Interview with Twenty One Pilots' Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, part 1

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

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.

Below you'll find the first excerpt from the interview, which focuses on the band's beginnings. UPDATE: Here is part 2.

Alive: What's the origin story for this band?

Joseph: Josh and I have been playing for - is it a year yet?

Dun: Yeah, it's almost a year.

Joseph: Yeah, so about a year. The project was going on maybe two years before that. I've had the project going for two years. And basically what it was was I got a couple of guys that I knew could play and recreate the songs on stage. That's what I was looking for as someone who just wrote songs in his basement and wanted to move into a concert setting.

Alive: So it started with you just making music in your basement?

Joseph: Yeah. Really, I was really more of a basketball guy all through high school. And what happened was, without anyone really knowing, I pulled a piano out of the closet, like a small keyboard my mom got me years ago that I never touched. And I remember figuring out that one button worked really well with the other button. That's all I knew is "these two buttons work well together." The first song I ever played on the piano was my own song, and that's something that's really important to me because I still don't know how to play the piano very well. I don't know how to read music at all. And that's why in college I wasn't able to go to school for music. Which was weird just because I have such a passion for it. But to get into these schools, you had to do an audition where you would read a piece, and they would give you a piece to read in order to get in. And they didn't seem to have any room for someone like me who was able to just hear it. So that was frustrating. So I decided not to play basketball in college and pursue music. I did not know what that meant at all. I did not know how to put on a show. So then I met a couple of guys; one was a drummer, and one was a bass player. And they were a part of the project for a couple years, getting it started. And that's when I got a lot of my learning out of the way. And that's when I got a lot of my learning out of the way. You know, what cables were what and how to put on a show and, more importantly, what kind of frontman I wanted to be.

Alive: Yeah, I was wondering how the current on-stage persona came to be.

Joseph: The persona that is Twenty One Pilots on stage came about - my first show that I ever did was at a coffee shop. And I sat down at my piano, and I had these other two guys playing with me, and I just stared down at my piano and I played my songs. I executed the songs. And that feeling that I had after the show was awful. It was this feeling of - I can't even explain it, but it didn't feel right. So I started thinking about the antics and the way the music moves me when I'm by myself recording in my basement. 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, like, executing the songs, reliving the songs on stage. And the difference between those two things. And the next time we played, I let that happen. Again, it was a small show in front of friends and family. And afterwards, people who really knew me thought there was something wrong. My mom was trying to figure out whether I needed to see someone, you know, for counseling. But what was interesting was the people who didn't really know me that well, that may have gotten invited by another friend of mine, said, like, "That was awesome." And that was like, really, I think I could do this. Because hopefully I'm not just playing for my family and friends my whole life, and they'll look at me and go, "What's wrong with that kid?" They'll understand that it's a part of reliving the songs on stage. So then, fast-forwarding to, you know - the drummer had to back out and the bassist had to back out. And Josh was always a guy I wanted to play music with. I'd known him before we played music together. When I first met him, I just knew he was a great guy. He was very talented. He was actually - when I met you, were you with House of Heroes?

Dun: Yeah.

Joseph: He was playing in a band called House of Heroes as their drummer. So we both had our things going on. A year after we met was when things came to a head. But it was a whole year of knowing each other but not playing music together.

Dun: But we wanted to the whole time.

Joseph: So what happened was everything fit into place where the guys I was playing with fell off, and Josh opened up because he wasn't playing with House of Heroes anymore. It all happened at once. So I called him, and I said, "Josh, do you want to be in the band?" And he's like, "Are you serious?" And I'm like, "I'm serious!" And he's like, "I'm serious!" And we just had this big moment, like, "Yes!" It was so exciting that it happened that way. And that's kind of how everything started. And we've been playing together for about a year. This past year has been a defining year for who Twenty One Pilots is and what that looks like on stage and how they approach shows and everything. So that's kind of the origin story.

Alive: So what was it about Josh's playing that appealed to you so much?

Joseph: I just loved that he beat the crap out of his drums. There was something about that physical act and what the songs were trying to say that just made so much sense. And as a songwriter, I am the songs. And so when I see someone who also is the songs, I can't stop wanting to play music with that person. You know, it's like, how Josh views drums, and how he lets playing drums be this cathartic thing for him every time, whether it's in front of no one or in front of a bunch of people, I just, like, get so fired up about that. And it's cool to kind of go back and forth on stage trying to push each other to see who can put the most into the same show. It's weird, we challenge each other to play even harder when we're not playing in front of anyone. In St. Louis!

Dun: It was after the first show that we ever played that we kind of started this - almost competition. It was like, "Who can have the most energy and show the most energy?"

Joseph: And then he did a backflip once, and it was like, "I can't compete with that."

Dun: We gotta both do that.

Joseph: I gotta figure that out. I was thinking front flip. (laughs) That could just go so bad so fast.

