Neon Trees Talk ‘Picture Show,’ Politics + More – Exclusive Interview
Neon Trees have come a long way since their humble beginnings in Provo, Utah. The alt rockers, consisting of vocalist Tyler Glenn, drummer Elaine Bradley, guitarist Chris Allen and bassist Branden Campbell, stormed the music charts in 2010 with their hit song ‘Animal,’ which is off their debut album, ‘Habits.’ The band is back on the scene with their recently released follow-up, ‘Picture Show.’
‘Picture Show’ has a more diverse feel than ‘Habits’ and showcases the different styles that Neon Trees are able to express. The young musicians sat down with Diffuser.fm while on tour to talk about ‘Picture Show,’ the current state of the music industry, President Barack Obama’s stance on gay marriage, the Westboro Baptist Church and more.
Describe your feelings leading up to the release of ‘Picture Show.’ Were you nervous?
Tyler Glenn: I don’t think we were ever nervous. We never made music solely to succeed — we’ve made it because we love it. And with this record, we’re just so supportive of it and excited about putting it out and how people would react.
Branden Campbell: There’s a difference between being confident and being egocentric. We felt good about the material and I think the belief that people had in us. Plus, we didn’t go away for a long time. These days you can’t expect people to wait around all the time.
Glenn: Our first record only had eight songs on it. I think we knew we had to make more music. We’re excited because we know what type of band we are and maybe not everybody has figured it out quite yet. We know that we have a sound that’s going to continue to expand, and I think that this record ['Picture Show'] shows that. We have more tricks up our sleeves, and I think the difference between us and a lot of the new bands perhaps could be the fact that everyone seems to want it now and has to prove themselves right away. I don’t think we ever felt the need to prove ourselves to anyone in that capacity.
It sounds like ‘Picture Show’ is more of a hybrid of your work before ‘Habits’ (and ‘Habits’ itself).
Glenn: There’s darker elements — I think before we even wrote ‘Animal’ we were a darker band. ‘Animal’ was a song that sort of opened the flood gates to bring in this energetic and lighter sound. I think we wanted to maintain both that and still have a dynamic in the record. I think we’ve accomplished that, and I’m so proud of it and I still love putting it on.
Campbell: It’s interesting because someone made a comment that we were getting artier towards the end of the record because some of the songs were over five minutes long. If you listen back to some of the early Neon Trees, we sometimes have one-and-a-half minute intros. It’s just something that has always been there, but bands go through stages and it so happened that we were in more of that guitar, pop-rock phase for us in songwriting and discovering what we liked and that’s when ‘Habits’ came out.
Glenn: I think there are only two songs that are actually over five minutes. But since we have some segues and sequenced it the way we did it looks a lot longer. The songs are very tight and neat and I think people really just need to have patience and listen to records and not have to jam two minutes with their coffee before they have to get into work.
We talked to Vince Difiore from Cake, and he said many bands must put out a follow-up record within two years according to their contracts. He could tell with some artists that the product suffered because of this. Did you feel rushed working on ‘Picture Show’ right after ‘Habits’?
Elaine Bradley: I think if we would have allowed ourselves to be rushed, we could have been rushed. But from the beginning, we’ve been very purposeful in what we were going to do and when we were going to do it. We weren’t going to be rushed to make the writing process shorter. There always is that natural pressure from the label because they want to get something out. I don’t want to paint them [Mercury Records] in a terrible light, but they’re always trying to get the end product, and you’re always trying to make the end product amazing.
Glenn: We fought for this schedule, though. We fought that we would have pre-production time and fought for who we would want to produce it. So we really got everything we wanted, including ‘Picture Talk’ being released in April. I was scared about some of the songs because I thought the label wouldn’t like some of the directions we went, but they were really supportive songwise — I think because we gave them a couple of songs to work with right away, like they had ‘Everybody Talks’ really early and they’re like, “We have this. We’re happy. Go write your record.” I think if you want to be a band that has a marginal amount of mainstream success, you’re going to have to learn how to play that game. But ‘Everybody Talks’ to me is still one of my favorite songs. I love it, so it’s not like I feel that we sold out or compromised.
Obviously ‘Animal’ blew up and was featured everywhere. You guys also perform ‘Everybody Talks’ in a commercial for Buick and Pandora. How do you determine where the line is drawn on corporate partnerships?
Glenn: Things we don’t participate in or believe in or use.
Campbell: People don’t realize the things you say no to. It’s not like you’re going to go out there and blast someone on Facebook or Twitter going, “Oh so and so came to us and wanted us to do this and they suck and we don’t like them.” It’s about politely passing.
