Twenty One Pilots: A world of imagination


Fame is a thorny little beast. It's something we've all dreamed of at one point or another: to see our names lacquered on billboards and lit up in big, bold lights – to strut out onto a sprawling arena stage, pyro raging, to a sea of rabid devotees all clamouring feverishly in awe of our mere presence.

But it’s not all blue ticks and bubblegum. Celebrity comes with some chilling terms and conditions: attention breeds scrutiny, scrutiny breeds hate, and hate breeds destruction. There’s a reason that most child stars wind up stumbling through a phase of drug-addled rebellion – they need an escape from the harsh, piercing eye of the general public. And then there’s the fact that ‘independent’ success is almost entirely mythical: for every one face plastered on screens or strung up on a stage, there’s at least a dozen behind them turning the cogs and scanning the data, making sure every move that their character makes is calculated for maximum impact.

Twenty One Pilots knew this when they signed to Fueled By Ramen. The genre-bending pop duo have long maintained a fan-forward identity, nourishing a culture of inclusion and affirmation; and when they joined the ranks of Panic! At The Disco, Paramore and Fall Out Boy at the label every alternative act under the sun would kill to be a part of, they used that culture to their advantage – it’s kinda hard to hang shit on a band when you’re so intrinsically intertwined with their happenings, right?

It was a foolproof blueprint for the act to navigate fame without landing in its potholes – that was, at least, until the early months of 2015, when they tripped headfirst into the ghastly realm of superstardom. Their second LP, Blurryface, was a cultural monolith – it was the record every Tumblr-dwelling tween worth their Crosley needed to own, and by the second that ‘Stressed Out’ made it to primetime, Twenty One Pilots had leaped from theatres and clubs to packed-out stadiums. And it had a lasting impact on how the band operated.

As frontman Tyler Joseph admits to BLUNT, “When Blurryface came out and really established us as a band – at least on a global level – there was so much that I wanted to prove to myself, and everyone else, in the writing of the next record specifically because of that experience. So then [2018’s] Trench turned into this thing that I was very careful about. I approached it very hard-headed and very determined, because I felt like I had something to prove.”

Joseph has always embraced the motif of introspection. If he’s not directly musing on his own lived experience, he’s conversing with the listener one-on-one; ‘Holding On To You‘, ‘Fake You Out‘, ‘Before You Start Your Day’… Joseph is adroit at not only welcoming fans into his world, but establishing them as the main characters in it. Combined with the longstanding setup of Joseph and drummer Josh Dun, the pair as inseparable as they are determined to steer this giant ship into the ether, there’s an implied context of insularity – from the outside looking in, Twenty One Pilots is Joseph, Dun, and the subject they’re addressing: you.

But again, when you’re a million-dollar Top 40 act on a major label – when you’re a band like Twenty One Pilots on a label like Fueled By Ramen – nothing happens in a vacuum. Between the studio, the label and the stage, there are dozens upon dozens of hands that every microscopic inkling of Twenty One Pilots’ output is passed through. You’d have to wonder: just how much creative autonomy is Joseph actually allowed?

“I think I’m overwhelmingly lucky,” he answers with a genuine, eye-to-eye smile. “We found ourselves with a great label and a team of people that trusted us from the beginning. But also, a lesson we learned early on was that when you get signed to a label, that’s just the beginning. It’s the beginning of you leading them – showing them what it is that you want to get out of that partnership, and showing them which direction you want to head in. And we found that the more we could lead them, the more they were excited about us. They were excited to work with a band that had their own vision, that knew which direction they wanted to go in – and they came around and facilitated that whenever we needed them to.”

For the first chapter of their partnership, such meant that Fueled By Ramen would plant the seeds that Joseph and Dun would nurture. For 2013’s Vessel, they teamed the pair with industry-lauded producer Greg Wells – whose resume at that point sported the likes of Katy Perry and Adele – to galvanise the off-beat quirkiness of their Regional At Best mixtape with a highly marketable coat of pop gloss. For Blurryface, they rallied up a whole stable of heavyweight names to ensure it could tick an assortment of stylistic boxes and appeal to a broader scope of audiences.

As tracks like ‘Lane Boy‘ make clear, the Blurryface sessions triggered some apprehension towards the idea of bucking to mainstream pop trends. Joseph maintains that he and Dun always called the shots when push came to shove, but when it was the most left-field, fan-serving tracks on Blurryface that took Twenty One Pilots soaring into the stratosphere, the label suits hovering over the duo backed off completely.

