Alternative Press interview with P!ATD

On March 29, PANIC! AT THE DISCO will be releasing their first album in three years, Vices & Virtues, their first full-length since guitarist Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker left the group in mid-2009 to form the Young Veins. Panic!’s remaining core members—vocalist /guitarist BRENDON URIE and drummer Spencer Smith—worked with producers Butch Walker and John Feldmann to help craft the duo’s musical intentions. In this interview, Urie describes the new album as “pretty diverse,” talks about his role in writing lyrics, and the state of Panic! sans Ross and Walker.

When all was said and done, how long did it take you guys to make Vices & Virtues?
BRENDON URIE:We started about two years ago. It was quite a little bit longer than we anticipated. We started with a few demos that we had before the band split. We worked with these ideas, and that went on for a few months. We just didn’t feel right; t didn’t feel right for us, we weren’t as excited. So we just kept going and kept working, and finally we found a batch of songs out of the 30 we had written that we loved. We said, “Yeah, this feels right, let’s put this record out.”

You’re going to be playing and singing those songs. If you don’t like them, that’s a problem.
[Laughs.] That’s a huge problem. If we weren’t happy with the record, it would be a very mundane and probably dreary touring process. We’d be very bummed. It’s important that we love the songs that we’re playing, because we’re going to be playing them quite a bit.

Regarding the ones that made the cut, how did they stand out as, “Hey, yeah, this is what we want to do”?
I think we felt that we had really focused our talents and really improved on our writing process and our abilities. It took a little bit of getting out of our shell, which was a slow process in the beginning. We had written some demos, and we said, “Yeah, these are good, but it’s not making me jump out of my seat, like, wanting to go play them live.” So we finally got a batch of songs and we said, “Yeah, these are cool, these are some songs that don’t sound like stuff that we’ve done, there’s songs that are similar in the energy of stuff that we’ve done.”

What was the biggest difference writing these songs with just you and Spencer contributing ideas?
Right there, I guess [that question] kind of answers itself. On our first two records, we wrote as four members all together who shared ideas, wrote lyrics and wrote music together. Writing with four people, you [never] had to concentrate all your time on one song. You could just work on a part one time and somebody else would fill in the other parts. You didn’t really have to focus all your energy on one song and lose your mind. This time around, it was just Spencer and I, so we had two less opinions to work with. We really had to be sure and confident with what we wanted, and that took a little bit getting into. But toward the end, we definitely found our sound and we were just super-excited for it.

Was it more pressure just having the two of you?
I don’t know if we really felt pressured. I’ll definitely say we felt confused, especially right after the split. We weren’t really sure how to go about it, what we were going to do. We thought, “Okay, well, how should we continue this?” We wanted to keep touring, we wanted to keep going, but we didn’t have any songs—we didn’t have a direction yet. That took a little bit of time to figure out, and I’m glad that it did. Because we ended up working really hard and finally got the songs we were excited about. It took a little bit of time, but I’m glad that it did; it was very therapeutic.

You could liken it to a baseball team, when someone’s traded. The chemistry of the team changes, so it takes a little bit for everyone to find their feet again. That’s what I think of when the same thing happens with bands. It’s not always instant.
That’s a very fair analogy, I agree: It’s not easy to switch the line-up and think, “Okay, well, we have to work differently now. Let’s get the plans out, how are we going to do this” and work up new blueprints for everything. I’m just really confident with these songs, and I think it’s going to be great.

Everybody wants to know, then: What does the music sound like?
I guess we can lend it to the amount of time that it took, but I think every song on this record sounds different from the next one. It’s very spontaneous, and there’s a variety of different styles. We missed a couple things from our first record in terms of sonically, with these little instruments that we hadn’t really used on our second record. There [were] a lot of organic instruments and not a lot of electronics or synthesizers. So we wanted to get back to some of that—and that was a blast, just learning these synthesizers and learning the keyboards and figuring out why this sound does this. It was kind of just like music nerd school, which was awesome. We got to nerd out for little bits and have a great time doing it. It really lends itself to a lot of different styles and a lot of spontaneous moments. I think it’s pretty diverse, it’s safe to say.

In the beginning, we didn’t really have a direction, so I don’t think that we had planned or anticipated on songs being that different from each other. It just happens naturally. And I think that is a good thing. It kind of surprised us at the end when we picked our songs, we said, “Wow, how is this gonna sit on an album together?” It took a little bit of time finding out if that was the sound we wanted to go for, for each song respectively.

“The Ballad of Mona Lisa” has the upbeat pop energy of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, with the focus and clarity of Pretty. Odd. Is that fair to say?
Thank you! I take that as a great compliment. That’s something we definitely wanted to kind of get back to, an energy—like I said before, just the energy that we had on the first record. We were really excited, we didn’t know what to expect. It was like a fresh start. This record is that—it was just a fresh start again. It was our second chance, here we go, we’re just starting from scratch, back to square one, let’s do it.

