Local music: Twenty One Pilots

  • Photo by Tessa Berg
By Columbus Alive
From the April 26, 2012 edition

How do you sell out 2,200-capacity LC Pavilion without a whimper of support from a record label? Very strategically.

There’s an air of spontaneity about local schizoid pop duo Twenty One Pilots, as if their frenetic live show emerged fully formed and their fervent regional fan base sprouted in the blink of an eye. And while there is some truth to that — frontman Tyler Joseph started the project just two years ago and partnered with drummer Josh Dun less than a year ago — the duo’s rapid climb has also been the product of intense planning and promotion on their part.

First, the freewheeling side of their success. Joseph, a basketball star at Worthington Christian, took up piano on the side. He couldn’t get into music school, so after graduating high school, he kept writing songs in his basement. Eventually he recruited friends to play drums and bass, and they made their debut at a local coffee shop, Joseph staring blankly at his piano.

“I started thinking about the antics and the way the music moves me when I’m by myself in my basement,” Joseph said. “Why don’t I let that take over my body when it comes to what a show looks like as well? As opposed to hiding that and just executing the songs on stage, reliving the songs on stage.”

Soon Joseph was running, jumping, convulsing and climbing his way through concerts, a fearless human fireball with a microphone and a skeleton suit. When his bandmates backed out last year, Joseph recruited Dun, who caught his eye by “beating the crap out of his drums” for House of Heroes. The result? Freakishly spastic, instantly polarizing concerts. Love them or hate them, you don’t forget Twenty One Pilots.

The music itself underwent a similar liberation when Joseph’s younger brother encouraged him to bring his rapping out of the basement and into the spotlight, a move Joseph had considered “illegal.” These days, Twenty One Pilots boldly and shamelessly traverse genre boundaries, melding emo-inspired classic rock, synth-driven club music, spastic nerd rap and whatever else strikes their fancy.

“I want to write songs that I wish other people were writing,” Joseph said.

Throwing out the musical rulebook set Twenty One Pilots apart in sound and vision; equally important were tweaks to the standard modes of promotion. They deploy social media judiciously, careful not to bombard the faithful and to allow newcomers a sense of discovery.

Joseph gets very excited when he explains it: They play lots of shows around the region, but they never promote out-of-town concerts, content to build pockets of fans in other cities then lure them to Columbus for a big blowout every four or five months.

It’s working. They sold out the Newport last November; Saturday, they’ll pack the LC, an unheard-of accomplishment for an entirely independent local band. Though he engineered their excitement, Joseph credits the band’s passionate fans for lifting them to such heights: “They’ve created this thing that we have been fueling.”