We caught up with frontman and founding Panic! At The Disco member, Brendon Urie, about their new record ‘Pray For The Wicked’, his experiences on Broadway, confusing fans with jacket potatoes and his ‘relaxation’ tips for creating music.
You just got back from Wales: The Biggest Weekend. Was it the biggest of all the weekends?
“Yeah it was really cool. On the drive up from London we were talking about the setlist and I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to play those two songs so let’s play one we’ve never rehearsed, that we don’t really know.’ So we listened to it about 10 times and then got on stage and played it and it went OK. I love doing that, I love terrifying myself. It made the Biggest Weekend even bigger, it was so great.”
It’s been two years since the last record and you’ve been pretty busy. You were on Broadway in Kinky Boots. How was that?
“It was awesome. I almost cancelled actually. The day before, I called my manager Scott and said, ‘I don’t know if I can go. I’m really freaking out, I don’t know if I can do it,’ and he said, ‘Trust me, it’ll be OK.’ I’ve learned that if I jump headfirst into something I’m terrified about, I subside all the anger and anxiety and fear so I can just get through the whole process. Then I’m usually happy at the end because I’ve done something I’m so scared about and the reward is so much greater because of it.”
Was it a lifelong ambition or did someone just approach you with the offer?
“Both. I’ve been dreaming of theatre and doing musicals and stuff since I was a kid. When we got invited to see the show I had been listening to the soundtrack for a couple of months, just as a fan of Cyndi Lauper and Chiwetel Ejiofor and all those beautiful people. So we get to the theatre and I’m watching the play: I’m laughing, I’m crying, it’s making me feel so many emotions and then it gets to the end and I’m the first one up on my feet, burst into tears, absolutely loving it. Afterwards, they invited us backstage and asked if I wanted to be involved in the company and I was like, ‘Yes, in any capacity. I will sell your merch, I will usher people to their seats, I will do anything to be part of this family because the atmosphere in here is amazing.’ And they said, ‘Well would you want to be the lead?’
‘The guy with the British accent? Err, OK!’
I only had an hour of diction and accent training with this girl, Amy- Jo Jackson, who is amazing. She said, ‘Just show me what kind of Northampton accent you can do,’ and I did it and she said, ‘OK, that’s a little Australian, but a good start.’ But I’m so glad I did it. I still don’t think I nailed it, but it was fun.”
You’re known for having amazing range but was it a different style of singing? Did you have to have vocal training?
“Absolutely. I will say that Broadway are some of the most talented and hard-working singers. The schedule is gruelling on its own but vocally it is so exhausting because for me, as lead Charlie Price, I have three arguments back to back. So I’m screaming top of my lungs, getting all this emotion out, then I have the highest song I have to sing so I’m just like [sings note], ‘I hope I hit it’. I worked with a couple of people to help me – cool name drop – like Cyndi Lauper’s vocal coach. She helped me get my tongue unstuck which is I guess a thing? But it’s really just about stomping your foot down and bellowing out the note and hoping that you hit it, that was the main lesson I learnt. And I used it all for the album.”
Yes, so your new album ‘Pray for the Wicked‘ is out on June 22. What did you take from Broadway into it? Were you really ‘jazz hands’ in the studio?
“All of it was ‘hands’ while I was recording, yeah! Just vocally I was trying to push myself because my vocals definitely got stronger on Broadway because of the stuff I was singing for the show. The fact that it wasn’t my own music was also different. I was singing these other songs written by other people for other people, trying to mirror what they did in some way so by the time I got into the studio I realised my vocals had ended up in different places and opened up parts I didn’t know existed. It was fun, because I had an extra aspect to explore and discover and figure out where I land perfectly. I was singing notes higher and lower than before. I learnt a lot. There’s a lot of Broadway on this album.”
What is the theme of the new record? Is it a very personal album?
“Yeah, it is. It’s, I guess, two counts: it’s a lot of my religious upbringing which I love bringing into my art because I can’t deny it from my history. The cultural significance of the Mormon faith in who I became as an adult is huge so being able to use these themes like ‘Pray for the Wicked’, ‘Swear to God I’ll Never Repent’, ‘Mama Can I Get an Amen’, ‘Hook It Up’ is cool. But it’s also talking about where I saw myself as a kid to now. I dreamed of all this, being a rock star in a band. I used to make cardboard cut-outs of guitars and paint them and do the strings and tie yarn around them and then just sit in front of the mirror and act like I was singing Blink 182 songs or David Bowie or Queen songs. So a lot of the record is talking about that. There’s a song ‘High Hopes’ which is about that, ‘A Letter To My Mom’: Hey look ma, I made it. That’s a fun one.”
Is it a poppier feel for this one or more of a mish-mash?
“It’s more of a mish-mash but there are some more modern productions. I was listening to a lot more newer stuff and trying to learn why I liked this stuff so much.”
“Like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Sza – that whole album is so beautiful – Dua Lipa, Kehlani, Cardi B. There’s a lot of amazing female artists coming out right now and I was really enamoured with their production styles and their lyrics so I was stealing a lot from a lot of different people but also going back to roots with jazz and folk music and rock and classical – I try to use it all. There’s a song called ‘Roaring Twenties’ on the album which is about Broadway and about how homesick I was despite loving being out there, so it was a bittersweet experience. So being able to talk about that and then make it sound like a Speakeasy in the 30s or 20s was cool.”
And the ultra-violent video for ‘Say Amen’… tell me… Are you feeling OK?
