It’s definitely been an eventful year so far for Neon Trees. Shortly before the release of their new album last month, their lead singer Tyler Glenn publicly came out, putting a new type of spotlight on the Utah band. On top of that, the band also enters the most important and pivotal point of their career so far. With two hit songs under their belt (the ever infectious “Animal” and sleeper hit “Everybody Talks”), the band offer a new approach to their established sound on their latest record Pop Psychology, something that can make or break a band, and surely has in the past for others.
It’s definitely been an eventful year so far for Neon Trees. Shortly before the release of their new album last month, their lead singer Tyler Glenn publicly came out, putting a new type of spotlight on the Utah band. On top of that, the band also enters the most important and pivotal point of their career so far. With two hit songs under their belt (the ever infectious “Animal” and sleeper hit “Everybody Talks”), the band offer a new approach to their established sound on their latest record Pop Psychology, something that can make or break a band, and surely has in the past for others. It seems that now more than ever, it’s difficult to captivate America with a hit song. But it’s even harder to make a change in your sound, whether subtle or blatant, and have it resonate with your audience as much as that original sound. Whether it’s your second, third, or tenth album, it’s always a risky move to deviate from what’s been proven to work, but as the albums reviews keep coming in and the airplay keeps increasing, it seems that the risk just might be worth the reward for Neon Trees.
This Tuesday night, May 20th, Neon Trees come to The National in Richmond. Before their show, bassist Branden Campbell spoke to us about the band’s recent spotlight, their new record, and having a family while being on the road.
Pop Psychology, your third record, just came out last month. How did this album all come about?
Well, we were going to go on tour with a big artist last summer, but they decided that they maybe just enjoyed not being on tour. I guess they had that option. We just had songs forming at that time and we had the summer wide open so we thought instead of doing our own tour, let’s work on these songs that have been brewing. We kept it on the down low and didn’t let our record label know at that time. We kind of kept just everything hush so we can do more of what we want. I think we always get to do what we want, but this way there was no time constraint. Sonically and time wise, things came together that way. As far as a lot of the themes go, it just came from Tyler being more open and honest to himself about things and navigating his way through his experiences.
How did that work, keeping it a secret from the record company? Did you just work out as much of the songs as you can and then go to them asking for studio time?
Actually, we have our own rehearsal studio that we work in and we had a particular producer that we wanted to work with who had his own studio. It was just kind of one of those things where we didn’t need to reach out for any recording time. Something that’s great about working Tim Pagnotta as a producer is that he takes his demos very seriously and that helps cut down a lot of the cost and time. A lot of times, you think that you’ll just make a demo and then re-track it and make a master, but there sometime ends up being a magic about the demo. Because of that, we almost always end up keeping the demo. That ends up saving time when we go into the bigger studio since now we’re just doing the overdubs and using some of the different gear to help enhance that demo, which was already done with good equipment in the first place. There is a lot of magic from that first take or that original process so I feel like you just have to capture that magic.
I know it’s the big question every time you do something new, but what makes this album different from the others?
We know for sure we wanted to do ten songs and no bonus or hidden tracks or anything like that. No Target exclusive. We wanted ten songs that were at the three to four minute mark. Pop music, you know. I think pop music has such a bad reputation. There are some bands or artists who definitely deserve that, but there’s a lot of great music that has great pop sensibility or has a pop approach. To me, Morrissey was a pop star and Hank Williams was a pop star way back when because it was popular. All of the sudden though, pop music meant a certain sound. We don’t subscribe to that, but we do like having pop sensibilities in our songs. We like having good melodies and hooks and making it fun when possible, and deep when needed, and I think there’s a definite place and need for that type of music.
With this record, was there anything new or different you tried in your approach as a bass player?
What I did different on this record was that we doubled the bass a lot with a bass synthesizer called the Moog Sub Phatty. Back in the 50s and 60s, they used to do this thing called tic tac bass. They had this big upright bass on music that they would use, but the frequency was so low that it wouldn’t be able to reproduce through the small speakers that people listen to music on. So they would double the bass line with a baritone guitar to try and create definition so that way you could hear the bass notes on tinier speakers. My approach to tic tac here though was to let the synth bass do the big, deep stuff and have a growly, electric bass guitar do something on top of that. Just doubling the parts though, not counter melodies or anything. It’s cool though, because people always think that if you’re in one type of band, you only listen to one type of music. Well, this is the benefit of listening to old Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson and reading about those sessions they did. I mean, the Beach Boys used the tic tac bass back in those golden days too.
