“I would rather die than fake a song”: Inside the revolutionary success of twenty one pilots’ Blurryface
This interview originally appeared Kerrang! issue K!1593, from November 2015, several months after the release of twenty one pilots’ incredible fourth album Blurryface. To celebrate the greatest rock success story of that year, we spent 96 hours on the road with Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun as their Blurryface Tour swept America.
In the shadow of the Empire State Building, a mammoth queue is forming outside New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. The line may be comprised of people of all different ages and backgrounds, but they’re all dressed in the same regimented fashion. Some have their necks and hands slicked in black paint; some have their eyes smeared in red eyeshadow; others don a balaclava or a skeleton onesie. For the hardcore fraternity sardine-packed up front, even this isn’t enough. New Jersey native Darleny is in this queue for the second time in 24 hours. As soon as she’d seen her favourite band play here just last night, she immediately started lining up again for show number two, sleeping on the streets to guarantee the best view of the biggest musical success story of 2015.
Yet at the heart of this story are two unassuming, soft-spoken guys: Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, aka twenty one pilots. As the queue builds, the pair are sat backstage trying to get a handle on what the hell is going on.
“To experience crowds and environments like this every night is…” says frontman/multi-instrumentalist Tyler, before stopping abruptly to process their biggest U.S. tour to date. “It’s something Josh and I dreamt about.”
Beside him, Josh – TØP’s drummer extraordinaire/occasional trombone player – nods so hard in agreement you half expect his head to pop off. It’s an understandable reaction, really, considering the past six months has seen twenty one pilots not only score a Number One album in America with their fourth album, Blurryface, but also a UK tour that sold out so quickly they immediately had to book another much bigger one for 2016. Indeed, in the past six months, twenty one pilots have arguably become the most successful band since the Beastie Boys to dissolve the boundaries between rock, hip-hop, punk, dance, pop and [insert your own genre here].
Yet, for some, the biggest rock phenomenon of 2015 simply don’t rock enough.
“I don’t think Josh and I are doing anything that’s intentionally trying to replace what’s already established!” Tyler emphatically told Kerrang! in May (K!1570), denying allegations that twenty one pilots are co-authors of Fall Out Boy’s manifesto to fundamentally change the DNA of rock’n’roll.
Such talk of their eclecticism has informed the bulk of the discussion so far, but obscured both the men behind the music and their message. Over the next 96 hours on the road, as K! travels with Josh and Tyler from New York to their Ohio hometown, it’s time to set the record straight. There’s more to twenty one pilots than meets the eye or ear…
Not too long ago, Tyler Joseph would occasionally perform a Google self-search out of curiosity. The results didn’t exactly paint a portrait of a superstar in the making. In fact, they didn’t even produce a portrait of him at all, returning only mugshots of criminals who shared his name. Suffice to say, neither Tyler nor Josh suffer the problem of anonymity anymore.
On May 27 this year, twenty one pilots found out they had a Number One album in America, clocking some 146,000 sales in its first week. Blurryface would soon sell 500,000 copies worldwide, and net over 5,000,000 streams in the UK alone. Not bad for a band whose costumes and make-up were first employed as a means to arrest the attention of the few punters attending their fledging live shows.
From those humble beginnings in 2009 – and subsequently Fueled both by Ramen and word-of-mouth hype – TØP went on to net support slots with Paramore and Fall Out Boy, before officially making The Big Time this year.
So, let’s start with how you celebrated your Number One album…
“We rented a room in Columbus’ most expensive hotel and pooped in their bathroom,” deadpans Josh.
“Why did you come up with that?” laughs Tyler.
“I don’t know!” he shrugs, “We didn’t do much, which is why I came up with that lie. We didn’t do a lot, because we didn’t really understand it.”
“Yeah,” smiles Tyler. “We didn’t really know what it meant because there’s so many things about the music industry that we’re ignorant to, or, at least, not very keen on.”
That showed pretty clearly on August 30 when twenty one pilots performed album tracks Heavydirtysoul and Lane Boy at the MTV VMAs in LA to 9.8 million people viewing at home, and a room that contained Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj. Onstage, they fit right in. Interviewed offstage, however, they seemed hopelessly perplexed by the whole shebang.
They laugh when you point that out…
“When Josh and I first talked about pursuing our dreams of becoming successful musicians, we knew fame would naturally come with that dream,” explains Tyler. “But fame was never the dream itself. In our own way, we checked ourselves and said, ‘Yes, if it comes to it, we have what it takes to deal with fame – to handle it and have our identity rooted in fame.’ Josh and I have our heads screwed on. We thought we were ready for this.”
And were you?
“I realised I’m not nearly as prepared or built to be under that microscope as I thought I was,” he sighs. “We want people to hear our music, but we don’t want to sacrifice who we are to get that.”
Do you feel like you’re in danger of doing that?
