwriting goes, I think it’s the best, but that’s really up to the listener. I know people are going to have their favorite records — I mean, one of my favorite bands in the world is Smashing Pumpkins, and as much as I love most of the things that band does, my favorite record is still Siamese Dream. So, I can’t be in a band now, but as a music fan, say it’s not OK for a fan to pick (their favorite record) and not love it more than (the others). I don’t know if someone will pick up this record and say it’s their favorite, but if it’s not, that’s okay with us.”

As a band, the group likes to keep fans in the loop, so it lets the world have an inside look at some of the day-to-day processes that went into making its first album in three years. Putman told me how excited he was that the process was complete. “Oh, dude, we’re super stoked. Everyone worked really hard on this – to the point of being sick of it. I’m kind of glad it’s over, but I think that happens when you stress yourself out so much when making something, caring about something so much. After it’s all done, you get to take a look back and see what you’ve made, and it all makes sense. You see all the work you put into it, even if sometimes it turns out to be just cardboard and plastic.”

The band is open to the world, and they love letting others in. Not just socially, releasing a number of behind-the-scenes clips online, but also with other bands. They’re not strangers to having special guests on their albums, and Wrongdoers is no different. “Aaron Crawford was co-producing the record with (producer) Josh (Barber) – and he’s a great drummer – so he did some percussion parts on the album,” Putman said. “My cousin, Patrick, he’s really an amazing cellist, and his friend Barron came in and played violin on ‘Sun Dies, Blood Moon.’ My brother, Adam, did organ, piano and Wurlitzer parts on ‘Sun Dies, Blood Moon,’ as well as the organ stuff on ‘Hive Minds.’ He also did a lot of weird noises on the record; he came in and brought some toys and played around. Jon Kindler, previously of The Chariot, also came in and did some vocals on ‘If You Got It At Five, You Got It At Fifty.’”

If you expect to hear all this live, Norma Jean hasn’t “really thought about that yet,” Putman said, “but I think that’d be something we would like to do. I don’t even think we’d know how to do it, but maybe someday we’ll figure that out.”

Wrongdoers was recorded in Kansas City, Mo., at Covenant Studios with Barber. Barber is best known for his work with Facedown Records’ bands like Hands, Your Memorial, Hope for the Dying and Everything in Slow Motion. I wondered why Norma Jean did not go back to Jeremy Griffith to produce this record, instead of confining him to just mixing and mastering the record.

“We originally wanted to get back with Jeremy, but he is now in New York City, and, to get straight to the point, New York City is expensive,” Putman admitted. “The whole state is overrun with high prices and high taxes and high living costs, and it’s not really reasonable for us to go there and save money.

“You know, as much as we love Norma Jean, we just couldn’t afford to move there, and that’s what it really came down to,” Putman explained. “I would have loved to work with Jeremy, but Josh did a great job. We had a great time in Kansas City; it’s a great city and we are really close to home. Josh let us sleep on his floor; he was very hospitable to us. He worked his butt off — him and Aaron Crawford both — as well as all the technicians. We were really glad we were able to make that work. I really just felt it was meant for us to be there. The way it worked out, we just embraced it, and we felt like this is where Wrongdoers was meant to be made. The record sounds insane – it’s huge-sounding, and I think having Jeremy mix the record was just what it needed to finish off everything we did with Josh and Aaron.”

Some bands can have a great time recording; for others, it’s like pulling teeth. Norma Jean used their downtime to contribute right back to the project, making it closer to a labor of love.

“Gosh, I think the funniest thing that happened on this record was when we wrote ‘Hive Minds,’” Putman said. “We wrote it in the studio. We had already made the record, but we thought, ‘Hey, we have a little time here today, let’s just write another song.’ And the way that song came out? Everyone just had a bunch of spare parts we hadn’t used yet, and we really didn’t know how to use them. Once we put them all together, we realized they all fit together perfectly. So that’s what ‘Hive Minds’ is: It’s a big part from John (Finnegan), a drum part from Goose (drummer Clayton Holyoak), a couple ideas from Jeff (Hickey, guitarist), and a couple ideas from me — we were able to throw this song together, and everyone had a part in it. I think it was a cool thing that everyone got to have a part in putting it together. It is one of our favorite songs from in the studio, in just one day, and we couldn’t stop playing it. I remember going late into the night, and the studio owner calling down and saying, ‘Hey, it’s getting kind of late; do you think you could stop?’ We were playing live in the room while we were writing, and it gets really loud in there. That was a really fun night and a fun time.”

If actions speak louder than words, Norma Jean would have to own up to having at least some fun in the studio. The evidence: “Shark Bite,” a B-side the band will be releasing on vinyl soon.

“As much as we take our record and our writing seriously, at the end of the day, we have to remember to have fun,” Putman began to explain. “I think that’s really what that track is. It’s us being idiots in the studio. It eased the hermit life that being in the studio is.

“But we got to have fun, and you have no idea how much fun we had pranking our entire fan base with that song. It’s just another track of us being completely stupid. It’s not a song; it’s just us in the studio. There are a lot of just really powerful microphones and acylation rooms in the studio, and if you combine those two things and step in and close the door, you can hear every little tiny thing. You brush your shirt, and it’s just super loud. And all those little sounds your mouth makes that you didn’t even know about? It picks it up and sends it to the headphones, straight into your ears. We like to experiment with different sounds, playing with those mics, turning them up… It’s us having fun, but I’m not going to give away what it is.”

But not everything came up roses in the studio.

“Everything else, though, was frustrating,” Putman admitted. “Writing the record, the studio time — it really did stress me out doing this record. There was a lot of homework, and it was nonstop. There was no time off for me to take a break in the last year.”

