Brendon Urie is proof that nice guys don’t have to finish last. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the Panic! At the Disco leader a few times over the years, and he has been unfailingly charming, witty, forthcoming and personable. Since his typically ambitious and flamboyant new album Viva Las Vengeance just arrived, it seemed like a good time to resurrect our most recent chat from 2016. As usual, I added a bunch of stuff that was edited out for space. Enjoy.
Brendon Urie never set out to be a one-man band.
“It’s definitely been a gradual progression,” acknowledges the singer, songwriter and sole surviving member of pop-rockers Panic! at the Disco. “It wasn’t like overnight it became, ‘OK, now I’m the dude.’ When I joined, it wasn’t even my band. I joined as a temporary guitar player. I never imagined I’d be in the position I’m in now, doing this all alone. I figured it would be four guys forever, like The Rolling Stones, touring when we’re 70. But you never know where things will end up.”
Not that he’s complaining. After all, things haven’t worked out badly for the 28-year-old Las Vegas native. Despite losing his bandmates over the years — guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker left in 2009, while drummer Spencer Smith stepped down in 2015 — he hasn’t lost his touch. Or his drive. The latest Panic! disc Death Of A Bachelor essentially serves as the coming-out party for his solo career, expanding Urie’s flamboyant, clever pop with forays into retro-swing and Sinatra-style balladry. From his L.A. studio, he called up to discuss math, death matches and his upcoming Grammy sweep.
I’ve been doing the math: You had four guys, then two, then three, now one. What’s next?
I think we go into negative integers now. I become nothing. I become negative-me. Honestly, I don’t know how it works. I didn’t do too well in math in school.
The new album has been out for a few weeks now. Now that you have some hindsight and distance, how do you feel about it?
It’s definitely come to a place where I’m much more comfortable getting feedback. That’s something I don’t think about when I’m writing or when I’m anticipating it. But once it’s out, everybody’s on the same page. You can hear it, you can talk about it. You can tell me how much I suck or how much you love it. That’s kind of a liberating feeling. But it’s been great. I can’t really complain. And I love talking about music and talking about the album once it’s out.
Is there anything you would go back and change?
Not really. I could do that with any album, honestly. I could go back and say, ‘Well where I’m at now, I could change this or that.’ But I never want to do that. Because for me, an album, I treat it like a yearbook. That’s who I was at that moment, that’s what I was doing, that’s what I sounded like. So it just makes me more excited to see where I end up in like a year from now, musically.
Do you read your reviews or avoid them?
Sometimes I do. I ask my management to email me stuff. I do like to read it, whether it’s good or bad. I just like to know what other people’s opinions are, because it is important to me. I think it matters.
You don’t curl up into a fetal ball when someone trashes you?
No way. For instance, Panic’s first album (A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out), turned 10 last year. And I sat down on the anniversary and got nostalgic. I listened to everything front to back. And then I read a couple of reviews. One was from a certain publication — I won’t say which — and it was hilarious. I just was cracking up. I remembered how funny it was to me back then, and how much funnier it is to me now. It’s just something that doesn’t really bother me because that’s not how I feel about it, so it’s not going to dictate or change my opinion. So it’s just kind of fun.
Now that you’re fully and completely your own boss, who do you blame when something screws up?
I take all the blame. I will forever be my own scapegoat. I will sit back and take the heat. But I guess that kind of goes hand in hand with what I was saying before — that I don’t let any other outside opinions dictate how i feel. I think it would just be a waste of time. I respect what other people think for sure. But it doesn’t really dictate what I’m going to create in the future.
We’ve talked before about how you find it hard to focus long enough to write songs. Are you getting better at that?
