<i>Vessel</i>: Chatting With Twenty One Pilots' Tyler Joseph, Plus Reintroducing The Johnny Stallings Arts Program and Six Market Blvd

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A Conversation With Twenty One Pilots' Tyler Joseph

Mike Ragogna: Hey Tyler, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Tyler Joseph: I like candles. It helps cover up for the fact that I have four male roommates.

MR: So they're fragrant candles.

TJ: Oh yeah, that's the point.

MR: With Josh Dunn, you're part of the group Twenty One Pilots, and you have a new album, Vessel. How did you guys get together?

TJ: There was a guy I was playing with that I met through high school, and he ended up introducing me to Josh. They had worked together at Guitar Center. It was just one of those really organic type of friendships, where you just meet somebody at a job. He introduced me to Josh, and when you meet someone, you're like, "Hey, yeah, let's hang out sometime." I don't know how many times I say that and it never happens. Well, this one actually did happen, we actually did hang out once. I'm glad that we did because the first time we did, we stayed up until all hours of the night talking about our dreams and our goals when it comes to music. When I got to that conversation, I was like, "This is a guy I want to play music with." So, we just met through mutual friends and a good talk, and we're still going strong.

MR: What's the difference between how you play live and how you play when you record?

TJ: There are a lot of programmed elements to it, so someone might think it's very "in the box" or pushing over to the electronic side, or however you want to classify it. We've played a ton of different shows, and we've really been through that whole thing of trying to figure out how to put on the best show there is regardless of the resources. Even if it's a horrible venue--a bar that barely has a PA and no lighting--we're still there trying to get somebody to not forget us. Now that we have some of these higher profile opportunities to play, in no way is it like, "Oh God, we actually have to play these songs live. This is going to be tough." It's not an ounce of that. It's like, "We've been doing these songs live, we've been playing off of each other live as just a two piece, and we've run the gamut of different types of shows. We really feel like we're ready for anything. Someone asked me what I had to do to get ready for our moment. Well, you had better be really prepared, and you better have worked your butt off. You better have played the awkward shows; you better have played the shows where it's all hardcore bands on the bill or it's all hip-hop bands on the bill. We've done that whole spectrum of different varieties of shows, and we've figured out the best way of capturing the audience and taking them to a place where they will have an experience that they will never forget, whether they don't like it, or they actually resonate with what we're trying to do. So, we do utilize electronics when it comes to backing tracks, and it's our job to put on such an entertaining show that you don't even realize that that's what is going on. The point is to give someone an experience that they won't forget, and that maybe they can get something out of, so that's what we try to do.

MR: When you play a live show, are the backing tracks pulled straight from the album or do you guys create new tracks for your shows?

TJ: We've been doing this ourselves for long enough that we have complete control of these tracks, and truly, that's the easiest way because I can look at Josh and go, "What do you think about doing this?" Then I can go to the computer, structure it out, and we can just play through it. It's really an easy transition. Pretty much all the programming on our CDs is done by me personally, so I've kind of been able to have complete control of what sounds I'm looking for to complete a song. I'm realizing now that the structure of the songs and how they're put together is a little odd, I guess, and that's really because I had complete control from the very beginning of where those songs were going. And I didn't know that there were many rules in music when I first started writing.

MR: And because you're not following the rules, when it's a hip-hop night or a hardcore night, you can pull off that kind of show.

TJ: Here in Ohio, the hardcore scene is a big thing, so some of our good friends are in hardcore bands. So we've had to figure out how the heck we get these people to respect us. Those have been some of my favorite shows, actually.

MR: What is your writing process like? Do you write in your head before you go to your instruments or your computer, or do you use them in the process of creating the song?

TJ: I think throughout the day, there are always lines or certain words, and I'll just keep notes in my phone. It might just be one or two words, and then, that could inspire a whole song, lyrically. But really what I do musically is sit down and say, "I want to write this song." I have an idea and a feel about where I want to go with it, and I find it inside of my programming. I use a lot of replacement and MIDI in a lot of these programs, which help me find the sound I'm looking for. I put together a song, and then I lay down vocals, and that was what I did for so long. Those were our CDs, and that's how we started out at a local level. You burn a few copies of them, and then you try to get someone to buy them at your merchandise table, and if not, you just hand them out. I still do that to this day. That's one of the things that's cool about having a major label behind us is that we can demo all these songs out, get them pretty well set, and then go into a studio that really prides itself on getting the right tones, being able to mic drums, and being able to incorporate more of an organic feel into a song. I come up with the music, and my favorite thing about music is just the chord structure. I love chords and how they kind of rub up against each other. Then from there, a song just kind of grows.

