twenty one pilots discuss their roots, their fans and ‘Scaled And Icy’
twenty one pilots appeared on the cover of Alternative Press issue #400. During the conversation, the band discussed their Ohio roots and why they have such a deep connection with their fans. Our twenty one pilots interview also saw them explore their newest album Scaled And Icy and their deeper artistic goals.
Columbus is situated right in the center of Ohio — not quite the heart, though the state border bears a striking resemblance to one — but the nucleus, an isolated center orbited by tentpole cities of the Midwest. To the north is Detroit; west lies Indianapolis; east sits Pittsburgh. Then there are the capital’s Ohio neighbors Cincinnati and Cleveland, the latter of which is where this very publication, celebrating its 400th issue this month, began as a fanzine in 1985, with the ambition of highlighting all things alternative, underground, punk.
To most of the country, however, Ohio is a flyover state: the kind of place you only go to because you are from there, or you know someone who is from there, and, miraculously, they have a good relationship with their family. The state flower is the common carnation; the fruit, a tomato. In most elections, it is politically divided — half conservative and half liberal. It is, on paper, nothing more than a microcosm of American averageness.
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And yet, Ohio is a breeding ground for anything but. In music history, Ohio is synonymous for left-of-center geeky art rock, like DEVO and Pere Ubu, indie-rock progenitors Guided By Voices, hip-hop (Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Kid Cudi), R&B (John Legend), funk (Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins), metal (Nine Inch Nails) and beyond.
It is the birthplace of the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl, and home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. You can isolate in Ohio. You can create there — free of the industry pressures of major coastal cities Los Angeles or New York. You can befriend your neighbors without asking them what they do for a living or who they know. You can absorb and embrace the geographic precarity of a place like Columbus.
You could do it, whatever it is. You can be like Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun. You can become twenty one pilots.
If there is one ethos associated with pop-punk, emo or alternative music in general, it is, well, I’ll let Dun explain. “‘Get me out of here! I gotta go experience something else. I am so sick of this town!’” he intones over Zoom, half-mocking the sentiment. “I never really felt that. I was born and raised in Ohio. I liked it my whole life.”
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“People want to get out from where they’re from, and I think Josh and I were really fortunate in the way that we were raised, in the families we were born into,” Joseph adds. Today, the band speak to AP not from their hometown, but a rental house 350 miles northwest, in Chicago.
Here, the frontman is catching his breath before resuming the band’s U.S. Takeover tour, which rolled through four near-consecutive nights in both Denver and Los Angeles. Illinois’ most populous city is up next. “Of course, there were things that we wanted to break out of there. Of course, there were things we wanted to escape, but overall, our experience was flying the flag rather than trying to find a new citizenship.” Take it from twenty one pilots: It’s totally fine to like where you’re from. Cool, even.
In that regard, the “getting out of your town” thing is a misnomer: what we tell ourselves we need to start living, to become who we’ve always wanted to become. twenty one pilots didn’t have to go anywhere to find themselves, or their people.
Instead, the duo retreat into songs of their own creation, giving fans the tools for a different kind of escapism: on record, in the meta musical worlds they create.
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Their multiplatinum singles double as good vs. evil allegories, treatises on anxiety and depression, diaristic truths that speak to the listener’s most hidden insecurities. In those songs, as it turns out, you don’t have to get out of your town to find solace.
And it is because of that fact that to know twenty one pilots is to know Ohio, an appreciation they carry in everything they do. “When you get up on a stage, you need every bit of confidence that you can get. I mean it. It’s imperative, or else you’ll crumble. No one’s truly meant to stand up onstage in front of thousands of people at one time,” Joseph says. “It’s overwhelming, and so you try to collect as many pieces of ammunition as possible to sustain that pressurized situation. Flying the flag [of Ohio], it gave us another boost of confidence. Rather than trying to come up with a completely new identity, we knew where we were from, and we were taking that with us.”
In the decade-plus since the band formed (more on that later), Joseph has never flown his home state’s nest. Dun moved back earlier in 2021 following a seven-year stint in Los Angeles and marrying actor Debby Ryan.
