Death becomes him
With ‘Death of a Bachelor’, Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie has embraced his crazy genius and come up with a masterpiece.
Words: Ali Shutler. Photos: Emma Swann.
Panic! At The Disco’s debut album ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’ was written in a Las Vegas practice space by four kids who knew very little about music but adored it all the same. Surrounded by “shitty nu-metal bands” that sounded exactly the same, the fledgling Panic! were pushed into doing something different. Teenage rebellion or artistic desire for identity, the band wielded a “let’s just do whatever the fuck,” mentality because “we don’t want to sound like these guys.” Two million records later and the rest is history.
It’s Brendon Urie’s history to be precise. Now the sole member of Panic!, it’s his decade of memories at the eye of the storm that provide the catalyst for his latest and greatest adventure, ‘Death Of A Bachelor’. Five albums in and Panic! At The Disco are still doing whatever the fuck they want.
It’s the Monday morning of release week and he’s in a west London studio. As people set up spotlights, steam suit jackets and compare schedules for the day, Brendon Urie walks over to a beat up piano nestled in the corner, lifts the lids and fingers the keys. A few cautionary notes later and he removes his jacket, pulls up a chair and begins to play. He isn’t practicing or showing off, it’s far more playful than that. It’s almost like he’s reconnecting with an old friend. During the photo shoot, he’ll sing along to a mixture of David Bowie and Kanye West, familiar and at ease with both – except for ‘Stronger’, he skips that track citing it as his least favourite of Ye’s work. Moving upstairs, drinks are poured (just water) and he finds an acoustic guitar and gets acquainted.
“If I hear something I like, I don’t necessarily want to copy it or do the exact opposite, I just want to do what I want to do,” ventures Brendon. “A lot of the time though, that does ends up being different,” he adds with a smirk. Panic! have never repeated themselves or echoed anyone else, but it’s on ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ that their freedom rages with unhinged joy.
Written across a three-month period almost immediately after the release of ‘Hallelujah’, Brendon wasn’t out to sculpt a cohesive body of work. “I was just writing songs. I wanted to write a Sinatra song, a Queen song. I wanted to write a rock party song, so it was this mishmash of different ideas that somehow ended up on the same album,” he laughs. “Every song is so weird from each other but I love that.”
Going into the process with a handful of thirty-second ideas that “weren’t even demos, just little hooks” and the occasional verse, nothing was fully formed until he sat down “to just write random songs for an album.” It wasn’t until the eleven tracks that make up ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ were complete, that Brendon could step back and see the arching theme that tied everything together. The journey that Panic! At The Disco have been on and their constant, defiant victory.
The experiments are just how Brendon goes about writing. “It’s mostly just to see if I can do something that I haven’t before, which is fun. I’d just gotten a piano in the house. It’s this old sixties Yamaha and I’m just in love with it so I was playing with it all the time. Playing piano kinda put me in the mood to do Sinatra stuff, so half the songs were written like that, on piano, and half were written on guitar.”
The ball for ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ only started rolling once their record label, having heard ‘Hallelujah’ and deciding to release it the following week, told Brendon to write the album. “I’ve always been writing, it was just the first song finished,” he explains of the decision to share that track. “That definitely kicked my ass into gear. I love [doing music], I just need a little push. It helps to have people backing you, saying ‘you can do this, just show up and do the work’, which is awesome but yeah, I could just write all day. That push gave me that one-track mind to finish an album, which is good. I’m glad I did it.”
The ease in which the songs were written varied as much as the end results sounded. “Easy is a tough word because some songs sneeze out, metaphorically speaking. They just happen,” like ‘Impossible Year’ which was written in the moment where “everything comes to a head and seems all too overwhelming. Others, I definitely had to work for. I had an idea for ‘The Good, The Bad and The Dirty’ but I didn’t have it fully formed. I knew I wanted to go in a certain direction but then you really work on it and there are times where you start to doubt yourself.” Falling into the five-point cycle that takes in “hating yourself and wanting to quit,” before ending back at the excited origins, Brendon spent a lot of time thinking about what to add to certain songs “because they didn’t feel formed yet.”
Breaking the cycle with forward movement Brendon, in his studio at home, kept himself busy. As well as playing every instrument on the record (with the exception of some brass) he provided his own backing vocals. “I’d stack myself like thirty times and just build this wall of vocal harmonies. I’d sing like an operatic woman or something more gospely and I’d just try and change the characters so I sounded like different people backing myself up.” It’s a trick he learnt from Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Brendon also helped produce the record, which is something he was constantly chipping away at. “I was producing tracks the whole time. If I was getting frustrated with a song, I’d move over to the next one. I was just doing that the whole time to keep it exciting.” The space and the energy translates to the album’s drive.
