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Cover Story: Panic! At The Disco

| February 29, 2016

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To outsiders, it might have seemed surprising – Panic! at the Disco bandleader Brendon Urie’s participation on a recent installment of Jimmy Kimmel Live’s Mashup Monday segment, wherein he gleefully belted out a campy rendition of Sisqo’s 1999 “Thong Song” smash alongside Sisqo himself, under the banner of Panic! at the Sisqo. But the silly skit was de rigueur to any fans already familiar with the curious multi-faceted career of Urie, to whom there is nothing more sacred than the meticulous craft of comedy. When it comes to humor, he’s just not kidding around.

Take, for example, the rocker’s zany clips he posts on Vine, many featuring him interacting with his pampered pets, a frisky fox terrier named Bogart and a more stoic Boston terrier dubbed Penny Lane, named after one of he and his wife Sarah’s favorite Beatles songs. In one segment, he greets them cheerily upon his arrival home, a tone that quickly changes, when he surveys the messy living room, into a sternly reprimanding, “I thought I asked you to clean up!” He cites former Mad TV funnyman Will Sasso as a huge inspiration. “When Vine first came out, he had all these great little bits that there were so funny and totally original,” he enthuses. “So the whole reason I got into Vine was because of comedians.”

Watch Urie’s snippets long enough – like ones featuring him skateboarding to the recording studio, while breathlessly describing how excited he is to be heading to that studio – and the effect can be dizzying. “But who I act as a person on Vine is totally different from who I am in real life,” he wants to clarify. “I’m just being somebody else, using this manic, hyperactive character to get an idea or a joke across.” Same goes for his recent cameo in the web series Good Cops, he adds. One of his friends happens to be its creator. “And he just asked me, ‘Hey, man – I know you’re a fan of the show. You want to be in it?’ And I said, ‘Hell, yes!’ I do random stuff like that, like the Vine character and some other characters, a lot of times because my friends are like, ‘Let’s film something.’ So I do.”

Get Urie going on standup comics, and he’ll rattle off a slew of hilarious favorites, like cutting-edge British humorist Jimmy Carr, and the late, lamented avitator-shaded pundit Mitch Hedberg, who would throw out a stream of brilliant non sequiturs, like a waitress asking if he wanted a receipt after selling him a doughnut, to which he’d drolly respond, “Let’s not bring ink and paper into this transaction.” “Seriously, Mitch Hedberg was one of the funniest, most soft-spoken comedians of all time,” he says. “He would say one sentence, and it would take you about five seconds to understand the joke. And then ten seconds after that, you’d be laughing, rolling on the floor. He would say things like, ‘It’s interesting to note that dogs are forever in the push-up position’ – just little quips like that, that were so funny.”

But don’t get Urie wrong. He isn’t harboring any grand delusions of launching his own stand-up routine. “I would never do that,” he sighs. “It’s usually like, any time that I find myself being somewhat – or even remotely – funny is in a situation where I just feel incredibly nervous and awkward, and I try to lighten the mood. It’s usually when I’m out with friends, and there’s either a heated debate, or somebody says something dumb, so I try to break the awkwardness with something funny, until we’re all laughing, going, ‘Oh, yeah – that just happened.’” He enjoys listening to comics discuss their process, he continues, and learning how some don’t even bother to write down jokes – they just start relating raconteur-ish stories, letting the fun make itself evident in the telling. “Every comic has their own take on standup, and I think that’s so special,” he says. “It’s just like a musician has their own take on a live concert. So there’s just something special about comedy — it takes a special person with a special talent to be able to accomplish something like that, to reach people and have a message, but to make people laugh.”

A good sense of humor has been something of a necessity for the frontman, who has watched his band gradually whittle down its membership, starting with the departure of bassist Jon Walker and guitarist/key songwriter Ryan Ross (who left to form The Young Veins in 2008), with drummer Spencer Smith following last year after he and Urie’s sonically-adventurous fourth effort, 2013’s Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! Ergo, Urie essentially is Panic! at the Disco on its latest Queen-meets-Frank-Sinatra fifth set, Death of a Bachelor, a record that – in true Little Red Hen style – debuted at #1 on the Billboard Charts this January, selling over 169,000 copies in its first week alone. Playing guitar, bass, and drums on it, the vocalist baked the bread himself, and deservedly savored its aromatic delights, fresh from the oven, with no interlopers claiming ‘And I helped’ credit. “I definitely sold my soul for something,” he chuckles, making a Faustian reference. “You never know what an album’s going to do, or how people are going to react to it, until it comes out. So you just hope for the best.”

