Sitting across from me in a noisy concert venue is a rock star. This is not the polished kind of musician who would come out of American Idol singing someone else’s songs and dressed by a team of stylists. This is the kind of musician who takes a few minutes to really look you in the eyes. And then when he does, you see the fire there. This is the kind of musician who’s more tortured artist than rock star, for whom rock music happens to be his medium. Tyler Glenn, front man of Neon Trees, has just had a hell of a year, but happily for us, he’s poured the whole thing into his new solo album, Excommunication.
This night would end with Glenn performing the new album publicly for the first time, strutting like Freddie Mercury, posing like the crucifixion, and crooning like a fallen angel. The audience danced, swayed, and wiped away many tears. The album, released this weekend, is the most direct representation of my own experience — leaving the Mormon Church as a gay man — that I’ve ever encountered. The way Glenn sings about it, the church is a bad ex-boyfriend, and this is his Jagged Little Pill.
But for now, Glenn is sitting in front of me in a short-sleeved Morrissey T-shirt, earnestly answering my questions about his transition of faith. For instance, “What’s been the hardest part?”
“The biggest struggle is, What do I believe in? What is the purpose of life?" Glenn responds. "I think the calming thing is that I don’t know. And growing up Mormon, I always knew everything. It was always, ‘I know. I know. I know.’ And now it’s nice to be like, ‘I don’t know, and maybe it doesn’t matter.’ What matters is being good to the people in my life.”
It’s now been almost a year since the shot that was heard around the Mormon world. On November 5, 2015, an online leak revealed a new policy that prevented not only gay people but even the children of gay folks from joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The policy was a slap in the face to everyone caught up in the unfortunate intersection between gay and Mormon. Up until this point, many were hoping the issue would just quiet down, now that the battle for marriage equality had been settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the church took another swing, this time involving its children. If you’re a Mormon (or former Mormon), you know where you were when the news broke. Glenn recalls how quickly the policy catapulted him out of belief.
“It literally drew a line in the sand saying I’m automatically going to outer darkness for my nature. Now my kids, if I want to have a kid, have to renounce my lifestyle if they want to be Mormon," Glenn says, adding, "It was quick. It was leaked on a Thursday night. Friday, I see my family. Saturday, I go to a baptism for my nephew in a chapel. I’m sitting there watching my brother baptize his kid, and it’s hitting me: OK, I’ll never get to do this for my kid. He’s only getting to because he’s straight."
“I had taken my ex-boyfriend to Temple Square," he adds. "I told him, 'This is what I believe. Look at the Christus. Look at the Melchizedek and the Aaronic priesthoods being blessed on these statues.' He was like, ‘You believe this?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he started reading about Mormonism, literally a month before the policy leaked. I was in it and I was naively making it work. That’s why it was such a gut-punch. And then to finally just look at all this stuff. I don’t think Joseph Smith planned on there being Google or the internet.”
Even after the new antigay policy, Glenn hasn’t formally left the religion. Instead he's waiting for the Mormon Church to summon him to the so-called court of love, where members are excommunicated behind closed doors by a panel of male elders.
“I’ve heard word that they’ve all seen the videos and they’ve all seen my posts, and it’s sort a 'leave Tyler alone right now moment,'” he explains. “I’m not afraid, because the church isn’t true. I’m not afraid of some weird institution excommunicating me.”
“It’s always been square peg round hole for me, and what’s beautiful about coming out of it is finding so many people feeling that same way," Glenn adds. "And then it’s like, even if the audience is small, let me write about this and use all of this emotion as fuel for music."
“I think I’ve always been trying to to fit myself into something that doesn’t have a space for me, and now I’m trying to just exist as Tyler," he says. "For the first time in my life, I don’t shudder at the thought of saying, 'I’m gay, and fuck off.' I don’t care.”
Glenn's first post-Mormon song was “Trash,” released in April with a video that showed him drinking alcohol, tearing up pages of the Book of Mormon, defiling a picture of Joseph Smith, and performing sacred moments from the secretive LDS temple.
“I showed it to my mom and I watched her watch it, and I thought, OK, she’s probably not going to like it. But she did not like it." he recounts. "She’s only watched it once. Obviously, there’s some sacrilege in there. But I think it was more about seeing me in a darker space.”
While Glenn is speaking, I notice a woman sitting on a nearby couch behind him, who has been listening and nodding empathetically. Her nods at this part of the interview, which make me suddenly realize that this is his mother — a spectacled woman who looks like any other Mormon mom, but with a cooler haircut.
There I was, talking to a rock star about his new religion-slamming album, and the entourage he brought to his interview with The Advocate is his mother. There is something touching about this, and I have to wonder how many Mormon moms would come support their kids through an experience like this. I think, Maybe there’s hope for our people.
“I’m his biggest supporter, and I’m active LDS!” she would later boast to me. When Glenn finally took the stage, she stood in the back of the club with a soda and sang along to every single word. I wanted to hug this woman, who, just like her son, is caught in the difficult space between two cultures that are currently very much at odds with each other.
But it’s not just his family that has had to adjust to Glenn’s new life. His bandmates, who are all Mormon as well, are still coming to terms with his identity. His fans have opinions as well.
