Tyler Joseph of the Columbus, Ohio band Twenty One Pilots has some complicated stuff going on inside his head, and he's not shy about expressing it, grabbing whatever musical style is floating around, from EDM sub-genres, suburban hip-hop deliveries, even early '70s piano balladry, yacht-rock and reggae. It's not unusual these days to hear genre-hopping on the radio; Pitbull and Ke$ha are donning 10-gallon hats and yelling "Timber," while Florida Georgia Line cruises along with Nelly. Everything is everything else, even if not all of it is built to last.
Twenty One Pilots comes by their stylistic switcheroos honestly, in the service of Joseph's lyrics. On "Vessel," the band's 2013 debut album for Warner subsidiary Fueled By Ramen (and their third studio album so far), Joseph accompanies his mood swings with twists, some drastic enough to induce mild seasickness. "Ode to Sleep" starts off as dance-pop, with fast-triplet rhyming from Joseph, before lurching into another direction: a half-speed, anthemic chorus, the musical equivalent of tossing and turning, as drummer Josh Dun alternates between straight and swung eighths: a strange way to start an album, perhaps, but not out of step with what follows.
"I think we try not to set restrictions at the beginning," Dun told CTNow. "Tyler typically starts out with an idea for the skeleton of a song, and it's easy to find inspiration in a particular sound." Genre-hopping, Dun continued, is "something neither one of us is afraid of, as long as it still makes sense. I don't think there's any fear or limitations when it comes to writing or creating a new idea."
Joseph extends the rapped-verse/sung-chorus dichotomy on "Holding Onto You" and a few more tracks; they're not above expected radio-rock moves, like the instrument drop-outs at the center of a songs before a beefier final chorus. There are quasi-religious overtones, in spots — Joseph repeats "entertain my faith" a dozen times. He repeats "lean with it, rock with it," rougher and with more conviction, until the wordless chorus returns. Joseph's head is exploding in "Migraine," which introduces robotic-vocoder lyrics as he casually, darkly trots out the possibility of offing himself to stop the pain: "I-I-I I've got a migraine / And my pain will range from up, down, and sideways / Thank God it's Friday cause Fridays will always be better than Sundays."
There are other, less bodily sources of displeasure. On "Car Radio," Joseph's sound system has been jacked, leaving him without a way to distract himself from thinking during even the shortest car trip; he wants to "replace that slot" before his thoughts turn to dark stuff, the kind we all fear (and the subject of a Louis C.K.'s rant about not giving smart phones to his kids). As Dun's drums kick in, Joseph screams: "And now I just sit in silence!"
Recording for the new label, however, added some mild pressure to compartmentalize, Dun said, but not much. "If you really harbor the mentality of 'let's be as different as possible,' you risk nobody understanding it," Dun said. "There's a balance between being a bit different but also accessible and relatable… As we were recording this record, everyone [at the label] was really trusting and had little or no critiques or changes they wanted to make. They let us sit back and be creative. We've really felt a lot of support from everybody involved."
Twenty One Pilots heads to the Dome at Oakdale on Sunday, April 27, with support from NONONO and Hunter Hunted. It's just Joseph and Dun on stage, and that requires fancy footwork from both players. Joseph plays multiple instruments, and Dun adds electronic pads and triggers to his standard kit. "We utilize technology to be able to achieve a fuller sound," Dun said. "We try to be strategic and creative in terms of what's the presentation of these songs." But the duo is experienced enough by now to maintain energy onstage while hitting all the musical cues. "It's a challenge sometimes," Dun said, "but I'm very proud of what we're able to put together, just the two of us."
The group's success has also given Joseph and Dun some opportunities to beef up their touring operation, to add some comfort on the road so they can write for the next record. "We've moved out of traveling out of a van and into a bus," Dun said. "We have more room in there now, and some tools to help us be creative and come up with new ideas." They have a few new songs ready to record, with others in a newer state. Dun said they'll most likely enter the studio at the end of the year.
"I'm super-excited about [the new songs]," Dun said. "Our goal is to make [recording] a pretty quick process so we can get back on the road and have some new material to play."
TWENTY ONE PILOTS performs on Sunday, April 27, at the Dome at Oakdale in Wallingford with NONONO and Hunter Hunted. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22. Information: oakdale.com