"In the real world, we don’t have that control: things are pretty chaotic right now, so to develop a world that you can dive into – that you have total control over – is a powerful thing."

“They realised they didn’t have to try to force their creative opinion on us,” Joseph asserts. “They realised there was something there. And I know I’m very fortunate to have a career like that, because there’s a lot of bands and artists that find themselves caught between a lot of voices telling them who they should be, how they should conduct themselves, and ultimately what type of songs they should write and perform – and that’s not us. I mean, they check in – I’ve got a couple of great people over [at Fueled By Ramen] that I work with, and we’ve built a great rapport – but ultimately, they take our lead.”

So after striking gold on his own accord with Trench (the bulk of which was hashed out in his home studio), Joseph relaxed a bit to the pressures of expectation. Thus led to Scaled and Icy – a record that’s almost overwhelmingly vivid and effervescent, pillared on kaleidoscopic, ‘80s-channelling synths and summery, shimmering guitars, layers of polychromatic vocal effects, and a narrative that echoes the fantastical escapism of films like The NeverEnding Story and Tron.

“It’s a bit lighter, a bit more colourful, and a lot more imaginative,” Joseph says of his creative intentions for the record. He notes that at a core level – especially when Scaled and Icy was written in a time of isolation and uncertainty – the driving force was an eagerness to trust himself as a songwriter, eschewing the rigid artistic headspace that informed Trench.

“I think Scaled and Icy looks at Trench like, ‘You know, you didn’t have to try so hard.’ I think I’ve written enough records now to see a bit of a pattern – at least enough to see an action and a reaction – and I can’t help but wonder if [Scaled and Icy] is a reaction to me over-reacting [to the success of Blurryface] on Trench. As a songwriter, it’s important to just follow the song. Let the song lead you, and allow yourself to rely on the instincts you have as a songwriter: ‘I think this is good, and I want to chase this idea all the way to the end.’”

By proxy, Scaled and Icy dives deeper than ever into the labyrinthine world of storytelling that Twenty One Pilots established with Blurryface and fleshed out with Trench – that of DEMA (a totalitarian city in which Joseph’s character is trapped), Clancy (its ruler, a physical manifestation of anxiety and doubt) and the nine bishops (an allegory for the personal demons that haunt those suffering from mental illness), and our lead’s fight to break free from the shackles of these raging, oppressive forces. There are new characters, like Trash The Dragon, and a clearer, more widescreen deciphering of this world’s nuance.

“I’ve always been a big fan of stories,” Joseph says. “I’d always poured myself into other people’s stories, but I’ve learned that one of the most amazing things about writing your own stories is that you have control of it. In the real world, we don’t have that control: things are pretty chaotic right now, so to develop a world that you can dive into – that you have total control over – is a powerful thing. It’s a way to balance out a lot of the negative experiences you may have in life.

“When I started writing stories to go along with these songs, I don’t think I realised that. It wasn’t my intention. I just knew that I was drawn to stories, and I wanted to make the songs mean more than just what they were on the surface. But now, looking back, I’ve realised that I was compensating for the lack of control I had in my life at the time.”

We swing back to the concept of creative freedom, but this time the notion that perhaps by pressuring himself to work within the confines of a structured narrative, Joseph is restricting his own artistry. Do the walls of DEMA hold him back from delving into new themes or experiences, lest he break the immersion?

“You would think,” he chuckles, “But it’s my world! I mean, it sounds like there would be these boundaries that you’re forced to play within, but the truth is, when it truly is your own creation, there are no rules. You’re justified in taking the story in any direction you want to, because it’s your world. I’ve not found any restrictions yet.”

So what’s next? We already know that Scaled and Icy isn’t the last chapter in Joseph’s semi-fictitious reckoning with DEMA; he’s expressed in other interviews that this new record is, in some ways, a “distraction” from the cycle of tyranny his characters are roped in, which a future project will bring to the surface. And we’re poised to see that materialise sooner than later – swivelling in his studio chair, Joseph is ecstatic to confirm, “I am still grinding!”

“You know, we just finished a record and we’re about to release it, but I still feel like I’ve got something left in the tank,” he says. “It’s a relief to know that I didn’t write my last song.”

Scaled and Icy is out now.