“I think about that a lot,” reveals Josh. “Every last person who follows me on Twitter follows me because of this band. I live where I live because of this band. My day revolves around what I do… But is that my identity? If this thing falls apart tomorrow and that’s my identity, then who am I? To be able to keep that perspective sometimes brings things down a couple of notches.”
This sums up life for twenty one pilots on the road right now. They don’t spend their time pooping in plush bathrooms – they spend it thinking about how they can remain the same guys who first bonded over dreams of playing music. Fortunately, there’s one place they can go to rediscover this: Columbus, Ohio – a.k.a. Home. And that just so happens to be where the tour’s heading next.
“My mom’s calling like, ‘Hey, what can I do?’ and I’m like, ‘There’s nothing to do! Columbus already sold out, just come to the show!’” beams Tyler.
First, though, the pair must attend to the second consecutive sold-out night at the Ballroom. In less than an hour, the pair are onstage bathed in blaring lights and flanked by dancing men in Hazmat suits. Oh, and Josh is on his patented ‘drum-kit island’ that floats on the hands of the front row while he’s playing it.
As you do…
A day and a half later, and some 872 clicks due west of the Hammerstein Ballroom is the Schottenstein Center in Columbus. Everyone who’s ever been someone has played here – from blink-182 and Aerosmith to Britney Spears. Tonight, it’s not only housing twenty one pilots’ hometown show, it’s hosting their biggest headline gig ever.
Upon arrival, Kerrang! spots Josh surveying the cavernous arena alone – the ice still melting in the corners from its normal shift as a hockey rink. “That’ll be a lot of Columbus out there,” he utters. You don’t hear the gulp in his throat, but you see it. Nerves are high. Then again, nerves are always high in this band. You may think musical experimentation defines twenty one pilots, but at the heart of the songs is something else.
Or rather, someone else.
Blurryface the album is christened after Tyler’s alter-ego. Think of an inverse version of Eminem’s Slim Shady persona. Whereas Eminem uses that character to voice all his sickest fantasies, Blurryface represents Tyler’s deepest insecurities – the side of him wishing he ‘had a better voice’ on Stressed Out.
Reclining in their tour bus in Columbus, Tyler explains that Blurryface wasn’t born in the limelight, but in the hormonal grip of puberty. It was then that anxieties crept in where there was only happiness before. Josh, too, recalls being 15 when his own Blurryface emerged – a side of himself that couldn’t file thoughts in the right places.
Given that Blurryface has since become the spark of songs that have become anthems for fans, you have to wonder if that acceptance has helped?
“Absolutely,” says Tyler. “Josh and I, we’ve learned so much about this character – who he is, how we can defeat him, or help each other defeat him.”
So, is the plan to kill Blurryface or learn to co-exist with him? It seems he might be part of what makes your music successful…
“There’s definitely…” Tyler pauses for a long time. “I don’t think this character is ever going to leave permanently until I’m in the ground.”
This struggle is deep-rooted. It even permeates twenty one pilots’ phenomenal live show. Tyler may have performed their hit single Car Radio in New York while balancing on a tiny platform high above the sound desk (without a safety net), but that’s not what fazes him.
“The nerves come from something much deeper,” he reveals. “Which is: ‘Are we even good enough? Is this helpful? Is it worth people’s time to come to this?’”
Tyler and Josh go to extraordinary efforts to ensure it is. There is no twenty one auto-pilot button. The Columbus soundcheck stops just short of Josh inspecting each atom on the drum-kit. Likewise, a show that requires them to execute songs and a dazzling array of backflips and jumps every night takes its toll. Josh points to a muscle in his aching, tattooed arm and makes an explosion sound; Tyler spent his NY downtime getting his throat scraped by a doctor.
Why put yourselves through all this?
“There are bands I’ve fallen in love with that I watch live, and as they get older there’s almost a comfortable person up there,” Tyler ponders. “There’s no struggle. It makes sense to add people to the band to make it easier to put on a show, but I don’t ever want to get onstage and not have something to overcome.”
Would twenty one pilots even work if you were both anxiety-free?
“I will say this: once I don’t have anything to write about anymore, I’m not going to force it – I’m going to be done,” he says. “I’m not going to create a problem that I’m trying to overcome… I would rather just die than fake a song. The morning I wake up and I’m done talking about these things, I want to be done with music.”
Fortunately, that morning is a long way off. And that has everything to do with twenty one pilots’ fans…
If the pageantry on display in the Big Apple was impressive – and it was – it’s nothing compared to the Columbus crowd. There’s a full-blown colony forming outside the Schottenstein Center. All over the grounds, ‘Welcome Home!’ messages, lyrics and Twitter handles are scrawled in chalk. TØP fans are a community with their own hand symbols, fashion and rituals. Indeed, the most arresting part of every twenty one pilots show comes when Tyler invites a fan to perform their ludicrously overblown secret handshake – as seen in the video for Stressed Out – onstage with Josh. Tyler and Josh see a lot of themselves in their fans: the same struggles, the same inquisitiveness, the same openness.
