Twenty One Pilots’ Josh Dun
by Willie Rose
Phoning in on a day off between dates in Japan, the drummer opens up about his journey to success, what it takes to stay there, and the pressures of holding down the throne in one of the most popular acts of the day.
Josh Dun is seemingly everywhere. Currently his genre-smashing grooves are tearing their way through audiences across the world on Twenty One Pilots’ tour supporting their 2015 release, Blurryface. A cursory glance at the duo’s YouTube videos reveals staggering numbers of views. Television networks broadcast full sets of their performances. And singles such as “Stressed Out” leave burn marks on radio charts on their way to the top.
Besides Dun and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Tyler Joseph’s potent hooks and unique sound, which carves an edgy pop sensibility into styles ranging from hip-hop to reggae to electronica, a specific strategy conceived early in the duo’s career helped them rise out of their humble beginnings in Columbus, Ohio. Recalls Dun, “A lot of bands would think, We have these songs that we’ve written and recorded, so the next logical step is to buy a van and start traveling around playing. We looked at it a bit differently. So, we have some songs written. Instead of going into a studio and spending money, let’s figure out how to record them on our own in Tyler’s space. And let’s not buy a van and travel around, because then we’re going to go into instant debt and spend money on gas and hotel rooms, which these shows aren’t going to pay for. So we decided we’d work jobs during the week and on the weekends play in or around Ohio, and use the SUV that we already had.
“A lot of the time,” Dun goes on, “bands would travel and then post about it on Facebook or tweet about it. We looked at that a bit differently too. Let’s say we have fifty fans in Columbus. Why would it make sense for us to travel to Kentucky and announce that we’re playing there? All that’s doing is letting those fifty people in Columbus know that we’re playing three hours away from them. Let’s just play these shows and make fans—we don’t need to let other people know that we’re playing them. So that’s what we did for a long time. And then eventually, after about a year, we’d developed these pockets of fans around Ohio and a couple surrounding states. And then we finally sent a blast out that said, ‘Hey, we’re doing a headlining show in Columbus, Ohio.’ It was our first time ever announcing a show. We ended up selling out. That’s the one that I think really started this whole thing.”
Given the band’s energetic performances, it’s surprising to hear Dun say that its live setup, which finds him downstage, next to Joseph, is a source of anxiety for him. “I think we’ve both been sort of insecure since the beginning,” he explains. “Being [that there’s only] two of us, we both feel a bit more vulnerable. And as a drummer, I feel more exposed, because a lot of the time the drummer can be buried in the back. Honestly, when I was in high school, my biggest fear was being in front of people or having attention put on me. I’d get almost crippling anxiety, to the point where I’d have to tell my teachers that I couldn’t give a presentation because I’d have a panic attack and collapse on the floor. And that’s what led me to playing drums. I thought, I don’t have to stand in front of people and talk or sing, or really have too much attention brought on myself. Being downstage now, it’s been a constant learning process for me—and for Tyler, who pushes me to overcome that fear, to where I can feel comfortable being in front of people and expressing myself.
“It’s interesting—the drums have always been therapeutic for me,” Dun says. “I’d come home from school and play and feel a million times better. But at the same time, when I play in front of people, there’s that feeling of vulnerability. But it’s actually become this cool thing. A lot of people that come to shows deal with that same stuff—anxiety, depression, whatever crazy mental stuff life throws at you. So walking out into a room with people that use music in a therapeutic way is powerful to me. They use it in the same way that I do.”
Early in the band’s career, Dun and Joseph wore masks on stage—not to hide behind, but rather to stand out from other Columbus acts. In Twenty One Pilots’ current live show, Dun continues to push himself to entertain crowds, playing drums, for instance, on top of the audience, as fans hold up his drumset. “We’re always thinking, What haven’t we seen before at a live show that would be cool or different? How can we stand out? A lot of these ideas, like the mask thing, stemmed from that. How do we get people to look away from sports [on the TV] at a bar and watch what we’re doing? I also think it’s possible, after doing a lot of shows, to become comfortable with your set, to begin to go through the motions. Doing a backflip, or putting the drums on the crowd—I can’t just go through the motions, because I’m relying on people to literally hold me up. Those are the parts of the set where I feel like: This could go wrong. You have to be prepared for anything, and that’s the kind of thing that keeps us alert. Luckily nothing disastrous has happened yet, and I think that’s a testament [to our fans] too. I think people enjoy being a part of the show, and at that moment they feel a sense of responsibility as well—it’s almost up to them to make sure that we can pull this off. That’s their moment.”
Even between such stunts, Dun continuously excites, practically jumping from his throne while playing, and augmenting his powerful Travis Barker–influenced style with wild arm movements and expressions that he says were partly inspired by Kim Schifino of the indie dance duo Matt and Kim. “I saw them live in Columbus,” Dun recalls, “and it was the happiest I’ve ever been watching a drummer play. Kim bounces around a bunch and is always smiling. She’s one of the most animated drummers I’ve ever seen. She stands up on top of her drums and plays standing up. Watching her was one of the first times I thought you don’t need be tied down to your throne the entire time; you can get creative in terms of positioning and what you do.”
As Twenty One Pilots prepares to finish up in Japan and get ready to head to South America, Dun is reflective. “On the one hand I feel very humbled and blessed to be in this place in our career. I’ll think, Wow, I can’t believe this is all happening. On the other hand, Tyler and I got pretty open with each other early on, in terms of what our dreams and visions were. We both believed that this could happen, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. As an artist—whatever you do—you should have big dreams, and you should believe that you can do it. There’s an importance to that. So there’s a balance of both of those feelings. Right now, I’m so content with where I’m at, if this ended tomorrow, then I’m okay with that. I’m super-happy with everything that we’ve gotten to do. Yeah, I feel really good about where things have gone.”