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Artist Spotlight: Josh Dun of twenty one pilots

posted by Laura Baker-Finch on July 24, 2013

Photo: Josh Dun of twenty one pilots at MTV Artist to Watch 2013 by Marjana Jaidi

Columbus-based twenty one pilots have soared out of the bars in their hometown onto the International stage thanks to their energetic live shows, distinctive combination of drums and keyboard (that has somehow managed to avoid Matt & Kim references), and release of Vessel earlier this year on Fueled By Ramen. Yet while their stages and followers have grown in number and scope, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun continue to infuse their sets with the same dynamism they used to steal the attention away from $3 Pitcher Nights at their local venues.

I had originally planned to chat with twenty one pilots at Firefly Music Festival last month before they took to The Backyard Stage, but the highway had other plans. Yet, despite a packed tour schedule, Josh managed to squeeze in some time on the road to Common Ground Music Festival for a quick chat. Read on below for Josh's thoughts on the Columbus music scene, recording in a professional studio, and which live stunt is his favorite.

I’ve read both you and Tyler say the initial reason for the live theatrics was to make people remember you when playing small local bars with no one paying attention. Your following is obviously a lot bigger now, has the reasoning behind the live antics changed at all?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I guess talking about going into these smaller clubs and bars and trying to capture people’s attention, that is a reason for going crazy and having energy and having these stunts. But at the same time, as far as how that translates to a festival or a larger stage, I would say that if we were to play a small club and it’s a very high energy club and we do stunts and stuff and then we go and play a festival with a lot more people, I don’t know if we could ever have the mindset of “Oh now we don’t have to do that stuff because there are a lot of people here.” Mostly just because I think we’d be super bored just standing there and not really doing anything, ha.

It has kind of become a thing, sort of an outlet that we need to the point of when we’re home alone doing our separate things, I’ll go and play drums in a dark warehouse and play just the same and Tyler will be writing and doing his same thing. As much as it is this idea of trying to get people to remember the show, it is also just as fun for us to do that. So I guess it is a bit of both and the mindset behind that doesn’t really change from stage to stage, it remains the same. I think it always will, I don’t ever want somebody to come to a show and have a lot of people there and think “Well, this is more boring than it was in that tiny little basement with 100 people.” If anything, hopefully with more resources and more room we can add more things.

That’s a good mindset to have. Is there ever pressure to continuously come up with new tricks in order to top the last gig?
Yeah, definitely. It kind of started out really because we played a lot of shows in our hometown in Columbus, those would be kind of our bigger shows where we would try to put together something extravagant. Every time we go back there we try to top that show and now that it’s becoming more all over the country where we’re able to do more kind of crazy things at a show so then coming back we’re like, “What can we do better?” So there’s definitely pressure, and it’s probably mostly just from ourselves, that pressure to top it. But we’ll see, we’re always talking about ideas and different things that we may be able to do but that’s kind of some of the fun part. We were just recently talking about how we were ready to change things up a little bit so, I don’t know.

Now that you have toured more extensively, is Columbus still where you want your home base to be when not on the road?
It definitely is. We just had a week and a half off and that’s definitely our home, Columbus, where we live and we are excited to go back there and see our family and friends whenever we have time off. Definitely what we consider home.

I know a few bands from Columbus, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Way Yes or City Lights, but they’ve really made it seem there is a real camaraderie between the bands there. Do you feel the same way?
Yeah, yeah! Definitely, I actually knew that kid [in Way Yes] years ago when he was mostly just doing bars and stuff and it is really cool to see him definitely getting a lot bigger and getting a lot more recognition and also City Lights I keep in contact with their drummer. We’ll talk every couple of weeks or so. But it’s cool, as this experience happened for us, a lot of the local bands in Columbus have been really supportive and have been really cool and have reached out to us in some way, which is awesome.

Speaking of Columbus, you have such a grassroots following there and you said that your biggest shows are normally there. How have they responded to you guys being an independent, local band to you being signed and more recognized on a National and International scale?
From what I’ve seen they’ve been really, really supportive and I think that has to do with allowing them on the journey with us. It’s not at all like, “Hey, we got signed, so see ya later” type of thing. “We’re going to leave now and do bigger things.” It’s more like, you know, “You guys have been such a big part of this since the very beginning and we want to take you everywhere with us and you’re all still such a huge part of it.” So I think that’s cool for us and also cool for them that they can continue to still support us and know that we really, really appreciate it and love that they’ve been there since the very beginning. So it’s good, I think people have really been cool about the growth of this thing.

Last year you signed with Fueled by Ramen to release Vessel but you’ve self-released your own EPs and demos beforehand, did the record making process change since being signed?
I will say that when we went into a studio, like an actual real studio not being recorded in Tyler’s basement, a lot of the songs that we recorded actually were in a way re-recorded or made to sound bigger from the songs that were done in Tyler’s basement. So and the producer that we had too, Greg Wells, also from the very beginning had really liked what was already done, the sound that was already there. And so he was kind of like, sometimes even more than us, “let’s keep what you already have.” And so it was cool to go in and work with a producer and somebody who was professional at mixing and making things sound bigger and professional but I guess it wasn’t a huge transition, you know? But it definitely was a really cool experience.

When you’re recording or thinking of new songs, do you keep in mind how certain parts will translate live?
Actually I think that’s one of the biggest parts. I think the songs are written for a live setting where it’s like, “during this part we can stand on the crowd, or do this or that or whatever.” Then it’s like the structure of the songs is almost based around that idea in a way, which is kind of why some people hear the music for the first time and then see it and it makes more sense in a way. They can be like, “Okay, I see what they’re doing here and this part of the song makes a lot more sense now.” So yeah, it is definitely taking into account.

Definitely makes for a more dynamic show when it is all tied together that way.
Yeah, exactly.

And I’ve been curious, do you have a favorite stunt that you’ve done on stage so far?
We’ve recently kind of started I guess trusting the audience a little more and every once and a while we’ll do a thing where we stand on top of them. And I think that it is cool to have them holding us up. A lot of people just say it is risky and “Maybe I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” and I think that’s what makes it fun and seeing if that’s going to work every night, ha. It is expanding the stage a little bit. I think that’s probably my favorite one that we’ve done.

Both in Europe and the US, your summer tour has included a lot of festival stops, I believe you’re even playing a festival tonight, how do these compare to one-off shows in indoor venues? Does one better suit your style?
I think that is something we are still learning and figuring out. I don’t know, I think that starting out in the first year that Tyler and I were playing together we played such a variety of different types of shows and shows with so many different types of bands and musicians that we’ve kind of just figured out how to adapt to that type of show or whatever kind of show it is that we’re playing. So, I guess that even on a little bit of a larger scale because there have been times that we’ve played a large stage at a festival and then the next night we playing in the basement of a tiny, tiny club and it is weird to kind of, in that mindset, of like, “this is the polar opposite type of show from last night.” But at the same time I think it is a cool challenge to play such a crazy different dynamic of shows. Any show is enjoyable and it is just really learning to adapt to them and that sort of environment.

Twenty one pilots will be touring through October, making stops at Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, Pukkelpop, Lowlands, Life is Beautiful, and the inaugural Breakaway Festival in their hometown of Columbus.

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