When Twenty One Pilots frontman Tyler Joseph scrolls through his phone, there are hundreds of names in the contacts he doesn't quite recognize: kids from the band's hometown of Columbus, Ohio, who were the earliest fans of his two-man group, from back in the days when Joseph used to drive door-to-door hand-delivering tickets for club shows. When that grew too time-consuming, he and drummer Josh Dun would have fans meet them at a table outside the Chick-Fil-A in the Polaris mall's food court. On show days, Joseph's mom would stand outside the club and try to hawk tickets to passing Ohio State students. "She'd be like, 'Come see my son play music,'" recalls Joseph, who's 27 but could pass for a teenager, with a puppyish, Joseph Gordon-Levitt vibe that turns into something stranger and more intense onstage.
That was just four years ago. The duo's grassroots approach has, to their surprise, propelled them way, way beyond central Ohio. They are easily the biggest group to break out in the past year: In mid-January, Twenty One Pilots had a Top 10 single ("Stressed Out") and the country's Number Three album, lodged between Justin Bieber and One Direction. Weeks ago, they announced a 58-date arena tour, including two nearly sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden.
They're signed to the punk-leaning label Fueled by Ramen — launching pad for Fall Out Boy and Paramore — but Twenty One Pilots are one of the hardest-to-categorize hit acts in years, mixing angsty lyrics, Macklemore-style rhymes, Ben Folds–like piano pop, 311-ish reggae beats, hard-rock energy and the occasional ukulele ballad. Onstage, Joseph plays bass, piano and uke when he's not stalking around in smeared makeup and a bondage mask. Dun, a chilled-out former skater with an easy grin and gauges in his ears, helps them sound like a band, triggering prerecorded backing tracks as he plays. It's a seemingly odd combination that makes total sense to their teen fan base. "There was a lot of pressure to find a genre and stick to it," says Joseph. "People would tell me all the time, 'You can't be all things to everyone.' I would say, 'I'm not trying to be! I'm being what I want to be for myself.'"
Their current hit, the rap-rock throwback "Stressed Out," is about the harsh end of adolescence ("Used to dream of outer space, but now they're laughing at our face/Saying, 'Wake up, you need to make money'"). And backstage at The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon the week before Christmas, Joseph is doing his best to live like a kid again, gleefully flying down the quiet halls on his brand-new hoverboard, past uniformed NBC pages and frowning security guards. "How do I go forward?" he asks. "I just push my wiener out? I guess it just reads the ween!"
As showtime approaches, Joseph begins to transform, slathering black grease paint all over his neck and arms and trading his T-shirt and jeans for a stylish long black coat and dark pants. He stands up from the couch and begins pacing back and forth. "This makeup forces me to recognize what I'm trying to say on this stage with this song," he says. "I'm anxious to get up there and get this over with."
They play the album track "Heavydirtysoul": Like most songs on their newest album, Blurryface, it delves deep into Joseph's insecurities. "There's an infestation in my mind's imagination," he speed-raps. Fallon is sitting in darkness at his desk, but he's banging his head along to the beat; Questlove is also impressed, tweeting later in the day, "Whoa ... I wasn't ready!!!"
Joseph and Dun emerge from behind a red curtain into the Tonight Show hallway as Joseph's slim blond wife of nine months, Jenna, and members of their management team and road crew burst into applause. "Well," Joseph says, breathing heavily, "that was four minutes of hard work."
The name Twenty One Pilots is also a philosophy for Joseph and Dun: It came from an Arthur Miller play, All My Sons, that Joseph was reading at Ohio State, about a war contractor who knowingly sends off faulty airplane parts to Europe during World War II, afraid that he'd lose money if he fessed up to the mistake; the decision results in the death of 21 airplane pilots. It resonated with Joseph, who declined a basketball scholarship from Otterbein University to focus on music. "I could relate to the fact that making the right decision in life sometimes takes more work," says Joseph. "It takes more time, and it can feel like you're going backward."
To this day, Joseph and Dun will warn each other that they are "sending out the parts" if they feel they're taking the easy route. As the duo grew more popular, they turned down record deals with signing bonuses, acted as their own roadies long after they were selling out large venues, and refused to trade in their van for a touring bus. More recently, they've declined significant sponsorship offers for their 2016 tour.
Joseph and Dun were both raised in conservative, religious households. Joseph's father was the principal of a Christian high school that Tyler attended; before that, he was home-schooled by his mother. "I told her I wanted to be a basketball player, and she made me take 500 shots every single day in the backyard," he says. "If I got closer to the basket and made lay-ups, she didn't count them. She'd knock on the back window near the kitchen and point to the three-point line. I had to be done before dinner, and if I wasn't, I wasn't allowed to eat."
Things were even stricter at the Dun household. Video games and most rock or hip-hop albums were banned. "I'd hide albums like Green Day's Dookie under my bed," Dun says. "Sometimes they'd find them and get real mad. They'd find a Christian alternative, like Relient K, and make me listen to that." For a while, the only movies allowed in the house came from CleanFlicks, a Christian company that took Hollywood movies and edited out all the profanity, sexuality and violence. For a young Dun, it made watching movies like The Terminator quite confusing. "Some scenes they'd remove entirely," he says. "Watching those movies was an absolutely awful experience."
