For his band’s third album Vices & Virtues (out March 29), Panic! at the Disco singer Brendon Urie did a lot of growing up, and growing up is hard to do.
Now 23, he’s six years removed from 2005, when he blasted onto the charts with the band’s two million-selling 2005 debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. There have been big changes — one the biggest being his move last year from Las Vegas, where he’s lived his entire life, to Santa Monica, California with Panic! drummer Spencer Smith. “Every time I turn onto Santa Monica Boulevard, I sing that Sheryl Crow song in my head,” gushes Urie.
The road to Vices & Virtues — check out the tracklist below — was a bumpy one full of growing pains: In 2009, Panic!’s founding guitarist/songwriter Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker left to form the Young Veins and further explore the throwback, ’60s rock’n’roll sounds that emerged on Panic!’s last album, 2009’s Pretty. Odd.. They remain friends, says Urie, going out for dinners and drinks occasionally, and Urie doesn’t rule out working together again: “I don’t see a reason why not,” he says. But damage was done to Urie — he was forced to step up his songwriting and lyrical duties, and he didn’t think he could.
“We had always written as the four of us, so it was a matter of coming out of that comfort zone,” says Urie. “I was struggling with my confidence.”
To ease the process, Panic! teamed with Rob Mathes, who produced Pretty. Odd and has worked with artists ranging from Jay-Z to Lou Reed to Carly Simon, as well as songwriter-producers Butch Walker (Avril Lavigne, Weezer, Pete Yorn) and John Feldman (Good Charlotte, Foxy Shazam). In the beginning stages, they even worked with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo — “He was super nice,” says Urie (no tracks from their writing session made the final album). Mathes, however, helped Urie come to terms with himself and his songwriting: “I didn’t think of myself as a lyricist at all and I was apprehensive about it,” says Urie. “I sat down with Rob and he said, ‘If you really want to write then it has to sound like you.’ I took his advice and kept doing that. He was a huge support.”
As he continued to write, Urie started noticing trends in his lyrics. “They dealt with self-deprecation, pride, subversion, manipulation, but some good stuff too: self-expression, honesty,” says Urie. “I was like, ‘Are these the seven deadly sins or something’? [laughs]. We did some research and ‘Vices and Virtues’ popped up. Aristotle has this Biblical list that’s tied in with themes of human behavior that we’ve been noticing in ourselves.”
“This album is our study of our human behavior,” he says. “It’s about our changes growing up.”The band recorded with Feldman at his home studio. “Both of us had to pick up twice the work, double-shifts, and say, ‘Okay, now we’re down to two people. Let’s push out as many ideas as we can.’ It was nice working with less opinions, actually,” Urie says.
The sessions led to experimentation with new sounds. “We really loved Paul Simon and got into using marimbas and string instruments,” explains Urie. “We ended up buying some synths and messing around with them. It was two kids in a candy store…and we listened to Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs on repeat for me for the past… well, since it came out [laughs].”
“These songs couldn’t fit on our last two records,” he adds of their new direction. “It’s exciting playing with new sounds, ideas, arrangements, and instruments.”
Panic! recently released Vices & Virtues‘ first single, “The Ballad of Mona Lisa,” an anthemic power-rock ballad with dark and personal undertones. “On the surface it can seem like just the story of drama between a guy and a girl,” explains Urie. “But it’s really about what I’ve been going through, an inner-struggle within myself, and fighting the dualities of my personality –the side that fucks everything up and destroys everything and the other side that tries to pick up the slack.”
“It’s all growing pains,” he says.
Since moving to Santa Monica, which, Urie says, “was a huge part” of his growing up, he’s taken up surfing and playing Call of Duty: Black Ops nonstop — “the zombie version is so insane,” he says.But one of the first things that started easing him into the process for Vices & Virtues was a girl.
“‘Sarah Smiles” is about my girlfriend, actually, as sappy as that is,” he says of the album track. “When I met her I wrote this song to try and impress her. I was infatuated with her. I played it for her and we’ve been dating ever since. That was a huge step for me, personally.”
“I was able to build up my confidence to write and try to woo her,” he adds. “I’m a lucky guy.”
Vices & Virtues tracklist:
1. The Ballad Of Mona Lisa
2. Let’s Kill Tonight
5. Trade Mistakes
6. Ready to Go (Get Me Out Of My Mind)
8. The Calendar
9. Sarah Smiles
10. Nearly Witches (Ever Since We Met…)