Tyler Glenn on his evolution and the return of Neon Trees: ‘Coming out of the church was almost personally harder for me than coming out as gay’

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·14 min read
Tyler Glenn and Neon Trees perform at Nashville Pride in 2019. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)
Tyler Glenn and Neon Trees perform at Nashville Pride in 2019. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

A decade ago, Neon Trees burst onto the scene with their emo-pop earworm “Animal,” a No. 1 alternative radio hit that crossed over to Top 40, peaking at No. 13; two years later, they followed up with the equally infectious and even more successful “Everybody Talks,” which made it all the way to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. The rock ‘n’ roll dreams that frontman Tyler Glenn had harbored since teenhood were finally coming true, but as he tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM, he “still had no genuine bliss.” Neon Trees’ third album, 2014’s Pop Psychology, was a more autobiographical work, with some lyrics inspired by Glenn’s recent therapy sessions, but after that, the Utah band didn’t release a full album for six years.

During that interim, Glenn, now age 36, has undergone a metamorphosis. He came out as gay in an interview with Rolling Stone; had a life-changing experience starring in Broadway’s Kinky Boots; and released a solo album, Excommunication, inspired by his coming-out experience and subsequent decision to leave the Mormon church in which he’d been raised. It took a while for Neon Trees (whose other bandmates are still Mormon) to regroup, for reasons both personal and professional, but this week they triumphantly return with their fourth album, I Can Feel You Forgetting About Me.

The album’s title isn’t a cheeky reference to their hiatus; it refers to what Glenn calls “ghosting culture” (one track is “Holy Ghost”) and the three-year relationship that inspired the record’s intensely personal lyrics. (“It’s me confronting my codependency in a relationship and sort of needing to leave it,” he explains.) But while I Can Feel You Forgetting About Me is a breakup record, Neon Trees — who, Glenn clarifies, “never broke up” — are going strong and in a good place.

Below, Glenn talks candidly about his journey with his sexuality, his faith, and his band, and he even cries a little. Get out the tissues and read on.

Yahoo Entertainment: While Neon Trees haven’t released an album in six years, you haven’t exactly been off the scene. In 2016, you made quite an artistic departure with your solo debut, Excommunication.

Tyler Glenn: Yeah, I went in [the studio] making what I thought would be a mainstream pop record! … Instead it didn't really catch on, and it became this sort of record speaking to a really niche audience — that being LGBT people of faith and the intersection between like, “Do I have a place in faith? Where do I put all of my faith expression, and also embrace my sexuality?” That was something I was going through in real time, so I think that's what lent to it being a bit more of a dark, introspective record. I think doing that, though, made me realize I can make a record without a ceiling. I can be free to do what I want in a record. I think sometimes with Neon Trees records, I had a bit of a fear threshold where I was maybe afraid to go fully out in a theme. So, I would disguise it in certain ways. That's not to invalidate all the Neon Trees’ records at all. I just think for me, I feel freer and freer every time I make a new body of work. I also feel really supported by my band on this record to go ahead and talk about themes that maybe I wouldn't have before, or that maybe before would have made them uncomfortable.

So when you first publicly came out in Rolling Stone, from what I recall, you had an intention at that time to live life as an out man — but also still be Mormon. But after listening to Excommunication, I'm going to make a guess that that plan didn't work out. Do you still identify or culturally or religiously as a Mormon? Where do you stand right now?

I don't at all affiliate… when I talk to certain members of the faith, there's a language that Mormons speak, culturally, so there are things that I like identify with because it's part of my whole youth and twenties, that worldview. But I can talk to you plainly: I don't believe it's true. And I think that set me free. I had so much belief in this weird, narrow concept that didn't even have space for me as an openly gay man, that doesn't have space for anybody LGBT. And so I have found complete freedom and joy in the last three-ish years, leaving that behind. I don't know if that's the suggestion for everybody; I'm not everybody. But yeah, it's been a wonderful thing to leave that behind.

