When a song breaks through the noise and becomes a hit, you're bound to hear it in the most unexpected places. Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn was at the dentist's office when his band's breakthrough single "Animal" came on the radio. "I hate going to the dentist," he says. "But hearing it made it a little fun. The dentist was impressed hearing me sing on the radio."
"Animal," a sonic amalgam of post-punk attitude and earnest pop slickness, took a long climb up the charts, finally hitting the top spot on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart more than six months after it was released in early 2010. Glenn says he's a little puzzled by the way fans are embracing and enjoying the song and the band's debut album, Habits, especially since he's a "pretty dour, sad guy a lot of the time. I don't know how we ended up making as fun a record as Habits."
Part of it can be attributed to the pop music Glenn listened to while growing up in Utah in the '80s. Artists like Michael Jackson and Genesis were on the radio all the time. When he became a teenager he discovered punk, which would offer perfect contrast to the more mainstream and hook-filled songs he listened to when he was younger. He and his three bandmates channel all of this into their songs, which often nod to '80s synth-pop in both style and structure.
"You have these hopes and aspirations in your head, but you can never really predict how things are going to go," says Glenn. "We've been able to build a fan base over the last year and a half. It [usually] takes a lot more time for newer bands to build."
Given the short attention spans of listeners and radio programmers, it's a testament to Neon Trees' hook-filled songs that the 14-month-old Habits is still building buzz. Both "Animal" and the throwback "1983" are pop and alt-rock radio staples these days. Glenn credits those songs for keeping Neon Trees busy the past year (indeed, the album still hasn't cracked the Top 100). "I believe in our music and the album we made," he says. "It's fun and has things that make people want to sing and feel good. I'm really proud of that."
That connection comes in a few different forms. The synth-driven cuts sound exactly like something that dropped in from the early '80s. People love that era of music. They also love to hold on to their idealism, even as they grow up and responsibilities pile on. Habits is all about "staying young in mind and not losing that spark," says Glenn. The album explores all sides of human nature, he adds — the ups and downs of life.
"Animal," the one everyone knows, is kind of a love song. But plenty of other cuts come from far more personal experiences. The swaggering romp "In the Next Room" pinpoints an exact moment of doubt and elation Glenn felt while writing the song in his bedroom. "The girl that I sing about literally [was] in the room next door," he says. "It's about how I'm a coward when it comes to love. I tend to get very in my own head when it comes to that."
Funny thing is, the girl had no idea the song was about her until Glenn mentioned it. A happy ending followed, at least for a brief time: "We ended up dating," he says. But then a happier ending got in the way.
"It didn't work out because I was gone all the time."