As with the previous album, 2013’s ‘Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die’, Brendon wrote around 15 songs before narrowing it down to the 11 or 12 that made the album. “Everything was so different, I wanted to spend more time on each song to see if I could take it any further.” That attention resulted in some cool stuff like “a weird bridge that sounds like an evil Queen opera,” which we wouldn’t have any other way.
While the attention was the same, ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ differed from ‘Too Weird…’ because there was no arching theme going in. “I knew the things I wanted to talk about lyrically but the whole vision of the album didn’t come into place until everything was written.” Taking a step back, Brendon could see how the record fit together and could christen it. “I wanted to call it ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ because, not only was that my favourite song on the record but I felt it tied in all the things I was talking about. All the themes fell into that category and it was exactly what I wanted to get across.”
‘Too Weird..’ sees Brendon playing a larger than life caricature of himself but this record, “is more me,” he offers. It’s that snapshot of reality that gives ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ its conversational charm. “Everything is based off of something I’ve gone through or was going through at the time. There’s a song called ‘Don’t Threaten Me With A Good Time’ and it’s half true, half embellishment. A lot of it really happened at parties I threw or went to but then the rest is stuff I just wish had happened.” Swapping the sunglasses for rose-tints, “it got so crazy that this happened.”
That romanticised look back adorns the cover of the record. Taking cues from ‘Don’t Threaten Me…’ it sees Brendon “on my roof, passed out which is just perfect. It’s how I spent most of my time writing. That is my backyard and that is the roof of my studio. I’d be up on the roof all the time, always flipping off the roof into the pool and we had a couple of nights, after parties for whatever reason, where you pass out. You’re just there and you wake up like, ‘what the fuck?’”
Working with illustrator Nicole Guice, the album cover takes a photo shot by Zack Hall (the band’s long time associate and the co-star of Brendon Urie’s Periscope account) and embellishes it. “I could set myself up in the pool and it doesn’t look as crazy but I imagine all these things happening, there’s a car in the pool, there’s all this crazy stuff happening.” Rooted in reality but nipped and tucked to make a more compelling story. “That aesthetic just fit the title of the record and the feel of every one of the songs, which is so tough. I hate having to do that. It’s the hardest thing trying to label something and give it just one aesthetic,” he explains, inadvertently looking at his chameleon career at the same time as the record’s cover. Once discovered though, “it becomes more fun, you can build around it.”
Despite the gradually depleting band roster and an ever-changing sound, Panic! At The Disco have continued to build. The band have remained relevant, and people, whether you look at social media #buzz, the amount of copies the record shifted in both the UK and the US to give them career highs or the animated chatter of fans ahead of an album playback later tonight, are still excited to see what Panic! At The Disco can do. Not that Brendon is entirely sure why.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” he admits. “I would like to think I’m doing something great that touches deep inside, that people can relate to but who knows. I like stuff for different reasons. I hope that people relate to it because I’m talking about stuff that’s honest, very true to me and it makes me feel better if people relate to it. It makes me feel not so alone in feeling this way, which is good.”
There’s also the hope that the record is “something new entirely. That’s really what I push for when I’m writing. I’m trying to make myself do something I haven’t before. If people get any inkling of a new form of what Panic! At The Disco is or means to them, then I think I’ve done a good job. People don’t want to hear tired music, that’s for sure.”
For all the triumphs and ideal parties, ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ is a love letter to being young and reckless while having absolutely no regrets about who you are now. It’s an ode to change.
“I wanted to put aside the past because I felt like a different person, I felt like a better person. I’d moved ahead in such a light, that I was able to think about the past fondly instead of being trapped in it still. I was able to look back on memories and think about who I used to be.” For four albums, Panic! At The Disco have been offering up a desire to escape. ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ sees them content with where they are. “I’m more excited for who I am now so I’m able to kill off the bachelor past of me, which is awesome. It’s been this crazy journey that I’m way more grateful of now. I’m way more appreciative of where I’m at because of where I’ve been.”
“It’s more of a solo project than people realise, I think,” ventures Brendon of his role as Last Man Standing. “But only because it’s happened over time. Couple of guys left, I took the reins. Another buddy left, I took more of a lead and now it’s just me. I get to do whatever the hell I want, which is just awesome. As opposed to sitting down with three other people and writing an album where you compromise and argue, now I’m able to write and nobody pushes me in a certain way or makes me do a certain thing if I don’t want to do it. I have full carte blanche. No rules. I get to do whatever I want, which is great.”
