Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie remains one of the hardest-working musicians in the business. Last year, he spent several weeks portraying Charlie Price in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, a demanding role that saw him sporting thigh-high red heels every night. This year, in between rolling out a new Panic! At the Disco album, Pray for the Wicked, Urie launched the Highest Hopes Foundation, which helps nonprofits focused on supporting human rights.
The garrulous Vegas native hopped on the phone to chat about Pray for the Wicked, how the Highest Hopes Foundation might have local impact, covering Bonnie Raitt and Cyndi Lauper and, of course, Panic!’s Bellagio Fountains performance.
Your tour is almost over. You’re nearing the home stretch. I know—it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like it just got started. It’s so wild.
I mean, after doing Broadway, a tour like this is probably nothing. Oh, yeah. I sunk right back in. I was like, “Oh, this feels comfortable.” Yeah, Broadway kicked my ass.
I first want to talk about Panic! At the Disco’s Bellagio Fountains performance during the Stanley Cup Finals. How did that come about, and what were the specific challenges doing that? [Laughs.] There were a couple of challenges, but it came about because, basically, the Golden Knights brought it to us and said, “We’d like you to play at Bellagio.” We’re like, “Oh, cool, what room were you thinking?” They’re like, “No—in the fountain.” We were like, “Wait, what? That’s awesome!”
That kind of blew my mind. That was just a childhood dream come true I didn’t know I had. It’s pretty amazing. So when we got out there—logistically, there’s a barge that takes about five to seven minutes to get you out there. You’re moving real slow. And then once we got out there for the actual performance, rehearsal went fine. [Laughs.] And then, all of a sudden, when the first wave shot up, the wind changed directions entirely, and the water just dowsed us and the crowd.
And right when it happened, I heard the sound, and I thought about my field trip when I was younger where they told us, like, “The Bellagio pushes out about a hundred thousand gallons a second.” I was like “Whaaaat? Nooooo!” We just got smothered by a wave. But it was beautiful.
It’s been about a year removed from Kinky Boots. Do you have any perspective on how doing that changed your life, both as a person and as an artistic being? Oh my God, it changed so many aspects. Just this album—I didn’t expect to have an album. I actually told myself I was gonna take the rest of the year off—like, “I’ve been working hard, I deserve it.” And then two days into my sabbatical, I felt inspired. I was like, “I can’t take it anymore! I need to go write.” So I dove into my demos I was writing the whole time during Kinky Boots.
Friends were sending me ideas—we were just hanging out at my house, honestly, having pool parties and stuff. Once in a while, we would jump in the studio and be like, “Oh, this’ll be fun to do.” And then we really cracked down for, like, two months. I was like, “All right, come over for, like, four hours, help me record this thing, and then we’ll be good.” I’m so glad I did, because I can’t imagine not having this album right now. It’s the most excited I’ve been. So, yeah, Broadway definitely had an effect on that.
And for performing—my voice. It pushed me to do much wilder stuff, and to excel in a way that I never thought possible. This is all in Broadway warm-ups and stuff. But it’s also just the vibe that Broadway cultivates when you’re onstage and you’re having to hit marks, and act, and push yourself out to the back of the room, and all this stuff. It kinda reinvigorated my passion for performing.
Listening to Pray for the Wicked, you guys have always had so much Broadway and musicality in your albums. But this record feels like it could be a Broadway musical. So the fact that you were working on it while you were doing Kinky Boots makes sense. The characters, they’re very vivid. That seems right. I think that’s where I was coming from anyway. Writing a lot of this stuff, it was just like, “Well, yeah, this one feels like this. I’ll play this character now”—which we’ve done in the past, but I think it took a new, fresh breath of life into it, and created this new beast that I was pleasantly surprised with.
The samples this time lean more toward soul, funk and jazz. Was that a conscious effort? Definitely. I was telling my friend Jake Sinclair—[who has] helped me produce, like, the last four albums, really—that I want it to be that. I was showing him a bunch of the stuff I was sampling, just to get ideas started. I never thought I would keep a lot of the stuff. And we replaced most of it, just to give it our own vibe. But I was listening to a lot of music from different countries and different decades, because I was using an app called Radiooooo.
It’s all [curated] by the users. People just upload stuff from different countries, so I would go to, like, Bolivia in the ’40s, and then look up history of what was going on then in terms of the music. Same for anything. [The] ’60s in France, [I’d] listen to Serge Gainsbourg [and] Jane Birkin and all these people. It was really inspiring for me. Being able to have that at my fingertips kinda helped change everything so I didn’t have to focus on, “What is this going to sound like?” If it sounded exciting to me, I was like, “I’m going to take that idea, that’s beautiful.”
