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Panic! at the Disco: High School Musical

They went from a group of teenagers who’d written only three songs and never played a live show to the biggest new rock band in America

Spencer Smith, Brendon Urie, Panic! At The Disco

Spencer Smith and Brendon Urie of Panic! At The Disco on November 9th, 2006.

Chris McKay/WireImage/Getty

RYAN ROSS BOUGHT HIS C55 MERCEDES three months ago, but it’s been parked in his Las Vegas garage ever since. When the Panic! at the Disco guitarist climbs behind the wheel, cues up Tom Waits’ new Orphans collection and starts pushing buttons on the navigation system, he’s still not sure how it all works. Ross is searching downtown Vegas for Panic’s favorite local sandwich chain, Port of Subs, to grab a quick bite before the second-to-last show on the band’s arena tour: a sold-out concert at the Orleans Hotel & Casino for 7,500 fans, their families, friends and three-quarters of Fall Out Boy, who flew in from Los Angeles to see their protégés’ biggest hometown gig yet. Later tonight, Ross, 20, will face the crowd dressed as a gothed-out Oliver Twist, black liner fanning from his right eye like a tangle of tree branches and a newsboy cap covering his thick brunet quiff. But it won’t be Ross’ first time onstage at the Orleans: Two and a half years ago, he was here in a gown and mortarboard for his high school graduation.

When Ross walks into a strip-mall Port of Subs with drummer Spencer Smith and singer Brendon Urie, both 19, the shop is empty except for two cold-cut slingers, neither of whom recognizes the three local celebrities clamoring to upgrade to combo meals when they hear that ROLLING STONE is picking up the tab. A few bites into his sandwich — “the Pilgrim,” with turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing — Ross rubs his jaw and notes that his wisdom teeth are coming in. After listening to Smith and Urie discuss how generous a helping one ought to get when one requests “extra mayo and mustard,” Ross remarks that the Pilgrim is his second Port of Subs sandwich since this morning. When Urie says he’s only on his first, Ross is befuddled: “What have you been doing all day?”

“I had to pack my Dior case,” Urie answers, as if it were the most normal thing in the world for a teenager shoveling five-dollar fast food into his mouth to have a $1,500 bag from a Parisian couture designer. “And then I cleaned my room. Because it was starting to smell.”

In mid-December, when I traveled with the band through Vegas, San Diego and Los Angeles, they were about to settle into their first real vacation since signing to Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz’s Decaydance label in late 2004. Back then, Smith and Urie hadn’t even graduated from high school, the band had only three songs in its arsenal and Panic had yet to play a single live show. But as 2006 wound to a close, the biggest new rock band in America had album sales going on double platinum and was still scanning 20,000 copies a week of its debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. (The disc, which announced the arrival of a new breed of emo augmented by synthesizers and computerized beats, was recorded for a paltry $10,000.) Panic’s single “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” — three minutes of pizzicato strings, power chords and cabaret melody-has become an unlikely yet unstoppable Top Forty hit and earned them MTV’s award for Video of the Year. They’ve followed it with a series of similarly over-the-top clips (the latest, for “Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have With Her Clothes On,” imagines a world where people spend their lives with their heads encased in fish tanks) that have flooded You Tube with fourteen-year-olds who missed out on the campy Technicolor of MTV in the Eighties.

“We didn’t expect this album to have any success,” says Ross, the group’s introverted lyricist and main songwriter. “I don’t really think it’s that good. It was more like our experiment for figuring ourselves out. We just wanted to grow for a couple of years and really show people what we can do on the next album. But we didn’t get to do that. For a while, we didn’t even want it to be played on the radio or MTV. I remember asking our manager, ‘How can they play our song if we don’t want them to?’ He said, ‘Labels usually pay radio stations to play bands. They’re playing you for free, and you want to stop it?’ From that point, I was like, ‘I’m gonna have to look at this a little bit differently.”

“We weren’t pessimistic,” says Smith later, between fielding calls from his mom as he drives to the Orleans in his new Nissan 35oz two-seater sports car. “But I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were still in a van playing to a couple hundred kids right now. Fall Out Boy toured for three years in a van and trailer. That’s what bands in this position usually do.”

Even Wentz admits that he couldn’t have predicted Panic! at the Disco would blow up so big they would threaten to eclipse his band. “They’re a freak of nature,” he says. “You can’t explain it. They do absolutely the opposite of everything a label would recommend, and still thrive. Major labels could start telling bands, ‘Put on paisley suits and make your show a circus’ — but it wouldn’t work. There’s something else there that’s intangible. When you go to their show, you wonder, ‘What makeup will Ryan be wearing and what are the dancers going to do?’ It’s like Kiss, but smarter and thirty years later.”

