Murrieta’s neo-New Wave quartet shine on San Diego
There’s been a lot of talk in the last few months, with Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn at the center. It’s a conversation he started, a Mormon man coming out in “Rolling Stone” just weeks before the band’s new album dropped. But for Neon Trees, the music remains at center. The Murrieta-born, Provo, Utah-raised quartet hushes the chatter on Friday, when the neo-New Wave Neon Trees light up Humphreys Concerts by the Bay.
Through the controversy, Neon Trees remain known for their fruit — syrupy pop anthems, sanguine but pointed, delivered with all the color the band’s name implies. The group’s third record, released in April, lives up to the standard. “Pop Psychology” is an Easter basket of sound, with Glenn (vocals, keys), Chris Allen (guitar), Elaine Bradley (drums) and Branden Campbell (bass) doling out radioactive-hued, sugary gifts that dissolve into understated import — and, yeah, sometimes just some good ol’ teenage bubblegum raunch.
Bradley talks to SoundDiego about her “fast-food band,” the rules it broke while recording “Pop Psychology,” the home videos she made as a kid, the smell of commitment and the special place that Alice in Chains will always hold in her heart.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz: How did you come to join Tyler, Chris and, eventually, Branden in Neon Trees?
Elaine Bradley: The short answer would be the Provo music scene. I went to college at BYU, and in doing so — I left from Chicago — I basically thought my musical career would be over [laughs]. Because you think Provo, usually you don’t think, like, oh, best music scene. So I remember being kind of depressed about that fact. But I had a friend who lived in Utah, and he called me every week trying to get me to come. So he’s half the reason I went there anyway — to play music, right? I played guitar and sang at the time. But we got together and played, and it didn’t really work — and then I felt guilty. So I dusted off my drum set from when I was a kid and decided to offer him the favor of playing drums while he jammed, and it ended up being really cool. We started a band, and that’s how we were in the same music scene as Chris and Tyler were playing. We would play shows together and see each other out, and eventually joined forces, because you’re kind of able to sniff out people who have similar levels of commitment to music. It’s really hard, especially in a university town, to find people who aren’t just hobbyists, you know?
HLS: I didn’t know you play guitar, sing and drum. Have you always been so musically inclined?
EB: Oh, yeah, as far as I can remember. Like some of my earliest memories are actually performing or making tapes of myself being the radio DJ and the interviewee, and the commercial and the music [laughs] — just everything on the tape. And I used to, like, beat on pots and pans, and then I’d put rubber bands on things to make a guitar. As long as I can remember, I’ve been making songs and trying to entertain people in some way or another.
HLS: And here you are, fully transformed into the traveling, internationally known musician.
EB: Yeah, I’m very grateful. I can’t imagine — because you go through that period of, like, “Man, you know, this just might not happen for me. As hard as I work or as much as I want it, I might be one of those people who this doesn’t happen for.” You kind of have to accept that risk in the effort. You have to be willing to sacrifice everything and be aware of the fact that you might get nothing [laughs]. It’s really nice to have gotten something.
HLS: Who did you grow up listening to?
EB: Well, I’m the youngest of seven children, so my first favorites were Depeche Mode and Led Zeppelin ’cause I had older siblings to give me their music, and I just fell in love with it immediately. And then I remember — you know when you start to figure out your identity, like, stuff you like that no one else likes in your family [laughs]? That was definitely for me Another Bad Creation and Boyz II Men “Motownphilly.” I loved New Kids on the Block. But I also liked — I’m a crazy person — at the same time I loved Alice in Chains, and I loved Peter Murphy, so I’ve just always been a lover of a good song, I guess. I don’t know, something that makes me feel something, that makes me want to dance, or, you know, no matter what genre, I think there are great artists and great, great songs from every genre. That’s kind of the way I expressed my personality when I was really young [laughs] — in goofy, extreme ways.
HLS: Neon Trees has roots in the San Diego area, right?
