Columbus, Ohio’s TWENTY ONE PILOTS might just be the biggest cult band in the world. Thanks to their mythmaking and music, they’ve inspired in their ‘Skeleton Clique’ the kind of superfandom normally reserved for space epics or fighting fantasies. But behind the flights of fancy, there’s humanity. GARY RYAN meets the band as they kick off their stunning UK arena tour in Birmingham, and hears how family, dementia and anxiety fuel their genre-hopping songs. LIVE PHOTOGRAPHY: ANDY FORD | PORTRAITS: BRAD HEATON
Birmingham’s branches of B&Q must be doing a roaring trade in yellow duct tape. Outside the city’s Resort World Arena on February 27, teenagers are eagerly applying it to their green army fatigues. As more troops descend – with yellow neckerchiefs worn as masks – it’s like a casting for a junior version of The Purge.
Onlookers might be forgiven for assuming an Anonymous demonstration is going to break out, but this is the Skeleton Clique, the fiercely devoted superfanbase of Twenty One Pilots, waiting outside the venue six hours before the Ohio duo are due onstage to kick off the UK leg of their mammoth Bandito tour.
They’ve meticulously cosplayed the uniforms sported by frontman Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun in the apocalyptic artwork and videos for their latest album, ‘Trench’. A few sit sketching pictures of their idols. One clutches a banner emblazoned with the words ‘YOU SAVED MY LIFE’.
It’s apt, because Twenty One Pilots – with their core song-writing themes of insecurity, mental health and faith – are a quintessential saved-my-life band, a lodestar for those who feel nobody understands them.
On paper, however, they are defiantly weird. With ‘Trench’, they’ve created a high-concept mythical world – one that might baffle even the scriptwriters of Lost. Loosely, its plot concerns an allegorical city called Dema and the nine dictatorial bishops who keep its inhabitants from escaping – and the rebel force of ‘banditos’ who seek to liberate them. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
Lengthy Reddit sub-threads are dedicated to decoding hidden meanings in songs and deciphering clues in each piece of media that the band releases. There are easter eggs galore: for example, the full name of ‘Nico’ from the song ‘Nico and the Niners’ – a key nemesis – is Nicolas Bourbaki, which is the collective pseudonym for the scientists who invented the notation for zero – the ø used in twenty øne piløts branding.
Musically, they’re equally unconventional: a Spotify generation post-genre mish-mash of styles that effortlessly jack-knifes through rap, reggae, R&B, prog, electro-pop, indie – basically, they’ve turned their hand to everything bar Mongolian Throat Singing. Yet somehow it coheres and ‘Blurryface’ – their breakthrough fourth album – sent the pair stratospheric in 2015, allowing drummer Josh Dun to do his trademark backflips on the world’s biggest stages.
Backstage at the arena, roadies are setting up the elaborate, visually spectacular Bandito production that involves a burning car, and body doubles which allow a balaclava-clad Tyler to seemingly disappear and reappear, Houdini-like, mid-song at different parts of the arena.
Furry toy versions of Ned – the cute CGI gremlin character they recently introduced in the ‘Chlorine’ video – sit atop speakers. When we first catch a glimpse of Josh – known for his acrobatics – he’s air-drumming and pirouetting in the air to their own music. Later, he and Tyler goof around duelling with vacuum cleaners that are being used to hoover the stage.
But they have laser-like focus. On the ‘Trench’ song ‘Bandito’, Tyler sings: “I created this world so I can feel some control”, and you feel that extends to all aspects of the band. Their small, protective team all hail from their hometown of Columbus, and everything NME does with the band happens under the watchful eye of their inner circle.
During our 70-minute chat, their tour manager stands looming in the dressing room door, adding to the feeling that you might be hauled off and held in a bunker, emerging months later, reprogrammed and swaddled in yellow masking tape.
Fortunately, the band are charming and solicitous. Principal songwriter Tyler vacillates from being intense to deadpanning one-liners (“We spend so long together, I feel like I know everything about John”, he quips of Josh).
When he’s saying something revealing, he avoids eye contact. Josh is his playful ballast, tending to sit back quietly and join in only when there’s a joke. Neither swear – not even once. Having come straight from an HMV signing, Tyler is worried about his voice. “I tried not to talk to any of them but I can’t help it,” he says. “I’m just like: ‘Thank you so much for coming, where have you come from?’”
They seem touched by the extremes their supporters have gone to. Outside, kids have even rocked up dressed as ‘bishops’ in flowing red robes while in Russia, banana outfits appeared in the crowd – an in-joke about how Tyler and Josh, both 30, have an aversion to the fruit.
“We only provided a few bits and pieces of the inspiration but they’re the ones that became the engine of the whole thing,” says Tyler. Aside from Tyler once “standing in line for eight hours when The Killers played my hometown”, neither of them went to extraordinary lengths for their favourite groups. “We wish that level of fan culture had been around when we were younger,” notes Josh. “’Cos a lot of these stories about how these kids met each other and how they’ve become best friends when they’ve been waiting in the queue for hours and days on end is inspiring and cool.”
