Twenty One Pilots
Rock

Twenty One Pilots Talk Embracing the Light on New Album -- And How Their Next LP Might Slip Back Into Darkness

Twenty One Pilots' last album, 2018's introspective Trench, ended with "Leave the City," on which singer Tyler Joseph sang about packing up and staying alive, being far away from home while staring at "these faces facing me." In a hard pivot away from that collection's dark, down-the-rabbit hole saga, the Columbus, Ohio duo's just-released sixth studio album, Scaled and Icy, opens with the ebullient "Good Day," on which the frequently concerned Joseph promises, "Low key -- I'm alright... My sunshine/ Is a buzz and a light, I'll be singing out/ I know it's hard to believe me/ It's a good day."

For a band whose music has often delved into the struggles of navigating life with an anxious, worried mind, S&I is, indeed, a buzz and a light. Coming out of the global pandemic lockdown, Joseph and drummer Josh Dun U-turned from the dense, frenetic concept album's twisty storyline and jittery emotions to a breezy, 37-minute buzzbomb of tracks such as "Good Day," "Mulberry Street," "Saturday" and "Bounce Man."

And, rather than taking what Joseph jokingly referred to as a planned "victory lap" of arenas and festivals to close out the Trench cycle, the hard-touring duo suddenly found themselves with an abundance of empty calendar pages for the first time in a decade. "When I first started writing in 2020 [I felt like] I could go one of two ways: I could make a left-hand turn here and really lean into what I felt like everyone was feeling, this ominous world is ending feel," Joseph tells Billboard about his creative fork in the road moment during COVID lockdown. "Or I could make a right-hand turn and kind of escape from that feeling."

Sequestered at home with his wife and newborn baby daughter -- with Dun thousands of miles away in Los Angeles -- Joseph decided to turn towards the light rather than dig deeper into the Trench the band had laid. He emerged with an album that is still laced with some of the persistent worries we all have from time to time ("Lost my job, my wife and child/ Homie just sued me," "I know it's over/ I was born a choker/ Nobody's coming for me"), but one that's also shot through with a bubbly, '70s/early '80s AM radio sparkle that he says finally made his father-in-law relate to the vibe he was laying down.

"I was like, 'Listen to this song!' And he loved it," Joseph says of the breezy roller skate jam "Saturday." "That was a really rewarding moment for me, to watch my father-in-law finally be like, 'You write music that I like now!'"

The album -- which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart this week -- got a coming-out party during a kaleidoscopic, ambitious day-of-release livestream that had the band performing most of the tracks on custom sets built in their hometown arena. For Joseph, it was a chance to reset and give the band's fiercely loyal fans a taste of the next iteration of 21P before he sets off "in another direction" with the follow-up that's already in his head.

But first, Joseph talks with Billboard about why he embraced his inner Earth, Wind & Fire, why he's not afraid of leaning into his pop side and how the more somber album closer "Redecorate" might be a bridge to what's next. (Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

What was your original plan for this year and last before the world went sideways?

Our 2020 still had shows planned. We were going into that "victory lap" on our last record with some festivals and a few headline moments and all that obviously got upended. 2020 was going to be a year of travel and it turned into a year of me at home writing a record. My daughter was born in Feb. 2020, so all of a sudden I was a stay-at-home dad working on music. So drastically different as we were rounding third base at the end of 2019.

So many of your songs about about anxiety and feeling left out, isolated or other, so how do you come out of a dark time with such positive music? The baby was obviously a gift, but the music seems counter-intuitive to what some might expect from you.

When I would walk down into my studio in the basement, every day I crossed that threshold, it felt like the right decision to write something that felt outside of the experience that everyone, including the whole world, was going through. It just felt like the natural direction. There's always something to be said about when enough time is put in between when you create something and when you're able to look back on it. As you add time in between those two things, you start to see things clearer -- so it's still very fresh for me to know exactly why I wrote the record I did. But I think eventually as I look back it will become clearer and I'll be able to answer that.

Right, because it definitely feels like it would have been easier for you to lean into the isolation and the darkness -- you also do that quite well -- but was this turn into brightness more for you, or the fans, or both?

