Neon Trees, The Mormon Band Who Made It Big, On Honesty
To look at the members of Neon Trees — their technicolor clothes, skinny ties, hair bleached and lacquered into gravity-defying shapes — you might fairly place them in the same musical lineage that spawned bands like Duran Duran and The Killers. (They've toured with both.) But the culture from which the musicians emerged is a story unto itself. Singer Tyler Glenn, drummer Elaine Brady, guitarist Chris Allen and bassist Branden Campbell are all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — a fact that has dominated discussion about the band since Glenn came out as gay in March.
Neon Trees' latest release, Pop Psychology, continues its steady arc of catchy, danceable pop-rock — though the lyrics, Glenn says, often deal with the conflicts of identity and faith he dealt with while in the closet. He and Bradley spoke with NPR's Scott Simon; hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
SCOTT SIMON: I'm just guessing that more people who want to be musicians leave Provo for Southern California than vice-versa. How did you folks decide, "We want to go into music. Let's head for Provo'?
TYLER GLENN: Chris, our guitar player, ended up going to school there — massage school, of all trades. We're both Southern California natives and we'd ended up just clicking when we started playing music together, so I followed him there. I was the same way; I didn't think Provo would be the spot. But when I got there I was quickly surprised that there was an actual scene. There's a college there, really cool bands, and Elaine and Branden were in some of those bands.
ELAINE BRADLEY: I'm from Chicago originally. I went to Utah to go to BYU, and I thought that I was leaving the mecca of music and my career would be over, you know? But I wanted to be practical, so I wanted to go get a degree. And it's funny that arriving in Provo was really refreshing, that the music scene was so vibrant, and even competitive to a certain extent — which, I don't know, helps me strive for excellence. If I hadn't moved to Utah, I definitely wouldn't be in the position I'm in now.
SIMON: If I may: I don't understand how you get music clubs when they can't sell alcohol.
BRADLEY: Yeah, it's very interesting, because the clubs in Provo don't do it. I thought that was going to be a terrible thing, but, funny enough, I think it actually creates a culture of music appreciation — because there's nothing else to do, so you end a song and people are there watching you. There's no clanking bottles and loud, drunk shouting. It's all very much about the band, so it's a really great kind of a litmus test. These kids are totally paying attention to you, and if you can get them to move and dance and respond, you know you're doing something right. If they're just blankly staring at you, you know you have a problem. So, it's actually kind of good that way.
SIMON: Tyler, haven't you actually said that some of the LDS prohibitions against drinking and drugs might actually have helped your band?
GLENN: Ten thousand percent, in the beginning especially. To have a sober audience in front of you that is really engaged and responding, it really helped us gauge what songs were working and craft a good live show. It also gave us an opportunity to really build an avid fan base, instead of just casual bargoers liking the nightlife and also liking your music.
SIMON: I want to ask about a song from the new album, "Living in Another World." Is there a story with this one?
GLENN: I say in the song, "I guess I've always been this way / It's been hard for me to say," which relates to me sorting out some of my identity issues: my sexuality and my religion and sort of how the two meet. I felt like I was living in a new world entirely, because it was like my happy place. And I think a lot of people do that, and a lot of people can relate. I think I've learned it's OK to have those flaws, or things that don't quite make sense.
SIMON: What's the flaw? We all have them, but I hope that you're not referring to your sexuality.
GLENN: Not at all. I think it's OK to have things not make sense. Like, I think I've definitely received positivity, but are also those comments: "How can you say you're Mormon and also gay?" And maybe that's the thing that doesn't make sense to people. But to me it makes sense to say, "I'm figuring it out."
SIMON: Is it something you'd leave the church over, or is it something you'd hope to change the church with?
GLENN: More the latter. I mean, I'm not looking to disrespect anyone, but I think there's already a little bit of a change on the horizon anyway, that slowly, the church has been more accepting. I also feel like the media has over-spun some things said within the church. Honestly, growing up and being actively Mormon, I was never told anything about homosexuality being wrong. But obviously, the Prop 8 situation is kind of when it started to become more public, and that's kind of when I also started to question things, discover things about myself. I think it's just been a natural thing, but as part of accepting who I am sexually, I also wanted to not throw away my faith. And I'm figuring out how the two align.
SIMON: Both of you were Mormon missionaries, I gather.
SIMON: Tyler, you were in Nebraska for two years?