With the exception of that high-profile relationship, the guys tend to keep their inner circle tight and celebrity-less. They are close with their families. They don’t curse. Joseph doesn’t drink. Both members have previously discussed growing up in conservative, religious households — making them parent-friendly role models for music fans at a time when very little feels moral, or even sensical.
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“I want to step up, to try to be a good example,” Joseph explains. “Josh and I are the eldest siblings in our families. We both come from a family of four, and we’re the oldest brothers in both of our families, and so I think that [comes] naturally.” He pauses, taking a swig of coffee, measuring his thoughts. “But it’s a push and pull — I want to go to social media to interact with our fans, to be that example. Our fans have done so much for us. Sometimes I feel like I owe them at least to get on here and tell them the life that they’ve given me. They deserve it. But it’s hard to negotiate with my happiness. It’s still something I’m working on.”
There is an endearing earnestness to Joseph and Dun. At times, it is easy to forget that they make up one of the most successful, popular and innovative rock bands on the planet, credited with creating dynamic concept albums for listeners to find sanctuary in from the comfort of their own homes. When they say they cannot believe the life music gave them, you believe them. But then again, that’s just a couple of good boys from Ohio for you.
For a band as pioneering as twenty one pilots, one that inspires die-hard fans (known as The Skeleton Clique) to build communities around their imaginative rock narratives, TOP’s origin story is fairly straightforward.
For the uninitiated: Tyler Joseph, the group’s mastermind and principal songwriter, formed a band with his childhood friend, bassist Nick Thomas, and a musician he met while attending Ohio State University, Chris Salih.
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In 2009, Joseph dubbed the group twenty one pilots after “All My Sons,” the 1947 Arthur Miller play in which a World War II airplane-parts supplier is told his products are faulty, and he’s tasked with an ethical dilemma: Is he ruled by ego and sends the parts out regardless? Or does he recall them and suffer the consequences? (Here’s the 74-years-late spoiler: He sends them out, resulting in the deaths of 21 pilots. It’s assumed, too, that among the dead is his son.)
The modern-day iteration of the band use the name as a sort of gut-check. With each decision they make in their career, how can they avoid sending out the parts?
The trio released a self-titled record, gigged locally and dissolved: Thomas leaving to pursue his degree; Salih, to work. Before Salih left, however, he introduced Joseph to his Guitar Center co-worker, Josh Dun. Their creative chemistry was immediate and gainful. Joseph and Dun toured for two years straight, and in 2011, the duo self-released a second TOP LP, Regional At Best. That year would prove to be pivotal.
“There was a specific show that was played in Columbus, at a place called the Newport Music Hall,” Dun explains. “Growing up, we knew we wanted to end up on that stage. Fast forward, and we played there a few times. But there was one show in particular — our hometown show, after traveling around Ohio and not really promoting any shows — this one, we promoted.” Consider it their “Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England, on June 4, 1976” gig: the kind of show that begins a revolution.
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It sold out. Then the venue opened up the balcony. That, too, sold out. According to The New York Times, 1,700 fans stood shoulder to shoulder — a near impossible feat. Among that number were 12 record label A&R reps. They left confounded and impressed by the band’s ability to draw such a massive crowd on little more than their talent and confidence.
“Everyone came together and sold out this show. That was the moment where we looked at each other, like, ‘I think we’re doing something that could be working,’” Dun says, smiling. “The next morning, we started getting phone calls from labels. The next month-and-a-half was a whirlwind, just flying across the country and meeting with different labels.”
In 2012, Fueled by Ramen signed the band, and their ascent was swift. First came the boomy Vessel, the 2013 album the duo largely consider the true beginning of the band, and its Warped Tour-friendly rap-rock hits “Car Radio” and “Guns For Hands.”
Upon closer inspection, the band were flirting with a variety of genres, an agonistic and eclectic approach to music that would become their most indelible feature — a rock band that didn’t actually have a guitarist but had a hell of a lot of other stuff. A decade later, with the rise of genreless popular music, it’s become increasingly clear that the music industry has finally caught up to them.
