Brendon Urie breaks down Panic! At The Disco’s ‘Pray For The Wicked’ era
The interview first appeared in AltPress issue 359.June 22, 2021
Featured in the June 2018 issue (359), Brendon Urie went on a deep dive into Panic! At The Disco’s sixth studio album. Ahead of the release of ‘Pray For The Wicked’, Urie spoke with Evan Lucy and was shot by Jonathan Weiner for the cover of Alternative Press. To celebrate the three-year anniversary of ‘Pray For The Wicked,’ we’ve dug up the cover interview with Urie. The content has been modified and adjusted to meet the standards of Alternative Press’ digital platform.
Summer 2017 was the weirdest of Brendon Urie’s life. Eight times a week from late May to early August, the Panic! At The Disco frontman walked out onto the stage at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, nestled in the heart of Manhattan, to thunderous applause as Charlie Price in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots.
To see Urie in Kinky Boots was a transcendent experience, not just because of how masterfully the man who’s able to command Madison Square Garden with ease adopted Charlie’s bumbling demeanor or how he brought the house down with songs including the goosebump-inducing “Soul Of A Man.” His starring role was an intimate, vulnerable performance from one of the biggest pop stars in music, the kind of billing that drew Panic! fans from around the world to New York so they could say they actually saw what many others will one day lie about.
“It’s a completely different world in terms of performance,” Urie says from his Los Angeles home studio, Urielectric, in mid-April, days before he’d get the news that he’d been nominated for a Tony Award for his musical contribution to SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical. “Song-wise, the performance is so different. I’m used to people yelling songs back to me, sometimes louder than the PA. I got so comfortable with that, and it was so healthy to jump into this world where you stomp your foot down and hit a note—and hopefully you hit the note because no one else is helping you. That threw me off a little bit. And then becoming that character, I actually started losing some confidence. I was becoming too much of this timid English guy. [Laughs.] Luckily by the end [of the show], I was rejoicing and dancing in heels. The show ended with how I’d want to end it, which was beautiful.”
Much like touring, life on Broadway can be, especially from the outside, unassumingly brutal. The highs are certainly high (look no further than the million-dollar smile Urie would beam during the show-closing “Raise You Up/Just Be”), but after the din of the curtain call fades and the crowds head home, there’s yet another show tomorrow—sometimes two of them.
Over big band swing and a sample of Maynard Ferguson’s “Latino Lovewalk,” Urie unfolds all the conflicting emotions that followed his thespian turn on “Roaring 20s,” a standout track from Panic!’s sixth studio album, Pray For The Wicked: elation, inadequacy and an overwhelming sense of California dreaming (“Roll me like a blunt/’Cause I wanna go home”). They’re all there, proof that no matter how successful you might become, sometimes the grass is always greener on the other side of the concrete jungle.
“I was sequestered in Cape Cod spewing ideas,” songwriter Sam Hollander recalls, who collaborated with Urie on a handful of Death Of A Bachelor tracks and played a large role in the writing of the majority of Pray For The Wicked, including “Roaring 20s.” “I drove down to the city to catch Brendon in Kinky Boots. This kid is so incredible on so many levels—talk about such a rare talent. He’s so comfortable in his own skin on that stage, and I began to envision how surreal his life had become at this point. There’s so many levels to this kid, but I was thinking how all this insanity is just battering his psyche.”
That internal conflict is what makes Pray For The Wicked such a captivating listen. Whereas Death Of A Bachelor largely celebrated the “and”—a kitchen-sink mentality that embraced excess, both lyrically and musically—Urie’s new album has learned to live with the “but.” Hollander talks about the set as an album that leans on fantasy and absurdity in an attempt to counterbalance the head-spinning cultural zeitgeist of the 21st century.
