Their 2015 album, ‘Blurryface’ took Twenty One Pilots from scrappy, scene-less outsiders to global megastars with a breakneck velocity. A magpie nest of sounds, styles and influences, its fourteen tracks could only exist in a world where streaming is king, and even then, its devil-may-care attitude for genre makes for a jarring first impression. But something about its vibrant, stylistic swathes and vulnerable, lyrical bloodletting connected with the world at large.
By the time the touring cycle for it wound down, the band had won a Grammy (and collected it in their pants, making good on youthful promises) smashed streaming records, infiltrated radio, Hollywood and beyond. Even our parents know the words to ‘Stressed Out’. Their fans, the clique, are so invested, they know Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun’s feelings about bananas (they hate them, and rightly so) and the internet is full of compilations of the band being sassy, falling over or laughing. Songs soundtrack life-defining moments. Lyrics help make sense of an ever-shifting surrounding. It’s the sort of devotion that only the brightest, boldest and most brilliant bands can inspire.
“It’s not until we look back on it, that we realise what was happening,” starts Tyler. “We kept our heads down and just kept grinding and playing every day. It’s like when you don’t see a nephew for a long time; you realise he grew up, and he got taller, but if you were to live with him and watch him grow a fraction of an inch every single day, it doesn’t feel that dramatic. We just didn’t feel how gigantic everything got for us doing that touring cycle. It’s not until we look back on it after having a little bit of a break that we realised how special it was.”
Despite the ever-churning chaos around them, Twenty One Pilots never got caught up or swept away. “Josh and I have never lived a moment of our lives that’s out of control.”
“We’ve always imagined playing for as many people as possible, and you should shoot for that,” offers Josh of that rocket-fuelled journey. “Why not dream big? Why not have as many people hear us and our art as possible? It’s fun. It’s cool to continue to travel and play music and have that be our jobs.”
He feels like he has something to prove “all the time,” but that’s ok.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a point where we feel like we’ve won everybody over and it’s on cruise control. Everything we do is us still feeling like we need to prove ourselves, in a way.”
When Twenty One Pilots disappeared on 7th July 2017, via a series of tweets showing an eye closing on a cheering crowd alongside lyrics from their back catalogue, they were instantly missed. There’s not another band like them to fill the void. All eyes were on what they would do next, and the band answered with complete silence.
“Wonder is important,” starts Tyler. “But it wasn’t something that was at the forefront of our minds. I guess you can’t fake mystery. We naturally stay away from shining a light on every aspect of our personal lives. It’s what we’ve always been inclined to do, to try and make sure that the music takes precedence.”
Locking himself away in his home studio, Tyler started fleshing out their next step in secret.
“It was hard,” admits Tyler. “We knew that a lot more people were interested in what was going to happen. That level of pressure can be, at times, more than you can bear, but we just stuck with the question that we’ve always asked ourselves when making something: ‘Do we like this?’ That’s all we were really asking ourselves during the process. It seemed to work in the past; we’re glad that it’s continuing to work and hopefully it’ll never fail.”
Twenty One Pilots were officially quiet for a year before they threw the sheets back, arms aloft, and welcomed the world to latest album ‘Trench’ with the one-two hammer blow of ‘Jumpsuit’ and ‘Levitate’. No posters, no countdowns, no obvious teases; the band didn’t need to shout about their imminent return. They’d already let the clique know what was coming. Sorta.
You see, in the months leading up to ‘Trench’s unveiling, Twenty One Pilots and their fanbase had been locked in an intense, mysterious game of cat and mouse. Through hidden websites and letters from someone called Clancy who was a prisoner in the mysterious city of Dema, a story of intrigue, escape and wonder was slowly being discovered. There was never a reward for figuring out the next chapter, no pat on the back or peek behind the curtain but with the unveiling of ‘Trench’, it was obvious it was all connected.
“There’s enough self-promotion going on in the world, so we figured if we created something that people felt inclined to share themselves, it’s more powerful. It means something more,” reasons Tyler. “It’s never really been natural for us to promote our band in the way that a lot of people do. Our fans feel a sort of responsibility to carry that torch, and that’s the way we like it. We want them to feel like they have a role or a say in all of this. They’re very important.”