MR: The Regional At Best project was one of your first releases, right?

TJ: Yeah, that was something I did myself.

MR: What was the progression like, going from creating an EP into doing a full-fledged album?

TJ: Regional At Best really is just a glorified mix-tape that we used as a background to solidifying fans, and it's been kind of our follow through. When you start a band, you need to have some sort of music for people to go home with. I sat down in my studio, and man, I cranked out songs. I don't know the ins and outs of being a professional engineer, but what was really cool is that when we went into the studio, there was a lot of the same programming, and even a lot of the same vocals. The vocals to "Holding Onto You" were ones that I recorded in my basement before we ever got signed or anything, so we were able to take those files and put them where they needed to be in the mix. I'm really excited for people to hear it.

MR: The topic is "Josh Dunn." Go.

TJ: He's the coolest guy I've ever met. He's super-intense when it comes to the live show--he just puts everything into it. He's one of the most genuine, nice guys I've ever met, which might surprise some people because of how intense his live show is. When it comes to creating the stuff in the studio...his thing is that his role is to be there to make the live shows the best damn shows they can be, and of course, we use a lot of his stuff in the albums. I really couldn't have dreamt of a better guy to play music with.

MR: How hard is it to keep yourself off the basketball court as you're making all this music?

TJ: I'll tell you what. When you're on the road and playing shows, not only are you just disconnected from everything that's going on, but you miss a lot of good games, man. Anytime I see a ball, I'll grab it and dribble it around, but I do miss it because it was a big part of my life for a while.

MR: What was it like working with Greg Wells?

TJ: Well, I was anticipating working with a producer for the first time. I was just in my house and I was sacrificing quality to make sure that I had complete control of where the song went and what kind of sound it was going to have. So involving a producer was kind of a scary moment because I didn't know how it would change the dynamic of how the songs were written or what they would sound like. Josh and I were both kind of nervous about it, so we sat down and talked with Greg and he explained how he felt like he understood where we were coming from. You know, we started from nothing. We didn't know a single soul in the industry, so we started from the ground up. Greg really proved to us that he understood that and that he wanted to maintain that integrity. Then when we got into the studio, if anything, I was like, "You know Greg, I think we should re-cut these vocals." And he'd be like, "No, let's keep it because I know that you were in the moment. That might be more important than everything sounding perfect." He understood a lot of the intangible things about the songs that people can feel. He did a great job of balancing out when we needed to re-do certain parts, and then where we could maintain the integrity of the song where it was, and where it came from. He was awesome and he's a great guy. I loved it.

MR: How did "Ode To Sleep" come together? To me, it seems like maybe there was a bit of studio collaboration between everyone involved.

TJ: Greg and I didn't do any co-writing on this particular album. It was just all my songs and then Greg took the lead on the production and getting it to where it needed to be. The song goes from this sort of hip-hop beat, and then the tempo changes to more of a swing feel, then it changes again and goes into a straight beat and you're back to the original tempo. I don't really know what it is I was thinking; it was just that I'd like to hear a song like that. A lot of where my inspiration comes from is that I'm writing songs I wish other people would write. To have that as the first song on the album is kind of like bringing down what you think songs should be, and it kind of puts you through a little song structure boot camp, if you will.

MR: Structurally, it sometimes has the feel of prog rock.

TJ: That's cool, I see it.

MR: "Holding Onto You" was your first single, right?

TJ: Right.

MR: It has a lot of energy, so it has to be a lot of fun to play live, right?

TJ: Oh yeah, it's a favorite.

MR: And is that your kind of anthem at this point?