By the time he was a teenager, Dun was rebelling hard. "I just had this aggression," he says, noting that his parents nearly kicked him out when he was 14. "They almost sent me to a military school. They didn't know what to do with me, and I was always in detention. I never got into drugs or alcohol, but I would yell at my parents and just treat them terribly. Everything was an argument. Looking back, they were trying their best."
When his parents fell asleep, he'd break out his punk-pop CDs; eventually, they softened up on rock music, allowing him to assemble a drum kit in his basement piece by piece with his own money. He didn't go to college, moving in with a bunch of buddies instead and playing in local bands while scraping by working in the drum department of Guitar Center. "I was going nowhere," he says. "One day I said to my dad, 'Are you disappointed that I'm working a minimum-wage job and I didn't go to college?' I'll never forget his response. He said, 'It's not about how much money you make or what your job is, but it's more about your character. For that, I'm proud of you.' It gave me motivation."
Josh, I have a question for you," Joseph says. "Would you rather be attacked by 100 chicken-sized horses or one horse-sized chicken?" Dun gives the question (inspired by a popular Internet meme) some thought. "There's pros and cons to both," he says. "A horse-sized chicken will have short legs, so I don't know how fast it would be."
Joseph disagrees. "Take how fast a regular chicken is, and times it by however big a horse is. You want to take the 100 chicken-sized horses all day long. You just kick them right in the snout. Dude, just picture the beak on a horse-sized chicken. And he's not just roaming around. He's, like, honed in on you."
It's a freezing-cold afternoon in Ohio a couple of days before New Year's, and Joseph and Dun are walking around a nearly deserted downtown Columbus, not far from where they first met in 2010. Joseph had taught himself piano by playing along to Beatles and Dion songs on the radio, impressing friends with how quickly he learned, and forming an early version of Twenty One Pilots with two friends. Dun first saw them at a club on the Ohio State campus. "I loved everything about the show except for one thing: I wasn't onstage playing also," he says. It would be another year before Joseph's original drummer quit and Dun got the job, but they had become best friends in the meantime. By 2012, Joseph had grown into a ferocious performer, climbing the scaffolding and diving into audiences. The duo became the biggest band in central Ohio, putting every spare penny into the band and focusing intensely on their local fans. The most important Columbus promoter, Adam Vanchoff, took notice when they played the 1,700-seat Newport Music Hall. "I was like, 'These local guys just sold out the Newport?'" says Vanchoff. "Nationally touring bands can't do that!"
Right now, Joseph and Dun are enjoying their first month off since their major-label debut came out in early 2013. They've spent the time hanging out with their families and old friends, but they've also logged many hours working on complex backing tracks for their upcoming arena tour. "I know that concept gets a lot of flak," says Joseph of the tracks. "But we're so proud of them — we slave over them."
They head to Dun's parents' house; the drummer now lives in L.A. but crashes in his old bedroom when he's in Ohio, which is often. (Joseph and Jenna bought a house in Columbus and live there full-time.) They filmed much of the "Stressed Out" video at Dun's childhood home, so it's become a destination for Twenty One Pilots fans. Because the home number is listed, Dun says his parents have had to cancel the landline to put an end to the calls coming in at all hours.
A Christmas tree sits in the living room, next to a ceramic Nativity scene. There's not a single Twenty One Pilots photo or bit of memorabilia anywhere within sight, though the walls are covered with signs that say things like JOY and A LOVING FAMILY MINE TO TREASURE BETTER THAN WEALTH OF ANY MEASURE. Dun's basement bedroom has been stripped of most personal artifacts, but his decent-size DVD collection — which includes movies certain to be approved by CleanFlicks like Finding Nemo and The Truman Show — remains intact.
Dun takes out a bowl of two-day-old chili from the fridge, mixing in sour cream and cheese as the topic turns to his own religious views. "We're always questioning things," he says, "but I guess it's safe to say that we're both Christians." Dun's mother, Laura, a small, cheerful blond woman in her fifties, comes downstairs to say hello; she is a nurse, and his father is a physical therapist. "Hey, Mrs. Dun," Joseph says. "This is good chili. I promise to not spill any on the couch."
"Call me Mama Dun," she says. "I would have fixed you something more if I knew you were coming over."
Mama Dun appears in the "Stressed Out" video along with all the other members of the combined Joseph and Dun clans, who all chant "Wake up, you need to make money" in unison. "Growing up, money is important," says Joseph. "And now I have a career where I'm making enough money to live. But I really want to give it to my parents, my family, charities and people around me." True to form, Joseph still drives around town in a beat-up Chevy Impala. In the coming months, he says that the band plans to start its own charity, something "Columbus-based."
The rise of Twenty One Pilots also means that the band has stopped apologizing for its unorthodox mix of styles. The follow-up single to "Stressed Out" was "Lane Boy," a reggae-infused track that is almost a mission statement, with Joseph singing, "They say, 'Stay in your lane, boy'/But we go where we want to."
"It is true that if you hear our music described, it sounds unappealing," says Joseph as he gets ready to leave for his brother's high school basketball game. "I used to laugh and agree with people when they said it didn't make any sense.
"I'm going to stop saying that," he says. "It fits together into one body of work, because we made it."