No Absolution: Tyler Glenn Is in Charge of His Own ‘Excommunication’

photo: Meredith Truax
photo: Meredith Truax

Rebelling against one’s upbringing is a standard theme for artists; however, few have taken as dramatic a route to self-discovery as Tyler Glenn. The 32-year-old frontman for rock band Neon Trees was raised a Mormon, a faith he remained dedicated to even after realizing he was gay and coming out in 2014 at the age of 30.

Glenn initially attempted to balance both his LDS and LBGTQ lifestyles, but found himself at a crossroads in late 2015, when the church announced that it would deny baptism to the children of same-sex couples. At this point, the singer, who was additionally struggling with the painful ups and downs of his first public same-sex relationship, began an extraordinary journey of excising his doubts regarding the faith he had so staunchly defended.

The result was his first solo endeavor, Excommunication, which stands on its own for its unparalleled laser eye on Mormon teachings. Glenn pulled no punches with the lyrical matter of the record, upping the ante further with two controversial videos incorporating (and, at times, disparaging) Mormon symbolism. The set additionally bewitches with its infectious, dance-friendly melodies, which groove ironically under Glenn’s anguish, anger, and eventual acceptance.

Yahoo Music sat down with Glenn to discuss the process of making Excommunication, his choices in regards to finding a new path, and where he is now with his Mormon family, friends, and fanbase.

YAHOO MUSIC: You came out in 2014 with a resolution to remain Mormon. With all due respect, given the church’s history, didn’t you realize that this would be a difficult if not untenable path?

TYLER GLENN: I didn’t. I didn’t. Oddly, when I came out, I was greeted with a lot of respect and — weirdly — I felt embraced by the church. I began speaking publicly to LBGTQ and LDS kids and adults, and there was this weird sort of vibe that I was accepted and it was OK. They started to make public efforts to kind of change some of the verbiage they had used in the past — I think the church was trying to look a little more open. They developed a website called “Mormons and Gays.” So it was sort of very naïve on my part, but there was also this hope that I was helping carve a space for LBGTQ people. I think this record exists because I found out there isn’t one.

Your breaking point was when, last year, the church declared it would not recognize the children of same-sex couples. Again, given the church’s record regarding gay rights — such things as supporting California’s Proposition 8, etc. — why was this the final straw?

The thing for me was, I think I’d fought practically my entire life until I came out at 30 to make Mormonism work. The problem here was I believed it — I believed in all of it. So my whole wiring was that my orientation was something that I could suppress or repair or fix. So I think a lot of it had to do with me and my self-acceptance, and I think opening my worldview a little bit. For me it took the policy leak to examine: “OK, the line is definitely drawn here.” I think at that point I allowed myself to look at all the things I had questions about. I discovered that wow, this is not the true church, they don’t speak for God, and in fact, it’s just a system to me now that I feel is a bit not for our time. So now I’m extremely, passionately not anti-religious or anti-Mormon, but more passionately looking at what is true and real.

In a past interview you noted that anti-gay sentiment wasn’t a big focus of your religious teachings — that it was more scholarly than anything. That probably comes as a surprise to many people who aren’t familiar with the religion and might associate it with evangelical-type “hellfire and brimstone” preaching.

It’s pretty doctrinally based, yeah. Like gospel-based stuff on Sundays, sure. I think it’s recently only been in, like, the last year that I’ve really keyed into the narratives that the leaders use when they’re talking about gay issues. It’s very… they don’t even acknowledge us as homosexuals. That to me is violent from the get-go, that I’m not even recognized by my nature — it’s a thing that I can overcome, an attraction I suffer from. I reject that, I completely reject that.

When you first started conceiving your solo project, what was your initial objective? Did you want to work through your faith crisis? Express rebellion? Educate others?

At first, very honestly, this was the first record for me in a long time that I had to turn to music to write. Because I literally felt like I was 17, in my bedroom again, and I had to write music. I had so much frustration, but I also had so much fear. There was so much fear surrounding when I discovered that these things weren’t true to me anymore, and they didn’t resonate. And then the anger came out, and I was like, “This is a toxic environment for groups of people — not just gays and lesbians, but women, and different races.” I felt like I was having a real paradigm shift, so I was just trying to write it. When it started to gel and become a record, I think it was a protest record. I feel like I was writing it from a stance of, “No, I’m going to protest these things you claim are true, I’m going to protest for a community of people that feel repressed.” And then it became a passion project, because I became happier in my own life. I think this final record documents the highs and lows of a faith crisis. Maybe it started way more niche, but I think it became a broader look at: “What is faith? What is truth?” And what it feels like to forge a new path.

In addition to questioning your faith, you also were dealing with personal relationship issues. How much of the record deals with those issues specifically?

When I started writing music, about half of the songs were the narrative of me speaking to my ex-boyfriend. It was my first public relationship that I didn’t hide and that I introduced to my family and friends. We dated for a year and I felt that he helped take a lot of walls down. It ended really poorly, with dishonesty. So a lot of the songs at the beginning were addressing this dual narrative. But by the time it came to me producing [the record] and in the studio singing the songs, I almost felt like I had mourned the loss of that relationship, and I didn’t really want to give space to it. So the focus became the relationship I was still wrestling with, and that was my relationship with the concept of God. I literally am still living that, so that became way more fascinating to me.