In the age of MySpace, when you can construct an entire persona out of seemingly incongruous elements and change it as quickly as you can put up a new photo of yourself, guyliner bands like Panic appeal to the melodramatic, hyperimagized, Web-trolling youth, who depend on the Internet to find their next favorite artist. Panic! at the Disco’s identity derives less from musical referents than from their cherry-picking of pop culture at large. Their lyrics cite Chuck Palahniuk novels; their song titles cop lines from the movie Closer; live covers like Queen’s “Killer Queen” were learned from the game Guitar Hero. And their look is built from the visuals of their favorite movies — Moulin Rouge!, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands — which, like their songs, are full of the heartbreak and pathos that are never in short supply during high school.

Moreover, Panic are among a new breed of punk acts that includes My Chemical Romance and AFI, all of whom aim to bring the spectacle back to rock & roll by focusing as much attention on outfits, makeup and theatrical stagings as on the songs themselves. Most of their fans — too young for the heyday of grunge (or even the teen pop that followed it) — have never seen a rock show. Panic want to make their first concert nothing less than mind-blowing.

On Panic’s fall tour, their production was so elaborate and expensive that their manager says the only money they made off the gigs came from T-shirt sales. The idea, says Ross, was to put on a show, not a concert. And though they don’t always love playing the same eleven songs, they say they’re obsessed with sitting around together and coming up with progressively more eccentric ideas for their performances.

“I remember Spencer saying, ‘Mom, maybe we can get live animals and lions and have a carousel onstage,'” says the drummer’s mother, Ginger, a medical secretary. Big cats never made it into the show, but the basic concepts stuck: Inspired by Cirque du Soleil and Moulin Rouge!, the band decided to make its stage set look like some kind of post-apocalyptic carnival or a Ringling Brothers fever dream. Ross, whose lyrics are so heavy on two-dollar words they could double as an SAT prep course, says the staging evolved from his fascination with Paris “and any true love story, whether it’s Romeo and Juliet or Phantom of the Opera or Titanic. I don’t know what it is, but something about the idea of a gentleman wearing a suit and being literate is fascinating to me.”

During the show — which features an intermission and finds the band attempting ambitious covers of both “Killer Queen” and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”- Panic perform dressed in tattered-looking Victorian duds, their faces covered with stark white, black or red makeup. And then there are the dancers, whose gymnastic contortions, never-ending costume changes (Ballerina! Cleopatra! Mental patient!) and bawdy interactions with the band give the show an element of the unexpected, even if it goes exactly the same way every night.

Urie’s between-song patter is also premeditated, and the bit that gets the loudest screams comes about midway through the set, right before they play “Lying.” “Have you ever dreamt you were in a sunflower field,” Urie begins, and then with some minor variations describes running toward a lover for “the perfect kiss.” As he does this, he approaches Ross and leans his face in close to the guitarist, who pulls his mouth away just in time, almost every time: In San Diego, on the final night of the tour, Urie moved in quick enough to plant one on Ross’ cheek, which immediately flashed crimson with embarrassment. And then, as he pulls back and the room fills with an audible gasp, Urie always says something like “Well, this isn’t that kind of dream. This is about sweaty, angry, crazy, monstrous fucking.” A sea of girls barely out of training bras shriek with delight at the PG-13 ribaldry.

“There’s plenty of stuff we do in the show to get a reaction,” says Ross. “Like, fans are always saying that me and Brendon are dating. It’s funny to me how people freak out about stuff like that. I think the show almost splits you and makes you choose: Will I like this band from this point on, or was the show too much? When we were writing these songs, we were expecting the audience for them to be our age or maybe a little older. I know that our CD wouldn’t have been allowed in my house until I was sixteen. I guess parents are a little lenient these days. Then again, I’ve seen some angry parents in the crowd, that’s for sure.”

URIE AND ROSS AREN’T DATING, but the guitarist is spoken for. “I’m with a nice girl, and I never really was before,” Ross says in a phlegmatic drawl he must have acquired reciting countless Our Fathers during his twelve years in Catholic parochial school. His romantic woes — particularly a cheating ex — provided plenty of fodder for A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, as did an even more trying personal problem: His late father, George, struggled with alcohol abuse for years and was hospitalized numerous times along the way. Since Ross’ parents divorced when he was about three years old, he often had to take care of his father, and the weight of that responsibility is reflected in songs such as “Camisado,” which includes the lyric “You’ve earned a place atop the ICU’s hall of fame/The camera caught you causing a commotion on the gurney again.”

