Originally published online at BLUNT Magazine.
While taking a quick breather from their rigorous touring schedule, we spoke with Josh Dun, drummer of the indie rock/electronic punk duo Twenty One Pilots, about their upcoming (and largely sold out) Australian tour, surviving life on the road, the creative process for their newest and chart-topping album Blurryface, and the importance of authenticity when making music.
Your upcoming Australian shows are almost all sold out and then you’re flat out with touring until the end of the year. How do you maintain such a high level of energy while on the road?
Since I was young and first started figuring out how to play drums and how they work, I knew I wanted to play music. It kind of became an addiction, almost like a need for me to play. As I kept thinking and dreaming about what it’d be like to go on tour and be on the road – and of course you can never know until you actually do it – but I think I’ve been subconsciously preparing myself for years to go on the road and be in a different city every day. It’s crazy, it’s chaotic and every day is a bit different, but I also find there’s structure within chaos. I try to set up a bit of a routine, like taking the same candle with me while on the road and lighting it every day, be it in a hotel room or tour bus or a dressing room. Scents are such a nostalgic thing, so having the same scent with me every day is very helpful. That, and I also walk around and try to find a local coffee shop every day around the same time. They’re routines I try to set up and maintain throughout the day so everything isn’t crazy and foreign. Once you get into that and start travelling more the world doesn’t seem that huge; you can be in a different country, but doing the same routine makes things feel the same and feel like home in a way. I love every aspect of it and I’m excited to come to Australia.
Now that Blurryface is finally out in the world, how are you feeling about it?
It’s a really good feeling; it’s really relieving. Back in the day, we’d finish a song or a group of songs that we’d call an album and then just throw them up online. But now, we’re working with a label and people who know what they’re doing, so we’re a little bit more strategic than just putting it onto the Internet. Now there’s that weird period of time where the songs are all done but we have to wait because we have a release date now. So in-between the time that they’re done and the release date there’s this weird period of time where I get so anxious and so ready to release them. I just want people to hear them and to get feedback, whether it’s positive or negative. I just want people to hear it and gauge what they think about it. Now that it’s out I can finally take a deep breath; people can hear it now and understand what we’ve been doing in the studio and hope that they like it. Not only that, but now we can play some new songs live, which is huge for us because we’ve sort of been playing the same songs for a few years now. We still love every one of them, but it’s nice to be able to throw some new ones in and refresh the setlist a little bit.
It must be a pretty proud feeling to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 charts.
I never knew what that meant, to be honest. I didn’t realise what it was and didn’t know what it meant. And Tyler [Joseph, vocals] didn’t either. We never religiously followed all the numbers and the charts and where things are kind of sitting, but more and more people would approach us and say, “I can’t believe that happened, it’s such a big deal!” And we’d be like, “Uh, okay, cool?” But we came to realise that it held a little more weight than we thought, and we started to realise what that actually meant. We realised that there’s a large amount of people who have bought in and invested in what this is, and went out of their way to buy an album in its entirety. I think it’s sort of rare these days for people to go out and buy an entire body of work in a generation of singles and the one song getting big on the radio and topping a chart. I know that’s how Tyler and I have ingested music our entire lives, and that’s kind of how our culture works now, but we realised there are people who have invested and resonated with this album to such a degree. It was a really cool realisation.
Listening to the album, there’s a really wide variation of sounds and genres on it. When writing new songs was there a lot of experimentation during production or did you try to move towards a specific sound?
Each song is kind of a snapshot in time, so it wasn’t necessarily, “Hey, let’s write a song that sounds like this now”, it was more about what we were inspired by at the moment; it’s definitely strategic and thought-out, but at the same time it was where our frame of minds were at the time. A lot of the songs – pretty much the whole record actually – were written on the road, so a lot of it would be inspired by a live show, or a particular city or country that we were in. There was a night, a little less than a year ago, where we were in the Netherlands playing a venue and we happened to catch this reggae band playing. That’s something we thought that was cool and we were very inspired by it, so we got on that kick for a little bit and started listening to reggae music a bunch, and a little bit of the writing came from that. It’s crazy what can inspire you, that one day something will ignite and give you a bunch of ideas as a response. It’s interesting; as I listen back to the album as a whole it bounces back stylistically more than I even realised before, because each song is kind of written in its own space. That was something we were worried about when going into an actual studio, whether it’d make sense or if there’d be a glue that brings it together, but I think it worked. We recorded with a few different producers and we were strategic with who did what song, what their specialty was, and what they could bring to each track, and I think that definitely helped to glue it together.
Listening to the album, it almost seems to be a concept album of sorts. Could you explain the character of “Blurryface”?
I wouldn’t describe it as a concept album; at least that wasn’t the intention. There are definitely some topics and themes that carry on from one song to the next, but Blurryface is a personification of a bunch of insecurities Tyler and I have, or just things people in general deal with – the insecurities, doubts and failures that come from the voice in the back of your mind, which tells you that you can’t do this or this isn’t going to work. A lot of that came up in the writing process of this album when we realised that more entities are involved here. When we first started working on music there was nobody involved, so there wasn’t much thought about that. We just wrote and recorded songs we enjoyed and then threw them onto the Internet. Now there’s a label involved, there’s radio involved and there are fans who’ve been around since the beginning, and these kinds of entities are pulling at you from all these different directions. It adds to this weird mindset of already trying to create something new and different. It brings to the surface some of these different insecurities. Even as we go on stage every night there’s this other whole level of insecurities and fears that we both deal with, that there is kind of a battle that has to be fought daily. We thought that we needed a name and a face, a tangible embodiment of some of these thoughts, and it was helpful for us to able to realise that they can be defeated. As we started talking more about the idea of this concept it became more and more clear to us that it should be the name of the album. We definitely try to be intentional in every aspect of what we do, in a way that we can hopefully use in our own lives. We both have taken this idea of a character called Blurryface and used it in our own personal lives to try and conquer whatever it is we’re dealing with, and hopefully help others do the same as well.
The track “Stressed Out” contains the incredibly vulnerable line “I care what you think”, which is jarring considering so many artists go out of their way to do the opposite. Do you think being authentic and transparent about what you do is essential when making music?
I definitely do. It’s very easy for people to smell authenticity and be able to tell if it’s real or not. Whether it’s a live scene or an album, you can sense authenticity and understand someone’s intentions behind writing or performing a song. I think it carries throughout your entire scene, from putting out an album, playing shows and meeting fans afterwards; I think you need to be transparent all around. For example, there were many times during the beginning of our career where we’d play a show and something happened with the electronics we have on stage. You’re faced with an option there; you can either seem cool and that everything’s together, or do we address this awkwardness that’s happening in the room and share it with everybody, and be transparent. I think it’s important. If there’s an artist or person I look up to, I’d hope they’re honest, and open, and transparent. I don’t know if there are many people who claim they don’t care what people think; I have a hard time believing they don’t actually care what people think of them or their art. I think that anytime anybody puts something out into the world, there’s always something down, deep inside everybody where they want to be accepted, and I think it’s hard to escape that. So, I do think that that lyric is a very honest and transparent statement. There are people who truly don’t care what people think, and that’s great for them, but we do.