Given Panic!’s penchant for torching their sound in favor of a bold, new musical direction with every new album, Pray For The Wicked is an outlier in that it’s not a full-scale reinvention from the boisterous stadium pop of Death Of A Bachelor. Rather, it subverts expectations by being a calibration of that sound, as it sprinkles more than a dash of Urie’s trademark musical weirdness atop a Top 40 template destined for massive commercial success. It’s still bursting with nervous musical energy, but the songs on Pray For The Wicked are tempered with a sense of grounding the singer has never before tapped into. It’s his most emotionally resonant album yet.
The first single, “Say Amen (Saturday Night),” juxtaposes deeply ingrained ties to his Mormon upbringing with his present-day nonbelief, while the club anthem “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” (a collaboration with Dillon Francis) on the surface channels many of the same my-time-has-come emotions he previously mined on songs such as “Emperor’s New Clothes” or “Victorious.” But when lines such as “In the garden of evil, I’m gonna be the greatest” are undercut with more melancholy, affecting honesty (“I’m a hooker selling songs/And my pimp’s a record label”), you’re not sure whether that champagne in front of you from the club’s bottle service is half empty or full.
“The storytelling is a lot more matter of fact,” Urie says of Wicked’s songs. “‘Hey Look Ma’ is like, ‘I made it, but at what price?’ At the end of the day, am I the character people see me as? How far will I let people carry that? How long will I let myself believe that?”
After his final bows on Broadway, Urie hung up his boots and headed back home for some hard-earned vacation. But once he arrived in Los Angeles, taking it easy quickly became pretty difficult. “I thought I was going to [take a vacation],” he says with a laugh. “That was my whole plan: When I got back from New York, I was ready to take the rest of the year off. But no one was really forcing me to do anything. Maybe that was my problem: I got in my own head and reverse psychology-ied myself.”
So instead of a white sand beach, he was back in the studio just weeks after leaving New York. He invited over friends such as Hollander, Bachelor producer Jake Sinclair (who returned to helm this project), White Sea’s Morgan Kibby, Suzy Shinn (responsible for all those gloriously weird vocal samples you hear) and Panic! touring guitarist Kenny Harris (who nabbed his first Panic! writing credits on four songs here) to replicate the hangouts-turned-writing sessions that spawned much of Death Of A Bachelor’s best material.
They were occasionally zany, like the one responsible for the Carl Sagan name-checking stoner anthem “King Of The Clouds”: “They came over one day, and I think I got everyone too high,” Urie admits. “There was a big lull, a pregnant silence, and I was like, ‘Hey, do you guys know about the 11th dimension?’ [Laughs.] I went into this whole thing about being in the third dimension peering in on the second dimension, the fourth dimension looking in on the third…and showed them this Carl Sagan video. [Sam left], and I didn’t see him for like five days. Finally, he comes back over and says, ‘All right, I’ve got some lyrics for you.’ I was like, ‘Dude, you talked about our weed mental breakdown. That’s awesome!’”
But the sessions were also an outlet for catharsis, like the album closer, “Dying In LA,” perhaps the most stunning song of Urie’s career. Unlike “LA Devotee” (which the singer has dubbed a love letter to the city he now calls home), the sparse piano ballad is overflowing with despondency, ripping the curtain back from show biz’s promise of stardom and limitless potential to reveal an underbelly ready to cast away those who are no longer the hot new thing. Kibby, who once performed with synth-pop group M83, played a critical role in the song’s creation, as she, like Urie, has been strapped into the industry Tilt-A-Whirl over the course of her career. Together, the pair (along with Sinclair and songwriter Mike Viola) transformed their shared struggle into breathtaking musical heartbreak—with a gorgeous vocal performance from Urie as the song’s crowning jewel.
“L.A. is the metaphor used for the industry, or just glitz and glamour, I guess,” he explains. “They’re not necessarily the same thing. I wasn’t seeking fame and fortune; I just wanted to be in a band and tour. I moved here, and everyone was like, ‘Oh, you’re going to love it.’ You start to wipe away the varnish, and it can be heartbreaking. There’s definitely a smack to your face of reality, especially when you’ve been doing it as long as I have. How can there not be? But I just can’t not appreciate it. I love where I’m at, and I love everything about it. I will continue to combat the things that have made me unhappy in the past and persevere through them.