Our fans are so creative, they're so talented. When we go on tour and we get to interact with these people who are sharing their artwork with us, their music with us, we're seeing just how powerful and creative our fan base is.

A lot of people find inspiration in being able to change locations or travel the Earth, or at least walk down your street. What I was worried about was now that we were all confined into a single space for a year, what was there left to spark that inspiration? That's when I really wanted to lean into the power of imagination. [Imagination is a word we use for little kids, something we cultivate as kids, but when you're a creative thinker that imagination can still be something you tap into. It can also be so powerful even if you're not able to move about and be inspired by changing locations.

Your livestream was just that. I got to watch you rehearse "Mulberry Street" a few times and as I walked around I kept trying to picture what the final product would be. When I saw it it was clear how you imagined a whole world and then you poured it out in the way you just described.

Exactly. I really stretched myself there: the choreography, and the singing, having to manage my breathing while singing and still remembering the steps and making sure you're hitting the right spots at the right time? It was one of the toughest things I've ever done.

Imagination is inherently endless -- the only things that limits it is logistics, like a budget or resources. And to be in a band that has fans interested in what we're going to say an do next and to utilize a $20 ticket for them to experience this livestream and put pretty much all of it back into this production? And to feel like, other than the arena we rented for two weeks that was our only limit, everything else inside of it was free game. What do you want to do, what can you dream up?

I'm just so fortunate to be in that position. As much as I'm trying to give them something they can sink their teeth into and be inspired and entertained by, I feel like they're giving me so much in return by letting me see my imagination and my inspiration have such a wide array of possibilities. It's something I'll always be indebted to them for.

Elite athletes have been talking about how being out of competition for a year has helped them heal and regroup. For a band that is so used to touring, hard, after every album -- was there something healing about having a year of not jumping off pianos and pounding on drums and just being a dad and a creator?

Absolutely! I don't want to take away from the gravity of what 2020 was for people, so I'm always careful about pointing out any positive from 2020 -- because overall, it was a very negative and traumatic experience for many people and I recognize that. With that being said, the ability to be home for a year, and see my daughter from when she was born until now and not have to travel? I can really feel that connection we formed, that bond has been built between us and I'm really glad that happened. I'll be reaping from that year for the rest of my life and so I'm really appreciative of that.

When this thing gets going again... I'll tell you what, it's going to be a party! It's a bit of a cliche, but once it's gone you really don't realize how amazing it is to play for a crowd of people... When you take that away and you're thrust into trying to be a normal person and all of a sudden you realize, "wow that was such an awesome opportunity," and that the skills you bring to the touring world don't necessarily translate into skills that will be useful in a normal world where there isn't touring.

What was the biggest challenge of working across the country with Josh living in L.A.? You two have such an obviously air-tight connection, did it change the vibe at all to do it remotely?

Of course. You can't replace that human-to-human, in-person connection, and that chemistry built over a decade. But, trying to find the positive in all this -- it didn't happen in 1920, it happened in 2020, with the ability to get on to a video conference and work out drum parts. He'd point his cameo over to his drums and play something and we'd talk about it and change it a little bit. We'd give each other access to our computers and literally my mouse was moving on his computer while he was recording, and vice versa. We did hit a stride and found a new branch of our chemistry.

I do wonder if that's gonna be a one-time thing -- or maybe something we tap into in the future as well? Our whole world learned a lot about what we can get away when it comes to trying to collaborate over a conference call. But right at the end, he recently moved back to Columbus. So the band's back together and we're close to each other, and we have no excuse and will get back to working together on music in person.

The right first song is crucial for any album and "Good Day" is like this blast of light right at the top. Was that your intention, to immediately set the table on what to expect this time? First tracks are often also the first songs at your show, so was that in your head as well?

I talked about how playing live is so ingrained in how we create and I think the classic way to start a concert is the low, ominous rumble, and then something happens and something happens and it's.... more threatening. In the past I've started my records that way because I thought, "Hey, I want to start my concerts with the song that starts the record." I knew that when I wanted to write a different record, the first song was going to be more important than ever -- and how can I communicate the idea of something turning on? I kept using the words "turning on," like I flicked on the ignition and things were starting to kick on in different steps. That's the feeling "Good Day" gave me, especially the sound design at the beginning.

