the AU interview: Josh Dun of Twenty One Pilots (USA) talks new album, fans, and recording on the road

Twenty One Pilots

With their new album Blurryface dropping in just a few days, the AU review caught up with Josh Dun of Twenty One Pilots to chat about the album, interacting with fans, and recording on the road. Josh tells AU writer, Thomas about his inspiration, battling fears and insecurities and more. Click through for the full interview...

Let’s get straight into it then. The new album Blurryface is out in a couple of weeks, what can you tell us about it?

As much as I don’t like to say that it’s a concept record, I will say that there are themes throughout it. A lot of it has to do with insecurity or doubt that everybody has, and that for us is personified in this character we’ve created called Blurryface, and that’s talked about throughout the record. Song-wise I really like the new songs, I’m super excited to play them live, and we’ve been able to put out a couple of them and I’m really excited to share the rest.

What was the writing process like for this album? Was it on the road or more studio based?

I’d say pretty much all of it was written on the road, whether it was in the back of a bus with a rig that we have set up, or in hotel rooms. With technology it’s really nice – we built this fly-rack sort of thing that we can take anywhere, it went to the UK, Australia, America – and the cool thing about that is that a song or multiple songs can be inspired by a place like Australia or a particular experience or show. That’s exciting for us because ever since the beginning the live show has been such an important part of what it is that we do, and to step back and not have to think about factors like what the industry is really looking for. We really wanted to look at what is a show going to look like, how are they going to be presented, how are they going to be accepted by people, and how can we continue to make this an interactive experience that people can get involved with and get pumped about.

Speaking of your inspiration, it’s fairly well known that Tyler (vocalist/pianist Tyler Joseph) experiences serve as a main source of inspiration for the themes behind your music, but I was wondering how much involvement you have personally on the creative process? Do you contribute at all lyrically or are you happy to let Tyler lead the way in that sense and you focus on the instrumentation?

That’s a good question… Before Tyler and I were in a band together we were just really good friends, and even now we like to have conversations about deep things, about life. You have your friends that you love hanging out with but you never really talk about anything important or serious, and Tyler is one of those people to me that I feel like we’re always talking about stuff, and I feel like we’re very similar in a lot of ways. So lyrically I pretty much let him take over unless he has a question for me about it, but the cool thing about where we’re at is that we’re kind of on the same page about everything, and if there’s ever a lyric or topic that I disagreed with then that’s a conversation that we would have.

For me, a song will be birthed in different ways, it’s not necessarily the same exact formula every time. Sometimes we’re playing soundtracks and messing with our instruments and I’ll play a beat, then he’ll play something that eventually turns into a song; but then sometimes it’ll just be Tyler sitting alone late at night messing with some sounds on a computer. So yeah, lyrically I want to let him do that because he’s a brilliant songwriter, and then when it comes down to the little details that’s something we like to work on together. It’s cool, I think we’re on the same page on so many levels when it comes to music and what it is that we want a song to sound like or a song to say, and I couldn’t imagine having six people in the band each having their opinions on what they want the message to be or how they want it to be delivered. It’s nice this way!

Yeah of course, it’s more personal and there’s obviously a lot of chemistry there.

Definitely, it works out real well, we’re just two friends trying to make music, ya know?

And that’s genuinely fantastic. Given that the album revolves around these themes of insecurity and fears and doubts, was there any hesitation as a duo where you thought ‘do we really want to put this out to the world and make this known about us?’

I don’t think so. I think it’s important to constantly battle some of our biggest fears or insecurities and try to look them in the face rather than hide from them or look away. I think it’s important that if it’s something that we’re truly feeling or going through to be open about it and share it with people, and what’s really cool for me – and I don’t know if everyone’s gonna take it the way that we hope – is that I have conversations with people all the time with people who’ve resonated with the songs or taken that as their own meaning. I was in Starbucks just yesterday and talked to a girl who thanked me for the music because she has panic attacks and OCD and these sorts of things and the music helps her get through it, and there’s an honesty there to be able to relate to that, and I told her that I have panic attacks all the time too! I think it’s good to be vulnerable in life because if you can talk about certain subjects and things that may seem scary to talk about then I think together we can hopefully work towards defeating these things.

Is there any pressure to write songs that address these sorts of themes given how many fans relate to your music and have said that it ‘saved them’, in a sense?

Yeah, especially now with our second (major release) album where there’s now a platform and already fans, naturally the pressure is going to be higher. Before, you know, we had some fans for our first record on a label (2013’s Vessel), but I didn’t feel the pressure as much. Now though I’ve heard from so many people that have really related to and resonated with the songs and some of the content in this album actually talked about that kind of tension between appeasing everyone’s desire within this second album in different areas, whether that’s the label or friends or a fan who’s been around since the beginning that’s really latched on to a certain subject matter in the last album – and how do you make everyone feel good about it? That’s not to mention ourselves, we want to continue to make music that we love to listen to and love to play, and personally I feel like we’ve made something that can hopefully make at least some of all of these people happy or content with it. But we’ll see, it’s at that weird stage now we’re you’re about to deliver your baby into the world and see if everyone likes it. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope people like it!

I think they will! I’ve reviewed the album and I thought it was incredible.

Thank you!