But there has always been something subtly theatrical about this performer, ever since the Las Vegas outfit’s 2005 bow A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, which fell under the then-popular musical umbrella of emo. But gradually, his glam/pop leanings – and fascination with studio Svengalis like Jeff Lynne from E.L.O. – began to assert itself in the songwriting mix, which was initially anchored by Ross. Once Ross and Walker departed, his playful personality held sway, both musically and visually, in stage shows and videos inspired by everything from the steampunk literary movement to vintage traveling-circus sideshows. Now, Urie is completely in charge and free to explore whatever eccentric sonic path he chooses. And the results have been predictably fascinating.

Bachelor opens with a Rivers-Cuomo-assisted “Victorious,” which fits somewhere between a high school cheerleader’s chant and an acrobatic experiment from one of Queen’s most experimental catalog entry, Queen II. “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time” follows, juxtaposing a vintage piano minuet with booming James Bond-theme chords, and coldly observes an out-of-control party featuring  “Champagne, cocaine, gasoline/ and most things in between.” “Hallelujah” blends a Gospel chorus with diary-honest childhood reflections, and “Crazy = Genius” observes that “You’re just like Mike Love/ But you’ll never be Brian Wilson” to the tune of an old vaudeville showstopper. And in the title track, accompanied by jazzy fingerpops, Urie croons with classy Rat Pack aplomb, as he does on the closing keyboard dirge “Impossible Year” – an interesting development, given that he already wields one of the most charismatic, pneumatic-powered voices in modern rock.

Urie, who will turn 29 this April, wants to clarify that he’s not some megalomaniacal control freak. But it’s gratifying, even liberating, to be responsible for every last Bachelor decision, he admits. “And it’s kind of been a gradual progression – it took time to get to this point right now. Lose a couple of people here, lose a couple there, and now I find myself on my own. And it is exciting, because there are times where I think back to how writing used to be in the band, with four people writing together and butting heads and compromising and debating and arguing. And with all those things happening, that can’t be conducive to a creative project. So now I can delegate whatever ideas I have to whomever I need to, if I ever feel the need to. Which is so freeing – there’s something so validating about getting to this turning point, but feeling more confident than ever.”

Ditto for the performer’s new fashion sense – a stylish dress-suited look reminiscent of a Sin City lounge act from the 1950s. He blames his unusual childhood. Growing up Mormon, outside of Vegas in St. George, Utah, his faith kept him from going outside on Sunday and Monday nights. “So I spent my Sundays listening to music, making music, playing board games – just doing anything to occupy my time, like playing dress-up all the time, making home movies with siblings,” he says. In fact, his mother recently sent him a photo of him as a toddler, decked out as a bowtie-and-suspenders Frank Sinatra. “I would dress as a Rat Pack swinger guy, or I would dress as a steampunk character. So when my mom sent me that photo, when I’m three years old and wearing the exact same outfit that I’m wearing now, it was so fucking weird – I had no idea that it had subliminally, subconsciously crept in there. That’s why I’m so happy with this new record – it’s real. It’s who I am.”

Long before Urie met Panic! founder Brent Wilson – who initially invited him to join he and Ross’s group as guitarist until they heard his extraordinary singing voice and promoted him to microphone duties – and signed to Pete Wentz’s Decaydence/Fueled by Ramen imprint, he was experimenting with the various instruments he found around the house. “Like piano, guitar, the cello that my sister played – I just jumped from instrument to instrument,” he recollects. “And now, anybody who comes over to the house is basically going to be tortured by me running around the house, playing the piano or ukulele or dulcimer or something random. I have stuff laying around the house all the time, so at any moment, just like five feet away, I can pick up something and start playing it.” His wife innately understands this, that it’s all part of her husband’s job. “But I don’t know if my friends are tired of me yet,” he sighs. “But I hope not, because I don’t plan on stopping.”