TJ: It's weird to think about. I've never really been through this whole concept of, "the thing that is kind of the spearhead of your career is one song." As much as that single might change to another single in the future, it's just a very foreign concept to Josh and I. That song fits right into our set the way we've kind of always played it. I think it's the second song that we usually play. Now, we're thinking, "Can we get behind this whole idea of a single and this radio push that we're getting?" It is one of my favorite songs to play, but we're truly used to playing in front of people who have no idea who we are, so we like to continue doing that because having to win over a crowd of five people is really tolling. That's just something we've done for so long that now, we're just moving into a space where we have a song with a little more rock appeal behind it. I'm sure we'll soon realize the benefits of radio, but it is a lot of fun to play, and we're all over the place on that particular song.

MR: You have all these elements to your recordings that seem to ignore the concept of what the rules are or maybe even what a genre is and you just made music. Is that fair to say?

TJ: I mean, that's exactly how I would explain it...

MR: ...it just seems like there is so much going on in this record.

TJ: A lot of people might listen to it and think that we're kind of confused. I love it when people say that, even when they use it in a negative way. You're not going to know where it's going after this. Why would I want you to be able to predict where my song is going to go? When it changes from one song to the next, why would I want you to know what's coming? It just doesn't make sense to me. I'm sure there is some sort of business minded theory about how you can't be all things to all people, so you have to figure out what your niche is and really make it your own. But honestly, that doesn't make sense to me. I like a lot of genres, I like a lot of music, and it's truly just a result of that.

MR: With all that you did in the production, the songwriting, the performances, this CD is a bit of a "vessel"--like its title, if you will--for what you do creatively overall.

TJ: Yeah, absolutely. That's exactly what I'm trying to get people to realize. It's cool that you picked up on that. I just want to tell you that I really appreciate that you've delved into this stuff and really know what you're talking about. That really means a lot to me, so thank you. Yeah, that was the intention, for sure.

MR: Great. And you're very welcome, it was a fun discovery process. Tyler, what advice do you have for new artists, even though you might throw yourself into that boat as well?

TJ: There are different types of new artists. There are the new artists that just got signed, which I'm learning about what to do, and then there are the new artists just starting a band. For artists just getting signed, I would say that as much as a label is going to try to provide everything you need, try to stay one step ahead of them and kind of pull them along to what you want to do creatively instead of just sitting back and letting them pull you. The trick is, the labels aren't bad people. They want the artist to take the initiative and say, "This is what I want my ads to look like. This is what I want my promos to look like." A lot of times, musicians and artists kind of sit back and let these decisions be made for them, and I'm a big advocate for taking the reins. Now, for a band that is just starting out, you get yourself in front of five people and you make sure that those five people won't forget your show. It's all about the live show. Throw in a freakin' cover every once in a while so they can kind of understand what's going on, but you better figure out something that's going to get their attention. Do a backflip off stage, you know? Get the room singing this one particular part and break something on it. You've got to get their attention. There are so many bands out there that no one has time for you to just sit up there and play your songs like we know them. So, that's my advice.

MR: And finally, probably the most important question. Why Twenty One Pilots? Why not Twenty Two or Twenty Three?

TJ: I was studying a play in college called All My Sons by Arthur Miller. The story was that the main character was building airplane parts for the current war. He learned that some of those parts were faulty, and he had a decision to make: "Do I send them out because I need to make the money to feed my family or do I recall the parts because they could be dangerous?" Well, he ended up sending the parts out, which is the wrong decision, and twenty-one pilots died because of that. He spends the rest of the play trying to justify why he did that, and at the end of the play, he ends up offing himself. Anytime we have a decision coming our way, there is the easy route, the route that gets you the money or the fame or all the benefits right away. But in the end, it's the wrong decision. A lot of times, the right decision takes more work, and that band name is a constant reminder for us as individuals and as a band. So, that's where Twenty One Pilots comes from.

MR: I don't know what to say after that.

TJ: I want to make sure that I never get sick of this because this is so fun...I just want to make sure that I never take this for granted. I promise that I'm going to give one hundred percent at every show, and the more I tell people that, the more I'll be held accountable to never slack. I'm just sick of seeing bands not care.

MR: Are you and Josh truly fueled by Ramen, like, the noodles?

TJ: You would be surprised how horribly we eat. When you get done with a show and you're trying to find something to eat at midnight timing does not permit you to get something that is good for you, so we'll probably be dead in the next five years because of our diet. I definitely can relate to the name of our label, that's for sure.