‘Trench’ doesn’t concern itself with trying to reach further. There are no pandering arena rock songs, ‘Stressed Out The Sequel’ or tracks purpose-built for radio. “Blurryface’ was created on the road, with those big live moments in their mind’s eye. ‘Trench’ was created in isolation.
“You could say we wanted to focus on our fans first. They’re going to be the reason why we stick around years from now,” starts Tyler, before Josh offers: “We’ve all been there when you like a band, and they get commercially successful. Ultimately we all want that to happen for our favourite band, but we don’t want them to change too much from what you know and fell in love with. We try to keep that in mind as we continue to go on.”
“Were we to write a record that was designed to just follow up the commercial success that ‘Blurryface’ kind of staggered into accidentally, then that would have been a mistake,” adds Tyler. “Hopefully it was the right decision.”
Today the band are in St Petersburg, Russia. Later tonight they’ll play to 12,000 people as the second leg of their Bandito Tour marches on. The tour has already taken them across America, returning to the likes of Madison Square Gardens while there are three nights at Wembley Arena on the imminent horizon. Later this year, the band are set to headline Reading & Leeds. Already, it seems like Twenty One Pilots’ gut instinct was the right one; but there’s never been any reason to doubt them.
From their first show back, A Complete Diversion at Brixton Academy to tonight, their capacity crowd wears their colour proudly. Yellow tape has bordered ‘Trench’ from the start.
“We wanted people to be able to identify themselves to other people and us, what type of music they like to listen to.”
It also allows people to get involved easily and without much cost. There’s no barrier for entry with the clique, but that doesn’t mean everything is shared on a silver platter. As ‘Heathens’ warns, “We don’t deal with outsiders very well.” ‘Trench’ is a masterpiece and the tightly knit threads aren’t meant to be picked apart with ease.
The meaning behind the choice of the title is, “super complex,” according to Tyler. “It’s a world. We tried to create something that people can dive into and find themselves inside of,” while the vulture on the front cover is “an important part of the record, but it’s hard to describe really. It’s hard to dive specifically into the branding decisions and symbolism inside the record. You almost have to just come to a show or dive into the record yourself to figure out what it means.”
‘Blurryface’ saw Twenty One Pilots create a life. Full of personality, the titular figure was a symbol of anxiety, insecurity and depression in a bare-knuckle fight of heart, mind and eventual peace. The more you know about him, the more control you have
“There are a lot of things wrong with the world today,” Tyler offered ahead of its release, “and there are people trying to fight a lot of evil out there but more times than not, someone’s worst enemy is themselves. That’s where we are right now, and that’s what we feel comfortable talking about. I hope this music attracts people who can resonate with that struggle.”
‘Trench’ takes things even further. There’s a whole world to explore, wild terrain surrounding the looming city of Dema and within that, a story to discover. There are characters to question and a dirt path to feel underfoot. It crafts belonging, despite its transient nature.
“’Trench’ represents the place between two places. Where you’re from and where you should be,” explains Tyler. “We wrote it from the perspective of someone who felt like they needed to leave. There are a lot of times people can find themselves in a spot where they know they should leave where they’re from, but they don’t know where they should go, or how to get there.
“As scary as it is, not having the answer to that question can be equally exciting and inspiring.”
The story inside ‘Trench’ took as much time, effort and space as the actual album it inhabits. There was no defining moment in the studio, no breakthrough where all the pieces of the puzzle fell into shape. Twenty One Pilots have never relied on divine luck, instead focusing on hard work and their own hands.
“It was just something that was continually built upon. It took a long time. It took a while to get to a place we were excited about,” states Tyler. “More than anything, we hoped that people could tell that we put time into an entire record, rather than just a single. We’re strong believers that if you set your mind to creating, developing and pouring your lives into one single thing, for at least a year straight, then people will be able to feel that.”
Simplified to the extreme, the story focuses on the city of Dema, its ruling class of nine Bishops and the rebellious Banditos, who want to help people break free. It’s a concept record, deliberate and full of detail, but you don’t need a manual to connect to the restless soul of the record. You don’t need to know who Nico is to understand the anxiety of the everyday. You don’t need to stand alongside Clancy to know what it means to feel alone. The questions of faith, trust and belief that are asked in ‘Trench’, plague this world as well.