It honestly just took time. Last time we talked, I think I was telling you, I usually write a 30-second idea, but then I just leave it at that and I don’t ever finish it. So I have just millions of 30-second ideas. That hasn’t changed. I guess the only thing that has progressed is that now I take those 30-second ideas that I do every day and I mash them together like a Frankenstein and see what works. And then I actually sit down and just do the work. I had a really good friend tell me, ‘Just show up.’ Meaning, you have to get out of bed. You have to sit down and say, ‘OK, I’m going to compile this because I know I have these ideas and I know something is great in here, but I have to finish the work and complete the jigsaw puzzle.’
We’ve also talked about how you love playing everything. Have you picked up any new instruments lately — and when you play everything, can you ever get proficient on anything?
That’s a great point. Honestly, this last album was a good exercise in trying to get better at each instrument. I know it’s listed Wikipedia or something that I play all these instruments, but that may or may not be true, depending on your definition of what playing an instrument means. I can kind of pluck a thing here and play this mediocrely. But the instruments that I really play are basically the instruments that make up a rock band. I can play guitar and bass, drums and keyboards. But I have been working at becoming a better drummer, at becoming a better vocalist. So I’ve been studying all these things. And definitely trying to become more proficient at those assets. And combining them to make something greater that I’m much more proud of. That was definitely a factor this time around.
So you still haven’t mastered the didgeridoo?
Oh man. I’ve actually tried that. Didgeridoo is so hard. I feel like I’ve got to make it at least one sound bite on an album. But I haven’t done it yet.
What comes after that? Hammer dulcimer?
Well, Coldplay did that, right? I mean, fuck, they kind of murdered it. Dammit, Chris Martin, you’re taking all my ideas! (Laughs)
You included some jazzy elements on this album. Would you like to make a whole album like that?
There have been, I’ll admit, some bar discussions with friends, where we’re four martinis deep and it’s (slurring) ‘Oh man, it’d be great to do a crooning album.’ I’m such a huge fan of the Rat Pack and Sinatra in particular that I would love to do something in that regard. It’s been done, but it’s not like I couldn’t do it. But it seems my style lately has been to pop in and pop out, so I don’t know what will come of it.
Does that Rat Pack fandom come from growing up in Vegas?
I don’t know. Because growing up, if I talked about Sinatra, my friends didn’t really know what I was talking about. They knew of him, but it was, ‘Whatever. We listen to Korn. Fuck you.’ So it wasn’t some thing where we all glommed on to it. But there is that hint of glamour and debauchery that I got and that I love fantasizing about related to the Rat Pack. I love thinking about what it must have been like down on the strip when the Sands was still in Vegas.
If you made an album like that, you could play the casino lounges.
That would be great. Honestly, I would love to play lounges. I would love to see what it was like to play a comedy club and get heckled while I was trying to sing. That’s kind of what it used to be like in those days in Vegas. And I’ll do it, man. I’ll play the Comedy Store, the Laugh Factory — whatever it takes.
Are there other genres you’d like to try? How about polka?
Yeah, I’ve got a four-part Lawrence Welk album that I’ve been working on for a number of years. And I have dabbled in the accordion. So we’ll see how that comes along. (Laughs) But you know, I’m honestly a huge reggae fan. I don’t really talk about it much. And I’ve tried, but I haven’t made anything that I’d be proud enough to release in this genre. But that could be really fun.
I don’t know if you noticed, but Wolfmother have a new album titled Victorious, which is the same title as a song on Bachelor. And he’s become a one-man band now too. Are we headed toward you and Andrew Stockade in a cage match?
I’m not opposed to that. Can we bring back Celebrity Death Match and have clay animation where he rips my head off or vice versa? Or maybe we both take each other’s heads and rip them off simultaneously.
So far, you’ve only been nominated for one Grammy.
Yeah, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out was nominated for best box set. That’s not even televised. That’s just like, ‘Yay, you did nice — here’s a green ribbon for participating.’
How about for next year? How many will you be up for?
All of them. I’m going to win every category — Best Polka Album, Best Reggae Album, Best New Artist. It’s all me. (Laughs)