By Jay Tilles
Tyler Glenn was at his breaking point. The Neon Trees singer had wrestled with his sexuality for the better part of adult life before coming to grips with the reality that he was a gay man. Coming out of the closet is difficult, stressful and emotional for anyone; for Glenn, it was more complicated that that.
Born into a Latter Day Saints family, Glenn had been a devout and dutifully practicing Mormon his entire life, and his religion condemns homosexuality.
Glenn was not a causal believer. As a young man he followed the church’s tenets as closely as anyone could, abstaining from sex, drugs, alcohol, caffeine etc. He spent two years as a missionary, passionately preaching and converting.
In 2015, the Church announced that it had updated its policy on same-sex marriages in Handbook 1, an instruction guide for bishops and other priesthood leaders, further clarifying its stance on gays. Marriage was declared an “apostasy” and would require a Church disciplinary council.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles addressed the issue in an interview: “We recognize that same-sex marriages are now legal in the United States and some other countries and that people have the right, if they choose, to enter into those, and we understand that. But that is not a right that exists in the Church. That’s the clarification.”
Glenn knew his church’s stance on being gay, but when they laid down the law in no uncertain terms, his world shattered. His new album Excommunication dives deeply into his departure from the church and giving up his his faith. One step beyond that, it opened his eyes to what he now believes to be false truths about the religion and its founders.
As Glenn readies for the world to finally hear Excommunication in its entirety, he sat with Radio.com to discuss his album and his journey.
Your interview with John Dehlin, host of Mormon Stories, where you discussed leaving the church, could be one of the most deeply personal interviews ever conducted with a musician.
I think he just gives you the space to tell your story and be really comforting. I felt instantly comfortable. I wanted to tell the conflict of being gay, closeted most of my life, and then coming out as being gay and Mormon. To me it’s not some story you hear all the time and it’s very complicated and complex and it’s very “now” and relevant. It’s a thing that’s affecting LGBQ members within the church and within a lot of religious organizations. They’re not making space for them. They’re marginalizing them. For me, being able to be open and talk about that experience felt kinda cathartic because I didn’t get to always be that expressive.
I was super open about most of my twenties being closeted but still being gay and trying to pray for some sort of bartering system with God. It’s just this really weird, complex life that I led until a year ago. I always figured that coming out as gay was going to be the hardest thing, but I think it’s even harder to discover that the faith that I believed in and that I was raised in doesn’t have a space for me and hasn’t been forthright with its own credibility. Now, I feel like all that has inspired this body of work that I’m about to unveil.
After having written and recorded this album, do you feel as though you’ll have purged all these feelings?
For me this is a body of work and I’m glad to have it in my past… almost. I am kind of ready to at least know that I’m Tyler Glenn, I’m a gay man, I make music that I love and I’m speaking what I feel right now and I’m mindful about that. That to me feels like the end to a lot of pain and confusion.
Excommunication feels like you told a series of stories in a row. The track order appears to matter.
I want it, sequentially, to feel like the feelings I went through of a few weeks losing my religion, losing my relationship with God.
It’s clear over the course of the album you’re now questioning much more than just your faith.
For me, being raised in a very specific religion with a very specific view on the afterlife, I’ve always been wired to view God as a white male; Jesus was his son and they were separate beings–a lot of that now… I don’t know what God looks like. I don’t know if it’s a man. I don’t know if it has a body. I think that there’s something out there… That’s a really complex thing to go through as a grown man. My whole perspective on the afterlife is totally different now. I wanted people to feel the highs and lows and the anger and the frustration and that conflict because that was something that I’m still living… that I’m still figuring out.
With Neon Trees having such a large Mormon fan base, do you worry that they may be at odds with this new solo work?
Just the few songs that I have put out are polarizing. Not in the sound, but I think a lot of people are going, “Wow, he’s really going there.” And I think Neon Trees… we were an international band but we had a very Mormon following within Utah, and we’re from Utah, and I think has created sort of a polarizing opinion of my new material. I’m grateful for that though because I think that’s when it’s interesting… when it’s a little divisive… It’s not boring. They’re either reacting one way or another and I love that.
