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Tyler Glenn on 15 Years of Neon Trees: I Felt Like I Had to Hide

Tyler Glenn Neon Trees

This interview was originally conducted for the LGBTQ&A podcast.

Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn finally feels safe in the band he helped form and has been playing with for over 15 years. He says, "I felt like I always had to hide. This isn't pointing fingers at them. Just where we are now, I feel like we healed a lot of things and had conversations we had to have."

After coming out publicly in 2014 and subsequently leaving the Mormon Church, which he opens up about in his solo album, Excommunication, Glenn is back with I Can Feel You Forgetting Me, Neon Trees' most overtly queer album yet. "I like that I'm not hiding the fact that this is about a guy and I feel no weirdness about it, which feels really good." 

On this week's episode of LGBTQ&A, Glenn talks about still not being fully acknowledged as a queer artist in the music industry, why the Mormon Church is not a safe space for queer people, and the new freedom he expresses in I Can Feel You Forgetting Me

Read highlights from the interview below and click here to listen to the full interview. 

Jeffrey Masters: You namecheck "codependency" on at least two different songs in the new album. That’s not a word I’m used to hearing in pop music.
Tyler Glenn: It's a running theme. It's a repetitive lyric on purpose. I think it's not only with the person that I'm directly talking about on this record, but I think my own codependency with my devices, my own codependency with alcohol and drugs. As a Mormon kid growing up that was drilled into my head that that's not what you're supposed to do.

But you're also not supposed to be gay and I knew I was gay. As an openly gay man who's also not subscribing to that faith expression anymore. I feel like I'm not taught certain basic things. Does that make sense?

Mormonism isn't a religion that exclusively feels this way, but it combines this greater existential crisis with drinking coffee, for example. You couple that with sinning. It's been this weird navigation of, "Wait, I woke up hungover. Does that mean I'm an alcoholic?" I'm figuring out stuff you do in your early 20s.

JM: The Mormon Church does not leave a lot of room for choice, right? You don’t get to decide if you want to drink alcohol in the way, as a Jewish person, I get to decide if I want to keep Kosher or not.
TG: It's an all or nothing religion in a way. It’s a lifestyle. You're right. There's no room to be cafeteria about it and pick the things that make sense to you. I almost wish there was, but I'm glad there isn't because having that line in the sand, where I realize this language is actually harmful...it's still in all of the handbooks of the leaders to treat homosexuality as a thing you can change or suppress. All these ideas that you understand are going to set you up to fail and set you up to live a limited life. I'm happy it's definitive because if it was a bit of a gray space, I don't know if I would have found the courage to just leave it all behind.

I'm sort of grateful that there's such a hard line. I'll say on my own behalf, I don't think it's a safe space for queer people. I understand that people have to do what they have to do in their own lives and find joy and solace in certain things that maybe I can't anymore. But, my experience with it is it's ultimately a place that doesn't provide any growth spiritually for queer people.

JM: Why did you still decide to make your home Salt Lake City?
TG: I've wrestled with that. A lot of it came from convenience of being on tour and wanting to have a spot where I could come back that wasn't L.A. or New York. Now we're thrust in this year where I haven't been able to travel for six months and it is interesting to be here. I don't mean to sound sad or lonely, but I don't have a lot of social connections here because my life was so used to going [out of town] that I didn't really have the time to build connections. I do feel really isolated and alone. The Mormon aspect I don't think about anymore even though the city is so overtly Mormon sometimes.

Tyler Glenn Neon Trees

JM: When you were leaving the Church, did you think there was a possibility that would mean the end of Neon Trees?
TG: I think it was a thing on my mind. I realized we were a band that had reached far beyond our Mormon fan base, but I think there was something sort of a badge of honor about being a popular band that also didn't shy away from saying, "Yeah, we're Mormon or we were raised Mormon." I think Mormons really like a famous Mormon who's secular and seems cool or seems interesting or worldly that we can point to like, "Well, they're Mormon."

JM: Because it's good PR for the religion? 
TG: I guess so. Yeah. But then, I think the minute you're too gay or the minute you're too secular, you're ousted or you're seen as a dissenter or something. I was definitely seen as a dissenter when I decided to leave and I used music as a way to channel those feelings, and I released the record and did some visuals that obviously, I think for Mormons, had sacrilegious undertones and things that were very blatant and pointed. Doing that, not considering I had L.D.S. bandmates, Mormon bandmates, it was an interesting time for a minute where we were like, "What does this do? Does this sort of cut out a section of our listeners?" Things like that.

