When they first became friends a decade ago, before they were even in a band together, Twenty One Pilots vocalist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun would sit around at home in Columbus, Ohio watching videos of bands playing huge sets at Reading and Leeds Festivals, fantasising about whether their music might take them to those hallowed stages someday.
“We were looking at those crowds and trying to wrap our minds around the British music listener,” remembers Dun. “We’ve always had such respect – and kind of a fear – of coming to the UK and playing our music. Reading and Leeds was always a big dream, and a high benchmark.”
When the pair were asked to headline the legendary twin festivals for the first time in August 2019, they decided to do something special, marking the occasion by paying tribute to the giants of British music. They did this by covering ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’, and it’s safe to say the choice went down well. “I’ll never forget it,” says Dun. “It was one of my favourite moments of our career.”
For Joseph, the band’s songwriter, playing the Oasis classic and hearing the crowd come together in one voice to sing it back was equally memorable – but it also made his competitive streak itch. “Playing that song, man, it made me want to go: ‘Why can’t I write a song that good?’” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “I still think of that performance. It impacted me so much watching the fans connect with that song. We didn’t even need to be there. We just happened to usher that song to them, and then they interacted with it. That sort of connection is something I’m still pursuing and searching for. Those shows at Reading and Leeds specifically have influenced decision-making and songwriting that we’ve done since then, so they’re very special to us.”
The pair, both 32, are speaking to NME over video call from Columbus on the eve of the release of their sixth album ‘Scaled & Icy’. It is easy to imagine the new songs going over very well indeed at Reading and Leeds. It is, at first listen, the most upbeat and optimistic the band have sounded since they first emerged in 2009 with a genre-hopping self-titled debut that opens with melodic piano, before turning into a proggy space opera and then an emo rap record.
Joseph says the band’s newfound positivity was partly a response to the strange and bleak conditions it was written and recorded in: mid-pandemic, with Joseph in his home studio in Columbus and Dun locked-down 2,000 miles away in Los Angeles.
“I knew the record could go one of two ways,” says Joseph. “We could directly respond to what was going on in the world, or we could lean into this idea of escaping and almost looking at everything from a different dimension. A dimension that’s more colourful, that’s got a little more positivity to it. That felt more exciting to me, to come down into this studio where I felt like the walls of the place that I was creating were impenetrable. It’s intentionally disconnected from the time in which it was created.”
That’s not to say the new record is all rainbows and butterflies; on repeated listens it reveals itself to have serious depth. Twenty One Pilots have built their famously dedicated fanbase in part because of Joseph’s talent for layering his songs with hidden meanings, and ‘Scaled & Icy’ is no different. Opening track ‘Good Day’ is a perfect example. “It’s so upbeat, it’s so happy and it sounds so hopeful,” says Joseph. “But when you really dive into the lyrics, and I don’t know if people could really interpret this truly without hearing it from me, but that song is talking about…”
“The album is intentionally disconnected from the time in which it was created” – Tyler Joseph
He pauses for a moment, psyching himself up to get into the song’s headspace. “If I were to lose my wife and my kid,” he begins, “and Heaven forbid that happens, but at some point in the mourning process I would probably go through a phase of complete denial. I’d be saying to my other friends and family: ‘I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.’ When you really realise that that’s what I’m trying to exorcise in that song, you realise it’s not as happy and exciting as it may seem off the bat. I love that songs can be that.”
Similarly, on the very next track, ‘Choker’, Joseph can be heard reminding his listeners of their own mortality (“The ground where you’ll eventually / Lay forever”) but immediately he finds the strength to keep moving forward now: “The day goes on / The sun moves behind you,” he talk-raps. “You get taller, bolder, stronger and the rearview only blinds you.”
Joseph is a master of balancing these heavy themes with the propulsive energy of his songs. “There’s something obviously bitter about realising that you’re going to die,” he says. “But once you realise that, as morbid as it is, it can also make you feel a little more fearless and free. It’s a reminder not to take each day for granted. That’s what’s so great about music. It’s elastic enough to maintain something as broad and powerful and tremendous as that thought, and still have it be contained inside a song. That’s the power of music.”
From their earliest days as a band, Twenty One Pilots have sought to tap into the power of music to explore these sorts of deep, existential themes – and in doing so they’ve never felt contained or constrained by any one genre. “I think we were influenced by the scene here in Columbus just because of how many different types of bands we played with,” explains Joseph. “We’d find ourselves one day on a hip-hop bill, then on a pop-punk bill, then on more of a metal bill. We realised we didn’t really have a group of people that we belonged to, but at the same time, everyone we rubbed shoulders with became a part of who we are.”
Joseph first formed Twenty One Pilots in 2009, with drummer Nick Thomas and bassist Chris Salih, but their only release together was that eponymous self-titled debut from the same year. Dun joined when Thomas and Salih left in 2011 and they released their second record, the knowingly titled ‘Regional At Best’, in reference to their popularity in Ohio and the crickets they heard everywhere else. In June of that year they played their first ever out-of-state show. Twelve people showed up.
“Something I’ve always appreciated about our timeline is that we were able to cut our teeth and figure out who we wanted to be in small bars and clubs,” says Joseph. “I look at some of these artists that are thrust into the spotlight at a younger age, where they’re trying to figure that stuff out in front of everyone. We did that behind the scenes on small stages where bands would just play for each other because nobody else was in there.”
