Trench: The story of twenty one pilots’ most ambitious album ever

On October 5, 2018, twenty one pilots unveiled their breathtaking fifth album, Trench. And as Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun revealed to Kerrang! in this cover story at the time, it was their most ambitious and important release yet…

Trench: The story of twenty one pilots’ most ambitious album ever
Emily Carter

This article originally appeared in K!1742 in October 2018.

Last summer, Tyler Joseph phoned Josh Dun with an unusual topic to discuss. It was a few days after twenty one pilots had wrapped up their spectacular five-night Tour De Columbus, the final shows on 2015 LP Blurryface’s touring cycle. Tyler had subsequently gone on a beach holiday with his family, but he couldn’t resist ringing his best friend to let him know what was on his mind.

Josh listened as the 29-year-old detailed Trench: a world where nine dictatorial bishops keep the inhabitants (Tyler included) of a fictional place named Dema from escaping its controlling clutches, with the help of the Banditos – a rebel organisation (featuring Josh). This far-reaching yet intricate narrative, Tyler explained, was to become twenty one pilots’ next album.

Josh absorbed this barrage of information and thought, “What have you gotten yourself into?!”

“It was like he ate a wrong berry or something,” the drummer jokes to Kerrang! today, as his bandmate bursts out laughing next to him. “Like he’d gotten super high…”

Truth be told, Tyler had secretly been thinking up the Trench storyline years before his getaway. Now, the time had finally come to introduce it to the world. And though Josh was initially startled by the concept, it wasn’t long before he found himself on board.

When K! first catch up with twenty one pilots to find out about their most ambitious venture yet, the duo are not quite themselves. There’s visible tension in their bodies; a sense of apprehension in their eyes. It’s two hours before showtime at their feverishly anticipated live comeback at London’s O2 Academy Brixton – their first gig in some 444 days – and they simply can’t relax.

On any other day, the pair would typically be heard finishing each other’s sentences, laughing at in-jokes, and generally making the more mundane aspects of being in a band look as fun as playing onstage. Not today, though. Dressed in black, save for a dark-blue beanie covering his newly buzzed haircut, Josh is the marginally calmer of the two, spending time away from K!’s photoshoot in conversation with his girlfriend, Debby. But Tyler, wearing a bright yellow jacket despite the solemn mood, can’t seem to rid himself of the anxious expression on his face. The air is still. Between poses, he stays silent.

Tyler gently shuffles over to one of the venue’s upstairs windows, glancing down at the hundreds of fans in the queue below, all covered head-to-toe in dark green garments and yellow tape. It is the mark of the Trench era.

His face temporarily breaks into an enormous grin, spreading from cheek to cheek. But then he turns his back, and the jitters resume once more.

Two days later, we meet up with twenty one pilots again – this time at one of central London’s most luxurious hotels. Their worries have given way to pure elation following the triumph of the gig. Nevertheless, Kerrang! bring up Tyler’s curiously poignant pre-show jitters.

“You probably caught a very important moment for me, which was, ‘This is real,’” he nods, that very same smile creeping through once more. “The fans accept this – this new idea and this new era. You just don’t know…”

“We’re pretty insecure dudes,” chuckles Josh in agreement, sprawled comfortably next to his bandmate, half-sitting and half-lying on a large beige sofa. “Taking a little over a year off, you hope that people are still around. But I think it didn’t come to life, for me, until we walked out onstage. It was overwhelming, really. It felt good knowing they’ve got our backs.”

That could sound like false modesty from any other band, given the tidal wave of success that’s preceded Trench. But this is twenty one pilots…

In order to get themselves into the headspace to write a follow-up to Blurryface – the most successful release of their career thus far – twenty one pilots first had to search for a little perspective. One day, Tyler Joseph fortuitously found the outlook he was craving from an unlikely source.

