Behind the Band Name: Twenty One Pilots

Twenty One Pilots isn’t just a band name, it’s a symbol of moral integrity.

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Formed in 2009 in Columbus, Ohio, Twenty One Pilots was founded by frontman Tyler Joseph and original members Nick Thomas and Chris Salih before they departed in 2011. Joseph met Thomas while playing youth basketball, the two later going to middle and high school together. Joseph met Salih while attending Ohio State University, the latter pitching the idea of starting a band. Before their first show, Joseph sent an impromptu invite to Thomas to perform with them. The three then moved into a house together and recorded their self-titled, independently released album in 2009.

Meaning Behind the Band Name

The band’s name has a grim backstory. It’s inspired by Arthur Miller’s 1947 play, All My Sons, which Joseph read in high school. The plot centers around Joe Keller, who was absolved for shipping malfunctioning aircraft engine parts during World War II that lead to the death of several people. In the play, Keller refers to himself as “the guy who made 21 P-40s crash in Australia.”

Keller’s business partner was convicted of the crime and sent to prison while Keller was found not guilty. In a 2010 Facebook post, Twenty One Pilots explained that Keller was presented with a moral dilemma: keep the faulty parts and lose profit in a “financially tough situation,” sending his business into ruin. “But this would ultimately be the ‘right’ thing to do,” they observe. The other option was to send the parts out and make the money needed to support his family. Keller chose the latter, which led to the death of 21 pilots.

“I feel like we are all constantly encountering moral crossroads where the decisions that benefit the ‘now’ will have consequences down the road; but the decision that might seem tough and tolling right away will ultimately be more rewarding,” the band wrote of why they named themselves after the 21 lives lost in the Tony Award-winning play. “What is our purpose for playing music? We are constantly asking ourselves that question. The answer can change all the time. Right now I am just going to stick with something as simple as ‘we want to make people think.'”

In an interview with Lowdown, the University of Akron’s TV show, Joseph elaborated on the name’s origin, admitting that it’s “disappointing” when bands say they picked a name merely because it “sounded good.”

“We’ve always been intentional about every aspect of the band, especially the band name,” he said.

Throughout the play, Keller attempts to justify his deadly decision, ultimately committing suicide at the end. Joseph said the name holds he and current bandmate, drummer Josh Dun, accountable to follow their conscience.

“How we apply it to our band every night that we play, it’s a constant reminder that you have to make the right decision even though it may be the hard decision,” he expressed. “It seems vague, but you’d be surprised how many times that applies to a band’s life and an individual’s life.

“My mom always told me that…all the time you just got to do what you don’t feel like doing, and that’s something that we live by. It’s a lot easier to work hard when you’re playing as a band name that says ‘if you don’t feel like working hard tonight, you have to anyway.'”

Hard work and integrity are integral to the band’s success. They’ve released six studio albums thus far. Twenty One Pilots also are the first band in history to have every song on two albums achieve gold or platinum certification by the RIAA with their major label debut, Vessel in 2013, and their 2015 follow-up, Blurryface. The latter project features “Stressed Out,” which was their first top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also earned Twenty One Pilots their first Grammy Award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance in 2017.

Photo by Steve Jennings/WireImage

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