Last July, his father died in his sleep at the age of sixty. Panic were en route from Vancouver to Seattle on their bus when Ross heard the news. “I could almost feel that it was going to happen, because of the way he would treat himself,” he says. “I got a phone call, and I knew right away what the police officer was going to tell me. I just knew. The day of his funeral, it was raining and…it was strange to be raining that time of year. After the service, I went back and put my hand on the casket and kind of said goodbye. Right then, it stopped raining. The clouds blew away, and the sun came out, and it got warm. I spoke at the funeral and said that I think the one thing my dad cared about since I was born was that he wanted to raise me. I think he felt like he was done with that and had nothing else to do, so he just let go and stopped living. It’s almost like it’s better this way because it’s what he wanted. I miss him, but I feel like everything’s all right now. It was sad, but I got back out on tour and only missed three shows.”

It helped that Ross had a strong support system in place, including drummer Smith — his best friend for the past fourteen years. Smith vividly recalls the first time he met Ross. “I met Ryan when I was five and he was six,” the drummer says, talking in a breathy spray that makes him sound like a dead ringer for Beavis’ pal Butt-Head. “My grandpa and his dad worked together at a hotel here called the Thunderbird, which was a famous hotel, as blackjack and craps dealers. I was taking a walk around the block with my grandpa and he recognized Ryan’s dad, who was out mowing the lawn while Ryan was hitting plastic golf balls across the lawn to his next-door neighbor’s house. For nine years after that, we lived down the street from each other. We never went to school together because Ryan went to private school and I went to public school, but I never had a big group of friends, and so we mostly just hung out with each other.”

“We went through pretty much every phase that young boys can go through,” says Ross. “Remote-control cars, riding bikes, sports, a lot of video games. For about a year, we really wanted to skateboard, but we were both terrible at it. We got our instruments the same Christmas [when we were thirteen], and I think after we gave up skateboarding, we started playing music because we couldn’t hurt ourselves doing it. We started recording our own songs when we were fourteen, at Spencer’s house. They were the worst songs you’ve ever heard in your life, by the way.”

“Blink-182 was huge at the time,” Smith recalls. “To us, as fourteen-year-old boys, it was like, “Well, this is the best band in the world, obviously.’ We would basically try to write songs about whatever Blink songs were about. We wrote a song about ditching class, which I’d only done, like, twice in my life. It just sounded like something Blink would have a song about.”

“The guys would be practicing and it really was awful when they started,” says Smith’s mom. “We’d get home from work and say, ‘That’s it, guys. You can’t play anymore.'”

They had been calling their band Pet Salamander, but changed it to the Summer League right before their original bass player — Brent Wilson, who was replaced by Chicago native Jon Walker, 21, several months ago — suggested a guy from his guitar class, Urie, to round out the band. “The first time we played with Brendon, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is way better at guitar than me,'” says Ross. “At the end of that night, he was on the PA doing his impression of Gollum from Lord of the Rings. And I remember thinking, ‘That’s the best impression of Gollum I’ve ever heard in my life!'”

“When Brendon joined the band, he was gonna just play guitar,” continues Ross, who had been handling singing duties reluctantly and now only contributes backing vocals. “And I think I was sick one day or something and said to him, ‘Why don’t you sing the song?’ He started singing, and we were like, ‘Why didn’t you tell us you could sing?’ He said, ‘I didn’t know I could.'” Whereas Ross was never comfortable as a frontman, Urie relishes the role. Though he was raised Mormon, Urie rejected the religion’s stringent rules during his early teens and is now the band member most likely to pull down his pants for a laugh. Like Smith and Ross, Urie doesn’t drink or do drugs, though he’s got a Red Bull habit that exacerbates his natural hyperactivity. “I’m a Ritalin kid, and I’ve always been very outgoing,” says the spindly singer. “I don’t have a problem performing in front of 5,000 people.”

With their lineup complete, Panic spent the next several months trying to write some songs. But they progressed slowly, perhaps because their ideas about what they should sound like changed every time they bought a new CD. Then, after Ross’ dad gave him a laptop for his birthday, they taught themselves to use Garage Band and recorded a few tracks in their practice space. “Of course, to record three songs took us two months,” says Smith, who is the most pragmatic of the group. (He’s also got an impressive sneaker collection that includes upward of fifty pairs: mostly exotic Nikes that he won’t wear for fear of diminishing their resale value in the event the band comes upon hard times.) “The few other friends we had who we’d told we were working on songs kind of stopped believing us. They were like, ‘You fuckers are never doing anything!'”

