Last week, pop rock band Twenty One Pilots stopped in Syracuse to play the University Union-booked homecoming concert in the Schine Student Center. The duo took the time to sit down with 20 Watt’s Erin Singleton to discuss everything from first jobs to the intricacies of working a room.

20 Watts: How did you guys came up with the name “Twenty One Pilots?”
I was studying a play in a theater class in college called “All My Sons,” by Arthur Miller. And a quick, brief summary of it: There’s a guy creating airplanes for the current war and he found out the parts are faulty so he made had to make a decision: “Do I send those parts out or recall them back in?” He decided to send them out, which is the wrong decision, but 21 pilots died because of it. The play ends very tragically; he actually ends up killing himself. What we take from that is there are decisions we make everyday as a band and as individuals. There’s the right decision and the wrong decision, and the right decision usually takes more work. The right decision takes longer to reap benefits. A lot of our decisions are made with the reminder of what the band stands for.

20 Watts: Did you guys have any musical projects before Twenty One Pilots? Either on your own or together?

Josh: Well, I’ve been playing music for a really long time. As I was ending high school, I was kind of like trying to decide if I was going to college or what I was going to do. I think it was my senior year it really clicked and I really decided like, “I’m going to pursue music.” I don’t know what that means. Like I really didn’t know what it meant. The only thing I could think of was, “Let me go work at Guitar Center. There are musicians there. That’s the only place around my area I know.” And so actually through that I met –

Tyler: Did you know that when I took the job with Michael at BLC, like that was my same mentality? Like “It’s a concert venue! I like music, maybe somehow I could be a security guard there?”

20 Watts: So was a music industry job ever an option?

Both: No, no.

Tyler: The music industry doesn’t exist.
Josh: *laughs* Yeah. It’s not a place. That’s the only thing I could think of so I was like, “I’ll do that!” I was walking around the store and I ended up playing music in a band with a guy who told me I have cool hair. It was nothing major at all, just local stuff. Played some stuff with some guys for a couple of years and that led to me playing with some other guys in a different band and we’d travel around a bit more. And because I played music with them, when I met Tyler it was more of a thing where it’s like I played music and I was trying to be legitimate. So I’ve always thought the concept of networking was important. If I didn’t get a job at Guitar Center, I wouldn’t met that guy and I wouldn’t have a played in a band and I wouldn’t have met Tyler and even if I did meet Tyler it wouldn’t have mattered because I didn’t have anything to really – I know it sounds immature – but I wouldn’t have anything to offer in a way.
Tyler: Good thing you got that job!
Josh: *laughs* Yeah good thing I got that job at Guitar Center!

20 Watts: Did you guys have the same sound in mind? Like did you have to talk about what you liked or did you know off the bat what you wanted?

Josh: What’s cool is like, we did get together and hung out one night. It was like an all night thing. It was like a slumber party without slumbering.
Tyler: Just the party.
Josh: Yeah just a party!
Tyler: *laughs* With just us!

Josh: And maybe some waffle crisps or something. But we’d just talk all night about what we wanted and our dreams and it was cool because everything he said I like totally like, “Yeah, same, exactly!” It just clicked. From that point we wanted to play music together. And so we became friends for like, a year, because I was playing music with some guys and he was playing music with some guys. So after about a year, or maybe it wasn’t quite a year, but it was about that long, things finally fell into place and we were kind of both really excited and it was cool.
20 Watts: I saw the music video for “Car Radio” and it’s like my favorite video ever. How did you come up with that? Did you have to “train” the crowd?!
*laughs and waves* See ya next week! That’s a really funny way of putting it.
20 Watts: Everyone was so well behaved!

