Thursday, April 5, 2012


First, I'll post links to my articles and briefs before I get to the main event:

'Hard Land life': BYU exhibit celebrates people of the Southwest - A cool new art exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art, including a painting or two from John and Jean Groberg.

Sound Hot Ticket: Merritt raise - A one-time Utah rocker is here again. (This was originally my second story assignment, until the Neon Trees came up.)

Perfect Date: Birdie-licious - Another reminder that "Bye Bye Birdie" is playing at the SCERA.

Arts briefs: That buys a lot of Campbell's Soup - Get the joke?

Sound briefs: Get some airtime

Okay, now for the moment you've all been waiting for.

I had a really great interview with Branden Campbell, the bass player for the Neon Trees. Even though the band is about to release their second album, and is getting more and more famous all the time, they are taking the time to do a benefit concert for a school in Utah Valley. The school is a preschool for autistic kids, and Branden's son Connor goes there.

I was really impressed that, even though the band is a pretty big deal right now, he's doing this little gig for his son's preschool. There aren't many bands in Neon Trees' position who would do that. So that was the angle I took with the story. Not just another story about a cool band, but about being in a cool band and being a dad.

The interview was interesting, touching - even emotional. Branden talked to me about the band's success, their new album, his faith (all the band members are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), fatherhood, autism, the music business, even consumerism (I asked him about the trend I've noticed, as well as TIME magazine, of fresh bands like Foster the People, fun., OK Go and Neon Trees appearing in car commercials). And then I got to talk to his wife, Emilie, about some of this as well.

School's clout - Neon Trees headlines benefit concert for autistic pre-school

One idea in writing this article that I especially liked with was to start the article not talking about Neon Trees, Branden or Emilie. The first person introduced in the article is Connor. I'm glad I came up with that.

(Unfortunately, I did make a mistake in the article. I said the name of the school was "Big Steps," but it's actually "Giant Steps." I wish I hadn't done that! Now there's this mistake glaring at me whenever I think about the article. Hate when that happens. Sorry to everyone at Giant Steps!)

The interview was so good that I typed up the whole Q and A with the two of them. It was supposed to go on The Daily Herald website, but it's not there yet. I'll put it here instead:

Branden Campbell talked with The Daily Herald between an appearance on “Good Things Utah” and paying some fees for Saturday’s benefit concert.

Q: First I want to ask you about the band in general. It seems like Neon Trees has been everywhere lately, on late night shows and the Buick commercial and all these different things. So what’s it been like lately?

A: It’s been really very fortunate. I know that a lot of bands say that, I guess it’s a cliche for a reason. Because once you get out there and you work so hard, just to get feedback and have people that are interested, it does mean a lot. So for everyone to stay interested the second time around, it goes to show that our hard work was paying off and it wasn’t us riding on fumes from one hit song from two years ago or what have you. Yeah, it’s really cool. Especially [because] the new record hasn’t even come out yet. And so for a lot of the anticipation and excitement that’s on the verge of the album coming out, we’re really stoked for it, because we’re really proud of the record, and I think so many people are going to enjoy it.

Left to right: Elaine Bradley, Branden Campbell, Chris Allen, Tyler Glenn. Photo courtesy of Emilie Campbell

Q: Tell me more about that record. How is it different from the record before it, and what work went into putting it together?

A: The album is called “Picture Show.” So it’s different because it has a different name. No, I’m just kidding [laughs].
It’s cool, I’ve always said recently that it’s more of a realized sound for us. By that, I mean as we’ve been working on our music, even before “Habits” came out, there’s a lot of stuff that we wanted to do. Bands definitely go through phases of sounds that they’re messing with. I think when “Habits” came out, we were definitely getting into more of a guitar reach. And Neon Trees originally had more keyboards than guitars and had more of an electronic feel to it. So I think now, with “Picture Show,” it’s bringing all of that together. So the guitar rock that we do, and the electronic stuff from early on, bring that all together. Still got the pop sensibility that “Habits” had, and we don’t think “pop” is a bad word. Yeah, so we’re excited for that.
We produced it with a guy named Justin Meldal-Johnsen. He’s known for his work with Beck, Nine Inch Nails, the band Garbage and the band M83. I always knew that he would be a good guy for toeing that line between organic rock band and electronic elements, bringing in original synthesizer sounds and stuff like that. The cool thing about this new record is there’s really no preset synth sound. It’s all stuff that’s been programmed and dialed in, patched in for original, unique sounds. So that was something that was important to the integrity of the production.