“Where it’s ended up, I feel more comfortable,” Brendon says explaining why, from here on out, Panic! will always be just him. “It just happened over time. It was never a preconceived notion or forethought but I’m so happy with where it is now and I want to continue doing it. It’s so different and it’s changed so much. I love that.”
As Brendon gets more comfortable in Panic! At The Disco, the strive to break new ground becomes, “less of a conscious thing. I put more thought into it early on when the band started to change. The changes from the first album to the third album were more of a conscious thing but now, it just happens. My ideas change with how I want to write.”
There are still boundaries to the writing though. If a song starts sounding like it could fit on a previous record, Brendon tries to push it into a “different light to make it exciting and new” but if that fails, it goes in the vault to never see the light of day. “Luckily the vault isn’t that big,” he offers, reassuring and relived. “There are a few songs in there. They may not sound like anything I’ve done before but if I feel it’s hitting the same mark I’ve hit in the past, I just leave it. You have to leave ideas sometimes. Not everything is good.”
Each one of Panic! At The Disco’s albums has come with its own accompanying image and adds to the band’s narrative. Their history is diverse and celebrated and sometimes those expectations do play a factor in the creative process. “You have to have faith that someone is going to grab on and like it. That’s a scary thing. The first time that happened was the second album, we just flew off the deep end. Everything we wanted to do was everything people didn’t want us to do. We were being pushed in such a direction we were like ‘fuck you guys, we’re doing a Beatles record. We’re going to go to a cabin in the woods to smoke weed and see what happens’ but yeah, the drive behind it was very real.”
‘Pretty. Odd.’ is still one of Brendon’s favourite Panic! albums. “I wanted to do something different too, we all did. That’s always been the case but you’ve got to hope. I’m going down this rabbit hole and I’m hoping you guys follow me into this weird style because it’s nothing like what I did before,” he offers, referencing David Byrne. “You just have to have faith that, as excited as you are with your stuff, that other people will be get that excited too.”
“I actually had that thought a couple of albums ago,” answers Brendon when asked if, with all the ground he’s covering, he’s running out of rabbit holes. “I wonder if I have enough room to move around musically,” he ponders. It doesn’t last long. “The way that music is evolving nowadays, there’s more inspiration, there’s more space to move and there’s more places to go with it. I’m glad that music is evolving and bands are pushing themselves to do great art. Artists are breathing and creating, which is great because it means I have more room.”
As Panic! expands, Brendon finds more and more doors opening up. ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ is indebted to Queen, the Beach Boys, The B-52s and Frank Sinatra but there are also launch pads from Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. The idea that people could get into these artists from these references is a prospect that excites Brendon, “I would really love that.”
From the 808 beat of the title track to the bragging strut of ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, Panic! is cutting the old with the new. “I wanted to do that arrogant thing. The chorus of ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ is ‘I’m taking back the crown’ and I love that. That’s something I feel is missing from a lot of bands that I really like. For whatever reason, rock is so different to hip hop in that regard. Hip hop is the biggest hype man for himself saying ‘I’m the shit, look at me, I’m flashy and I own all of you’. It’s crazy and I wanted to bring that back into the rock world. You know who does that pretty well? Pete [Wentz] from Fall Out Boy, he’s the best hype man.”
“The term rock star is so funny to me,” Brendon continues. “There are some rock stars about today, sure. Kanye West is a rock star. He’s just crazy but there are a few in the past that were so legendary, it’s fun to do that in songs. I’m so not that person in real life, I don’t think, so being able to play that character frees me up to do that. I could never be that guy in real life; it’s just not me. It’s not authentic but to do it in song form, it’s way easier. I like telling the stories, I like playing the characters, and having that arrogance is, it’s almost like I’m able to hide behind it.”
“As a kid, I loved the spotlight,” he continues. “The older I get, the more conscious I am of what I do in the spotlight but as a kid, I was rambunctious, man. When I was a kid I didn’t care. I wanted the attention. I wanted everyone to watch me. I wasn’t doing anything in particular that was great but I wanted people to watch me all the time. I think that’s a sign of the times today,” offers Brendon, talking about the internet’s global and ready-made audience. “There are so many people who do what they do, put a video on the internet and somebody is going to like it. It’s a little bit more easily accessible but yeah, I like being in the spotlight. I like having that freedom to play characters in songs, for a live show or for a magazine.”
