Brendon Urie of the Las Vegas band Panic! at the Disco recalls watching the demolition of the iconic Sands Hotel and Casino, the site of so many performances by his idol Frank Sinatra, on the news as a nine-year-old. “It was a huge moment – history being torn down. I remember it so vividly,” the singer, now 29, tells me. “But Vegas never really keeps old relics or historical monuments. They get torn down to make way for the new thing. That’s the way it thrives.”
That’s the way Urie thrives too, striding forwards with little regard for the way things used to be, rarely looking back – and the glitzier the better. By the time his band released their fifth album, Death of a Bachelor, at the start of this year, he was the sole remaining member. Bassist Jon Walker and guitarist and main songwriter Ryan Ross departed due to musical differences during the making of album three in 2009. Last year drummer Spencer Smith went too, following struggles with addiction to alcohol and prescription pills.
None of this was a problem for Urie, who is so relentlessly positive that if he ever gets tired of rocking, he should consider a job as a football mascot. The album that he made without the help of the original members became the band’s first US number one, reaching the top five over here, and this weekend he plays two massive shows at Alexandra Palace. “I’m pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know what this album was gonna do, I just knew how I wanted it to sound and what I wanted to accomplish with it. It’s been above and beyond everything I could have imagined,” he says.
Many people weren’t sure what to make of Panic! at the Disco when they arrived in 2005, still in their teens, with a frantic, fun, eventually double-platinum debut album. It was easy to find them irritating from the first look at that band name, its midway exclamation mark sticking up like a concrete bollard designed to obstruct smooth reading of any sentence in which it appeared. They were tagged as an emo band – the sound of the sensitive, anguished teen – as they had been signed hastily to a record label belonging to Pete Wentz of scene figureheads Fall Out Boy, and dealt in ridiculously wordy song titles. A typical example? The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage. But a colourful, theatrical sound and image set them apart.
“Other bands in Vegas hated us because we hadn’t played shows and paid our dues. Publications called us out saying we were just a put-together band, claiming we had ghostwriters. It made me so happy, the fact that everyone was hating on us so hard,” Urie claims. “We just thought, wow, people are really taking notice. Let’s have a ball with it.”
After their early success, they began to pull in different directions. Ross and Walker favoured florid Sixties rock. In 2008 the band’s second album, Pretty. Odd. (more punctuation irritation!) was full of orchestral flourishes and had a retro cover that recalled Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake by The Small Faces. Urie’s contrasting passions have really come to the fore now that he’s the one in sole control. Death of a Bachelor is so busy, so over the top, that it’s impossible to have on in the background.
The shameless pomp of Queen is a key influence today. He’s been covering Bohemian Rhapsody in concert and on the recent soundtrack to the comic book movie Suicide Squad. “If I saw any other band doing that, I’d be like, ‘Fuck off, who do you think you are?’ I ask myself the same thing,” says Urie. “We just started doing it during our soundchecks, for a change from playing the same songs, and began going further and further into it. Brian May got in touch to say something like, ‘Well done lads, didn’t think you had it in you,’ which was really cool and validating.”
Then there’s Sinatra. Urie has a large image of the legend’s face on his left forearm, with hat and bow tie, in black-and-white apart from those famous blue eyes. His Twitter avatar is him mimicking Sinatra’s police mugshot from 1938, with the same number hanging around his neck. On the album’s title track he’s in full crooner mode, and surprisingly, it suits him. “I’m a little obsessed. His world felt so fantastical when I was a kid. I was so enthralled watching Guys and Dolls and learning about the Rat Pack,” he says. “Queen and Sinatra is a cool mix for some reason, though I never thought it would work out.”
He says that even though he is now trading alone, he never considered ditching the band name and calling his latest work a solo album. “It never came into question, taking the name away or changing it. Panic! Has always symbolised some form of excitement that I couldn’t get elsewhere. If I had come out with an album called ‘Brendon Urie Does…’ everyone would have been like, ‘Who?’ Even five albums in I’m still faceless wherever I go, which is great. I’ll get recognised sometimes when I’m on tour, but when I get home I get to go to the grocery store in my pyjamas.”
It must be deeply satisfying to go from being the big voice and good-looking face of a band to its main creative force, and find even greater commercial success in the process, but Urie is far too upbeat to be tempted to gloat. His current touring band is a dream, he says (“I love all these guys. Everybody is such a good addition.”) and he only has positive things to say about his former bandmates, too. “Spencer is really good right now. He was just married. He’s almost two years sober now which is just phenomenal. With Jon and Ryan, everybody seems good when I see them, they’re doing their own thing. I doubt that any of us would want to be in the other person’s shoes. They’ve seemed really happy when I’ve talked to them and I know that I am too.”
Why wouldn’t he be? These days he’s married, living in LA’s San Fernando Valley with his wife Sarah and terriers Penny Lane and Humphrey Bogart. He made much of the new music in his home studio. “I finally had the thing I’d dreamed of: being able to wake up, walk into a studio and just write and record for hours on end. I got to do all the fun stuff I’d never tried in the past.” He may have lost his band but he’s found a new lease of life.