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Guest Voices: Us

Guest Voices: In Praise of Twenty One Pilots

Today's guest voice is none other than CultureGeek Jr., otherwise known as Ian Smith.

Once upon a time in Columbus, Ohio, circa 2009: high school friends Tyler Joseph, Nick Thomas, and Chris Salhi decided to start a band with Tyler on vocals, piano, and ukulele, Nick on bass, and Chris on drums.

They called this new group “Twenty One Pilots” as a reference to the play All My Sons by Arthur Miller, a story centering around a man who must live with the knowledge that he caused the death of 21 pilots in World War II after knowingly sending faulty parts to the military to help his business.

Tyler, Nick, and Chris then started developing their first songs for their self-titled debut album, which they released December 29, 2009. Shortly afterwards they began touring their home state of Ohio, building up a very small but passionate following in the area. Their early success is attributed to their constant touring and consistent use of social media to release their new content and interact with their small group of new followers.

However, in 2011, Nick Thomas and Chris Salhi quit the band, because they both wanted to pursue careers outside of music. There’s not a whole lot of information about how this actually happened, but what we DO know is that a few months after Nick and Chris left, Tyler met Josh Dun. Josh was the past drummer for House of Heroes. It was during this time that the newly formed pair found the sound that would define Twenty One Pilots, a unique mix of analog piano, synthesizer, bass, and drums. And all under the poetic lyrics that switch between Tyler's falsetto singing voice, spoken word sections reminiscent of rap, and occasional screams.

Even though they had found their sound, they still had trouble finding success outside of Ohio. They played their first out-of-state show in June of 2011 to only 12 people. Regardless, Tyler and Josh continued making music and performing, and then started working with filmmaker Mark Eshleman to create music videos for their songs and post them on Youtube.

In July 2011, Tyler and Josh released the band’s second album, titled “Regional at Best.” This proved to be the band's first moderate hit. They launched the album with a free show on the grounds of the new Albany High School in Ohio with hundreds in attendance. Later in November, they sold out the Newport Music Hall in Columbus, Ohio with more than 1,800 people in attendance.

Keep in mind, the band wasn’t signed to a label yet. But this growing success caught the attention of dozens of record labels. Eventually the band signed with Atlantic Records subsidiary Fueled By Ramen, the same record label that has boosted artists like Fallout Boy, Panic at the Disco, and Paramore.

Since they were finally signed to a label, they started working with producer Greg Wells on a new album called “Vessel," their first feature-length studio album to be released on a record label. The album was recorded at Rocket Carrousel Studios in Los Angeles with Tyler on piano, vocals, keyboard, and ukulele, and Josh on drums and percussion. Their producer Greg Wells contributed some additional keyboard and synths.

"Vessel" was released in January 2013, and featured several songs that were previously featured on an EP titled “3 Songs.” "Vessel" was the biggest success for the band yet, reaching 21 (ironically) on the Billboard Top 100 and selling over 569,000 copies as of July 2016.

It was at this time that they started touring internationally. In 2013 they were featured as an opening act for Fallout Boy, and made their late night television debut on Conan. They were also first-time headliners at some of the country’s biggest music festivals like SXSW, Bonaroo, and Lollapalooza in 2013. They even got to play their number one hit “Car Radio” at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards.

During all this constant touring around, the two kept a small bubble studio with them wherever they went, so they could quickly record any song ideas they had while on the road. When it came time to record their fourth album, they did so in a very unorthodox manner. Instead of writing and recording all the songs in one studio with one producer, they worked with multiple producers and several different studios: veteran music producers Tim Anderson, Ricky Reed, Mike Elizondo, all in their separate studios across the northern hemisphere, and even Mike Crossey in London.

All this work resulted in “Blurryface,” the band's fourth official album released in May 2015. "Blurryface" was a concept album that centered around a character, appropriately named Blurryface. Tyler himself heavily identifies with Blurryface, stating that the character represents everything he feels insecure about. In live shows and music videos from the album, Tyler wears black paint on his hands and neck, stating that it helps him get into character.

The hype for "Blurryface" was so big that the official Twenty One Pilots website crashed because so many people were trying to pre-order it. When the album finally released, it was featured No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100, it sold 150,000 copies in the first week, and eventually it sold well over one million copies, which certifies it as platinum.

A lot of the album's success might have been because of chart-topping singles “Stressed Out” and “Ride.” "Stressed Out" was about the struggling transition from childhood to adulthood; "Ride" is about asking questions to yourself and getting lost into your deep thoughts. "Stressed Out" was No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100, and "Ride" was No. 5. That’s two songs from the same band and both songs were in the top five; the only other people to do that were Elvis Presley and The Beatles.

After the world tour of "Blurryface," the band decided to take a break from performing and making new stuff for almost two years. In November of 2018, the band surprised everyone with news that they’re going to release a new album. “Trench” was released in October 2018 and features hit singles like "Jumpsuit," "Nico and the Niners," and "Neon Gravestones."

If you hadn’t figured out, Twenty One Pilots is my favorite band: the beautiful and poetic lyrics, the constantly changing vibes between songs, the fact that they fit into SO many genres, and most of all, the messages behind the songs. Every song that they’ve ever written has a message behind it, and knowing Tyler it's usually a message about living with anxiety or depression, how to cope and live with the things that emotionally hurt and cripple you the most.

The messages are not always negative and dark; a lot of them talk about love and hope, and remember to laugh once in a while and be optimistic.

If this has spurred any interest in Twenty One Pilots, please do this: listen to "Neon Gravestones." It's a beautiful song about suicide, but has a lovely message at the end. It’s one of my favorite songs and I feel like it should be heard a hundred times more.


Ian Smith is a film and theater student in Illinois.


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