Speaking of a challenging song in terms of performance, you’re covering Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” on this tour. What brought you to that song? That’s a song from my childhood. My mom used to play Bonnie Raitt and Carly Simon, all these amazing female songwriters. That one—it’s just close to my heart, because my mom used to play it for me to calm me down. I was a very hyper child, and now I’m a hyper adult, so I have to play it for myself. I’m back in my childhood, really—feeling a little nostalgic, wanting to reconnect to some piece of that growing up in Vegas. And that was a big song—I mean, that’s one of the most beautiful and saddest songs ever written. It’s one of my favorites.
And, live, you’re pairing this song with the new tune “Dying in L.A,” speaking of sad songs. Where did that song come from? Yeah, that actually came from me and my friend, Morgan Kibby, [who] is phenomenal. You may know her from M83; she helped write that song “Midnight City.” She’s such a phenomenal lyricist as well. I really like the way she describes stuff. She’s helped me write on the past couple albums. So she came in and said, “Hey, I have these lyrics about the discussions we’ve had about living in LA, and being down and out, and being that character.” And so she read off the lyrics, and I was like, “I think I have chords.” And my go-tos are, like, my Bruce Hornsby chords, you know. … I just started playing these things. She started to mimic a melody, and then I started to sing with her and we found this thing.
Within 15 minutes, the song was pretty much done. That one was one take; we did one take of piano, one take of vocals, and that was it. And then we added some strings later, but that one just kinda came to be. It kinda sneezed out, if you pardon the saying.
On this tour, you’re covering “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as well. And Cyndi Lauper came out and did that with you, too, at a recent show. What was that like? Oh my God. That was the coolest thing. Literally, I got the call two days before the Long Island show. And her and her manager on the phone are, like, you know, [imitating Lauper’s speaking voice] “We’re gonna be in town before we leave the tour, and I’d just like to come out …” And I was like, “Yes! Will you actually come out and perform?” She said, “Absolutely.”
And I told her, “Well, I can’t sing as high as you, so I dropped it.” And she’s like, “Great, it’ll be even easier for me.” It was like, “Okay, awesome.” So she came out and just crushed it. My mom introduced me to Cyndi Lauper with The Goonies, and I will be forever grateful. I’m just such a big fan.
And to meet her through Kinky Boots, that whole experience. We definitely already had a camaraderie and a relationship. She’s the sweetest person. To be able to take out a chunk of her time in that day, and visit us and play that show, was just ineffable. It’s so beautiful. It was just so cool.
You recently watched the Highest Hopes Foundation. I know that things are still early, but are there any Vegas organizations that might initially benefit from the foundation’s work or funds? I don’t know how much I can say, honestly, about this. But I had the chance to meet with a couple, like, youth groups and stuff—you know, like a Boys and Girls club-type thing. I’m still trying to create and cultivate more environments that are safe spaces for youth to feel that they can create and become who they want to be—whether it’s in music or they’re an athlete. I want more centers for kids, to feel safe—at-risk youth to go there and know they have a space, and know they have a voice, and they can explore that entirely. So that’s really my next step.
Did you have anything like that growing up in Vegas? Any kind of safe space you felt you could go to? Growing up Mormon, it was kind of safe all the time. Being a kid in the Mormon church, it’s like—it really is, you feel comfortable, everybody is showing you love—to a certain extent. And then as I got older, I realized how we kind of break that down, and we only half-love and half-accept people. I started to realize, “That’s not love.” So I wanted to create more of that.
I think I found it with friends. We would just go and waste time somewhere in a park, get arrested for curfew or whatever. We were just being kids. I see it now—being able to meet fans and have these interactions and talk with them, and hear their stories, I realize how important it is, how lucky I did have it, how fortunate my childhood was. I would like other kids to have that same experience, that same comfort and confidence instilled in them, that I had at a very young age, and still do.
There’s something really poetic that you’re ending the tour, in Las Vegas at the largest arena in town, after two No. 1 albums in a row. What does that mean to you?
You just said it, and I got goose bumps! It means everything, honestly. It’s incredible. I’m starting to cry. My family’s gonna be at the show. The fact that it’s come this far—I’ve been doing this for 14 years now, I’m 31 years old. To be at a place that I call home—and to end it in a place that kind of gave me all the inspiration I ever could have asked for, in terms of production, in terms of musicality, in [confidence], in entrepreneurship—it just is so fitting. It fits. That’s how [this tour] needs to end.
Panic! At the Disco with Hayley Kiyoko, Arizona. August 18, 7 p.m., $30-$71, T-Mobile Arena, 702-692-1600