[31 August 2010]
Everybody loves a good vacation. Jon Walker is no exception.
Two years ago, just as his former band, Panic! at the Disco, was reaching their highest peaks of emo girl adoration and chart success with 2008’s well-received Pretty. Odd., Walker and co-writer/guitarist Ryan Ross decided to take a little vacation of their own, abandoning the mothership for a new project, the Young Veins, and head-scratching new sonic template ‘60s-style pop reminiscent of the Beatles and the Kinks.
PopMatters had the chance to chat with Walker as he and the band were taking a break between dates on the road with Rooney, during which we discussed musical influences, hecklers, the difficult decision to leave Panic!, and what it’s like going from stadiums to tiny clubs.
First off, where are you right now and what’s going on?
We’re somewhere between San Diego and Anaheim. We just had our first show of the Rooney tour last night in San Diego. It was really cool. I met the Rooney guys about five years ago on a tour that I was an extra guitar tech on. And the band opening is Black Gold—the drummer and keyboard player actually played on our album Take a Vacation! before we had a band. So it’s going to be an awesome summer tour, full of good friends, good times, and good music.
Where did the name the Young Veins come from?
It comes from two weeks of us in the studio throwing out names because we had to decide on one before we could release a song.
So desperation, basically?
Pretty much! We came up with a few cool ones, but they had already been taken—the Chills, I guess they’re a big New Zealand band.
The title of your latest album sounds almost like a sales pitch: Take a Vacation! It seems like an invitation to plug into some music that is more stress-free and not as, let’s say, labored or frenetic as the Panic! stuff. Did you envision Vacation as a sort of aural escape, and would you say this album is a reaction to the music you made before?
Yeah, I mean, “Take a Vacation!” was the first song we wrote for the album, and we probably wrote it a year before we left Panic!, so I guess, subliminally, we were writing about the state of where we were and where we felt like we wanted to be, I guess.
So, you wanted to “take a vacation”?
Yeah. You know, I mean, just with music in general, for me, being in a band, or at least, the band I want to be in, it’s about making music and having fun… and doing stuff that’s real, stuff that makes you happy. And there were a lot of things we had to deal with in Panic! that were the opposite of that. It became something else. We’d be on tour for two years without even the chance to pick up a guitar and write a song. Not that those times weren’t great—and not only that, but they really gave us great experiences and kind of are the reason for where we’re at today.
From there, the majority of the songs were written on tour; we’d gone to South Africa for the first time and Southeast Asia and parts of Japan for the first time, so writing all the songs in those places kind of felt like we were on a little vacation from the normal touring routine, so I think at the end of the day, that’s kind of how we came up with the idea to just call the album Take a Vacation!, to go along with the theme of being around the world and focusing on that.
So, when you were writing these songs on tour, did you originally envision them as Panic! songs, or did you know clearly from the beginning that they were something else?
No, for me at least, I was hoping they were going to be the next Panic record. It was really a hard thing to walk away from—our good friends, having so many good experiences and such great success. We started writing pretty much right after we got done doing Pretty. Odd., in the same vein as how we wrote those songs, me and Ryan with an acoustic. The majority of those Pretty. Odd. songs were written that way. But once we started actually writing songs and getting songs together, trying to get the band involved, even trying to get them more involved in the writing process, it started to become apparent that we weren’t all on the same page. We were all kind of wanting different things, with both music and life, in general. I think pretty much up until a couple months before we left the band did it really come to us that… it’s an option, and I guess we just kind of knew that even though it was a hard decision, it was the right one.
Since this album is such a departure from the work of your previous band, it makes me wonder how much you enjoy those songs now.
I wasn’t a part of the first record—I joined about six months after it was released. I listened to the record before it came out, but after playing the songs every night for three years straight, I kind of never really needed to listen to them again. Then Ryan and I started writing Pretty. Odd., and I haven’t listened to that in awhile. It’ll probably take me a couple more months before I can. Those songs are still pretty fresh to us. I mean, we only wrote them a few years ago, and they’re really close to me, and having to just kind of walk away from them was a hard experience. I was really proud of that album, and I think it was really good.
So would you say the change that came with Pretty. Odd. and has carried over to Take a Vacation! was as a result of your influence?
Well, it seems like it, definitely seems like it. I don’t want to take all the credit, but I grew up listening to the Beatles and Bob Dylan. That’s all that was really played at my house… I had always written songs in bands that I was in before, and when I joined Panic!, there was a weird dynamic as far as the writing went. I mean, we worked for two years without ever trying to write a song together, and I just thought that was kind of odd—a band that has that much momentum and success wouldn’t be focusing on the main part of being in a band, which is the music. So when Ryan and I started writing together, it was new for both of us because I’d never really written with anybody, and I think he did the majority of the writing on his own, especially lyrically, on the first Panic! album. I think it was just new for both of us, and just having that dynamic turned it into something a lot more fun and a lot less self-conscious. We were able to just kind of get an idea out and be happy with it and move on to the next one.