“One of my great aunts said to me, ‘Well, I know you heard that the hospital closed down, so it’s been a tough transition,’” he remembers. “I knew she worked at the hospital, but I did not know that it was closing down. But in her world, it was the number one biggest thing to her. And I was so inspired by that realisation – that we all have our reality that feels like the most important thing. She had worked there for years and years, and to dive into her world, and to learn from her perspective, was so refreshing. And towards the end of the Blurryface cycle, it really did feel like the world started to revolve around what we were doing, and that didn’t quite feel right…”

Tyler’s not wrong. Their fourth album not only catapulted the band on to the world’s biggest stages, it also made history as the first-ever record to have each of its songs certified (at least) Gold – the equivalent of one million sales. As they made headlines on an almost daily basis, it’s no surprise twenty one pilots felt a little uneasy with the situation.

With more eyes on them than ever before, Tyler and Josh also found themselves battling a constant stream of self-doubt. Given that Blurryface (the album) explored these topics via its titular character, this isn’t surprising in the slightest. Still, despite a burgeoning fanbase and never-ending list of accomplishments, the pair quickly learned that fame and fortune simply isn’t a cure.

“There’s certain things that you work through, as a human,” explains Tyler. “Obviously, there’s things where it’s like, ‘Are we good enough to play music for a living? Are we good enough to write songs and show people what we’re made of?’ As things got bigger, there was some confidence instilled in us – like, ‘You know what? Actually we can do this…’ But there are also a lot of aspects of doubt and insecurity that the level of success doesn’t even affect. And, partially, I’m glad, because I don’t necessarily want that external reward to solve some sort of internal issue. I think that Josh and I will take every stage with a bit of needing to overcome something, and wanting to work through something. We never want to feel completely comfortable; we want people to see us working through something, and for us to struggle, and see a bit of turmoil and chaos.”

Have you ever been at risk of going through the motions onstage?

“Hmm…” Tyler pauses. “I would say that there was an aspect towards the end of the touring cycle for Blurryface where we started to feel like we knew what to expect at each show. And we didn’t like that. We don’t want to take the stage going, ‘I know exactly what’s going to happen tonight.’ As that started to sink in, it really started to make sense that we should wrap it up, and dive into creating this new music.”

“Josh and I take every stage needing to overcome something…”

Tyler Joseph

And they did just that. After tweeting cryptic images and GIFs of an eye closing on the band’s Twitter account in early July 2017, twenty one pilots plunged themselves into album number five in the most extreme way possible: by turning off social media, and removing themselves from view for an entire year. Tyler was nowhere to be found in these 365 days; Josh was occasionally spotted out and about – running a half-marathon in Columbus here, attending a charity dinner for record label Fueled By Ramen there. But even then, these public appearances were sporadic, and there was absolutely no mention of what was happening behind the scenes.

On a purely practical level, what was that time period like?

“I’m very fortunate that I didn’t have to leave my house much,” grins Tyler. “You get into weird situations where you wonder how you’re coming across: ‘I really don’t want to go and do that,’ or, ‘I don’t want to be around those people.’ In that year Josh may have found himself saying, ‘Okay,’ whereas I was sticking to my guns and saying, ‘No, no, no, nothing!’ It probably offended certain people, or came off wrong in that moment, but luckily for me they weren’t able to document it (laughs). Josh and I are very much homebodies – but I think with me it’s a bit to a fault, sometimes.”

In this particular case, though, his domestic nature served him well. Indeed, Tyler even made Trench the main attraction of his living space, building a recording studio in his Columbus basement. While Josh split his time between there and his new home of LA, Tyler forged ahead and took on the project almost entirely by himself. His only “additional” opinion – outside of twenty one pilots themselves – came from Mutemath singer/guitarist Paul Meany, who served as something of a co-producer.

“There are a lot of aspects of recording that I’m still learning – as someone who’s never produced a record fully on his own,” Tyler elaborates of his most hands-on approach yet. “Especially when it comes to capturing live drums and collecting audio, and editing and organising that. As much as I was trying to balance those things, Paul helped organise that side of the record. He was the only other person who was seeing things from the beginning.”

