It has become hip over the last decade or so for pop stars and rockers to pay homage to the ‘80s, and Provo, Utah-based quartet Neon Trees—comprised of singer/keyboardist Tyler Glenn, drummer/vocalist Elaine Bradley, bassist Branden Campbell and guitarist Chris Allen—play it up to the max. They have the stylish look, infectious sound and summon the essence of the era with ease and passion—just listen to their debut album, Habits, and their catchy new release, Picture Show.
The striking thing about Neon Trees' retro musical mash-up is that you could send the foursome back to the middle of that decadent decade and people would not know that they came from the future. It is equally impressive that the band members came of age in the ‘90s when, as frontman Tyler Glenn notes, pop music was a bad word. For that matter, being a proficient band or even a rock star was not on mainstream musicians' general list of aspirations.
"I always wished that I was older, I guess," mused Glenn backstage at the second of two recent Bowery Ballroom gigs in NYC. The tall singer was a vision of retro chic, his short, black hair spiked up, his lanky frame decked out in sparkly silver clothes topped with brown tinted sunglasses. "I think it's the kind of music that I fell in love with first because, before middle school, I was into musicals and classical music, and I didn't really like pop music except for what Mom played."
Glenn said that he was introduced to The Smiths by a couple of his friends, and he became obsessed with everything that inspired that band as well as other groups that Smiths fans listened to. "I fell in love with that era because it was pop music that had integrity and wasn't this bad word," he recalled. "Being in high school in the late '90s, pop music was a bad word. It was the enemy. But it seemed that [the older] bands really embraced being loud and melodic and interesting, and there [was] still an art sense to pop music. It was the kind of music I always knew I wanted to write."
Neon Trees recently rocked their potent brand of power pop at two sold out shows at the Bowery Ballroom to celebrate the new release of Picture Show, an album that improves and expands upon the '80s potpourri of Habits. Glenn and Bradley, in particular, expended huge quantities of energy onstage. It is fun to pick out the different influences simmering beneath the surface of the new songs—the echo of Romeo Void guitars on "Teenage Sounds," Vangelis-style Blade Runner synths on "Still Young" and Michael Jackson vocal stylings on "Weekend.”
While much of their music has an upbeat feeling and the lyrics often reference hedonistic bliss, underneath lurks a darker sensibility. In the way that "Sins Of My Youth" dealt with the personal insecurities of a party-hearty kid, the new "Hooray For Hollywood" exposes the emotional gutter beneath the glitter of Tinseltown, while "Teenage Sounds" bemoans the superficial goals of modern fame seekers. Such musical/lyrical dichotomies are a Neon Trees staple.
"I've always struggled with my identity," admitted Glenn when pondering his lyrics. "I was raised very religious and have a very spiritual part of my life that I find very important, but I'm also [a] questioner and very naturally rebellious and want to stir up things and make people think twice. But I want to be able to maintain what I believe in too, so I'm always struggling with that. I think in the last few years being in a touring band, finding success and having a lot of people come to our shows, I feel like I've found a security blanket and become more secure. I think this album is more representative of that. We're a rock band but also write pop music, and I don't care that people might not like it. I'm not too worried about that. I am just more concerned with writing really good songs."
It is perhaps ironic that Glenn is shirking off the fame game when he plays the part of a star very naturally onstage, even down to the way he dresses, but he does not see it like that. "I've always dressed this way since I was 12 because I got weird looks, and now I have a reason to because I'm on stage," he countered. "I've always been playful with fashion. I don't think fashion has to do with being famous. I don't like the idea that people are famous for nothing. I don't feel like I'm anybody more than anyone else. I don't feel that, because I'm in a band, that I am important or having a hit song is important, but it's weird to see kids want to be famous instead of wanting to be a doctor or be a teacher. I never wanted to be famous, but I wanted to be able to be in a band. It's weird, if you get success you're going to have some degree of fame, but I'm never aspiring solely for that."
When asked about the most personal song on Picture Show, Glenn replied that "Teenage Sounds" is his most bratty. He remarked that when he sings "I'm sick of being called a fag because I'm queer," it doesn't have anything to do with his sexuality but more about being strange and constantly being called a fag since he was eight years old—because he liked to dance and listen to club music and because of the way he talked.
"Then when I was 18, if I was not being called fag when I walked into a spot then I wasn't doing it right, and it became a whole new meaning," he revealed. "I accepted it. I also realize that a lot of our fans are gay, and it must be terrible to be called that. I throw out that line for myself to let off some steam, but also for people who can relate to that in a different way." When he sang that line at the Bowery, it inspired a huge cheer of approval.