MR: I really appreciate your time and fun answers.

TJ: I really appreciate you being interested in doing the piece.

MR: All the best.

TJ: I hope we'll see you around sometime.

Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney

1. Ode To Sleep
2. Holding On To You
3. Migraine
4. House Of Gold
5. Car Radio
6. Semi-Automatic
7. Screen
8. The Run And Go
9. Fake You Out
10. Guns For Hands
11. Trees
12. Truce

photo credit: Ashley Dinges


What do you get when you combine the performing arts, children with special needs and typical teenagers for an hour a week? You get miracles.

Miracles happen every day at Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center in Huntsville, Alabama, because of a unique program of arts education that pairs children with disabilities like Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy with trained teenage volunteers. Called The Johnny Stallings Arts Program, the program was started in October 2008 by Debra Jenkins, at the non-profit organization she and her husband, Alan, founded in 2007. Building on its initial 10 students and 10 volunteers, today the program is serving over 300 children, teens and adults who live with a wide variety of disabilities that limit their access to activities like the arts. Debra ignored those limits, inspired by the role participating in the arts had on her life as a child and by her belief that everyone deserves the right to participate in the arts, regardless of their challenges.

And those miracles? Two children who were confined to wheelchairs when they started the program are now walking - not very far, but walking nonetheless. These are children who's physical therapists and physicians told their parents that they would never stand alone. Not only are they walking, but they are dancing...and singing and painting and acting.

Four children who were non-verbal when they came to Merrimack Hall are now talking and singing. And the biggest miracle of all? Over 100 families who had never met have now formed a powerful network of friendships, offering support to each other in a myriad of ways - from swapping out child sitting with each other to going on family outings together.

photo credit: Ashley Dinges

The typical teenagers who volunteer with the programs have miracles to report as well, learning a new definition for the word "different," as they see first hand every week the restorative power of the arts to heal in a way that traditional medicine never could. The typical teens have been profoundly impacted by their relationships with kids who are routinely marginalized by our society.

Merrimack Hall, a 100-year-old building once part of a textile mill, was painstakingly renovated by the Jenkins, the cost of the construction underwritten by them as their gift to the community. Today, the building boasts an intimate 302-seat, state-of-the-art theatre and a 3,000 square foot dance studio and has drawn more than 120,000 people to the previously neglected historic neighborhood where it is located.

While The Johnny Stallings Arts Program calls Merrimack Hall home, the format of the program could be replicated anywhere - in a classroom after school hours, in a church, even in a garage. All it takes to start a program of arts education for people with special needs is a space, some music, art supplies and the belief that all of us have an innate desire to express ourselves artistically.

photo credit: Ashley Dinges

Debra created a simple solution for a complex problem, eliminating the bureaucratic red-tape normally associated with accommodating people with disabilities by using a simple hold-harmless and medical release, working with a physical therapist to develop a two-hour volunteer training program and letting the children show the way - learning more from them than from the professionals she turned to for advice. Debra will tell anyone who asks that she has learned more from people society tells us are "less than" than she's ever learned from anyone who is "normal."

A full-length feature film, Dreaming With Your Feet, is in the works, inspired by The Johnny Stallings Arts Program. Through a crowd-funding campaign for the film, HLN and CNN learned of the program and have featured it on four episodes of Making It In America with Vinny Politan. These stories have resulted in more than 1,000 shares on HLN's Facebook page, the largest number of shares in the network's history. So far, the film's web site, www.dreamingwithyourfeet.com and its Facebook page, www.facebook.com/dreamingwithyourfeet has generated significant interest, with more than 54,000 Facebook likes and nearly 100,000 views of the sites.

photo credit: Ashley Dinges

Today, more than 19% of the population is classified as having special needs, over 400,000 people in the US live with Down syndrome and 1 in every 88 children will be diagnosed on the autism spectrum. The Johnny Stallings Arts Program provides a model that is easily replicated and that is producing measurable results that improve the quality of life for its participants.

Participation in the program and its frequent performance opportunities are giving students an outlet to express themselves, be a part of a team, make new friends and have new ways of socializing and interacting with others. The result is reports from family members, teachers, therapists and others that the students are showing vast improvements in their social and verbal skills, their confidence to try new things and their overall happiness.

