Six years ago, when Utah dance-pop band Neon Trees last made an album, frontman Tyler Glenn hadn’t yet come out as gay to his bandmates. Since then, he also went on to leave the Mormon faith, no longer seeing a place for himself in it. His bandmates are all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All of a sudden, serious discussions had to be held.
No one suggested calling it quits, but even Glenn, 36, wasn’t sure what the future held for the band with multiple multi-platinum songs like “Everybody Talks,” and whose most recent album had debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Rock Albums Chart and No. 6 on the Billboard 200.
“I didn’t know how to creatively go backwards. And I think we as a collective didn’t know,” he said. “‘Is this changing what we talk about in songs? Is this changing what the band stands for? Is this just your thing in your private life?’”
Following the tour of 2014’s Pop Psychology, Neon Trees took a break. In the interim, guitarist Chris Allen, bassist Branden Campbell and drummer Elaine Bradley focused on home lives. Glenn wrote a very personal solo record that tackled his sexuality and faith head-on, fell into a toxic relationship, dug his way out of it, was reinvigorated with a six-month stint acting on Broadway and was finally inspired to write music again.
I Can Feel You Forgetting Me, out now on Thrill Forever, includes Tyler Glenn’s most straightforward songwriting. He no longer has to worry about his bandmates questioning what certain lyrics mean.
“I think that the few years in between those hard conversations created a stronger unit and stronger creative force,” he said. “I think it’s exemplified on this record. I don’t think I’d been able to say as many straightforward things as I do that I maybe hid in other Neon Trees records in the past.”
He said his bandmates agree that the new LP marks a “strong forward evolution” for Neon Trees, and is better than what the band would have released two or three years ago, with songs that were shelved. He hadn’t intended to take such a long time away, but everyone felt right about pumping the brakes while the members decided how the band should be presented going forward.
Glenn leaving the church in 2016, two years after coming out, affected the band more so than coming out. He left after the LDS Church made it clear with its rhetoric that homosexuality was not welcome there.
“I sort of carried this duality for a couple years thinking that I could kind of make both work,” he said. “Maybe I was naive before. Maybe I was able to block off certain things. But there it just got to be where I was starting to live my truth as a person, and then I started to realize there’s a ceiling here of my growth and human experience if I stay here. … Coming out was supposed to be this thing where you declare yourself and then start living. I felt like I was still compartmentalizing.”
Glenn’s 2016 solo album, Excommunication, dealt with the crossroads of sexuality and faith, and is what prompted the band to discuss its future. That, along with various business decisions and record label dealings, as the vocalist and keyboardist said, allowed Neon Trees to “reassess.” There was never any doubt that the band would call it quits, though.
The band began to work on I Can Feel You Forgetting Me in 2018. Leading up to that, Glenn had left Utah, where he was involved in what he calls a toxic codependent relationship with a man, for the opportunity to audition for the lead role in the Broadway production of “Kinky Boots.” He got the role, and for the six months he lived in New York, he was able to distance from the unwanted relationship and find his creative songwriting spark again.
“That just shook me alive again,” Glenn said. “That just felt like, ‘I’m ready to say things in this band again.’”
After his Broadway time was up, the SoCal native returned to L.A. and threw himself into songwriting, collaborating with friends and booking time in the studio. He didn’t know what an album would look like, but he quickly found himself concentrating on his former relationship.
“New York created this space for me that I was able to not be with that person,” he said. “It broke that energy, and I started to just like write a lot about that, and in the meantime confronting a lot of my own loneliness. It was self-evaluating through song.”
While the record is sonically characteristically upbeat, heavy themes run through it, Glenn said. It’s not written from the perspective of someone who’s battled his demons and come out the other side. It’s from the perspective of someone in the middle of that battle, something Glenn said he specifically wanted to convey. He’s not the person he was while he was writing the album’s 10 tracks.
“I’ve evolved hopefully a bit, but I think it’s still important to talk about those uncomfortable things, at least to me,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to feel like I’m going through it in songs.”
Four of the songs are Glenn talking directly to his ex, he said. The rest are internal conversations.
The pre-release singles point in that direction. “Mess Me Up” is about pulling the bandage on Glenn’s prior relationship. “If you’re gonna mess me up, don’t do it slowly,” he sings. “Used To Like” is the song’s inverse; a plea to salvage a relationship. Then there’s album opener “Nights” and “New Best Friend,” both of which are about the loneliness that Glenn felt at the peak of despair, though in a pandemic that has the whole world isolating, it’s likely to find a new connotation.
Through it all, Glenn’s bandmates have had his back, which has freed him up to be more honest in his storytelling.
“I feel so supported by my band on this record. Maybe I always was worried [before] if they would question certain lyrics, but maybe that was my own insecurities,” he said.
For the first time since Neon Trees hit it big with 2010 double-platinum single “Animal,” Glenn could write free of any pressure from label executives, fan expectations and himself. I
“This may sound weird coming from the artist, but I didn’t think anyone was really waiting for a Neon Trees record,” he said.
In the end, he decided it was a succinct Neon Trees record. Listeners can either dive deep for a heady interpretation of the lyrics, or they can dance to all of the songs.
Last week, Glenn said he put on the record for the first time in a while and realized: “No one has to know about the fraught experience that I went through.”
Neon Trees were ready to release the new album in June, but decided to hold off to July not for COVID-19-related production hold-ups but to stand in solidarity—and not take the spotlight from—the Black Lives Matter movement following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I’ve been alive long enough to see this cycle happen now too many times in my lifetime, where we see police brutality and we see blatant racism,” Glenn said. “I still think it’s weird even promoting something other than the movement.”
Glenn has used live-streaming opportunities to throw his support for the Black Trans Advocacy Coalition, a national nonprofit providing COVID-19 relief for Black trans people. Now that the record is finally out, the band that’s grown a reputation for its fiery live shows can’t play together. The four members aren’t even in the same place to practice together. Bradley has lived in Germany with her husband and four children since June 2017.
Neon Trees have a weekly call each Friday where the members talk to the each other and management. He said Bradley is taking advantage of the situation because with touring she wouldn’t get to spend as much time with her family.
“It helps that Germany’s handling it properly,” he said. “I always find it a little troubling when the United States is compared to the size of a European country, because it is bigger. But at the same time, I get the point. We need leadership, but that’s another conversation.”
Glenn has no idea when Neon Trees may play shows again soon. Now, the only thing he can commit to is not taking six years between albums. If a prolonged closure continues, he may get to work on new songs. He’s grateful the band has a favorable contract that allows the members to collect a higher percentage of streaming royalties.
He worried for the band’s crew, who depend on live music for a living, as well as his own mental state. He said he’s craving playing in front of fans but doesn’t know when that can resume, or in what capacity. The U.K. has announced that indoor venues will reopen in the fall, but Glenn said he’s weary that the protections of artists, crew and fans may not be strong enough.
“I want to be on the right side of history. I don’t want to be the first band to do it. I heard country music’s going to start, so maybe let them figure it out first,” he said, laughing.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.