A bit of perspective helps here. Josh and Tyler are the products of two deeply caring yet conservative families, both raised by “amazing, humble, smart, loving, God-fearing” dads and “super-cool and supportive” moms. Both also went through a private education in which everything preached – from religion to politics – was to be believed, not questioned. Only the pair had lots of questions. They still write about them to this day.
“One of our motivations is to get people to start thinking,” explains Tyler. “When I first started writing songs, I had a lot of questions. A lot of big questions,” he says.
“‘Why am I here?’ ‘What happens next?’ ‘What’s the point?’” explains Tyler. “We’re big advocates of people finding out for themselves, but you have to start thinking. You can’t just follow – it’s got to be yours.”
Through music, twenty one pilots feel themselves and their fans confronting these issues together. Of all the lines you will hear chanted at a TØP show, Heavydirtysoul’s closing lyric stands out: ‘Death inspires me like a dog inspires a rabbit.’
These are lyrics twenty one pilots have lived. Josh first encountered death early on in life when a friend he saw every summer as a child died in a gun accident. “In those moments you’re like, ‘He wasn’t ready, he didn’t know why he was here,’” says Josh. “There’s so many questions that spark from those thoughts.”
“I remember the first time I encountered death,” announces Tyler. “About two and a half years ago, there was a girl who would come to all of the shows she could travel to. We’d recognise her at each show. I’ll never forget the morning of one of our hometown shows. We got word that she’d committed suicide. That really rocked me. She shared how our music helped her. I think about her all the time. Constantly. I just don’t want that to happen [again]. That was a big moment in my life.”
It’s little surprise, then, that when you ask Tyler what the biggest misconception about twenty one pilots is, he’s not concerned with the fact that his rock band relies heavily on piano…
“The biggest misconception is that our fans don’t know how much Josh and I talk about them. We are constantly talking about them. The fact that we’re able to speak to so many people through our music and not be able to hear their side of the story keeps me up at night. Sure, we’re not blasting out on Twitter every day like, ‘Sorry we can’t meet you!’ I don’t like the way that comes across. Everyone says that on Twitter.”
Josh and Tyler are still plotting how they can connect meaningfully with their fans. For now, there’s no better way of doing that than the live show.
Speaking of which…
True story: last time Tyler stood inside Columbus’ Schottenstein Center, he was not a rock star – he was playing in a championship basketball game in his senior year of high school.
“Right in front of where Josh will be playing drums tonight,” smiles Tyler. “That’s where I made my last point as a basketball player! Last time I walked out of this building, I walked out a loser.”
The last time Josh was here also involved basketball, too, only he was here watching the Harlem Globetrotters. He still can’t believe he’s playing this place.
“We’ve played almost every venue in Columbus,” he smiles. “We always looked at this one as, ‘Some day!’”
That this phantom ‘some day’ has arrived is down to their relationship. Ask if they argue? “It’s rare,” replies Josh. During interviews, they both listen to each other intently, always allowing the other to add their thoughts. Add in a shared absurdist sense of humour and they’re very much a mutual Yin to the world’s Yang.
But do they ever miss the Columbus dudes they used to be?
“Absolutely,” responds Tyler. “Everything we get to do is at level 10, and normal lives aren’t at level 10 all the time. I haven’t had nothing to do in so long. If it ever happens again, I’ll call Josh up and do nothing together like we used to.”
With that pleasant daydream dispensed, the pair leave to get ready for the biggest show of their lives. Just before showtime, Tyler is spotted nestled in a corner backstage. His eyes are closed. He’s perfectly silent as the sound of the crowd echoes through the corridors. You can almost imagine the conversation he’s having with Blurryface as he stands there.
What follows dwarves the mayhem in New York. Columbus is a football town. Nothing is more important than the Ohio State Buckeyes or their beloved mascot Brutus Buckeye, who’s half-man, half-nut. When Tyler introduces Brutus onstage to do the secret handshake with Josh, the place goes berserk. It’s a running theme. All night long, people are singing and dancing as if swaying in some religious ecstasy. Anyone who crowdsurfs over the barrier re-enters the crowd from the side in floods of tears. Faced with all of this, Tyler’s powers of articulation temporarily abandon him in front of 18,000 people.
Then he composes himself.
“I’m a man of words, but honestly it’s very hard for me to find the words to describe what I feel right now,” says Tyler onstage, beholding the crowd and glancing over to Josh, who stares back in disbelief. “You’ve set the standard around the world for what it looks like to go to a twenty one pilots show!”
He’s right, too. If even a fraction of what transpired with twenty one pilots in New York and Columbus occurs in the UK, we might not be prepared for what’s about to hit us.
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