Parents of the program's students are effusive in their praise. "This program has done more to help our precious Sara than anything we've ever tried," say the Weigman's, who's 12-year-old daughter has Down syndrome. Valerie Jones, mom to Darby (a three-time leukemia survivor who has Down syndrome), says "Performing gives them a chance to shine and be 'special' in a way different from the kind of 'special' they live with.

photo credit: Leah Huebner Photography

The program is top-notch and the kids are handled with great respect, love and care. They are totally accepted by the staff and treated in a manner we can only wish the rest of society understood." Russell Stanners, who's 9-year-old daughter Elianna has cerebral palsy, calls the program "therapy in disguise" because after years of attempting to teach Elianna to walk, her first steps were taken during her weekly dance class.

As the numbers of people diagnosed with a disability continue to rise, programs like The Johnny Stallings Arts Program should be developed in communities across the country, offering the same simple solution for a complex problem to a wider audience. Debra is ready to pack her bags and take her message of inclusion on the road, offering to coach others on how to develop similar programs with whatever resources may be available in their community.

Merrimack Hall's web site and Facebook page provide photographs, videos and testimonials about The Johnny Stallings Arts Program. But the HLN segments tie all the pieces together in a way that, according to Debra, "...tells our story better than we could."

HLN segments:

For more information on The Johnny Stallings Arts Program, contact Debra Jenkins at jenkinsdebra@me.com.

Special thanks to Lisa Roy

photo credit: Kimberly Brian


Nobody can deny that at one point in their lives, they have indulged in the narcotic-like sensation of pop music in its myriad of forms. There's no doubt that those polished surfaces go down smooth and easy with little or no after taste, but there is something to be said of certain musicians from down in Texas who are known for dodging the safety of a formulaic process to concede full submission to "the song" with nothing but the complete faith that it will go where it needs to go. The songs may rebel against your expectations, may have some rougher edges that leave a perceptible trail, but the after taste is really just what you want. A hint, a reminder of an experience not yet over, it's that kind of writing that truly brings artist and listener together in a way that becomes a very personal matter. Six Market Blvd. writes those kinds of songs and they have established a stronghold in the independent music scene with the release of two acclaimed albums.

Six Market Blvd. hails from Stephenville, Texas, where Clayton Landua (lead vocals, harmony, rhythm guitar), Josh Serrato (lead rhythm guitar, 12 string guitar, harmony, piano and organ), Ben Hussey (lead vocals, harmony, electric bass, stand up bass) and Dallas Neal (drums and percussion) met and coalesced at Tarleton University in 2009. In 2010, they released their debut album Running On 7, which earned them two Top 25 singles on the Texas Music Chart with "Man Alive" and "Misery And Me." This album showcased a new upcoming band that deserved positive recognition, and it wasn't long until their second album release proved that theory right.

Their sophomore project, Shake It Down, debuted on the Billboard charts and iTunes' country chart its first week of release back in May of 2012. The album has spun such a massive buzz since then that demand for the record has busted through the Mid-Western seams. Clearly seeing the mass appeal, Nashville-based Vision Entertainment--in partnership with Thirty Tigers via RED Distribution--re-released this album nationwide on November 20th. Their first single, "Say It," hit the Top 10 on the Texas Music Chart and their second single, "14 Miles From Home," is hot on its heels. They have gone from one of the most talked about up-and-coming bands to one that has officially arrived.

Country Weekly Magazine recently designated 6MB as their "On The Edge" artist in the October 15th issue, and the guys just wrapped up an upcoming segment on Texas Music Scene TV in proud company with peers The Trishas, Reckless Kelly, Dirty River Boys, Kevin Fowler, 1100 Springs, Uncle Lucius and Dale Watson that will be aired in the early 2013. With a very promising new year ahead, 6MB will kick off 2013 with performances at MusicFest in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the largest ski trip of its kind in the nation featuring the finest in Texas and Americana music and will also be featured as one of the supporting artists of The Boot Campaign, a national organization that helps show appreciation for American troops, raise awareness of the challenges they face when they return home, and raises money to support their transition home.


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