Summer’s halfway over, and what have you done with it? Z Berg and Ryan Ross are going to hang with their pals and change the music business. The multi-instrumentalist formerly of the Like and the founder of Panic! At The Disco and the Young Veins are looking to spend their late summer going on vacation with their buddies and disrupting everything about rock shows.
Introducing the Dead End Kids Club 1st Annual Fall Ball, where Berg and Ross enlist a bunch of their friends as both backing musicians and center-stage solo artists for a touring campaign aiming to be more than three bands and everybody looking like they just rolled out of bed. In addition to Berg and Ross’ solo moments, fans can check out sets from Dan Keyes (Recover, Young Love) and suave AF dance punks Palm Springsteen, fronted by Nick Hinman and featuring former Portugal. The Man multi-instrumentalist Noah Gersh (and Berg behind the synthesizer).
The Dead End Kids tour is an experiment on every level, from the performers to the music itself to the event aesthetics, all the way to how the tour is being booked. Prior to the tour’s launch in late September, fans of the performers are asked to register over at RoadNation, an online portal to assist artists in promotion and marketing, determining the routing of the tour. Places with the highest concentration of fans—both obvious and patently unlikely—have the ability to land on the Dead End Kids Club itinerary, from the biggest metropolis to the smallest town with the swankiest VFW hall.
At the center of the Club is Ross and Berg, whose dalliances have manifested themselves in everything from live gigs to holiday singles to romantic entanglements. In the interview, they conduct themselves in ways usually found in ’60s television couples, punctuating pithy and telling comments and playful quips with laughter that’s both boisterous (Berg) and subdued (Ross). (Seriously, this writer took out approximately 25 parenthetical laughter points in order to raise the available word count.)
The takeaway of this piece is very simple: Berg, Ross and associates are looking to bring some glamour and escapism to indie rock’s tired populist hegemony and are looking to do it with camaraderie (their besties), efficiency (via RoadNation) and the participation of all of their fans, who should show up at their prom-rock bacchanals in the appropriate attire. And now, forward into the past…
On the Dead End Kids Club press release you cite such classic-rock cavalcades as Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen as inspiration. References that only people over 50 would get.
RYAN ROSS: Pretty much everything we like is only what people over 50 like.
Z BERG: Ryan and I are like two 95-year-old people trapped in young people’s bodies. We have the taste of people who are already dead.
That’s the pull quote right there.
BERG: That’s what I’m here for.
I’m trying to think of a recent tour where musician friends in various permutations take turns behind the center-stage mic, pull from a vast catalog of songs and create that idea of the one-time event.
BERG: Those are the only references I could come up with when I was talking about this. This has its own spirit, and a huge part of that comes from the fact that we are all extremely close friends. As much as it is for people to come see the show, the concept of getting all of my best friends in a sprinter and driving across the country is an ideal scenario. We finally figured out how to get ourselves together.
ROSS: I’ve been wanting to do this for 10 years or something. We finally figured it out.
BERG: I’ve been doing these shows in L.A.—Z Berg And Friends—for about a year and change. I’ve spent my entire life at shows since I was 8 or 9. And I was at the point where I was like, “I don’t want to go see three bands play one after the other in a black box club.” I don’t want to fuckin’ do it anymore. I started to think about how to create something that was not just the show but an experience, something interactive and immersive. Ephemera that leaves the mark, essentially. You go home and feel like, in some small way, you’ve been changed.
So the shows range from five to 10 of my closest artist friends and forcing them to play a song after another, and then everyone backs me up at the last set. And I basically wrangled Ryan to be a part of this every single time, whether he says “yes” or not. [Ross laughs.] Each show has a theme, and it’s at an unconventional venue. The last show was prom-themed at an Italian men’s club from the ’60s called the Garibaldina Society where they never had a show before. Palm Springsteen played, Dan [Keyes] played, Ryan played and Wendy [Melvoin] and Lisa [Coleman from Prince And The Revolution] played. Gabe Saporta—who manages Palm Springsteen and had never heard my music or seen me play—came and said, “You guys have a thing with this friendship and this world. Let’s take this on the fuckin’ road.” I was very confused because Gabe Saporta was giving me an amazing idea. [Ross laughs.]
The poster of the musicians is styled like a next-gen iteration of the classic ’60s Rat Pack. The individual photos of the band members look like ’40s film stars, looking very cosmopolitan of a certain era. And you want people coming to the show to step up the game and be a part of this world.
BERG: At this last prom show, there were 100 girls in formal dresses waiting outside [the venue] at 7 a.m. This is so aesthetically spectacular, and it’s asking people to participate. It’s asking people to be part of the show instead of just watching it. It’s a wonderful group who like all of our music, and when they delve, they are all in.
So let’s ask people where they want us to tour instead of booking a tour in a bunch of cities that we don’t know anything about. Ask the fans where they want us. It’s as much about them as it is about us. Them dressing up and participating in these shows is what makes it so magical.
I don’t think you’d want to play to six people at the Bloody Duck in Crib Death, Iowa, on a Wednesday night.
