Still Standing: Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie on Sinatra, Nu-Metal, and His Awkward Past
“I fell in love with this band for the same reason I’m in love with it now: no rules, I get to create, no one gets to tell me what to do.”
Brendon Urie is just like you and me. He tweets, he vines, he drinks whiskey at 3 PM on a Tuesday. He’s a huge Justin Bieber fan, convinced the Purpose singer is a demi-god, or at least an alien (which I’m inclined to believe. Have you ever seen either an alien or Justin Bieber in the same room? Exactly). Urie also believes “you have to bring something clinically insane to the live show” which bodes well for people planning to buy tickets to Panic!’s tour later this year.
Death of a Bachelor is the fifth album from Panic! at the Disco—out this Friday—and it’s just as wild and unique as the rest of his back catalogue. It has double the energy of Too Weird to Live, to Rare to Die!, and was written in part as a sort of tribute to Sinatra (particularly on the brass-heavy title track) and Queen. Not unlike when Urie tipped his hat to The Beatles on 2008’s Pretty. Odd. The 28-year-old offers a new twist to this collection: as much as it demands your full attention, it’s also the perfect soundtrack to when you slowly stroll away from a situation you owned completely, sunglasses on, explosions going on behind you. Which happens all the time, right?
When Panic! started they were just four guys from Vegas determined to do whatever they could to stand out from the synth-laced indie rock glut of mainstream music back in the mid-2000s. Cosigned by Pete Wentz and snapped up by Fueled by Ramen, I remember exactly where I was the first day I heard “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” (home, on Myspace, talking to my friends) and I remember how much we idolized this quirky, nerdy group of guys who wove literary references through their overly verbose lyrics. Their songs made you feel smarter just by listening to them. I never saw them live, but I’m sure if I had I would have passed out.
Although over the years, the band has slimmed down from a quartet to just Urie, his music’s lost none of its punch, and the singer’s lost none of his passion. Over the phone, five days after New Year’s Eve, I talked with Urie, from his studio in LA about Sinatra, nu-metal, and looking back over the 10 years of his career as one of baroque indie-pop’s heaviest hitters.
Noisey: Hey! So where are you right now? LA?
Brendon Urie: Yeah I’m in LA I’m sitting in my studio, having a little whiskey a little too early before five.
You know what it’s five o’clock somewhere, I don’t think anyone is going to blame you.
Yeah that’s my excuse, I’m still on the tail-end of a hangover from New Years so I gotta, you know.
You must have partied very hard if you still feel the hangover from new years five days later.
Oh man yeah I had a hell of a time. [Laughs.]
So this new album of yours—how excited are you for it?
Oh man, it’s always so weird. From the time that I finish the album there’s months and months that go by, usually. And that’s how it goes, every time. I cannot fucking believe it, finally, I get to share this thing and it’s like, like holding in a secret and then finally telling everyone and just the rush of release. It’s like having a good pee, you know? [Laughs.]
Definitely. How long did it take you to put together this album, from writing to having it done?
Officially three months, but even before I knew I was writing the album specifically, I was writing all the time. I’m always writing, when I got back off tour I just kind of spent a month writing every day. Just writing ideas good or bad. So a lot of this stuff stemmed out of what I’d written that I wanted. I was trying to do a Sinatra album.
Did you say that you were trying to write a Sinatra-like album?
Yeah, for instance you know the title track, “Death of a Bachelor,” I was trying to write a Sinatra song. I wanted to write the full big band, notes in the middle, arrangements, composition. I was getting all this stuff and I was getting frustrated and then I got to that point where it circled back in that artist cycle where you start the idea, you work on it, you like it then you start to hate it, then you hate yourself, and you want to kill yourself. It’s the whole cycle, then you come back to the idea. I found this thing I’d been working on, and I thought, “Oh this would work really well.” I put on the Sinatra thing to the track and it just kind of fell into place. Added some 808s and some trap snares and shit and I was like, “This is a weird marriage of sound,” but it just worked out. It’s a pleasant little mistake, a happy accident.
Is the whole album trying to be like that or is it just that one song that ended up being that way?
Yeah, that one song in particular. There’s another one that I wrote, “Impossible Year,” that is more Sinatra-esque and it ends the record. I like to end the record on a bittersweet note most of the time. So that was the case for that one. But on other songs like “Emperor’s New Clothes” I was listening to a lot of Queen for inspiration, trying to mimic how they do their harmonies, how they build them. There’s a lot of nerdy stuff you have to listen for when you’re doing that I won’t go into now because it’s boring as shit, but it’s really crazy to have to match that stuff. You know you go “Wow, I’m curious how they did that,” and then you just kind of experiment with sounds and experiment with your voice and experiment with all kinds of stuff until you hit that right moment.
