The Columbus duo explains how they developed their schizoid sound - and how they sold out 2,200-capacity LC Pavilion.
Columbus duo Twenty One Pilots pulled off something special by selling out the 2,200-capacity LC Pavilion as an entirely independent local band. As explained in my feature on the band, a lot of thought goes into how they make music, perform and promote. It's pretty fascinating, so I'm running my full conversation with frontman Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun in segments before the band's show Saturday.
NOTE: Alive reporter Jackie Mantey will live-tweet Saturday's concert @jackie_mantey.
Read the first half of the interview here. Below you'll find the second section, which covers the band's thoughtful strategy for building a regional fan base and unique approach to songwriting.
Alive: The big question for a band that doesn't know about you guys and sees that this local band is selling out the LC Pavilion is, "How does that happen? How do you build such a voracious fan base by yourself?"
Joseph: Well, it's a combination of - I feel like, just what I've learned in the past three years of rising above your scene is just - there's so much to that plan. And all the way down from promotion to social networking to the live show and its importance, and then the songs. I think it's a combination of - well, it's a lot of things. When it comes to shows - OK. So, I started a band, and I thought, "I need to play shows. How do I get shows?" So, you know, reach out to a few clubs, reach out to a few bands. Ninety percent of them will not reach back. You play one show at a club, you've got one show at that club to prove to - and a lot of times when you're starting out, you have to know that you're not playing to the five friends you brought out. You're playing to the bartender who's going to tell the owner about the show, that you need to bring them back for this time here. That's important. So what we did is, if you look at Ohio, our initial goal was to rise up in Ohio. Anything outside of that we're just learning still. But in Ohio, what we did is, we have a central location, Columbus, Ohio. And what we did is, we play pockets of places around Columbus, Ohio. What you do is you play up in Cleveland, and you don't tell anyone you're playing Cleveland. This is where everyone gets it wrong, where they promote every show they ever have on social networking. And with Facebook and Twitter and now Instagram, there is a - if I were to give you my phone number, and you're in a band, and you were to send out this mass text, "Hey, I've got a show coming up," I would feel completely violated by that. You know what I'm saying? There's almost like a contract between you and I when we have each other's numbers. There's a similar contract that you have with people who decide to subscribe to whatever it is that you do online - Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. So please do not abuse that contract. And so what happens is, you've got a central point in Columbus, which is very important. So we go out and we play Cleveland. Don't tell anyone that we're playing Cleveland. We play to whoever shows up, whether it be other bands' fans, whether it be bartenders, whatever. We have a show that's in place that is very strategic. It functions to make fans. Its functionality is to make fans. Keep in mind, they don't know your songs. Go into it knowing no one knows a single one of my songs. And even if you know there are people out there who know who you are, continue to have the mindset that no one knows my songs. You have to rely on other things. So you rely on very simple - maybe a clapping pattern that's very easy. But then tell them to stop clapping because they don't want to continue clapping and wonder, "Am I still clapping? Should I continue clapping?" It's awkward. And then the stunts inside of the show. Each band, to gain fans, you have to have stunts, whether that be a backflip off a piano or a drum battle part or a time when you have planned to jump off of a certain thing.
Dun: Jump into the crowd...
