Panic! at the Disco's career has been defined by change. After making baroque, theatrical emo sound cool with their debut album, 2005's A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, the Las Vegas group took one of rock's riskiest moves when it transitioned to more stripped-down, Rubber Soul–inspired folk-pop for 2008's Pretty. Odd. Guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker soon split, leaving only singer Brendon Urie and drummer Spencer Smith, before Smith officially departed just last year following time in rehab.
With only Urie left under the moniker, Panic! has just released its fifth album, Death of a Bachelor. Influenced by Frank Sinatra, the album is Urie's goodbye to all that: He bids farewell to the band's old sound and even to his former relationship status, reflecting on life before his recent marriage and giving it a raging send-off.
Urie recently sat down with Rolling Stone to discuss the album, the band's history, the Beach Boys and why he'll always play "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" live. Watch an exclusive clip from the interview, where Urie discusses synesthesia, above.
Why release the album under Panic! at the Disco's name as opposed to framing it as a solo release?
Panic! at the Disco for me has been an outlet to do whatever. I never felt like there were any rules. It was always carte blanche. I could do whatever I wanted. There were no rules set yet for the band. It just felt right. But to be more honest, it was a couple albums in the making of me just doing it anyways. From the last album to this one, even more so this time, I was doing everything myself. Even on the last album, it was me doing my own thing. Panic! for me has been an outlet for nonchalant chaos. It gives me full ride to fulfill this dream that anything is possible because of this band.
What was your thought process after Spencer left? I know you had toured without him in support of Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! ...
Spencer leaving was kind of a process. It wasn't over the course of a lot of time, but it wasn't just spur of the moment. He had brought it up a couple times, like "Hey, I'm thinking of doing my own thing." It was never set in stone. Then when he sent me his statement, it was kind of bittersweet. I was sad to see my friend leave the band, but I was happy for him to pursue what he felt he needed to do. It gave me more inspiration to not feel too sad and to do what I always wanted to do and what I've been doing in this band. It was a continuation of the inspiration that my friends have given me and what this band has springboarded for me.
When you announced the album, you described how it brought you back to your childhood and using different instruments to satisfy what you heard in your head. How did that process translate to the creation of Death of a Bachelor?
Yeah, it was me jumping from instrument to instrument. When I was a kid, we had acoustic guitars, a piano in the house. I made a drum kit out of buckets in my garage. I always had something to jump to, to expel all of my nervous energy that I always had and still do to this day. It was just a way of trying to be creative and trying to let loose all this pent-up energy that I had. That's how I felt this time around, too. After 10 years, I built a studio of my own and finally had that. Being able to go from putting down just an acoustic guitar and a vocal to drums, then jumping to the guitars and keyboards, bass, helped keep me occupied with the veracity of talent other people bring to the table.
When I was a kid, it was just hanging out with friends and then if I got bored, I would just jump to an instrument and carry that on until I was satisfied with it. Same with this [album].
A big part of this album — and a lot of your music — is the curation of reference points throughout the lyrics and songs. It's almost like the literary and film references need a set of annotations. Can you take me through some that are on the new album, like the Beach Boys analogy on "Crazy=Genius" and the "Rock Lobster" sample on "Don't Threaten Me With a Good Time"?
All of it is something that is very personal to me. B-52's are one of the most unique bands, not just sonically but aesthetically, too. When you look at them, you know it's the B-52's. They created this persona for a band where they can all play characters then walk away and do normal stuff. That was a huge reminder of what is possible. When I heard the sample my buddy put in the song, I thought it was incredible.
It happens with sampling or with lyrics, like you mentioned "Crazy=Genius." And you're right! There should be some sort of legend or key to, like, "You have to know who Mike Love and Brian Wilson are. You have to be a fan of the Beach Boys." But it really worked out because I am a fan of the Beach Boys, and that idea was helped out by Sam Hollander, who is a fun lyricist, great songwriter.
When I was trying to explain the idea of a person who think they're at one level but everyone sees them at another level, how do you describe that discrepancy between what they see and what the other person sees. He just picked it up perfectly in a way that I felt so close to the idea of. You think you want to be Brian Wilson but you'll only be Mike Love.
I always felt that the literary, film and cultural samples in the lyrics flowed in an almost hip-hop way. How do you connect those ideas in your head?
There's a bit of synesthesia, which if you're not familiar means that when I hear a song, sometimes I see it in colors or words circling me. It depends. When something special happens, you know it and you feel it. That's where the fun comes in of introducing the headiness or the intelligence.
We released over Halloween "Emperor's New Clothes," and if you don't know Hans Christian Andersen's classic stories, you're like "What does that even mean?" A lot of kids were like "Emperor's New Groove? Like the Disney movie?" But "The Emperor's New Clothes" is something that stuck with me as a kid, the idea that people would do whatever the guy wanted because they didn't want to upset the emperor. But the kids don't know and don't care, so they did whatever they want. I think that's a really honest moment in a fairy tale, which doesn't happen a lot. I wanted to bring that realism to a fairy-tale story.
Maybe "pretension" is the right word because there's a lot of knowledge that goes into it that makes it more special. Even if you don't know some of the backstory, it's still fun to listen to, which is important to me.
Back to synesthesia, what kinds of colors did you see while recording this album?
Death of a Bachelor was a lot of bright yellows, bright reds. But it was all very Sixties, like if you've ever seen the Doors performance where there are actual doors hanging above smoke screens and the smoke is coming up. It's very Easter-ish, soft pastel colors. It's soft but bright. It's like glow-y and there are yellows and reds and dark teals that are still popping. That was very much "Death of a Bachelor," the song. It felt so right. It felt nice to have that completion to the idea.
But sometimes it's colors, sometimes it's a tornado of words and I pick one out. Sometimes it's shapes. A song could be a square and go in that perfect order. Sometimes it's a pyramid that turns into rhombus. But there are no rules and I love that. It comes from an emotional state.
How will you construct a live show that showcases Death of a Bachelor but also reflects the band's varied history?
The history of the band is very important to a live show, but it doesn't rely on it, which is important. A critical thing I have to keep reminding myself of is not only do I want to re-introduce the past but I also want to show people the stepping stones I've created to take this new path forward. When I'm thinking of a live show, I never want to play too many new songs because when I go to a show I'm that guy who goes, "Don’t bore us, just get to the chorus." I just want to hear what I'm familiar with because that's so spiritually close to me. I don't want to sit there and watch this artist's intelligent, masturbatory show, whatever it is. It's important to include the past because that's where you came from.
"When I can step outside myself while I'm performing and see how kids react to it, for a split second, it's the most spiritual thing I've ever felt."
Do you ever get sick of playing the old songs? Do some of them feel like they don't have the same place in the show?
No, I think every time I play an older song, it's created with a new meaning by how the fans react to it. That's what so important about the live show because when I can step outside myself while I'm performing and see how kids react to it, for a split second, it's the most spiritual thing I've ever felt, where I'm watching someone else sing my words back to me.
"I Write Sins Not Tragedies" is what I always close the show out with, and I think I'll continue to do so because it's so symbolic to me because it started everything. I wouldn't be here without that single. I wanna be able to play stuff that people know because it's paying homage to the whole past of Panic!.
I'm always striving to create a new vibe with each album and on Death of a Bachelor, it's the death of this thing that I've done a million times, and I felt comfortable leaving it behind. It's a new era and a new challenge to accept.