Q&A With Neon Trees' Branden Campbell

Neon Trees is taking a quick break from arena-sized productions and is hitting a handful of smaller venues this summer on their “A Night Out With Neon Trees” tour. Thursday, June 25 is when they’ll be making a stop at the 962-seat Varsity Theater in Dinkytown. I chatted with bassist and vocalist Branden Campbell about why he loves Minneapolis, intimate crowds and his 12-by-4 tour bus bunk.

So you guys are in Austin now, but you’re headed up to Minneapolis next week.

“Yeah, I have fond memories up there, because usually whenever we’re in town to do our show, then someone else really rad is playing next door. Last time I was there after our show I went to see Robert Plant play—I think it was the State Theatre. Is that around the corner from First Avenue? So I went and saw Robert Plant play, and as I’m sitting there watching, sitting in front of me is Brian Setzer. A lot of good times up there.”

Good. The Twin Cities have a really awesome music scene, and the theater that you guys are playing at next week is pretty cool. I’m assuming you’ve never been to the Varsity Theater?

“No, not yet. It’s interesting, we went from playing the—what’s it called? The Triple Rock? … We went from like Triple Rock to First Avenue, and we’ve done some of the arenas there, touring with Maroon 5, Duran Duran, stuff like that. Like I said, I enjoy going to some of the theaters to see other musicians play, so it’ll be cool to do the Varsity.”

I know this particular tour that you guys are on, you’re trying to focus more on smaller venues. Is there a reason for that?

“Yeah, it’s kind of this feeling. Recently, I read this quote from Joe Strummer: ‘There is no barrier. It’s just bands and the fans.’ Kind of bringing it back to just that one-on-one relationship with the music lovers, and we wanted that. … We wanted to play music in these places that were built for music. There’s a great energy about some of the really big shows, but I don’t think that a basketball arena was meant for music. They just kind of cram it in there, and then the sound bounces around. For us, we’re supposed to be playing these places where rock ‘n’ roll was born, and (we want to) just kind of build back on why we got into music and why we do these shows. And the vibe has been great. We’re almost two weeks into the tour, and the energy has been amazing.”

Are there any moments from this tour that stand out in your mind, good or bad?

“I’m not going to slam by saying big shows suck—I definitely don’t want to sound like I’m saying that. We just went home to Utah and played a show for 10,000 people, and that energy was amazing—just an awesome night. The night before that, we played in Vegas and that was also a bigger show, too. The stage was like 10 feet above the crowd, and I felt like I was the drummer for KISS or something, like I’m on this huge riser, larger than life. But to me it kind of feels like a disconnection as opposed to being in some of the other venues where we were around that same week, where you’re right there and the people are right there at your feet. It takes you back to maybe some of your first shows, and again, why you got into it and the energy that’s exchanged between the musician and the audience.”

You joined Neon Trees shortly after it first formed, so can you talk about how the band formed and how you’ve evolved as a group?

“I love reading musicians’ interviews and stuff, and I think that a lot of people don’t always open up about personal space and the personal relationships that become vulnerable when you’re in a band with people, especially when you’re in a band with grown-ups. It’s almost an arranged marriage because you realize, ‘OK, this person has the talent that we need,’ and that’s usually why you get someone in the band. And then it’s three months later down the road when you finally get to know them. … Having said that, I think that it’s (about) recognizing people’s different personalities, and it’s almost kind of a dance that takes place where you kind of learn how to dance with each other and how to play off of each other’s different personalities, in a good way. Basically, it’s how to respect each other. Because at the same time, we are creative people, we are interesting people, and I think that sometimes emotionally that can be a rollercoaster that takes place, and you learn how to enjoy that more instead of being scared when the big drop comes. …

And I think that’s the most important thing as a band to keep evolving—just respect each other and get along. First hand, I remember a long time ago meeting Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine—this was before Rage broke up—I asked him what’s the best thing and the worst thing about being in a big band like Rage? And he said, of course, the best thing is playing music and playing for the fans, and he said the worst thing is trying to get along—because if we don’t get along, then we’re not going to make music. …”

You make a good point. It’s not just about fun and games and the glitzy stuff, but I feel like it’s almost part business relationship because I’m sure you all want to keep your jobs.