“We wanted to make sure the story was there. However deep people wanted to go, it was there. We felt like it was important to build something that had a lot of depth,” Tyler shares. “We wanted to create something that was a little more narrow and focused. Maybe it doesn’t have as wide of a reach as a lot of albums do but inside that focus was something very deep. It’s something people could dive into, get lost in and learn from. It’s very multi-faceted. We felt it was important to have a record like that, coming off of a record like ‘Blurryface’.”
Albums as a format, their fans, their art, making sure they don’t “send out the parts” - a reference to the Arthur Miller play ‘All My Sons’ in which a father knowingly sends out faulty aeroplane parts during World War Two, which results in the death of twenty-one pilots - Twenty One Pilots place importance on every angle of their band. Their music is deliberate. Everything else comes with space to play.
“There are some things that are very intentional and then some things that we’ll realise along the way and then adapt, try to incorporate and make it make sense with everything else,” beams Josh. “There’s something really fun and organic about doing that.”
The big-picture question of how important what Twenty One Pilots are doing is isn’t something the band entertain though.
“I don’t like that question,” Tyler replies. “It’s too multifaceted to have... maybe. I dunno, it’s just hard to answer.”
But that doesn’t diminish the impact Twenty One Pilots have had. From the very beginning, they’ve tackled uneasy questions with neon warpaint. It started with the very first song Tyler wrote.
“When I showed it to my immediate family, I realised that as they were listening to my lyrics, they were hearing some really deep stuff that I haven’t shared before. There’s something about the fact it was inside music that made it ok. Music is a vehicle to express those things without being judged.”
From there, things took shape. There’s the confessional ‘Addict With A Pen’, the destructive energy diversion of ‘Guns For Hands’, the search for truth in ‘Trees’ and ‘Migraine’, which admits that something feels wrong in the hope that they’re not alone. Elsewhere, ‘Blurryface’ deals with the suffocating feelings of insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. To have such personal, vulnerable songs connect with a mass audience was “a bit of a shock” for Tyler.
“When you write songs that were meant to just stay pretty close to the chest, especially when you’re talking about a lot of personal stuff, it’s always a bit odd once the songs get out into the world, take their own form, and start meaning something to other people. But our fans seem to really understand what we’re trying to accomplish and what we’re trying to do. They just resonate with what the songs are all about. It makes it easier and a little less exposed than some might think.”
That understanding made it easier for Tyler to tear deeper into himself with ‘Trench’, but “we didn’t start playing shows because we wanted to make everyone feel like they were understood,” he explains. “We stumbled into people feeling that way; it’s more authentic that way. We’ll always write from a perspective of wanting to talk about what we’re going through and if people want to meet us there, they can. But for us to actively pursue where other people are, I feel like it would just lessen the impact of what it is that we’re trying to say. It could potentially come across as reaching.”
The heart of the record is ‘Neon Gravestone’. A moment of clarity in the cyclical escape, it looks at society’s tendency to glorify and romanticise suicide with unease.
“I felt like it was a very important song on the record. We very intentionally put it right smack bang in the middle. Josh and I thought about the lyrical content and the points made in there for a long while. That song was very carefully crafted because we talk about something very serious.
“We’re glad that it was received the way that we intended, and it’s good that our fans understand where we’re coming from when we talk about subjects like that.”
Twenty One Pilots’ discography is littered with songs acknowledging suicide and resolving to carry on. ‘Neon Gravestones’ is the first time Tyler has admitted he could lose this battle with himself, though. It’s the most direct he’s been with feelings of self-destruction.
“The art of songwriting is constantly wrestling with the idea of trying to come up with words that represent other ideas. You know, taking it a little more metaphorically. It’s not that it’s rooted in a fear of saying what it is, it’s about saying it in a different way or saying it in a more creative way.
“As a songwriter, you get excited about trying to come up with a new metaphor, a new way to shine a light or take a different angle on a topic that’s probably been talked about many, many times in the history of songwriting. But then there are other songs where you just know you don’t want to misrepresent the topic that you’re talking about. It makes more sense to be more black and white about it.
