Twenty One Pilots

With their major-label debut approaching, we caught up with the Columbus schizoid pop duo on tour to see grassroots stardom in full bloom

By Columbus Alive
From the January 3, 2013 edition

Tyler Joseph is stripped down to his underwear and covered in sweat, which is not how I expected to find him. People think of the open road as a vast expanse to explore, but a touring rock band’s experience is claustrophobic, defined by cluttered vans and narrow hallways. And Joseph, the boyish singer/rapper/inspirational speaker/teen idol/rabble-rouser for Columbus schizoid pop duo Twenty One Pilots, has to work out somewhere if he hopes to continue fitting into his skinny jeans. How else to counteract all those fast food calories a touring band inevitably consumes alongside American interstates?

Joseph is lugging around a contraption called a Bullworker, one of those compact home workout devices typically sold via infomercial, when he stumbles upon his drummer, Joshua Dun (the one with the beard and the funny haircut), making small talk with me. We’re in the basement of a former Masonic temple that’s been converted into one of the largest music venues in Indianapolis, the site of tonight’s stop on Twenty One Pilots’ headlining tour.

The building is huge, but they haven’t ascended to superstar status just yet. Old National Centre has rooms upon rooms, three of which are hosting concerts tonight. Twenty One Pilots will play Deluxe, an underground ballroom of sorts. Staind singer Aaron Lewis is performing elsewhere in the building. In a large theater directly above us, the a cappella group Straight No Chaser is putting on a holiday show.

The Rave, last night’s venue in Milwaukee, was set up like this too. It’s not unlike PromoWest’s complex in the Arena District, where the massive LC Pavilion is flanked by the tinier A&R Music Bar and The Basement, training grounds for the big time. Twenty One Pilots has been encountering this setup all across the country.

“There’s usually a smaller venue maybe on the side of it or underneath it or whatever, then there’s that larger venue, which just fires us up,” Joseph says, lounging on the dressing room couch, now dried off and fully clothed. “Most of these rooms we’re going in, it’s our first time playing these markets, definitely the first time playing these venues. To kind of have a goal right above your head of the big room every night is really cool. It’s just going to be that much sweeter when we walk into this venue next and we’re in the bigger room.”

Joseph speaks confidently about making that leap, and considering recent history, such validation seems within reach. Twenty One Pilots’ coalition-building is the stuff of instant-legend. Joseph and two high school buddies got the project off the ground in 2009. Two years later, the buddies stepped out; Dun, who used to deploy his percussive walloping in the Christian rock band House of Heroes, stepped in. By that point, Twenty One Pilots had accumulated a rabid fan base across Ohio, bolstered by less-is-more social media promotion and ace videography by Joseph’s roommate/on-tour utility man Mark Eshelman.

In November 2011, without label support, they sold out 1,800-capacity Newport Music Hall, catching the attention of record execs nationwide. They followed that with a sold-out show at 2,200-capacity LC Pavilion last April, where they announced a deal with Atlantic Records subsidiary Fueled By Ramen, the label that made stars of Fall Out Boy, Paramore and Fun.

With that, they whisked away to Los Angeles for two months to record their Fueled By Ramen debut album, Vessel, with producer Greg Wells (Adele, Kid Cudi, Weezer, Katy Perry). Next came trips to Japan and South Korea, including a gig at a festival headlined by Radiohead.

If performing in front of 6,000 delighted foreigners was the most rock-star experience of Twenty One Pilots’ young career, American tour dates throughout the rest of 2012 offered a reality check. Outside Ohio, Twenty One Pilots is back at a grassroots level, playing tiny club shows for audiences of varied sizes. Their five-man entourage travels in a van with a futon in the back. Less than 100 people showed up last night in Milwaukee, but Joseph and Dun still went wild on stage; they are well-versed in sowing the seeds of stardom from the ground up.

“How we started out doing things in Ohio is kind of playing low key shows, flying under the radar, almost, and just gaining fans,” Dun explains. “I feel like we’ve sort of started to do that on a new level.”

•••

Now, on an unseasonably warm December night in Indy, they’re waiting — waiting for Vessel’s Jan. 8 release date, yes, but more immediately, waiting for the a cappella group to finish upstairs. To prevent Straight No Chaser’s cheery seasonal standards from getting drowned out from below, the rock bands can’t go on until at least 9:30. Twenty One Pilots soundchecked at 3 p.m.; as afternoon drags into evening, all they can do is bide their time.

Because the band’s audience skews young (approximate range: chaperoned preteens to college dorm buddies), starting that late is less than ideal. With two opening acts, they won’t be on stage until after 11. The venue sold 250 tickets in advance, a healthy haul for your first time playing a city; still, tour manager Michael Gibson is anxiously pacing, wondering how the late start will affect turnout. It’s the kind of logistical snafu the band won’t have to deal with if they graduate to the big rooms, he hopes.

Late start be damned, at 8:30, a horde of enthusiastic young folks comes flooding down the staircase and into the performance space. It feels like Beatlemania. Dozen after dozen, they pour into the room, teeming with youthful exuberance and fanatical devotion. Leading the charge is a pack of young women dressed in matching homemade T-shirts; they plant themselves front and center, not to be budged.

Any successful band has superfans, but Twenty One Pilots inspires the fiercest kind of zealotry. The band constantly communicates that Twenty One Pilots belongs to the audience as much as it belongs to Joseph and Dun. At shows, Joseph turns fans into street teamers, calling on them to bring their friends next time. Obviously, that’s working out, but it wouldn’t if Twenty One Pilots didn’t put on a hell of a show.

