Rooting For The Underdog: Our Interview With Neon Trees

With their irrepressibly catchy single "Animal," I was psyched to hear that Neon Trees was open for interviews during their tour. I caught up with the warmhearted and down-to-earth Branden Campbell in between show dates and he talked about touring, their current video contest, and going off the beaten path... in more ways than one.

Hi, how are you today?
Good, good.

You are currently on tour for your album Habits, right?
That's right.

So are you finishing up the U.S. and just about to go to Europe?
Yeah, this Thursday [June 30th], I'll play in Milwaukee at Summerfest and then the next day we fly to London for a couple of shows there. And we'll actually spend about ten days in the UK, then Spain, and then come back to the States where we're going to do, actually, San Jose, Sacramento, Orange County, and Las Vegas before we go to Asia.

You're headlining for this tour, is that correct?
Yeah, well it depends. You know in the summertime you end up doing a lot of festivals. And since we're a newer band, in the grand picture of everything, you don't typically headline when you have Coldplay or the Foo Fighters or, you know, these other established bands. Which is great because we get to play in the afternoon or the early evening and then we get to hang out and watch other great bands. So there is some of that, so it depends on the show. Yeah, there are some headlining shows that we're doing and then there's some of the festivals that we'll get to play in the middle, kind of thing. So it's a mix of it all.

Now you have performed with some big name bands... being on tour, on and off the last couple of years, do you have any memorable stories you'd like to share?
Yeah, well first off, like I said it's really a privilege for us to be able to watch the bands every night. You know, I think that's one of the great things. We've got to share the stage with bands like My Chemical Romance, and Muse, and The Killers, and The Strokes, a lot of great acts. So I think it's that, but there's a lot of fun stuff. When we were up in Edmonton, in Canada, the venue we played at with My Chemical Romance was next door to this huge IMAX Theater, and after the show they rented out the IMAX. And we had just started to tour and so that day they actually gave us a... it was really funny... they're from New Jersey so they gave us a The Situation, the guy from the Jersey Shore TV show, bobblehead. A bobblehead from Mike the Situation, saying, "You guys have to have a mascot for your bus. May he guide you through the tour." And that was a funny kind of thing. And then they said, "We rented out the IMAX for tonight. We'd like for you guys to come hang out with us after the show." And so basically like all the bands and the crew members and everything, you know, we went to the movies together. Yeah, so it's just cool stuff like that, and I think that's the camaraderie that bands are into more these days than, "Hey, let's go to the strip club" or "We got some strippers to come on the bus," that kind of thing. Which I hear still happens but it's just not our bag, you know. So it's fun stuff like that. Or you get to some of these countries and you get to see a lot of great things. And I look forward to getting to Singapore and other parts of Australia, and maybe getting off the beaten path a little and see some new things.

What's are the differences between touring in the US and other countries?
Well, the good thing about getting to Europe and the UK is that all the towns are closer. You don't have the longer drives that you typically do in the States, so you can actually do a few more shows and even, you know, just get to where you're going faster. So that's good. Of course, for us there's so many of these places that we've never been or we've only been once and so we're still building up the name over there. So I think typically some of the shows are going to be smaller over there than they are here in the States. I think it's just important to keep that perspective. You know, not to let it all go to your head that OK, yeah, you're playing for 5,000 or 10,000 people here in the States and then you go over there and you're playing for 500 people again, or maybe 200 people. Because it's back to the club days and so I think it's important to remember that, we're on our first record and just the fact that we get to go there is cool. It's polar opposites sometimes and one of the tricks is keeping that perspective.

Do you get to work in some sightseeing, since you mentioned getting off the beaten path?
We try to. Sometimes it may be just the little time that you have between sound check and the show. You have two hours to get as far as you can from the venue as possible and then get back in time. [laughs] But that's the thing sometimes you just got to do that, just get outside and see what's around there. Unless, of course, the promoters or club security recommends not doing that, sticking around where you are. But we haven't had any troubles like that, not abroad. In the early days we'd run into trouble, you know playing seedy nightclubs, actually in Oakland. Real early on one of our first shows outside of Utah or Southern California was up in the Stork Club in Oakland and we ran into some questionable people out on the street.