JM: The record you're referencing, Excommunication, was released under your name, Tyler Glenn. Was there a conversation if it should be made under the Neon Trees name?
TG: No. We had all had a talk around the end of 2015. We were going to take a break and I was going to do a solo record and my band supported me on that, but my personal life was shifting a lot and I was having a crisis of faith, sincerely. I can only look back at that year of my life, making that record and putting it out and promoting it as just very raw. I was writing the songs, I was making the visuals while I was really feeling hopeless and out in space. I didn't consider my bandmates. I don't feel bad about that. We've had talks and we feel some of those wounds and that miscommunication, but I was just so living in that moment.

I tried to take a lot of that into this new record with the Trees because, I'll be honest, this is the first record that I've felt really safe in the band. I felt like I always had to hide. This isn't pointing fingers at them. Just where we are now, I feel like we healed a lot of things and had conversations we had to have. This is the first record where I feel really supported by them to go ahead and talk about that.

I know that might sound small to some people, but I like that I'm not hiding the fact that this is about a guy and I feel no weirdness about it, which feels really good.

JM: In the song "G.D.M.M.L. GRLS", you have a lyric, "I think my father still loves his son. I tried to kill myself and I'm not the only one." Was that written when you were leaving the church?
TG: It was. So, it was the end of 2015. I had just ended my first boyfriend relationship and simultaneously there was a policy enacted within the L.D.S. church that doubled down on antigay rhetoric. It affected the Mormon community as a whole. There were a lot of people that maybe were on the fence, that had found a way to make Mormonism work and when that was enacted, it pushed certain people over.

There was a real deep gut-punch of sadness for a lot of the queer people that were trying to make the Mormon church work and I was one of them. Because you also feel stupid. You feel like, "Well, why did I believe in that? Why did I believe that some 14-year-old boy was visited by angels and found golden plates and...?" You start to feel dumb and you start to feel like you could easily be lied to in all aspects.

Sorry, I didn't expect to get all emotional, but to add to that...how much self-loathing you have as a queer person, constantly receiving messaging that you're unnatural. For me, I just felt this deep sorrow and pain and then this real desire to want to lash out. I felt this real recklessness with my own life. I just suddenly didn't care at all.

I also wrote that lyric speaking to those that did take their life during that time. There's a lot of people that have been affected by that policy that the church hasn't apologized to. This church, because they're a church, they have a lot to answer to. They think that they can just enact these policies and then quickly change them as if God is just this schizophrenic thing in the sky with no clear vision. It's very frustrating.

JM: Did your dad ever bring up the first part of that lyric? "I think my father still loves his son."
TG: I love my dad. I have a really great relationship with my father. I've had a complex one in the past. I don't think we've ever talked about that album. I know he's heard it, but I don't think we've ever really discussed it that way.

I know where he's at in his life. I know he's feeling how I felt at times where he feels a bit lied to or a bit confused and he's in his 60s and he's straight. But it's never been a deep dive into like those things.

JM: Do you want to be a father yourself? 
TG: I used to. I've been saying this thing since I was in my 20s like, "Yeah, I'll probably have a kid in my 40s." This kind of Bohemian thought at 20. I also realized I'm 36 and it's ever getting closer to that time period where maybe I would slow down or settle down. I will say it's never been in my mind that I had to have a partner to raise a kid. When I thought about being a father, it was never tied to, "Well, who's going to help me raise this kid."

Also trying to untie, do I really want to be a dad or is that from my upbringing? And I don't know.

JM: It's easy and trendy even, to rail against heteronormativity, but it's also still OK to want those things.
TG: I think for me when I talk that way, I'm not saying I'm right, but I'm right for me and it's nice to give space for choice. Right? It's the same thing with like, I'm a sex-positive person, but that doesn't mean that every queer person or gay person has to be on the same level that I am or another queer person is. This could be a whole other conversation, but I think there's this pressure that I've felt, like is this how I'm supposed to be if I'm gay? I like giving space and choice and just because you are deciding to be a two-parent household raising a child, that's not because you're suppressed. 

