twenty one pilots return: The world-exclusive comeback interview
An old rash has flared up. Not the bad kind: scabby and inflamed and maybe even a little gross. But a nice one. That, at least, is the rather peculiar way in which Tyler Joseph views twenty one pilots’ latest single, Choker. Like a rash.
“It’s one thing to fabricate trying to go back and create a song from when you were a different person,” the frontman ponders before we arrive at his unusual medical comparison. “It’s another thing when it comes up organically – almost like an old habit that is inevitably a part of who you are, and still makes up the fibres of who you are. It’s mostly dormant, but every once in a while it flares up. That’s what Choker is: a flare up of an old rash that we thought we cured (laughs). And we’re proud of that rash! We like that rash. The rash is who we are.”
But, he adds, “We had to itch it.”
It’s a sensation that Tyler and bandmate Josh Dun hadn’t experienced for quite some time before now. As the two 32-year-olds catch up with Kerrang! via Zoom – the frontman shielded underneath a baseball cap in his darkened Columbus, Ohio home studio; the drummer in a much brighter and more airy space – they reveal that the typically poignant Choker signifies something much bigger in the story of the shape-shifting, genre-bending two-piece. To twenty one pilots, it’s an acceptance of their journey.
That tale, of course, has been told many times. Only now, there’s a newfound appreciation of the process behind it: how Tyler and Josh’s stunningly ambitious songwriting catapulted twenty one pilots from academies to arenas to festival headlining slots over the course of several brilliant records (2013 third LP Vessel, 2015’s phenomenal follow-up Blurryface, and 2018’s bold Trench, in particular). So forward-thinking and decidedly boundary-pushing were the band, it took them a minute to take a vital step back and appreciate what they’d created. And it all started with Choker.
“I remember when I locked into the writing of it, it just flowed; it was scary how easy that song was for me to write,” Tyler recalls. “And it was because I knew I was coming from a place, and I was in a realm that I had spent a lot of time in before. And I was comfortable there; I was familiar with my surroundings. And that’s why it was such an easy song to write.
“I think Choker is the beginning of me being okay with the entire body of work, and feeling like I don’t have to steer away from some things that people would consider from our older records.”
away from some things…”
Hear Tyler Joseph explain the sound of recent single Choker, and how he unintentionally dug back into older songwriting styles
Fresh career outlooks (and global pandemics) aside, the two members of twenty one pilots have also gone through more meaningful milestones recently: Tyler became a father for the first time in February last year, while Josh got married on New Year’s Eve 2019. And, in fact, despite these exciting upheavals, there’s one more change that they’re still hoping to complete…
“Even though you’re a little older than me, can I adopt you?” Tyler asks his bandmate.
“We could definitely try,” comes the playful response. “I think my parents have to legally disown me first. You’ve got to ask their blessing…”
“I take your dad out to dinner and ask for his son’s hand in drumming,” the frontman suggests, before the pair erupt into laughter. Okay, so maybe we can file this one under the ‘not-so-serious to-do list’, but the point still stands: the world of twenty one pilots is in a very different place these days.
“We had big life moments happen for us,” Tyler smiles. “I became a dad, Josh got married. My wife says my daughter is 15 months, and every time she says ‘months’ I have to do the numbers! But she’s a little over a year old, and it’s a lot of fun. I think that she thinks I’m a bum, my daughter; she thinks I do nothing.”
“My wife thinks I am, too!” Josh quips.
Though lockdown did indeed put the touring aspect of their jobs on hold, this break from the road has been far from unproductive: on May 21, they’re set to return with their highly-anticipated sixth album Scaled And Icy, and a global livestream experience to boot. Tyler and Josh effectively utilised COVID downtime to get to work, with the cutting-short of their epic Trench cycle barely even fazing them. It’s a position they’re extraordinarily grateful to be in.