No matter which character Brendon is playing, the decadence, the lust and the sexuality of Panic!’s music never comes close to crossing a line. There’s a respect for his position and the audience. “There are moments on this album where there are some crude lyrics but it’s never trying to be crass or any of that stuff. That’s never where the writing comes from. It’s not trying to make people feel wrong or feel dirty, it’s trying to be fun. I’m going to be who I am,” he starts. “I don’t like necessarily calling myself a role model but I do have young fans and those younger kids haven’t experienced some of the things I’m talking about. To put it into a light where it isn’t so off-putting is probably a good idea,” he explains, offering discovery and self-acceptance in song.
It’s an idea that sparked ‘Girls/Girls/Boys’, a track about sexual fluidity and not needing to put a label on things, which unintentionally started a wider dialogue. Despite not putting himself forward as a role model, Brendon didn’t back away from the narrative around sexuality. “I didn’t anticipate that happening when I was writing that song. I guess I should have but I never think about that stuff because I don’t want that to dictate what I write. I never try and start a social commentary but that was really cool. The fact that it got recognised as I wanted it to was pretty great because that’s something I firmly, firmly believe in. I was excited with the reaction that it got. It made me hopeful for the future. You never know what’ll happen when you put something out like that, that’s talking about such a big issue.”
The track started, “just talking about personal experiences, three-ways and stuff. Then I thought about it and it really is the end all message that love is not a choice. It’s true. You never choose if you’re gay or straight or whatever.” Despite this leading to personal question somewhat missing the point, “A lot of times in interviews, they’ll ask ‘well, what do you label yourself as? Are you gay, are you straight, are you bi?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t care. I just don’t care. I like girls, some guys are hot’.”
Brendon is proud of who he is, offstage and on. “I do this thing called Periscope and I’m smoking weed on there, I’m showing exactly who I am. I never want to lie like I’m playing this person, that’s what the songs are for. I get to play characters and that stuff but who I am, is who I am. I’m not going to change that because someone wants me to be more PC. I’m going to speak my mind and I’m going to talk about things that I need to talk about. I am who I am and, I’m never trying to offend people, that’s never my goal, but if I do I don’t want to apologise for being myself.”
“I never do [think about my influence], but I do think about what I do. It’s never ‘oh fuck this. I’m a nihilist; I don’t care’, because I do. I put thought into what I do and I don’t try and offend people but it’s going to happen. Not everyone is going to agree with what I’m saying but I think that’s exciting.”
Brendon might not ponder the effect he has on others but he knows just how much other people have helped him shape ‘Death Of A Bachelor’. “I could have called this album ‘Conversations With Friends’,” he offers – before rejecting the idea because it sounds like a coffee shop album. “That’s really what it was. I just talked with my buddies at the time about what they were thinking or what they were interested in and organically ideas happened.” ‘LA Devotee’, originally conceived as a ‘Dancing In The Dark’, Bruce Springsteen-esque number, evolved into a love letter to LA thanks to conversations with Morgan Kibby from M83/White Sea.
Jake Sinclair, the producer for the bulk of the record, also helped. “When you just get along with someone, the ideas flow a little easier. I want someone I’m comfortable with but someone who can drive me to do what I wouldn’t normally want to do. You’re different when you’re around your friends as opposed to when you’re home alone.” It’s that partnership with Jake that also led to a few other layers to the record. The dark chant of ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ is actually a warped vocal line chanting, “double, double, double, down. Pushing it all down”, while ‘Victorious’ saw Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo lend a hand. The track was pretty much finished but one part still didn’t feel right and Brendon was getting “so frustrated”. While working on it, Jake, who was also working with Weezer, took a call from Rivers during which Brendon just kept playing the song over and over. Rivers, hearing it in the background, asked what it was. “We told him and he was like ‘I think I have an idea for that, if you guys want it?’ It just sorta happened. He threw it out and it was awesome. I was sitting on it for so long, I felt stuck and dude, to have Rivers do that, that’s the coolest thing.”
It’s not the first time working with Rivers has helped though. After Panic! split in two at the end of the ‘Pretty.Odd.’ cycle, Brendon and Spencer Smith, the band’s former drummer, went to their first ever writing session with Rivers. “I was blown away and we wrote this song, ‘Freckles’. I didn’t want it because it didn’t sound like a Panic! song and he thought about using it, but he didn’t know if it sounded like a Weezer song. It was so different but that was just such a cool experience because he just wanted to write too.” The pair have kept in touch ever since. That session also gave Brendon the push to take over songwriting duties without outside help and we all know how that turned out. That journey gives ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ an extra reflection. “I learnt to drum and play guitar to the Blue Album and now I get to hang out with Rivers Cuomo,” laughs Brendon. “That’s crazy dude, that’s so crazy.”
