Elaine Bradley is the drummer for the rock band Neon Trees, which released their first full length album, Habits, in 2010. Their first single “Animal” has climbed to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Alternative Rock Chart. Elaine discusses her journey towards spiritual honesty as a rebellious child and then as a missionary in Germany and now as a musician fulfilling her life’s artistic passions.
How did you get started in music?
I’m the youngest of seven kids so I always had older siblings playing music. At a very early age I was exposed to cool music like Led Zeppelin and Depeche Mode. We enjoyed singing as a family, especially all of the siblings, and we used to sing Depeche Mode harmonies while doing the dishes. One of my earliest musical memories was from kindergarten. I remember sitting on the bus staring out of the window and singing to myself “You’re The Inspiration” by Chicago. I had an older brother who I really looked up to. I thought he was the coolest thing on earth. When I was seven years old he gave me a tape of Led Zeppelin 1. I listened to that tape and loved it in part because he gave it to me but also because it was actually great.
Around this time I got into the idea of drumming, I think maybe because it was aggressive. I was so drawn to it. I would drum wooden spoons and beat on pots and pans, using the pots as the drums and the lids as the cymbals. I always flipped through the Sears catalog to look at the drum sets. I tirelessly begged my parents for drums. When I started band in the sixth grade, my parents got me the Sears drum set. It was a big commitment for my parents, but as far as sets go it was very chintzy. The whole next year I beat that thing to crap. It was destroyed by the end of the year.
That’s when they figured out I was serious enough about playing the drums that they could afford to actually invest a little money in it. On my thirteenth birthday they surprised me with a Tama drum set. When my birthday rolled around my mom told me that she and my dad were going to give me a $100.00 clothes spree at the mall. I was a little disappointed because I really wanted a new drum set but I tried to make the best of it. As we were driving to the mall, we got off of the freeway, and my mom turned left instead of right to go to the mall. I said, “Mom, you just turned the wrong way. The mall is the other way.” She said, “ Oh, I didn’t realize. I don’t know what I was thinking.” When I suggested she turn around, she said, “Oh, I missed the turn!” She was making all of these excuses that were really believable for her personality. I did not catch on. When she pulled into a parking lot, I thought, “Finally, we’re turning around!” It still didn’t dawn on me. She pulled in, parked and said, “Ok, we’re here.” There we were at the music store where she surprised me with a real drum set. I was shocked. She should have gotten an Oscar for that performance. Needless to say, I get my humor and performance gene from my mom.
Have you always enjoyed performing?
Yes, I’ve always liked performing. You know some people are just naturally shy? I am not. I’ve been afraid of things in my life but that never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do. I’ve felt fear, I’ve felt self doubt and I’ve thought, “Oh, I hate how I look doing this,” or “I’m nervous to do that because people will judge me,” but I don’t take those thoughts too seriously. This courage I have is a gift. I think an important part of facing my fears is knowing my boundaries. It’s about knowing what I’m good at and what I’m not good at and being okay with that.
As far as performing musically, I’ve been in bands, whether real or imaginary, since the fourth grade. I used to draw pictures of my imaginary bands with names like The Rockets. In sixth grade I was into New Kids on the Block, Another Bad Creation, and all of that music. I started a band with two of my friends; it was a rap/pop group. We used to sing and dance our original songs on the playground. So, performing is perpetual for me. It just always was. In high school, I moved to a suburb of Chicago called Crystal Lake and made some new friends. One of my new friends and I decided that it would be awesome to form a rock band. I was going to sing, and he was going to play the guitar, and he knew somebody who played the bass. We had our line up. I ended up singing, playing the drums and guitar at various points while I was in that band. Eventually, I became the guitarist front woman, and we toured around for about five years.
How did Mormonism fit in with your musical pursuits growing up?
Growing up, I never liked being Mormon. I remember sitting in Primary and thinking, “I wish I didn’t know this. Why was I born into this family? My friends are so much luckier than I am because they don’t have all of these weird rules.” I was a rebellious kid. I remember singing “I Hope They Call Me On a Mission” and thinking it was really preposterous because I didn’t want to be called on a mission. That said, I think I felt that way because I knew that the gospel was true. There was this nagging feeling that it was true mixed with my desire for worldly fame and fortune. Growing up, I felt within me this collision of two distinct worlds. I didn’t really make peace with that tension until I was 21 and maybe even to a certain extent until recently.
