On the second anniversary of their landmark album 'Blurryface', we revisit Twenty One Pilots' first ever Rock Sound cover feature. Let's rewind to May 2015...
Five. More. Years.
On a warm but breezy day in mid-May, these are the words haunting many homes, pubs and offices across the United Kingdom. Days after a general election that saw fear win out over hope, there’s a tangible sense of despair hanging in the air, but also the smallest hint that sometime soon something better will come along. Something – or rather someone – will turn frowns upside down in a very real, very important way.
Inside an east London warehouse on this afternoon, two men with change on their agenda stand side by side. As smoke bellows out of a nearby grenade, one of them removes the cap from a distress flare and raises it high into the air, its blinding red light filling the room and letting off a level of heat that causes anyone in the immediate vicinity to take several steps back. While the timing of this display might be fitting, the duo come not in the name of political reform, but reform of a different kind.
“The beauty of music is that it has absolutely no limits,” offers Tyler Joseph, one of the building’s resident anarchists. “There are no rules to what you can do with it – there are no laws. It’s like the ultimate playground, and no matter how old you get you’re always allowed to play on it.”
Alongside his friend and Twenty One Pilots bandmate Josh Dun, Tyler has spent the last six years breaking just about every musical convention currently in force. With Josh on drums and Tyler on vocals, piano, ukelele and pretty much any other instrument you can fit on a stage, the pair’s distinctive blend of rap, hip-hop, dance, grime, rock and pop has seen them become a genuine phenomenon. Lauded by their peers and adored by a fan base that’s growing by the day, these 26 year-old men might just be the most important band of the last few years. Best of all? They’re virtually oblivious to the fact.
“I’ve always felt behind in some ways,” confesses Tyler.
“I didn’t play my first show until I was 19 years-old. More and more people that age are already signed and putting out records, touring 200 days out of the year, so it was a pretty late start. Even now I still feel like I’m trying to catch up.”
If they’re still trying to catch up in their own minds then there’s really no point in anybody else running the race. As the pair arrive at 11am, they do so with a UK tour taking place in six months time having sold out after going on sale just an hour before their entrance. 2,000 tickets in London, 1,500 tickets in Manchester, another 1,000 odd in Glasgow – gone, to name but a few. Likewise, their US headline tour in September and October this year is almost sold out in every city, taking in well over 100,000 tickets on its way. They won’t know it for another two weeks, but their new album ‘Blurryface’ is about to take the Number One spot in their homeland and turn heads firmly in their direction. They’ve achieved all of this with virtually no press and little mainstream radio play, rising from the underground in the truest form.
It shouldn’t have happened, but it did. And while that might seem like the body, in truth it’s only the headline. Believe us when we say it – this story is far from over.
It begins in Columbus, the state capital and largest city of Ohio, situated on the outskirts of America’s Midwest. A state often associated with grey, gloomy skies that provide the backdrop to an industrial landscape, it’s the sort of place that many spend entire childhoods dreaming of escaping. Yet against all odds, it’s here where the seeds for one of the most colourful bands in existence were planted, watered and eventually grown.
“Some of the best times in my life come from when I was a kid growing up in Columbus,” smiles Tyler. “Yesterday it was raining and the smell took me back to when my brother and I would sit at home and wait for it to stop, so that we could go outside and play. I loved that part of my life and I write a lot of songs about things like that, not necessarily to hold on to those memories but to try to recreate them. Even though I get to travel the world, Columbus is still my favourite city on earth.”
For Tyler in particular Columbus isn’t just home, it’s the only place he ever knew for much of his life. He grew up in a family that rarely travelled – both of his parents were teachers earning modest incomes – meaning that family vacations were often more about sleeping in and staying home than exploring the big, wide world.
“In the last two years I’ve seen more of the world than I ever imagined I could. Prior to being in this band I’d probably been on an airplane twice in my life. I’d love for my family to be able to see and experience what I do. The world is so much bigger than I thought it was.”
Although both members of Twenty One Pilots were born and raised in the city (“I lived in two houses before the age of 25, and they were less than three miles apart” says Josh), only Tyler remains, with Josh relocating to Los Angeles last year primarily to enjoy the warmer climate. Despite this, Josh claims that he spends as much time in Columbus as he does in the place he now calls home, such are his commitments to the band. If you can really call Los Angeles home in the first place.
“Home is a weird concept to me,” Josh offers. “I feel like I have a house full of stuff, which is completely different. The idea of a home seems pretty foreign nowadays. Home is pretty much wherever I’m hanging out with Tyler.
“That said,” he continues, “I don’t know if I could have moved away unless Tyler was still in Columbus.”
His bandmate seems genuinely taken aback by this. “Really?”
“Really. I moved away knowing that because Tyler is still in Columbus I’ll be there a lot of the time anyway. As long as Tyler is there it feels like I’ll always have that connection. It won’t leave.”