Despite the many names mentioned on ‘Death Of A Bachelor’, the album is pure Brendon. It’s his vision and his triumph. Across the record, there’s a sense of liberation and that’s only going to continue. Whether it’s a note on his phone, a voice memo or a brand new beat, Brendon Urie creates something everyday.
“I do something that inspires because if I let too much time go by, I think I lose that,” he offers. “I feel like I hit a stride as a songwriter but I don’t feel content as a songwriter. I still want to push myself. I don’t feel like I’ve written my opus, that one song where I’m like ‘oh, I could play that at my funeral’. I still want to write that song. Wanting to write the best song I’ve ever written, that drives me a lot. I don’t think I have yet. I think I’ve written some really great songs and this is my best album yet, I think, but I still want to write that one song that is how I define myself,“ he ventures before referencing Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. “He has a million songs that define him but if I had one, that would be amazing.”
Brendon Urie might be dreaming of writing a song as timeless as ‘My Way’ but he certainly lives by the song’s closing message. “To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels, the record shows I took the blows and did it my way.”
“I’m always trying to beat what I’ve done before as a writer but now I’m trying to excel as a producer and a songwriter,” he starts. “I want to get better and better but there’s still competition. I hear stuff on the radio and if it’s good, I’m like ‘wow’, I want to do something that makes me feel how I felt listening to that song, I want to represent my band in the same way. There are definitely artists who do that, Kanye is a really good example, he puts something out and I’m in love with it already.” He also lists Tame Impala, Twenty One Pilots, X Ambassadors and Kendrick. “I want to have the same effect on someone,” he offers, dreaming of inspiring an artistic reaction. “That would be great, it would be amazing.”
Brendon hopes Panic! will never end. “I love the idea of this band which is why I never, ever questioned keeping the name or going solo with my own name because it’s given me a catalyst for whatever I want to do from the get go.” After talking about The Rolling Stones still going strong at their age, Brendon continues. “I would love to be able to do that at that point, but who knows. It’s evolved over time but I’m hoping to keep on doing it.”
“I would love to take it into different places,” he offers of his future. “Maybe write a movie surrounding an album or a Broadway play, that would be really cool. There’s stuff I’m sure I haven’t even heard, that’s yet to be created by someone, that I would love to fall in line with but who knows. There are still so many songs I want to write. Like I said, I still haven’t written the one that defines Panic! so maybe that’ll be the goal to keep in mind.”
For a large chunk of Panic! At The Disco’s history, the success of ‘Fever’ and the generation-shaping anthem of ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’ looked set to define the band. There’s still a shadow but over the past two albums the band have moved beyond it.
“When I go out and get recognised, half the time people don’t know my name but they’re like, ‘oh you’re the Panic guy, you’re the goddamn door guy’. They know that song which is awesome and there’s no animosity there. It’s crazy that people know that and it’s gotten me here. I owe a lot to the first album. I don’t necessarily compare this record to it, but I do relate ‘Death Of A Bachelor’ to it because, as excited as I was for the first album, that’s how excited I was writing this album. I was the same wide-eyed kid saying ‘Oh my God, this is awesome. I’m so excited about this’. The last time I felt this excited was that first album.”
After a decade of moving forward, Brendon Urie is at a point in his life where he can look back fondly and not worry about single moments The ten-year anniversary of their debut saw Brendon “spend September 22nd listening to ‘Fever’ front to back and just being like ‘Wow, this kid cannot sing’. I just sat there and remembered where I was and what had happened in my life up to that point to influence all that stuff, and it was cool. It was a nice little trip down memory lane.”
While the upcoming tours are going to include a mix of all five albums, Panic! aren’t relying on nostalgia. “This is my best album and I’m excited to show it off,” and with their schedule filling up fast, there’ll be plenty of opportunities. “Once I’ve expired all the ideas for an album, I’m just waiting around for the live show. All I want to do once the album’s out is see the faces, hear the lyrics sung back to me and elicit some sort of reaction out of people.”
Ten years on from a debut album that changed everything, Panic! At The Disco still approach their music with dizzying excitement and a “let’s just do whatever the fuck” mentality. They may have grown as artists and people but that wide-eyed adoration hasn’t changed. Artists now surround the band on a global scale but Brendon Urie remains firm. We don’t want to sound like these guys.