I remember having a conversation with my mom in high school. We were driving in the car, and she said to me, “I know you want to be a rock star but what if Heavenly Father were to say that’s not what He wants for you?” I told her point blank that I wouldn’t listen. I wasn’t willing. I had the erroneous thought that Heavenly Father did not want me to be happy. Whatever I wanted, He would tell me to do something else just to spite me. Somehow I got the impression that Heavenly Father was laughing at me from heaven. So in response to that fear, I just ignored Him. I always knew that God was there. The gospel made sense to me and spoke to me on a certain level but at the same time it made me angry. I wanted to be ignorant. During high school one of my biggest complaints was that people in the church were not cool. It was very disappointing for me that most of my friends were outside of the church, and most of the people in the church were people I didn’t want to hang out with. Of course, this complaint was just a cover for my fears about God judging me. In general, it was a really difficult time.
Add to this the fact that I wanted to do drugs. For some reason I romanticized it. It might be because I had older siblings who were kind of getting into it, and these were people I idolized. I went down the wrong path and stopped thinking about God and the church because I knew that if I did it would mean something, and I would have to change something. When I was 21 years old I started dating a guy who didn’t drink and do drugs. He didn’t even swear. We were taking a walk one night, and I said, “Are you religious? I notice that you don’t do these things.” He didn’t know that I was Mormon or had a Mormon background. He told me he was Christian and then said something pivotal. “I think it’s important to have a personal relationship with God.” And boom! It seriously felt like an effectual door was opened in my mind and clarity and honesty came rushing through. I realized at that moment that I was not being honest with myself. His comment was a lightening bolt straight to my heart. It was one of those moments when everything changed. I thought, “I don’t know what God wants for me. I have no idea what the truth is right now, and I’ve got to be honest about that. I’ll get some information from my parents about Mormonism, and I’ll start there. And if it’s not there, I’ll go somewhere else. Mormonism is what I have from my youth, I’m going to examine it, and I’m going to be honest with God. If this is what He wants me to do, then I’ll do it.” This was really the chance for me to decide for myself. I definitely think that Heavenly Father knows me and understands what I need. To be told what to do and to respond to that doesn’t really work with the kind of personality I have. I need to know for myself. I need to make my own path. I think I could have made it a better path if I had chosen to do so, but I’m grateful for the things I learned because of it. God prepared a way for me in spite of my rebelliousness.
I really started learning about the gospel after that conversation with my boyfriend. That was also at the height of my band’s tour schedule, which involved a lot of partying. When I had this spiritual realization I quit drinking, and I quit doing drugs. I just quit it all. Because of some unrelated tensions, the band just kind of fell apart, and we called it quits. I realized that if there ever were a time that I could go on a mission it would be now. But here’s the thing: Since I was a kid, I did not want to serve a mission. It did not sound good to me. At all. Ever. When I would think about going on a mission, I would automatically think, “No. I don’t want to.” But there is this overarching theme of honesty in my life. So I thought, “Okay, honestly, is a mission something I should do?” I needed to get myself out of the way so that I could make a proper, informed decision. So for months I prayed, “Heavenly Father, help me to want to know if I should go on a mission.” I did not want to go on a mission, and I did not want to know if I should go on a mission. Knowing is condemnation, and I didn’t want to deal with that. Yet, I continued to pray every night, “Help me to know what is right and to be okay with whatever answer you give me. Help me to want to go.” After a couple of months, I found that my prayers changed to, “I can see myself being okay with a mission. Help me to know if that’s something I should do.” I finally got to the point where I thought, “You know, I could just get mission papers and fill them out and then pray about it and then turn them in if the answer is ‘yes.’” I was open enough to that option to do that. So I went to the church and started asking the bishop for some mission papers. I didn’t even finish my sentence, and he said, “Oh, you’re going to go on a mission?” And immediately I said, “Yeah!” From then on I was committed to going. I never wavered after that moment.
I went on my mission to Frankfurt, Germany, which is where I met one of my best friends, Bryce Taylor. Bryce and I never served together, though. We met once at a missionary activity, and his first memory from that day was of me doing a kick flip on a skateboard in a skirt. Some of the office elders had some of the music I made before and during my mission. I had a guitar in my apartment for ten months and the mission president let me record some acoustic stuff for him. One day, the office elders had Bryce listen to my music, and he loved it. He said, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get ahold of this sister.” I was scheduled to return home around this time, so Bryce got permission from the office to call me the week before I left. He said, “Hey, you don’t really know me but this is Elder Taylor. Yeah, I just wanted to say that we should play together. I play in a band at home, and I think you should come to Utah.” At the time I was toying with the idea of going to BYU, but I didn’t really think he was serious. So many people say, “Oh, you play music? Let’s get together.” I really didn’t know how seriously to take him. Six weeks after that phone call Bryce came home from the mission and proceeded to call me every Sunday to ask me when I was coming out to Utah. His hounding was seriously half the reason I decided to even apply to BYU.
After you returned from your mission, how did you get involved with Neon Trees?