Yeah, I've gone down the wrong street in Oakland myself a time or two so I know how that feels. [laughs]

So I see you're running the Your Surrender Video Contest. What's that about?
Really it's about reaching out to all these creative people that you know are out there. I think the days of the mega budget video are few and far between because there's so much people can do with the technology we have at hand. You know, it's almost like recording that... yeah, you can go to a big studio and make a great album but there's people that are not limited by a budget and they're doing just awesome things. And then there are others, a lot of art students and just a lot of creative kids and people out there that we wanted to give them a chance to hear their perspective on things. Because you know a lot of times when we say, "Hey, we're going to do a video," you get a list of these names that "Well, we know so-and-so because they did videos for..." and they name someone [else] off the list. OK, that's cool, but what about the person that no one knows about, who's doing awesome stuff but just hasn't broken through. Or maybe it's the kid with the camcorder who has a rad idea. So it's just giving a chance like that, seeing what people are making. That's kind of the inspiration behind that.

How long are you taking submissions?
Right now we're looking until the middle/end of next month [July]. Obviously we want to give people time to put something together and submit things.

It's seems like a really fun idea. Have you been flooded with submissions so far?
Yeah, you know what? I haven't really been counting. You know, I've been giving it some time to build up. That's just me personally, you know, I don't know what the other guys have been doing. We've been on break [from touring] for about a week.

I didn't realize you had just launched the contest. When did that start?
Last week [June 15th]. Yeah, yeah, so it's just getting going.

Now I wanted to dive into your history a little bit. I know you and your band mates are from all over but you formed in Provo, UT.
That's right.

Did you get a lot of support in Provo?
Oh yeah! Yeah, from local musicians and... you know, it's not a big name on the map as far as you don't hear of a lot of bands getting record deals and ending up on TV and the radio from Provo but I think it's important for artists anywhere that you can have a great scene where you are but it's also important to get out and be networking and playing other places and meeting people. I don't think that it was so much from playing in Provo that the band was able to break through into the mainstream, but it was a great base for us to be in and have local shows and to build up a local fan base, which is very important. And no matter how great that is wherever you are, big cities or the small cities, you still got to get out there on the road and get out meeting people. And that's what we were able to do. And eventually, we had the chance to go to LA and a lot of people were confused about if the band was from California or Utah. So it could have been an easy out of like, "Yeah, dude, we're from California," you know, just like so many bands. But no, honestly the band really started brewing in Utah and that's really where everything came together. I think we love to tell people about the other musicians here and that there is a budding scene. Because when you get all the colleges that are here during the school year you get over 60,000 students.

Yeah, so there is a lot of opportunity for great shows, and musicians from everywhere from all around the country and around the world. Yeah, you get a good variety of stuff.

And are you still based in Utah?

I had read conflicting stories about whether you had moved back to LA or not.
Yeah, see that's what I'm talking about. The band got together in like late 2007 and we'd been playing for a while, and then the opportunity came to go stay in California because Christopher, our guitar player, his parents had a house up there that they were moving out of but they still owned. And it had a pool, it was empty and we thought, "Well hey, we can go out there for awhile and do some songwriting and we'll just go back and forth." So it wasn't so much an official relocation, it was just... I mean it's like anything, a band can be from LA but they go to New York to make their new record or do some songwriting. And they may move to New York but you know, you're just going there to do some work. And we did that but the band is based in Utah.

I think it was even recently that we played down in Orange County for the KROQ Weiner Roast and one of the local magazines there said, "California Locals Neon Trees," or something. I mean, I don't know why people think that but... it's cool. I mean I can understand if they thought, "Oh, some of the guys were originally from there," but I think for the most part it's clear that we started in Provo. I think we're like a head-scratcher for people, like, "Provo? What is this about?"