What made you want to go in this direction for this album?
The older I get and the more I work on songwriting and producing, all the old influences that I had for years finally get closer sonically to what I hear in my head. Now it’s like, I couldn’t have written this even two years ago, or five years ago, let alone 10 years ago. I was still looking to Queen and Sinatra, but it came to fruition in a different way sonically. Those [other records] will always be a part of me and I’ll always try to aspire to be as great as the albums that are the best in my book—be it Sinatra or Queen or stuff like that. The more I work on it, the more I find ways of pinpointing what I like specifically about certain songs and then matching those to how I hear a song that I’m writing. And then it becomes more fun because then I get to play around with ideas and that’s exactly what I love about songwriting.
What do you think, skill-wise or experience-wise, that you have now that allows you to make an album like that versus 10 years ago when you first started?
I’ve gotten better as a musician in general. We rushed into it only knowing how to play guitar mediocre-ly and pluck a couple power chords, and now I’m looking at different things in a different way and teaching myself different stuff. Trying to learn to play piano in a different way, like how Queen wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s the coolest thing. I’m always trying to figure out how to be better because I never want to feel like “I’m just going to be this good all the time.” That’s what assholes did in high school when they peaked. I never wanted to be that, I always wanted to strive to be better I didn’t want to just sit back and say, “Oh yeah it’s all downhill from here I’m just gonna chill now.” [Laughs.] It’s boring. If I was going to be boring as a songwriter I would lose my mind so it just couldn’t happen. I have millions of things to pull from inspiration-wise.
What gives you that drive? What keeps you going? Is there some part of you that wants to be this generation’s Freddie Mercury?
Oh my God, that’s insane. It’s like saying, “He’s this generation’s John Lennon.” No, motherfucker, John Lennon is this generation’s John Lennon. I’ll never be Freddie Mercury, I’ll never be Sinatra. So I gotta be myself, but in order to do that I’m going to use all the tricks in the book that I know and use all the inspiration they gave me, the passion that I fell in love with in this business and music in general. I guess “tricks” is the word I would say but it’s not really that. It’s things I’ve learned over time not just to impress people, but to utilize them for a good purpose, like creating a song. I don’t think I’ve created my opus. I’m waiting to create that moment but you can only wait so long. As a songwriter, I’m now actively pursuing my masterpiece, my opus. I’m trying to become better in every aspect that I can reach that point to where I’m completely the pinnacle of happiness. Not necessarily contentment, but excitement like, “Yes, I think I’m satisfied with this song, as a whole, this is what Panic! is,” you know? I’m waiting for that to happen, if it at all happens.
How has the vision of Panic changed over the years since your first album?
The root of the ambition has stayed the same in terms of my passion behind it. I fell in love with this band for the same reason I’m in love with it now. It’s because it gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. No rules, I get to create, no one gets to tell me what to do so besides the love of the music as a whole. I started this band because I didn’t want any motherfucker to tell me what to do. It’s kind of like being a comedian. You get to write your own rules, no one can censor you, you can say, “Fuck off I’m going to do what I want.” In terms of music like, that was a dream and that’s what’s continued for me. That was the original vision and whatever I continue to pursue as a lead of this band. I didn’t think I would end up where I am though, to answer that part of your question.
Ten years ago? I didn’t see myself just “last guy standing” making the music I am now. I didn’t know what to expect. I was curious to see where it was going because stuff that was big back then was nowhere near what is today. It was so different, so far removed. I think the biggest album that had happened then was Keane, and I was really into that album too [sings part of “Everybody’s Changing”]. I was really into that shit and I was like “Oh this is so cool,” but our record sounds nothing like that and I like that. I like that nobody sounded like me and I didn’t sound like them. So that was another thing I really wanted to pursue and I’m hoping that continues. As long as I keep doing what I preach then it will, it’ll continue to move in that way which I’m really excited for.
Where did you get the inspiration for the very first album?
There were two really big factors: One factor was wanting to separate ourselves by using inspiration from books and movies, anything but music because at that time, the four of us were just reading and watching movies like The Closer, and we’d pull quotes from that. And you know we kept a lot of that stuff because it was different and we didn’t know a lot of bands doing that. The other part is that, I was in this practice space with three other guys, and every band around you in Vegas is doing like nu-metal bullshit and we hated that. We hated that they all sounded the same. We didn’t necessarily hate nu-metal, because you know that’s not a thing, but it was like them trying to mimic these bands that were terrible and we were just like, you guys all sound the fucking same we want nothing to do with it. So we were trying to remove ourselves as far as possible from that world because on every wall surrounding our practice space was that kind of band. It came from wanting to be different and being like, “You know what, fuck you guys. Here’s some different shit and we just tried to be as loud as possible with it.” I think that’s a very genuine and important thing to remember is that you gotta do your own thing you gotta form your own path you can’t be jumping on someone else’s bandwagon.
