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Cover Story: Panic! At The Disco

| December 3, 2013

Panic! At The Disco

Loving Las Vegas


Things have been going well for Panic! At The Disco frontman Brendon Urie of late. Almost swimmingly, in fact. After living together for five years in Santa Monica, he and his longtime galpal Sarah Orzechowski finally decided to make it official with an intimate Malibu-held wedding ceremony this past April. “And it was amazing,” says the singer, who has immortalized the moment on his Twitter page with a charming vows-exchanging photo from that heady day. “Our friends in Fallout Boy came, and actually all our other friends in different bands came, as well – Butch Walker was there. But we kept it pretty small – it was only 80 people.”

For the honeymoon, the couple jetted off to Italy for a week. They spent three days taking in the stunning sights of Rome, then disappeared into a tiny coastal village. “It was a total beach community, and it was really beautiful,” he recalls. “And it was the first time we’d been there, so it was just incredible.” But domestic life, he’s happy to report, wasn’t some shock to the swinging-bachelor system. “I’ve been pretty domesticated for a while,” he chuckles. “I’m usually at home doing chores, or hanging out with my puppies. I’ve got a Jack Russell terrier and a Boston terrier, and Sarah and I were just talking about how much we like hanging out with our dogs – they’re so much easier to get along with, and you don’t have to pay for their college tuition. Since we’ve been living together for so long now, the only big difference is, I’m actually sharing life as her husband.”

Naturally, Urie’s missus had a profound effect on the new Panic album, Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! “I mean, all of the people who are involved in my life definitely influenced me in some way, or inspired me to create whatever I was creating,” he explains. “But more directly, I wrote two songs about her on the record, and one in particular ends the album. It’s called “The End of All Things.” Right before we got married, Sarah and I wrote down our vows, but in a way, I kind of wanted to make her a promise and tell her ‘This is how I see us spending our years in the future. And no matter what happens, I’ll always be there.’ You know,” he coughs, nervously. “That kind of thing.”

And Urie, 26, will undoubtedly be there at his wife’s side, through thick and thin. Fidelity seems to be a very serious issue with him. Mainly because he’s been taught some unusually harsh lessons about it over the course of his career.

Raised Mormon in Summerlin, Nevada, this future singer for Las Vegas act Panic! At The Disco was originally invited by then-bassist Brent Wilson to play guitar in the nascent group, way back in 2004, alongside vocalist/guitarist Ryan Ross. But once the members heard the kid’s unique, charismatic quaver – truly one of the most interesting voices in modern rock – he was promptly pushed in front of the microphone, leading to their platinum emo-school debut in 2005, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. Urie went from sideman to rock star virtually overnight. And like a cat, he always landed on his feet.

A year later, anti-emo crowd sentiment at Britain’s Reading Festival found Panic under siege, braving a bevy of flying beer bottles during a difficult set. One actually brained Urie, knocking him out; Bravely, he went back and finished the set after a quick recovery backstage. Then things started to get really strange. His old high school chum Wilson, who’d initially recruited him, was forced out of the group. Then – after an inventive, ultra-jangly sophomore set in 2008, Pretty. Odd., which debuted at # 2 on the Billboard chart – founding members Ross and Jon Walker stunned fans by walking out on Panic to start their own combo, The Young Veins, leaving Urie alone with drummer Spencer Smith.

Most musicians would have folded their hand at this point. But Urie doubled down. He and Smith not only retained the Panic! At The Disco moniker, they recruited producer Butch Walker to helm their sprawling, sugar-coated comeback, Vices & Virtues, and created a huge steampunk-inspired stage show to underscore the material’s colorful vaudevillian verve. Urie was more than just a pinup-pretty face; The multi-instrumentalist had serious vision. And a drive to experiment that pushed he, Smith, and new bassist Dallon Weekes to surreal – and decidedly danceable — new Pet Shop Boys heights on Panic’s latest Too Weird stunner.

Urie has a sleek new Rat Pack look – all dress-suited, bow-tied, and pompadour-haired, like some Vegas nightclub entertainer from the Eisenhower ’50s. Or – perhaps more aptly – some long-lost, time-traveling mainstay from Spandau Ballet’s post-New Romantic early ’80s era. Too Weird opens innocently enough, on the heartbeat thump of “This is Gospel.” And a proceeding “Miss Jackson” (which originally sampled Fiona Apple’s “Every Single Night” until the singer refused to clear it) is a stomping, soulful study that’s still moderately paced. With track three, “The Vegas Lights,” however, the set turns defiantly synth-pop and accelerates to a defiantly dancefloor speed, as it percolates through the Human League-ish “Girl That You Love,” a Flock of Seagulls-styled “Girls/Girls/Boys,” all while maintaining that certain Pet Shop Boys, suit-and-tie classiness. Mention this to Urie and he gets excited. “I love it! I love the Pet Shop Boys!” he barks, and then starts singing an impromptu rendition of “West End Girls.”

Even more than the artist’s wife, a bigger character that figures into almost every new Panic number is the band’s old hometown of Las Vegas itself. In his youth, Urie openly admits it – there was a lot of resentment there. Mainly because he was too young to fully appreciate Sin City when Fever catapulted the band into the stratosphere. “I mean, when we left we were 17 years old, so we had a bitter attitude,” he sighs, reflectively. “We didn’t have the opportunity to play any shows there because you had to be 21 and over to play any gig, because most of the venues were in bars. So when we left, we were like ‘What the hell?’ We didn’t really get to do anything that we wanted to do.