This might sound sweet – and it is – but it’d be easy to get lost in the sentiment and overlook how completely alien this fondness and pride in their roots is in the modern era. In the world of rock in particular, the biographies of countless bands are littered with tales of struggle and desperation to escape towns and birthplaces considered prisons. Twenty One Pilots choose not to shy away from their past but rather to embrace it. Earlier this year, the pair celebrated Record Store Day by releasing a limited edition vinyl in the shape of Ohio, while the video for recent single ‘Stressed Out’ sees them cycling around the very Columbus streets they grew up on, playing in their childhood homes as their real life families look on.
“In a way I suppose we’re trying to bring our families and our hometown along with us,” explains Tyler. “Maybe part of that is the guilt, or the regret that in doing what we do we miss out on a lot of really important things back home. Relationships start to change and I don’t like that. I think that both of us feel like we could be better brothers or better sons.
“Columbus isn’t just where we’re from, it’s where everything about this band started,” he continues. “Those are two different but equally important things to me. So many bands move away from where they’re from in order to try to make it, but Josh and I didn’t want to have to do that. We wanted to make it happen at home, in Ohio, and that’s exactly what we did. Even if you’ve never been there, if you’re a fan of this band then that love was born there. This band is Columbus.”
Indeed, it’s both their hometown and their native state to which they owe virtually all of their success. In the band’s infancy the duo would drive an hour or two outside of Columbus to play shows, gradually building an audience with the aim of enticing them to attend rare shows in Columbus itself. The plan worked, and after playing a sold out show to 1,800 people, the band signed with Fueled By Ramen to release their debut album ‘Vessel’ in January 2013. In the two-and-a-half years since its release, ‘Vessel’ has gone on to shift more than 250,000 units in America alone, consistently selling more than 2,000 copies per week since. It’s a platform from which they continue to benefit, and one that stands as a remarkable example of how instead of chasing success, it is possible to bring it to your own doorstep, on your own terms.
“I grew up with so many people who were like, ‘I can’t wait to finish school and get out of this place’,” says Josh. “That seemed strange to me. If you feel like a certain place will be good for you then by all means follow your heart, but I truly believe you can achieve your goals no matter where you’re from.
“Whenever I’m out in LA I see so many servers and waitresses in restaurants who are working that job purely because they feel like they need to be in that city [to meet their] aspirations of being on TV or whatever, and that makes me sad. Those people could be servers or waitresses in their hometown. They could build that foundation wherever they’re from. It just makes me sad that people feel like they have to do these things.”
On paper the duo have stumbled upon a formula that works and on a huge scale, at that. Taking top spot on any album chart is an achievement, but to do so with over 130,000 units sold in a single week as ‘Blurryface’ managed across the Atlantic – 60,000 more than All Time Low’s ‘Future Hearts’ did a month earlier – is staggering. Even on UK soil the album reached number 14, three places higher than Black Veil Brides’ self-titled effort last October. It’s a big deal, particularly when you consider that despite their eclectic, staunchly ‘non-traditional-rock’ sound, theirs is a fan base rooted firmly in our world. Built through tours with the likes of Paramore, Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco and complimented by festival slots at Download and Reading & Leeds among others, they’re accepted where many could be turned away. It’s testament not only to the band themselves, but also to an increasingly accepting community.
Don’t forget, we live in a world where A Day To Remember and Taylor Swift mashups dominate Twitter feeds, where Katy Perry cut her teeth on Warped Tour, and where 5 Seconds Of Summer play songs co-written with the likes of Alex Gaskarth in front of tens of thousands of people every night, dressed in Sleeping With Sirens and Asking Alexandria shirts as they go. The reality, as much as people might like to pretend otherwise, is that in the modern world bands like Twenty One Pilots are as relevant to rock culture as Slayer, if not more so.
Put that in your orange squash and drink it.
“Our philosophy is shared by a lot of people,” offers Tyler, “and some of those happen to be people who are into a certain type of music. It’s hard to explain, but I think people respect the honesty of what we do. People know when you’re real and when you’re not, and I think they respect that.”
Beyond the music itself, there’s a genuine emotional connection to their songs, particularly Tyler’s lyrics, that sets Twenty One Pilots apart from the pack. Their songs resonate with people in a way not seen since My Chemical Romance gave a voice to the voiceless more than a decade ago, addressing the more unspoken issues and insecurities that lurk within the majority of people, regardless of age, gender, sexuality or social standing. Their concerns are universal.
“When I first started writing songs I quickly realised that the words I was saying within the music represented things that I could never bring up in regular conversation,” Tyler explains. “The first time I ever showed anybody a song I’d written I couldn’t believe that I was letting them in on these thoughts and feelings. I expected them to hear it and be like, ‘We need to have a serious talk about this’, but for some reason expressing those things through music seemed to make it okay. It was like, ‘I’m actually getting away with this!’
“I remember playing my parents a song I’d written that was basically me saying that I didn’t know what I believe. That was a big deal because my parents had spent my whole life trying to influence those beliefs. I was sitting there playing this song that expressed doubt and they weren’t even trying to intervene – they simply thought it was a great song.”