JM: When it comes to a queer community, do you have one?
TG: I don't. I don't always. Before it was like, "Okay, I don't really fit into West Hollywood. I'm going to go to Silver Lake. It's still is navigation for me. I realized too, the importance of a queer friend. I don't have enough of those. I feel disconnected sometimes from that. Absolutely.

JM: Do you think of that as a trade-off that you made? You wanted to be a successful musician and make it big, and you did that. Do you feel like you chose one over the other?
TG: Yeah. I think I had those thoughts and maybe never articulated it, so I might sound unthought-out, but I do. I do feel that way. It's this interesting thing where now I am 36 years old. I feel very, very much like just a guy, but then I realize I'm not just a guy to a lot of people and I have to remind myself even when meeting new people, what are these people looking for? I've unfortunately found situations where there is a toxicity or there is sort of like a using quality. I don't want to use that as a crutch either. I don't want to use my own success in a certain field or whatever as a crutch for not developing meaningful friendships and things like that.

I'm in a weird space, even in the music world as an openly gay man because I got a lot of initial success in the music world before I was out. Then, I came out in 2014 and I still sometimes don't always feel acknowledged as a gay artist. I sometimes want that. I'll see Billboard Pride put up five pop stars that are straight, but that sort of speak to the queer community. I totally understand, but I wish that there was more acknowledgment of other queer musicians putting out music.

I sometimes look at my career and I go, I have songs that have reached certain parts of the world. I have access with certain success that I've had, and yet I don't always feel like I am acknowledged as a queer artist, especially as Neon Trees. I'm saying these thoughts clumsily, I think, but I feel like an outlier even in that space. 

JM: That's interesting because so many queer musicians I talk to feel like they're pigeonholed as queer musicians, only. You have the opposite problem. 
TG:  I don't know if it's because Neon Trees became popular before I was out and Neon Trees is its own thing. I do want to say, I am so grateful to the queer audience that do come to our shows. But, I feel like I have to sometimes speak under my own name to get access sometimes. It's this interesting thing because I was still gay. I was still writing about gay experiences. I just hadn't been out. 

JM: "Everybody Talks" and "Animal" were two massive hits right at the beginning of your career. At that time, did you think it would be easy to keep achieving that level of success for your entire career? 
TG: Going into it, I could not have imagined it was going to take off like that. Me and my band were the types that were raised on bands that got in vans and played. We did that the first five years of our career. Before everyone signed, we got into vans and played for 10 people. The minute we put out our first song, we started to see traction and it became this crazy thing for us. Then "Everybody Talks" did the same thing. It was this thing where I got used to this idea of like, "Oh, is it this simple?" Then I came out and then I had my own personal traumas and I wanted to progress beyond just a certain sound or a certain topic.

I think it's only brought me back to the idea of owning your truth and loving and standing by the work that you do and putting out honest work. I'm happy that those songs exist and they almost live apart from even me and my band. They're TikTok memes now. It's crazy. I've also seen the business change immensely in the last 10 years. Like all industries, they're going to adapt and change and so I'm not saying it's this vile thing. But, I do wrestle with, is this even the industry that is healthy for me?

I got into it as an artist and a fan of music and wanting to go play shows and it's so not what it was even 10 years ago. I wrestle with even doing it and yet I have this career that I've built. Why would I want to leave that behind? It's an interesting transitional space that I'm in.

JM: How much is everything going on with the pandemic amplifying these thoughts?
TG: I'll be honest. A lot of it. Because I live alone, I have a lot of time with my own thoughts. I wonder sometimes, "Can I do another 10 years of this?" Not because I don't have creativity or a direction or a vision for music, but are there things I want to say outside of just this model now with my career. Maybe there's things and ways I can use my talents elsewhere.

But then, bringing up the pandemic it's like, I don't even know what that looks like next year. I don't know if I'm going to reach the point where I just go, "Fuck it all," and move to Montana. I don't know if that will happen, but maybe. And then maybe I'll be a dad. 

Click here to listen to the full interview with Tyler Glenn. I Can Feel You Forgetting Me is available now.  LGBTQ&A is produced by The Advocate, in partnership with GLAAD.

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