I’ve been playing a game, trying to come up with the least appealing way to describe the eclectic music of Ohio duo Twenty One Pilots. Ukulele-hop? The Christian Eminems? Rock-dance-reggae-rap-fusion? Essentially it’s piano rock that heads in any number of unexpected directions, like Keane with rapping – oh, that’s a good one.
And yet, and yet… Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun’s popularity has exploded in the past year. On the day we meet, they learn that a newly announced summer 2016 concert in America’s best-known arena venue, Madison Square Garden, has sold out so quickly that they have to add a second. Their second album, Blurryface (there were two other collections before they were signed to a major record deal, but they don’t count those) was a US number one in May. A mid-size London gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire this evening is to be followed by two more twice as big at Brixton Academy in February. They definitely have significant appeal, to teenagers especially.
“Music can connect people on an intimate level. What Josh and I are trying to do is represent anyone who has some of the questions that we have,” says Joseph, 26, who raps, but mostly sings, and plays piano, but mostly sprints around the stage between strategically positioned microphones, while Dun, 27, pounds the drums. They’re surprisingly serious in conversation, given their fondness for masks and crazy glasses in concert and Dun’s goofy red-haired skateboarder look. Their music is fun, energetic and supremely catchy, but they also try to tackle the heavy stuff. “When you write music that expresses doubt or concern, or talks about some of the darker things that a developing human goes through, people will come out of the woodwork to listen to someone else say it out loud.”
They’re serious about the way it’s presented, too. We meet in a hotel bedroom in Hoxton, which they’ve essentially booked for an afternoon nap, straight off the plane from America, before taking an overnight tour bus to Glasgow to begin their latest UK concert run. They’re choosing which of the single beds to take, based on the fact that Dun is to Joseph’s right in every single photograph of the band. I check later and it’s true. The singer has spent the flight watching Lambert and Stamp, the music documentary about the managers of The Who, and planning the arena tour, right down to where the microphone stands should be at the end of each song.
“We just want to outdo ourselves every time we come back somewhere,” he says. Theirs is a big sound but there’s still only the two of them on stage, and Joseph frequently allows his piano to be played by a backing track. “Some people would look at a backing track as something that would confine you, but it really frees us up. It’s nice not to be strapped down to a certain spot when you’re trying to put on a show.”
The band formed in Columbus, Ohio, first with Joseph and two other friends on bass and drums. He and Dun talk about their relationship just like a married couple, who bonded as friends first before they took things to the next level. “Neither of us said anything about playing music together, but we could just feel it,” says Joseph. “We never talked about it, we knew it was going to happen. Then the guys he was playing with, it went in a different direction, and the guys I was playing with didn’t want to do it any more. I called up my friend. It was perfect, it was like a cheesy movie.”
“We built respect for each other first,” adds the drummer. “We got so much out of the way that needs to be out of the way before you get into a creative relationship.”
Theirs were middle-class, religious upbringings far from the bright lights of New York or LA. If you’re one of the 25 million people who has seen the video for their standout song, Stressed Out, on YouTube, you’ll have seen their childhood homes and their real families. “It’s not like we grew up hanging around in church every day,” says Dun. “We’ll always stick to what we feel is right for us to do, and I don’t think either of us have had a hard time saying, ‘This is who I am, and I’m fine with it.’”
“The lyrics are a lot about those big questions: why are we here, how did we get here, what’s the point, and what’s next,” says Joseph. “When those questions come up with fans, I would absolutely share with them what has helped me and where I stand on what it is that I believe. You hear about our conservative background and know that we’re Christian guys, but we’re not timid at all. I will take anyone on when it comes to outworking them or putting on a better show or standing up for people who are being put down.”
These days Dun lives in LA, mainly for weather purposes. Joseph got married to fellow Ohio native Jenna Black in March and has settled in Columbus, though she’s away on tour with him more often than they’re at home. It sounds like a fun existence, but the singer confesses that’s not always how it feels. The recent album, Blurryface, is named for an alter-ego he created to represent his insecurities. On Stressed Out’s chorus he sings: “My name is Blurryface and I care what you think.” On stage he coats his neck and his hands with black make-up as a symbolic gesture.
“Insecurity for me feels like the sensation of suffocating. So that’s why I do the neck thing,” he explains. “The other thing I’m most insecure about is saying, ‘This is what I created. This is mine. This is the best I can do.’ So there’s black on my hands to represent that. The live show is a moment where that character is realised and confronted and hopefully conquered. As the show goes on, the make-up starts to wear away.”
What remains is a duo who couldn’t be more adored by ever-growing crowds. It may be hard to make Twenty One Pilots sound good on paper, but Shepherd’s Bush this evening will feel the physical rush of seeing a band that’s flying very high indeed.
Tonight, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, W12 (0844 477 2000, o2shepherdsbushempire.co.uk); Feb 24-25, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 (0844 477 2000, o2academybrixton.co.uk)