The band Twenty One Pilots has tried to remain true to itself since its 2009 start in Columbus, in the US state of Ohio. Their music blends electronica, emo, hip-hop and balladry, with a strikingly visual stage show that often includes kabuki makeup and crowd-surfing.
Things became more interesting for the duo – singer/keyboardist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun – when two singles off their 2015 album, Blurryface, topped the alternative charts and invaded the pop charts. Blurryface is still in the Top 15 on the Billboard charts and won a Billboard Music Award for top rock album last month.
As the duo prepared to fly to London to start their biggest tour yet – which is almost entirely sold out – Dun spoke about topping the charts and keeping it real.
Are you looking forward to the tour? Is it still exciting for you?
It’s a weird thing ... I feel like we’ve played these songs so many times now. And when you play the same songs all the time, you start to feel like everybody feels the way you do: that you’ve heard these songs so many times.
I hope people aren’t getting bored of these, or completely over it. There’s only so many songs that we have, and so many ways that we can transition from one to the next. But within that, we still try to do things to make it exciting.
Sometimes we want to make it a little bit fresher and a little bit different just for us, so we can continue to be really excited about it – which we are, always. But, yeah, we try and change it as much as we can.
Have things changed since you went to No 1?
Every once in a while I can kind of see that there’s a little bit of a difference, and I think some of that includes just being put on a broader platform, whether it’s different TV things, or radio, or whatever it is. And it’s interesting when you’re put in front of somebody who doesn’t care, or who never asked for us to be put in front of them.
A lot of times that’s when you see more of the negativity or negative comments about what it is that we’re doing.
But I think there’s still such a core group of people who have invested in this thing, whether it’s from the beginning or if it’s from yesterday, that are still attached and so committed, that it’s hard to latch onto a lot of the negative comments when there are these incredible people who have been supporting what we do for so long.
What’s the best part of all your success?
I think the biggest thing that we see is that we’re able to play in bigger venues now, in front of larger audiences. That’s what we had in mind for this thing since the beginning – not with the intention of being famous or known or looking really cool – but we really believe in the music and the songs. So being able to present that on a larger stage and play to bigger audiences has been the coolest thing for me.
You’re a band that has had no sponsorships, and for a long time you were even your own roadies. Are you still able to maintain that direct control?
I think one of the craziest transitions is having people on a crew with us that set up our instruments. It’s a crazy thing for us, because we did it for so long. We’d carry Tyler’s piano down two flights of steps, or up flights of steps in the wintertime and have these big drum boxes, and carry those things everywhere, figure out how to pack a trailer.
I definitely remember the days when we would throw on a hoodie or something and set up our instruments onstage and pretend we’re different guys, and then sound-check them, go backstage, take off the hoodies and come out as different people.
With more people added to this tour and crew, it could be easy for us to take our hands off certain aspects, but we’re still involved in every aspect of what you see or hear that has Twenty One Pilots’ name on it. But nonetheless, it’s been nice having a little bit of help setting up my drums.
How do you keep the band “real” as you get bigger?
As more people start to feel like they’ve got ownership or feel like they can speak for Tyler or myself, it starts to scare me a little bit. It’s hard to know if every single person is on the same exact page.
Something that Tyler and I started using that I think is very important is called “vision casting”. This whole idea of vision casting is not just a one-time thing, where we sit everyone down and say: “This is the branding” or “This is the kind of thing we’re going to pass on” ... it’s part of a constant thing, where we’ll all come together and have these conversations, and make sure everybody is on the same page. And those times are important.
But I think the group of people we have surrounding us are people who agree with and believe in what it is we’ve started from the beginning. And the integrity of what we started in the beginning. And that’s the last thing we want to loosen our grip on, because we do believe in it.
Why do you think your music has become so popular?
Music is such a crazy thing. There are some things that I’ll never understand. Why is this popular? Why is that cool? And sometimes there’s not a really definitive answer.
With this, I think it’s just being vulnerable. We try to be as honest as we can, even at the risk of not appearing to be super cool.
I think people want honesty. I know that when I look at a band that I enjoy or look up to, I want to see the real versions of them onstage, and I want to see the real versions of them in interviews, and I don’t want to see a fake version, a version that is created out of them trying to be cooler than they are.
We try to be as honest as we can, within our songwriting and the way that we portray things. I get the sense people have been able to spend time with the songs and resonate with them in a way that is almost therapeutic. Music is that way for a lot of people. That’s my only guess.