With the help of their grassroots following, Twenty One Pilots, made up of the infamous duo of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, stormed into the mainstream with the help of their billboard 200 chart-topping album Blurryface with hit songs including Tear in My Heart, Lane Boy, Heavydirtysoul, and Fairly Local. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Twenty One Pilots may have initially formed in 2009 as a trio, but they have come to be known as a duo made up of lead vocalist Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun.
Best known for their singles “Stressed Out,””My Blood,” “car radio”, “Holding On to You,” “Ride,” “Kitchen Sink,””Levitate,” “Jumpsuit,” “Nico and the Niners,” “Ode to Sleep,” and “Heathens” – Twenty One Pilots now is hailed among the best pop acts following their Grammy Award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards.
Identifying as a band that makes music at the intersections of alternative hip hop, electro-pop, reggae, indie pop, pop-rock and alternative rock, Twenty One Pilots certainly has an eclectic approach to their music-making. Some may say that it reminds them of Fall Out Boy.
But what more do we need to know about this unique duo? We’ve got all the juicy details about their past and present that you might not yet know about.
In the Beginning
While the band Twenty One Pilots came to mainstream fame in 2015 as a duo, the band was initially much fuller than its current two members, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun. Based out of Columbus, Ohio, Twenty One Pilots was formed 11 years ago by three high school friends: Tyler Joseph, Nick Thomas, and Chris Salih.
According to the band, their name, Twenty One Pilots was inspired by the Arthur Miller play All My Sons, that Joseph was reading while at Ohio State. The play featured a story about a war contractor who sends off faulty airplane parts to Europe during World War II. Afraid to admit his error because he might lose his money, the contractor eventually learned that his decision resulted in the death of 21 airplane pilots.
As a student who had declined a basketball scholarship from Otterbein University to focus on his passion for music, Joseph claimed that the play resonated with him:
“I could relate to the fact that making the right decision in life sometimes takes more work. It takes more time, and it can feel like you’re going backward.” To this day, the duo warns one another that if they are taking the easy route in their career, this is the equivalent of “sending out the parts.”
Getting the Name Right
Their band name has also been stylized differently throughout their career. While the band’s name was originally stylized as “twenty | one | pilots” on their earlier cover art, they decided to change how they visualized their group name by the time they began on their second album.
From that point forward, the group began using more stylized text and formatting to reflect the following visuals: “twenty øne piløts.”
In an interview with Chris Salih, one of the former members of Twenty One Pilots, Salih stated that Mark C. Eshleman, the band’s long-time friend, was the band’s creative director at the time and he was the one to create the band’s logo.
Salih remembers that Eshleman made the logo by simply, “messing around with shapes.” In 2018, the band would reveal a new logo that included an extra slash on each side of the initial logo, new yellow color scheme, and a solid black background.
As the group continued to develop, they decided to self-release their debut album which consisted of a Rap-pop sound. Even before Dun joined the band, he remembers seeing them play at a club on the Ohio State campus. He recalls:
“I loved everything about the show except for one thing: I wasn’t onstage playing also.”
This would, of course, change in about a year’s time. Shortly thereafter, Thomas and Salih decided to leave the band at which point frontman Tyler Joseph decided to recruit Josh Dun as Twenty One Pilots’ replacement drummer – the two decided to continue on as a duo.
According to Scott Stienecker, the president of PromoWest Productions, Joseph was working at a Killers concert in the same year that the band assembled. Stienecker remembers Joseph saying:
“You know what, I want to be the next Brandon Flowers.”
Even as a youngster, Joseph remembers how much he idolized musicians – so much so that he had taught himself piano by emulating the instrumentals of bands like The Beatles. He loved doing this, in part, because he could use his new skill to impress his friends. Later on he incorporates the ukulele as a staple instrument for the band such as in the song house of gold.
Raised in a conservative and religious household, Joseph, who was homeschooled by his mother, had a father who was a Christian high school principal. His parents were also quite strict. How strict were they? Joseph claims that once he told his mother that he wanted to be a basketball player, she made him take 500 shots every single day. Joseph remembers:
“If I got closer to the basket and made lay-ups, she didn’t count them. She’d knock on the back window near the kitchen and point to the three-point line. I had to be done before dinner, and if I wasn’t, I wasn’t allowed to eat.”
At Dun’s house, his parents were much stricter than Joseph’s. He wasn’t allowed to play video games, watch movies or listen to rock or hip-hop albums like Green Day’s Dookie. Sometimes Dun’s parents would allow him to listen to Christian alternatives such as Relient K, or something featured on CleanFlicks, a Christian company that took Hollywood movies and edited out all the profanity, sexuality and violence.
Dun admits that his parent’s strict codes made life as a teenager – particularly the act of rebelling against his parents – really difficult. Dun remembers that he had a tremendous amount of aggression as a teenager – so much so that by the age of 14 his parents nearly kicked him out of the house and sent him to a military school. He recalls:
“They didn’t know what to do with me, and I was always in detention. I never got into drugs or alcohol, but I would yell at my parents and just treat them terribly. Everything was an argument. Looking back, they were trying their best.”