How did working with Butch Walker and John Feldmann help you two shape the music?
I think in the beginning, Spencer and I were pretty nervous to be working with other people, because we’ve always kept to ourselves as a band and worked with ourselves, and just gone into the studio to record. John Feldmann and Butch Walker are amazing people. They are amazing musicians, they have a really great ear for music—and on top of that, they don’t ever make us feel forced, like they’re trying to push their ideas on us. Both of them kept saying to us, “Hey, this is your record, I want to help you with your ideas. So you bring me the ideas, and we’ll help you do that. I don’t want to write anything for you, this is your record, it has to be your voice.” That was really important. And their support was incredibly helpful for us.

Did you work with both of them at the same time, or was it separate sessions?
Separate sessions. We started working with John Feldmann about a year ago, and then we worked with him for about four months. Then we went over to Butch’s and kind of tidied up a few songs we had started with him a week before working with Feldmann. It was kind of mish-mashed together, but we worked with each producer separately and respectively, so that was really cool just to get into their world and to their studios and figure out how to deal with all this music just running around the room.

Lyrically, what did you guys come up with? Are there any themes on the album?
In the beginning [of the band], Ryan definitely had a big hand in writing most of the lyrics. We had only written a couple lines here and there, just to help out with ideas. This time around, I felt I had to step up and take the reins lyrically. It’s something I wasn’t very well practiced in, so I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to write about—what would interest me, what would be fun. So there are moments on the record—lyrical moments—where they’re very, very honest, very straightforward. And there are also songs that we’ve always loved doing, that are very storytelling and fantastical. It doesn’t limit itself to straightforward honesty. There are a lot of fun little lyrical moments. It’s fun for us to mess around with verbiage, I guess.

Having to do more writing, how did you prepare? Did you do anything?
Starting out, we didn’t really know where to go with the direction. I would stay home and I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to stay home and read and think about what I want to write about.” And that really didn’t help—the biggest help for us was going out and doing stuff and just keeping busy. [It] was really hard to get out of the habit [of locking ourselves in the house]. It took us feeling confident about the stuff we were talking about. I’ve been living with my girlfriend now for the past two years, and she’s wonderful—and that was something I wanted to sing about on the record. She’s definitely a key point, a romantic key point, on the record, which only takes up a couple songs, but it was very special and important to me to do that.

I would imagine that would be really, really hard. Those are songs you want to make sure you get right.
Totally. We were so self-conscious about everything, hyper-aware of what we’re doing, that when we’re writing I go, “Okay, I don’t want this to be Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy,’ but I want it to be as romantic and cute…’ There’s a lot of that fighting within yourself. But it ended up being great, and I’m glad that we were able to figure out what we wanted to write about. It’s what we’ve been going through—metaphors for everyday stuff that we’ve done.

Are there any musical curveballs or any musical guest stars on the record?
There are both, I guess. Maybe no guest stars that people would be that familiar with. But there are a lot of little curveballs. That’s something that is exciting for us, we like to do it in our videos and our live show, and adding a theatricality that wasn’t there before. You can take any song—just a chord progression and a melody—and adding the little ear candies and fun little curveballs, like you said, is another part of the process. I mean, that’s one of the most exciting pieces of the recording process. It’s the fun part—you get all the work done, record the song, arrange it and then you can add the fun little stuff, little pieces of voices and talking and weird instruments you hadn’t used before.

The guest stars were curveballs, in a sense. This band, THE PLASTICINES, they’re French. We asked them, we said, “Hey, we love your band. We want to know if you can sing something on our song.” So they did. They sing a chorus in French—translated it, and sing it at the beginning of a song. It’s such a magical moment, I was like, tearing up in the studio, just thinking, “This is so amazing, this sounds so cool!” It was just a really fun process bringing them in. We also got a children’s choir. And it blew me away just how talented these kids were. That’s actually on the same song! [Laughs.]

What were the biggest difficulties you were going through doing all this stuff? Is there anything that really stands out to you as being something that you either had to overcome or something you were stuck by?
The most difficult part for us getting through this record and just getting started was exactly that—just a metaphorical getting out of bed and getting started. Our friend Rob Mathes,—who produced our last record and also did strings on this record—he’s so great. He’s just family. We treat him almost like a dad—he’s the sweetest guy and has really good points about writing. We were kind of nervous in the beginning, and he told me, “Honestly, all you have to do is show up and be excited. Because this is what you love to do, you know it is. You just have to show up. Just get out of bed in the morning, don’t loathe the things that you actually love doing, because it’s just going to keep you down.” That really helped. I think it was just showing up—showing up and knowing that this is what we wanted to do, and building that confidence. Rob, definitely… We owe him a lot. And it shows. [Laughs.]