BERG: You end up doing that so much…
ROSS: Did you just say “Crib Death, Iowa”? Z just said, “Yeah, I’ve played there. I’ve done that.” [Laughter.]
If you’re trying to create a sense of pageantry nightly, it would be hard to maintain your enthusiasm for it if you’re playing for six people and a handful of alcoholics at the end of the bar.
BERG: Trust me, I’ve done that many times in my life. There are 10 people on this tour. We are all each others’ band with the experience of us as a group of friends and musicians. We want it to feel like a prom. We want it to feel like homecoming. It’s not just going to watch a show. I have watched fans, peers and family members, every single person say [adopts sobbing tone], “I had a terrible prom.” Everyone wants a do-over. You get to do-over key moments in your youth that were invariably unsatisfying.
ROSS: Next year, we’re going to take on Easter, Christmas and bad birthdays. Everything’s a redo.
There’s a quote in the press release I want to dig into: “Some of us were in love; some of us were enemies. Now we’re all deeply close friends.” Who in the collective needed their ass kicked?
BERG: Noah from Palm Springsteen and I hated each other for a long time. [Laughs.] For literally no reason, but now he’s my best friend. Now we love each other to death. I’ve pretty much been in love with everyone else, so…
ROSS: You’ve told everyone else they’re in love with you at some point.
BERG: When I met Dan Keyes for the first time I said, “You’re in love with me.” And he’s like “Uh, Oooookaaaaay…”
Aren’t you two the torrid love interests, the whole pinion that holds this rack of rock together?
[brief silence followed by immense laughter]
BERG: Our love will never die.
ROSS: She’s always talking about the long game.
BERG: Years from now when Ryan and I are getting married at the Black Forest in Switzerland only accompanied by animals and ghosts, I’ll say, “See? I told you.”
You’ve both been in a couple of bands. What lessons have you learned then that you can apply to what you’re doing now?
BERG: Have you learned anything, Ryan?
ROSS: It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a tour. But I’m doing it with people I’ve never done it with. You take it for granted when you’re with the same people every day. This sounds a bit more exciting. Instead of it being about me, it’s about whatever band you’re in at the time. It’s all of us helping each other out.
BERG: Both of us have been in the situation where you’ve been on tour and you play the exact same set every night, over and over. This time, not only being in four different people’s bands, I want to write a song one morning and try it out that night. Make it a new experience every night so it doesn’t lose that feeling of spontaneity.
And to answer the question for Ryan, there was so much pageantry in that early Panic! stuff that you were so crazy about. “Yes, I want to spend a million dollars to make this a whole circus.” [Laughs.] That’s what a lot of people loved about Panic! and your vision in that sense. You went [to the show], and it was a new world. This is what we’re trying to do now. That’s why all the art and the posters feel like a different era. We wanted you to feel nostalgia for a time that never actually existed.
Do you have new music in the works?
ROSS: Her dad [Tony Berg] and I are co-producing some songs right now. I’m doing a cover of Johnny Thunders’ “Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory.” We should have some stuff completely done before the year.
BERG: Before the tour, we’re going to release a vinyl that has one song by each of the artists on it. That cover will be Ryan’s song on it, and an original Ryan Ross single will come out around the time of the tour. I have a finished record that will hopefully come out at some point this year.
Will you be pulling out some Like songs and early Panic! tracks on tour?
BERG: I’ve never been playing any of my old songs since I’ve been playing my solo stuff. Last time, I played a song from the first Like record, a song from the second Like record and a JJAMZ song. It was exciting to intermingle those things again. I’m going to force Ryan to play a Young Veins song for me at some point.
Ryan’s not pulling out anything from Pretty. Odd.?
ROSS: I might.
BERG: We could do a mean version of “Nine In The Afternoon.”
Ryan, you handed Brendon Urie the keys to the Panic! factory and never looked back, copped to any regrets or even seemed interested in starting a new band. Is it a weird feeling to build something and then say, “OK, I’m done”?
ROSS: Yeah, a little bit. But that was how I felt. It’s sad when you don’t like what you’re doing anymore, and it’s your thing. I was so young: I left that band when I was 22 or 23. Which was insane: I wasn’t even grown up yet. I didn’t know what I was going to do for a couple [of] years there, and now I finally know what I’m supposed to be doing again. For a while there, at the time that the Young Veins split up, I didn’t really know what to do, and it wasn’t a great place to be.
BERG: [To Ross.] Of anyone I have ever met in my entire life, I have never met anyone who is incapable of doing anything unless they believe in it 100%. We just met when Panic! were splitting, and there was no question in your mind: “I am physically incapable of doing something unless it 100% represents me.” It’s completely insane but wildly admirable. I think both our bands broke up around the same time. You kind of lost yourself in your house for a few years. [Laughs.]
ROSS: I went out a lot without leaving the house, you know what I mean? [Laughs.]
So you fell in love, fell out of love and now you’re verbal sparring partners.
ROSS: Yes. Now we can tolerate each other.
BERG: [Laughs.] You love me, you liar.
Get your prom dress out from under your bed and get involved with the Dead End Kids right here.