“I find it difficult to comprehend how many people take that freedom for granted,” adds Josh. “In music you’ve got this perfect platform for freedom of expression and yet so many people choose not to exercise that right. I think I’d feel irresponsible were we to not use it.”
As far as using that platform goes the pair can never be accused of neglect, but what’s truly fascinating is their fans. Though unthinkably large in number, it’s their genuine investment in the band and music alike that remains unparalleled. Such is the strength given to them by Tyler’s words that not only do they frequently find courage to overcome the most difficult aspects of life, but they directly involve the pair while doing so. On one particular occasion, during a signing, a young fan confessed that their music had helped them to come out as homosexual to their best friend. A best friend who was stood next to them at the time looking, shall we say, surprised. It quickly became apparent that this was in fact that moment.
“It was definitely a weird situation,” laughs Josh, “but it was also incredibly touching. What’s interesting about our band is that people want to respond to what we’re saying. Whether it’s writing a blog, sending us a letter, wanting to meet us or even meeting and talking to each other, our music provokes people in a really positive, intimate way.”
“I think about the effect that our music has on people a lot,” adds Tyler. “It can be overwhelming. You have to not think about it too much, because it’ll suffocate you.”
Of course, that’s not to say that such responsibility is something that either man wishes they were without. As well as meeting this pressure head on, they actively encourage others to take ownership of their own goals, as well as those of the band. In the case of ‘Blurryface’, they refer to it not as ‘our album’, but rather ‘your album’, putting direct ownership of it and its songs into the hands of those who drove its creation and early success. To some this method may seem little more than a clever, somewhat sinister marketing ploy, but when Tyler speaks about the responsibility that he feels in not guiding but respecting a vulnerable audience, such thoughts quickly vanish.
“When you talk about artists being role models or being an example, a lot of people respond very negatively. A lot of people respond by saying, ‘I didn’t want that responsibility, that’s not why I started making music, I don’t want to be a role model’, but for me that’s the behaviour of somebody trying to avoid living their life correctly. That’s not the way it works, and we don’t shy away from our responsibilities. If we have a group of people who look up to us then we are going to keep ourselves accountable. I don’t like it when people don’t accept that. That bothers me. It doesn’t matter if you wanted it or not, this responsibility is yours. We will never, ever neglect that.”
Whether you agree with them or not – be it philosophies personal or musical – one thing that nobody can take away from Twenty One Pilots is that theirs is a vision that is entirely their own, and considering the position that ‘Blurryface’ has put them in they’re clearly not alone. With that in mind it’s not what’s just happened that’s most intriguing, but what’s happening. It’s one thing topping the charts and playing to thousands of people, but it’s another to do so in such an uncompromising fashion. What’s happening before you might seem like a triumphant conclusion, but really this is only the beginning. In a world where more and more unlikely candidates are rising through the ranks to headline arenas and scramble up festival bills, there is every reason to believe that one band could emerge to take the lot. It could be this one.
The people, it seems, have spoken. The question is: if that’s the case, what else is left to fight for?
“It’s really about trying to win,” says Tyler, sternly. “When it comes to goals or ambition or whatever else you want to call it, that’s the thing that’s always there. It’s not about being competitive with the bands around us – that’s not where the competition resides. It’s about the doubt and the insecurity that we’re fighting inside of us, and it’s a fight that we want to win. We want to conquer our own fears every night onstage, and if those fears ever go away then that’s when it ends. I watch bands in their third or fourth generation playing shows who look like they’re having a good time, and I’m like, ‘You didn’t used to do this – you were wrestling something inside of you’. You could see the struggle in their eyes and those demons were present. I think without that there’s almost no point to any of this.
“We’ve had conversations about making things easier,” he continues. “We’ve talked about adding members to the live show, we’ve talked about whether we should write a smash hit pop song, we’ve talked about whether or not we should change our image, and the answer has always been no.”
“To change any of those things would be dangerous,” adds Josh. “It’s not always easy doing this the way that we’re doing it, but I think that’s what makes our success so rewarding and special. We don’t always understand it, but this band is a movement that has become bigger than either of us ever imagined. The battle to do it on our terms is too essential a part of that to compromise now.”
The struggle, as they say, is real. More importantly, it’s a struggle that is positively vital to the mission at hand. As anyone who has ever fought for change will acknowledge, it’s something that doesn’t come easily. It takes blood, guts, sweat and tears. It’s a battle not for the weak of mind, body or soul, but for those with a voice and the bravery to use it to say, ‘We’ve had enough’. In 2015 the people willing to do that are more essential than ever, because without them there is no future. They are the ones who bring hope of a better tomorrow. They are the ones capable of leading the masses to glory. They are the ones with the power to change absolutely everything, forever. They are invaluable.
They are Twenty One Pilots, and this is your revolution.
‘Blurryface’ is out now on Fueled By Ramen.
This feature is taken from Issue 202 of Rock Sound magazine. Get back issues over at shop.rocksound.tv.