Pretty odd how these things happen. One day they’re just ordinary high schoolers unable to get their fill of Capriotti’s and Port of Subs, hanging out at the mall, covering blink-182 songs and posting demos of their inconsequential little band online. Next thing you know they’ll be invited to join mini-mogul Pete Wentz’s vanity imprint without playing a single live show, release their platinum-selling debut A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out and headline massive tours featuring every manner of theatrical whiz-bangery short of painting themselves blue and catching marshmallows in their mouths.
They’ll amass hordes of young fans in dark hoodies and eyeliner, as well as plenty of detractors, who’ll take issue with, well, all of the above. They’ll ditch a bassist, an exclamation point and an entire album’s worth of songs that were created in their Mount Charleston cabin.
Feeling a bit stuck, like all the other bands these days that can only seem to write one kind of song, they’ll listen to classic rock for inspiration. The Beatles and Beach Boys and Rolling Stones will open their eyes and ears to the fact that not only do you not have to write just one kind of song, you also really don’t have to “be” anything. Very simply, you can write whatever you want to write. It’s about freedom, more than anything. Whether or not their fans like their new songs will be irrelevant. Because if they’re writing to please others, what they’re doing is fake. They’ve changed in four years, and they’ll be moving in a forward direction. They might lose some fans, but surely they’ll gain some new fans, too. Who knows? Sure, the new stuff will be different, but it will really be them and really be what they’re doing, and that’s all they can say about that.
Not just the scope, but the writing process itself will also change. Bassist Jon Walker will arrive from Chicago and live with guitarist/primary lyricist Ryan Ross for a while, and they’ll get to work. But then, in their old rehearsal space, in Ross’ house, in his backyard, wherever, the band—which also includes vocalist Brendon Urie and drummer Spencer Smith—will compose songs like “Nine in the Afternoon” and “That Green Gentleman” at the same time, as a whole unit. Everybody will write the music and lyrics and stuff together. Sure, Urie will have a couple of songs he wrote by himself on the album (“I Have Friends in Holy Spaces” and “Folkin’ Around”), as will Ross, but for anybody that has an idea that everyone likes, the consensus will be, “Oh yeah, let’s just do that.” Won’t matter where it comes from.
Lying low for a spell, Panic at the Disco will be tapped to headline the eighth annual Honda Civic Tour, playing a short acoustic set in Los Angeles at the official announcement launch party. Songs “We’re So Starving,” “Nine in the Afternoon” and “When the Day Met the Night” will come as shocks, sounding nothing like the synthed-up cynicism for which they’ve been known. “We still weren’t done with the album at that time, and we hadn’t really done anything in about a year,” Ross will later muse. “We thought everybody’d forgotten us.”
A month and a half later, when their sophomore effort, Pretty. Odd., claims slot No. 2 on the Billboard charts its first week out, he will be proven wrong. Praise will be nearly unanimous for the ’70s-rock homage mixed at London’s Abbey Road Studio, with its trippy layers of horns, strings, woodwinds and all manner of instrumentation that traditionally exists far outside the realm of emo-dom. The word “mature” will be bandied about a great deal.
The Tuesday of release, they’ll appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Wednesday will be spent doing press in LA. Thursday, an MTV shoot that involves driving from LA to Vegas in an old Volkswagen surf van lacking A/C and the ability to surpass 45 mph. Three days off, then Ross and Urie will meet at the Studio at the Palms, where the band recorded the 15 tracks on and off over a six-week period beginning in autumn, arriving each day around 1 or 2 p.m. and working until midnight or later. That will be the plan, anyway.
Ross will show up precisely on time, unaccompanied and wearing skinny jeans, a mustard-yellow vest over a vintage shirt and Bob Dylan sunglasses. He’ll be remarkably polite, if a little guarded (though you can’t really blame the guy, considering), the strain of promoting both an album and a national tour visible in his cautious, intermittent smiles. The battle he fights to keep from yawning will be a losing one.
Chit-chat about his two younger brothers and how very unexciting it would be for the tabloids were his cell to ever get hacked will be soft and deliberate. And he’ll say he feels bad when Urie fails to materialize 15, 30, 45 minutes after the scheduled rendezvous. Apparently last night was a late one: “He can’t wake up unless there’s someone around to make him wake up.”
While he’s waiting, Ross will reminisce about some of the “crazy stuff” the band did technique-wise during recording, like when bassist Jon Walker had an idea for a vocal he wanted to do on “The Piano Knows Something I Don’t Know,” putting a microphone in a metal trash can and having the vocals coming through this little tiny amp. While experimenting with “Behind the Sea,” they wanted to do some big-sounding stomps and claps, so they recorded themselves clapping on the hardwood suite’s basketball court. They probably would have gotten more into that stuff if they’d had more time; they don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing or a bad thing.
