Brendan Urie: Panic! haven’t written their best stuff yet

I walk out to the pool deck at The Saxon and suddenly I’m 20 years old again. And swooning over the fresh-faced Brendan Urie, who has a smile to make anyone melt on the spot.

He’s standing in front of me. It’s 10 years later, yet I feel butterflies like I did back then. It takes every ounce of energy to not be a giggly little girl. The dude from Warner Music looks at me with a huge smile, knowing that this is a teenage dream come true.

Urie shakes my hand and we launch straight into it with thinly-veiled excitement. He says he’s so happy to be in South Africa for a second time.

“It is a gorgeous country. It’s massive, and I’m so excited. It’s only our second time here.

“Last time was so amazing for us we had such an amazing time. We went diving and did touristy stuff and playing the shows was one of the most beautiful experiences. It felt like everyone was so excited about music.”

I explain that South Africa generally only gets to see the big artists once in a lifetime and he says he felt that.

“Sometimes when you play a show in say, New York or LA, they get so many shows so they’re used to it, so you get a different reaction when you come here.

“The first time was amazing. It’s kinda overwhelming to be halfway around the world doing what we love. I can’t help but feel this immense gratitude to everybody.”

Sibling rivalry with Fall Out Boy
The first time they were here was for My Coke Zero Fest in 2009, and this time it was for I Heart Joburg, which included the other huge band of the early 2000s era – Fall Out Boy.

“It’s always good to play with those guys. I love Fall Out Boy,” says Urie. “They’re good guys.

“We’ve known them for almost ten years now, which is really wild and I like playing live shows and touring with them because both of us bring a high energy to the performance and I like that we’re kind of competitive with one another, so if someone else was better on a certain night, it’s like we have to be better the next night.”

He says the bands watch each other live all the time so it’s a case of challenging each other

“It’s like I gotta beat that, I gotta beat him doing that. They’re so good. It’s more fun … Kinda like a sibling rivalry I love it.”

I tell him that one of my friends said they’re the same band and Urie burst out laughing – this laugh from his belly that fills the entire deck. “Oh man, that’s so funny. Yeah ,we get the comparison all the time. But I can’t really be mad at that because of that friendly rivalry and competitiveness.

“Someone who doesn’t necessarily know our band who is at a festival for Fall Out Boy … it gives us an opportunity when we play festivals like this, and how we put our own unique stamp on a similar genre. “

[Note: Earlier on in the day, Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy responded to the same question quite awkwardly before saying “Fuck it. We’re the same band and that’s why Panic isn’t here at the press conference.”]

New album, new direction
I tell Urie that the latest album – Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! – is very different; something for which most bands come under fire from fans, but this one was a good different.

“I like that it’s different because for me, doing something to just copy yourself is so easy. It’s tempting but it makes it more fun when you challenge yourself and you get frustrated in the creative process.

“I like being able to create something new and reinvent our sound because it s so important to do something different but that same challenge is what drives me in general – that wanting to be better than the last thing we did.”

He says Panic hasn’t written their best stuff yet, “which is a very good feeling. I like that feeling and I want to keep that feeling.”

We were told not to ask about previous band members, which sucked because I really wanted to know how the band dynamic changed with them gone and new members coming in, but we move on to the more personal stuff.

“The last album is very personal, and when was writing it, it wasn’t as nerve wracking for me cause I was in that creative mind space and still inside my own head and I hadn’t showed it to anybody yet.

“But showing it to friends, band mates, and the label was intense. It was like here’s a song that was so personal to me, and I was so nervous to see what they thought. I wanted that validation of their opinion.”

“I was like a kid asking ‘so what do you think of my drawing? Are you gonna put it on the fridge?’”

We laugh because we both know the feeling as artists in our different crafts. He says it’s weird and surreal to hear people singing his life back to him when he’s on stage.

“But it’s beautiful. It gives it new meaning when I’m singing songs and someone is singing it back to me, whereas at first I felt it was a little too personal to share with anybody.

“It kind of lightens the mood a little bit and I feel somewhat triumphant and it’s like a celebration – like we’re sharing in this and the person sharing it has given it new meaning and light and energy. It’s kinda like a new song when that happens.”

Leaving Las Vegas … and coming back
The band is from Las Vegas, which was always a weird concept to me growing up because there are casinos in Vegas. And tourist. People don’t live there. Urie laughs and says the band never really felt a kinship for Vegas.

“It was kinda weird because when we left Vegas, we had bitter feelings toward it. We were too young to play any venues – you had to be 21 or older, which sucked. So we were bitter, angsty teenagers and we didn’t wanna think about Vegas.

“We wanted to see the world, tour, and meet different people in new cities.”

However, the album is rooted in Vegas with stories from Urie’s childhood.
“This time around, I felt like a new person and felt safer in talking about certain things. As challenging as it was to be personal, it was just right to talk about certain things I’ve been through.

“It seemed like every song I was writing was talking about certain things that happened when was growing up there. It was home and it fit, and I wanted to stay with that theme and ended up writing 11 songs that ended up being about stuff that was happening while I was growing up in Vegas. It worked out.”

We get talking about the anatomy of an album and, of course, get onto the topic of vinyl.

“I still have vinyl. I love it. I spend nights just sitting in the dark alone and listening to records, and there’s something about it … hearing that hiss of a record through a speaker that breathes so much life into a song.

“It’s so haunting but beautiful and I love that.”

He says the band has discussed it and hope they do a few issues of some albums on vinyl.

“I like keeping it exclusive so people who really enjoy it get to listen to it on that format.”

Growing up with the music
Now one of my dear friends loves Panic and I tell Urie that she’s pretty much grown up with the band from her young days of listening to music.

“That’s such a cool thing to me. I never thought that would ever be a thing about our band or anything I’d ever done.”

She sent me a question the previous night, asking about what they consider the measurement of their success, to which he says: “Damn, good question.”

“The measurement for me is validation from polarised opinions. You either love me or you hate me. Don’t think of me as middle of the road.

“A lot of it is how much you challenge yourself. Like I said, we haven’t done or best work yet and that drive is a successful feeling.

“It’s not about how many albums you sell – even though that helps – it’s about how well you can convey and challenge yourself. But that’s aasier said than done. I like that challenge.”

One of the biggest constants, Urie says, is the fans.

“That’s why our live show is so important. Face-to-face interaction in a room playing with people – not for or to people. We definitely feed off the energy and anyone who shows up is a part of the show. Our live shows have consistently been as crazy as the fans make it and as we wanna make it. It’s a really unique thing. “

High Fidelity
We get talking about our favourites and I ask Urie if he’s ever watched the movie High Fidelity.

“Yeah I love that movie. I love John Cusack.”

I ask him his top five bands.

“Oh jeez!” He throws his head back and laughs. “Mine aren’t gonna be nearly as cool as theirs in the movie. Okay; Queen, The Beatles, Journey – Steve Smith is one of my all-time favourite drummers – Elvis Costello, and I’m gonna throw out a newer band; The Faint.

“They are a huge one for me, when I heard Danse Macabre it blew me away. Wet from Birth is still one of my favourite albums of all time. Love it.”

Time’s up and 20-year-old me is in a dream world.

I may have grown out of my teenybopper fanaticism, but Panic! at the Disco remains a part of my life that I will always hold dear. Driving to university with their songs blaring out of our really terrible car speakers and his voice being one of the most prominent sounds of that era.

And hearing them perform, not only the soundtrack to my university years, but Bohemian Rhapsody at I Heart Joburg will forever remain a highlight of my life as a music lover. – Nikita Ramkissoon