They wouldn’t be ignored for long. The band made their major label debut with ‘Vessels’ in 2013, while the official Twenty One Pilots subreddit, first created in April 2012, has grown to become the online home of The Skeleton Clique, one of the most active and dedicated fanbases in modern music. Fans dedicate lengthy threads to exploring and unravelling the complex lore that Joseph and Dun weave into their music – and it’s long been full of theories about their new record. (Are Clancy’s Bandito resistance really gaining the upper-hand in their battle against the nine dictatorial bishops who rule over the allegorical city of Dema? No spoilers here!)
“We’ve always had a fear of coming to the UK and playing our music” – Josh Dun
Joseph says they do read the boards (“We’ve got our finger on the pulse!”), and he marvels at their fans’ ability to decode even his most cryptic riddles. “Our fans are so cool, man. They’re smart and they’re creative,” he says. “There are things we’ve done that we’ve tried to concoct and create so that they would have to break down and figure out and solve them over the course of however many months or years. They’ll figure it out in six hours.”
While it must be flattering for the band to know their songs inspire such devotion, it must be a challenge to write new music knowing that every word will be forensically analysed online. Joseph says the opposite is true. “When you write something new and you have fans that are very excited about how this song is going to tie into the story, you would think that would make me feel trapped,” he observes. “The truth is, it’s our story. In a sense, we’re actually the most free band when it comes to what we want to do next, musically and even lyrically, because it’s our story. We’ve created that world so whatever direction we go inside of it is purely justified. I feel like we’re closer to limitless than most bands.”
While their fanbase steadily grew in their first few years as a band, the release of fourth album ‘Blurryface’ in 2015 took them to a level even they weren’t expecting. The numbers tell the story: earworm single ‘Stressed Out’ has been played 2.2 billion – with a ‘b’ – times on YouTube, and follow-ups ‘Ride’ and ‘Heathens’, from the Suicide Squad movie soundtrack, have both likewise broken through the billion plays barrier.
“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what happened to us on ‘Blurryface’,” says Joseph. “I’m still trying to figure that out. Now, with some time in between that record and where I am now, I’m starting to see clearly how the writing that happened after ‘Blurryface’ was a reaction to it. It was my attempt at working through that impactful, monumental moment for us. Our previous record ‘Trench’ was, I guess, a reaction to ‘Blurryface’. Now, this record ‘Scaled & Icy’ is a bit of a reaction to ‘Trench’.”
He wonders aloud whether this sense of bouncing back and forth will always be inherent to the band’s journey. “The next record, which I’m writing already, feels like a reaction to ‘Scaled & Icy’,” he says. “It almost feels like there will be a rhythm to our releases, which I hope is a good thing. I hope that our fans and the people who follow us will hang on for the ride, because it might be a bit jarring, but it is truly indicative of who we are as a band.”
Their meteoric success brought with it a level of attention the band weren’t necessarily prepared for. In September last year, Joseph made an insensitive joke on Twitter, captioning photographs of himself wearing a pair of white platform shoes with the line: “You guys keep asking me to use my platforms. Feels good to dust these bad boys off.” Given that fans had been urging him to throw his support behind Black Lives Matter, the comment felt deeply tone deaf, and Joseph quickly apologised.
Today, he says he’s aware they’ve experienced a steep learning curve when it comes to being a band of their stature. “One of the things Josh and I have learned is, you know, when we started out we would play a show for 20 people and then after the show we would hang out with them. It was all the same event,” he says. “Obviously as things grew, it became harder and harder to have that real personal interaction. Building rapport with people just got more and more difficult. In our minds, we still feel like we’ve got that, but the truth is it’s not the same. It’s a learning process to realise there’s a bit more of a standard which we’re held to. We’re still learning that.”
“I feel like we’re closer to limitless than most bands” – Tyler Joseph
After a year with no live music or real personal interactions to speak of, the band are unsurprisingly keen to get back to the live arenas where they cut their teeth and made their name. Before that, they’ll present ‘Scaled & Icy’ as a livestream concert tonight (May 21) to mark the album’s release.
Joseph says they initially took some convincing. “We were asked about doing a livestream concert years ago,” he says. “People were like: ‘Why don’t you play [a livestream concert] in front of everyone?’ Josh and I were dead set on trying to explain why you can’t recreate a live experience on a stream. You just can’t do it. We were anti-livestream advocates.”
Still, unusual times call for unusual measures. They’ve agreed to perform online only because they’re determined to create something that’s never been done before. “Yes, we’re eating our own hat in the sense that we’re going to do it,” says Joseph with a shrug, “But we’ve been working on this thing for seven months now. The way that we’re going to present it is going to be different than any other way you’ve ever seen any sort of livestream concert. It’s not going to be stale by song two, like every other livestream concert.”
Joseph demurs on giving away too many details – but suffice to say the broadcast will be rich with details and narratives for The Skeleton Clique to pore over. “It’s a lot of different instalments,” he says. “Each song has a different flavour in a way that I don’t think anyone’s seen before. There’s more characters and there’s more interaction.”
His enthusiasm is infectious. He may still be talking about the livestream, but Joseph could easily be describing Twenty One Pilots’ entire intricately plotted universe. “It’s not just Josh and I playing our songs,” he says. “We’re telling a story with the whole thing. That’s why we’re so excited about it.”
Twenty One Pilots’ ‘Scaled & Icy’ is out now