Finally Urie will come bounding in with a videographer in tow. Remarkably outgoing, he’ll talk a mile a minute, and his eyebrows will scale his forehead as he’s talking just like they do when he’s singing earnestly about cold-hearted females.
His presence will even perk up Ross, and the two will marvel over the fact that Elton John, rumored to be recording next door right this very minute, has been known to say that he likes their band. They’ll plop down behind the console in the control room and remark how empty, desolate and kinda sad it looks without various racks and effects, not to mention their 12-packs of beer and bowls of, like, $170 worth of candy. It was this very candy that gave one of their techs a tooth infection, requiring him to have his wisdom teeth pulled. The same tech also had the misfortune of falling off a 12-foot stage once, a cabinet landing on him and breaking his back.
And with that, they’ll be off again. Later today, they’ll start rehearsals for the two-month Honda Civic jaunt, and their touring keyboardist is due to touch down at McCarran in a half-hour. By the weekend they’ll be in New York, appearing for the first time on Saturday Night Live, where they’ll perform “Nine in the Afternoon” and, surprisingly, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” off Fever. They’ll be backed, Sgt. Pepper-style, by a marching band. The tour will kick off on the opposite coast the following week.
This time around, they’ll plan to make the theaters they play cozy-feeling, with a bunch of flowers, colored smoke and a few video segments, but rest assured it will be, as Urie will put it, “less flamboyant.” No dancers, stilt-walkers or libidinous mimery; just the band playing its songs—about 50/50 in terms of old versus new material—and singing the harmonies they’ve been honing so doggedly. They’ll just kind of be themselves more onstage, so hopefully that’s all right.
They used to tell themselves they couldn’t write on the road; that they had to have the perfect environment or whatever. But they’ve recently determined it doesn’t matter. That if they have an idea, they can strap on an acoustic guitar, play a song and write it down anywhere. Maybe not always a whole song, but at least an idea. It’s all part of the overall way they’re striving to improve a lot of things about themselves as musicians. And it’s been going great so far. It’s too soon to say, but they might even pull out a new, weird song on tour just for fun. They’ll see how it goes.
They’ll contemplate buying a ukulele in San Francisco, and Urie will celebrate his 21st birthday in San Diego. Then, in the middle of June, the penultimate night of the tour, they’ll be back in Vegas for one night, back at the Palms, giving their all for the hometown crowd at the Pearl. And then they’ll be off once again, onto the next city, still not exactly sure how it all happened but making the most of the opportunity they’ve been given. As far as the next four years, who knows, but suffice to say they don’t plan on turning from this forward direction. It will still really be them and really be what they’re doing. And that will be all they can say about that.
The who, what, when, where, why and how of Panic’s Las Vegas
Who they see when they’re in town:
Urie: I guess we just kind of stay at our respective houses and sometimes hang out with each other, sometimes go to band practice. The only friends I have are the guys in the band, so it kind of works out to my advantage, I guess.
What made them choose to record at the Studio at the Palms instead of, say, LA:
Urie: It just made sense for us. We wanted to be home, I guess. For the first record we went away to College Park, Maryland, and we were kind of homesick. It was kind of a bummer. It definitely makes a difference where you record, but for the most part, we were going to write the same songs anyway, so we just needed some place to record. Home just seemed like the most less-stressful place.
When they finally moved out:
Ross: I just moved into my condo; I’ve been there for about nine months. We were all kind of at home before, then everyone moved out and got their own places. It’s kind of funny because I remember going over to Spencer’s house since we were kids, hanging out in his room, and his mom’s cooking dinner and stuff. Now he has his own house.
Where they hang out:
Ross: Nothing real hole-in-the-wall, but the kind of stuff that not that many other places have. I go out, but I come [to the Palms] mostly. I like the Playboy Club; you can play blackjack and stuff up there. But I don’t know a whole lot of good bars, so I just stay home.
Why they choose to remain living here as opposed to, say, LA:
Ross: I think it’s because we’ve been on tour since Spencer and Brendon got out of high school, and just coming back to somewhere you know is the reason we’re still here. It would probably be the same for any city we were from, just because you go out for three or four months at a time and you don’t have any idea where you are, then to come home and are able to drive to your favorite restaurant or something, and you kind of just like that, other than to come home and not really know where you are still. Maybe LA is in the cards. I don’t even really like LA, but maybe out toward the beach or out in the mountains, a 30- or 45-minute drive away from the madness. I just like the weather out there. But I think it has to do with how well we do.
How often they get recognized:
Ross: It depends. Sometimes I’ll go out and people will ask me for a picture four times a day, and then I’ll go out for a week and no one says anything. It’s not that bad at all.