I applied to BYU, got accepted, and moved out to Provo. Bryce and I started playing some music together. He would come over and jam with me in my basement—he played the guitar, and I played the drums. It sounded really cool, and we realized we couldn’t just keep it in the basement; we had to form a band. So we called a friend of his and got him to play bass. We became this three piece in Provo called Another Statistic. We started playing with another local band called Neon Trees. I remember looking at them and thinking, “Wow, they are really talented. I want to play in their band.” After three years, Another Statistic came to an end because we all had different levels of commitment. I knew I wanted to play music professionally. I didn’t want to sit around Provo and play once a month. Around the same time, Neon Trees was going through the same struggle. Two of the members–Chris and Tyler–wanted to get serious and the other guys weren’t willing to put forth the effort to do it, so they parted ways. It was so harmonious and so fateful that right when Another Statistic was fading, Neon Trees split. So Tyler and Chris invited me and another musician, Branden, to join them and this harmony was born.
How do you navigate being an active LDS woman within the music scene?
Honestly, there’s not much tension in navigating the music scene as a Mormon. You see so many bad after school specials or seminary videos where the kids say, “Come on, everyone is doing it!” But it’s not like that at all. The idea that drugs are synonymous with rock n’ roll is an assumption and an unnecessary connection. Not to say that rock n’ roll musicians don’t do drugs. Many do. I’m just saying that it’s not necessary to do drugs in order to produce good music and to be successful in this business. Actually, I think the drinking scene is far more prevalent than the drug scene because it’s more socially acceptable. It’s everywhere. Liquor companies sponsor parties and shows all of the time. I think it helps that everybody in our band is Mormon. Granted, everybody in the band is on a different rung of the spiritual ladder. We don’t make any pretensions about how righteous we are or how many mistakes we may or may not make. Within the band we try to withhold judgment from each other because life is not easy. With that said, we’re all return missionaries, we have all agreed—both as a business and as friends—that we are not going to party in the band. We don’t do that on tour, we don’t do that in the van, we don’t do that outside of the van, it happens nowhere around the band, anytime, ever. It’s a business decision, but there’s definitely a moral strength and comfort that comes from it. It’s never a temptation because we’ve already agreed.
Because of the music we make, people are always surprised to find out that we’re Mormon. I think that’s because we don’t approach music from a Mormon standpoint. We’re not a “Mormon” rock band; we’re a rock band that happens to be Mormon. It’s not possible as Mormons, though, to completely ignore your background. For example, sometimes the spirituality of Tyler’s lyrics shines through. On the other hand, we can write unapologetic pop songs that have nothing to do with religion and be totally okay with it because we don’t have a religious platform. We are simply four people who grew up with a certain belief system who also want to make good music. I think the two can be separated. With that said, I definitely think about how my actions represent Mormonism—I think it would be irresponsible and sloppy of me to assume that I don’t have an effect on people. Since we’ve been gaining popularity and doing really well on the radio, I’ll get Facebook messages from people who say, “Hey, I found out that you’re Mormon. That’s really awesome because I’m Mormon. You’re a really good example to me.” I love that. Those are the things I think about when making personal decisions about how I want to behave and what kind of image I want to give off.
I really try to include God in my decisions about music and the band. I ask Him to open doors or close doors as necessary. I kind of keep an open heart about it. Before, I was too afraid to talk to God because I didn’t want to get a “no” answer. I think I’ve learned through my life’s experiences to be more honest with Heavenly Father. I used to think of praying as something that I had to be in the mood for or that I had to say just the right thing. I felt like I couldn’t tell Him that I was scared. Now, I tell Him that I’m scared but I want to do the right thing. I think that was a step that I was definitely leaving out before. I didn’t think I could pray because I didn’t know what to say. It’s hard to have that personal relationship with God if you can’t be honest with Him. I’m still figuring that out. In recent years I think I’ve truly taken that to heart. Even before I think I always kind of reserved some special part of me that I wouldn’t share with God because either I was ashamed of it or I was afraid of it. Even in just the last year I’ve learned how to be more honest. I’m sure I’ll say the same thing next year—I’ll be even more honest then than I am now. It’s a process. It’s getting to know somebody. Learning how to trust somebody with your deepest, darkest most special thoughts and feelings.
At A Glance
Location: Provo, UT
Marital status: Happily married since January.
Occupation: Musician (drums/backing vocals for Neon Trees)
Schools Attended: BYU graduate. BS Public Health, German minor
Languages Spoken at Home: English primarily, sometimes German with my husband
Favorite Hymn: “Oh Savior Thou Who Wearest A Crown”
On The Web: www.neontrees.com
Interview by Krisanne Hastings. Photos used with permission and from neontrees.com.