“We’ve had conversations that are kind of like sinking-in thankfulness of our situation,” says Josh. “What if [the pandemic] happened right after we released Trench, or right in the middle of the album cycle, or even at the beginning of our career when we were just getting started? We’ve taken time throughout this entire journey that we’ve had as a band to reflect. While fully understanding the gravity of what this year was for some people and how terrible it was, we’ve realised in multiple ways how fortunate we were for this to have landed sort of when it did. I don’t want to sound terrible saying that, but realising that has been important.”
While both admit that Scaled And Icy’s release has a “different vibe” due to there being no live dates in the calendar, the lack of gigs is also remarkably proving to be an enormous benefit to their creativity. So brace yourselves, people, because Tyler’s already gotten started on more new music…
“Usually when we’re done working on a record I feel completely burnt out; I’ve put everything into it that I have, and I’m done with writing, done with music, for however long,” he explains. “And on this one, for some reason – maybe it’s because I know that we’re not going to go out and play shows – after finishing it, I didn’t feel that same burnt-out feeling. And I’ve actually continued to create, even after. I’m still writing and excited about music. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing… hopefully it’s just a good thing!”
Speaking on behalf of twenty one pilots fans everywhere, we can absolutely confirm that it is a Very Good Thing. But we’re not here to find out about that. No, we want to know all about Scaled And Icy…
It’s just less than a month after the announcement of the album – along with the launch of infectious and sleek lead single Shy Away – and the internet is awash with theories. This sort of thing happens every time twenty one pilots do literally anything. From Reddit rabbit holes to detailed YouTube videos, the grand world built for Trench looms large over Scaled And Icy… even if the hows and whys are still being unpacked online by the duo’s faithful following.
Having carefully crafted the concept for Trench over many years – the most basic gist being that there are nine bishops who dictate a place called Dema, with this fictional location representing a very real area where negative thoughts reside within our own brains – Tyler suggests that the band’s upcoming effort has a “balance” between narrative and song. After all, while Shy Away and Choker can absolutely be enjoyed aware from the lore, there’s still plenty of ties-ins that have fans wondering where twenty one pilots are headed next. Not that the band will readily give any of that information away. They keep it all closely guarded – and open to interpretation.
An example: the album title ‘Scaled And Icy’ is an anagram for ‘Clancy Is Dead’ – Clancy being Trench’s protagonist trying to escape Dema’s almighty control, who may or may not have achieved his goal.
Is that anagram just a happy accident, or was it deliberate?
“It’s an accident,” replies Tyler.
Silence. But there’s a hint of a smile creeping across the frontman’s face…
Moreover, the idea of ‘propaganda’ seems to be a shared thread among fans this time around, with the album’s brighter aesthetics and upbeat sounds potentially a signal of Dema’s subtle brainwashing powers at work. And, on last year’s surprise festive single Christmas Saves The Year – months before Scaled And Icy was even announced – a message that ‘SAI is propaganda’ was tucked away within the song’s artwork. Will Scaled And Icy give us all the answers?
“I’ve always felt like it’s a real waste of an opportunity to not be creating a story inside of music, and even when I first started writing songs I knew I wanted to attach something larger to it,” Tyler says. “But, at the same time, Josh and I have always talked about not wanting there to be a prerequisite to enjoy the songs; we don’t want you to have to know all the details of the story thus far in order to really enjoy and find something that means something to you inside of a song.”
Determined, too, to not make any kind of ‘lockdown album’, the duo agreed that it would have been “too predictable to hold a mirror up to our circumstances and create a record exactly as it appeared in front of us”. “I didn’t think that a dismal record was appropriate; the idea of escaping that was more appealing to me,” Tyler explains. “The reason why it feels almost disconnected from the reality in which the record was created is intentional. It’s gonna feel a little lighter because of that.”
“From the beginning of our friendship, we’ve always been on the same page, musically,” continues Josh. “And in having conversations about the state of the world sort of dictating a mood or a feel of an album, I think the direction that this album went instantly just felt right to both of us. It’s been a wild year, and the fact that we are even about to release an album is a breath of fresh air.”
Unlike Trench, twenty one pilots worked within a much less rigid writing process on Scaled And Icy, relishing the freedom of not being bound by exactly where the storyline needed to go from track to track.