Even if one rejects one’s faith completely, it is still a very frightening thing to take it on in the manner you did — for example, your controversial videos for “Trash” and “Shameless.” Upon putting those out, did you ever feel that you’d gone too far?

When you see the pain and the initial shock in your family members when they are watching the video for the first time, or you realize, “OK, I’ve been hurtful to some of my bandmates,” because half of them still believe in this — that’s real-life stuff. I feel that I know where I’m coming from and I’ve made a statement with my art, but at the same time, people have beliefs that at the end of the day, I want to be respectful of. There’s definitely context to what I’m doing, and I think that those who have been on this journey with me — friends and family — that’s been the really cool thing. They’ve been coming to my side. They’re standing with me but maybe don’t agree with me, and that’s been cool. I really discovered the meaning of love, and what a friendship feels like.

So you didn’t feel any fear, personally, although you realized the enormity of what you were addressing?

I’ve been really rational and levelheaded about this whole thing — maybe not the first month or two, when I was tumbling down the rabbit hole — but anxiety doesn’t surround this record. I don’t have fear, because I don’t see the church as something that rules over me anymore. I think even the title, Excommunication — I’m doing it before they can. I don’t acknowledge their power. So I don’t have a lot of fear. I’m an empathetic person to a fault, so when I see sadness and pain, I still react to it. But I’m not scared of the things I’m saying.

Do you still feel like a part of you will always identify in some way with Mormonism?

I definitely still culturally resonate with Mormons. I still live in Salt Lake. It’s sad and weird — I feel I will always be Mormon in a way, but it’s more culturally than anything. I don’t believe in those things for sure.

A fascinating thing about your videos is that break ground in utilizing Mormon symbolism — something that is almost completely absent in pop culture. Catholicism, Judaism, other religions — all are pretty well referenced in modern art, but there is no Mormon equivalent at all.

I don’t think you’ve ever seen it. I’m not just saying that to tout that I’m the first — I don’t think anyone’s ever used it yet. It probably has gone over heads, for some, though. There’s a little bit of inspiration from Madonna’s rebuking of the Catholic church, also Sinead O’Connor, so I definitely drew confidence in that — I’d seen artists use religion [in that way]. I tried not to do it from a shocking place, just for shock value. I tried to give a little bit of confidence and context to the imagery. I don’t know if I’ll use, like, stripper poles made out of crosses just to be crass — y’know, things like that. Some of the imagery I used has not been appropriate, but it was appropriate from my point of view.

Is it difficult to explain to your non-Mormon friends why you decided to stay in the church for so long?

I just level with them, because I don’t know what it feels like to grow up not raised in a religion. So as much as I can, I try to tell them — I don’t feel I was brainwashed, but indoctrinated. I was wired a certain way. I think when you are told from a very young age that you need to know these things are true, and you accept that, you start to associate every good feeling with the Spirit or the Holy Ghost. And it has nothing to do with you, or your emotions, or how you’re feeling that day, or your own natural reactions to things. By the time I’m 19, I’m serving a mission, and I’m teaching those things. Even though I’ve gone on to be in a band and toured the world and feel cultured and all, I felt like I had one foot in the music in art world, but my brain was just wired to have that perspective because I believed it was true. There have been times I have just laughed my head off because I was like, “How did I believe this?” There are a lot of very specific beliefs within Mormonism. It’s very all or nothing.

Speaking of your 19-year-old, mission-serving self, what would he think of Excommunication? Would he be shocked? Curious?

It’d be shocking, but at the same time, my 19-year-old self was also a rebel and a questioner. I kind of found solace in not totally believing anything at face value. So again, it’s a bit of a shock to me that I did believe a lot of these things at face value. But, I don’t know — I feel so far apart from who I was even two years ago, so I just don’t know. It’s interesting.

Having pulled out all the stops in terms of heavy material on this album, do you plan to take a step back on your next album and perhaps explore something lighter?

I might pull a Lady Gaga and do like a Michael Bublé duets album, or something. It would be a nice palate cleanser [laughs[.

It is an interesting juxtaposition that you write about such serious, personal issues, but the music itself feels fun and danceable.

I think the way the record is sequenced, is about where I was a year ago, to where I was six months ago, to where I am now. So I felt like I was in it the whole time. When I was writing angry music, the angrier side of the record, it was towards the beginning. So I think it was naturally — like, oh, by song eight — it must have been in April, and I was almost in a different space with accepting some of these things, and feeling like I was embracing a lot of new ideals.

What would be your advice for anyone — any orientation, religion, age — who is going through a period of doubting themselves or feeling as if something is not right in their lives?

I would listen to the doubt, and I would embrace those doubts and really examine where they are coming from. I think when I allowed myself to do that, I’m not going to say it’s not pain and sadness and confusion — but it’s exciting to be almost 33 and feel, “OK, I actually got stuff to make the framework of my life the way I want to.” There’s a lot of freedom in that. I think when you let go of some of the things controlling you, it’s really liberating. If anything, take it from me. I came out late, and also discovered a perspective change a little later, and it’s been great.