A year and a half after the band split, what kind of terms are you on with Ryan and Jon?
We still talk to Ryan and Jon, which is great. It’s not weird. We’re really psyched for them doing their stuff. I will say it was confusing at the very beginning, but it wasn’t for long. We kept in touch and made sure that we were still going to be friends, because the only reason they left, was because they wanted to do something different musically. What we wanted to do on this record, I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted to go along with it—and they shouldn’t.They shouldn’t have to compromise what they wanted to do. We’re really excited for those guys, and I’m sure they’re going to keep doing great stuff. They share the same support with us; they’re really excited for what we’re doing. It seems like everything’s really cool. We worked so hard on this record. We just can’t wait to get it out and start touring.

It’s so nice to hear about something that’s really amicable. I think a lot of people either doubted [that] or thought there were ulterior motives. After I heard the Young Veins record, I was like, “Oh. That’s exactly what [the band] meant, [creative differences], there are no double meanings.” I think that’s cool. That takes a certain amount of maturity on both sides to be able to have something like that happen.
I think it’s important to us to, you know, for lack of a better term, just kind of shoot straight and be honest. It gets awkward if you don’t, and you catch yourself in these moments and you start thinking about why you did this, why you did that. It doesn’t help anybody. It was important for us to stay honest and say, “You know what? The only reason we broke up was musical differences. Let’s stay friends and keep talking.” We do stay in touch and we wish those guys the best.

Now that you have the record done, do you still think the split was the best thing for you guys?
I do. I’m actually very confident about it. I think if we would have tried to stay together, forcing creativity, it’s not conducive to what you want to do in the studio. It gets in the way, you can’t really think, you can’t get your ideas out, you have to kind of go around each other …. It’s not really great for the creative process. I’m glad it happened this way, because I was able to build my confidence as a writer, get my voice out there and start working lyrically [and] musically on my own— something I hadn’t done in quite a while. I’m glad we were put in that position – or put ourselves in that position, for that matter.

You’ve talked about how you’ve been writing more and taking a step up, studio-wise. Has this affected your live performance confidence at all?
Oh, definitely. Most recently, too, we’ve been talking about stuff for stage coming up on tour and what we want to do. We really want to get back to throwing a fun show for everybody—visuals and fun little interactive moments. Instead of going up there…you know, [wearing] jeans and a collared shirt and just playing a few songs punk-rock style, which we have done in the past, I think we wanted to get back to theatricality, and just the fun production of everything. Along with being creative in the studio, it’s important for us to be creative with our videos and especially our live show. We love to dress up for it, because it is a special occasion for us, so we would like to treat it as such.

I would imagine the album title [Vices & Virtues] would lend itself very, very well to something theatrical and very cool live.
Oh, yeah. I think it was fun for us coming up with all that stuff. We still have fun with titles and with those ideas. It’s important that it all connects with us. But we didn’t want to be limited to just doing stuff that is based off the album, because the live show is its own thing, and we wanted to create its own entity, its own monster for the stage. With this record, it really gives us carte blanche for chaos. We can kind of do whatever crazy ideas as long as we’re happy about it. That’s been a fun process, talking with everybody about, you know, “How can we get this, is it possible to get this? Can you shoot me out of a cannon this time? This needs to happen!”

Down the line, could you ever see yourself collaborating musically again with Ryan and Jon?
I don’t see it not happening. We haven’t talked about that with them at all, but I think the door is open. We haven’t shut the door on that. It’s definitely a possibility, but we haven’t really talked about it. So maybe that is something that we could talk about in the future.

What does the album title mean for you, personally?
The album title, for Vices & Virtues, came after the lyrics were written. When everything was going on, it was so spontaneous—and so like I had mentioned, it was a variety of different stuff, different sounds and different styles. That early on in the process, we didn’t really know what to call it. We said, “Okay, we’ll just wait till the end.” That’s usually how we’ve done it in the past as well. Looking through the lyrics, we noticed that some of the motion was pining for something, or some of it was vanity, or some of it touched on subversion or overthrowing of somebody or manipulation. And [we] started thinking, like, “These kind of sound like sins”—or you know, the seven deadly sins, or something like that. So we did some research on the Internet and came across different types of vices and virtues. In the Biblical sense, there’s all that stuff and then there’s just morals that we live by every day and human behavior. I guess this record was really a study in human behavior—mostly for us personally what we had been going through, and noticing all of that. And musicals are a great display of the human condition. We’re huge fans of musicals, so it kind of made sense to touch on that.

I like that there’s no judgment—vices and virtues. It’s not saying that these behaviors are good or bad, it’s just, that’s what they are. It’s open to interpretation.
Right. We didn’t want to come out and be like, “Well, this is it, we’re judging you if you don’t do this.” Because it wasn’t that at all. It was mostly a learning process for us, like I said, we were just figuring stuff out. And I think it’s a pretty good display of that.

Via Alternative Press

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