Time off to recharge leads to a new perspective and a colorful album   

Success can exact a price. It’s something alt rockers Neon Trees learned after scoring with their 2010 debut album Habits, powered by their breakout single “Animal,” and their follow-up two years later, Picture Show, which included their first Top 10 hit, “Everybody Talks.”

Hitting it big brought unexpected demands for touring and promotion, and pressures for a follow-up album. At first, the band’s frontman Tyler Glenn was seemingly prepared. “Fortunately, I just continued writing after our first record, so it didn’t feel as though we were rushing to put out material,” he says. “We were booking a tour and playing on TV as we were finishing the second record, so it was almost a continuum.”

But Glenn was not prepared for the mounting, unrelenting stress that comes with success. Eventually he had to take a break, canceling tour dates following the release of Picture Show. “It never felt like I had a moment to step away to be Tyler—not Tyler from Neon Trees,” he says. “I didn’t realize how important that was for my well-being, as I do now.”

Time off allowed Glenn to get his head together so that he and the band—guitarist Chris Allen, bassist Branden Campbell and drummer Elaine Bradley—could take on their new album, Pop Psychology. Co-written and produced by Tim Pagnotta, the new record pairs the glossy synth pop of Neon Trees’ earlier hits with Glenn’s new, more personal insights.

Where did the title come from?

The record was really written to my mental anxiety. It came from a time that I was shaky emotionally and mentally. I’d asked to have a break, and we canceled some tours—and ultimately put a halt on working on our last record so I could get better. I started writing songs during that time. I went back to writing songs to heal, something I used to do in my teens and 20s. Music was really therapy for me. The title summed that up gracefully. It’s definitely the shiniest, most colorful record we’ve done, so it goes with the imagery of pop art and the aesthetic we’re going with. Everything we’re wearing is very colorful, everything in the artwork is very colorful.

Do the lyrics reflect that anxiety?

Since the band took off with our first record, I never gave myself time to breathe or step back. I was learning to perform who I was and things I wanted to say to audiences. I felt like I was playing catch-up with that. Finally it all came to a head, and I realized I wasn’t a happy person, and I had to figure out what makes me happy. A lot of the record is about me running away from a serious relationship. I’ve always avoided anything serious because I’ve always used the band as an excuse.


How was the band an excuse?

Ninety-five percent of every year since 2005 had been consumed eating, sleeping and breathing Neon Trees. Writing music, touring and booking tours were all we knew to do. I didn’t really have an identity outside of it.


How’d you find your groove again?

It started with the label wanting us to write new music because I had canceled two tours. We never really told them about my situation, because I didn’t want it out there. We were getting pressured to write for a new record if we weren’t going to tour behind the record we currently had out. My writing partner and producer, Tim Pagnotta, encouraged me. He was like, “Maybe we should just take the label money and go on a trip, and if we end up writing music, then we do.” So we took a trip to Mexico and hung out for a few days, and actually started making music. It felt really good. Last January we wrote the first batch of songs together, and later we wrote another batch. It was cool to do it in our own time frame, without making an announcement that we were in the studio or setting a date that fans were looking forward to.


Did you have a direction in mind?

Something that we really wanted to concentrate on was thoroughly sounding like Neon Trees. On our previous records there were moments where we nearly paid homage to artists, rather than taking things that we liked about those artists and making them our own. We wanted to concentrate on the really colorful, energetic side of our music.


What’s your songwriting process?

This record was so different because it started from a place where I was really uninterested in making it. A lot of the record was written with just Tim and me together, but we’re a band, and it was important the record didn’t sound like a solo thing. The band definitely took the songs and made them a Neon Trees record, even though there weren’t too many moments with the four of us in a room writing together.


What’s it like working with Tim?

Tim discovered us. He got us early contacts and fostered a relationship with us. When we were about to make this record and choose a producer, I had written so much with him in the past, it just seemed right to continue the relationship. Now more than ever I feel like we co-produced this album. I feel 100 percent part of it—the result of a good working and writing relationship. Some of the writing situations I’ve had in the past haven’t been as fair for me as they could be. But with Tim, I’m writing all the lyrics, I’m writing the melodies, I’m putting my heart into it—and he’s helping with the music.

How’d the recording go?

We’ve started to recognize the role each of us plays in the band, and we did this record as an opportunity to learn from the previous stuff we’ve done. There were moments where a specific band member wanted to play all over the song, and editing needed to be done and conversations needed to be had, but it was a pretty easy process once the songs were written.


What’s behind the gospel influence on “First Things First”?

The original demo had an acoustic guitar and a beat, but it reminded me of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay.” It was more singer-songwriter-esque, but I always envisioned it as a big anthem. I don’t know why, but Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” always came to mind. I loved the use of the gospel choir on that record. We had wanted some choir on a song but never had the opportunity—this seemed like the right opportunity. They were a professional choir, and it was very cool to sing in a room with a bunch of awesome gospel singers.


Who sings “Unavoidable” with you?

Our drummer, Elaine. She wrote the chorus but was thinking it was a little too teen pop, but I thought there was a certain charm to the idea of talking about the unavoidable outcome of falling in love. Everyone’s personal experience with love is interesting, and that’s why it’s an easy topic to write about, because it’s different for everyone. I don’t think I was really in a place to write a song called “Unavoidable” because I was preventing myself from finding that. She had just been married and just had her first child, and there was a real sense of honesty in that.

–Amanda Farah


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