The video for “Trash” is filled with Mormon symbolism. How did you decide on the concept and props?
In the midst of going down the rabbit hole and discovering so many things I wasn’t aware of being raised in a religion that I served–I was a missionary for two years–I was in it. I thought I knew everything about it. And to discover there were so many things that I didn’t know, that most of the common Sunday-going members didn’t know, it made me react in a way where I went to the local Latter Day Saints bookstore and bought paintings and painted on them. So [in the video] you see me painting on Joseph Smith and picture of him receiving things that he didn’t receive. That felt like an expression… I want to put these in the video, and I want to make the elevator look like the inside of the temple and I want to be really expressive and pointed about it. I want to show the pain and the anger that I had. The director Mike Harris and I crafted this idea that there was this hall that vaguely resembles a church building then there’s this elevator that we don’t really know where it’s going.
They built an elevator box and as I was performing they were spinning it the whole time. It was a steadycam inside–and it hit me like a million times–but I was supposed to dance and perform and sing while this thing is spinning and there’s a camera and not very much space inside. Then there was scripture pages all over the floor slipping… it was very intense. I think that that’s when I finally gave up the ghost. I’m surrounded by scripture pages and I’m making temple signs. I’m really going for it and renouncing this thing. But by having a reaction of hope and denigration from people watching the video, yeah there were people that were deeply offended and hurt but there were also people that were like, “That is what I’ve needed to express as well. This is my path too.” That has been really rewarding.
I know I came out with something that’s very intense right away but I wanted to do that but I wanted to establish a different vibe right away.
“Shameless” seems like a song that you could not have written ten years ago. It’s all about your feelings today, right?
Yeah, I definitely couldn’t have written a song called “Shameless.” It just wasn’t a thought that came into my mind. That’s a huge thought now. I want to live without shame. I want to live without guilt. And, that’s something that I’m trying to unwire slowly. I think fear fuels a lot of media and society. I want people to feel empowered.
I think “Shameless” is the anthemic moment on the record where I’m talking about God might save my life but also vodka might also save my life. All these new things I want to try… I do live a life so shamelessly. I want to be bold in that way. Yeah, lyrically, it’s in your face.
Have your Neon Trees bandmates heard the record and what do they think? Most of them are still practicing Mormons, right?
I’ve played a little bit for Brandon and he totally dug it.
I haven’t played any for Elaine. I think the initial shock of “Trash” definitely put them off for a minute. I didn’t really keep them in the loop with what I was going through ’cause it was a very dark time. So I think they knew the context because they knew the story because they’ve known me forever now… I think it came initially as a little bit of a gut punch, which I can understand. If they believe those things [that the religion teaches], then to them that’s sacred. To me it’s not.
We’re still Neon Trees and people have feelings and I validate those feelings and we needed a minute but we’re good now. There was no “Neon Trees is over” [holding his hand to his ear as if it were a phone]. I’ve never in my mind thought Neon Trees was over.
We had a little band therapy, like a nice transparent hang for a bunch of hours and I think we’re on a page where we go in to make out next record I think it’s gonna be a really healthy, exciting, creative time.
You were a hero in Provo, Utah. Has that artist-and-fan relationship changed there?
I still go there. Neon Trees has a rehearsal space in Provo. I go less and less to the local shows. It think a line has been drawn a little bit. To me, in some circles, I’m almost a sort of anti-Christ figure because I’ve renounced a religion that is pretty pronounced there–and that I came from. I can see why some people are put off but the imagery and visuals and that I decided to use hand-in-hand with this record so far… It’s not like I’m just doing that for the sake of being shocking. It has absolute context and it’s fresh and it’s real and it’s affecting people now. I’m totally okay with making music that has a melody but that also has a message. It’s not fluff. It’s real and it’s not something that I attached myself just to be controversial.
Tyler Glenn’s first solo album, Excommunication hits stores October 21.