“Help me out / My friends and I, we’ve got a lot of problems … While you’re doing fine, there’s some people and I/ Who have a really tough time getting through this life / So excuse us while we sing to the sky.”
Ohioan two-piece Twenty One Pilots are huge around the world right now, and last month they got together with 7000 fans in Auckland to sing to the sky in a sold-out show that blew Vector Arena’s roof off.
I spoke to some of those fans as we waited for the doors to open. Fifteen-year old Ellie Dragicevich, in line since 8am to ensure a good spot near the front when she got inside, said, “Seeing them is like a dream come true”. Alissa Morton, also 15, had come from Whanganui and had been in line since 3.40am. “I’m feeling good now, wasn’t before . . . the adrenaline’s going.” Her father, on the other side of the barriers, had been getting her food and water during the day. “It was a crazy atmosphere,” he said of the early-morning gathering.
The band’s dedicated fan-base call themselves the Skeleton Clique and, like these girls, many dress up in face paint and red-and-black-and-white outfits for live gigs.
Their get-up reflects the band’s aesthetic: A striking aspect of Twenty One Pilots’ style is their theatricality and costuming and their use of iconography and graphic design. This, together with a kete of classic rock star showmanship tricks and routines, means that any Twenty One Pilots’ show is a good one.
After the show I asked fan Sarah Lewis, 18, from Hamilton, for her take. “I had high expectations,” she said, “and they met them. They were awesome.”
The band’s sound is a meld of styles and genres: rap, dance, reggae, hip hop, pop, rock and more. Live, they make use of backing tracks, synched via laptop by drummer Josh Dun at his kit, and Tyler Joseph plays keyboard, bass, tambourine and ukulele at different points.
Joseph takes the stage for their first song Heavydirtysoul in a skeleton hoodie zipped up over his face, and Dun wears a metallic mask. The macabre masks, they say, are to grab attention but, more importantly, to help fans see past them as musicians and latch on to the ideas. The light show and projection, impressive throughout, are sombre and abstract as Joseph takes the red-lit microphone that hangs from the ceiling as discordant electronic squeals fill the arena, then launches into a quickfire rap over a driving drumbeat. It’s an impressive opening.
During the show both band members get close to the audience — Joseph stands up on outstretched fans’ hands to sing at one point and Dun sits at a small drum-kit on a platform likewise held up by willing fans at another. (Cue excited exclamations of, “I touched his foot!”) Dun pounds his drums and performs his customary backflip off the piano and Joseph switches from piano to bass to ukulele and back again, makes three costume changes, stands on and jumps off piano and risers and at one point makes his way to a small platform high above the crowd at the back of the arena to close a song. (He climbs down carefully then sprints across the arena floor to safety while excited screams swell as the largely female crowd realises his proximity. (After years in the music industry he’s obviously a man who can identify the potential health and safety risks.)
There’s an easy connection and chemistry between band and audience: They jump and dance and roar with delight at Joseph’s shout of “New Zeeealand!” and “Aucklaaand!” and eagerly participate in “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” and “Whoa-oh-oh, don’t forget about me!” backing vocals directed by Joseph. They seem to know every word to every song, shown especially when Joseph puts his mic aside and lets them take over vocal duties.
“For thousands of years . . . songs were made to be sung by ordinary voices in communion, and they told the basic stories of the human condition,” says Brian Kaller in his essay Singing Lessons in the magazine First Things. He’s talking about Irish folk songs, but in Auckland it was a couple of young Americans telling basic stories of the human condition. “[Our] lyrics are a lot about those big questions: Why are we here, how did we get here, what’s the point, and what’s next,” singer and lyricist Tyler Joseph told The Standard last year. Sarah Lewis again, about the lyrics: “Each song has its own zing. They’re not about sex and drugs and rock and roll: Music is an expression of emotion.”
This is what resonates with the fans: Joseph’s naked honesty in his lyrics about his struggles with anxiety, depression, insecurity and expectations and the raw emotion he puts into his vocals on stage and record are attractive in their sincerity and authenticity. I suppose it was ever thus for pop music and teenagers — “These tortured musos truly understand me!” — but Twenty One Pilots are doing it in a genuine and self-effacing way.