EB: Yeah, Chris and Tyler grew up in the Murrieta/Temecula area. They actually were kind of neighbors, like around the corner from each other growing up, but they’re a few years apart in age, so they were never friends. Their dads worked in the same office complex and went to the same church congregation, so they would talk about their sons who only wanted to do music, and they kind of like set a date for them, which is how they started playing music together. So, yeah, that transpired in Murrieta [laughs].
HLS: And the band name — specifically, where does that come from?
EB: There’s a particular In-n-Out in Temecula that’s been there for quite a while. Tyler and his high school friends used to go there and hang out, and there were these specific neon palm tree lights on the inside of that In-n-Out that aren’t in every location. And so they kind of had a running gag that they were going to make this really cool band, and it was going to have rad songs, and they were going to call it Neon Palm Trees. Nothing ever happened, because, you know, they were just talking about it. And then Tyler and Chris started playing music together. You know, you make a list of potential names and that was on it, and it just fit the aesthetic and the vibe that they were going for, so they just dropped the palm and it ended up being Neon Trees. And now we’re the fast-food band [laughs].
HLS: You’ve been playing together with this lineup for a while. How has your sound grown since your debut LP, “Habits,” or even the “Start a Fire” EP?
EB: Right. We’ve been together playing since 2007, and I definitely think it’s been a natural progression. We started more alternative, and maybe even more aggressive, if that makes sense. Not even aggressive, but darker, just because it was a sound that attracted us. But at the same time, we’ve always wanted to write catchy songs that left an impression, both the feeling of them and the sound of them. One thing that was really integral in the developing of our sound is Tim Pagnotta, the producer of both our first album and our third album now, “Pop Psychology.” He and Tyler gel really well in the writing process, and he works with each of us individually very well and as a unit very well, so I think working with him in the process of our first album definitely shaped some things. I think we realized that we were good at writing pop songs, and that’s what we liked to write. It’s this strange dynamic we’re at — like a truly typical rock band writing and performing these pop songs, and that defines our sound. We’re all very happy with this third album. I think it’s the most Neon Trees-sounding thing we’ve been able to accomplish. It sounds like what we’ve always wanted to sound like.
HLS: “Pop Psychology” stays very true to its title: poppy and also deeply personal for Tyler, as we know. But I want to know what the album means for you.
EB: Well, I mean, on a lot of levels for all of us, it’s a pretty pure and emotional album — Tyler, as the lyricist on nine-tenths of the album, especially for him, but I think he writes in a way that is able to relate to anyone, which is what I really appreciate about his style of lyrics. He doesn’t write so specifically that it’s alienating, but he doesn’t write so generally that you have no idea what’s going on and no way to relate. Like the last song on the album, “First Thing’s First” — it’s kind of about just generally struggling for something that you really want, and then you figure out what you deserve, and it’s not even what you thought it was going to be but it’s great. It applies to all of us personally in our efforts to become a band and do well, and write music or whatever. And sound wise, it’s personally my favorite thing because we were able to spend a lot of energy recording, and we kind of separated things out and really honed in on the tone that we wanted, and kind of disobeyed a lot of the rock band rules by not worrying about how it was going to be performed live. We just wanted it to sound like we wanted it to sound — we were going to cross that bridge when we came to it. But that opened it up and made us be able to make the album that we’ve truly been trying to make.
HLS: Is there a noted difference then, between what the album sounds like recorded versus how it’s going to come out when you guys play here in San Diego live?
EB: Right, well, luckily for you, you’ll recognize it [laughs]. One good thing I think that we found in trying to translate these songs from the record to the live shows is it was actually surprisingly a lot easier than we expected it to be. When using some of the samples from the album — like, I have a few trigger pads on my live drums, so that those sounds that are important to the songs, we don’t lose them. But I’m also playing the live kit. So I think it’s going to sound like the album, but with the energy and the oomph of live instruments, and the crackle of, you know, the high and the feeling in the air. So it’s like the album — but way more exciting.