We live in a time when today's most popular bands could easily be forgotten (and let's hope that's the case for Justin Bieber). The notion of artist development in the music business has essentially become a thing of the past.
Given those conditions, it's all the more remarkable that indie rockers Panic! At the Disco, an overnight sensation after they released their 2005 debut, have sustained their popularity for a decade. The band's latest album, last year's ambitious Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, is the group's most personal album to date and reflects a new kind of maturity. It's such a strong release, it suggests the guys might just be around for another decade.
Speaking via phone from Seattle, the first date of the band's sold-out club tour, singer-guitarist Brendon Urie was still reeling from having played a handful of arena shows in Mexico with Fall Out Boy, where, judging from the pictures on the Panic! website, fans went absolutely apeshit during the group's performance, screaming and yelling like the group was some kind of boy band (which it's decidedly not).
"The shows in Mexico were great," Urie says. "It's been six or seven years since we'd been there. It was phenomenal. It was really nice [to play with Fall Out Boy]. I'm glad they got back together and started touring. They hadn't toured in years. It's like a bunch of old friends hanging out and having a good time. I had no idea [we'd be this popular after 10 years]. I could have never predicted. It's pretty surreal. It is amazing to see how far the music has reached around the world. You can't really explain it. It's awesome."
Panic! embraces an eclectic mix of musical styles, including electronic, rock and pop. Urie credits his upbringing when asked about how he came to like so many different styles of music.
"I'm the youngest of five kids," he says. "I have my older siblings for a lot of the music I listen to. I stole a bunch of CDs from their collection and would listen the Smiths, Depeche Mode and the Cure. It was a lot of '80s stuff—that and my parents' music. My dad was into Cream and Creedence Clearwater Revival and Tom Petty. It was a good range of music but for whatever reason I fell in love with synthesizers and electronic drums and that sound. I could write a song on the guitar, but to add that kind of production — I was fascinated by that."
Urie and drummer Spencer Smith first formed Panic! while they were still teenagers. Because the group came together in Las Vegas, finding venues where they could perform live was difficult, if not impossible.
"I joined this band when I was 17," he says. "I had no idea what a 'music scene' was. I didn't know the jargon, so I didn't know what a music scene was supposed to be. I played with people around town but I didn't know how much it affected me until we started playing shows. Most of the shows are 21 and over. We couldn't play live. We took that frustration and fueled it into writing songs. We would play in the practice space all day long."
As a result, the band was signed to a record deal before it even played a gig. The group's debut, 2005's A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, delivered two huge singles and went platinum. But instead of sticking with the album's indie pop sound, Panic! went in a different direction on the followup, 2008's theatrical Pretty. Odd.
"Frankly, we get bored pretty easily," Urie says. "Musically, I like changing it up and I don't like to repeat a sound. I like the pursuit of change. I like that you can change it up as you're recording just to surprise yourself. It makes it more fun for everybody, me included. From the time I first started playing piano and guitar, I would mimic everything from Carly Simon to Rage Against the Machine. I've been infatuated with music in general. My ADHD won't let me stay in just one genre. It's a good thing."
For Too Weird, the band took in some old-school electronic music. Its influence can be heard in the static-y beats and distorted vocals of the first track, "This is Gospel."
"When I was in symphonic and jazz bands in high school, people would shit on drum machines and electronic music," Urie says. "They said it had no soul. I disagree. I've heard the soul in electronic music. I've felt it."
Some critics have called the album a concept album since some of the songs connect to Urie's upbringing in Vegas. But he says the songs are more about his personal experiences than the city itself.
"The things I was writing about were things that happened while I was in Vegas," he explains. "It's more about stuff that happened when I was growing up. I had this fascination and wanted to celebrate my new take on it. I wasn't bitter. I wanted to make a celebratory album that glorified my hometown. I was glad to hear that they're building up old Vegas. I was fascinated by that as a kid; it's cool to hear that it's not forgotten. To build it up as an art town and celebrate the creativity is really great."
The lyrics in songs such as the Depeche Mode-like "Girl That You Love" address bitter breakups. And other tunes reference drug addiction. So what drove the decision to write such personal lyrics?
"I have always been an honest guy," Urie says. "I always give too much information. When I write songs, I want to put a bit of myself in there. Some of it was simple. I like the simplicity and being able to use that. There are songs that are tough to talk about. Some are about drug addiction and feeling guilty about past relationships. I wanted to use the music as therapy."
Given that the band formed when Urie was really young and has subsequently been through a number of line-up changes, would he change anything?
"No. I'm definitely happy," he says. "I like who I became over the years. I think it was necessary to go through that stuff. I like how we dealt with the stuff. It would have been nice to have been older and wiser, but I wouldn't have been who I am if I didn't have to grow up so quickly. I'm glad everything turned out how it did."
By Jeff Niesel