“With ‘Neon Gravestones’ I just knew that it had to be that way. I knew we had to say exactly what we meant. We didn’t want to come up with beautiful, pretty metaphors that could distract from the importance of the topic.”
“I wouldn’t say we feel a responsibility to talk about these topics,” continues Tyler. “It doesn’t feel like the right word. I mean, we can’t not be affected by the people around us, our fans, their stories and the lives they lead.
“I guess the opportunity to have an audience that is interested in how we think about certain topics is something that we wanted to take advantage of and step up to the challenge of, but all of that is so rooted in something very, very personal. We want to make sure that we’re never stepping outside of what we want to be saying personally.”
Rightly so, ‘Trench’ is full of big, assured moments. The rapid, untethered flow of ‘Levitate’. The crunching smirk of ‘Pet Cheetah’. The very fact it’s written to go deeper, and not wider.
“There’s something beautiful about the ups and downs of what confidence give you,” Tyler explains. “Even though there are moments on the record that have an emphasis on bravado or are at the height of confidence, it really does even itself out with some of the other songs.”
The record asks questions it doesn’t necessarily have answers to. Rather than a solid conclusion or a known destination ‘Leave The City’ ends with the resolution to carry on.
“What the narrative represents is me and our real lives, and there is no end yet. The story of this band is not done,” promises Tyler. “What the narrative is talking about is an internal struggle, trying to figure out who you are, where you’re going and why you’re here. We don’t have the answers to that yet, so it felt very natural to leave the record open-ended.”
For anyone else feeling unsure, lost or misplaced, it offers understanding in that call with no response. It wasn’t done knowingly, though.
“Anyone who sets out to tell everyone that ‘I understand you’ can fall very, very short. If anything, we were trying to talk about something that maybe not a lot of people would understand,” reasons Tyler.
“That’s when there’s power in people finding something to relate to. That’s when they feel like they have a comrade, someone who’s gone through something similar to them. That’s what’s powerful.
“It wasn’t our intention to make a record just to make everyone feel understood. That would fall flat. It’s more a product of creating something and inspiring something that you’re passionate about.”
As lonely as the world of Dema can be, ‘Trench is full of communal intentions. There’s the gritted “I can levitate with just a little help” (‘Levitate’), the promise of “If you need anyone, I’ll drop my plans” (‘Jumpsuit’) and the whole of ‘Smithereens’’ protective beam. “In Trench, I’m not alone” resolves the concluding exhale of ‘Leave The City’.
“We feel like it made sense to provide a sense of community if someone wanted to be a part of it,” Tyler continues. “More than anything, we were influenced by the live show, what we feel on stage and the people that we’re looking at when we play. There’s a lot of that sense of community in the record just because we’ve been playing shows for so long now and developed that with our fans.
“That’s not something that we chased after or forced, it just kind of happened. There’s a power in people gathering together and celebrating the fact that they’re all there. That’s why the live shows are so important. It’s more powerful than just that moment in time. It can resonate through their lives beyond that.
“That’s why we’re such fans of live music, and we’re fans of our fans. They’re the best at it and if you come to a show, what it is that our fans are doing, is by far the most impressive thing that you’ll see. We care about them a lot and we always will. They keep this thing going.”
“The more we travel, talk to people and hear their stories, we see first hand that people are on the same page as us,” adds Josh. “It’s something we never really expected or even necessarily put out to feel.
“Even in the beginning, we would hang out for a couple of hours after a show, and we’d have cool conversations with whoever else was left in the club. Through this band and through music we’ve both realised that we all kind of go through very similar things. It is a really special thing. We’re performing these songs and feeling like we’re all on the same page. That’s pretty cool.”
“We’re doing our dream right now, we don’t take that lightly,” continues Tyler. “That’s why we attack every show with everything we have. We know we’re very lucky to be in this position. But at the same time, we work for it. We’re not afraid to boast the fact that we’re here because we worked hard. And we deserve to be here because of that.”
Taken from the April edition of Dork. Order a copy below. Twenty One Pilots will be back to headline Reading & Leeds this August.
Featuring Twenty One Pilots, Circa Waves, Karen O & Danger Mouse, Wallows, Nilüfer Yanya and more.