So you think if we never had nu-metal we never would have had Panic! at the Disco?
Who knows? That’s what I’m saying, like, listen, I saw Korn play in Australia and it was one of the most amazing fucking shows. There are some songs of theirs that are undeniable in my opinion. I’m talking old Korn, I’m talking “Twist,” “Blind,” “Falling Away From Me.” These are songs that I knew because it was the biggest thing ever when I was coming up. So I can’t deny it because it’s very much a voice of that generation, of that time period, it is a time capsule of what was going on. There’s no hatred at all and I’m still enamored by the fact that that was a thing back then. So yeah, you know what, you could roundabout say that! I think it’s kind of funny that was a thing, that everybody was trying to sound all metal and hardcore and, shit, I was in hardcore bands in high school and I went to a lot of hardcore shows, I was part of that scene, but really ultimately for Panic!, for being what it was, the dream was to create something entirely different and chase that thing.
Have you heard Korn’s remix of “Bitch Better Have My Money” by Rihanna?
No, but I bet it’s amazing though!
It is you have to listen to it. As soon as we get off the phone you have to Google it. It’s so good.
I’m at a computer right now I’m going to look it up right now! [Remix starts playing in the background.] Oh no shit! [Laughs.] Why is that so good!?
It’s almost rude that it’s so good.
It’s so good! It goes perfectly! [Sings.] Bitch better have my DERRRR. [Laughs.] That’s dope. I’m into it. That’s cool, thank you for that.
You’re welcome! So, looking back on your first album, what do you think of it now? Is there any cringe-factor with your first album?
There are definitely cringe moments for sure. I was just looking at an old picture of myself where I’m wearing these fucking glasses that are like, if a guido punched Jennifer Lopez in the face in 1999—these glasses have appeared from the big bang of that. They’re so gaudy and so fucking awful but my excuse, and my justification for it is because I was sleeping with this girl who was like “You should get new glasses” and I was like “Yeah of course as long as you keep laying me, awesome.” That’s why I was doing it, but honestly there’s no excuse for wearing those things. But I don’t know in terms of an album, I don’t really have albums that I hate. I look back and it’s more like a yearbook. You find moments. There’s moments in songs where you’ll be like, “Oh no, no no no no!” and it’s not necessarily the whole yearbook, because that’s just fond memory lane, but then you find that one comment from your one friend you thought was your best friend, and then it turns out was your worst enemy, like “Fuck this dude”—that’s cringeworthy, you know?
Do you still play those songs at shows?
Yeah, I play old stuff all the time. It’s never cringe-worthy live, because it becomes this new thing. It’s mostly from the recording. When I’m looking at myself from the first album, I just turned 18 and I’m just this young shitty dude who doesn’t know how to sing but is made to be the singer and I lose my voice for the entirety of the recording and I have two days to record the vocals, so I have to do all these tricks to get my voice back. And I listen to it and I remember singing like that and certain moments will pop up and I’ll be like, “Oh that’s a bad word that’s not how you say that word you son of a bitch.” So yeah, it’s just moments, more funny stuff I get to laugh at.
Panic! at the Disco Tour Dates
Jan 14 (Le) Poisson Rogue New York, NY
Jan 19 The Tower Theatre Los Angeles, CA
May 20 Hangout Music Fest 2016 Gulf Shores, AL
May 21 Hangout Music Fest 2016 Gulf Shores, AL
May 22 Hangout Music Fest 2016 Gulf Shores, AL
May 24 Le Cigale Paris, France
May 25 Trix Antwerp, Belgium Sold Out
May 26 Melkweg Amsterdam, Netherlands
May 28 Slam Dunk Festival Leeds, United Kingdom
May 29 Slam Dunk Festival Birmingham, United Kingdom
May 30 Slam Dunk Festival Hatfield, United Kingdom
Jun 01 A2 Saint Petersburg, Russia
Jun 02 Stadium Live Moscow, Russia
Jun 03 Rock am Ring Mendig, Germany
Jun 04 Rock im Park Nürnberg, Germany
Annalise Domenighini is having a fever she can’t sweat out. Contact her cures via Twitter.