X Games Aspen Q&A: Twenty One Pilots
January 31, 2016
As Twenty One Pilots took its final bow at its sold-out show Friday night at the X Games music festival, singer Tyler Joseph thanked the crowd and said, "We are Twenty One Pilots. And so are you."
The closing words spoke to the band's phenomenal success over the last year and the devout following it's created with acclaimed live shows and the genre-hopping hit album "Blurryface." Fans – mostly teens – showed up to the show in band hats and gear, some in the black makeup of the title character from "Blurryface." A group of high school girls from Monument camped out at the gate to the outdoor music venue at Buttermilk at 8:30 a.m. – 13 hours before showtime. By nightfall, an early crowd stretched behind them along the full length of the Snowmobile Freestyle course.
The breakout band of 2015 took most of January 2016 off from performing. But the X Games show kicks off what looks to be another year of new heights for the Ohio-bred duo of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun. It includes the band's first world arena tour, most of which is already sold out (including two July nights at Red Rocks Ampitheatre).
Aspen Times arts editor Andrew Travers caught up the duo backstage on Friday at Buttermilk.
Andrew Travers: What make of Aspen and the X Games so far?
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Tyler Joseph: We've just had a blast since we've been here – its just been a couple days. Usually when we play a show, we don't have couple days to really appreciate a city. So it's been like a mini-vacation. It's great that we get to play music for a living, but also that we get to see places like this.
One of the first things I thought when I saw the mountains and what this place has to offer was, 'I can't believe how dynamic the United States is. We travel all over the world, but there are so many different landscapes and it changes so much from place to place here – I'm overwhelmed by it.
AT: So Thursday night you played a small club in Belly Up Aspen, tonight you're playing to a sold-out outdoor festival crowd, this spring you have your first arena tour coming up. Do you have to modulate your performance based on venue?
Josh Dun: Every show is pretty different. One thing we've tried to do is get a gauge on the room as a whole and what they're feeling like – every crowd is different. And that's what's fun about it. Because if you turn that off, then every night starts becoming the same thing and you start to lose touch with what works and what doesn't work. That's something we're both fascinated with – figuring out what does work and what doen't – often we'll set up cameras and watch footage of ourselves, like athletes do, like game tape, to try and figure out what works and get better at that.
AT: Has any of that preparation or how you perform changed in the last year as your audience has exploded and the success of "Blurryface"?
TJ: When we started out, we were playing to small rooms similar to Belly Up all over the country and at those shows it's really intimate. You're right there in front of those people and you can manifest what those songs mean to you with tiny movements and they pick it up. Now it's about, how I can convey what I'm trying to convey and what the song means to us – and all that stuff, it gets harder the bigger the crowd gets. But there's different things you can use, whether its visually or sonically, and I think there's a part of Josh and I that will always love the small shows and want to get back to it. But that's what makes these big shows special, trying to figure out how we can make that work.
AT: Which is why you still do the smaller Belly Up-type show along with the X Games?
TJ: Yeah, it's cool to see both. It's different but it's the same philosophy. When we we're playing in front of small crowds for years, we went into it thinking we're going onto the biggest stage in the world. You have to blow it up like that. You have to convince yourself that it's really important, even when there might just be five people there. It's the same conviction.
AT: It seems like right now you're turning a corner into pop stardom, with songs and an album near the top of the charts, a profile in Rolling Stone, selling out arenas for multiple nights. What are your goals from here as artists? Was this a goal?
JD: The first time we sat down and chatted about life, as we were just becoming friends, one thing that we agreed upon was that there shouldn't be a ceiling that we have on ourselves. I think – and this applies to anybody – if you allow yourself to have big dreams and you work hard, there's nothing that should make you stop at a certain point. So if we woke up and this thing was done, I'd be extremely thankful for everything we've been able to do.
AT: There's a real stylistic freedom on your records, and its something you write about – the agnostic approach to genres. What do you think unifies those disparate sounds?
TJ: Musically it can be all over the place. But I think it all comes from the same place lyrically. I think we're maybe the most consistent lyrically. From the very beginning I was always attracted to songwriting because I was able to get out some things that otherwise may have felt awkward if I brought it up into a casual conversation with friends or family. So I utilized songwriting as a cathartic thing to purge whatever it is that I was going through at the moment. And, sure, it can come off as emotional and dramatic but you kind of have to do that to get onto the next day. Music for me has always been that.
And when I met Josh we were on the same page as far as what we would want music to do to people if we wee able to create it. Musically, the sound hits you from all angles. The attitude behind it and the lyrics, I think, is the most consistent part. As much as people listen to it and think it's crazy, musically it makes sense to us, too. It doesn't feel crazy to us.
AT: So is that how the creative process works? The lyrics come first and you follow whatever style they may call for?
TJ: It happens so many different ways and that's part of trying to get better as songwriters, trying to be inspired by different things. Whether that's playing small shows at clubs in Europe and getting on a bus and recording a crappy demo on a laptop – but that's an idea that might be based on seeing a certain city or seeing another band playing or a culture that you're not used to, or you met someone that told you a story you'd never heard before. All of those spark different ideas and the way those ideas are captured are different every time. If we happen to be in a real studio, we can capture all of those ideas right there. Or it might be just pulling out our phone and saying something into our voice recorder and having it sit there for a while until we're in a place that we can record it more professionally. It can be different every time. Sometimes it starts with lyrics. Sometimes it starts with music. Most times it starts with music though, and then the lyrics find themselves after that.
AT: More popularity usually means less anonymity. That Rolling Stone story made a lot of your conservative Christian upbringings, for example. Are you comfortable with becoming public figures and having your lives scrutinized?
TJ: I think that when Josh and I talked about our dreams of doing this, like he said, we had no ceiling. And maybe it was ignorant of us, but we thought there was nothing that could stop us. Inside of that, mentally, you rush forward and see what it will be like and you chase that.
What I saw, before it all clicked for us, I didn't anticipate that side of it, what you're describing, the pop star aspect, whether that's people being interested in our personal lives or wanting to hold us to a higher standard. I don't think that we're going to back down from that. We're not going to say, 'We didn't task for this, so you can't hold us to that standard.' But it does get tough. We didn't want to be famous. We wanted a lot of people to hear our music. There's a difference. But those things come hand in hand now, and we're learning that.
AT: Are there any artists that you've seen navigate that well, who you want to emulate or who you're learning from?
TJ: Even if we could think of a band or artist that we admired from awhile back , it's different now with social media and the ability of people to access each other. It's a different world. And in a way Josh and I feel like we're learning as we go how to – whether it's in our personal lives or online – how to interact with fans. It breaks our heart that we're not able to sit down and have a one-on-one with every one of our fans, but it's just impossible to do. So how can we figure out a way to give them the interaction they deserve without it seeming forced or vain or something? It's new territory I think, and one day somebody will figure out how to do it perfectly. But until then we're going to mess up sometimes.