Neon Trees' Frontman Tyler Glenn is 'Shameless' in Provocative New Video: Exclusive Premiere
The openly gay, ex-Mormon singer debuts a titillating video for "Shameless" and kikis with Billboard about Madonna, Gaga and playing casting director
Neon Trees’ frontman Tyler Glenn follows up his controversial “Trash” video with another tendentious clip: “Shameless.” Both tracks are from his upcoming album, Excommunication, out Oct. 21.
The record details Glenn’s ‘faith-crisis’: he left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) after it announced a new policy identifying those in a same-sex marriage as apostates and prohibited their children from being baptized. While Glenn publicly came out in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2014, and had hoped to become a progressive ambassador for the church. The new policy caused a paradigm shift and resulted in a soul-searching journey and a deeply intimate album.
Check out the "Shameless" clip exclusively via Billboard, and read his thoughts on Madonna and Gwen Stefani and how it felt to play casting director (“it was fun to cast the guys that I thought were cute”) below.
Excommunication is much more personal than anything you did with Neon Trees. Even though you publicly came out as gay before Pop Psychology, I’d argue that this is your real coming out album. What was it like writing for this record?
It’s the first record that I’ve done where I had to write it. I had to get all that energy out. And it feels real-time; I’m still living it. I started writing it last November. It’s the most authentic I’ve been able to be in music.
Your video for “Trash” was extremely controversial for people familiar with the teachings of LDS. You spat on a portrait of Joseph Smith (the founder of the church) and did the secret signs. I stumbled upon an ex-Mormon Reddit thread dedicated to how fascinated people were with the clip. What inspired you to do this in your first video as a solo artist?
I’ve never had a video where people were deciphering it. It was cool. It was like what you see about certain movies.
I actually have a question for those fans on Reddit: what was the significance of the papers flying around in the elevator? There was a debate.
It’s pages from the Book of Mormon. It’s the hardcover Book of Mormon so the pages look a little different from what some people are used to seeing.
That whole shoot was weird because I was casting out things that I believed in my whole life. I really got into that headspace. It was very cathartic. I asked my parents not to come to the shoot. They come to every set, but I was very protective of who was there. I wanted to be able to really tap into what it felt like and what it feels like for the people I’m addressing on the record.
And your mother wasn’t happy with the video, correct?
No. I watched it with her the day before it was released. I was hoping she’d at least see it as a piece of art. She thought it was blasphemous and she also didn’t like seeing me in such a dark place.
It’s funny — even Brandon (Campbell, his Neon Trees bandmate) said he had never seen that side of me angry like that. I thought ‘wow, I really achieved something’ because even some of my closest people were bummed about it. My mom is into it now. She’s still only watched it once but she’s proud of the conversation it’s started.
In your last interview with Billboard, you mentioned a few of your bandmates haven’t talked to you since that video came out. Has that changed?
Yes, it changed. We’ve had a few long, healing talks.
In your new music video, for “Shameless,” you play with religious iconography again. This time, the tone is less angry and more playful. Where did you get the idea to tie-up, lick and then dance with a masked Joseph Smith?
Well it’s actually not Joseph Smith. Originally I just wanted some sort of general authority figure. I knew that those who knew my background would know it was an authority from the Mormon church. But that’s kind of why we made the anonymous old man mask -- to kind of give more of a vagueness. To me, I’m definitely tying up the leader of the church and showing him that I’m shameless.
Madonna was famously excommunicated from the Catholic church during her Confessions tour. She’s had religious references throughout her entire career. In fact, her latest tour featured dancers using crosses as stripper poles. Do you find any influence in her work?
Absolutely. I didn’t think of Madonna or the Like a Prayer era when I was creating the record. But I’ve always been inspired by her, specifically in the way she plays with religion.
It used to be something I wouldn’t have considered because it felt so blasphemous. But there’s so much untapped art within religion that can be used for cool visuals. A lot of Mormon imagery hasn't been used in pop culture so it’s fun to reclaim it and play with it.