Neon Trees have gained acceptance not only from their peers but their actual influences. They opened up for Duran Duran last year and the year before, Glenn and Bradley appeared on Daryl Hall's award-winning web series, Live From Daryl's House, where they jammed with his band. The experiences were hugely profound for the young rockers.
"The Daryl Hall experience was probably one of my most creative and favorite creative days because I was in a room with people I never met playing our songs and getting to sing with Daryl Hall," recalled Glenn. "He's always been an inspiration as a songwriter to me. I think he's written some fantastic music. Just to be a guest in his house and have dinner with him was really special. I think Duran Duran is one of the most perfect pop bands and are still fantastic. I always looked to them [like] it was okay to be glamorous and to be able to play your instruments, sing and be talented. They were cool, and their fans appreciated us a lot."
Other people have been appreciating the music of Neon Trees as well. There has been a piano tribute single released for the song "Animal," and the cast of Glee covered the song as well. While some bands like Foo Fighters and Guns N’ Roses have understandably felt uncomfortable with their music being used on a pop show, Glenn is supportive of it.
"I'm never going to prevent someone from wanting to sing our songs," he declared. "I think it's flattering. I know a lot of bands are weirded out by Glee. While I don't watch it every day, I was kid in a choir and that was my safe zone because I liked music. I could go there during lunch and hang out with friends that liked that too. I think it's cool that Glee has given the underdog kids a forum. I think the piano [tribute] is really cool. It's interesting that people can put an emotional spin on a pop song."
Perhaps the most socially relevant song on Picture Show is "Hooray For Hollywood." The ironic song invokes the names of many celebrities who have passed on before their time, and there are references to Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston, which means the song was edited up to the last minute.
"I had written the song last summer, and I put that rhyme in," explained Glenn. "I always thought someone else has to die, but not 'Amy-Whitney'. I had a placeholder, Pac and Biggie, but I never wanted to put them in because I didn't have an attachment to their names. I always thought it was kind of silly and didn't even think the song was going to make the record, but then I connected the dots and it made the song exactly what it is about—the first kiss of fame, the spiraling out of control and how sad it is. It's all covered in glitter, but it's a sad thing that happens."
Having been raised Mormon, Glenn is still in touch with his spirituality, and it has provided an anchor for him in the tumultuous world of entertainment. "The way I was raised and being a questioner, and getting a lot of my curiosities out early with drugs and alcohol, I think it's helped me maintain a more even keel where I'm not out of control." Indeed in revealing the "Sins Of My Youth," he presented them with honesty and sincerity. "It was anthemic for me to be honest—love me for who I am. I think everybody wants to be able to say that—look in the mirror and be happy with who they are and realize they have habits they can't break, and that's part of what makes them them."
Even though fans have become used to Neon Trees' inviting sound, they will notice a distinct sonic shift on Picture Show, with keyboards having a stronger presence than before. For Glenn and his bandmates, this change is not unexpected. He stated that the group started more as an "electro-clash dance-rock thing" back in 2005, and they were more inspired then by groups like Ladytron and The Fame.
"It's almost like a return to form for us in merging the two sounds," Glenn noted. "When we were writing Habits, that was the phase we were in. I really didn't want to completely sabotage the success that we had with our first record, but at the same time I didn't want to make another version of that, so I think it's a nice, natural progression without pulling the rug out from under people."
The singer found a kindred spirit in producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who worked on the last M83 record and has played bass live for Nine Inch Nails. The singer said that they would just sit and go through sounds, including a five-hour marathon one afternoon in which they wanted to extract quirky sounds from the Psychedelic Furs song, "The Ghost In You.” "This is sometimes a very selfish sounding record," believed Glenn, "because there are moments where I'm only making the music I want and basically paying homage to [Depeche Mode singer] David Gahan. I love that music."
Despite his lively stage presence, Glenn said that he is not what many fans would expect. "I'm very shy and a natural introvert," he revealed, "and I think after a lot of people see us live or see the videos they expect me to be a monster party animal, and I'm really not. I like to go home, eat hummus and watch movies on my bed." It's his own personal picture show.
Neon Trees will be playing at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ, on Tuesday, May 8. Their new album, Picture Show, is available now through Mercury Records. For more information, go to fameisdead.com.