The boys had graduated from Blink to Fall Out Boy, and when they heard that Wentz was starting his own imprint, Ross posted a link to two Panic songs on a Fall Out Boy message board, in hopes that either Wentz or some FOB fans might hear the songs and dig them. “A few days later, Pete IM’d Ryan saying, ‘I really like the songs,'” says Smith. “He was in L.A. recording, but he wanted to come to Vegas to see us play. We were like, ‘What are we gonna do? We’ve never actually played a show!'” Wentz flew in, bought them lunch at Del Taco and went with them to their rehearsal space to hear them attempt their only three songs, even though they hadn’t figured out how to sync up the prerecorded electronic parts with the live parts.

“It was kind of a mess,” Wentz admits. “But I could see something in them — this little glimmering spot. As far as hooks go, everything they write gets stuck in your head.” Driving back to his hotel that night, Wentz called to say he wanted to sign the band.

Trying to write an entire album in just a few months seemed like it would be impossible, until Ross bought a handful of movie soundtracks, including The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Punch-Drunk Love. ”

At some point, I was watching a movie and there was a scene with no dialogue that made me realize how, if there hadn’t been music, you wouldn’t have felt any emotion attached to the scene,” says the guitarist. “I got fascinated by why certain notes and chords make you feel a certain way. I think it’s displayed best in movie scores and classical music. It’s so strange that you hear something, like a minor note, and you automatically think of something sad or almost aggressive. You just know it, even when you’re so small. I want to approach our next album like you would write a movie score. I want to have all the lyrics done before we write any music and have the whole story set ahead of time.”

An avid reader ever since he started ordering texts through his school book club as a kid, the guitarist says he discovered Irvine Welsh, Charles Bukowski and Palahniuk (whose works are referenced in four Panic tracks) during his one semester at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “That’s why a lot of the songs include commentary on modern society and topics that couldn’t be placed in any other time except for right now.” he says. In “London Beckoned Songs About Money Written by Machines,” for instance, Ross addresses the snobbery of the twenty-first-century punk scene: “Well, we’re just a wet dream for the Web zines/Make us it, make us hip, make us scene/Or shrug us off your shoulders, don’t approve a single word that we wrote.”

For their next album, which the band plans to record this summer and release in the fall, Ross says he’ll make the lyrics less era-specific. “There’s not gonna be any social commentary on what’s going on now,” says the guitarist, sipping from a cup of tea after the band’s San Diego sound check. (Tonight’s venue, the San Diego Sports Arena, was featured in Almost Famous, in the scene when William Miller first hooks up with Stillwater. After a crew member relays this information, Urie busts into an a cappella rendition of Stillwater’s “Fever Dog” that proves he’s not joking when he says he’d like to sing like Journey’s Steve Perry.)

“It’ll just be like poetry; you can’t really place what time it’s in,” Ross says of his plans for the next album. “I was reading an essay by Oscar Wilde, and he said the two mistakes writers can make is having modernity of form and of subject matter. I really took that to heart, because I think if you want to have something timeless, you have to write it in that way. Lately I’ve been writing stuff that’s between what can actually be real and what can’t be. Sort of like Alice in Wonderland. I’ve never written a love song, and I think there will be love songs on the new album. It’s funny how things happen sometimes. I definitely think there will be things I can take from my own experiences for the new songs. And the parts of life that aren’t so interesting — I can just make it up.”

Though Panic have a one-off gig slated in a few weeks, the San Diego show is the last night of their tour. And, in keeping with the traditions of the road, the final show of a big tour requires a couple of good practical jokes. During “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” members of the crew run onstage unexpectedly. One especially large crew member — Dan Angell, a longtime friend of the band, whose job is mostly just to hang out with the boys — comes out dressed in a bra and tutu, and lifts Urie into the air. Panic leave the stage euphoric, thrilled to be done with the tour and energized by the surprise of the prank. Covered in sweat and with their makeup streaming down their faces, the four disappear into one of the dressing rooms in their backstage suite to change clothes. Moments later, the troupe of dancers sprint into the room wearing nothing but panties, hop onto a table and jiggle their ta-tas for fifteen or twenty seconds before bolting back to their own dressing room laughing. The Panic boys emerge with their cheeks even redder than the thickest stage makeup could approximate. For a moment, they look nothing like rock stars — just four teenage boys thrilled to have caught a look at some boobies. “Uh… heh-heh… um,” Urie stammers. “Uh, did you see that? Wow. That was…. Wow. Did you see it? That was … uh… heh-heh…. That was awesome!”

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