‘Blurryface’ became the first record in history to have each of its songs certified at least Gold. When they collected the Grammy in 2017 for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for the single ‘Stressed Out’ (beating Rhianna and Drake, and Sean Paul – a man who described them as “the new Nirvana”), they stripped to their boxers on the way to the stage, remembering how they once sat watching the awards show in their pants in Columbus and said: ‘If we ever win a Grammy, we should receive it just like this’.
It’s indicative of their ambition. Having formed Twenty One Pilots as a trio at university in 2009, Tyler recruited Josh and shed two members in 2011. “From the beginning, we had big visions and dreams of where we wanted to be so nothing’s caught us off guard,” says Josh, unfazed. “What would be more surprising to people is how many times we’ve looked at each other and said: ‘Yes, this is exactly what we envisioned and what we’d seen.”
During the ‘Blurryface’ cycle, they remember selling out small clubs, then theatres, then arenas in the same year. “When you zoom out, you might think, ‘Oh that was pretty nuts’”, says Josh. “But we’d been on tour since 2011 playing shows every night so you’re too close to realise it. It’s like when your uncle who hasn’t seen you for a year comes over and says: ‘You’ve gotten really tall”.
Things have changed, however. Asked who the most famous contact in his phone is, Tyler scrolls through before landing on Chris Martin (“That’s kind of amazing to say out loud,” he laughs) – the Coldplay frontman once left him a voicemail raving about the band. Josh responds: I grew up listening to a ton of Blink  so to think that over the past few years, I’ve become pretty good friends with Mark [Hoppus] is surreal. When I was a teenager, I would never have guessed that I would text back and forth with him.”
In October, when they released ‘Trench’ – after a yearlong blackout involving no social media or gigs, and a cryptic trail for fans to follow leading to its announcement – it was only beaten in the charts by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s ‘A Star Is Born’.
You might argue it’s equally as filmic: people have suggested to Tyler that they should expand their dystopian promos into a feature film. “The intention was never ‘let’s write a record that gets enough traction that it turns into a Netflix series’, but it’s cool to know we created something with enough substance to know that question is being asked,” he disclaims.
Besides, although camouflaged in fantasy, and the Dema mythology with its references to ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism, ‘Trench’ is actually a very late-twenty-tens treatise on mental health. In songwriting, as in conversation, Tyler says his most interesting things when he doesn’t look you in the eye.
Having had the narrative prepared “for years”, he tentatively introduced it in ‘Blurryface’, whose lead character is a personification of his anxiety and insecurity. During that time, he even performed with his hands and neck coated in black paint – to represent his anxiety’s toxic grip. The way he describes ‘Trench’ is akin to a psychoanalytical Google map.
“It’s about using the art of storytelling to better understand a much less fantastical issue which is navigating your own psyche and giving it a destination and places you should and shouldn’t go and characters you should avoid. And that can be found inside each person’s struggle,” Tyler says.
“It’s interesting that ‘Blurryface’ – where I created a character that represents everything I didn’t like about myself and everything I’m trying to overcome coincidentally happened to be the record that really broke through for us,” he continues. “That we’re forced to revisit it every night is a valuable lesson in your own personal insecurities: you work through it, you try to overcome it, but it’s never something you can just fully cast aside and separate yourself from.”
A trio of songs on ‘Trench’ see Tyler fully drop his guard and exist “outside the Netflix series mythology”, as he puts it. ‘Smithereens’ is a cute, ukulele-driven love song for his wife, Jenna Black, who he married in 2015. ‘Legend’, meanwhile, is a tribute to his grandfather, Bobby, who graced the cover of their 2013 album ‘Vessel’ alongside Josh’s granddad. He started writing the track when Bobby’s dementia began to kick in, but his grandfather passed away in March last year before he could hear it.
Tyler: “I mention in the lyrics: ‘I wish she knew you’. And I’m talking about my wife, because when she started coming around, he’d taken a turn for the worse. He used to be so witty and would light up a room and change the social dynamic of any situation, and there are hundreds and hundreds of classic stories but by the time she came around, he was going downhill fast. He was unpredictable, didn’t remember people’s names, which was a new type of pain.”
His eyes seem to get teary. “My dad told me one moment towards the end – where he did remember my name – and he asked ‘What’s Tyler doing?’. He’d always ask and my dad would try to explain: ‘He’s in a band, he plays music’. And he was like: ‘Well, I wanna hear a song’.
And this was before I’d written anything for ‘Trench’. My dad’s driving the car and he keeps badgering him, ‘Well, I wanna hear a song!’. And my dad didn’t have any of our music in the car. Out of pure desperation, he turns on the radio and flicks the dial a few times and one of our songs is on and he was able to say: ‘There – there he is and this is his song”.
“And so, in a weird way, you can think about all the success and mainstream recognition we’ve had was all just to fulfil some tiny little story where my dad was able to show my grandpa the actual song that I wrote in that moment on the radio.”