Glenn: We’ve said no to a lot of stuff. We’ve said no to a Heineken tour early on in our career. We’ve said no to a lot of beer commercials just because we don’t really endorse it. We said no to a Lee Jeans ad because half the band was really passionate about the fact that Lee Jeans we didn’t feel were cool. But then we find out they are kind of cool in some circles.
Campbell: In Europe it’s a whole different thing.
Bradley: It’s a case-by-case thing. We don’t just say, “Hey, get us money. It doesn’t matter how!” Everything that we’re involved in gets run by us and we say yes or we say no.
Glenn: Yeah, and I think there has been some things we’ve said yes to that we probably didn’t need to say yes to. ‘Everybody Talks’ was in ‘American Reunion’ for like 10 seconds. But the people that saw the movie were like, “Hey, you’re in it.” We recognize that we’re not Fugazi, so we don’t have that aesthetic. But at the same time we’re not just a pop act that’s floozy with their music.
Campbell: There’s the saying of sometimes you do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do. And sometimes these days you can license to certain things and that actually gives you more of a budget to go on tours and go out and do other things that you really wouldn’t be able to do in this climate.
Glenn: I also think that times have changed, and I think people have looked at licensing as a way to make money or to even survive. I don’t feel like we’ve ever made money personally from it. It keeps us afloat and lets us tour and do what we really love, so we kind of have to adapt.
When you were on tour with 30 Seconds to Mars in 2010, the Westboro Baptist Church announced that they were going to protest your shows. Being raised as members of the Latter Day Saints Church, does it anger you to see certain groups use religion, particularly Christianity in the U.S., as a tool to judge people who are different from them?
Glenn: Westboro are the worst thing on Earth.
Campbell: They hate on everything, man.
Glenn: It’s so ungodly and so un-Christian. They’re the worst group on Earth.
Bradley: I feel like you can do so much positive things and pro things. You’re allowed to express your opinion. I mean, I express my negative opinions all the time, but I don’t know if I would purposely set out to go against something. I think I might just go try to persuade people to go for something. It just seems like a horrible waste of effort.
Glenn: But early on when they were doing that, it was actually exciting for us because we were relatively new. This was even before ‘Animal’ really took off, so it was like, “Cool, this is fun that somebody thinks we’re nervous.”
A lot of musicians came to the defense of President Barack Obama and his support of gay marriage.
Glenn: I’m for equality, but I think people kind of jump the gun on getting excited. I’ll get excited when there’s a coupled action with his opinion, but right now it’s only an opinion. Yes, it’s exciting because it’s powerful, but there was that vibe that perhaps it’s election year and he’s just doing that. I don’t know. I try to stay out of politics anyway.
Bradley: Yeah, I don’t like talking politics because here’s the thing: I have opinions but I just don’t think it’s important for people to know what my personal opinions are because you should vote your conscious.
Going back to ‘Picture Show,’ ‘Teenage Sounds’ seems like your middle finger to critics and overdemanding fans, much like Eminem’s ‘The Way I Am.’ Was that the intention?
Glenn: There are a lot more lyrics to that song but it could only be so long. I have like six more paragraphs. It was toward the end of the record cycle for us, and I was getting bitter and I was like, “Why am I bitter? We’ve had success. Why am I getting mad?” I wasn’t going to halt that expression because at the same time, it wasn’t just for me. I feel like a lot of people who heard the song that are fans of us have identified with it. I think as a songwriter you have to realize sometimes you’re writing the words for other people and not just you. It’s not always personal. Like the line “I’m sick of being called a fag because I’m queer.” I get called a fag couple times a week. It’s really a shocking thing that people still use that to demean someone for looking weird or acting a certain way. I know a lot of people have heard that line and were like, “Whoa, thank you for saying that because I don’t have a voice for that.” And it’s cool because it gets the best reaction live. I’m excited about that song and that we got to put it out.
Is there a No. 1 story from a fan saying how your music changed his/her life?
Glenn: I always get weird when people tattoo their body with our name, or logo or lyrics, and not weird in a weird way. I just don’t think I’ll ever get used to somebody doing that. But there is a girl downstairs who had me write the lyrics to a song called ‘Farther Down,’ which is one of my most personal songs and probably the most spiritual one, on her body. That’s powerful to see that because I’m very self-deprecating and still see myself as this loser loner. I have to wrap my mind around the fact that there are people that think I’m like an inspiration or hero, which is very, very kind and interesting.
Campbell: It’s interesting because it all does come with responsibility. Some people say, “Well, I don’t want to be a role model or hero.” I think it was Henry David Thoreau who said, “That which we are, we’re all the while teaching not voluntarily but involuntarily.” You don’t even get to choose anymore.
Watch the Neon Trees ‘Everybody Talks’ Video