“The mentality from the beginning was ‘You’re not going to forget it,’” Joseph explains. “And that, paired up with transparency on stage and obviously showing everyone who’s there that there’s nowhere else you’d rather be than playing them music. If they get that feeling, they’re going to be compelled to bring people back next time. You’ve just got to bring it every night.”

Upon the throng’s arrival, Joseph and Dun hustle backstage. They’ll mingle with their people later. For now, they take stock of their fan mail: stacks of letters marked with contact info so Joseph can tweet thank-yous from the van later tonight; a detailed pencil drawing of Joseph and Dun; a bag of birthday gifts for Joseph that one especially industrious girl named Crystal collected from fans around the country via P.O. box. (Joseph turned 24 a week before the show; Dun is 24 too.)

Also among the gifts is a pile of the T-shirts from the devotees up front, a pack of Indiana pals that travels to every Twenty One Pilots show within driving distance, always with a new T-shirt for the occasion. Tonight’s shirt is loaded with meaning. It reads “stay alive,” a Twenty One Pilots mantra, in dedication to a girl named Jamie who used to travel with the T-shirt crowd. She killed herself last month; the band is still reeling.

“The heaviest burden is knowing about struggles your fans are going through,” Joseph says, and boy does Twenty One Pilots attract struggling people. As tour manager Gibson explains, the group’s cross-genre anthems are designed that way, crisis stories built to trigger survival instincts. Joseph wants his music to be meaningful, a life raft for people who need it. “Screen,” a Vessel track, goes like this: “While you’re doing fine/ There’s some people and I/ Who have a really tough time getting through this life/ So excuse us while we sing to the sky.” Eventually a chorus kicks in: “We’re broken/ We’re broken/ We’re broken/ We’re broken people, oh.” More than most bands, Twenty One Pilots concerts double as collective catharsis. The message is clear: Whatever you’re going through, we’re all in this together.

•••

At 10:15, Gibson finally gets the go-ahead from upstairs. The first opening act goes on, some godawful teenage punk band whose set is graciously cut short to account for time. Next up is Come Wind, a genuinely powerful indie band with climactic post-hardcore leanings. They hurry through their set too. By 11:30, at long last, Twenty One Pilots is ready to go. Joseph and Dun don their trademark skeleton suits, the lights go down, the cheers ring out and the synthesized staccato spy music of “Ode to Sleep” fills the room.

Dun is the first one on stage, circling his drum kit and making it clatter. As the canned intro track builds to a peak, he takes his seat and gets ready to bombard his instrument. Within seconds, Joseph leaps from atop his piano, a hollowed-out acoustic upright with an electronic keyboard wired in. He twirls across stage, spinning his body while spinning spastic rhymes about skirting the edge of insanity. As the song surges from apocalyptic raver rap into My Chemical Romance-style emo glam, he’s bouncing on the piano stool, belting out the high notes. Then it’s back to the front of the stage, marching back and forth with unmatched urgency. All the while, Dun is absolutely drilling his drums.

Maintaining this intensity level for a single song is impressive; these guys do it for an hour-plus. It helps when 200-some people are singing every word back at you, losing themselves in the music as it surges across styles with a friskiness that verges on bipolar. Underneath the rapid aesthetic shifts, these are firmly founded pop songs with crosshairs aimed squarely at the heartstrings. It’s why Joseph can grab a ukulele and get the same adoring response as when he’s sprinting through the audience during the emotional rave-up “Car Radio.”

Joseph is in his element, hamming it up between songs. “I want you to know we’re gonna give you everything we have tonight,” he promises. He thanks Crystal for the birthday gifts. He introduces ballad “Addict With a Pen” as freeform medicine for the soul: “If you’re going through something tonight, this song can be whatever you need it to be.” Later, amazed by what his imagination has yielded, he exhorts, “If you ever want to create anything, do what you want.”

After showing off their secret handshake, they encore with the EDM-laced alt-rock/hip-hop banger “Guns For Hands,” culminating in a stunt where Dun deconstructs his drum kit and the bandmates batter the toms together at center stage, a tandem functioning in perfect synchronicity. With that, they disappear backstage, but not for long. Minutes before 1 a.m., half the crowd is lingering in the merch area, waiting for the band. These meet-and-greets are a nightly ritual for Twenty One Pilots; they usually last longer than the concert. These guys must be the most Instagrammed band in the land.

“As much as there is that sense of, ‘OK, I need to step off stage, and I need to collect myself, and I need to take a breather,’” Joseph explains, “when you play a show, and you’re trying the whole time to communicate that you’re normal guys, that you actually mean what you’re saying, that you’re not saying the same thing every night, that you actually are just as convicted about your songs as you were when you wrote them, it doesn’t line up for you to just step off the stage and not want to follow through with anybody.”

With crowds of a few hundred people, the band can afford to be populists. Once they’re playing LC-sized venues in every town, such a close connection might not be tenable. Given the role audience interaction has played in Twenty One Pilots’ rise, they’re grappling with how to keep up with their own rapidly expanding fan base.

“We’ve been talking,” Joseph says. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like moving forward, but right now it’s like, alright, put your talking pants on.”

First, Dun trickles out into the chaos, signing autographs, doling out high-fives and posing for photos galore. A few minutes later, Joseph appears, armed with a Sharpie, ready to make some kid’s dream come true, all the while watching his own dreams spring to life.