Interview Date: 04/15/2010
Run Date: 04/19/2011
It’s never easy for any band when creative differences cause the group to split in half; it’s even harder when one of the people leaving the band is the principal songwriter and lyricist. Welcome to the world of Panic! At the Disco (yes, the exclamation point is back), now a duo of singer Brendon Urie and drummer Spencer Smith after guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker left the band soon after the release of the band’s retrotastic sophomore album Pretty. Odd. Urie and Smith circled the wagons – and brought in pop mastermind Butch Walker to flesh things out – and last month they released Vices and Virtues, which synthesized ideas from the band’s first two albums but sports a decidedly contemporary feel. Bullz-Eye chatted with Urie about suddenly being The Man when it comes to songwriting, and how Trey Parker PWND his religious upbringing.
Bullz-Eye: Where in the world are you?
Brendon Urie: I am in California. Santa Monica, more specifically.
BE: I love it there.
BU: Where are you?
BE: I'm in Ohio. You'll be here in a couple months, with Foxy Shazam, right?
BU: That's right.
BE: Have you played with them yet?
BU: No, but we hung out with them and talked for a little bit. We actually were working with [Foxy Shazam producer] John Feldmann around the same time. They're awesome. They're amazing guys. We've seen only the videos of them live.
BE: I saw them at Lollapalooza last year, and they tore the stage down.
BU: I'm sure! Eric [Sean Nally, Foxy Shazam lead singer] is such an amazing front man. It just pushes you to want to be better.
BE: So the part-time songwriter just inherited the reins of the band he fronts. I think of you as Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode finding out that Martin Gore was leaving the band. No pressure.
BU: (Laughs) That's a great analogy. I very much love that, that's very cool. It's very different. The whole time we were a four-piece [band], there was this thing gnawing at my conscience. "You have these ideas you should show people," and for whatever reason held them back. Now, it's not the case. I have all of these things that I have to show people out of necessity. I can't hold back; I have to bring all the ideas. It is very different, but I'm glad that it changed.
BE: How did you approach the songwriting? Was there ever a voice in the back of your head saying, “No, Ryan would never do that,” or did you say, “Screw it, I’m just going to do what I know”?
BU: (Chuckles) It's dangerous, that type of thinking, thinking of the implications, and what other people will think of what you're doing. So I try to immediately get rid of that, let it dissipate before I even start, because that will start dictating the way the song is written, and I definitely wouldn't want to compromise my ideas for any anxiety. So yeah, when I wrote a song, it would have to be from something I was really excited about, or a melody that's been haunting me for weeks, or a message I wanted to convey lyrically. So it would have to start from something I felt very strongly about. There were no signs of, you second guess something, and I would start thinking about it in my head, and the anxiety kicks in, and I get the Woody Allen neuroses, and then it starts getting crazy. It was one of the more challenging parts of the writing process, but it also helped write the songs.
BE: I kept reading that Ryan and Jon’s desire to make more retro-style music while you were more interested in making something more contemporary, but from where I’m standing, Vices and Virtues is not that far removed from Pretty. Odd.
BU: Oh! Well, that's great. That's pretty cool to hear, because we haven't really heard that much. I guess there are moments where a song like "Always," on the new record, it was written in that [Pretty. Odd] style because it was one of the first ones we had after the split, and that was the type of stuff we were writing. We're still very proud of the previous stuff that we've done, and there are going to be those little hints of similarities, but overall, we just wanted to create something different, something new, and exciting for us personally, but that people will probably enjoy.
BE: Was "Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met…)” from those Pretty. Odd sessions? I read that you wrote a ton of material for that album, and that sounds like it would have fit with that album.
BU: It definitely did, actually. There was a lot of time we spent writing for Pretty. Odd, and there were a lot of ideas that just did not end up getting used. When we started writing, Ryan had this concept written lyrically of this musical, and he tried to get it across to us, and we were starting to get it, like, "Okay, I think this can work." So we started writing, and I don't know if the stuff we were writing was just too ambitious, but it didn't feel right, and we weren't excited about what we were doing. There were a couple of moments, though, and "Nearly Witches" was one of those moments. It was only 30 or 40 seconds of an idea, but we loved the idea so much, and it never got used. It was in the back of my and Spencer's head, just bugging us. "This song is so cool, we have to use this." And finally we did, and I'm so glad that we took the time to wait, because we probably wouldn't have finished it with a chorus and a bridge and everything.
BE: For the record, I loved Pretty. Odd, and I was shocked to see the response from some of your fan base. It was hostile. I was completely surprised by that, and I'm guessing you were, too.