Do you think you share some similarities with The Beach Boys in terms of utilizing the studio as much as you can for recordings?
Actually, yeah. Thinking back, we’ve always talked about how we like using the studio as a tool. We’re not afraid of making a record that will or won’t be able to be reproduced in concerts. A great record is a great record and we can always figure out how to play it later on. That’s why now you’ll see two other people on stage with us. There’s another guitar player and a keyboard player. We brought them in and said, “Hey, we went into the studio and got crazy, so now we need you guys to play with us to fill out the sound.” That’s just how we deal with it.
With each of your last records having hit songs, do you feel any pressure with this record to have another hit?
Not to me. I think at this point we wanted to do something different. It didn’t mean we wanted to totally flip the script and do something weird for weird’s sake like other bands do, but “Sleeping With A Friend,” while it’s a great pop song and it’s catchy, is a little bit of a new direction for us. There are songs on the album that we could put out and right away people would say, “That’s the Neon Trees sound.” But we thought there’s other stuff we want to do, and this third album is the perfect time to do that and expand our sound. The pressure was not if we can make another “Animal.” I’m pretty confident we can, but we’d rather do something different that will still have the appeal and connect with the people that love the other songs.
Your band has had a lot more attention on you recently since Tyler publicly came out last month. How’s that experience been since it happened?
You know, he’s always been honest with us. It was such a brave thing for him to do. He confided in me years ago that that was something he was trying to figure out within himself. I always respected that and that’s why no one knew. We just let him know that we’ve got his back 100% and we always will. That’s such a bold thing to do even though there were a lot of people that were saying things like, “I could always tell.” You know, snarky comments. “Well, who didn’t know that?” I just think that’s incredibly rude and lame. There are people that are in that situation that have to say it for themselves first. Like someone who has never said that out loud to people, that’s a big thing, and for someone to discount that I think is really shallow. We’ve made sure to really rally around him, but I just speak of the 1%. The other 99% has been awesome and we couldn’t ask for a better experience with all of this.
I understand your son Connor is a child with special needs. I just can’t fathom being in a huge rock band and having that kind of personal stress to deal with.
When I joined Neon Trees, Connor was six months old. We knew he was having some sort of seizure related condition and as the band got busier and busier, he started growing and it became more apparent as to maybe what his condition was. It’s like both things started to grow at the same time. The awesome thing though is that with the band busy and being on the road so much, I’ve been able to help pay the doctor’s bills which can get ridiculous and add undue stress on an already stressful situation. When someone has a condition like this, there’s a specialist that you have to fly to Cleveland or wherever to see, and you and your family have to stay in a hotel for 10 days. Somehow, you’ve got to pay those bills. It’s a weird because I feel so blessed to have this career doing something that I love, and I can support my family. I’m more blessed, because I’ve met so many people that are concerned, or they have input, or connections to one doctor after another that maybe will finally find something to help him. Every day is a day I wish I was with him, or he was here with us. He just loves being on the tour bus with us.
Neon Trees at the 2012 XL102 Chili Cookoff; photo by Chad Brown
Have you ever had to make the difficult decision between the band and your family?
No, that hasn’t happened yet, thankfully. When I joined the band, I was the only one who was married and had children. Elaine [Bradley], our drummer, was always the one who said family comes first when it came to my schedule. Now she’s married with kids, and Chris [Allen], our guitar player, is married, so I give them the same respect that they gave me early on: family comes first. I’m fortunate to have a wife that loves rock and roll and loves Neon Trees. We can laugh at the grim truth that she’s a slave to our schedule, but it’s something we’re all sensitive to. Luckily, that crossroads hasn’t come yet where I have to decide between family and the band. I’m confident, though, that if there was something I had to be away for, I could. I’d want the show to go on and I have some good friends that I know could step in on the bass, because I try and be tight with my friends in the bass community. If anything, I’d finally get that bird’s eye view of what it’s like to watch Neon Trees. It’d be rad. Maybe I’d do it just for fun someday soon.
Well, Branden, I appreciate all your time today!
No problem. We’ll see all you guys in Richmond on Tuesday. We just started our tour and this is probably the tour we’re most excited about with our new stuff. Whether you’re the biggest Neon Trees fan or have just liked what you heard on the radio, you should definitely come out. We will not disappoint. I don’t think it’s in Tyler’s bones to disappoint at a live show, actually.
Find more information about Neon Trees at their website here.