Columbus, OH-based band Twenty One Pilots (TOP) self-released two records before things started to take off for the duo of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun. After years of self-imposed labor in the hardscrabble local scene, the pair signed a deal with Atlantic subsidiary Fueled By Ramen. The band’s career has been locked in overdrive ever since. While its first major release—2013’s Vessel—fared respectably, 2015’s Blurryface raised the stakes exponentially, debuting at No. 1 on The Billboard 200 album sales chart.
In the early days, the band fought for every second of stage time. Now the two commonly find themselves on festival main stages across various continents. Indeed, the band hit the big stage at Chicago’s Lollapalooza this year. In a more modern and immediate measure of popularity, its YouTube channel has so far raked in nearly 30 million views. It seems unlikely that the band’s fortunes will begin to wane anytime soon. Music Connection caught up with Joseph and Dun while they were in Hong Kong. They shared some insights on starting out, moving forward and Blurryface.
Music Connection: Tyler and Josh, you’re both from Columbus. What guiding principles did you follow to steer your career upward?
Tyler Joseph: Josh and I started out as a local band. We had jobs and did a lot of travel on the weekends. We were very strategic about what shows we played and when. As a local band, your goal is to rise above the talent that’s there, taking it one step at a time. For us, Columbus was that first step. We always tried to outdo ourselves and wouldn’t play the same set every night. We slowly found this group of people that wanted to come out and see us.
MC: Were there surprises during those early days, Tyler?
Joseph: With each big show that we’d promote, the most surprising part wasn’t what we were doing on stage but how many people showed up. That had a lot to do with us being strategic about our shows. We didn’t promote many––like three or four a year.
The story gets blurry for us about how the music industry discovered that we existed. One day we woke up after selling out a venue in Columbus and there were a dozen labels that wanted to talk to us. That was a crazy moment for us. It’s when we realized that we could quit our day jobs.
MC: It seems that you were careful not to branch out of Columbus before you were ready. You didn’t even play shows outside of your hometown area until after you’d self-released two entire albums. So what’s your philosophy about growing a career?
Joseph: One of the things that Josh and I believe is that we have to continually outdo ourselves. We realized that whether we were a local band or a national act, we could have found ourselves getting into a groove, almost like a rut as far as what the show looks like and how the music sounds. Every time we’d do a hometown show, we’d change things.
MC: How did you take advantage of opportunities in Columbus in the early days?
Joseph: There were no opportunities. We had to email thousands of bars, clubs and promoters just to get on the bill for one show. Booking for yourself is a nightmare. But we put our heads down and asked people if we could play. There was never a bill that we turned down. We played every show offered to us. We created the opportunities by pouring everything we had into every live performance. When you work hard like that, the people that come out appreciate the show.
MC: These days it’s not easy to attract label interest. How did you land your deal with Fueled By Ramen?
Joseph: Starting out, we didn’t even know what it meant to get signed. One of the most important things about moving into a partnership [with a label] is to make sure that [you have] creative control. From what we could tell, Fueled By Ramen had the feel of an indie label because they had a smaller lineup. The people who work there are passionate about music and believe in artists having their own vision. A record label doesn’t want to make decisions for artists. Sometimes they have to when the artist thinks that it’s their job to drag them along. Fueled By Ramen understood exactly what we wanted to do and what we wanted to create. They got on board and loved it. It’s been going great ever since.