Op-Ed: twenty one pilots built a world unlike any other on ‘Trench’
At first listen, twenty one pilots may seem like just another band in rotation on Top 40 stations that you scan through on your car radio. Unlike most artists whose relationship with their audience is relegated to releasing music, touring and selling you merchandise, TOP and their associates took the initiative to construct a breadcrumb trail embedded into assorted songs, videos and albums. All of which create a sense of mystery and endless discovery that’ll transport listeners into the unknown psyche of Tyler Joseph’s universe.
After the monumental success of TOP’s second major-label album, Blurryface and an introduction to the personified representation of the album through Joseph’s portrayal, questions remained of the duo’s future. What would come after Blurryface? Would this strikingly multidimensional and profound character remain a staple of future albums? If there’s one thing for certain, the future endeavors of Joseph and Josh Dun will continue to feed the hunger of their passionate fanbase—the Skeleton Clique. Their creations will never be limited by previous mysteries and subtexts.
Joseph once posted that his first major-label releases were about “a thing” (Vessel) and “a person” (Blurryface), so the next record might center around “a place.” Welcome to Trench.
AND NOW I JUST SIT IN SILENCE
On the morning of July 6, 2017, a clandestine message posted to the official twenty one pilots social accounts. The message read, “You’ll have to come and find me,” causing a state of digital hysteria in the Skeleton Clique.
Throughout that day, several posts containing the image of a red eye, slowly closing more and more in each new image, tantalized TOP fans. With abstruse, lyrical messages from Regional At Best, Vessel and Blurryface, the TOP camp had launched a social media scavenger hunt, and Joseph and Dun were the targets in sight.
Indeed, sometimes quiet is violent (at least for the psyche of the Skeleton Clique), as the final cryptic message appeared on the band’s social media: “And now I just sit in silence.” Despite the dead air projected from TOP fueled by the evident social media disruption, the Clique continued to search for the meaning behind the posts. Unfortunately, they failed to realize the answers had been hiding in plain sight.
SEVERING TIES WITH DEMA
If the Clique’s dedication to decoding the clues on TOP's social pages wasn’t enough, Dun would drop a big hint. On July 17, 2017, he attended the Alternative Press Music Awards in Cleveland to accept twenty one pilots’ Skully award for Most Dedicated Fanbase, as well as perform with Sum 41’s Frank Zummo and No Doubt’s Adrian Young. Sporting a Blurryface-era T-shirt, camo skinnies and yellow hair peeking out from under his baseball cap (his new hair color and pants covertly signaling a transition from Blurryface to Trench, a detail that was not evident at the time), he began his acceptance speech humbly thanking the fans who crowded the room. “Tyler wishes he could be here,” he said coyly. “He’s off severing ties with Dema.”
For several months, the duo had been meticulously formulating a breadcrumb trail, which began in the video for “Heathens.” This led to Dun’s vibrant new hair color and hint of Dema. This left the Skeleton Clique drifting into uncharted territory, attempting to uncover twenty one pilots’ next project. Only months later would it become clear that the new album cycle had been taunting the fanbase before the hiatus.
TOWER OF SILENCE
Dun’s mention of Dema at the APMAs lured the Clique to delve into the meaning of its connection to twenty one pilots. Traditionally used for the disposal of bodies in Iran and India until the 20th century, Dema or a “Tower Of Silence,” was a place used to purify the deceased without polluting earth or fire, as both were seen to be sacred by the followers of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions. Placed atop of the tower, bodies would become purified through sun exposure and vultures pulling the skin off their bones. At the time of Dun’s comment, TOP’s silence across social media evidently tied to the Tower Of Silence, but the act of purification and Trench’s symbolic vulture album artwork had yet to be revealed as a connection.
With little information to go off from Dun’s remark, there are several accounts of the exploration of Dema to consider, including the 2013 anthology Topographies Of Faith: Religion In Urban Spaces and Phiroshaw Jamsetjee Chevalier’s fictional thriller, Tower Of Silence. Both of these publications cultivate answers for what the Tower Of Silence religiously symbolizes. However, Chevalier’s novel further examines the existence of two personalities in a singular human being.
Unsurprisingly, the presence of multiple characters or personalities embodied by a single individual isn’t an uncommon theme for the band. Joseph’s alter ego, Blurryface, directly illustrates the frontman’s deepest internal struggles, anguish and fears. Yet with the end of the album’s cycle, a conceptualized persona would emerge to narrate the journey of Trench.
WE MUST KEEP SILENT
After feeling defeated by the inconspicuous clues that offered no resolution or explanation to TOP’s sudden disappearance, several members of the Clique discovered another piece of the puzzle: A web link—dmaorg.info—hidden in the Vessel-era promotional GIF on the TOP official webpage. The link revealed another message that demanded, “We must keep silent. no one can know,” along with violation code: 15398642_14. However, a seemingly random combination of capitalized letters within the error message spelled out “EAST IS UP,” an eventual lyric to the soon-to-be-released song, “Nico And The Niners.”
Blocked by the violation code and error message, the link perceivably led the Clique to another dead end. After inspecting the page—largely due to the tactical efforts of the fans—it was discovered that by adding code 15398642_14 to the end of the original web link this would unlock the site containing a collection of unknown images, a map and a letter.