You came out relatively late in life, at 30 years old. What was it that made you want to take that leap, both personally and in the public eye as well?

During [Neon Trees’] record Pop Psychology [in 2014], I was hiding a lot of references to my identity struggles and my sexuality. Even on our record Picture Show, I remember saying a line in a song called “Teenage Sounds”: “I'm sick of being called a f** because I'm queer.” I was saying that in 2012! I always felt like I was hiding messages — hiding in plain view, probably. I was also personally just going a little nuts, honestly. I was compartmentalizing. I had led all of my twenties in the closet, and it was just catching up with me. I was deeply unhappy on tour. I was living my dream — that was the height of our career, and I still had no genuine bliss. I knew the reason was I wasn't living my truth.

What was the reaction went you finally came out?

I was greeted with a lot of support, even from Mormons, and a lot of gay people and queer people that also kind of wrestled with their faith. …That made me feel like, “OK, this is a good thing I'm doing.” But, you know, the rhetoric doubles down every couple of years from specifically the Mormon church against homosexuality, and it's really stifling. I just saw through it, finally. You know, I think coming out of the church was almost personally harder for me than coming out as gay. I always knew I was gay, but I kind of also always thought the church was true — until I realized it wasn't. So for me, it was a bigger spiritual war inside of me, a bigger faith crisis inside of me, to come out and leave the church behind.

I’m not sure if any of your bandmates are Mormon, but were they aware of what you were going through? How did they feel about your decision to come out? Did you discuss it with them before you went public?

I won't speak for them, but I know over the years they've affirmed that they saw I was floundering, that I was struggling. I didn't come out personally to them until right before I took a meeting with Rolling Stone to make it a feature, you know? I just wanted to just get it over with. I used to subscribe to the idea that you didn't have to come out. I always kind of adhered to that: Like, “I'll just be in my fifties, alone with dogs on a beach. That’s fine.” That's not to knock anyone that chooses that path. It just was really, really, really stifling my growth as a person. And yes, [the members of Neon Trees] are all varying degrees of LDS Mormon as well.

Now that you're back together doing a record, I assume they're cool with the fact that you've left the church and that you are living your truth. But was there any friction with them when you initially came out?

There was, yeah. I can look back at how I did it — and I've wrestled with this. I didn't necessarily consider how they would feel when I made a record [Excommunication] discussing themes that they still held dear. And I'm not going to speak for all three of them; they're all at varying degrees of their faith as well. But I do think they all really support my decision. Some of them maybe wish differently, but that's probably just coming from what they can see as caring. And I totally appreciate that now. But we've found a way to get along. …We all may not have the same political views, same religious views, same worldviews, but we come together to make music, and you know, I'm happy. I used to think, like, “I don't need them! I can write music without them!” But I realized immediately, when I wasn't playing with them, there's just something special about the four of us when we play a live show. And that's the reason why we've been in a band for over 12 years. And I do love them. It’s hard to dredge up the past, but it's part of our story, and I do appreciate where we are now, for sure.

There is also the consideration that I have dreamed about this band since I was about 19 years old, you know? And so, it's weird to work on something for so much of your life and then just to throw it away based on growth or based on wanting to continue [in a new direction]. Maybe [the new album] doesn't sound like the first record, or maybe we're all in a different creative space, but this name holds value that my own name doesn't in certain spaces, and it can reach audiences that maybe I don't personally. I still think there's a lot of value in not giving up on this thing.

I do wonder if your bandmates were upset, or if any of your Mormon fans were particularly upset, about the “Trash” music video from Excommunication, which had so much anti-Mormon imagery in it. It was very controversial, and I am sure some people found it downright blasphemous.