“It was definitely more fluid, and a little less chronological,” Tyler says. “It was a departure, in a sense. You would just chase the next idea, and the next idea, and put it together. I would look at [the songs] as a whole and position them. I think I knew when I was writing Good Day that it would be [first on the tracklist], and I knew that Redecorate would be last, and I knew Choker was second, too. But other than that, it felt like we had our bookends to play in, and then we were just creating inside of it.
“But when you know where to look,” he adds, “it still anchors to the story we’ve been telling.”
As ever, then, it’s worth paying close attention – and not just lyrically, but sound-wise. Shy Away and Choker boast perkier sonic moods than Trench, but Tyler promises “landmines” of emotion throughout the record on repeat listens.
“What you’re inundated with [at first] is shiny, and colourful, and seemingly upbeat,” he points out. “But, as always, as you dive into lyrics, a lot of times it’s asking some pretty heavy questions and addressing some pretty heavy things. That was intentional.”
“There’s definitely some moments that force you to think and feel something,” Josh nods.
Tyler Joseph details how live music impacted twenty one pilots’ new music – even while all gigs were postponed
Crucial to this direction, too, was how Tyler and Josh worked together – while simultaneously being apart – this past year. They both decided to take on major production roles on Scaled And Icy, operating remotely alongside select choice figures on just a few songs: Trench collaborator and Mutemath musician Paul Meany “has his fingerprints all over” Redecorate and Saturday, while Mike Elizondo – who also previously worked on Blurryface – joined forces with the band on Good Day and Mulberry Street. Additionally, GRAMMY-winning producer Greg Kurstin (Foo Fighters, Adele, Paul McCartney) also fancied putting his stamp on Saturday.
“I thought, honestly, ‘Yeah, I hear this guy’s amazing, but the chances of him adding to this thing in a way that is going to be better than what I think it already is, is probably five per cent,’” admits Tyler. “I told him, ‘I don’t want you to waste your time because you’ve got to really figure something out here because I just don’t see how this is gonna work…’ And he went in anyway, and he did it! He threaded the needle and he made the song even better and added a lot of really cool elements to it and produced it out. I’m really excited about the track.”
Everything else, though, was all twenty one pilots. And with Josh living in Los Angeles throughout the creative process, the pair appreciated the “streamlined” nature of being a two-piece while communicating virtually, getting their parts done with relative ease from their respective homes.
“When we’re going into a studio and recording drums, I feel a pressure sometimes, knowing that we only have a certain amount of hours there, and there’s a bunch of people just standing and waiting to go home,” Josh admits. “For me, that was the biggest difference, because we’ve never recorded drums from a home studio; we always just rented out a big thing in LA. And it was definitely a fun experiment. I felt nervous that it wasn’t going to be good enough, but it created some freedom to make it exactly what we wanted it to be, and had the time to be able to do that. Nothing really beats us hanging out together and working on music, but it created some positive things at the same time.”
“There’s some things that Josh and I did while creating the record that we fell in love with: just the type of chemistry we built even though we had to use video conferencing and stuff,” Tyler – who learned electric guitar for the first time on this album – nods. “The confidence that we gained from being able to produce our own record, with there being certain songs where no-one touched it but us, is something that I hope carries on to the next record as well.”
Their most hands-on project yet also results in yet another brain-melting array of genres, Tyler proudly describing a “carefree fearlessness” to certain moments on the LP. In fact, comparing Choker to one of Scaled And Icy’s standout tracks – which we’ve got to keep under wraps for now – the frontman marvels, “For those two songs to live on the same record is crazy to me! And it only speaks to Josh and I’s maturity, and just the wide berth of our spectrum of who we are as a band and the time that we have under our belt in our career.”
This maturity, however, didn’t arrive in the most straightforward way…
Time. Perspective. Separation. These are all words Tyler Joseph uses to reflect on the differences between the creation of Trench and Scaled And Icy. Unlike its predecessor, he says, SAI was written without the need to “compensate”. You see, after Blurryface’s monumental success, there had been a heavy weight hanging over twenty one pilots’ heads. Tyler hadn’t even really absorbed its significance at first.