One of the tracks on the album, "Goner", is an older track that you’ve re-recorded and it’s one that Tyler seems really vulnerable on. Was it a challenge to record or did it feel quite natural?

It was natural, but it was also very vulnerable for both of us. From my perspective I think it’s one of the more deep, more emotional, and to reuse the word vulnerable tracks on the record, but I think that’s important and that’s healthy to be able to look at this thing in the face and acknowledge its existence rather than try to pretend that it’s not there.. that’s how we went about doing it, and I’m super excited about that track and it’s one that I listen to all the time – it’s something I relate to for sure.

I won’t give too much away for those who haven’t heard the album, but it’s definitely a record about hope and triumph over this character called Blurryface. I was wondering what the idea was behind the personification of Blurryface on social media cause it’s been pretty freaky on Twitter to say the least.

I’m not even going to say who that is, but it is this representation of something that a lot of times – and don’t read too much into this – but we’ve all got this angel and devil on your shoulder, and that insecurity does represent him (Blurryface), or can represent that devil on your shoulder that can kind of talk to you sometimes and say things like “you can’t do that” or “you’re not good enough to do this”. I think a personification of that ‘entity’ is interesting, but it’s not meant to be anything malicious or dark or evil because that’s not something we ever promote.

To talk a little bit more about the tracks and the musical aspects of the album a little bit more, where did the idea of you playing trumpet on the record come from?

*Laughs* So we were sitting in the studio and there was a song that we pretty much had done - a lot of the songs were pretty much done by the time we got into the studio – and so we were sitting on a song and there’s this part that was a bit empty and the producer we were working with at the time said “man it would be sweet to have a trumpet in here” and I said “well I played it in middle school”, and everyone laughed and said “let’s get a trumpet in here!” and I said “I can, but I cannot guarantee you that I’ll be able to play anything, but let’s do it!” So we brought it in and wrote this really easy part, although I feel like now it’s blown up that I play trumpet on the record and people are expecting some kind of crazy solo *laughs*, and I can promise you that it’s very easy – to the trumpet players out there I can promise you will not be impressed! But it was fun to dust off the instrument and record it which is something I’d never done before.

I actually transitioned out of the trumpet because I got to the point where I realised that I could only play what was written on a sheet of paper so I felt like I couldn’t really be creative with it and I felt like I couldn’t make my own music if I wanted to because I didn’t have a sheet of paper with notes on it in front of me, so that’s when I decided that I wanted to play drums.

So that was on “We Don’t Believe What’s On TV”, were you also playing on “Not Today” or was that someone else?

*Laughs* No, that was hired-in brass, but I’ll let people think that was me even though it wasn’t!

Prior to Blurryface you’ve acknowledged that Ohio is really important to you guys – you announced there that you’d been signed to Fueled By Ramen, you released an Ohio-shaped vinyl for Record Store Day – so I was a bit confused by the track “Hometown” which seems to paint it in a negative light based on the lyrics. What was the thought process there?

I guess “Hometown” was a little bit more metaphoric than literal for a track like that because, being from Ohio, we both love it. I’m standing in Columbus, Ohio right now talking to you and it’s one of my favourite places in the world.

Which Twenty One Pilots song would you play for someone who has never heard your music before?

Oooh, that’s a good question… Every once in a while I’ll get picked up in an Uber car and I like to have conversations with people so it’ll come up that I play music and they’ll ask to listen to it so I’ll put on a song, but I’ll press to them that every song is different from the next, and I’m not sure how we get away with that. We like to incorporate every kind of genre that we like and that we’ve grown up listening to and it’s fun to mix it up a little bit. So for someone new I’ll try to find something that will make a little bit of sense for them or that they’ll be able to wrap their minds around, or sometimes I’ll just throw on something crazy.

The go-to is a song called “Holding On To You”, but then I might also play them “Ode To Sleep” just because that song makes no sense, so I guess it’s whatever I’m feeling at the time. The first single that we universally agreed upon to be a single was “Holding On To You”, and I feel like that encapsulated everything that we were going for at the time. That said, if it were today then I would probably play them “Lane Boy”, that’s a track that I like a lot.

Yeah definitely, I’m really loving that track, I thought the messages towards the music industry were really interesting. What’s next for Twenty One Pilots?

Just this weekend we’ll be heading over to the UK to play a couple shows there, then we’ll be doing some press things before the album comes out, the regular sort of stuff. After that we’re a bit all over the place playing shows, it’s very busy and I don’t spend a lot of time in one place, and that’s fine by me. Then we start our headline tour in September, and that will be a couple months long, pretty much playing shows for the rest of the year and then picking it right back up again. When we first signed with a booking agency Tyler and I sat down and said “just put us on the road and don’t take us off”, and they’ve taken that seriously! We’ve been travelling non-stop which is what we love to do, so I’m ready to hit the road again and be playing more and having some new songs which will be refreshing.

Any parting messages for all the fans out there?

Yeah, keep moving forward, we can do it together. There’s a lot in life that’s tough or difficult but I think it’s important to know that we’re all going through it, and to keep pushing forward and I’m gonna push forward with you. Stay street, and thank you for listening to our music!


Blurryface is out May 15th through Fueled By Ramen / Atlantic Records

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