What’s it like playing such comparatively small shows? Is it more challenging? Is it more fun? Is it depressing?
It’s all of the above. It’s definitely more fun…more exciting knowing that there’s a bunch of people who don’t know who you are, and you have to kind of win them over. And it’s a lot of hard work, but we’re still young enough to where the hard work is good for us. And just being in a more intimate setting, it sounds better. It helps us develop more as a band because we can actually hear each other and vibe with each other, instead of being thirty feet away from each other and the audience. Doing that kind of touring for so long got to be pretty disconnecting. Also, we were off on the road more than we should have been, which kind of disabled us from writing as much as we could have been. So it’s only our second tour now, so maybe ask me in a few months how I feel about it!
What’s the craziest thing to happen to you at a Young Veins show so far?
You know, it’s surprisingly very smooth. We don’t have any guitar techs or anything now. We have a tour manager that helps us book hotels and stuff like that, but for the most part, we’re doing everything ourselves. It really couldn’t be going any more smoothly. The first tour we went on was with a band called Foxy Shazam…they’re a little bit more on the heavy side, and at a few of their shows, they brought a following that wasn’t necessarily receptive to us. I can recall one show where there was this kid…in front of me the entire show with both of his middle fingers stuck up in the air! I think I commended him for his honesty, and then Ryan dedicated a song to him.
Reviewers (including myself) have thrown all these comparisons your way—a lot of British Invasion bands like the Beatles, the Kinks, the Zombies. Which one of these bands used to describe your sound has actually had the most influence on your music?
As far as influence goes, I’d say the Beatles. They were the biggest band in the world, and…who wasn’t influenced by them? They’re definitely my favorite band. And just the fact that they did whatever they wanted to do, and they were able to be so diverse and fraught but still hone in on the things that they did well. It’s just very influential for me as a songwriter and just a person in general, I guess—just being able to be confident in what you do. But sound-wise, I think we sound the least like the Beatles, out of most of the bands that came out of that era. There’s a lot of Motown stuff that influenced us as far as grooves and melodies and harmonies and stuff like that. The Kinks are another 60’s garage band style that lent its hand to us in terms of being a little bit more loose and a little bit more free to want to be a more sloppy and not so tight and produced. But, I don’t know, those comparisons do get thrown around, but I think it sounds like the Young Veins. We kind of did it really spontaneously without much overanalyzing, and it turned out the way it turned out.
What’s the current relationship like between the Young Veins and Panic? Do you guys keep in touch?
No, we don’t. You know, there was never really any animosity. Really, it was because of creative differences that we split, and we just knew that we were trying to force something, and it wasn’t working, and everybody realized that. Thank god we got out of it before it got nasty between all of us! You know, we were kind of surprised when they decided to continue on with the band, and a little bit angered, I guess, because we had put so much hard work into it, and it just made it that much harder to walk away from it when we knew that the music was going to carry on without us. But at the end of the day, it was the right decision, and it had to happen, and I think it was for the us, and I hope the best for those guys because we were really close, and they did put a lot of hard work into that stuff, too. I hope the best for them.
Also, how do you feel about the way fans have forced a “rivalry” between the two bands?
Yeah, that’s how it goes. It’s like, what do you like better, Harry Potter or the Twilight series? That kind of stuff goes down. That’s was my introduction to all this, was me taking the spot of the original bass player from Panic! So I’m used to the sides being taken, but I feel, in the end, time prevails, and…all things must pass!
So you played bass in Panic, but, being a songwriter, you probably play a lot of instruments. Currently, you’re playing guitar live for the Young Veins—
Yeah, I play guitar live. I grew up playing guitar, and I joined Panic! because they needed a bass player. Luckily, it wasn’t far off from playing the guitar. I don’t know, I just like playing everything, and I guess the guitar is my favorite instrument. Now that we have a band and a bass player, I’ll probably stick to guitar.
Most artists find inspiration from other mediums besides their own. What works of film or literature have inspired you the most?
I think it’s everything. I think it’s just people being creative and just having creative integrity, and I think people take themselves too seriously…People being creative and creating something out of nothing is pretty inspiring and magnificent. Some people have it, and some people don’t. For me, personally, it’s just knowing that I can’t turn off the circuit inside of me that wants to write a song, that makes me want to perfect it.
Have you guys discussed plans going forward? Any seeds planted for new material?
As far as the band goes, we’re doing this tour with Rooney, and we’ve been writing not really in the same vein that we have been. I’ve been writing a little bit more on my own, and Ryan’s been doing the same…We just want to continue to have fun and continue making music, however that may be.
So no real time table then?
No. We hope to release more music sooner than later, considering our album’s not even a half-hour long, but we also don’t want to rush into things.