Alive: Josh, what about you? What about Twenty One Pilots made you want to get involved?

Dun: I worked at Guitar Center for three years, and the old drummer, I worked with him. And he brought in a demo CD of Twenty One Pilots. I think there was maybe three songs on there.

Joseph: Which happens all the time at Guitar Center.

Dun: Yeah, yeah. Typically I'm the person who will, like - I listen to everything, at least one or two songs of what somebody gives me. Because either it's going to be really bad and potentially funny or it's going to be really good. But either way, I like to listen to everything. So I listened to it, and the first song on there was the cover of Andrea Bocelli's "Time To Say Goodbye." He kind of did a remix and some rap in there and stuff. And I loved it. I thought it was awesome and unique and fresh. So there was a show at the Newport - it was the first time I ever saw Twenty One Pilots - and I went. And I had just started playing with House of Heroes. And I went up to Tyler after the show. I didn't want to bother him or anything, I was just saying, "Hey man, really quick. My name's Josh. I just wanted to say it was an awesome show. It was so good. I was blown away" - which is not something I typically do, either. And Tyler's just like - he knew who I was somehow, I think from seeing House of Heroes. So we got together-

Joseph: Well, first, it was the, "We should hang out sometime." How many times do you say that in a year and it actually kind of falls through? Maybe once a year out of 150 times that you say that to someone. We actually hung out.

Dun: Yeah, later that week. It was like a few days later, I think. And we stayed up 'til 7 in the morning just talking about our dreams and visions musically. And everything we talked about, we would try and just say, like, the craziest things, and they would both align. It was just like, "Dude, I want that too!" It was just from the first day that we hung out that it was like, "I want to play music with this guy. I want to be a part of what he wants to do, and I believe that everything he's saying that matches up with what I believe can come true. It can happen." So that began sort of the friendship. We would hang out for like a year and occasionally talk about playing music - because you don't want to center everything around that when we've both got our own things going on. So then I played one show, I filled in one time. And we got there, and we played one song, and the cops shut it down.

Joseph: Hold on, there's a better story to that.

Dun: You want me to tell the whole thing?

Joseph: Well, Josh quit his job to fill in for the show with me. I was like, "Can you play one show?" And he's like, "Well, the only way I would be able to do it, if I was to rehearse, would be if I quit my job. But I'll just quit." I'm like, "Wait. Hold on." And he's like, "I'll just quit." For one show! We get there, it's at OU, and the first song we play, the cops shut it down. So he quit his job, not only to play one show, but to play one song. And in that moment, I was like, "This is the guy for the job. Absolutely."

Dun: That is a good story. You're right.

Alive: I went to OU. Where was the show?

Joseph: It was a house show that they put on every year, and it was really cool. I mean, they brought, like, a full PA and everything. And it was a really cool environment. I mean, everyone was feeling the first song. (laughs) But, another thing that really just attracted me to the way Josh plays drums is that he's a guy who doesn't really have a Plan B, you know? He has his Plan A of playing music and playing drums, and that's it. And it's contagious. It's very good to have around. Whatever it is that you're building, as someone who has the vision for something, whether it be a company or a band or whatever it is, to have people around you who have no Plan B can be what fuels you on those days when you feel like you're hopeless in continuing this.

Dun: On the opposite end, it's easy to buy into or envelop myself in this thing when I fully support the message behind the music or the ambition - or also the drive and the Plan A, the only plan that he has at the same time too. So it was just nice that we were on the same page about almost everything when it comes to what it is that we want out of the band.

Alive: Can you share what were these shared ideas you guys were matching up on?

Joseph: Yeah, I mean, geez. (sighs)

Dun: Go ahead.

Joseph: The reason why it's such an important thing that we were able to, one, feel comfortable enough to share these things, and two, that we were on the same page about this - because your biggest dreams are just as traumatic as your darkest secrets. And sharing those are, you know, it's a risk. And you're putting yourself out there. And so the fact that we both felt comfortable enough to share those dreams with each other was one thing. And then the fact that we were able to assure each other inside of that conversation was another. So when we get asked, like, "What are your dreams?" Crap. I want to address the fact that I take on two people a lot. One is I'm just someone who is constantly learning about music, constantly learning about live shows. And every person that ever comes out to a show, and every person that ever supports us, I can't express enough how thankful I am for that support. And we're so lucky to be in a place that we are. And the show that we have coming up this weekend. So honored and lucky to represent Columbus in that way, to fill a venue like this. And then, that's one side of me. Then the other side of me is what Josh and I are talking about, that we don't really show a lot of people, and that's the side that - we think we're the best. And the way that you communicate that to others can really - they can interpret that any way they want. It's dangerous. Because we think that we have something that is new, and it's powerful, and we want to constantly be backing that up with the fact that these fans, and these people of Ohio and the surrounding states that have bought into that, they have created this thing that we have just been fueling. And we think that our fans are the best fans that are out there.