(Photo: Shane Valdez)
On March 29, PANIC! AT THE DISCO will be releasing their first album in three years, Vices & Virtues, their first full-length since guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker left the group in mid-2009 to form the Young Veins. Panic!’s remaining core members—vocalist /guitarist BRENDON URIE and drummer Spencer Smith—worked with producers Butch Walker and John Feldmann to help craft the duo’s musical intentions. In this interview, Urie describes the new album as “pretty diverse,” talks about his role in writing lyrics, and the state of Panic! sans Ross and Walker.
When all was said and done, how long did it take you guys to make Vices & Virtues?
BRENDON URIE:We started about two years ago. It was quite a little bit longer than we anticipated. We started with a few demos that we had before the band split. We worked with these ideas, and that went on for a few months. We just didn’t feel right; t didn’t feel right for us, we weren’t as excited. So we just kept going and kept working, and finally we found a batch of songs out of the 30 we had written that we loved. We said, “Yeah, this feels right, let’s put this record out.”
You’re going to be playing and singing those songs. If you don’t like them, that’s a problem.
[Laughs.] That’s a huge problem. If we weren’t happy with the record, it would be a very mundane and probably dreary touring process. We’d be very bummed. It’s important that we love the songs that we’re playing, because we’re going to be playing them quite a bit.
Regarding the ones that made the cut, how did they stand out as, “Hey, yeah, this is what we want to do”?
I think we felt that we had really focused our talents and really improved on our writing process and our abilities. It took a little bit of getting out of our shell, which was a slow process in the beginning. We had written some demos, and we said, “Yeah, these are good, but it’s not making me jump out of my seat, like, wanting to go play them live.” So we finally got a batch of songs and we said, “Yeah, these are cool, these are some songs that don’t sound like stuff that we’ve done, there’s songs that are similar in the energy of stuff that we’ve done.”
What was the biggest difference writing these songs with just you and Spencer contributing ideas?
Right there, I guess [that question] kind of answers itself. On our first two records, we wrote as four members all together who shared ideas, wrote lyrics and wrote music together. Writing with four people, you [never] had to concentrate all your time on one song. You could just work on a part one time and somebody else would fill in the other parts. You didn’t really have to focus all your energy on one song and lose your mind. This time around, it was just Spencer and I, so we had two less opinions to work with. We really had to be sure and confident with what we wanted, and that took a little bit getting into. But toward the end, we definitely found our sound and we were just super-excited for it.
Was it more pressure just having the two of you?
I don’t know if we really felt pressured. I’ll definitely say we felt confused, especially right after the split. We weren’t really sure how to go about it, what we were going to do. We thought, “Okay, well, how should we continue this?” We wanted to keep touring, we wanted to keep going, but we didn’t have any songs—we didn’t have a direction yet. That took a little bit of time to figure out, and I’m glad that it did. Because we ended up working really hard and finally got the songs we were excited about. It took a little bit of time, but I’m glad that it did; it was very therapeutic.
You could liken it to a baseball team, when someone’s traded. The chemistry of the team changes, so it takes a little bit for everyone to find their feet again. That’s what I think of when the same thing happens with bands. It’s not always instant.
That’s a very fair analogy, I agree: It’s not easy to switch the line-up and think, “Okay, well, we have to work differently now. Let’s get the plans out, how are we going to do this” and work up new blueprints for everything. I’m just really confident with these songs, and I think it’s going to be great.
Everybody wants to know, then: What does the music sound like?
I guess we can lend it to the amount of time that it took, but I think every song on this record sounds different from the next one. It’s very spontaneous, and there’s a variety of different styles. We missed a couple things from our first record in terms of sonically, with these little instruments that we hadn’t really used on our second record. There [were] a lot of organic instruments and not a lot of electronics or synthesizers. So we wanted to get back to some of that—and that was a blast, just learning these synthesizers and learning the keyboards and figuring out why this sound does this. It was kind of just like music nerd school, which was awesome. We got to nerd out for little bits and have a great time doing it. It really lends itself to a lot of different styles and a lot of spontaneous moments. I think it’s pretty diverse, it’s safe to say.
In the beginning, we didn’t really have a direction, so I don’t think that we had planned or anticipated on songs being that different from each other. It just happens naturally. And I think that is a good thing. It kind of surprised us at the end when we picked our songs, we said, “Wow, how is this gonna sit on an album together?” It took a little bit of time finding out if that was the sound we wanted to go for, for each song respectively.
“The Ballad of Mona Lisa” has the upbeat pop energy of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, with the focus and clarity of Pretty. Odd. Is that fair to say?
Thank you! I take that as a great compliment. That’s something we definitely wanted to kind of get back to, an energy—like I said before, just the energy that we had on the first record. We were really excited, we didn’t know what to expect. It was like a fresh start. This record is that—it was just a fresh start again. It was our second chance, here we go, we’re just starting from scratch, back to square one, let’s do it.
How did working with Butch Walker and John Feldmann help you two shape the music?
I think in the beginning, Spencer and I were pretty nervous to be working with other people, because we’ve always kept to ourselves as a band and worked with ourselves, and just gone into the studio to record. John Feldmann and Butch Walker are amazing people. They are amazing musicians, they have a really great ear for music—and on top of that, they don’t ever make us feel forced, like they’re trying to push their ideas on us. Both of them kept saying to us, “Hey, this is your record, I want to help you with your ideas. So you bring me the ideas, and we’ll help you do that. I don’t want to write anything for you, this is your record, it has to be your voice.” That was really important. And their support was incredibly helpful for us.
Did you work with both of them at the same time, or was it separate sessions?
Separate sessions. We started working with John Feldmann about a year ago, and then we worked with him for about four months. Then we went over to Butch’s and kind of tidied up a few songs we had started with him a week before working with Feldmann. It was kind of mish-mashed together, but we worked with each producer separately and respectively, so that was really cool just to get into their world and to their studios and figure out how to deal with all this music just running around the room.
Lyrically, what did you guys come up with? Are there any themes on the album?
In the beginning [of the band], Ryan definitely had a big hand in writing most of the lyrics. We had only written a couple lines here and there, just to help out with ideas. This time around, I felt I had to step up and take the reins lyrically. It’s something I wasn’t very well practiced in, so I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to write about—what would interest me, what would be fun. So there are moments on the record—lyrical moments—where they’re very, very honest, very straightforward. And there are also songs that we’ve always loved doing, that are very storytelling and fantastical. It doesn’t limit itself to straightforward honesty. There are a lot of fun little lyrical moments. It’s fun for us to mess around with verbiage, I guess.
Having to do more writing, how did you prepare? Did you do anything?
Starting out, we didn’t really know where to go with the direction. I would stay home and I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to stay home and read and think about what I want to write about.” And that really didn’t help—the biggest help for us was going out and doing stuff and just keeping busy. [It] was really hard to get out of the habit [of locking ourselves in the house]. It took us feeling confident about the stuff we were talking about. I’ve been living with my girlfriend now for the past two years, and she’s wonderful—and that was something I wanted to sing about on the record. She’s definitely a key point, a romantic key point, on the record, which only takes up a couple songs, but it was very special and important to me to do that.
I would imagine that would be really, really hard. Those are songs you want to make sure you get right.
Totally. We were so self-conscious about everything, hyper-aware of what we’re doing, that when we’re writing I go, “Okay, I don’t want this to be Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy,’ but I want it to be as romantic and cute…’ There’s a lot of that fighting within yourself. But it ended up being great, and I’m glad that we were able to figure out what we wanted to write about. It’s what we’ve been going through—metaphors for everyday stuff that we’ve done.