Most successful bands have to endure low-budget, glamourless tours in a van before catching their big break. But all Panic! At the Disco did was post their first two songs on Fall Out Boy’s message board. FOB bassist Pete Wentz dug what he heard from the young Las Vegas quartet – they’re all under twenty-one – and immediately IM’d Panic! guitarist-lyricist Ryan Ross. “He’s like, ‘This is Pete.’ I was like, ‘Somebody’s fucking with me!”‘ Panic! quickly signed with Wentz’s imprint, Decaydance. Since its release last September, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out has steadily climbed the charts with its quirky, offbeat punk pop – the band’s current hot single, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” is even laced with an accordion. And the little girls love to sing along to Ross’ painfully personal lyrics. (“Camisado,” for example, Ross wrote about his father’s long battle with alcoholism.) “Last week we sold almost 30,000,” says Ross, 19, from a tour stop in Pontiac, Michigan. “Who’s buying our record? It’s just crazy.”
What’s your first musical memory?
When I was about six, I was kind of a cowboy. I’d dress up in boots, straps, hat and bandanna, and my dad would take us to the rodeo. Whenever I’d go anywhere with my dad – in his 1980 burgundy Dodge Ram – he’d always listen to mix tapes of country-music stars like Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Willie Nelson. Those were the first songs I ever learned the words to.
How and why did you get your first guitar, at age twelve?
I was really into Blink-182 and punk bands like NOFX and MXPX. Originally, I wanted to learn how to play like Tom DeLonge. That was my first influence – [Blink’s] Dude Ranch. I kept begging my dad for a guitar. I picked out an off-brand, a Harmony, I think, out of the Sears Christmas catalog. It came with a battery-powered amp. It was $100 for everything.
Growing up, where’d you go to shows?
The first show I ever went to was a band called Strung Out. It was at this super small place called the Castle. There was a huge mosh pit. I was so small – I was just trying not to get killed. After that, I was hooked.
Panic! singer Brendon Urie was raised Mormon. What rules has he broken while on the road?
He’s definitely had some caffeine, and he’s had a couple of drinks here and there, and maybe a couple of girls – I don’t know. [Laughs] I’m not saying. He’s definitely not the good Mormon boy we once knew.
Did you see Pete Wentz’s naked photos on the Internet?
[Laughs] Yeah, I did.
What’d you think?
He’s hangin’ out, showing his stuff. I thought it was hilarious. I could totally see him doing something like that – that part didn’t surprise me.
Are you friends with the Killers? They’re from Vegas.
I’ve never met them, but I think the Killers’ drummer takes his dog to our bass player’s dad, who’s a vet.
Have you trashed a hotel room?
We’ve trashed our bus! There’s just shit everywhere, all the time. There’s a box of pizza in front of me that’s five days old. No one’s gonna eat it. We haven’t learned how to clean up yet.
Does it annoy you when everyone at the shows sings along?
At our first show ever, only three of our songs – “Time to Dance,” “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” and “Camisado” – were on the Internet, and people were singing along to every word. It was a shock; it was flattering. But on the first tour, it was weird. Some of the stuff is really personal, and I felt like people didn’t understand what they were singing. There’s not much I can do about that. People take lines and they’ll ask me, “What does this mean?” I don’t really answer them – if it helps them relate to something, I don’t want to take that away.
Does your dad like the songs you wrote about him?
We haven’t really talked about it directly. I’m sure that he knows they’re about him, and he hasn’t acted differently toward me, like he’s mad or disappointed. He plays the CD all the time – it’s kind of funny.
What’s your ring tone?
I’m getting a new phone in five days, and I have my ring-tone plan down. I’ve got Sixpence None the Richer, “Kiss Me.” That’s one of those songs that you hate to love – but I really do like it.
Other guilty pleasures?
Some people would say Counting Crows or Third Eye Blind would be a guilty pleasure, but they’re two of my favorite bands – I’m not ashamed of it. I really like [the Crows’] Across the Wire – the live stuff – and how [Adam Duritz] changed all the melodies.
That’s how you get people to stop singing along.
That’s true. We’re working on new arrangements for the old songs, so we can change things up for our headlining tour. That’ll be fun. For us, at least.
What’s with the accordions on your record?
I like the sound of that instrument. The Amelie soundtrack is all accordions. I love that and Danny Elfman’s Nightmare Before Christmas. Movie scores are my biggest influence.
Do you listen to classic rock?
I’m into Pink Floyd – they had albums that were completely cohesive, like one continuous track. Queen’s one of my favorite bands – the theatrics! Freddie Mercury’s my favorite vocalist of all time.
Well, I can’t really get mad. If I was the singer, I wouldn’t be able to write some of the stuff I write. He’ll get the praise or he’ll take the heat for it. I wouldn’t be able to deliver that stuff. It’s not that I’m afraid of it, but I’m not confident enough.
Or is it because you have a shitty voice?
That’s the other reason.