Something I find interesting is that, not only are you making a statement about religion, but you also used the “Shameless” video to show that you don’t conform to some of the ideas in the gay community. In Grindr culture, derogatory statements like “no fats, no femmes” run prevalent. In your video, your wear mesh and shiny silver pants, heavy eyeliner and dance around flamboyantly. Your backup dancers are full bodied men, rather than six-packed Adonis types. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. First of all, I’m attracted to guys like that. I’ve never got to be a seedy casting director, so it was fun to cast the guys that I thought were cute. I specifically wanted them not to be chiseled, twinky go-go boys. I wanted them to be built, hairy dudes.
I wanted the video to represent me authentically. I’ve never felt like I fit into any group and know there are other people that feel the same way. There isn’t just a stereotypical one-way, even in the gay community. I didn’t want to cheese it up, glam it up, gay it up just to do it. I wanted to do it in my own way.
You’ve crafted a flamboyant, fashion-forward image. There’s been a void in the music industry for that type of artist since, arguably Prince and Michael Jackson. Do you have aspirations to fill their shoes?
I want to carve my own space. They’re obviously icons so I don’t plan to fill their shoes. I’d agree that there is a lack of interesting male frontmen in mainstream music though. I don’t mind attempting to carve a space for more interesting male frontmen.
I think the rock world and the alternative world still has a way to go for gay representation. I hope my record moves that needle along. I don’t know if I’m that guy though.
You’ve really embraced gay culture since you publicly came out. It’s obnoxious, but I have to ask: who are your favorite 'divas'?
Lady Gaga, for sure. I have a Gaga tattoo -- I’m a stan. There’s Rihanna… I love her. And Gwen Stefani has always been a favorite of mine. I think growing up in California, and the whole Orange County tie -- that was my area as well. And she comes from a punk rock background. She’s just always spoken to me.
Back to your record, it has several references to alcohol: rum, vodka, gin, among others. What’s your poison?
A glass of Malbec. A vodka soda. Lots of drinks. I started drinking a little after coming out. Just dabbling. But I fully embraced becoming an adult in my own way after leaving Mormonism. I love smoking pot on occasion. I like eating it. I just like trying things.
I don’t think there’s ever been an album like this -- it’s very unique. So many LGBT people struggle with their faith versus sexuality, and I think this album will be cathartic to them. How would a teenage Tyler Glenn react to this album?
Teenager Tyler Glenn would have been obsessed with it. He would be stoked. But he wouldn’t have told everyone that he likes the record, because then he would have been afraid that people thought he was gay. (laughs)
It’s the first time I’m honoring my journey and I’m being real about it. I want to use the pronouns that I want to use. I want to say things like ‘if I kiss a boy in public is that cool? / am I fucking up your day? / now that’s just rude’ (lyrics from his “G.D.M.M.L. GRLS”). I want to go for it.
It’s nuts to think about what kids have these day. They have Gaga singing that 'you’re born this way,' Katy Perry telling you 'you’re a firework' and Pink toasting your inner-freak. Do you think you would have come out earlier had these messages been more mainstream in your youth?
I’m so grateful to look at some of my young family. Even when I came out to them, they weren’t phased. I was super scared: what’s this 10-year-old going to think when I tell him I like boys. It’s not a thing for them. That’s crazy. Because for me, it was such a thing.
I don’t know if I would have come out earlier though. Because Morrissey was always a huge inspiration and he’s always been disguised about his sexuality. I found a lot of solace in artists like that because, while some may look at them as not being true to themselves, I think that they’re doing sexuality the way they want to.
I subscribe to the idea that I think it’s important to come out and be bold and proud. I didn’t always. It’s taken me awhile to get there. I don’t know if I would have come out earlier.
The album has male pronouns galore. Are any of your past hits with Neon Trees that use feminine pronouns really about men?
Totally. With “Everybody Talks," I did kiss a girl and that’s what it was about. But it was also about everyone talking about my sexuality and wondering if I was gay. That’s the place I wrote it from. But at that time, I wasn’t out and I was dating that girl. I’ve never felt that I put in ‘she’ because I was afraid though.