When you’re the biggest band ever to explode out of a music-obsessed college town like Columbus, Ohio, people there tend to give you what you want. For Twenty One Pilots, whose genre-defying smash “Stressed Out” has climbed to the top of every radio format short of country, the request on this chilly early-spring day is a modest one: They just need to briefly commandeer the sound system at the Newport Music Hall, a local rock club where they cut their teeth. Tyler Joseph, 27, the two-man crew’s singer-songwriter, has just been Dropbox-ed a new mix of a tune that’s in contention for the soundtrack of a major summer blockbuster, and he’s eager to give it a spin. As drummer Josh Dun, 27, goes off in search of his luggage -- he mostly lives in Los Angeles these days and is heading there in a couple of hours -- Joseph plugs his iPhone into the club’s soundboard, positions himself on the empty floor’s sonic sweetspot and signals for the tech to let it rip.
When the song -- a moody, downtempo banger that could almost be a Rihanna track -- explodes from the PA at full concert volume, it’s like a switch is flipped in some deep, primitive part of the singer’s brain. Mouthing along to his sung-rapped lyrics, he begins beating his fists King Kong-style against his chest as he unselfconsciously struts across the floor, unleashing a small portion of the strange, scaffold-climbing, near-spastic charisma that powers the duo’s increasingly huge live shows, which include two sold-out nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden in August. “I lived in a house for seven years with other dudes, and every time Josh would come over to load the van, one of my roommates would always be like” -- Joseph slips into a doofus-bro voice -- ‘Hey, you got a show at the Garden tonight?’ We’ve been looking forward to that show since it was just a dream.”
The pair actually met right here, at the Newport, in 2010, when Dun was in the audience for a show by an earlier incarnation of Twenty One Pilots and got his mind blown by his future bandmate. He and Joseph became close friends, bonding over their similar childhoods -- both grew up in religious families and were home-schooled for a time -- their eclectic musical taste and ambition. “We hung out maybe four days later and talked about life and music and what we both personally aspire to do,” says Dun. “We realized how much our goals and philosophies aligned.”
Later, at another, larger venue called Express Live, Joseph breaks down exactly what he was listening for in the mix. “High hats, stuff like that,” says the frontman, who executive-produces all of the act’s music, including its breakthrough LP, Blurryface, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in May 2015 and has sold 753,000 copies since, according to Nielsen Music. “Just the very intricate things that maybe a lot of people couldn’t tell the difference between, but will bug me if they aren’t sitting right in the mix.” He’s psyched about the sonic perfection his group can now afford, with access to top-tier studios and help from A-list producers like Dr. Dre protege Mike Elizondo. “It’s awesome to feel the kick drum like I’ve always wanted to feel it,” he says. “We call it ‘major-label kick drum.’ ”
At the same time, both Joseph and Dun are wary of having the edges sandblasted off of their sound -- which is unique, in that it mashes up such a diversity of styles that it seems like an entire Clive Davis Grammy party (circa 1999 or so) is jamming inside of Joseph’s head at all times. During the course of Blurryface, and sometimes within individual songs, the duo slides between speedy Eminem-ish rapping, soul-rending emo-kid singing, sun-splashed Sublime-esque reggae, pummeling Electric Daisy Carnival-ready EDM and throwback pop-punk hooks, all spiked with high-drama piano chords, lush multitracked harmonies and even ukulele. Dun anchors the chaos with nimble, high-energy drumming and has an even bigger role onstage, where he controls the elaborate backing tracks that flesh out their sound.
And now, with “Stressed Out,” and its loping, Macklemore-y verses about childhood pleasures, Twenty One Pilots have one of 2016’s biggest, least likely hits. Even though there’s little in the song that reads as “rock,” it has vaulted them onto playlists alongside acts like The Black Keys and Foo Fighters -- a sign, perhaps, that the long-struggling genre is adapting to the Spotify generation’s lane-swerving tastes. But it’s not an entirely comfortable place for a weird, gothy duo that has spent years carefully cultivating a rabid cult fan base. “The way I view a lot of the success that has happened recently is that it’s going to go away,” says Joseph. “I hope that we’ve just used this platform to get the attention of the people who will stick around for a while, who will add to the core fan base. That’s what we’re excited about, instead of believing that we’ll be a band on the radio forever. That’s not in our DNA.”
“Stressed Out” wasn’t created to be a single. It was intended as Blurryface’s second song, the tune that introduces the album’s concept. “Blurryface is this character that I came up with that represents a certain level of insecurity,” says Joseph. “These symbols and having a narrative give people a reason to want to take in the whole album -- not just one song. The concept of a single is still pretty foreign to us.”
