Twenty One Pilots have always had surprises up their sleeve but there's something that feels even more radical about their new album Scaled And Icy. Arriving three years after the dark and twisted Trench, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun have flipped the script on this latest project delving into '80s synth-pop sounds to deliver a project that's vibrant and, dare we say it, upbeat.
Created during a period where the musical world was still, it's the first album they have delivered without a giant global tour looming. Without the constant travel to spark the creative juices, Joseph dug into his imagination in his Ohio studio bunker. What he found may have even surprised him. As he tells Cool Accidents from the studio where it was made, "it might be a few years until I realise why [the album is colourful and more optimistic]."
As always, there's a story running through this record and it picks up from where Trench left off. Fans have been offered up visual and sonic cues through music videos and singles allowing the imagination to run wild. Joseph will neither confirm nor deny whether they are on the right track with their wild theories but he encourages the speculation to continue.
Below, we speak to Joseph about creating the album under the most different circumstances yet and why their relationship with their fans is different.
Where am I speaking to you from?
I am in Columbus, Ohio - my hometown. Born and raised and still here.
Is this the studio where the record came together?
Oh, yeah. I am in my basement studio. It's underground. It's a bit of a cave but this is where I've written and produced the last two records. Spent a lot of time in here breathing my own breath.
How does it feel to be in there now that the record is finished? Do you still feel restless and want to keep making music?
Traditionally when I finish a record I feel like I've got nothing left, all the gas is out and I don't want to write another song forever. I think it's because traditionally I would be prepping myself for a life where I'm traveling and playing shows. Now with that not a part of the future and not really on the horizon at this moment, I think that maybe I paced myself in a sense where I don't feel that overwhelming sense of 'I never want to write another song'. I feel ready to continue to keep chugging on. I'm not quite sick of this place yet. There are ideas floating all around, I just need to wrangle them and figure out how to stack them up against each other.
It's a very different approach to go into a record. For the last few albums, your venues have gotten bigger and bigger. Before Trench you must have wondered how it would play out in an arena. Did that feeling disappear making this one given the circumstances?
I've always wondered... when I write a song it's always hard for me not to view it through the lens of what it's going to feel like live. What's it going to be like when we play it in front of our fans. If there was an opportunity to write an album without that in mind it would have been this one because there's no tour to follow it up, and yet as I got into the writing process and as I got into the creation and the production I still couldn't help but write from that perspective. This is the record that I realised that it is part of my DNA as a songwriter that I naturally put myself in front of a crowd thinking what is perfect for the setlist. How would I want to experience this song with my fans? I guess that will always be a part of the creative process.
We've gone through a period in the last year that has completely changed the way everyone lives their lives. It's affected mental health, family time, and lots of other things. You expect that the music coming out of this time would be quite dark but it's proving to be quite the opposite. We hear that with your new music. It's some of the most colourful work you've ever done. Did you expect that when you started making it?
I didn't know for certain that it would happen but I also didn't want to fight it. I knew this record would lean heavily on imagination and creativity and not putting any sort of boundary on it. Part of my... I guess maybe it's a defense mechanism or a crutch but I also think it's a skill in allowing the song to make decisions. Giving it a sense of morality like it knows the way to go. The older that I get, the more I realise that that's where the magic is, to let the song take you where it wants to go. This batch of songs just came out a little more bright and colourful and more optimistic-sounding, at least sonically. Maybe it might be a few years until I realise why. You tend to look back and realise what you were compensating for.
Do you think stillness has anything to do with it? You guys have been so busy the last few years, pulled and pushed in different directions. Was there something calming about not being able to be told to go anywhere?
Yes. I kind of equate it to the difference between missing a day of school because you were sick and missing a day of school because of a holiday or snow day. Everyone was missing the day of school. It's a different feeling if you decide not to go because you're sick, everyone else is there. What was the lesson today? You come back and feel completely behind. There was a sense of security in coming back and knowing everyone was doing their own pausing. At the same time, I knew that I was going to be writing from one singular place, I wasn't going to be traveling and coming up with new ideas the same way I was in the past so I really wanted to test the theory that musical creation doesn't have to be influenced by where you are. You can travel... this all sounds wishy-washy but it's true. You can go anywhere you want, that's how powerful music is.
Popular music is dependent on fans but your fans, in particular, are so strong in their adoration and dedication for you guys. Do you ever think about how they're going to react when you're making a project with a new sound?
I would say that the only external influence in the creative process is them. What will they think? What will they enjoy? Oh, I know they're going to be shocked or excited or relate to this. Those things do creep in which is saying a lot because I try not to let anything influence that process. It's a healthy balance of not abandoning the foundation and the rapport that you've built with them. A lot of artists like to flip something on its head and abandon everything they've built and do something completely different. In some ways, they can alienate their previous fans. You have to balance that stacking and building on of what you've laid behind you but at the same time you have to be okay with pulling them along to something new. You don't want to stay stagnate. You have to manage both of those things at the same time.
I know you lay easter eggs in terms of fan theories but also your fans take it to a whole new extreme that not even you could predict. Do you enjoy reading their deep dives? I've read everything about this album from its propaganda to there's a second album on the way.
I do try to stay healthy about it. I do have some ears on the ground, yes. But I've always enjoyed there being a larger story that courses through these songs. I've always been a fan of stories. It also gives me the freedom to have a sense of control over the story in a world where we can't control anything. However deep they want to go, there's something to discover and there's meaning inside the meaning inside the meaning. I don't know if anyone will fully understand the time we've put into this and that's okay.