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Then there was 2015’s Blurryface, the group’s biggest record — a triumphant conceptual release centered on the embodiment of Joseph’s greatest insecurities, a character named Blurryface (“My name is Blurryface/And I care what you think,” as he sings on “Stressed Out,” the band’s biggest single that has since gone 10 times platinum).
In 2018, the album became the first ever to have every song on the release certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), meaning every track has gone gold, platinum or beyond. The following year, Vessel earned the same distinction — making them the first band to see two records achieve such a feat.
In a time when most artists are lucky to have a few gangbuster singles, twenty one pilots’ fans examine every contour of every corner of their albums. They are the listeners most bands would kill to accrue.
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2018’s Trench followed — if Blurryface was an entity, the thunderous Trench built a world for him and others to navigate, called Dema. (If you’re looking to lose a couple of hours, expert Clique theorists on YouTube and Reddit are well worth a deep dive.)
Trench, like Blurryface and Vessel before it, traversed genre, a post-hardcore/rap/rock/synth/electro-pop/reggae amalgamation that the band dreamed up, and their fans love to dream in. It is unlike anything else.
twenty one pilots’ closest musical ally is a group like Linkin Park — an alternative-rock band that bent the four-letter genre term to their liking — or My Chemical Romance, an alternative-rock band whose ambitiousness only rivaled their ability to write a hook, and in whom fans found sanctity.
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Like those groups, TOP are truly in a camp all their own, writing albums that more closely resemble book or movie trilogies than records — fictional worlds that allow fans to better understand themselves.
“I am a big fan of Lord Of The Rings,” Joseph says, leaning in slightly, like a studied narrator aiming to grab attention.
“I realize that there is such an opportunity inside of the music to provide that storytelling...Not so much a concept album or concept song that you can’t extract your own experience from it. But for it to be grounded in some bigger story always felt more impactful.
“When you’re creating something, you want to make sure that you’re tethered to reality still,” he continues. “Even if you’re venturing deep into this abyss, tie rope around your waist. [You] keep it tied back to where you came from.
These characters and the things talked about; I can’t not be talking about something that I’m personally going through. This person sitting right here, wearing this jacket, this person—” he taps his chest “—is also going through whatever is being written about. In some ways, there is escapism, but I like to believe that all those themes are tied back to reality.”
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It’s also the reason he composes alone, in isolation, like a novelist might. “You just can’t co-write a song with a story behind it that is as deep as some of the stories I’ve fallen in love with,” he says. “There’s something also very powerful about being able to say, ‘Hey, this is me.’ If this fails, it’s me. If it does well, it’s me.”
“When Tyler and I first met, and when we started playing music together, we both realized that we were not musicians that ever really enjoy jamming,” Dun says, laughing, describing a mutual appreciation for separatist writing. “He has a studio in his basement. He likes to just go down there and create. It feels like that would be a little bit dysfunctional, but it’s not.”
He takes a beat, searching for the right simile. “It’s like when you walk into a room, and you smell everything. An hour later, you don’t really smell it anymore.
‘I’ve been around for so long that it’s just what feels normal.’ I’m walking into that room for the first time, and I’m like, ‘I think I like this, or I don’t.’ We both listen objectively and find that glue.”
When the world shut down due to the COVID-19 health pandemic, a new, imaginative album, Scaled And Icy — a play on “scaled back and isolated” and an anagram “Clancy is dead,” a Trench-era character — flowed out. Optimism, however, did not.
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“There were times when I really felt like, and Josh will attest to it, I told him, I really felt like we played our last show,” Joseph reveals.
“There were times while writing the record, pushing the record over the finish line as far as mixing and mastering, where we’re thinking, ‘This may never see a stage. This may never come to life in the ways other records have for us.’ We were floundering a bit. Getting in front of those fans is what grounds us. I will always look back on the creation of Scaled And Icy as the most uncertain I’ve ever been, when it comes to music in general.”
This interview comes from Issue 400, available to purchase here.