Ohio's Twenty One Pilots Graduate From Hometown Heroes to the Major Leagues (Q&A)

THR sits down with one half of the rock duo, whose current single, "Holding On To You," is climbing the radio charts.
Lindsey Byrnes

Twenty One Pilots is actually a twosome -- lead singer Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun -- but that doesn't mean they carry any less of a punch. The band's latest album Vessel, entered the Billboard 200 chart at No. 58, after which they appeared at a number of high-profile festivals including Bonnaroo, Firefly and Lollapalooza. 

It all started innocently enough: The two guys were living in Columbus, Ohio. Dun and Joseph were introduced through a mutual friend and clicked. "We stayed up all night talking about our ambitions and dreams, and what we wanted musically," Dun tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It was kind of this weird thing where were very like-minded of the whole vision for the band. From that first night, we really wanted to play music together."

In the span of two years, the duo have accomplished some of those goals in playing for massive crowds, landing a record deal with Fueled By Ramen and building the sort of buzz most bands only dream of -- all thanks to their explosive unorthodox sounds and honest, emotion-filled lyrics. 

THR recently sat down with Dun to talk about the Twenty One Pilots' whirlwind rise, why their lyrics are so serious and where they got their name, among other topics. 

When it comes to making music, how do divide duties -- does one of you write lyrics and the other music? Or is it all a collaboration? 

It's interesting. Right now,  it's changing a bit because, when we met, Tyler was doing all the writing by himself. By the time we went to record our album, we had a glorified mix tape of songs. Some of that was a little bit of collaboration, but a lot of it was just Tyler working in his basement. Now that we're moving forward, we're writing songs together. The process is harder to describe. It's not totally nailed down. 

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How did you get your name? 

Twenty One Pilots is a play by Arthur Miller, who also wrote All My Sons. It's about a guy who's creating and developing parts for airplanes in war time, when it comes to his attention that some of these parts were faulty. He was faced with a decision: Do I send the parts out and risk people getting hurt and potentially dying, or do I recall the parts and most likely hang my name and probably end this business? That was a huge decision, and ultimately he decides to send the parts out, and as a result 21 pilots die. There ends up being no correlation between the deaths and the parts, but one of the pilots killed happens to be one of his sons, and his daughter blames him for his death the rest of the play. At the end, he kills himself.

The way we apply that to our band is that all of us are constantly faced with decisions. It could be a moral decision or just a small decision, like, should we watch the opener play? Maybe a bigger decision like, should we sign this publishing deal? Or which label should we sign with? It's been surprising how many times we've used that reference throughout the last couple years to help us base our decisions that we've made.

Suicide seems to be a recurring theme on Vessel, with songs like "Car Radio," "Migraine" and "Holding On To You" making reference to taking one's life. Is there a reason for that?

The lyrics are all Tyler, but it's a real thing that's pretty common, especially with teens. A lot of times, parents will avoid talking about it, or they'll say, "Let's not think about that." But why not grant people the permission to think about it and redirect those feelings and thoughts to something different and creative? That's kind of the mindset behind a lot of the content and lyrics on Vessel.

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The album cover for Vessel features two older gentlemen. Who are they?

They're actually both of our grandfathers on the cover. We were talking about it and we've never seen that done before. So we were, like, "Let's get our grandfathers together and do a photo shoot. And we did. We talked it over with our parents, it's both of our fathers' dads. They asked if they should wear anything in particular, and we were like, "Absolutely not! Let's just pick them up from their place and whatever they're wearing, that will be on the cover."

Your single "Holding On To You" is currently No. 46 on the Billboard Rock Songs chart. What was it like hearing it on the radio for the first time? 

I honestly don't listen to the radio often at all, but I was home about four months ago and driving to get food with my sister. We stopped at a light, it turned green and our song came on the radio. I guess I thought it was a CD at first and then my sister was, like, "This is awesome, you're on the radio!" I kind of just sat there and the light almost turned red and the person behind me was honking. It was like how you see it in some movies, where people hear their songs on the radio but you don't really know what that feels like until it happens. It was a really cool moment. 

You guys have spent much of the summer on the festival circuit. What's it like to play on a massive open field? Do you still get nervous?

Yeah. It doesn't sound that cool to say it, but I still get nervous for any show. But it's different degrees -- playing a small basement of a club versus playing a festival like Firefly or Bonnaroo. The feeling is, "Crap, I'm about to be blasted in the face" and once you get started, then it's like, "OK, I've done this before, I know what I'm doing." After that, I feel fine. The really cool thing about festivals is that you're getting to play in front of a whole lot of people who have never heard of us before. That's exciting. At the same time, it's a little bit of a challenge to capture the attention of people who have already seen a lot of bands.

What's next for you guys? 

To continue touring and writing. Hopefully in the fall, we'll have a vehicle that will be more accommodating to having a little mobile studio where we can write and record demo stuff, because we're both really itching to do that. That's one thing that's hard about being on the road; it' tricky to be creative when you're not in a place you're used to. So we're working on that and just pushing forward with that.

Twenty One Pilots is continuing to tour and perform, including an appearance on Conan on Aug. 8 at 11 p.m. ET on TBS.


Twitter: @THRMusic