Josh: *laughs* “Well behaved.”
Tyler: We stopped the show, you know, in the middle and explained, “Here’s what we want to do, I want you to be part of this, it’s going work best if you just listen to what I say. And you know it’s our hometown crowd of a couple hundred people, a thousand people. There’s a lot of people I would bounce the idea off of before we did and they were just like, “This is never going to work, they’re not going to listen to you.” A crowd of people is unpredictable.
20 Watts: Yeah, just looking at the crowd nobody had a phone out.
Tyler: Yeah, it’s like you’ve got to take the risk and these kids delivered and now it’s for everyone to see. I’m just glad it worked. I can’t believe it worked.
Josh: Yeah, because really crowds are unpredictable. And the cool thing –
Tyler: It will never happen again, that’s the thing. Like that was the last show we ever played where people felt like we were just like their brothers up on stage playing, and they were there to support a family. And that’s how a lot of our fans feel; they have been there since the beginning and they’re not weirded out by us when we talk to them in person like, “Hey, how’s it going? How’s your mom?” But that’s as many people as you can fit in that category, and then after that you just get people who start acting irrationally around you at shows and they’re a little more unpredictable.

20 Watts: Can you feel the difference of crowds between a festival and a college show and your hometown shows?
As much as people will look at me specifically and say, “That’s someone who plays the piano for a living,” it’s not – I’m someone who tries to read a crowd for a living. I try to be very, very in touch between the difference of a festival and a college show and your headline show, and then the difference between being the opening band. Like how to approach a room of people. Because a room of people, they all think together. You know, it’s like they all feel together liking a band or disliking a band or being excited or not being excited. They all move together. The closer in proximity, the more shoulders that are touching, the quicker that reaction is going to be. So, yeah, there’s a huge difference. And because we’ve played so many different shows and different rooms, we’re on a path where we are able to write a book about it, you know? I don’t know how to explain, like I could go down a list and explain.
20 Watts: You just get different vibes from each one?

Tyler: There are different things you can expect from different people. And when you start forcing rooms and groups of people to do something that they’re just not capable of doing, it gets awkward. That’s when you get the lead singer up there screaming, “C’MON! CLAP YOUR HANDS!” Like, “Shut up dude, I have a beer in one hand or I’m in college and I have this chick with me and I don’t want to be over the top, I’m trying to impress her.”
Josh: *laughs* Yeah.

20 Watts: What do you recommend to someone trying to make it big or to someone trying to get recognition within their music? Any words of wisdom you could possibly think of?
As a musician, I would say, “Are you sure?” *laughs* That’s so bad. We should be like, “If we can do it, you can do it!”
Josh: Well, I mean that same thing came up with me in my family. I have a family member, a loved one, who is trying to make it or trying to even just get started. It’s a dream. It starts off as this idea or this dream but you don’t know what exactly to do. I was just done telling you I had no idea what to do; I got a job at Guitar Center and he [Tyler] got a job doing security. And I remember when I was in high school when I wanted to do it and I was like, “I want to make music.” I was always kind of like, pro-“follow your dreams” and “do what you love” and “do what makes you happy.” And a lot of people say that. And I think it really is a good message and thing to say and I wouldn’t discourage that. But I will say that a lot of times, people leave out the work part of it.
20 Watts: Yeah, make it seem too easy.
Yeah. And a lot of people, it’s just like, “Well I’m going to follow my dreams and I think I can be whatever I want, but until then I’m going to play some video games and wait for my phone call from like, this band that wants me to play with them, or like whatever.” I think that if ever, I encourage people to pursue what it is that they’re trying to do, whether that’s being in a band or you wanting to get into the business side of music and the music industry. I say work as hard as you can, try to find a level of work other people are doing, and work harder. And also, find ways to stand out and do things different. That’s something we still try to do as a band, like “What can we do as a band that we’ve never seen done and what ideas can we come up with that’s different?” And that’s like there’s just like bands who have songs on the radio now aren’t even trying to think of ways to do things different live or like make their show exciting. When we go to shows, it’s just like, “What? I mean, I’ve seen this hundreds of times, I’ve seen this done.” So I guess that would be my encouragement, to try to work harder than everybody and do things that’ll make people not forget you and want to tell people about you and become a fan.

Photo by Ali Mitchell