“There was a moment in [the cycle for] Blurryface with [mega-hits] Stressed Out and Ride, and then [Suicide Squad single] Heathens, where there were people who listened to our music that we didn’t recognise – and when I say ‘recognise’, I don’t mean literally recognise, but when we would interact with them, it’s like, ‘I don’t recognise you being a fan of ours,’” the frontman remembers. “And not that we dislike them for it, but I felt like with that there was a need to present Trench in a way that it almost intentionally alienated certain people from our music.
“I don’t think that while writing Trench, I was like, ‘We’ve got an alienate ourselves from those people and create something that only our fans are going to enjoy,’” he adds. “But, looking back, I can see how that may have been a motivation, and was the antagonist to the whole creation process – which is not a bad thing. I think that with having something to push against, that friction can create something great. And I’m still very, very proud of it.”
There are plenty of examples throughout history of artists contending with colossal success who have experienced some form of a pivot to a different direction – from Nirvana to Pearl Jam. In fact, Tyler tried – and evidently failed – not to do that himself…
“Looking back, it still happened,” he laughs. “That’s how powerful that emotion is, when all of a sudden, on a global, massive scale, people are weighing in on whether or not they think you’re good. That can really impact you in ways that you don’t even realise, until you look back.”
“At the same time, though,” Josh reasons, “there was a feeling of a little bit of rebellion, of the predictability aspect that we wanted to push away from, but trying to also keep in mind that we’ve had some of our favourite bands just go and fully, completely change their sound or their style after a big record, and that can be annoying, and it can be frustrating as a fan! We definitely didn’t want to lean too far in that direction.”
Listen to Josh Dun reveal his hopes for Scaled And Icy, and how fans might receive it
Scaled And Icy, then, seems to boast the perfect equilibrium: it finds twenty one pilots understanding their place, themselves, and each other more cohesively than ever before.
“I’ll just watch Tyler sit down at a piano, and he gravitates toward playing something that is easy to listen to, and sounds great,” Josh grins of his bandmate’s process. “But I think he also [forces himself] to throw in, like, a darker, minor chord in there; that inclination to rough things up a little bit, or tear the edges. And I’ve always enjoyed that, and I’ve always really felt like that’s necessary. I think we’ve both shared some of those rebellious feelings of just not wanting to be predicted in some ways, but [still] keeping the integrity of what we’ve always been about and how we always want to approach music stylistically.”
“And to piggyback off that,” continues Tyler, “a lot of other songwriters come in with something that is very odd, weird, kind of unrefined, and just gnarly, and then they have to do things to it to trim the fat and shine it up. Me as a songwriter, I come in over here where the idea is very straightforward; it’s very shiny already, with almost zero blemish to it. And then I like to do things to then give it that character, and give it a few flaws and that individuality. Josh watches that process – where I try to bring it back to the centre – and he’s always saying, ‘Don’t tear it up too much. Don’t ruin this too much now.’ Because I’m always insecure about bringing something to the table that’s too simple. We’ve got a great dance, and our chemistry has been great. And I’ve learned not to be afraid of that being who I am as a songwriter, and Josh has helped me realise that.”
Enjoying the present, excited for the future, and – crucially – appreciative of the past. Tyler and Josh are in a great spot right now, and it all stems back to that icky image of Choker being the band’s proud “rash”.
“I love the old stuff now more than ever,” Tyler smiles. “I’ve always viewed it as a timestamp of who I was, and what we were doing, and where we were in our career and the types of shows we were playing. I look back on old songs, and I guess I’ve matured enough to only see the good in it, and not only see the bad in it. And with that newfound maturity will come the ability to write songs that still have that sentiment.
“I’m so at peace.”
Scaled And Icy is due out on May 21 via Fueled By Ramen. twenty one pilots will be performing a global livestream event on the same day as the album release.
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