On the Post Malone-like ‘Neon Gravestones’, Tyler rails against the rock trope of somebody taking their own life as somehow ‘glamourous’ rather than a tragedy, singing: “My opinion/Our culture can treat a loss/Like it’s a win,” and the irresponsible fetishisation of The 27 Club (“I could give up and boost up my reputation/I could go out with a bang/They would know my name”).
“I was afraid of that song,” Tyler says. “So that song is very black and white. I slaved over every pronoun. Because I knew that it was a sensitive topic, the last thing I needed was for someone to misunderstand what I was trying to say. I was afraid to not hide behind metaphor. I do understand there are risks in being misunderstood or misrepresented. There’s an absolute chance to offend people or come off as dishonouring but I really wanted to focus on the people who are here to hear it. I wanted to point out something I would wanna hear when I’m going through these thoughts.”
Tyler applauds the new generation of artists openly speaking about their mental health and defusing stigma. ““I do think that our culture, when it comes to suicide and depression, has made leaps and bounds,” he says. “I’m so proud that music has spearheaded the ability to talk about this so openly, and talking about it is so important. So in a sense I really feel like there’s a big side of it that’s been covered with ‘let’s talk about it, like, you’re not insane there’s nothing wrong with just you look how many other people go through this.’”
‘Trench’ culminates with the sweeping ‘Leave The City’, which Tyler has described as about a ‘crisis of faith’. Both he and Josh were brought up in religious households. Tyler’s father was the principal of the Christian high school he attended; when Josh was younger, most secular music was banned, leaving him to hide contraband Green Day albums under his bed.
“One of the misconceptions is because of where we are and what we’ve accomplished – and because people think we have some crazy rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle – that we’ve learned we don’t need God anymore,” explains Tyler. “And that’s not it.”
“I’m the type of person who needs to challenge everything and my faith is something I’ve always gone through seasons of strongly challenging and once I’ve put it to the test and seen what it is, I’m able to reaccept it. During ‘Trench’, there were moments specifically when you got to see where I was at in my seasons of challenging and re-accepting – and I was definitely going through a challenging time.”
“The question is: do I need God? The truth is, I don’t the answer to that some days. Some days I do and because I write songs, I write lyrics – you’re gonna watch me figure it out. I can’t help but address those types of questions because that’s why I started writing music in the first place.”
Those big questions are lurking under the bonnet of a very shiny car. The reason Twenty One Pilots have proved so commercially successful is because the songs themselves brim with hooks. You don’t need to know that ‘Leave The City’ involves an existential crisis – or require a tour guide to Dema – to enjoy the fact it sounds like M83 producing My Chemical Romance in their Black Parade pomp.
What can’t be overstated is how much fun the Twenty One Pilots live spectacle is. Tonight, they open with Josh holding a lit torch, setting a car ablaze, and takes in Vegas magic show switcheroos, crowdsurfing drum kits, Hazmat-suited men spraying fog into the audience, confetti, and a competition to find the best dad dancer.
It’s little surprise that Tyler says he’s competitive: as someone once offered a basketball scholarship might well be. Put him with another band and it’s like hamsters sharing a cage.
When they signed to emo-citadel Fueled by Ramen – home to friends Paramore and Panic! At The Disco – Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy took them under his wing to hammer that out of them. “He showed us how to be good brothers,” says Tyler. “Cause when we started playing locally, you’d be on the bill with nine other bands. You wanted them to blow it then you’d come on and steal the show. When we went on tour as the opening act of Panic! and Fall Out Boy, we had the same mentality, but Pete said: ‘See all those people out there – go and make fans’.”
“And I never realised…,” he says this with complete sincerity and no trace of hyperbole in his voice – “people could be fans of more than one band’. But we’d be lying if we were to say that competitive edge is completely gone. We want to be the best – and keep everyone else at bay.”
While ‘Trench’ was written mainly by Tyler in his basement studio in Columbus and sent to Josh (who now lives in LA), its follow-up is being penned on the road. It will further delve into the Twenty One Pilots lore. “There’s a character that hasn’t been talked about that plays a huge role and that’s probably where we’re going next,” says Tyler.
Josh, meanwhile, has a wedding to prepare for, having got engaged to actor and Disney Channel alumnus Debby Ryan in December. He jokes that he’ll walk down the aisle to drum solos. But what’s in both of their cross-hairs is the UK tour end-game – headlining Reading and Leeds in August.
“Reading & Leeds is one of the first festivals we used to watch when we got to know each other,” says Tyler. “We’d watch footage on the internet. We’ve been focusing on that show for months now as far as what the production’s going to be like.”
Tyler stares at his shoes in frustration at himself. “I can’t put into words exactly how important it is, but we’re really excited to be able to go and prove to them it’s where we belong. Not everyone is there in the audience to see you and you have to win them over, you have to work hard for them. There’s other bands trying to stand out – and we’re ready to take their heads off.”
Resistance – Bandito-led or otherwise – is futile.