Q: For you as the bass player, who would you say are your favorite bass players, or some of your influences on the bass and your style?

A: Oddly enough, Justin our producer is foremost known as a bass player in the music world. So that’s why I was always aware of his work, because he has been a successful bassist with all the stuff he’s done. But I think part of why I’ve been interested in him is because we have similar influences, being like Tina Weymouth from the Talking Heads, Jah Wobble from Public Image Ltd, John Taylor [from] Duran Duran. And then taking it back to guys like, for myself, John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin has been very influential, Chris Squire from Yes, John Entwistle [from] The Who. And so guys that have had unique sounds and know they’ve never had to really step out to be bellwether players, just the way that they’ve played with everybody, and support the song as well. To me, tone is a very important thing and so I have a lot of fun experimenting with those things.

Q: There was one question I wanted to ask you about the Buick commercial. I’ve noticed that there have been a lot of alternative rock bands, and indie bands that maybe aren’t as well known yet, that have appeared in car commercials. And I just wondered if you had any thoughts on that, because it seems like most indie bands wouldn’t want to be in an advertisement, wouldn’t want to be selling a product, would want to just stick to the music instead of selling out. And I’m not saying you guys are selling out, I’m just wondering if you had any thoughts on that or if you’ve noticed that trend.

A: It is a thing that I think was more taboo before, because it wasn’t so much a necessity for bands to do that. And I don’t think that it is actually a necessity, but for some bands it is a great opportunity to get exposure.
And also, there’s a difference between getting behind a product that you really want to push and then getting behind a product that you don’t mind, and it’s not a horrible thing.
I think back in the Golden Days, which would even be 10 years ago, I think it seemed like it was selling out because it was just fast-tracking. It was like, you can put in the work and the labor and you will sell records. These days, even if you do all that, you still have to find alternative means to make money, and ultimately do those things that you want to do.
But for us it’s fun doing those things. We wouldn’t be part of a production that we thought compromised the ultimate spirit of the band. And we are a fun band. A couple years ago, Wilco, another popular band, made a good point of that when they licensed their songs for Volkswagen. So people were saying, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and gave them some grief for it. And they said, ‘You know what, actually some of us drive Volkswagens, and we think they’re good cars. It’s a good campaign, and we have no problem with the product.’
And I think about that often too, that buying those items that people are complaining about, isn’t that the ultimate endorsement? People complain about computers being made in China, but they’re typing that on a computer that was probably made there [laughs]. So there’s an irony above it all.
So we don’t take it that serious. And I think that ultimately it will be down to if it’s a product that you’re embarrassed to be associated with, that you have to make excuses about, then you shouldn’t do it.
It’s funny because people don’t always know how many things come across your desk that you say no to, before you say yes to something because it is the right thing. And so it’s something to that I think for artists you don’t want to critique other artists until you’ve had those same opportunities and experiences.

Q: That is interesting that you talk about how things have changed, and it’s something you have to do to get your name out there. Because I’m thinking of things like iTunes, and people only buy one song at a time instead of buying a CD in the store, so you do have to find alternative ways.
And for me, it worked. I saw the commercial, I liked the song, and I looked it up on iTunes. So it worked to make me notice the song in a way that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise.

A: Yeah. I think for us we’re very happy with the way that Buick (I guess ultimately the production company that put the commercial together) made it all come together. Because some people didn’t even know it was a car commercial. They think it’s a Pandora commercial, they think it’s a Neon Trees commercial. And ultimately the way that it plays out, I think that it’s really comfortable.

Q: So all four members of the band are members of the LDS Church, right?

A: Yeah.

Q: How does that influence your music? Do you keep the two things, your testimony and your music separate, or do they go hand-in-hand?