The duo thinks deeply about every part of its process, from the fact that almost its entire team has been with it from the beginning to its reluctance to sign a label deal until it was two albums into its career. (It signed with respected indie Fueled by Ramen, and even then worried its fans might see it as a sellout move.) But Joseph isn’t sure it’s something non-fans really understand. “From the outside looking in, it probably seems like a ramped-up, industry-giant thing -- two good-looking guys make pop music or whatever,” he says. “But really it’s just the opposite.”
“Yeah,” says Dun, cracking up. “It’s two ugly guys making grunge music.”
Outside the Newport, the band hops into Dun’s rented Nissan, leaving a crew member to drive Joseph’s aging silver Pontiac Bonneville, a gift from his father-in-law from when he married his longtime girlfriend, Jenna, in 2015. The singer’s wedding ring is a simple black band that he picked up for a few bucks at a street market in, he thinks, Bangkok -- unless it was the Philippines. (All of the tour stops tend to blend together, although Dun especially loves Seoul. “They’re the nicest people ever,” he says. “And they’re just so advanced stylistically -- nobody’s going to leave the house wearing sweatpants.”) “I figured I spent enough on her ring,” says Joseph. “Mine can be five bucks.” Dun, who was in a relationship with Disney Channel star Debby Ryan for a couple of years, insists he hasn’t “been on a date in forever, unfortunately.”
After cruising past their favorite pizza spot and a slew of bars and small clubs the band played at one point or another, they arrive at Express Live, where they booked their first shows for serious crowds. Inside, they’re greeted by Scott Stienecker, who owns both venues and is a major promoter in central Ohio. “How important are these guys to the Columbus scene?” he asks. “Huge, huge. I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and this is the biggest act ever out of this town. I would now consider Columbus probably a top 10 music city. Seriously.”
At the band’s concerts (and in the “Stressed Out” video) the Blurryface concept is signaled with eerie, dark makeup covering Joseph’s neck and hands. “It’s important that we put on our own makeup,” he says. “By the end of the show it’s wearing away.” Masks are another key element, including a skeleton-print hoodie-mask combo Joseph wears at the start of shows. The idea for amping up the theatricality of their gigs came from their years as a local act -- they wanted to give their Columbus fans a reason to keep coming back. But now it has an almost mythological effect. “I didn’t go to many concerts growing up, but one that stuck out to me was actually seeing The Killers play here on this stage,” says Joseph. “When Brandon Flowers came out he was wearing this coat with the feathers on the shoulders -- the same get-up he wore in all of the music videos and the live videos that I had just eaten up. There was something so special about seeing that coat, right here in Columbus, Ohio.”
Watch Twenty One Pilots Hilariously Read Their Fans' Sweet Tweets
It’s hard not to read “Stressed Out” -- with its strong dose of childhood nostalgia in the face of highly relatable angst about grown-up problems -- as a distinctly millennial anthem. “Out of student loans and treehouse homes/We all would take the latter,” sings Joseph. The song’s resonance with a generation of anxiety-wracked young adults has inspired everything from a deep-dive take on The Atlantic’s website to a bizarre, sneering rejoinder in the New York Post (“Millennials need to put away the juice boxes and grow up”). All of which totally irks Joseph. “The word ‘anthem’? The word ‘millennial’?” he says with an edge of disgust. “I wasn’t thinking about any of that stuff. I was thinking about my brother and our relationship now and our relationship when we were growing up. He was my only friend for a big part of my life. I don’t think that’s a generational thing -- I think my dad relates to that song as much as I do.”
It’s not just his dad. Adult contemporary is merely one of the dozen or so charts, from alternative to pop, that “Stressed Out” has ruled in 2016. On Los Angeles’ alternative radio titan KROQ, which helped break “Stressed Out” late in 2015, the response was instantaneous. “When I first heard it on the album I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is the one,’ ” says KROQ music director Lisa Worden. “The social media response, the phone response, Shazam, the streams -- it was immediately performing. Total home run. At this point, they’re probably the biggest band we’re playing.”
Nick Petricca, the lead singer of Walk the Moon (the two bands came up playing shows together), has a theory about Twenty One Pilots’ special ability to connect with fans from all over. “Ohio is the most average place to grow up in America,” he says with a little laugh. “It’s in the Midwest, and you’ve got suburbs, big cities and farmland. You’ve got liberals and conservatives all mashed up -- it’s this little microcosm for the country.”