But I still feel like it would start a concert great... we walk out on stage and go into that [and] it would still have that excitement and momentum, but a completely different approach. Not the ominous, low rumble, the turning on -- almost coming back to life, an animatronic robot starting to get its blinking eyes back. And I love the idea of holding that one chord on my left hand on the piano and just letting it ride.

Your shows always have a visual signature, so do you try to picture what songs like "Bounce Man" will look like on stage when you write them? Listening to "Choker," do you revel in the idea of thousands of fans singing that chorus back to you? Or "The Outside," where you describe a sea of heads moving up and down? They almost feel like directions, or instructions for how to move in unison.

Absolutely. There are times when Josh and I when we were first starting, playing for 10-20 people, where we said, "We need a song that does this, and when it does this the people in the audience can do that with us." The very nature of a live show is in the creation process of writing the record all the time for us, so those worlds are constantly fused together.

I thought one day I'm going to write a record that doesn't consider the live experience, it just puts it out of sight, out of mind. And I've always wanted to try and write a record that didn't let that live side of it be a factor in the creation process. And I thought this would be the record for that. What better opportunity, with live music never being so far away and you just don't know when or if you'll play these songs live?

And yet even with this opportunity to write a record without considering live music, I still couldn't do it! I still was writing songs thinking about what that audience was going to do and how they were going to respond to it and how they were going to feed into it and add energy to it. So that's when I realized that as a songwriter, part of the fibers of who I am will always consider, "How will this come off live?"

Asking for a friend -- why did you leave your pandemic banger "Level of Concern" off? Did it not feel part of it?

That's a good question. For me, sonically, it probably would have fit. But something I've learned kind of recently... when I would listen to older songs of mine, I used to feel awkward. "I wish I could have done that differently... I would have recorded that differently..." But then recently, what I realized is the way for me to naturally get over that reaction is I realized, "That song is a perfect representation of who I was at that moment." So the idea of trying to nitpick things that have already been is such a waste of time. You can be proud that it is a timestamp of who you were.

Which is all to say that sonically it may have fit the record, but it meant more to me as a timestamp of something that was in between records, something quick on its feet. What I'm proud of that song for is the ability, when the pandemic really started to take, to show the agility Josh and I have on a creative level: we can write, record and release a song quickly.

You've also said you already have a second record in the works -- what can you tell me about that and are the new songs of a piece with this album?

I've always got ideas rolling, whether it's voice memos on my phone or fully fleshed out ideas in the studio. There's no feeling like releasing new music to fans that are anticipating it. Some of them aren't going to like it, some are, and that's exciting, to know that that will be changing -- the landscape of who a Twenty One Pilots fan is slightly moving. And that's scary, but also very exciting, and I love this feeling. I'm very sensitive to critique, but also very inspired.

So instead of being thrust into this bear of an album cycle, with a ton of touring and a ton of other things taking up my time, energy and creativity, the idea of taking the excitement of releasing a record and being able to quickly move it into writing a next record is really exciting for me. I can't say it's fully fleshed-out and I know what direction I'm going to go, but I can say that I'm really excited about capitalizing on the energy of releasing a record and moving right into writing another one. That energy used to go into making an awesome tour and putting a lot of that energy into a good show for people.

The livestream felt a bit Broadway at parts -- laced, of course, with the dark Dema story undercurrent from Trench for the old school fans. This seems like such a forward-facing pop record for you and you talked bout the inevitability of losing and gaining fans. Do you feel like this is your moment to blow up as big as you've ever been? And are you at all worried that some fans might resist and cut bait?

That's certainly not the intention. There's certain formats to songs that could make it on the radio and could not, and as a songwriter I know when I'm writing a song that might be able to make it on radio and could not and one that could not ever be on radio because of its length and structure and format. The other thing I've learned, though, is as soon as your intention is to try and write something more commercial you've already failed. If your intention is to write something commercial it's not going to work.

The idea of trying to gain more fans... I've seen countless bands try to reinvent themselves in a way that custom-tailors to what's going on in the current musical culture and that just never goes well. So I'm just going to keep trying to better myself and us as a band and me as a songwriter and inevitably people people will stop liking the direction we go, but I just can't stay put and keep writing the same record. I think that would be almost more of a disservice to our fans.