GLENN: I lucked out.
SIMON: Well, I've interviewed a lot of people who have been on Mormon missions over the years, and forgive me, I love Nebraska, but it's usually some exotic place where you learn another language.
GLENN: All the band members when to more extravagant places, but I went to Omaha, and I only knew about Nebraska from the Bruce Springsteen record, honestly. I actually fell in love with it, so, it's all been great now. But yeah, you're opening the letter with your family filming you, and everyone's crying, and I'm crying mostly because I'm going to Nebraska. So there's that.
SIMON: Elaine, you were in Germany?
BRADLEY: Yeah, I served in Frankfurt. I learned how to speak German, which is a good thing, because later I went to college and met my future husband, and he's from Germany.
SIMON: So you were away on mission for a few years. What happened to the music in that time?
BRADLEY: I think we both found ways to be musical within our own missions. Secular music definitely isn't something that we're encouraged to listen to or anything, but the leader of my mission allowed me to have a guitar, and he actually gave me a recorder to record songs so that he could listen to them. So I was able to keep playing music, basically every night when I got home, and write songs that way.
GLENN: I made three albums on my mission. I had a four-track tape recorder. I would make songs, and give them to the people I was teaching and ward members, and I sang at the conferences we had. I definitely made it known that I loved music, because that's the language I knew how to speak.
SIMON: Do you think, in your mission work, you drew anybody across the line with your music?
GLENN: Yeah, I think music is a great meeting point for everyone, because everyone likes music and everyone feels music to a degree. I didn't ever use it to persuade people, but I think that people can feel a certain spirit in music, and I think that helps.
SIMON: What's going on in the song "Unavoidable?"
GLENN: A lot on this record, I try to really convey the anxiety of trying to find out who you are. An interesting topic that I'm going through is finding love in the modern age. There's lots of technology, and lots of ways to communicate more than ever — but I feel like no one is communicating or everyone's over-communicating. So I try to get that point across because it's scary for me as a single, 30-year-old, now-out gay man, using technology.
SIMON: Do you mean things like text messages?
GLENN: There's an app called Tinder, where you basically can use your geo services on your phone to see who's near you and then look at their photos and see if you like them — which is kind of inherently odd, that it's just window shopping at this point.
BRADLEY: It's a meat market.
SIMON: Well, how do you feel about that?
GLENN: It's a struggle, man. Being a closeted gay man in my 20s and using those apps, a lot of it is hookup based, and that's not something I'm always about. It really doesn't give you rewarding romance passionate relationships, and that's what I'm seeking, ultimately.
SIMON: It's none of my business, but I'm just moved to tell you, you sound like an awfully fine young man.
GLENN: Oh, I appreciate it. Thank you, that's very nice.
BRADLEY: I vouch for him. He is a fine young man!
SIMON: With the advantage of 10 years' hindsight, has music given you a way of working out your place in the world?
GLENN: At times, it's my best friend. I'm kind of a natural wallflower, and I've really worked on that over the years: accepting that it's good to be social, and good to have friends, and good to let people in. But music, 100 percent, has never failed me. And I don't mean monetarily, or success on a chart — I mean it's just always been there for me. It's helped me say things without being too explicit, but I can get them off my chest. And that's why I'm so excited that we do have success in the band. It's nice to be given a talent and be able to use it. Not everyone gets that opportunity all the time.
SIMON: Who gave you that talent?
GLENN: Well, I always attribute it to God, because my family has no musical talent whatsoever.
SIMON: So your family is not the Osmonds?
GLENN: I mean, my aunt was an opera singer, and she probably wanted me to do that. And I almost tried out for the opera, but I ended up joining a rock band.
SIMON: Some people may still find it hard to hold in their heads the idea of a high-energy rock band filled with Mormons, whose lead singer is openly gay. Is that just ignorance about what it is to be a Mormon?
BRADLEY: I think what people expect is the polarizing effect: Either you can be gay or you can be religious — you're not allowed to be both. I think that's definitely a gross misconception, and it's really refreshing and awesome that Tyler's able to be honest about how he feels and who he is, basically saying, "I'm working on it." I mean, everybody is trying to do that with their own lives. We can all understand that we're a work in progress. Sometimes the things that we think, the things that we feel and the things that we believe don't match up 100 percent, and we need to be able to navigate those waters honestly. That's, I think, the road to mental health, frankly.
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