“Well yeah, think about when you go to work and you have your work friends who are great people and you enjoy being with them, but then you go home and they come with you. And then when you wake up in the morning, they’re there. And then as soon as you go, everything that you do together involves them making decisions, whether (this or) that should be done or not. It could be something as simple as, ‘Well where are we going for breakfast?’ I’m a grown-up. I can eat breakfast wherever I want. But you can’t just throw that attitude at everyone and say, ‘I’m going to do whatever I want.’ Again, it’s having respect and realizing we’re all in this together, and there’s a reason why we’re together: it’s to play the music. Let’s make sure in between dumb stuff like, ‘Hey, where do we eat for breakfast?’ doesn’t get in the way of the important things like, ‘Hey, let’s make another record.’”

In all reality, when you are on tour, do you have any time to yourselves?

“Yeah, yeah, definitely. I think that’s an important thing. Luckily for us we’ve been a band that’s been able to transition from a van to a tour bus, and being in a tour bus, we have the bunking area where everyone has their bed and has a curtain, and if someone’s in there with the curtain closed you realize this is their personal time. You would assume that they’re sleeping, so you’re not going to bother them—whether someone’s reading a book or meditating, doing whatever they want in there. … I know it’s just a curtain in a 12-by-4 space, but it makes a big deal, especially going from the van before where (it was difficult) to lay down and rest, better yet you’re always sitting next to someone. It is important for people to recognize that they need their own time throughout the day.”

Let’s talk about “Pop Psychology”—you guys have had quite a number of hits leading up to this album, so what was your approach this time around to keep the momentum going?

“We were always the band that was like, we’ll get together in the room, we’ll all play, … and that’s the record. Very traditional.  So with ‘Pop Psychology,’ we thought let’s approach this like someone would make a hip-hop record, but using a band, and basically putting a link on the parts and seeing where all those fit with each other. We got in a room and we played the songs and everything, but then from that kind of dissected everything. We thought, let’s have some different approaches to it. Maybe the drumbeat isn’t played on drums, maybe it’s played on a file cabinet—but put a little distortion on that. Our producer Tim Pagnotta said something great. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter if the drums are on a drum kit or if it’s someone banging a file cabinet, or if the bass is on a bass guitar or on a bass synthesizer; what matters is how it makes the listener feel.’ And I think that’s something very wise, because that’s why we make the music, is to relay a message and hopefully make people feel something.

That’s something that’s really important for us to do, so it was kind of like reverse engineering. We had all the songs, we played them and broke them down and then let’s see how we can be kind of unorthodox with it. That was our approach to making a pop rock record, but this year—I should also mention that was recorded two years ago, “Pop Psychology,’ was. We just didn’t put it out right away. … Just a couple months ago we put out our new single, ‘Songs I Can’t Listen To,’ and that was going back to our original approach of just getting in a room, making something. It wasn’t an intentional thought, like we’ll go in and make this demo, and then we’ll go back and get with one producer in a fancy studio and we’ll redo the song. We kept listening to it and realized there’s a magic that we already captured to it, and we just kept it. We never re-recorded it. What you hear is the original song, but I like that about us. So far our fans seem to support this kind of chameleon aspect of the band to where we can take on different identifies and approaches as Neon Trees, and trying things different ways. I think there’s a lot of freedom in that.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

“I think people that come out will come out and see and remember why they love live music. It’s just a good reminder that bands can go and do big things, but they can also remember their roots and play to a smaller environment. … We’ve done those big things, but now let’s bring it back; let’s just play music in a room with people. I hope for some people that that’s enough. The other stuff is fun, it’s extra; it’s great. But I think the reality of things, we need to be reminded that people playing music is rare, and people being able to witness that is enough. And we’ll make it worthwhile.”