A: Well, I can only speak for myself personally. Ultimately, it’s knowing that you’re doing something good. Neon Trees has never been a Mormon rock band, in the sense that we’re not out there playing spiritual-themed music. We’re a band that happens to be all LDS. Even though recently, I guess Chris [Allen] our guitar player has said that he’s not anymore, so you can put that in print. But that’s the thing, though, it’s not like he’s out partying and going nuts.
You see that in Provo sometimes. Some people, they get older, they start experimenting with different things in life that they were told not to do, and all of the sudden it’s like this, ‘Man, if I’m doing these things and I can’t be Mormon’ ... Sometimes I don’t think it has anything to do with the Church. The Word of Wisdom is just one aspect of Mormonism and the gospel. But I digress.
Anyhow, so I think for us, ultimately we do want to uplift people through music, through being an entertaining, fun band. And so I think offering something good and exciting like that in the world does help create positivity. I think, you know, as far as us strengthening our testimonies, doing what we do, ultimately comes from the way that we’re interacting with other people out on the road, the way that we’re not taking things for granted. I think for me, I had an institute teacher once that said, ‘If you want to live the gospel, the first thing you need to do is make time for other people in your life.’ Because when you start having some success out in the entertainment world, and you don’t want to become that person that, you see that scenario of how you treat people that you think, ‘They can’t do anything for me or anything to me, so I’m going to ignore you.’ I think that’s all B.S.
There is still that separation. I think a lot of people have respected where we come from in our personal lives because we’re not out there preaching in a manner that’s — we may promote positivity from living the gospel and being members of the Church, but not in a way that’s going to put down other people, you know what I mean? It’s one thing to promote something and say, ‘This can uplift you,’ as opposed to promoting something and saying, ‘Because you’re doing wrong, you need to change.’ We’re not perfect. We’re out there doing our thing, and it’s hard to keep that balance. I think any good Christian knows you don’t want to be the first to judge.

Photo courtesy of Emilie Campbell

Q: You said that you aren’t into the whole ‘party scene’ and stuff. Is it hard to stay away from that and be in a rock band at the same time? Or is it easy for you guys to do your own thing?

A: It’s not hard. It’s not like what you see in the movies or in old rock videos. You hear these stories of these wild times. I mean, you can find that stuff, if you were looking for it. But there’s definitely more people out there, more bands that are on the same page as us. ... It doesn’t go back to spiritual beliefs or upbringing or anything like that, it just goes to people wanting to live healthy and not be stuck in the idea of what rock and roll is supposed to be. It really comes down to the spirit of music. Rock and roll was always rebellious, and with the cliche of the party scene, I think it’s a little more rebellious in rock and roll to go against that grain.
I think that for us it’s also creating your own environment, and having fun when you’re out there. And I don’t think that we need to be part of that classic cliche. But again, not to say that we’re out there pointing fingers at people that live that way. I mean, I come from a family that is not LDS, it’s something that I did on my own. So for me to go out to the world and say, ‘People that do this or do that are wrong,’ I’d be dissing my whole family. And I love all of them. We all live different ways.
I think during this last general conference someone mentioned a bumper sticker that they saw that said, ‘Don’t judge me because I sin differently from you.’ I thought that was so great because it’s true. Everyone wants to look at these certain things that they seem to get stuck on, and say ‘This is bad, but this isn’t.’ But no, we’re not subscribing to that.

Q: Now I want to ask you about the concert itself. First, where did the idea come from? Did you go to the school with the idea? Or did they come to you?

A: Actually, my son goes to the school.

Q: Right.

A: So I knew that every year they do a silent auction with people bringing things to raise money for the school. So I knew that they were always doing stuff, charity events. And I just thought, ‘That’s something that we can get behind.’ That’s one of those things where the band is getting a little more traction, and yeah, maybe that’s something that we can do to help out. So it was actually about a year ago that we had the idea. And we were traveling around the world doing numerous tours, and then we were making a new record, so it was just finding the right time to do it. And now’s the time.

Photo courtesy of Emilie Campbell

Q: And that’s one thing that I thought was interesting, that right before a new album comes out and all these different appearances on TV and things like that, that you’re making time for this concert. Was everyone pretty much on board with that? Or were some people thinking, ‘Let’s do this later, we’ve got other things to do right now’?