BU: Yeah, you know, I guess that's always going to be the case. You're not going to hear everything that you want to hear. But if you let that eat away at you...we kind of realized early on that if you listen to the good [feedback], you're going to have to listen to the bad [feedback], and vice versa. We try not to hear what people were saying; we just want to make sure that we're excited about [what we're doing]. But yeah, some people were like, "I just don't get it"...it's funny, when we would do press in other countries, they were probably not trying to be mean, but the way that it would translate... "Your last record was great, and this one is horrible. Why?" And I don't know how to answer that! We're still very proud of that record, and will continue to be, I'm sure. It's something that we spent a lot of time and hard work on, and we still just love those songs.
BE: Every one of my friends who's over 35 loves that record, because it reminds us of the Beatles and the albums we listened to growing up. I think the younger kids just didn't listen to those records, and so Pretty. Odd is a different listening experience for them.
BU: Yeah, absolutely. That's awesome, that's really good to hear. The very apparent reason is that we grew up listening to that stuff. Thank you.
BE: You're welcome. Have you heard from the Dead Milkmen’s people after quoting one of their songs in “Hurricane”?
BU: (Laughs) No, I haven't. What is it?
BE: The 'you'll dance to anything' part.
BE: Yeah, there's a song from the Dead Milkmen called "Instant Club Hit," and the subtitle is, "You'll Dance to Anything."
BU: No, that was totally a subconscious move.
BE: Go look it up on YouTube, it's a really funny song.
BU: I have to do that. [Note: the only YouTube link to the song is this horribly messed up version that goes at different speeds. Don’t waste your time.]
BE: There is one thing I want to thank you for: you kept the song titles short. When I saw that title from your first album about how there was a reason these tables are numbered, and someone just hadn’t figured out, etc., I wanted to punch a kitten.
BU: (Laughs) You know, I can't blame you for that reaction. That's a totally fair reaction, wanting to punch a kitten, probably in the face. It's one of those things that we started getting frustrated with ourselves, because during live shows – and a lot of the time, it was on me – I would forget some of the song titles, because they were so long, they were not a lyric in the song. It would be similar, and have a tying theme to the song, but still, we'd always forget these things. Even on the second record, there were a couple songs that had long-ish titles, which we still loved doing at that point, but this time I think we're just getting too old, man. We can't keep it all together.
BE: Too old. You're 23.
BU: (Laughs) I feel 43.
BE: Do you ever see a day when Ryan and Jon would be ready to come back to the band, or is this split a permanent one?
BU: It seems pretty permanent. We realized when we were splitting that Ryan and Jon wanted to do something totally different, and so did we. So we didn't want to compromise anybody's ideas, and make anybody unhappy with the product that we had come out with. And it was so important to us that we didn't want to ruin our friendship, and luckily we decided that, musically, that's what we had to do, in order to save ourselves as friends.
BE: Have you heard the Young Veins record? [Note: The Young Veins is the band Ross and Walker formed after leaving Panic!.]
BU: I have, yeah.
BE: Do you like it?
BU: I do like it. It's funny, actually, I think that we won't have to get back together, because whatever Ryan and Jon do, I'm still going to be a fan of. I'm still a fan of both of their talents, and they've also expressed their love and support for our stuff as well. It feels really good.
BE: Do you have any interest in seeing “The Book of Mormon”? [Note: Urie was raised as a Mormon.]
BU: You're talking about the Broadway play that [Trey Parker] is doing?
BU: Oh, my God, I have to see it. Of course. I was raised Mormon, and I would sneak over to my friend's house and he'd say, "Have you seen that 'South Park' episode [about Mormons]?" And I watched that "South Park" episode, and I was like, "Oh, my God. This is totally accurate. This is exactly what we believe. Isn't it retarded?" But they're just brilliant. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are unbelievably funny. I have to see it.
BE: I have to ask you this: what's the symbolism behind the return of the exclamation point? You just can’t quit that thing, huh?
BU: I guess not. It just comes and goes. But really, we didn't even think about it. We weren't writing it with the exclamation mark, so it was just a shrug-of-the-shoulders decision of, "I don't think we need to put it on there. And all of a sudden, it gets this attention. “Where did it go? That was your shit!” And we realized, "Oh, wow. We just made a whole lot more of a thing that wasn't a thing, and now we have to answer to it." But that's been part of the fun, too. We've left it, it's come back, and who knows, we may leave it again, but I'm glad it's back, and I want to keep it.
BE: When your label reps refer to you as PATD in emails, they'll even put the exclamation point in there.
BU: Oh, I'm sure they will.
BE: Well, we just flew through my questions. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, and best of luck with the record.BU: Great, I appreciate it. Thanks for talking with us.