Joseph: Jump into the - I mean, obviously at these little shows you're not going to be able to. But it's all about stunts. Something they've never seen before, or something they can walk away and go, "That one band that did this." And it may be very small, but those stunts in between songs can be the difference between making a fan and not making a fan. So you go play Cleveland. You make a pocket of fans, right? And then you go in the top left version of Ohio. And you don't say, "Hey, we have a show up here." Because you don't want your Cleveland fans going to that show. Because in your mind, you have your band's idealistic vision of a concert. These shows up here are not that idealistic view. That's your central hub, which is Columbus. So you play Cleveland, you play the top left, you make a pocket of fans here. Then you play over here, you make a pocket of fans here. Then you play Cincinnati, you make a pocket of fans here. And the whole time, it may piss some promoters off, but you're not promoting all these shows. Because what you're doing is, you're making people believe that they discovered you. Which they did! But you don't want Pocket B to go to Pocket C's show. Does that make sense? Because Pocket C, that area is not the idealistic show. So what you do is, you go around - when you revisit a place, you may spit something out about "We're going back over here," but you don't hit it too many times because you don't want someone who discovered Twenty One Pilots to revisit them in a place that's not the ideal situation. You want them to rediscover it in the most idealistic situation. For us, that was Newport for a few years. So we'd do is, once every four or five months, let that time grow, building fans around Ohio. And then you hit, "This is the show. This is the one." And because you haven't been bombarding them the entire five months with different shows, they're going to listen to that. And they don't feel violated. They don't feel like, "Here's another invite." You know, "This is one that I don't see very often." Newport. Come to the Newport. And so you get all these people from Columbus - it's too bad for Columbus people because all they have is the big shows. They don't have the small shows. But when you say, "Come to Newport," everyone that you've worked on those past five months around that central point will come to your show. And it may not be many people at first. You know, it may be like 400 people, 500 people. But that's considered a big show to you as a small band. And then maintaining that mentality of spreading out and getting new shows and winning people with those shows, and being strategic of when you invite people, how to work social networking for your favor instead of taking advantage of it, and getting people to all come in to one central hub. And then what happens - when all those people come into one central hub, they think, "Wow! This band is playing Columbus, Ohio, and they pull 1,000 people out. That's like - I just saw Fun. play in front of 1,000 people in Columbus, Ohio. They're right up there with Fun." No! We got like, three-fourths of our fan base to go to that one show. But it gives you this idea that you are larger than life when you're actually still just a local band. People feed on that because they also feed on the fact that they feel like they discovered you in that process. So maintaining the sense of disovery in every area is very important, all the way down to what words you use in a Facebook post. Don't capitalize the words because would a band guy capitalize the words in a Facebook post? No, he wouldn't. You want the fans to continue to know that you are in charge of what's being put out. Because you follow Fun. on Twitter, they're not running their Twitter, and you can tell that from one tweet. They're not running their Facebook. They're not running anything. And obviously they get to the point where maybe they can't. I get that. But you definitely don't want to give that impression out as a local band. But - this freakin' song!
(Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know" plays on the radio.)
Alive: I like this song!
Dun: I do too.
Joseph: (heavy with sarcasm) Yeah, it's great. But down to what words you use, when you post, and all those things, just to reestablish the idea that "We are still there for you to discover." Because nothing fires someone up more than discovering a band. And give people reasons to discover you. So that's kind of a like a short version of our strategy when it comes to getting people to show up in Columbus, Ohio.
Alive: I'm glad you talked about that because I remember you mentioned it to me when you played our Alive show at Kobo last year. I thought it was so cool, and I wasn't sure if you would want to reveal it to everybody.
Joseph: Yeah. We didn't promote that show, did we?
Alive: Oh. No. But also a lot of your fans weren't old enough to get in there because they're under 21. Is that still the case? Is it mostly teenagers?
Joseph: Well, we started out - kind of at local high schools is how it really got picked up. And then the college age started coming in, which has been great. And we're actually seeing the college-aged kids really, really, really be a part of our main fan base. Because we were out playing - we played a few shows with Cobra Starship and Jack's Mannequin down in Florida, and actually one in Pittsburgh, and we learned a lot about, you know, being an opening band in front of college kids. And we're going, "OK, is our philosophy when it comes to approaching a live show, is this going to work as an opening band that nobody cares about?" Because what's interesting as an opening band. We're used to starting on ground level. When we first started and we'd play in Cleveland and nobody was there, you're at ground level and you have to work your way up in gaining their respect, the people in the crowd. But when you're an opening band, you start below ground. Because they don't want you to play in front of the band they came to see. So working up to ground level and then working up to trying to win the crowd. So we've learned a lot in what it takes to do that. And what's really exciting for us is we've seen that our live show really works well with college age. And we're really excited about continuing to grow our fan base in that area because we're that age. There's nothing cooler than performing to your peers.
Alive: Yeah, how old are you guys?
Joseph: 23. We're both 23. So we're a little older than college aged.
Dun: Eh, a little bit. But around that age.
Alive: I think we've got some 23-year-old college students still.
Joseph: That's so weird. Out of college.