Well, it's nice to hear about these places that no one knows about but they build their own musical scene, so it's nice that you can bring some exposure to the fact that there is a music scene in Provo. I think it's great. I'm sure LA is just trying to claim you because you guys are hot and they're like, "Oh yeah, they're part of us."
It's true. Yeah, there's a variety of artists over time, over the last ten years, that have gotten some buzz. There's a band called The Used that's from this area. They now are in LA, though. But they definitely cut their teeth working here. There's an artist named Joshua James who has had a lot of success in the indie folk world. Yeah, it's cool that you can be that thing, but you got to get out there and spread the word. But at the same time not be ashamed that yeah, we're from this place you've never heard about. I think it's cool. I've always grown up kind of being the underdog so I'm used to it.

Why did you grow up being the underdog?
Well, it's just being different. You know, not to a point where I wasn't accepted or where I was left out - it's not a sob story - but it's just always being a little left of center. You know, I grew up in Las Vegas and if you were into skateboarding, at the time if you were into skateboarding then you didn't listen to heavy metal; that you could only listen to certain kinds of music. And so then people were like, "Well, I don't get you" or "What are you?" you know? Just the whole label thing, of always wanting to put a label on stuff. Or also eventually after high school and [after] being deeply involved in the punk rock scene in Las Vegas all of a sudden... well, not all of a sudden but after a year or so of studying and pondering, you know, I joined the Mormon Church. And in a serious way, not so much a [casual way]. And that involved a lifestyle change for me and I went on a church mission. So people were like, "Dude, what are you doing? This is like totally different." So yeah, I think it's just all these... it's not throwing people for a curve on purpose, but it's always something that has naturally happened.

Yeah, so you know and then to come back from that and to still be involved in music and to be doing music on my own terms and to eventually be part of a successful band that, again, isn't subscribing to the typical lifestyle of the road or of rock and roll, and all this and that. So it's that kind of thing. You know there's always been doubters out there, there's always been people that think that you have to be a certain way to do certain things and I've never agreed with that.

No, I hear you. I'm one of those people myself.
Yes, because even now you see people that I like to call the Hot Topic generation where even now there's a lot of stuff out there that's generally accepted these days. Like for us I think, you know, it's... what is the most punk thing that we could do? It's going out there and saying, "Here we are. We're a rock band but we're doing things different." Instead of just going out and carrying the same flag that people have been carrying for 15, 20 years saying, "Hey we're different!" Well, that's not really different anymore.

Exactly! [laughs]
Yeah, it's not, you know? It's kind of like when Green Day came out, they had their big hit with "Time of Your Life" which was an acoustic song. And you heard, "Oh, Green Day has lost their edge. They're not a punk band anymore." Well, isn't that kind of a punk thing to do? For this band to come out with an acoustic song? You know, to say, "Hey, you know what? We're not afraid of what you're going to say." Well, we're not going to say, "We can't do this because people are going to think we're not rock anymore."

And overall I think that's what we want with people with our music, that we're not trying to carry any torch of any genre or you belong to this club if you like Neon Trees. It's really music for everybody and, you know, just trying to break down the walls that you have to look a certain way or like a certain kind of music to be into us.

Do you have plans for your next album?
Yeah, yeah! We're already talking about it and working on material. And so yeah, sometime in 2012, most likely the first half, so early 2012 that we'll be dishing that up.

Now it's time for the CB3. Which do you prefer: Thriller or Purple Rain?
Thriller or Purple Rain? Hmmm... I'd say Purple Rain.

Debbie Gibson or Tiffany?
You know, I was never into either one of those. But if I had to choose... going back, I'd probably say Debbie Gibson.

OK. And then the last question is Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles?
Definitely Pretty in Pink.

Well, thank you Brandon so much for talking to me today. And good luck on the rest of your tour!
Thanks, I appreciate it!

You can learn more about Neon Trees at their website, follow them on Twitter, or catch them on Facebook.

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