That's why "Saturday" pops so much. It's like an Earth, Wind & Fire roller-skate jam, which, again, feels a bit out of character.

I pulled my father-in-law into my truck when I finished writing that song because he grew up on disco. He literally went to the roller rink every week growing up and he loves that style of music. He's listened to stuff that I was writing for years now and of course it's not his cup of tea. But then to write a song like that, at least for him at that moment, was such a rewarding moment for me as a son-in-law.

That's funny, because I was listening to "Shy Away" as a kind of skinny tie new wave pop thing and felt shades of ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky," and, on other songs, even J. Geils Band, Supertramp and EW&F. But I wasn't sure if that was listener's bias or your intention? Is any of that music you listened to growing up?

Yes it is. I didn't really come from a musical family when it comes to playing instruments or singing, but music was very much a part of my life in the sense that my dad just loved music. He was the king of "Name That Tune." Any road trip we'd be on we'd flip through the dial and play "Name That Tune" for hours and hours and you get one point for the name of the artist and one point for the name of the song. And this was before you could look it up on your phone, so sometimes there were a few points that were disputed all the way to the vacation that we were going to. "I don't know if that's the name of the song!" My dad has a really big Rolodex of music, and the ones you just mentioned are the ones he really loved and I grew up listening to as well.

My relationship with my parents, my dad specifically -- we've just grown to be friends in a really cool way, in a way I hope everyone gets to be with their parents because it's hard to get there. You see them as your parents, but when you see them as a peer at some point in their life, they want that. Talking about my dad and my father-in-law, these are friends of mine. I wanted to write a record that I thought that they would like. Not being afraid of that and not trying to intentionally write something that would turn them off because then that means that it's cool. There were several times when I would pull both those guys in and say, "Hey, look at this song I'm writing." Because I know it would be reminiscent of something they grew up on. I had a lot of fun doing that.

Whether or not this is your big pop moment, it seems like you've already got a built-in "keep a level head" song pre-loaded with "Mulberry Street." Is the essential message there: don't be an a--hole, stay humble?

For sure. It's a weird thing to manage: to get up on stage in front of a lot of people and then have to sink back into reality when you're done with that show and be a dad, or husband or friend. My support group of friends and family are so naturally humbling already -- but yeah, what a great reminder to remember that you're no better or different than anyone else in that audience.

I had a very vivid dream [that I was in the audience at a festival] and I remember thinking, "I still feel important" standing in that audience watching that band. I still feel like I'm adding to this experience. And I want to remember that, the perspective of someone standing in the audience bringing their energy to the moment as well. It's also a good, friendly reminder that just because I'm the one up on the stage with the microphone, it doesn't make me any different from anyone in the audience.

For the subreddit gang, is the album title really, as fans have speculated, an anagram of "Clancy is Dead?, another deep Trench reference?

No comment!

While the album does, in general, have this up vibe, the final track, "Redecorate," is decidedly more ominous and touches on the legacy we leave behind. It also feels very personal, can you talk about the story of that song and how it fits into the greater narrative?

When I was putting this record together I knew two things: "Good Day" was going to be the first song and I kind of knew "Redecorate" was going to be the last one. On a sound design level "Redecorate" was the song I worked with [frequent collaborator] Paul Meany on, we did Trench together. I introduced this brand new, sparkling, happy, colorful record and I hope that people understand that the reason I'm ending it with "Redecorate" is that we're headed in another direction after this. That is an intentional hint at what I want to try to do next. It's not really a cliffhanger, but it is a precursor and lyrically it's such an important song for me.

I had a friend of mine whose son passed away and they kept his room the way it was. I started thinking about something as specific and simple as "What's gonna happen to my stuff?"... everyone can understand that even though it's simple and almost doesn't matter it can actually be an impactful thought. "What happens to my stuff when I go? What about the things left behind?" And not just the stuff, but you naturally move to people. What about my family? What about my friends? I thought that was a powerful thought, something I've thought about before and I thought some people would relate to. I'm really proud of that one.