Alive: I want to ask you about the musical side of things. You were talking about performance-wise just letting the music take you where it goes in terms of, like, response to it. But musically it seems very free in that way too, where it can go a lot of directions and it's not necessarily boxed into anything. Do you feel like it needs to have guidelines? How does it work?
Joseph: There's a lot of philosophy and strategy in songwriting, with structure and melody and all these things. But when it really comes down to it, something that I really focus on is I want to write songs that I wish other people were writing. I want to create music that I would like to listen to. And I thought that was kind of a no-brainer, but come to find out there are a lot of songwriters or band members that aren't involved in the type of music that they enjoy listening to. Which is kind of weird. So when you have all of these different genres that you like, and you're trying to be a songwriter, and you want to fit all of those genres into one song or one CD or whatever, what I've really learned that is important in that are transitions. Because if you want to transition from a hip-hop verse to a rock chorus to a techno pre-chorus or whatever it is, you have to make those transitions feel right. And at first they aren't going to feel right. And if you want to have all those genres in one song, it can happen. It's just hard to make it happen. I've been working on trying to get that to feel right for years now, and it just made sense to me. Let's take the rapping thing for example. How I usually write was I'd sit at the piano and I'd have a progression I pick out, and I would sing to it, and the lyrics would come out of me. It's called an emotion-based lyric writing. You let the lyrics kind of like come out with the music. And that's how I mainly wrote. And then I had a buddy of mine who would slave over poetry before he would even put it to song. And I thought, "That's so not what I do, so maybe I'm getting lazy with my lyrics. Maybe I need to focus on the lyrics first and then put it to song." So I tried that out, and I started writing a lot of poetry. And then when I would take that poetry and try to fit it to a song, there were always way too many words. It never fit right. The cool thing about poetry is there's a time to it. You can say it in a certain time and it makes sense. So I just started saying the poetry instead of singing it. And then, you know, I started realizing, "Holy crap. This is rap. This is illegal. I can't do this." I swept it under the rug, and I didn't show anyone except for my little brother. And my little brother, you know, is a big hip-hop fan, as well as I am. And I showed him some of these songs and said, "What do you think of these?" And he loved them. He thought they were great. But he was the only person I ever showed. And what was cool is, when I said, "Hey, I have a show. You should come out to the show." And he said, "Are you going to be doing any of your rapping?" And I said, "Absolutely not. Are you crazy?" And what was cool is, he said, "All right, well hey. Let me know when you're going to be doing your rapping, and I'll come out to a show." And what was interesting is, I was motivated by the fact that he's my brother, but also I was motivated by the fact that he was a very normal kid and represented a lot of people to me. He was, you know, the centerpiece of a lot of kids that have this, like, "I'm a white kid that likes rap, and I don't really have an outlet for it other than Eminem, and you know, he's got his way of doing it." So what about the sing-songy guys who like the melodies and rap, and who kind of find themselves caught between two genres? So then, ever since my brother said, "I'll come out to a show when you start doing rap," I've been rapping at shows ever since. And have been not trying to force the genre into a song, but because I'm so motivated and passionate about saying things in my music, sometimes the easiest way to get something out there is through the art of rapping. And if it's an option for me, then I'm going to take advantage of it in a song because it gets across what I'm trying to say. Not to mention, if you play in front of a crowd that doesn't know who you are, and you open up, and you're wearing a polo button-up shirt, and, you know, he's sitting on the drums, and two white kids walk out to their instruments, and you drop this beat on them and all of the sudden you start rapping, you're going to get their attention. It's just - that's how it works. So we definitely utilized the hip-hop side of our music to grab people's attention and refused to be background music at your party.
Dun: I like the concept too of when you look on someone's iPod and they've got Katy Perry and Kanye West and Kelly Clarkson all next to each other, they're all way different. They listen to all those different things, but they're just alphabetized. So if you can get all of those different genres in one song, then that's something that people are going to want to hear, I think. And that's what we've found, that people do connect with that.
Alive: Then what Tyler said about transitions comes into play because you can't just throw a bunch of styles in there. There's a lot of music that tries to be everything to everyone and it ends up a mess.
Dun: Yeah, a big mess.
Joseph: There is definitely a skill in trying to fit all those in together.