A: It seemed to all line up. Ultimately, any time or opportunities that we have to be in Utah, we love it. We love it here, we love going out on the road and when people say, ‘Where are you from?’ and we say, ‘Utah.’ Their head spins a little bit. They’re like, ‘Wait a minute, you guys like have a No. 1 hit and you guys are on TV. How is that possible?’ We love it. And so I think that the timing was right, it gave us an opportunity to spend more time here and to play here, we don’t get to play here as much as we used to. So it’s a good opportunity to do that.

Q: If you don’t mind my asking, what kind of autism does your son have? What are the things that he has trouble dealing with? What’s it like for him?

A: I think for him, he’s definitely been developmentally delayed. He’s kind of an anomaly, because he has some aspects of autism, but also he has epilepsy as well. And so he has been delayed, and he’s non-verbal. And so by him going to the school, because there’s other autistic kids there in the same situation, they’ve learned different signs in sign language to help.
Because basically from his autism and epilepsy, it’s almost like his brain gets zapped, and it’s almost like if you’re having problems with your computer and after it crashes that you have to restart. And so instead of taking the time to absorb the new things that he’s learning, it’s more like his brain is in a chill-out mode, from the different things that happen. And usually it will be from a seizure that he’ll have. So it’s very taxing for him.
And when he was younger, I’d say around one or two, there weren’t kids his age doing much different things than him. But it’s one thing to become 3 or 4 and they’re talking more, their motor skills are more engaged, and are interacting more. And you have more of that — not that you want to compare your kids to say who’s better or not — but you kind of see as far as like what level they should be at in life in general. And that’s when I think you start to notice it more, like, ‘OK, it’s hard for him.’ But we’ve never taken it as like as a burden for us. It’s a challenge, but it’s an opportunity to find the ways to help him progress and to learn to deal with it. And the school has been great for that.

Q: And for you, not only as a father of an autistic child but also on the road, on tour, recording albums and things like that, does it make it hard to be in a rock band and a father to this child? How do you handle that?

A: First off, when you get the band going, you don’t know that you’re going to be traveling. It’s one of those things that starts on a local level, you start doing some regional things. And all of a sudden, for us, we started getting some industry buzz, and the next thing you know you’re out in New York meeting with some record labels or you’re out in L.A. Again, because as much as we think there’s great things happening in Utah, it’s not a booming metropolis in the recording business. So we find ourselves traveling here or there. So I think it’s a gradual thing that the family has been able to grow with, as well as the band.
I mean really, it is hard to be away. And it is hard when you’re out on the road, and you go to a restaurant, and you see a little family having dinner together. It definitely makes me miss them.
But it’s my job, and it’s definitely created opportunities for me to meet people that have been able to give us advice or introduce us to other people that are in the same boat. Or with specialists, neurologists, things like that. It has its advantages in that way too.

Q: How does your perspective as a member of the Church help you in being a father and being away from home sometimes, and going through all of this?

A: It’s great. My foundation through having the gospel in my life gives me such a great perspective on family. I’ve always thought if — not that I doubt — but if it all came down to none of this is true, I’m not worse for the wear. Because the things that I think that we’re all teaching each other and we’re reminding each other are great things that I think help communities, help society, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
And as we’ve gone across the world, we’ve seen more that it’s not just a white, conservative, Utah church. There’s a variety and depth to the membership worldwide. For us, I got chills when we were in Seoul, Korea, playing a festival there last summer. There’s a sea of 10,000 people, and out towards the back you see this huge sign held up, this big CTR sign from these Korean kids that knew we were from Provo. They were members of the church as well, and they were aware. So yeah, I think that that’s definitely changed me.


After taking care of some errands for the concert, Branden’s wife Emilie Campbell called and talked about what it’s like raising an autistic child and supporting her husband’s music career.

Q: So I just had a good interview with your husband, talked about the band but also about this concert coming up. So I just wanted to hear things from your perspective, especially about the concert because I know it’s probably a personal thing for you, since it’s the school where your son goes.
So first, what was your reaction when Branden had this idea? Did you help him come up with the idea? What was your involvement with that?

