Ready to Go: An Interview with Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco
With the controversial departure of half of his band, Brendon Urie has bravely soldiered on with Panic! at the Disco, relocating to California and unleashing one ambitious new disc ...
Brendon Urie is surprisingly upbeat and chipper for being such a busy man.
He and his band, Panic! at the Disco, are mere hours away from taking the stage for another televised performance. This time it's LogoTV's NewNowNext Awards. Over the past few weeks, they've played on Conan, Lopez Tonight, MTV's The Seven, and also just completed their first showing at SXSW. Couple this with an upcoming tour in support of their new album Vices and Virtues that will hit Europe and transition into a full run in the States and there's no denying that Urie and friends are going full steam ahead.
Perhaps one of the reasons Urie is in such a good mood these days is because a little less than two years ago, the future of the band was as uncertain as ever. The departure of guitarist and primary songwriter Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker over their hyper-publicized musical differences in July 2009 left Urie and drummer Spencer Smith with a decision to make. Within a matter of weeks, Urie and Smith had made clear their plans for continuing work on their upcoming album, a nationwide tour with Blink-182, and the return of the much-ballyhooed exclamation point to the band name. As it turns out, the split could very well have been the best thing that could have happened.
Needless to say, Vices and Virtues isn't your typical third offering. It finds two young musicians relieved of the musical tension that spawned 2008's Pretty. Odd. and six years removed from their debut effort. Urie and Smith's collective vision is evident throughout the album, which feels as much like a rebirth as it does a nod to their past. Taking the reins as sole lyricist for the band wasn't the easiest of tasks for Urie, but the results are fantastic and can only lead one to believe that Panic! at the Disco's best days may very well be ahead of them.
It's clear that past events are merely water under the bridge at this point and the band's eyes are set on the future. When PopMatters recently had the chance to catch up with Urie, he talked about his excitement for the upcoming tour, his love of oft-forgotten 80s pop, and the personal challenges he faced during the writing of Vices and Virtues.
I want to start off by saying congratulations on the new album debuting at #7 on the Billboard charts not too long ago. How does it feel to not only have the album out but for it to get off to such a great start?
Yeah, it's really nice. I guess to a certain point it's just very validating. It feels very nice to have it just actually be out there and for people to be able to hear it. We worked a long time on this record and very hard and we're just so proud of it. So yeah it's great to finally have it out.
Obviously, the record industry is different than it was even six years ago when you released your first album. What kind of expectations do you have for the album and how do you gauge success in the current sales climate?
That's a tough question. I guess for us, success comes with being able to tour. We love playing shows and as long as we can stay together and keep making music together, that's good enough for us. If we kept the expectations in the forefront of our heads, thinking like "Oh God, I wonder what people are going to think?", the record probably wouldn't even have been finished. So to a certain point you do just have to let that be a thing and not look into it too much. But yeah, I guess there was some nervousness of "What are people going to think?", but it's just nice to have it out.
The idea of vices is something that you guys have touched on in past albums, but it feels a little different this time. Was there any certain place that your inspiration came from when creating Vices and Virtues?
You know, I guess a lot of it was just changing scenery. Spencer [Smith] and I had just moved to California at the beginning of everything a couple of years ago and we were just kind of figuring out where we wanted to plant our feet and make this record. That was a process and fun to discover, just being in a new place, having new places to go, and people to meet. It was really cool. I guess a lot of it was just me personally having to take responsibility for the lyrical duties and being able to convey a message the way I wanted to, which I found difficult. That was a little leap for me to do, but it was cool. It ended up being really good and I'm very proud of what we did and it's just going to keep continuing for us. We're just going to keep pushing ourselves to do something new every time.
You talked about how this was your first attempt at writing an album completely on your own. What did you find most difficult in the writing process for this album?
I guess in the beginning the hardest thing was just getting up and writing every day. There are those days that everybody has, you don't want to get out of bed, you're just like "I'm not going to do it today, I'm just going to sit here and watch Jersey Shore" or whatever. So you pick those days to be like "Alright, I've got to get up. I have to get up today." I took the encouragement of everybody behind me. My friend Rob Mathes told me "Just wake up and keep writing -- it doesn't have to be the best thing ever, just get that idea out of the way so that the good ones can come." So I just started thinking about that and how right he was. That's totally true. So it was a little hard to get out of that funk but I'm definitely better for it.
A lot of early feedback for the album seemed to find people calling this a "return to form" so to speak. I really feel like this is more of a progression in sound, combining sounds from the past two albums but expanding on that. How much of that was intentional?
Yeah, every time we go to write something, we want to do something new. Inevitably though, there were some songs that were from old ideas. There was one, "The Ballad of Mona Lisa", that was an old idea that was like four years old from right after we had gotten off of our first couple of tours from the first record and weren't even thinking about writing our second record yet. That was kind of an older idea that we had plucked from the last album like "Oh, we haven't used this yet, let's try it out." But there's always stuff that we're trying to steal in a sense, but mostly just create something new for ourselves, something we've never heard but also feels exciting.
You guys have worked with several different producers at this point in your career. How was it different working with John Feldman and Butch Walker this time around?