“It was weird to go back home to Salt Lake and get looks,” Glenn says, “but I also get people coming up and thanking me for it, for giving them images that represent what they’ve been going through.”
I ask about the most recent video he dropped, the undeniably sexy “Shameless.”
“I feel like I’m unwiring so much guilt and shame," Glenn responds, adding, "I think back on my 20s, and I was always feeling bad for who I was. So being shameless is important for me. I feel like the God that I came to know through religion was a loving creator that wanted me to come back to him. And now I don’t even know if it’s a 'him.' I don’t know what it is. And I don’t want to feel bad for existing any more.”
Glenn’s coming-out journey has been a roller coaster thus far. When he first came out as gay to Rolling Stone in 2014, he was still hopeful for his faith.
“I came out as gay, and then I started speaking to LGBTQ Mormons, saying, 'It’s safe and you [can] make it work. I’m doing it and you can too,'” he says.
His advice today? “'This is an absolutely toxic environment. Get the hell out of here. This is not a place for you. It’s not true. There might be good things in it, but you can’t say that it’s God’s church and it’s the restored way and this is the spot, because you don’t have a space for so many people. Sorry, it just doesn’t work.”
Still, most of the people in Tyler’s life are Mormons.
“I’m not anti-Mormon,” he insists. “I’m not antireligion. I’m pro-truth and -transparency. I love Mormon people. I don’t hate Mormons. I really despise the system. Now that I know that it’s not a true system, it’s a system that needs to adapt. It’s a system that needs to be called out and put on blast.”
“I have no desire to find a new church," he adds. "I have a lot of hope. I don’t even know if I had a lot of hope before. All the weight and suppression I had before, of not ever feeling worthy enough or always feeling limited, that’s gone. So I don’t really have a desire to replace the thing that was keeping me down with another thing that’s going to keep me down.”
Glenn seems comfortable now, stating things with more assurance than he did at the beginning of the interview. On the other side of the venue, the opening acts are running loud sound checks, and I shout a question to him about what he would tell young LGBT people who are still struggling in the church.
“I know that it’s not a safe space for LGBT people," Glenn responds. "I know that I can’t just go, 'Hey, gay Mormon kid, don’t go to church anymore.' And they just stop. It’s difficult. I would advise to really look at things. Listen to the questions inside, and look for answers beyond just praying and feeling the spirit, because the spirit is just your own core telling you what’s right or wrong, and you don’t actually need this outside, fake thing to tell you what’s true.”
I ask if this album is written for those people or for himself or some combination of those two extremes.
“I wrote the record completely as a cathartic thing," Glenn says. "I’ve always used music as an outlet. Now I realize that my audience is ex-Mormons, which is a small niche community. I’m also definitely speaking as a confident gay man, which is another niche community. But beyond the story, I think I’ve also made a record that is still accessible and exciting. But if one outweighs the other, that’s OK."
"I’ve also for the first time felt not too afraid," he adds. "I don’t care about charts. Like, I do. I don’t wanna say that’s not nice. I just feel like I made this record as an expression. If it reaches the people I’m speaking to, that’s OK. If it reaches beyond, that’s OK too. It’s rad that I get to hear from people that it means something to them, and that’s cool, sincerely.”
While his mother and certain Neon Trees fans may not love seeing him in a darker space, he has every reason to be there. Since the November 5 policy leak, the number of teen suicides in Utah has spiked. Suicide is now listed as the leading cause of death for young people there. Glenn has strong opinions on this epidemic and a message for those responsible.
“I wrote a song called 'God Didn’t Make Me Like Girls,'” he says. “I wrote it for those people. I made a post on my Facebook a few months ago calling out [LDS leader] Russell M. Nelson, because he implemented the policy. I feel like he has blood on his hands, absolutely. I think they need to respond to the fact that they put out something or something got leaked and they still haven’t answered to it. Take 15 minutes out of your conference and answer to the policy. Or say, ‘It wasn’t doctrine, please live,’ or ‘We love you, gay people.’ Stop calling it ‘same-sex attraction.’ There are people who do not feel worthy and you are marginalizing these people. And there is proof because they are ending their lives. It’s happening whether or not you want to acknowledge it.”
Later, when Glenn takes the stage, the crowd eats up every moment, from the angry, dancy pop anthems to the soulful, introspective ballads.
“November 5 was a hell of a ride. I called you up and both of us cried,” he sings, putting events from life in his art. He and the ex-boyfriend mentioned in the song are not the only ones crying at this moment. A look around the room shows that many of those in attendance are feeling it too.
“My religion is wrong, but I can’t tell my mom. I’m afraid my word will kill,” he belts out in another song, and the audience, mom included, sways and nods. The ups and downs of leaving a religion are all laid out with different emotional notes. The whole experience is so honest that even those who come from different backgrounds can understand his pain.
Themes of loss and rebuilding are universal. But in Glenn's music, it is nice to hear the specifics of ex-Mormon life being used as a metaphor for the grander state of human existence. “Get me far away from Salt Lake City,” Glenn shouts in another song, and the crowd goes wild. We all need to get out of our Salt Lake Cities. This is the story of my people. But the way Glenn sings it, it’s the story of all of us.
Excommunication by Tyler Glenn is released today. Find it on iTunes.