“But I’ve been going back and forth from L.A. to Las Vegas in the past couple of years, and it was just a totally new city to deal with for me. Having come back now, and getting to participate in things and be of age, you see the world in a different light. So taking the time to experience those things really changed the way I see it now. I’ve always loved Vegas, but now I’ve found the bloom of it, and it’s amazing. I spent a couple of weeks, just going to clubs, doing stuff I never had done in the past.” It wasn’t his scene, exactly, he confesses. “But going there and seeing people dancing and cutting loose? It was amazing. And that’s what influenced me to make the music that we did for this record. I wanted to make music to kind of party to, so people could let loose to it and really have a good time.”

Urie also had the added childhood constriction of being raised in a Mormon household. It was very strict, he admits – he and his four siblings couldn’t watch certain movies and he was never allowed to go outside and casually play with his school chums on Sundays. “That was always the day to rest and worship,” he says. “And Monday nights, we’d always have a thing called Family Home Evening, where you would spend the whole night with your family, which was kind of sweet. We’d just play board games or watch movies together or just hang out. But I think when I started getting older, like 12 or 13 years old, I wanted to branch out. Puberty was hitting, and I wanted to go out with friends and stuff. So that’s when I started to rebel quite a bit.”

In trying to discover his tormented-teen identity, the kid became something of a family black sheep. “I definitely didn’t make it easier on my parents,” he says. “Always going ‘Fuck you! I’m not doing this, and I don’t care!’ But really, I think it was necessary. I didn’t go down to the (Las Vegas) strip, but I definitely participated in the decadent, dirty nature of partying with friends and stuff – sneaking out late at night to go to a party that would end a few hours before school, and then showing up and sleeping in class. I was just kind of being….well, a dickhead, basically.”

Looking back, Urie believes that he sowed a good deal of his wild oats back then, when he went from being the class burnout to wild and crazy guy in his sophomore year. He was constantly seeking new highs with friends, staying up for three days at a time just to see how it would affect his body. “But I never actually did any super-hard drugs – I’ve never done meth, I’ve never done heroin,” he clarifies. “I’ve tried cocaine a few times, but it wasn’t really my thing. So I’ve done this and that, but I’ve never really gone all-out and gotten crazy. I’ve got the philosophy that I learned from a friend called KYB – Know Your Body. And I think I know my body pretty well now, but I really tried to test the boundaries early on.”

Las Vegas alone provides eternal temptation. After all, the town’s motto claims that whatever illicit or untoward activity occurs there should, in hush-hush fashion, simply remain there as a sinful secret. And where else can you walk down the street and have men flicking catalogs of women in your face, women who promise to be in your hotel room in 20 minutes with an $80 special? “And it’s never the girls on the cards,” he guffaws. “You never get the girl that you see in those pictures. Vegas looks glamorous, but there’s this whole other side that people don’t really think about. Unless you’ve been there and experienced it yourself. Unless you’ve had a three-day bender and you leave with your dreams just dashed into the desert, like buried out in the desert. It is so brutal. Some times you come away a winner. But most times, you come away losing something, which means that you probably lost a lot of shit. Luckily, I was never a gambler.”

In some ways, Urie is ahead of the game. Most rockers go through their carnal phase for most of their 20s, and only gradually enter their spiritual phase in their early, post-partying 30s. But he’s already jettisoned most of his baser urges from his system, he reckons. “I’ve always kind of considered myself to be a spiritual person – I’ve always looked for deeper meaning in everything I’ve done,” he self-assesses. Usually, when Panic is on tour, he just goes back to his hotel room after a gig and watches movies. Every once in a while, though, he’ll wind up going out. And every time, he gets taught a harsh life lesson.

“There was one time in Vegas where I went to an after party,” Urie recollects. “But I got so ripping drunk, it was terrible. But I definitely learned from that one – I ended up puking in a corner, and my friend and some random other guy ended up carrying me up to a hotel room and just throwing me on the bed and going ‘Alright – sleep it off!’ And I woke up 12 hours later, thinking ‘What the hell did I do last night?’ I felt like such an asshole. So that didn’t ever happen again.”

Hence the metaphors the composer employed on Too Weird, where – in the song “Nicotine” – a dangerous cigarette substance comes to represent an equally dangerous femme fatale. “Because anything can be seen as addicting,” he declares. “I’ve been addicted to video games, I’ve been addicted to girls, addicted to playing music – which I still am, luckily. But being addicted to your passion is ultimately okay, but still – everything in moderation. But that’s a really hard lesson to learn – I think it’s easier to get caught up in the decadence of an addiction.”

As recently as a year and a half ago, the singer comes clean, he was in the grips of a strange ritual. Every day, he says, “I would just wake up, get high, and play video games. And then I’d go out to Olive Garden, come back, and play more video games. All day.” Are Olive Garden breadsticks, then, Urie’s latest drug of choice? He laughs. “Oh, my God – they are so good!” he concludes, slaver-jowled. “That’s just one more form of decadence, and anything can be destructive if you’re taking a little too much of it. But I love those breadsticks! Keep ’em coming!”

-Tom Lanham

Appearing 12/10 at the Aragon Ballroom

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