twenty one pilots alternative press cover
[Photo by: Douglas Sonders]

The great allure of twenty one pilots is their uncanny ability to craft great pop music while lacing those celebratory moments with some serious manifestations of opaque existentialism. The 12 tracks on Vessel traverse a spectrum of styles from melancholy electro-rave action (“Car Radio,” “Trees”) to modern-pop earworms (“Holding On To You,” “Ode To Sleep”) to sullen balladry (“Truce”).

Read more: Can you ace this twenty one pilots ‘Vessel’ trivia quiz?

Sometimes the darkness isn’t veiled at all, like the black-humor video for their bouncy Americana track “House Of Gold,” which features the duo mauled and maimed by farm machinery. Or their recent cover of the achingly somber “Mad World” by ’80s act Tears For Fears, a song that’s never going to get the party started anywhere. There’s something gleefully perverse when Tyler Joseph can make a crowd joyously sing the “We’re broken people” refrain from “Screen,” making it feel like you’ve walked in on an episode of Intervention scripted by a committee of Disney writers.

Tyler Joseph isn’t the poster child for depression, but his art doesn’t cover for him. His father Chris remembered how former work colleagues eager to hear Vessel came away from the experience extremely troubled.

Read more: Tyler Joseph jokingly ponders twenty one pilots-inspired baby names

“I get that question a lot,” Chris says. “Friends will ask, ‘Is Tyler OK?’ I feel like he’s an extremely secure kid who’s very insightful. I like that he goes there. I think it’s okay to be honest and open. I don’t think Tyler’s crossed any lines.”

Fans may choose to credit twenty one pilots with providing solace in times of great need or able to throw down songs to dance to like they’re waiting for the end of the world. And Josh Dun and Tyler want it to be that ambiguous.

“I’ve watched other people go through life and not think about things very much,” Tyler says, reconciling the severe yin and yang of his music. “They don’t think about the big questions: Why am I even here? What should I be doing? What’s the point? Ultimately, I think I’ve let my brain go to those questions a lot. If I’m really being honest, I think my competitive side is compensating because I know deep down that I don’t know the answer to some of these questions that I feel like we all should know. I don’t have some exterior force that’s the reason for why I struggle with fear and thinking too much.

Read more: twenty one pilots songs ranked in all of their pop majesty

“You can travel in your brain: You can get to certain areas of it that some people don’t get to. Some people like staying in certain spots, they have a certain pattern of certain things that they do, their passion, their hobbies or television. I don’t like sleeping. I feel like it’s a waste of time—I hate that. I’m exhausted: I feel like I’m tired my whole life, which sucks. Because I’ve spent time doing nothing laying in a bed, moving outward in my head thinking about different things, you think about some gross stuff and weird stuff—and great stuff. I feel like the most traveling I’ve ever done is in my head, thinking about what if I became this person and did this thing and dabbled in it for a moment.”

“There’s something about the lyrics that makes [listeners] feel a need to respond,” Dun says. “You realize how powerful music can be in someone’s life especially when they have nowhere else to turn.”

This twenty one pilots story originally appeared in AP #316. You can get the whole story–along with cool stuff like Josh Dun’s “contract” with his parents, reprints of some of Tyler Joseph’s handwritten lyrics and some great photos right here.