BY JULIE SIMMONS | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Just before the end of the song “Morph,” Twenty One Pilots drummer Josh Dun dismounts his throne, hops off the lip of the stage, and hoists himself on top of a structure carried by fans. After taking a moment to absorb the crowd’s energy, he sits behind a two-piece acrylic SJC Custom drum set that’s drilled into the wooden platform and completes the song. Within the same set, he struts across a long, steel bridge to play another kit on a B-stage and challenges a projected, virtual image of himself to a drum-off (spoiler alert: he wins). It’s all in a day’s work for half of this platinum-selling, Grammy-winning rock duo.
“I truly do look at my role in the band as keeping the beat, and I never feel like I want to overstep that role,” says Dun. “At the same time, I’m a performer, and there are times when the drums should be a highlight.”
He continues, “Seeing what other bands have done to break down the wall between stage and audience helped me realize that there aren’t really any rules.” Citing the band MuteMath as an example, he says exploring and experimenting can be fun—“a chance to spice it up.”
This penchant for audience participation has been with the band since the beginning. When TØP was just getting started in and around Columbus, Ohio—long before they had enough fans to lift and carry a drum set—Dun and his “road crew” of buddies would quickly break down his drums and set them up in front of the stage during an interlude in the band’s song “Anathema,” to the delight of the 20 people who’d surround Dun while bandmate Tyler Joseph finished the song.
Eventually, Dun recalls, he and Joseph were forced to acknowledge that the crowds had gotten bigger. “Can we even do this thing anymore?” he asked. It was a nice problem to have. As their popularity skyrocketed, the band accommodated larger audiences by putting a separate kit—a throwback to his early days with the band, comprised of just a bass drum, snare, and crash cymbal, with no hi-hat—on its very own “Drum Island.”
“We didn’t know if the crowd would hold it up, for how long, or if they wanted to be part of it at all,” says Dun. “As time goes on, it seems that people want to pull the board down and look over it. There’ve been times when I’m questioning whether I’m going to be able to finish the song or not,” he says, wondering about fans who might lose their grip to take a picture. “
I think the element of pride and owning the fact that they helped the show happen overrides their desire to capture the moment for social media. I’ve learned that the crowd’s mentality is to feel responsible for the outcome of how a show goes. The first few rows of people are the ones I’m in tune with the whole show. It’s a partnership, really. There’s a responsibility on both ends.”
Drum Island hasn’t been the only social experiment. This past spring, Dun and Joseph conducted their “Quiet Game” to see how long an entire venue of concertgoers could stay completely and utterly silent. Attendees at 17 European shows were invited to participate; at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris, 20,000 fans set the current record of 5.21 seconds.
Twenty One Pilots launched the “Bandito” tour in October 2018 in tandem with the official release of the band’s fifth studio album, Trench. Initially, only eight songs from Trench were performed live. Among those, “Morph” was reserved for the Island performance, while “Leave the City” seems expressly written to serve as the sentimental closer before the encore. Over the course of seven months, all 14 Trench tracks have now worked their way into the act. As a result, some classics have been sacrificed, but even that’s an experiment the duo continues to monitor.
From the main stage, Dun is encaged by an array of Zildjian cymbals, Yamaha DTX electronic drum pads, and acrylic SJC Drums. For the Bandito tour, he added a 14″ x 12″ ballad snare for a deeper contrast to his 10″ x 6″ Trench side snare, as well as a 20″ x 4″ UFO gong drum that sits beside a mounted tom.
Beneath the exoskeleton of hardware, cymbals, and drums is where even more magic happens during a TØP concert, however. Dun begins many of the band’s songs by tapping footswitches and pedals that trigger a Roland SPD-SX, or Ableton Live 9 rig that control loops from the albums. Blending expertly layered pre-recorded samples and live performance is a skill he’s mastered from behind the kit.
“I’m always thinking about the new thing we’ve never seen before that could work,” says Dun. “Keeping our minds on it and trying to outdo ourselves is fun. There’s a lot of technology out there that can make drums move around, but the special thing about Drum Island is that it requires people. I’d like to figure out how to push that a little more.”
At the close of every show, after the drums have been retrieved from the crowd and the final squares of yellow confetti have fallen from the rafters, Dun and Joseph meet at the end of the stage, where they throw their arms around each other’s shoulders and take a bow. In a final attempt to remove the wall between stage and audience, they address their fans one last time. “We are Twenty One Pilots, and so are you.”