“[Laughs] I’m fine but those guys did not survive! Basically, we had previously done two videos with Cloud Campos, who is a genius. ‘This is Gospel’ was the first one we ever did and then we wanted to tie it into something else so we thought about doing a trilogy and said we’d figure out the prequel later – which ended up being ‘Say Amen…’ – but then we went to Emperor’s New Clothes. But for Say Amen, we wondered how I’d die, because I had to do something really evil. I said honestly, all I want to do is pick up guys and throw them out windows and cut people’s hands off. So he said, ‘OK. Aesthetically you’ll be like a Kill Bill Kingsman?’ and I said, ‘Yes, that’s perfect, make it campy and gory and fun. I just want to kick some ass.’”
And the potato thing – you stab someone in the head through a jacket potato. Any particular reason?
“Ha yeah, why did we do that?! If anyone even paid any attention to the video they’d see, I’m supposed to be cooking pasta and then there’s continental in the oven. You don’t mix Italian and continental, keep it separate! So there’s potatoes and asparagus and I stick a knife through the potato into some guy’s head. So we thought it would be funny to send out potatoes to fans and kids were so confused! It made me so happy! That’s as dark as vindictive as I go, making people confused, thinking, ‘That was fun.’”
So your fanbase, I think it’s fair to say, are pretty hardcore. On the one hand, that must be amazing but you mentioned last year you had to move house because they got a bit much?
“It’s good and bad, like you said. It’s good most of the time but certain aspects can be not so good. We’d found our dream house and loved living there. I wrote and recorded the last album in the studio there, I was having a blast in this amazing home, loving it. And then we started getting some packages sent to the house so I thought that’s fun, I’ll take some stuff and send it back but in giving an inch, they took a mile and started showing up to the house all the time, when we were just trying to have a quiet night in. A couple of times my wife was home alone and people were showing up and she was having to say: ‘Yeah this really isn’t appropriate guys, I’d really appreciate you not showing up to our house, please leave.’ So we had to deal with it a couple of times but by that point we felt unsafe so we decided to move. But we found another amazing house with a studio. We just moved adjacent, so it’s OK.”
We put a post out on our Instagram asking fans to send some questions and got 1800 responses in about an hour! Here are some of the things the fans want to know. First up, on ‘High Hopes’ you say: “I’ve got one more run/and it’s going to be a sight to see”. A lot of people were concerned this meant it was going to be the last Panic! album.
“I can see that, sure. [long pause and laughs]. I mean, I didn’t take it that way but I’m one of those guys, I’m so impulsive, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I might wake up and think, ‘I’m not a musician anymore, I’m an actor now and I’m going to do theatre.’ I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t have any plans to stop ever. I want to be Mick Jagger’s age and still doing it. That’s the dream so there’s no plan for that but I’m glad that freaked them out a little bit. That’s a good conspiracy.”
Do you have any traditions before you go into the studio? Any little rituals before you start writing?
“Yeah, I do. I don’t know if I can share them. I think the best way to write is when you’re relaxed and in a state where you can let ideas freely flow and not be too combative with people and not let the ego get in the way. What helps me – and I’m in California so it’s legal – is to smoke a joint, usually have a beer which calms me down and puts me in a place where I’m a little more at ease an I can let the music guide me into something that lets me feel excited rather than overthinking an idea. But a lot of the times though, my best tradition is just researching music. I just spend about two hours listening to other artists and figuring out what I like and what I don’t like and then I decide that would be cool to copy and usually it’ll end up sounding really different, and like yourself. So if anyone is unsure about writing songs, my tip would be just try and copy someone else’s and trust that it won’t sound the same.”
That was another question people had: how do you get started as a songwriter or setting up a band?
“Oh, it’s exactly that. When I first started writing as a kid, I was probably eleven years old, got my first acoustic guitar: a little baby mountain guitar my dad got me for $50. I would sit and pluck along and try and work out why that note was like that. But mostly I was just copying other people’s songs, people like System of a Down or Nirvana, I would just sit there and copy their chords. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery but also it’s such a great way of writing songs.”
And now for some slightly random quick-fire questions from the fans: Do you like bananas?
“I love bananas.”
Do you like cats?
“I like cats.”
Have you ever ridden a horse?
“Woah! No. Right, bucket list: added.”
How’s your day been?
“My day’s been great, thank you.”
What’s your favourite cereal?
“Honey Bunches of Oats. With almonds.”
Do you like pineapple on a pizza?
“I love pineapple on a pizza. I’m one of those few.”
What would your drag name be?
Laurel or Yanny?
“It’s Laurel. Because I hear things in the low register.”
So you’ve got Reading and Leeds coming up this summer. Excited?
“I’m beyond excited for two reasons. The fact that we’re co-headlining with Kendrick Lamar. I am such a Kendrick fan I’m going to have to keep myself at bay, knowing that I’m going want to pounce. I don’t want to freak him out so I’ll keep my distance. But he seems like the coolest, so down to earth.”
What are Reading and Leeds memories for you?
“Well the first time we ever played, we got thirty seconds into our first set and I got bottled and knocked out. And when I came to a few minutes later – according to the video – I woke up and my best buddy Zach was standing above me and I asked him if the band was off stage and he said they were so I went over to them and said “what are you guys doing? Get back on stage, we have to finish our set”. And they were a bit like “OK Crazy, slow down, you just got a concussion”. But I went back out there and said “OK, let’s see how you guys do with my left side” and then nobody threw a thing and that meant something. We got through it and I felt like we earned our stripes. That was fun. Every time since then, it’s been increasingly better. I love Reading and Leeds.”
What can fans expect from the set?
“The album will be out and we’ll be playing so many new songs. Now that we’re doing co-headline, we get to finally bring production which we’ve never been able to do before. We’ve had lights before and smoke but we’re going to have some fun little tricks on stage. I’m so excited, it’s going to be good.”
Panic! At The Disco headline Reading at Leeds Festival in the UK, this August Bank Holiday weekend. Get tickets