Twenty One and Up
The meteoric rise of Columbus’ enigmatic two-piece music machine
By Adam ScoppaPublished October 1, 2012
Tyler Joseph has a lot to say, and as the keyboardist, songwriter and one half of genre-blurring electro-pop outfit Twenty One Pilots, he’s got an ever-expanding audience who is all ears. Their rise to regional acclaim and beyond has been a unique study in indie rock self-promotion. Joseph and drummer Josh Dun employed a now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t marketing strategy that scrapped constant advertisement on social networks – they’d show up at out of town venues virtually unannounced, blow the roof off the joint for whomever happened to be there, and out of the rubble was crafted a rabid fan base who turned out in droves for the duo’s frenetic hometown shows.
Those shows got bigger and bigger, eventually landing Twenty One Pilots as headliners for a sold out LC Pavilion crowd this past spring. The Atlantic Records-distributed Fueled By Ramen came calling in May, with a record in the wings produced by Greg Wells of Adele and Weezer fame. A tour with Neon Indian and festival shows in Japan and South Korea seem to be just the beginning.
The format the pair built their empire upon makes their success all the more confounding. Twenty One Pilots sounds like everything at once and nothing else out there. It’s ADHD distilled into pop songs: a jaunty Ben Folds-esque piano ballad will often give way to bouts of manic rap-poetry before taking shape as an unapologetic raver anthem. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but the music’s sheer fearlessness makes it difficult to ignore.
(614) spoke to Joseph from his home in Westerville to discuss the band’s self-styled stardom and their homecoming show this month.
Are hometown shows more challenging than out of town ones?
Absolutely. You’re playing for people who don’t know who you are – they have no expectations. Or maybe their expectations are the last concert they went to. And I’m pretty confident that we can out-do the last concert they went to. The hometown shows, the expectation is the last time they saw us. So you have to raise the bar. It’s a pretty heavy feeling, but I like the hard work, and it always pays off.
What do you bring live that you feel is unique to TOP? Any tricks up your sleeve?
I think the music has the ability to make everything more dramatic. There’s constantly music going on in our lives that makes everything much more emotional and dramatic. I think what we’re able to do live is use the music as a tool to take people places and get them to experience things together. We have a way that we run our show that is very transparent and very open; we’re very normal guys up on stage and we don’t have scripted things that we say between songs. I feel like a lot of shows I go to, there’s this wall. It’s always been much more than just executing songs for us. It requires a lot of work; it’s not just get up on stage and assume they’re going to appreciate you.
We’ve played so many shows in front of hardly anybody, and we have to put everything into those performances just to get the attention of the bartender or the promoter, and now that we have people willing to watch us we’re not going to lose that sense of desperately making sure that people are involved in the show. We haven’t lost that element.
How did the band get started?
I got out of high school and I had some opportunities to play basketball in college. Something happened where towards the end of high school I kind of stumbled upon a piano, and I quickly realized I was able to create something of my own. And I never really looked back. The first song I ever played on piano was my own, and it did something to me, I just couldn’t get enough of it. I loved being able to say something, and it just so happened that people don’t mind hearing. It started out with just myself, teaching myself how to play piano, how to write songs, how to record. And then slowly trying to figure out how to put on a show. I knew that I had to make sure that this promoter, this bartender, this booking agent, this band, had to remember us somehow. I never put a dime into someone else’s recording studio; I just continued to hone my skill at recording, and I learned I was willing to sacrifice quality of the sound … to maintain control of where the song was going.
How do you account for your self-promotion getting you to where you’re at today?
Our way of marketing ourselves and promoting ourselves was a bit more unique and a lot more minimalist because we were surrounded by a ridiculous amount of bands trying to promote themselves. I was thinking, ‘Let’s do the opposite of that and try to play a show in front of people who didn’t even know we’re going to even be there, and make fans and have those fans believe they discovered us.’ So we created these pockets of fans around Columbus, and then there’s this one show where we say, ‘This is the one to come to. This is the show; this is where it’s all gonna make sense.’
We had a sense of confidence that we were good when we were loading in in Athens, up three flights of stairs to this bar, bringing my upright piano somehow all the way up there in the middle of winter. Even when there was no light at the end of the tunnel, we knew we were something special. It’s nice to be reassured that people enjoy what you’re doing, but you can’t be the most modest person in the world to get up on that stage in front of all those people. It sounds ridiculous, but my dreams are ridiculous and what I want to do is ridiculous, so whatever.
How did you begin working with Josh?
Through mutual friends in the music scene I was introduced to Josh. At the time, I was playing with two other guys, and I called him and said, ‘Hey I need you to fill in, we have a show out in Athens playing this festival.’ And he said, ‘I work that day, but I’ll just quit my job.’ He quit his job to fill in for one show, and we get down to the festival, we play one song and the cops come and shut us down. This guy quit his job for one show and to play just one song, and I thought, ‘This is the guy I want to be involved with.’
Do you have plans to expand beyond a two-piece, or is the energy of TOP contingent on being a duo?
There’s nothing in me that makes me want to change it at all. Some people look at us as not even a band because there’s two of us, and we love that. We managed to strip away that element – there’s not a guitar on stage at all. It’s interesting what our culture views as normal. It’s constantly being broken down and restructured and we would love to be a part of a new way of looking at what a band is. As we play bigger and bigger stages I always wonder, ‘Are we going be able to fill out the stage enough and put on enough of a show and keep peoples’ attention? Are we going to be too exposed to having to use technology?’ And honestly, we have even more of a challenge. Josh and I get to compete every night with each other to see who’s the most energetic and who comes up with the weirdest thing they did live. It’s working for us, and I don’t see it changing.
Twenty One Pilots
LC Pavilion, 405 Neil Ave.