Given that Blurryface was written mostly while twenty one pilots were on the road, the making of Trench was an entirely new experience for both members of the band.

It makes you wonder how Josh felt about all of this. When his bandmate was holed up in his Columbus studio, the drummer was in LA experiencing the process remotely.

“In some ways it was weird not to be there,” Josh considers. “But there was also a cool element of being a little bit distant. Because sometimes being so close to something…”

“…You lose perspective,” asserts Tyler. “And Josh really gained this ability to look at something in a whole new way. It was extremely valuable to bounce a song off of him, if he had gone a particularly long time without being in close proximity to that creation. Just throwing an idea at Josh in its raw form at any point has always been the most effective strategy – for him to weigh in has been a great tool for me as I’m coming out of a creation coma!”

“There was a cool element of being a little distant”

Josh Dun

One night, deep into the creation of Trench, Tyler woke up in the dead of night and started to second-guess himself. Just hours prior, he’d been asked to send the album’s final tracklist off. The physical production process was about to commence.

“Tyler, are you sure that this is the order?” he was asked.

“Yes, this is the order,” the musician replied.

“Alright, well there’s no turning back now…”

Such is Tyler’s level of care and standard of artistic consideration, Trench was, of course, as it should have been. But there was one particular song that he’d suddenly thought twice about.

“I was just like, ‘Neon Gravestones, is that in the right spot?’” whispers Tyler, recounting his stirring in the darkness. He turned on the lights, got up and scanned the tracklist again, listening along to the songs at the same time.

“I had this moment of, ‘You have to own it. You have to own it being number seven, right in the middle. It’s where it should be…’” he recalls. “There were outside opinions that had heard these songs that were saying, ‘This could be an issue to have it right in the middle of the record; it does potentially mess with whatever someone’s version of a flow is.’ But I just felt it was so important to be right there.”

Neon Gravestones, Tyler proudly explains, is the heart of Trench. In an album otherwise surrounded by career-best rapping passages (Levitate), explosive basslines (Jumpsuit), gloriously catchy melodies (Chlorine), and a newfound sense of “ballsy” production (Pet Cheetah), its impact comes from moving spoken-word segments and exquisite subtleties. But even more important is its powerful anti-suicide message.

“There are certain moments which don’t happen very often – at least for me as a songwriter – where it’s like, ‘This is a moment where I need to be black and white,’” says Tyler. “I had a lot of things stirring that I wanted to get out, and I think that – not to judge the past – it’s hard to say ‘suicide’. It’s hard to talk about suicide…”

twenty one pilots have tackled dark matters in their music before – from the metaphorical (Guns For Hands, Holding On To You), to more literal lyrics such as Ride’s ‘Yeah, I think about the end just way too much / But it’s fun to fantasise.’ But never before has Tyler been so direct.

So what made now the time to make a song like this?

“I definitely think it was a reaction to what was happening in our culture,” he acknowledges. “I think it shouldn’t go unnoticed that I’m also very… like… proud of our culture, in that song, too. And I still am. I’m proud of the strides that we’ve made, in talking about it, and addressing it. This has been a theme of our songwriting for some time now, and I’ve always felt a little bit alone in that. And now, not so much, which is a good thing. But, at the same time, I felt inclined to bring up a new perspective – a perspective that comes off a bit more aggressive and more of a challenge. But, I knew, if there were people like me, we respond to that challenge positively. Ultimately, that’s what I was trying to do.”

During Neon Gravestones’ inception, Tyler admits, his bandmate was concerned about the sensitivity of the song. “When I first started writing it, you wanted to make sure that it was coming across correctly,” he says, turning to Josh. “And that, in itself, gave me a huge heads-up on the importance of the topic that I was talking about. When Josh was like, ‘Yes, this feels right, I can get behind this,’ at that point I knew, ‘Now this can go.’”

If you’re looking for answers to the many questions that Trench poses, Neon Gravestones is one of the best places to start. Not that Tyler himself wants to give it all away. As ever, interpretation is left up to the listener.

