Brendon Urie and Panic! at the Disco’s cool, calm, reinvention


Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie. (Alex R. Kirzhner)

At age 26, Panic! at the Disco frontman Brendon Urie is intimately aware of the highs and lows of being in one of the decade’s most memorable rock acts. In a handful of years, his band sold millions of albums, traveled the world and publicly combusted.

The Las Vegas quartet’s success was swift and MTV-fueled. Its over-the-top costumes and sweaty shows, wordy dissections of teenage angst and perfectly shaggy coifs made the teenaged pop-punkers the darlings of the mid-2000s.

But in 2009, only four years after Panic’s debut, lead singer Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker left the band over musical differences. And last summer, founding drummer Spencer Smith told fans on the band’s blog that he was taking time off to conquer drug dependencies.

Urie is Panic’s last man standing. It might not be a role he fell into willingly, but it’s one he seems reconciled to inhabit like a boss. He wrote much of Panic’s latest album, the glossy “Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!,” which was released on Atlantic in October. And this winter, he’s hitting the road with a new cast of bandmates, including Kenneth Harris on guitar and bassist Dallon Weekes, for a series of sold-out club dates, including one next week at the Fillmore.

Panic! at the Disco’s re-invention finds Urie — for one album, anyway — swapping out the band’s theatrical rock for bombastic electronica, with hints of MGMT’s blippy pop weirdness and Skrillex-esque big drops. “Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!,” which takes its name from the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” documents a homecoming for the singer, who left Las Vegas as a teenager and returned amid the band’s turmoil with a new outlook on the city’s crass appeal. The album favors sheen over substance, but then, so does Las Vegas.

Speaking by phone from Denver, where the band had a show last weekend, Urie talked about the album and what life is like fronting a whole new outfit.

When I listen to your albums, I feel as if they’re concept records. Listening now, it’s clear that you go in a different direction with each one.

This one was definitely based around Vegas. Every song was very honest and something that I went through. I think it was nice to be able to touch on growing up in Vegas. We were 17, 18. And we were really angry, to be honest. We couldn’t play venues. We wanted to get out and travel and tour and see the world, and we did, and it’s been amazing. I think that time was necessary to find that appreciation for Vegas. It’s not always the town that other people see it as, as tourists. It was pretty normal growing up. There’s something about it. I was getting pretty nostalgic about it, and I wanted to talk about things I experienced growing up.

What are some of the things you were hashing out with this record?

I’m a big fan of electronic dance music. I wanted to stop having such a hipster mentality toward writing. Before, I might have been like, “I like dance music, but I’m going to make something way more avant garde and way cooler that people won’t totally get into.” I don’t want to do that. I want to write something that celebrates life, that’s fun to listen to. I was listening to a lot of hip-hop and dance music, and I was trying to become a better producer. A lot of the instruments were just synthesizers. It was a lot of trial and error, but it was a fun time, just kind of writing at my house.

Was that a function of the band’s structure changing in the past few years?

Yeah, it’s crazy. When we started, we all wrote as a four-piece. By our second record [2008’s “Pretty. Odd.”] there was a little bit of animosity, honestly. We all wanted to go in different directions, and no one could really compromise. It was a turning point. We slowly began to realize, ”Okay, a couple of the guys are going to leave, and I don’t ever want to give this band up.” On the last record I stepped up; I wanted to become the songwriter for this band. I knew I had a vision for this record. I knew I had things to talk about. I wanted to make a party record that was just this celebration of the past and where we’d been. It felt really good. It was kind of therapeutic in a way.

Is being on the road a good thing for you? Other members of the band have struggled with it, but you seem like a born showman, with the costumes and the performance.

It brings me immense amounts of joy. I love performing for people. I love traveling, I love waking up in a new city every day. I love sleeping on a bus. I love being able to meet fans. To see fans singing your songs back to you is an indescribable thing.

How do you make your tour reflect Las Vegas and what you’re doing now, which is a lot more electronic?

A lot of what we have done, since the beginning of the band, is wear costumes. I like to dress up. I like to set a mood. When you go out to a formal dinner, you wear a suit or a dress — you dress for the occasion. We wear shiny, lounge-singer suits, and we’ve got video content that reflects the emotions that we feel for every song.

Honestly, one of the hardest things when you’re planning a tour is trying to figure out, “Okay, what songs do we play?” I like to keep the energy really high and have, like, one or two moments where it can drop down and you can have a somber, reverent moment. But really, it’s song, song, song back to back. It’s 85 minutes straight, and people are so tired by the end of it. We’re trying to play six or seven from our new album, out of 21 songs total.

When your fans see you on tour, do they miss Ryan and Spencer?

I never hear about them missing Ryan or Jon, but it’s been really nice to get support for Spence. I’ve seen fans showing their support and giving us cards that just say how much they really miss him. Once Ryan and Jon left, they knew they wanted to leave the band entirely, and they kind of had a clean break.

What’s next? You started at such a young age.

I want to do so many things. I love musical theater, I love Broadway. I’d love to get into that. I’m a huge film buff, I love cinematography, and we try to incorporate that into our videos. I don’t know what’s going to come up in the future.

Panic! at the disco

Appearing Tuesday at the Fillmore, 8656 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring.
301-960-9999. www.fillmoresilverspring.com Show is sold out.

The Download

For a sampling of Panic! at the Disco’s music, check out:

From “Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!”:Miss Jackson” “The End of All Things

From “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out”Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off

Lavanya Ramanathan is a professional eater/drinker/thinker for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. University of Texas. Northwestern University. Rap fan.
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