A: Well, he had the idea over a year ago. This whole thing has been over a year in the making, because he wanted to do it when Connor first started going to Giant Steps. You go in, and you meet with — our son has seriously 12 different teachers that he works with almost every single day, and so we go and have these meetings with them every quarter. And the first time we met with his team, when he started a year and a half ago, Branden said out loud, ‘Oh my gosh, our band, we’re totally going to play a benefit concert for the school.’ He just like blurted it out, and I was surprised, because I was like, ‘Of course I would want them to do that,’ but I wasn’t going to be like, ‘You guys should do this. You should play this concert.’ But he fully said it, and he said it in front of everybody which meant I needed to hold him to it, so I did.
We thought we could do it last spring, before Connor finished his first year. But with their first album, the schedule was so insane. And so we never could pin it down. And finally we were like — I was panicking — and I was like, ‘You’ve got to set a date for this. You guys set the date, we’ll try to take care of everything else. And let’s get this done.’

Q: I know they were busy last year, but they’re busy now too with the second album. What was it like for other people involved with the band, like agents and things like that? Were they thinking, ‘Let’s do this later, after things die down’?

A: They probably are thinking that. But they know we’ve run out of time. School is going to be ending soon, this is Connor’s last year at that school. And I didn’t want to do it later and neither did Branden.
Even though it’s been crazy with the schedule, it’s actually been really great timing. Because they’re doing all this promo for their new album, and everywhere they go they’re talking about the concert. Which is kind of awesome.

Q: Yeah, it’s been impressive to me that in the middle of being on TV and promoting the album that they’re still taking the time to do this charity.

A: It’s hard, and their schedule is just out of control right now. But it works out really well so they can get the word out. They’re busy. They’re even leaving this week before the show on Saturday. They have fly out to L.A. for a day and a half to do another thing. It’s hard.

Q: Tell me a little bit about what it’s like to be at home with Connor. What kind of autism does he have, and what are the challenges that he goes through? And that you go through as well?

A: We knew from the time that he was still an infant, like 7 to 9 months old, that we discovered that he was having seizures every day. He has this super severe epilepsy and he has seizures every single day. And that’s our biggest challenge with Connor, is trying to control his seizures. He’s been on a million different medicines, some diets, we’ve done chiropractic, special oils — I mean everything you can try, we’ve tried it, just trying to stop his seizures. And we’ve never been able to stop his seizures, and that’s caused a lot of developmental delay, and that’s what’s put him on the autism spectrum.
He’s not a classic case of autism. When people think of autism they think of kids that are very socially withdrawn, and behavioral issues and social issues. He does not have those things. He doesn’t have sensory issues, anything like that. He just is severely delayed, and he’s non-verbal. He’s about to turn 5, and he still doesn’t talk and he has no words at all.
But he communicates wonderfully, like he can sign a lot of things. And now through Giant Steps, he has learned to communicate. Like he’s learned that when he needs something or he wants something he has to tell us, that we can’t play the guessing game. All the kids learn that at Giant Steps, they learn that they have to work for whatever they want or need. And it just teaches them how to communicate, whether they’re verbal or not. Some of these kids in his class can talk and they can talk really well, but they don’t talk ever. And so this teaches them how to communicate and how to work and learn.
And Connor’s doing things at school that I can’t even believe, like it blows my mind that he can match all his colors and his shapes. And he totally understands us, like when we’re telling him to do stuff he knows exactly what we’re saying. And it’s so wonderful to just know that he’s in there, and it’s just going to take some time either for him to start to become verbal, or to find his voice and learn how to really communicate.
The school has been incredible though. I was so scared to send him there, because he was barely 3 years old when he started there. And they go for four days a week for six hours a day. And that’s a long time to go to preschool. Nobody sends their kids to preschool longer than first graders go to school. So I cried for the whole summer before he started, I was so scared. But I knew in my heart that he was not going to progress and develop without therapy as intense as this. And it’s true. He has bloomed.
He is so funny anyway. He is the most laid back, he’s just go-with-the-flow, happy, loving. He is like a slice of heaven. Everyone that knows him will tell you he’s not just special because of his disability, he is special. People are attracted to him. Even mothers of newborn babies want to hold Connor. He’s so heavenly, it’s wonderful. So it’s a challenge, but at the end of the day, he’s perfect. He’s just perfect.