Struggling to Continue
Dun recalls that even as he tried to rebel against his parents, he learned a lot about what kind of person he wanted to be. For example, when he decided against going to college, and instead chose to move in with friends and play in local bands while making a low wage at working in the drum department of Guitar Center, he remembers feeling lost and as though his life was going nowhere. One day he sat with his dad and asked him:
“Are you disappointed that I’m working a minimum-wage job and I didn’t go to college?”
He claims that to this day, he will never forget his response. His father responded:
“It’s not about how much money you make or what your job is, but it’s more about your character. For that, I’m proud of you.”
Dun claims that this exchange really gave him the motivation to turn his life around and think about the importance of maintaining his character. As they built an enormous grassroots following across the state of Ohio, Twenty One Pilots consistently toured, maximized the use of the social media platforms and found authentic ways to connect with their fans.
They also began expanding their audience by recruiting the help of their friend Mark Eshelman to make a number of music videos to grow their brand and garner the attention of major labels. The tactic worked.
By 2012, Twenty One Pilots signed to Atlantic subsidiary Fueled by Ramen. With this new contract Twenty One Pilots shared label space with the likes of Paramore, Panic! At The Disco and Fun. They were also able to release their Three Songs EP – their debut for Fueled by Ramen.
Building Their Catalogue
As Twenty One Pilots began to build up their musical catalogue, they decided to develop out their networks by working with a variety of producers including Ricky Reed, Mike Crossey, Tim Anderson.
Perhaps their most famous work, and well liked among their fanbase is 2015’s Blurryface and the album’s Grammy-winning smash hit “Stressed Out” which charted in the second position on the Billboard Hot 100. The band claimed that the name of the album was based on a persona of the same name that Tyler Joseph, the band’s vocalist, created.
Joseph from Twenty One Pilots claimed that the character represented both his and other people’s insecurities. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the songwriter Joseph stated:
“The question I had as I was writing was, ‘How are these things affecting the way I live? How am I compensating because I don’t like this about myself?
What do I do to cover it up?’” In the visuals for the recording, Joseph is depicted smearing himself with black makeup which is meant to represent how insecurities suffocate the people who have them.
Twenty One Pilots also made pop music history with the release of “Heathens,” their Grammy-nominated contribution to the soundtrack for the DC Comics film Suicide Squad. The single helped the band make history as only the third rock band to have two concurrent Top Ten singles on the Billboard chart.
In total, the band has released five albums: first album Twenty One Pilots (2009), second album Regional at Best (2011), third album Vessel (2013), Blurryface (2015), and the new album Trench (2018), with the Bandito tour. On their reimaginings of their musical style, Joseph has stated:
“It is true that if you hear our music described, it sounds unappealing. I used to laugh and agree with people when they said it didn’t make any sense.”
The Band’s Fans
When Twenty One Pilots frontman Tyler Joseph scrolls through his phone, you will be able to find hundreds of names in his contacts he doesn’t quite recognize. Who might these contacts be? They are typically the numbers of fans, especially kids from the band’s hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
As a result of the Twenty One Pilots grassroots tactics, they were able to get fan phone numbers back in the day by driving door-to-door hand-delivering tickets for their club shows. The band claims that they became a local favorite among Columbus, Ohio fans because of their energetic live concerts where they played a variety of shows that ranged from hardcore to hip hop shows and everything in between.
When this strategy became far too difficult because it was so time-consuming, Twenty One Pilots decided to meet their fans outside the Chick-Fil-A in their local mall’s food court. Alternatively, Joseph would also recruit his mom to help – especially on show days.
While they might be preparing for the night’s events, Joseph’s mom would stand outside the club and attempt to sell tickets to passing Ohio State students. Joseph remembers that she would beg passing fans to come see her son play music.
As a result of the commitment that local fans have had to their music, Twenty One Pilots decided to get matching ‘X’ tattoos to symbolise how much their hometown fans mean to them. Joseph’s tattoo is located on his right arm while Dun’s is etched in behind his right ear.
And yet, despite their committed fans, as you might imagine, they also have less than favorable stories featuring some of their fans. For example, Joseph recalls once having to kick one of Twenty One Pilots’ concert-goers out of their show for punching a girl in the face. They temporarily stopped the show to deal with the disturbance, since there was a high level of concern.
As the group has reflected on their fanbase as well as their career, Joseph has asserted that fame has definitely changed what they are capable of moving forward. He has admitted,
“Growing up, money is important. And now I have a career where I’m making enough money to live. But I really want to give it to my parents, my family, charities and people around me.”
And these are not just empty statements that Joseph has made. In fact, Joseph still drives around in a beat-up Chevy Impala and has made plans to start his own Columbus-based charity. With the band’s name stemming from a play to growing into local legends for Columbus, Ohio, it is pretty clear that the Twenty One Pilots are flying high above any limitations.