From Urie’s boyhood back yard, closer to Vegas, he could view temptation beckoning, even through the hazy smog. “It was always there – I could always see the Stratosphere, I’d see the Luxor light, I could see the MGM lion shining,” he says. “And just knowing that was all down there, and that there was plenty of debauchery to be had, and I’m this Mormon kid in his home in the safe suburbs, just wanting to go out and explore all that, but knowing that I couldn’t at the time? I was just dreaming of the day I could get out and experience everything.”
Be careful what you wish for. The sleazy shindig he sings about in “Don’t Threaten” was not only autobiographical, but representative of his own daredevil behavior, once he started sampling the compelling What happens here stays here Las Vegas menu. Those kinds of lost weekends, he confesses, “happened plenty of times. There was one in Vegas, a Playboy kind of party at a club, and Dave Navarro was there and all these random celebrities. And I started doing shots at the bar, and the next ten minutes was just owners of the casino walking up and going, ‘Hey, man! I’ve got some shots for you!’ I was getting endless shots, from everyone at the party. I must have had ten in twenty minutes. It was just terrible, and I got way too drunk.” He thinks a cast member from a reality TV show physically carried him back to his hotel room, where he promptly blacked out. But still, to this day, he’s not sure. Since then, he’s learned moderation.

Bachelor hearkens back to its composer’s boyhood in other ways, as well. He first became fascinated with music via the singles his siblings would bring home. Then his sister turned him on to darker fare, like The Smiths and The Cure, whose corrosive classic Disintegration changed his young life. As did other interesting touchstones, like W.A.S.P.’s underrated heavy-metal masterpiece The Last Command. “It’s one of those albums that – if you go back and listen to it now – it’s still balls-out and really heavy,” he says. “But as I got older and became a teenager, I started getting into the hardcore scene, and I found all these other bands that I fell in love with. And I was so into that, but not necessarily the music – even though I was a fan of the music – but it was also just going out to shows and seeing people live. Something just hit me so hard at that time – I was so hungry for that kind of epiphany to happen, where I could just find a world and be like, Oh, I want to be a part of this!’ And that was one of the first moments where I knew I wanted to play live shows and be in a band and start doing that.”

Now, Urie can easily – and sincerely – throw in a Mike-Love-versus-Brian-Wilson lyrical reference in “Crazy = Genius” without having to explain his myriad reasons for loving The Beach Boys. “There’s such a fine line between crazy and genius,” he says. “And I got that revelation through this writing process, because I sit on that fence. I teeter back and forth like Humpty Dumpty, just waiting to see which side I fall on. Is it crazy? Is it genius? Is it too much? Is it not enough?” that’s the one downside of becoming a one-man band, he says. “You never really know, and the prime example of that is Brian Wilson.”

For now, he’s content to be a Frank Sinatra for the new millennium. He first became aware of the smooth crooning approach as a kid, watching Alfalfa warble on The Little Rascals TV program. Then he saw it pop up again in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and in a Disney program called Fun With Music, that featured stars like Billy Joel. “So then crooning was really on my radar, and I just fell in love with it as much as I could at a young age,” he says. “But then as I got older, I had a whole new appreciation for it, where I wanted to learn more about it, I wanted to study it. And I still would like to properly study crooning and jazz singing, because it’s so different from what I’ve been doing for the last decade – rock singing.”

And if – God forbid – a guitar string breaks, or the microphone short-circuits during a Panic! at the Disco spectacle, Urie can most likely serenade the faithful until the problem is remedied. Or possibly tell a joke or two. “There have been a couple of times where I’ve had to do that,” he snickers, in closing. “And I don’t know if my banter has become more of a commentary, but I’ve started to interact with the crowd more, to the point where I’ve started to do ‘crowdwork,’ like a comic would. But it’s nowhere near as funny. That’s the thing – I’m a musician first, and a comedian…. never! I just can’t do it. I’m not that person. But God, do I appreciate those comedians!”

– Tom Lanham

Appearing 4/17 Purdue University, Eliot Hall, West Lafayette, IN; 7/10 Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Tinley Park, IL.

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