Q: What’s it like raising him and having a husband who’s in a rock band?

A: It’s a little hard. We have a daughter [Katie] who’s 9, and since she was a baby she’s the best traveler in the world. We love to travel with him [Branden] and to go on the road and meet him out on the road as much as we can.
And if Connor was a typical level child, we could travel even more than we do. It is hard to travel with him, because of his disability. But we do it anyway, because we feel strongly about being together as much as we can be together and sticking as a family. And it’s a great experience to have our kids out there with us. With our daughter, we’ve taken her to Puerto Rico for shows. And both of them have spent a week at a time in New York City for shows. I think that’s such a great classroom for your kids.
It is really hard to travel with him, because he has a special diet, and you never know when he’s going to have a seizure and freak out. But we just do it. We just say, ‘We’re going to do it anyway and make it work.’
We try to have family with us, or when we’re out places if there’s somewhere Connor can’t go, then we’ll find babysitting, and things like that. But I don’t want to stay home and be without Branden for long periods of time. Or I don’t want to go without my kids everywhere either.

Katie and Connor Campbell, photo courtesy of Emilie Campbell

Q: Now, you’re a member of the LDS Church too, right?

A: Yeah.

Q: How does that affect your perspective raising Connor and the whole family life? How does that help?

A: It makes it so much better.
Branden actually is a convert, and we dated in high school. And he joined the Church right when he graduated from high school, he got baptized. And then about two years after that we both went on missions [Branden to Detroit, Mich., and Emilie to Sofia, Bulgaria]. And so we have this long history together and we’ve been on the same page in the gospel. Since the day he was baptized, he was like a 100 percenter. You never would know he’s a convert because he’s so 100 percent active. And that’s made all the difference. I don’t know if I could deal with him being out on the road and being in the music business and everything that can come with that if you let it. I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable knowing that his standards weren’t the same as mine.

Emilie and Branden Campbell in 1992, photo courtesy of Emilie Campbell
And as far as Connor goes, it totally makes all the difference. Of course we try to do everything we can to help him develop and recover. But because of our perspective in the gospel, we know at the end of the day that it doesn’t matter how he is. He is perfect and he is so special. And we are lucky that we get to have him. We seriously feel like we are so lucky to be able to have a Connor. We wish everyone in the world could have a Connor. It makes everything better. It makes our relationship better, our marriage stronger, and our home is a home. And it’s all because of the gospel.

Q: That’s really all the questions I have, unless there’s anything else you’d like to add to the story? Or if there’s anything else Branden would like to add?

A: [after checking with Branden] He says the concert may have been his idea, but everyone should know that I’m the organizer and the mastermind, which means I’m the one who has born the burden and the brunt of all the stress [laughs].
No, seriously, he’s done so much, he’s worked so hard to do promo for this. Yesterday he left the house, went and did a TV thing, and came home, before any of us were even awake yet. He’s been working hard trying to get the word out.
We just want to sell out the show so badly. If the school can’t walk away with as much money as possible then I’m like, ‘It’s not worth all this work.’ We’ve worked so hard and so we really want to make as much money for this school as possible.
We think that the school and the teachers and the aides that work there, they are literally like superheroes. The things that they do for these special little kids, like it’s mind-blowing. I could never do what they’re doing. Some of these kids, their autism is severe. And the teachers have to do everything for them. And it’s gross and it’s hard. I can’t believe that they are so loving. They’re wonderful, the teachers are incredible. It’s been a really huge part of our family to have Connor go to Giant Steps. That he even got to go there was a miracle. We’re just so lucky.

Q: Well, I wish you all the best for the concert, and thanks for your time, and thank Branden for me. This will be in the paper Thursday, so hopefully it gets the word out about the concert and the story. And good luck with everything.

A: Thank you so much for helping with this.

(If you want to see the Campbell family blog, click here.)

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