My friend Helen keeps telling me to listen to Twenty One Pilots. I wasn’t convinced until she started telling the back story to the band, their fan culture, imagery and hidden meanings in their albums.
I was hooked on the story and wanted to know more. Helen shared so much about the band that I felt you need to hear it, too. So, I will let Helen take the stage and tell you about Twenty One Pilots…
… Our planned escape from the car park was perfectly executed. We pulled on khaki hoodies and carefully applied yellow duct tape to strategic parts of of our bodies. Bandanas secured across our faces and clutching yellow Gerberas we headed out to meet our kind…..
If, like Jamie, you don’t know what I am talking about then let me bring you into the world of Twenty One Pilots and share something I have never experienced before.
Twenty One Pilots are the ground-breaking duo from Colombus, Ohio.
Josh Dun is a self-taught drummer who met Tyler at a gig given by the first incarnation of the band. Tyler Joseph sings, raps, plays piano, bass and ukulele. Josh joined the band and the original line-up soon became two, the two that are now so synonymously linked that they even have each other’s names tattooed on their knee.
Like Panic! at the Disco, the original band was larger but after two band members left in 2011, Twenty One Pilots has become an unstoppable duo.
I first discovered TOP when my daughter asked me to listen to a song called House of Gold.
It started off as a simple tune with a bluegrass vibe, then the bridge hit me with its quirky harmonies and interval-jumping falsetto melody. OK, so that was interesting!
I soon realised that TOP goes way beyond music; it is an identity full of metaphors, characters, symbols and colour, all put out with the unselfconscious conviction of Tyler and Josh.
Where does the name ‘Twenty One Pilots’ come from?
‘Twenty One Pilots’ is a reference to the play “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller. In the story, Twenty One Pilots were killed after a man knowingly sent out faulty aircraft parts during World War II, to protect the name of his family business.
The band has a unique relationship with its fans and in 2017, even won an APMA award for the most dedicated fan base. The identity of the “Skeleton Clique” (Clikkies) was given to the fans by the duo themselves. By alluding to their own flaws, they have created a bond with the out-of-the-box misfits who relate to the metaphorical struggles they execute in their songs.
Blurryface – The Pivotal Album
Their fourth album Blurryface is named after a character invented by the band. He is the part of us we don’t want to be; our nemesis, our anxious alter-ego. You know when he appears in the songs because Tyler’s voice morphs into a low-pitched slur. For part of the representation of Blurryface, Tyler paints his neck black, which for me symbolises the crippling effect of depression and anxiety, the way it grabs you round the throat and you are stifled and restricted by its effects.
The songs in this album are accompanied by dark and powerful videos, executing a red and black colour scheme.
Tyler wrestles with Blurryface, fails to shake him off and is pursued by him. The music is a very contemporary mix of Tyler’s pure vocals, interjected with sharp raps. Josh’s drumming is integral to the songs, mimicking the rhythms of Tyler’s voice, building tension and atmosphere. This guy has the delicacy of an orchestra percussionist! This is stand-out music in a world of samey mediocrity.
Their performances are impassioned and theatrical and each concert repeats a set of anticipated routines: Tyler climbing a lighting rig pole, donning a floral kimono and crowd-surfing in a hamster ball. Josh Dun’s backflips and playing a mini-drum kit held up by fans.
Blurryface left us Heavy Dirty Soul, and a frenzied, terrifying video where the black-necked Tyler is driven in a speeding car by a hooded character as a yellow-haired Josh helplessly watches from a burning drumkit, in the middle of a double-yellow-lined road.
Hiatus & Reappearance
Josh and Tyler disappeared after publishing multiple images of a closing eye on social media. No public appearances, no performances and no new music…for a whole year.
Then, in early July a partially opened vulture’s eye appeared on their Instagram page.
This was met with mass hysteria from Skeleton Clikkies all over the world. “I’m crying!”…”this will be the day I remember for giving me a reason to live again…”. Next, the eye had opened a little further. Then on 11th July, there it was; the embryo had completed its dark gestation and new music was born.
Before the release of Jumpsuit (which was swiftly followed by NIco and the Niners, and Levitate), the most devoted and clever members of the ‘clique’ had discovered a secret website. There were GIFs of a running cheetah, Tolkien-esque maps of strange places, puzzles and a character called Clancy. Online forums facilitated a heated anticipation for the new album which was due to be released on 5th October.
Trench – A New Album and a New World
The three pre-releases gave us access to a new world: Trench. And a colour scheme of yellow and black, which had been hinted at in the Heavey Dirty Soul video.
Clikkies obsessively watched the videos and listened to the songs and many expressed their interpretation on social media.
It seems that Trench is a metaphor for a state of depression. Tyler, or Clancy finds himself in a desolate valley after leaving the burning car behind. A mysterious bishop in a red cloak rides up and beckons him to follow him back to the confines of the towers of Dema.
Just when all hope is gone, Clancy spots a yellow gerbera, a sign of life in this godforsaken place and all hope is not lost. He picks up the flower and then follows Nico (who I think is this new version of Blurryface) with a dreamlike compliance. As he walks, the torch wielding Banditos headed by Josh Dun, hidden in the rocks above, throw down showers of yellow petals.
Jumpsuit is powered by a pounding bass riff and unison drums, with episodes of Tyler’s nonchalant singing which head towards a piano-accompanied ethereal bridge before building up again until he loses it, screaming the words “jumpsuit, jumpsuit cover me!”. Levitate is a short and urgent rap and Nico and the Niners is a funky, bass-dropping song which is characterised by the loyal reverberated strumming of the uke throughout.
The album’s style is difficult to categorise. It has Disco vibes, a tribute to Tyler’s granddad, Beatles-esque backwards-played messages, sedated vocals, angry raps, sublime piano and atmospheric electronica. Oh and the thing I find most fascinating: no guitar! What pulls it all together is a powerful and instantly recognisable sound world.
The Bandito Tour
The Bandito Tour has now finished its European leg and continues in USA and Canada. In London, they gave us a burning car and a balaclava’d Tyler appearing up at the back of the audience.
We revelled in Tyler’s disjointed dancing, Josh’s backflip and the atmospheric rendition of “Neon Gravestones” on the small stage at the back of the hall, reached by a bridge that was lowered down across the top of the crowd during an urgent delivery of Pet Cheetah. This show had everything and was made even more special by the full-on interaction and participation of the fans who sing every word, rapped every rap and chanted ”Josh Dun!” en-masse.
I was accosted on the way out by a woman who invited me to join her “clique moms” group on Facebook and felt the glow of being accepted by this band of fellow-misfits, who live for music.
Are you a Bandito, Too?
I read a review a while ago that said you only get one band like this per generation and I have to agree, they are it! I hope I have inspired you to explore the world of TOP and I will see you at the next Banditos’ convention!
Headline photograph shared by Helen. Taken by photographer Adam Barnes.