Over the past six years, there has been a new “spirit-filled” movement from within their genre. Putman is no stranger to the term, seeing as he was a part of the first movement in the late ’90s. It was interesting hearing his thoughts about the new crop of bands popping up, carrying the torch of his old flame. I thought I would get more of an old man’s answer, but I was pleasantly surprised.

“I think it’s great. I think it’s about singing what you believe, and by that, a spirit-filled band is really no different than any other band on the planet.”

Putnam continued at length, targeting songwriting from a Christian perspective. “They are very passionate about something, and they’re putting that content into their songs. To me, as a Christian, I know there is something different that comes from that. That God offered us something that is very unique to us (as Christians) that I have experienced personally. … You know, you could have a band that’s really straight edge and really passionate about that lifestyle and put that into their music, and if that’s what drove them to (start) that band, put out records and go on tour? That kind of passion is the best thing for any band out there to have. I think it’s great, and if you are a musician and you are passionate about something, you shouldn’t hold back. You should put all of that into the songs that you write.”

There are a lot of common themes in metal records – betrayal, hate, death, Satan, God and murder, just to name a few. Putman told me they wanted to talk about a subject Norma Jean had never talked about before now. That subject? Love

“I feel like my life is making a change, morphing into something else. I don’t know what that is, you know, I don’t know what God’s plan is for me, necessarily. All I know is my desires and my dreams, and I feel this change coming. I feel that Norma Jean has touched on subjects about anger, rebellion – things like that. Pretty common subjects for the kind of genre we are in, I guess you could say.

“I think, with this record, though, I really tried to challenge myself to write about things a lot of other bands wouldn’t want to write about in this spectrum of music,” Putman continued. “I think that topic is love, and the struggle of love in the world and in all of us in the band. I think that was something we were able to tackle in a cool way that we felt (would be) able to have an impact on someone else out there. That’s really the underlying theme of the whole record.

“I think, though, when people hear the word love, they probably think, ‘Oh, a love story,’ but that’s not that at all. It is all up for interpretation. We live in a hard-to-get-along world, and underneath all that, everyone is going home and secretly hating people. There is this lack of connection I think is missing these days, and I’d like to see a resurfacing of that old school connection people used to have.”

There are so many bands that get caught up in making the same record over and over again. There are others who capture the history of the band in one record, like we saw with Extol this summer. I asked Putman how the band stays relevant, keeping the Norma Jean sound without repeating themselves

“I think what people will hear is that we are still Norma Jean,” he said. “Even with the member changes we’ve had, we are still Norma Jean. We are still doing what we do, but I do feel that Wrongdoers does take a new approach, just like every other new record we’ve done does. I don’t think we’ve ever repeated ourselves.”

Balancing the three main aspects of being in a band — touring, home life and the writing and recording process — can get tricky when you have a family. As a father myself, Putman and I talked about the tricky balance that comes with writing a record, and then knowing you’re going to be hitting the road.

“We were really home a lot with writing, so it was pretty easy,” he said. “It’s weird. I was talking about this the other day, and I remember being on tour and not having a cell phone and not really having the kind of Internet access we have now where you can easily talk to anyone. It was a lot harder to communicate with people at home, (but now), I can FaceTime, and I can text all day long so I really have constant contact with my family. It’s not as good as the real thing and being home, but I would say, being in a band, the hardest thing to do is endure all the away time you are going to have. I’d like to see a bit more of the road, in all honesty.”

Preparing for tour is no easy task. Dealing with band details, finalizing tasks from the day job and missing family are just some of the things Norma Jean’s frontman has to deal with. “My travel skills are very advanced at this point,” Putman said, “because I’ve been doing this for a really long time. The main thing is to settle everything at home before I leave. It’s really stressful to get out on the road and then not be able to be home to handle something if you need to. I try to get all my work done at home before I go, so that way, I don’t stress myself out while I’m away.”

Being away from your better half can be hard, but being a newlywed can be even harder. I was curious how the newly married Putman was handling being away from his wife, Rachel.

“I have an amazing wife. Rachel is great, so supportive, and she loves what I do. I love what she does, and we really support each other. We have a really strong, Christ-centered marriage, and that is really the cornerstone of how we run our lives. It’s definitely hard to be away from her and the kids, but we work hard, and we try to stay busy. That’s really the goal. … She is definitely the strong one with me being away, because when I’m home and she goes and does something, I’m like a wreck. But when I’m away on tour and she’s home, she’s amazing and the best.”

The band has toured every summer festival you can think of, from Ozzfest to Warped Tour to Scream the Prayer to Mayhem Fest. This summer, they finish the list with the Summer Slaughter Tour, playing alongside Dillinger Escape Plan, Animals as Leaders and Cattle Decapitation, just to name a few. They’re touring machines. Putnam told me about those summer tours, and how they learned to be a band that can last on the road.

“We told ourselves a long time ago we had already achieved every goal we had wanted to achieve as kids growing up,” Putman said. “On Ozzfest 2006, just looking at that tour, meeting the bands that were on it, how fun it was and everything we were able to do, all the people we were able to play for that had never heard of Norma Jean…

I remember bands on that tour complaining and getting paid way more than we were, and every time they would come off stage, they would be like, ‘Dude, you just need to do this, do that, this could be better and this sucks.’ And I understand the idea of wanting to be a better band and do bigger things, but we told ourselves right then and there that we didn’t want to be that kind of band, one that complained things weren’t good enough. Because after that tour? Everything is just icing on the cake. We are really happy to be where we are right now and to be able to have done the things we have done, and we actually feel we are just scratching the surface of what we really want to start doing. We really have this longevity as a band, and we have a lot of ideas. We aren’t done yet; I think we feel like the biggest things are still to come.”

Norma Jean was posted on August 13, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by .