Neon Trees' Tyler Glenn: Gay, Mormon and Finally Out

Page 2 of 2

Devoting himself to God hadn't erased Glenn's attraction to men. A month after he moved back home, he finally gave in to his urges and went on his first gay date, nervously meeting the online hookup at a casino, where they had sushi. "That was the first time I'd ever kissed a guy, and I was like, 'This is exactly what's been missing in a physical relationship,'" Glenn says. In his early twenties, meeting men online was his only option. "I found myself in situations that I normally wouldn't have ever put myself into, and that scared me," he says. "It got dark. It was dangerous."

In 2005, like many young Mormons seeking like-minded friends, Allen moved to Provo (his day job: masseur) and the 21-year-old Glenn followed, looking for a fresh start. Telling a pool-hall owner they were the band scheduled to play that night, Glenn landed the group its first show, and Neon Trees became part of the small but active Provo music scene; bassist Branden Campbell and drummer Elaine Bradley joined soon after. Campbell knew drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. of the Killers from high school, which opened the door to an opening slot with the Las Vegas band. More breaks followed, including a major-label deal, then their 2010 debut Habits and 2012's Picture Show.

As his band grew, Glenn's torment about his sexuality – whether he'd make it public, or bottle it up for eternity – started to take its toll. His secret was compounded by an affection he'd developed for a man working closely with the band. "I had my crushes on guys throughout high school, but it was never an overwhelming thing until my twenties," he says. "Then I'd be dating girls and in love with my straight friend, and it was the worst feeling in the world." On tour opening for the Offspring in 2012, Glenn started to get aggressive with the unfriendly, bottle-chucking crowds, spitting and cursing at unruly audience members. After an especially rough night in Vegas, Campbell chewed out Glenn for his antics and Glenn fell apart. He didn't stop crying all the way to Utah, and when he got home, he decided everything simply needed to stop.

"My mom took control and found me a therapist," Glenn says. Speaking with his new confidante, a Mormon woman, immediately gave him relief. "I felt like a human," he says. "I could be Tyler from the old days, and I wasn't 'Neon Trees guy.'" When his label came calling and sent Glenn into writing sessions for a new album, he decamped for Mexico with longtime collaborator Tim Pagnotta of Sugarcult, an old pal who had co-written Neon Trees' two smash hits. Emboldened by the strides he'd made in therapy, Glenn started to test the waters. Pop Psychology's first single, the chiming "Sleeping With a Friend," is indeed about getting with a straight man. The doo-wop-flavored "Teenager in Love" was inspired by the guy Glenn pined after for three years, while maintaining a two-year relationship with a woman he'd resolved to marry. "She broke up with me in a half-page note that was like, 'I love you, but you'll never love me the way I need to be loved,'" Glenn says, taking a breath at the memory. "At the time, I was really crushed, but it was a relief. The last thing I want to do is be that guy that gets married and lives the double life. There's so many of those people in Utah."

As the record progressed, Glenn felt an overpowering itch to tell Pagnotta what he was really writing about. The producer's response to his coming out still makes Glenn tear up. "He was like, 'Tyler, I love you, and I'm so excited for you.' And that's when I was like, 'Really? Wait. It's OK?'" he remembers, his voice shaky with emotion. "It blew my mind. This changes everything. And of course then I wanted to tell the person next to me on the plane."

Pushing a tiny cart loaded with avocados through an organic supermarket alongside his friend Adam, a local musician with a swoosh of pink hair and red tartan-plaid pants, Glenn has a hard time containing himself. "I was going to learn to drive for my 30th birthday, but I came out instead," he announces a little too loudly to the grandmothers in the melon aisle. He called a recent red-carpet look "'gay Brooks and Dunn' realness" on Instagram.

"I've always made jokes off and on because I do wear extravagant things, especially onstage," he says. "I also want the world to know I'm not gay just because I wear a glitter suit." (He wears a lot of everything; one room in his apartment houses his giant wardrobe, in heaps of clothes that look like a scene from Hoarders.)

Now Glenn sees an opportunity to reshape the idea of a gay rock star. "I've gotten tired of kind-of gay or straight people being pop culture's gay [spokespeople] – like Macklemore," he says. "It makes me wonder, 'Are we ready for an actual gay pop star and not just the safe straight guy saying it's OK?' I appreciate the fact that Michael Stipe was able to just be who he was, and it rarely overshadowed the music."

At the group's purple-walled rehearsal space in an abandoned video store, Bradley, the band's most devout Mormon, admits the subjects of Glenn's songs never piqued her curiosity before. "He's always been good at writing lyrics that aren't overt," she says. "I think the only anxiety for me comes from people assuming things because I'm religious or assuming things because he's gay. I worry about people not understanding that he's neither angry at the church nor distanced himself."

The Mormon church has certainly been slow on the social-justice tip. Blacks weren't permitted to become priests until 1978. A transgender member recently blogged about returning as a woman, noting fellow worshippers were friendly, although she is "not allowed to use the restrooms at the chapel." Though more and more Mormons are coming out of the closet and congregating on websites to share their stories, their church continues to fight same-sex marriage. Provo hosted its first-ever pride march last September.

Glenn's supportive mother, Debbie, now a seminary teacher back in California, is one of many Mormons I encounter who insists Glenn's sexuality doesn't create a conflict with her religion. A boisterous woman with a streak of magenta piercing her short blond hairdo, she says she thought Glenn was joking when he came out to her, then gets weepy. "He said, 'I don't want this to change your perspective with the church, I don't want it to tear apart our family,' and I just said to him, 'It won't change anything.'"

Glenn isn't quite that naive, though, and recognizes that Mormons around him are "compartmentalizing" in a big way. "There are some things we definitely are going to have to face," he says, "especially with Elaine being actively LDS," a.k.a. Latter-day Saint. "If there are more political situations that come up where the church gets involved, I wonder what that will do."

But right now, Glenn's primary concern is performing for the first time as his whole self. Glenn's songwriting on Psychology mines familiar ground (angst-y longing), but with a new sense of urgency and cleverness. "I refer to a lot of my youth in my songs," he says. "Being a teenager, you're so emotional and trying to find yourself, and I still feel like most of my life has been me trying to find myself. But I think I need to finally break away from that and be an adult." Glenn says these days everything around him is becoming more upbeat. The band is comfortable enough to joke about dildos and sugar daddies during rehearsals. He happily announces that he's partial to Josh Brolin, whose rugged face graces his laptop's desktop.

Considering its salacious title and backstory, Psychology's "Sleeping With a Friend" is relatively tame. "The song's not overly sexual – that's the kind of sex song I know how to write. Like, I'm not Prince," Glenn says with a laugh. And he hasn't told the song's subject about his big coming out. "We're not really as close as we used to be, so I don't know if I'll hear from him."

Striking one of his mischievous smiles, he stretches out a tattooed arm and adds, "It'll be curious if I get a message."

This story is from the April 10th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories


The Pack | 2006

Berkeley, California rappers the Pack made their footwear choice clear in 2006 with the song "Vans." The track caught the attention of Too $hort, who signed them to his imprint. MTV refused to play the video for the song, though, claiming it was essentially a commercial for the product. Rapper Lil' B disagreed. "I didn’t know nobody [at] Vans," he said. "I was just a rapper who wore Vans." Even without MTV's support, Lil' B recognized the impact of the track. "God blessed me with such a revolutionary song… People around my age know who really started a lot of the dressing people are into now."

More Song Stories entries »