“I’ve had my fair share of bullshit handed to me. And I’ve met and worked with a lot of bullshit people. Everyone has something to persevere through, and I am no different. No one is ever guaranteed an amelioration from lame shit.”
Urie’s complex relationship with Los Angeles (at least as a concept) was only amplified [in] October 2018 when 58 people were murdered and hundreds more were injured after a gunman opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip. It devastated the city and nation, and hit Urie—a supremely proud Vegas native—especially hard.
“I woke up, heard the news and immediately ran to the studio and started to cry,” he says. “I was in here in the dark walking around, feeling so many emotions. I started making a beat for a song that may or may not be released in the future, but it led me to writing ‘Dying In LA.’ I was writing that with Morgan and thinking about that the whole time: I’m here; they’re there. I feel so much affinity for Las Vegas, and it felt like a personal attack on me. That was me being selfish emotionally and feeding off that energy, but it led to something so beautiful that ended up on the album.”
In terms of career trajectory, Urie’s golden goose doesn’t appear to be close to laying its last egg anytime soon: He’s on a collision course for a dogfight with 5 Seconds Of Summer to take the top spot on the Billboard chart first week, and tickets for Panic!’s summer tour are already selling out across the country. But instead of letting box office receipts and chart position numbers determine his self-worth, he’s started using other metrics to gauge success—namely his fans and how they’ve been moved by his art.
He’s overwhelmingly proud of the next generation of America’s youth and honored to play some role in helping them figure out their place in this messy world. In a way, his fans’ receptiveness and reverent appreciation for his strong social stances have emboldened him to continue using his voice to amplify the ideals he carries.
At Stay Amped: A Concert To End Gun Violence, held the night before the March For Our Lives in Washington, D.C., a video message of support from Urie drew one of the night’s loudest roars from the mostly high school-aged crowd. A group of enterprising fans set up a fundraiser for his recent 31st birthday, collecting donations for the Human Rights Campaign, a cause he staunchly supports. And every night since the Death Of A Bachelor tour, he’s seen thousands of colored paper hearts, hand-cut by dedicated fans, shining brightly in the audience during “Girls/Girls/Boys.” Before the song, he launches into an impassioned speech about the importance of equality and pure love. It’s become a nightly part of the set and transformed the 2013 single into an LGBTQIA+ pride anthem.
“Seeing all these hearts fly up during a song I wrote about a sexual, personal experience that turned it into something else… They made it into something way cooler,” he gushes. “It started as a song about something that was so frivolous—not necessarily dirty or dark but very personal—and didn’t have a political connotation to it. To empower people to feel that way? It changed the meaning entirely for the better, and I was so happy to see that happen. It’s so beautiful. I hope there is some reciprocity [between me and my fans]. I don’t want to always put it on them, like their only call to arms is to be there when I fall. I want to be there when they fall. That’s why I’m an artist: I want to be there for the people who want to be impressed upon by art. I never want to feel like I’m draining them like a vampire.”
As his audience has inspired him, his stance as a powerful ally for social causes has seen itself reflected back in popular media, most notably the recent coming-of-age dramedy Love, Simon, where he’s referred to as a combination of “Jesus and chocolate” by one character and ultimately plays an important role in helping Simon realize his sexual identity. The film moved him to tears. “I was so flattered to see my likeness in there, but I was just thinking about Simon’s character,” he says. “It’s so much bigger than me. It makes me happy to be part of someone else’s inspiration.
“I’m always excited when I hear that someone is using my art to make a change. Isn’t that the best possible outcome someone can hope for? Someone changes the world because they were inspired by something I just love to do? That’s so beautiful.”