It meant a lot, to do that video. To describe the headspace I was in: I was in real time making a record and feeling all of these feelings. I think the fearlessness came because it wasn't a Neon Trees record. It had my name on it. I felt like I could kind of go wherever I want personally with it. But yeah, I did include a lot of very specific Mormon iconography and handshakes and things like that in that video, and it did offend some people. But on the flipside, it also actually made a lot of people feel seen and it really validated a lot of people's anger. And that was the thing that helped me feel supported, was I realized there's a whole community of people that feel the same way. When you're going through something like that, it feels so personal and isolating. So it's been a cool journey in that regard as well.

Speaking of the journey, was any of the stuff we're talking about directly responsible for the long gap between Neon Trees albums? Was it because you needed to take a break from doing music with them, or smooth things out with them?

I think, long story short, yes, there was some friction. I think we needed space to get through that. We definitely sat down multiple times — not to get all self-help about it, but we definitely did meet and have multiple conversations about how we want to do this. I think there was a lot of fear on their part, like, “Well, now that you believe this way, how are things going to go? Like, you're the one with the microphone.” … So, we just had to talk through it. But I think there was business stuff too. We were unhappy with our label; we were unhappy with certain management. I'm probably not even allowed to talk about it for a couple more years, but just business stuff. Now we're in a really incredible place. And during that time [between Neon Trees albums], I also did Broadway. That's not, like, a footnote in my life. That actually is a really important thing that I got to do.

Yes, you played Charlie in Kinky Boots! How did that all come about?

I had some friendly affiliations with Cyndi Lauper over the years, who wrote all the music [for Kinky Boots]. I think I was just suggested to her. Every now and then over the seasons, they would do this thing called “stunt casting” and they would put a rock singer in the show. So I went out to New York and I auditioned — and that means a lot to me, because I didn't just get handed the role. I was really very self-aware that l people dream, eat, sleep, and breathe Broadway and sometimes never get an opportunity to even lead a show on a stage like that, so I was really, really wanting to earn it. And I got it! It was like a boot camp, like three weeks of rehearsals and then you're thrust out onto a stage in front of an audience that doesn't really know if it's your first day or your eighth week. It was a totally different muscle of performance — memorizing almost two and a half hours of script, as well as singing, as well as choreography. It was such a lesson, learning how incredibly thought-out Broadway shows are. I sometimes joke that I'm a “bad gay” — I know that's totally a cliché, but I didn't really know as much as I should have about Broadway.

Did the Kinky Boots experience change how you approach making music?

It’s dramatic to say this, but it changed my life, in terms of where I was before and where I was after it. It really got me out of a lot of just personal inner darkness. It pulled me out of it. Just doing a show like that, it's such a message of self-acceptance, and you're doing it eight times a week, but you're also watching… you know, I start to get emotional about it, actually. [Chokes up, wipes eyes] You're watching Middle American people visiting New York, and sometimes it's really hard to get into a show, so people just get tickets for whatever show they can. And you start to watch people change their minds — just from seeing a story about this really stuffy, straight, British guy, played by me, and this incredible, effervescent drag queen — changing the hearts and minds of people. I know it sounds kind of hokey on paper, but it was a really beautiful, beautiful time. So anyway, I did not expect to cry talking about that!

Hopefully you can get back to performing on Broadway again soon, or touring with Neon Trees, once this coronavirus crisis subsides. I know you initially delayed the Neon Trees album release because of the pandemic.

Yeah, I mean, [the band is] doing what we can. I'll just be frank: I cried in my kitchen. Now I'm going to be known as the “crying guy”! But I teared up in my kitchen the other day, because I wanted to play a show so bad. I think my body misses it, just that energy. It's what I love to do. It is heartbreaking. But then you take two steps back and you realize everyone's really feeling it in their lives. And in a strange way, that does make you feel less alone. And then it seems crass to even [complain]. I am just grateful that people have so much access to music, so in that way, I hope [the new album] reaches people. I also know we're kind of a slow-burner band and it takes a minute for people to catch on. I'm proud of the record, so I don't want to hold it any longer.

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The above interview is taken from a portion of Tyler Glenn’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.