“I could go all the way down and answer every question,” he says. “I don’t want to yet, but Neon Gravestones is a view into the deeper reasons of what’s going on in Dema that feels like I have to leave.”

The songwriting process is a delicate one for Tyler Joseph – it always has been. With Trench, though, the frontman took the concept of getting lost in his music – and his own head – to a whole new level.

And not only does the album apply a theory of looking at the mind geographically (“You start to realise that there is a bit of a map…” Tyler ponders), the ideas behind Trench’s central reference point, Dema, also pertain to what twenty one pilots were going through at the time of the record’s formation: a transitional phase between cycles.

“Ultimately,” Tyler begins, “it’s the story of emotions that one would feel when they’re between two places. And that can apply to a lot of people’s lives – being between jobs, or schools, or seasons. And, I guess, that Trench represents that feeling in between two places. That’s the broadest way to look at it. But as you zoom in, it can mean a lot of other things, too.”

Musically, Trench required a similarly analytical approach, not to mention an equally captivating take on twenty one pilots’ genre-melding sound to keep up with the album’s grand vision.

“Nothing ever hit me in the wrong way,” Josh affirms, when asked if he ever disagreed with where Tyler wanted to take things. “I think that he gravitates to cool, tasteful music – which is why I wanted to play music with him in the first place (laughs).”

Josh approved of what he was hearing, but Tyler never stopped scrutinising. Though he didn’t set himself a schedule while in his basement studio, time flew by when the frontman cracked a new musical arrangement, until he would “kind of snap out of it and realise, ‘Oh, I’ve been down here for 10 hours.’” Tyler talks passionately of the “hundreds of ideas” that he had, of how he’d try to use the night as a time to reset his brain, and of how he found moments away from the studio just as inspiring as time in it. If writer’s block ever struck – and it did – he’d go and “pout” on his porch, or distract himself by watching TV shows with his wife, Jenna.

In fact, ask Tyler anything about the fundamentals of Trench and the fragility of the music at hand, and the softly-spoken frontman turns into something of an uncharacteristic chatterbox. Josh, meanwhile, listens intently besides him – just as he had when his bandmate previewed these ideas over the phone last year.

“I don’t know if we talked about this or not,” Tyler gestures to Josh mid-flow, suddenly bringing up a surprising revelation he’d had. “But there was a moment where I started hating my own music. I hated every idea I had.

“But then I clicked on the radio, and I was so encouraged. It reinforced to me: ‘Tyler, you don’t hate your own music, you hate all music right now.’”

The pair start laughing.

“And there was something about it that was like, ‘Oh, I’m just in this very critical state right now, and that’s where I should be as I write music.’ It was refreshing to know that it wasn’t just my stuff – it was my reaction to everything.”

Though Tyler has thankfully escaped that particular headspace now, he’s still in a contemplative mood. On the date of Kerrang!’s interview, twenty one pilots are only one month on from hitting their August 15 album submission deadline. A copy of Trench hasn’t even found its way into the band’s hands yet; and it’s likely that only in that moment will Tyler feel the true results of his latest – and most intense – battle with music.

“I physically could not have done any more…”

Tyler Joseph

“There were moments when I felt, ‘This is going to absolutely crush me. This is going to destroy me. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this,’” he admits. “That’s why I can’t wait to see a physical copy – this idea of holding something in your hand, like, ‘Oh my gosh, all of that is right here!’ It’s going to be a crazy, emotional thing that probably only compares to holding your child (laughs), which I’ve not done yet, but we’ll see…”

For now, at least, twenty one pilots have done everything they can to prepare this 14-track “child” for the waiting world.

“I am no longer able to add anything to my assessment of this thing,” Tyler chuckles with a lasting hint of exhaustion in his face. “I felt like that many times towards the end of the record. I guess that’s evidence that I physically could not have done any more…”

He smiles again.

“It’s a good feeling when you know you got to that point.”

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