It was amazing working with both of them. You know, with John Feldman we were huge fans of Goldfinger growing up and a lot of bands he had produced like The Used and Atreyu, even Neon Trees he had worked with, so that was really cool. We had heard certain stories about him and didn't really know what to expect but meeting him was awesome. He was the nicest guy in the world. The great thing was that he was such a work-a-holic, he really helped us get better in that aspect. I guess it's safe to say we were pretty lethargic in our writing and there were days we just didn't get up and write. But he's on a schedule. He wakes up at 7AM, goes and works out, then he's up until 2AM in the morning, sleeps a few hours, wakes up again, and just keeps going. It's kind of crazy. So we had to force ourselves to keep up and it was really nice. He really helped us get out of that funk.
Butch Walker is different, but he was a lot of fun. We were worried about getting our ideas across in the right fashion and he made it a lot easier for us to kind of cool it down so we weren't so nervous. We were able to tell him "We want to do this and this!" and he was right on board and never compromised any ideas. It was really cool.
After three albums, is there an area where you feel you've experienced the most growth as a musician?
That would probably be lyrically. That was something I guess I had held myself back on for a lot of years and this time around, just being able to express those ideas finally and not feel weird about it. Just being able to see my own words was a totally different thing and it was great.
Panic! is a band that's had a very loyal fan base ever since your beginnings. With the recent changes, have you felt a difference in who's listening to your band and did you have a particular audience in mind that you were targeting with your new music?
No, we weren't targeting anybody, per say. It was songs that we were excited about that we wanted to write about at the time. Our fans are definitely dedicated. We see them at all the shows, just faces that we've recognized for years. They keep coming back and it's awesome. But something we do strive for is playing for newer audiences, people who haven't really heard our band or haven't seen us live, we love doing that and playing festivals we never have before. That's something we've done recently too, being able to play festivals like SXSW and all these other great things. It's just really cool to go to countries and play festivals for people who don't really know your band or don't ever get to see it. It's really nice.
I was just getting ready to bring up SXSW. Obviously, that's a pretty hyped festival these days. Did your experience there meet your expectations?
Yeah, we had heard about it obviously and we were really excited. We got there and we only played once, which weird because every other band was playing at least four or five times a day, like five days a week. So we felt kind of lame, like "Aw man, we've only been here for a day and half and we're already tired from the sun and everyone else has been here for a week!" We were talking to people, doing some interviews, and they were just tired. We were like "Yeah, it's cool. Let's cut it five minutes short so you can take a nap." It was pretty brutal but it was awesome being able to walk not even ten feet without hearing a band or seeing a band. It was really nice. And the barbeque was great too! [laughs]
I can imagine! You're weeks away from beginning your first tour in support of Vices and Virtues that begins in Europe and will lead back over to the States. Does it feel strange at all touring with the band's new lineup or have things come together pretty naturally?
We've been playing with our friends Dallon and Ian for the past couple of years and it feels really good. I can't remember the last time it felt this good on stage. Ever since it's been the four of us it's just been kind of nice. Towards the end of touring in the past it was pretty evident why we were going to split. We were like "musically we want to do something different," but also there were times where we wouldn't see each other until we got on stage and that was kind of weird. It was like "Oh, well don't take it so personally," but we did. Now it's really nice, we get along so well. We're just really good friends and then we go onto stage and they're the best musicians I've ever met and it's awesome. So it's really nice and we're lucky to have them.
In the past, you've been known as a band that puts on big productions with your tours. It's almost as much of an experience as it is just a concert. Do you have any big plans along those lines for the upcoming tour?
Definitely, we love planning stuff for tour. Anything that can be within means is awesome and really fun. We've been planning stuff for the past couple of weeks I'd say, or maybe a month, just talking about it but now we're starting to finalize it for the tour in the states. It's going to be harder to bring stuff over to Europe, but we're going to bring as much as we can. It's going to be great though, we're really excited talking about costumes and how we want to dress the venue, so it's going to be fun.
I'd seen you mention how you were listening to Arcade Fire a lot during the recording of your new album and that Paul Simon was also playing an influence in your new music. What artists out there right now are either influencing your music or just really have your respect?
There's a lot of stuff we've been listening to. Just a lot of stuff we hadn't really analyzed before, musically. There was a band, XTC, that our friend Rob told us about a couple years back, but we hadn't really listened to anything. We knew a couple of songs from the past, but looking into a lot of that stuff and the production styles and how they recorded stuff, I guess it kind of gets overlooked a lot of times just because it's from the 80s. It was fun looking back at all that stuff and looking through all these old records, things we had never heard before. And then stuff that we had, that we were fans of since we were younger like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, just because our parents listened to them. It was cool being able to kind of look into this whole generation of music we had totally blown over, just skipped over -- the 80s. It was pretty cool.
In everything that's been said recently, it appears from all sides that things between you guys and Ryan and Jon are on friendly and amicable terms. Do you foresee any time in the future where you would consider working together on a project, even if it wasn't Panic?
I guess it's hard to say right now. Right now we're just focused on the tour coming up and touring on this record for quite awhile and seeing what happens with it. Yeah, it's hard to say, we haven't really talked about it at all so I don't know.