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.”