A collection of letters, maps and photographs from an unfamiliar sender, “Clancy,” disclosed the parallel and distinctly altered realm of Dema and Trench. There’s speculation as to whom Clancy is—Joseph, Dun, the Clique or another conceptualized character living within the confines of the TOP universe. However, Clancy acts as the lead narrator to the mundane but modest lifestyle of living in Dema. Despite the simplicity of life Dema offers its inhabitants, just beyond the imprisonment is the longed-for land of Trench.
In these letters, Clancy describes being held captive as a servant to the Bishops. The Bishops represent the hierarchy of religion, depression, solitude, hopelessness and Dema as a whole. Here, the Bishop Keons is portrayed as being kinder than the other eight Bishops ruling over Dema. Though Clancy hasn’t yet been identified, their role allows the Clique to dive further into this constructed TOP universe.
Additionally, each letter from Clancy is marked with a significant date in TOP’s history. Formatted as the year, month, MOON and the day of the month: 88 12MOON 01, corresponds with Joseph’s birthday. But what does the repetition of “MOON” in each date indicate to these letters?
If Dema is considered to be a place of darkness—perhaps the place your mind slips to when negativity and melancholy cloud the senses—the moon is also known to be a representative of the night and darkness as it’s only visible when the light of the sun disappears. The moon shifts through phases every month. Each phase symbolizes a rhythm of time, which helps to control the Earth’s conditions. Moon phases can also represent the intentions of a particular day.
A number of letters from Clancy had appeared on the page documenting their time in Dema. On July 6, 2018, the one-year marker for TOP’s hiatus, a letter appeared corresponding with the last quarter moon. This moon phase represents forgiveness in the world. On the same day, a cryptic email sent out from the TOP camp signaled the end of the hiatus. The red eye that first appeared was now replaced by a yellow landscape and the phrase “Are you still sleeping?” Were TOP asking the Clique for forgiveness following their disappearing act? It was time to wake up.
TAKE IT SLOW
Despite the Blurryface album cycle being primarily represented by the color red, TOP are no strangers to subtle hints of yellow, especially in videos that premiered toward the end of their previous era. The video for “Heathens,” centered around the Suicide Squad film released in 2016, shows Joseph incarcerated and surrounded by prison guards who constantly examine his every move. When he joins Dun to perform in front of the other prisoners, his jumpsuit is replaced by a yellow jacket.
In the end of the video, Joseph sits on the prison floor, and there’s another glimpse of yellow that directly corresponds with the then-yet-to-be-released single, “Jumpsuit.” Defeated by his imprisonment, his jumpsuit first appears to be yellow, but quickly transforms back to orange when the guards shine their flashlights on him. Are Joseph’s keepers a representation of feeling imprisoned by his mind and fears as we’ve seen through Blurryface? Or are they are unable to recognize Joseph’s quest for hope?
The last TOP video released before their year-long hiatus, “Heavydirtysoul,” leads fans into the depths of Trench. Dun slams his drum kit in the middle of a highway, while Joseph is transported to an unknown location. When Dun begins playing, the iconic TOP logo is pristine on his drum, but quickly catches fire and burns away. Once Joseph retrieves his bag and jacket from the trunk of the car at the end of the video, the car is entirely engulfed in flames, while the Blurryface-era logo dissolves into a pile of ash— symbolic of the new era emerging. The first visual depiction of Trench pulls several pieces of “Heavydirtysoul” into the thematic plot, including the burning car, Joseph’s bag and the introduction of TOP’s new logo.
LEAVING THE CITY
Following Trench’s release Oct. 5, 2018, it’s evident in each track and the three-part music video series that Trench metaphorically exists in Joseph’s mind. Trench’s thematic color scheme consists primarily of yellow and muted greens, symbolizing the opposite of the Blurryface era. Yellow offers a sense of hope, happiness, positivity and protection. All of which rains down on Joseph by “the Banditos” in the “Jumpsuit” video before he’s taken captive back to Dema.
Considering Joseph’s emblematic headspace, Trench represents a purgatory of the mind. A space between reality and one’s greatest fears. A place that traps you between the light of your support system (your family, friends) and darkness. Dema is the darkness that lurks within yourself and encompasses your thoughts. Dema is the place that one can easily slip in and out of periodically. Trench is the in-between place that one tries to escape to before getting to the hilltop to their loved ones. However, negativity and hopelessness can be hard to maneuver through. All of which makes it so tirelessly difficult to escape the walls of Dema and make it into Trench.
A GLORIOUS GONE? DOUBTFUL
twenty one pilots created an elaborately fictitious world based on Joseph’s mindset. But this horizon’s left entirely open to interpretation for listeners. The duo’s creative aims and desires don’t follow the ordinary pattern similar to other pop artists. TOP’s intricate breadcrumb trail to uncover their future endeavors allows their extremely dedicated fanbase to remain engaged between album cycles. Every character, storyline, video, and tiny detail have been combined to engage a fandom whose fascination in TOP is voracious.
Which is precisely the point. Joseph and Dun have gone great lengths towards presenting an additional universe. One with which illustrates the complexities behind Trench and operates similarly to a companion novella. TOP have added a layer of engagement with their fans that goes beyond the music. It’s also key to Joseph’s restless creative spirit and his quest for psychic, spiritual and historical knowledge. His desire and willingness to share those ulterior dreams and obsessions makes everything surrounding TOP compelling destinations.
Long after twenty one pilots have hung up their trademark ski masks, the music—and the attendant contexts they’ve created—will continue to influence the next generation of listeners. They’ll become the storytellers, left to decipher their own narratives based on what they hear.
This feature originally appeared in AP #367, our twenty one pilots Fan Favorite issue. The magazine is available here or below.