Joseph, who still lives in Columbus, and Dun, who just bought a house nearby, are back at the Newport today as part of a quick trip down memory lane between tour legs (they just got back from Chile, Argentina and Brazil the night before and are heading to Montreal in a couple of days). They consider the town, which is packed with venues -- not to mention more than 60,000 Ohio State University students -- as crucial to their success. “We had so many friends who did the band thing, and one of their first moves was to go on tour and they’d just blow all their money,” says Joseph. “For a long time, we just played here -- Columbus is a perfect place to work your way up and maybe build a fan base.”
Until he was 16, Joseph wasn’t even a little interested in music. All he wanted to do was play basketball. He still can bust out Globetrotter-y moves, but his vibe these days is distinctly un-jock-y. He speaks with an endearingly creaky voice and has hair that’s cropped in a way that creates a kind of permanent bedhead. His left arm is tattooed with a series of three jet-black rings. Dun is even more heavily inked, with a technicolor extravaganza sleeving his right arm. His hair is dyed bright red, and both of his ears are studded with pencil-thick gauges.
Joseph stumbled into music almost by accident. He grew up outside Columbus with two brothers and a sister. Their mom, Kelly, teaches and coaches basketball at a local school, and their dad, Chris, is also a coach and the principal at another high school. When Joseph was about 13, his mom got him a keyboard as a Christmas gift. He promptly stuffed it into a closet. “One day a few years later, it was probably raining, I pulled it out,” he says. Certain pieces of music would get stuck in his head -- one was Pachelbel’s Canon in D. “I realized, ‘Wait, that song is in the piano somewhere and I can figure this out,’ ” he recalls. He started writing his own songs not long after. Soon he was hooked enough that he turned down a basketball scholarship and enrolled at Ohio State, where he formed the first Twenty One Pilots lineup. (The name came from an Arthur Miller play, All My Sons, that he read in a class.) He dropped out during his second year and got a job at the Newport checking IDs, just to be closer to the music.
Even though they didn’t meet until later, Dun grew up just minutes away. He has two sisters and a brother. When it came to pop culture, his parents -- Laura, a hospice social worker, and Bill, a physical therapy assistant -- had strict rules, forcing him to hide his Green Day CDs. Surprisingly, the drums, which Dun was obsessed with trying to learn, helped bring the family together. “My parents were like, ‘We can use that as leverage,’ ” recalls Dun. Together they drew up a five-point contract, promising, among other things, that Dun would keep his GPA above 2.7, maintain a good attitude and avoid “inappropriate” music. “Looking back on it, they were so cool to let me play drums in the basement,” he says. “It was loud! We had to let the dog out.”
Joseph and Dun were home-schooled for most of elementary school, an experience they credit at least in part for their musical openmindedness. “Once I showed up at school, I was like, ‘Where do I fit in, who do I hang out with?’ ” says Dun. “It’s weird how you’re classified by what you listen to -- I had some friends that liked rock music and other friends that liked rap. I liked both.”
“It was kind of a culture shock,” adds Joseph. “It was like, ‘Wait, I have to pick?’ ”
That curiosity has had at least one unanticipated effect, with reggae becoming a major element of Twenty One Pilots’ sound. They were playing a show in Amsterdam, and Joseph wandered into a reggae gig in another room at the venue. He doesn’t even know who the band was, but it hit him hard and he began to dig into the form, listening to masters like Steel Pulse. He totally understands that some people might see it -- and the band’s hip-hop elements, to a lesser extent -- as appropriation, but he insists it comes from a genuine place. “Right away I knew that reggae was really foreign to me, but I was so attracted to it,” he says. “I mean, I’m aware of the ignorance that needs to happen in order to write a reggae song as a [white] kid from Columbus, Ohio, but I am not afraid of that.”
Right now, though, they have to run. Dun has a plane to catch. Joseph realizes he still hasn’t seen his bandmate’s new house in Columbus, but even if he didn’t have to get to the airport that couldn’t happen today anyway, and for a very un-rock-star reason. “Some random dude is in there now,” says Dun with a laugh. “I put it on Airbnb when I’m gone.” Joseph has a slew of Easter celebrations to attend, including with both his and Jenna’s families. It’s important to note that Dun fully approves of Joseph’s marriage. “I think she makes him a better person,” the drummer says. “That’s what you’re looking for in a spouse or somebody that you’re spending your life with.”
“Not,” says Joseph, already beginning to crack up, “that you weren’t already completing me.”