We don’t get to interview too many pop punk masterminds, so it was a real treat to be able to pick Panic! At The Disco frontman Brendon Urie’s brain. We asked Urie about the band’s new album, his worship of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” spicing up the hook with backing vocals and more.
How would you describe Too Weird To Live, Too Rare To Die?
That’s always so tough. For me, I’ve been telling people that it’s more like a party record. It’s more like I wanted to dance and celebrate. When I was writing this record, I was traveling in between my hometown of Vegas and L.A., where I live now. Doing things I wouldn’t have normally done in the past – going to clubs and just kind of people-watching a little bit. And I wanted to make a record that got people dancing, got people as excited as it made me, listening to and writing these songs.
How would you compare it to your last record?
This record is totally different from the last record. Songwriting wise, it’s definitely different. I think for me – the last record I did have some songs where I was talking about real events, real people, but kind of masking it more in story form. In this one, there’s still some story there, but it’s more confessional, it’s a little more true, honest. So, musically, sonically, it’s really different. I like doing different stuff. I get bored pretty easy so I like to bounce around different ideas and use different influences and more try to mask what I was listening to. But on this record, what I was listening to is more evident.
One of the elements in the single “Miss Jackson” is the word “hey” repeated, as part of the hook… I’ve noticed that a lot of really catchy songs these days have a “hey” or a “woah” in them. Were you cognizant of that when you were writing it?
Yeah, I mean a lot of times, it’s kind of funny – it can be seen as cheating to be like “woah” and not using real words to write a hook. But for the most part, I do say that a lot. I’m saying like “woo-hoo” and “hey” a lot. Sometimes it’s just right for the melody, for the part. It just amps up the part a little bit more. Yeah, I love it.
Was OutKast in the back of your mind at all when you were writing this song?
Not until the song was written and I was watching Janet Jackson’s “Nasty”, and then I started thinking – I started laughing when I was writing that lyric because it makes me laugh but I also kind of love it. Then I knew, like, I want to say “Miss Jackson” but I know it’s going to have that correlation with OutKast. Which is kind of sweet because I love OutKast.
Who are some of your songwriting heroes?
I’ve never been asked that, so thanks for asking that. Songwriting heroes… Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney – god, there are so many. Peter Gabriel. Lately it’s been more hip-hop, too. I love the way Kendrick Lamar can rap a verse around a bridge that goes into this hook that doesn’t really come in later – like you’re not in the mood of like get to the chorus, you’re just interested from the get-go which is a really tough thing to do as a songwriter, to spark an interest, write very Shakespearian, with some form of tragedy or something really hooky.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
The first song I ever wrote, I was 10 years old and I was really into System of a Down. And I wrote this song that sounded like System of a Down, but it was called “Chicken Taquito.” No joke. I called it that. And literally, the words were just like, how much I love eating chicken taquitos. In a round-about way. There was singing about mushrooms and green peppers and stuff too.
Do you consider you early songs good, or was there a learning curve?
I still consider those good for the time we were in, being so fresh to writing. Especially with other people, I’d never really done that before I’d joined this band. I had been in other hardcore bands, but I would just like write a song and be like, let’s scream through this. Just play a fast beat and let’s scream over it. So it wasn’t really out until I joined this band, and then really focused on songwriting seriously. I’m not ashamed of those songs, I’m still very proud of them. But yeah, I feel like I’ve gotten better as a songwriter, for sure.
How do you go about writing songs?
It’s easier to start with a musical idea if I have a melody, which happens more frequently. Usually it’ll start with something like that instead of a lyric. But there are songs, I’d say half of them maybe, where they started from a lyric that I had, just some little quip or small idea, that I tried to blossom into a fully-realized song. They kind of lean both ways, lyrically and musically, but I like starting with a beat, making a beat – Dr. Dre it a little bit.
When you write lyrics, do you typically write them all at once?
If it starts with a lyric, I’ll only have like the one line — and then I do the “scrambled eggs” thing, like the Paul McCartney thing, which is why I love him so much — where you just kind of like say random words that sound good. Because I like the way certain vowels sound on a chord, in this chord change you use an A vowel, an E vowel, a long I, and an O. So I do that method, just singing bullshit words and then it becomes a fully realized thing after I’ve got that first lyric and I’m like oh, this is what the song can be about, here’s a hook for me, now I want to realize the idea. Which is kind of cool, I like doing that. So thanks to Paul McCartney for introducing me to the scrambled eggs idea.
What’s a song on the record that you’re extra proud of?
The last song for me was something I’d never done before on a record, which was a very, very slow ballad that I wrote about my wife. And it was very honest, very confessional. It was just a new way of going about it. I literally played there chords looped over and over and I just sang this thing and it was very bare bones which, for me, is kind of rare because I usually produce a beat and then I’ll write something else over it.
What’s a lyric or verse that you’re really happy with?
I like “Vegas Lights.” I like “where villains spend the weekend,”, that’s a fun lyric. “This is Gospel” was a really interesting one as well because when I wrote that, I almost didn’t show it to anybody, but I really like a lot of the lyrics. I like “assembling philosophies from pieces of broken memories,” which I though was kind of a cool idea, where you only remember so much of your past, and then you build up who you are from those memories that you’ve created for yourself — but how true are they from what really happened and I just thought it was an interesting idea.
Are there any words you love or you hate?
One of my least favorite words is “moist”. I just think it’s so strange. I’m into moist chocolate cake. In general, the idea of something moist, that’s fine. But just the word, for some reason. “Squeeze” is another one. “Squeeze” and “moist” are strange words to me. I don’t’ know if I have a favorite word. I think my favorite work is “fuck.” I just say it so much. I swear a lot. So there you go, three of the worst possible words – “moist”, “squeeze”, and “fuck.”. You could make the craziest combinations with those.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I like writing music video ideas. I’ve done that a couple times just to get a draft out. And I’ll write out like “at this second in a song, this’ll happen.” I try to write out full treatments. don’t think I’ve used any of them yet, so I’m still working on getting better at that. It’d be cool to be able to write scripts or something. That’d be fun.
Were you really good, say in high school writing stories or poems?
Yeah, the one place that I actually excelled in school – I was terrible at math, I had an interest in science but I was terrible at that – but yeah English and History class I was really good at. I got A’s and B’s. Those were the only classes I did, I was really proud. ‘Cause yeah, I like telling stories, I like building up some idea in my head and trying to get it out on paper. It was a little more difficult for me, I always thought I was the worst at explaining myself or explaining an idea. But I like to practice. It’s more fun in song form for me, though.
What’s a Panic! song that people have said really moves them?
A lot of fans have told us that “Northern Downpour” is really sweet. I’ve also gotten “Always” from our last record – they’ve told me that one has helped them out a lot, which is really cool to hear. It’s just amazing to hear that about any song. Especially those songs though, I think they come from more of a tender place, more emotional, just raw. There’s a couple songs like that. I hope there’s a couple tracks like that on this new record that kind of help people through some stuff, too.
If you could pick anybody alive or dead to co-write with tomorrow, who would you want to write with?
See this is tough, because alive or dead – there’s so many people I would love to write with. Honestly, I think it would be a trip to have written with Freddie Mercury. That would have been so crazy. To me he’s like pinnacle best front man for a band and one of the most talented songwriters. As well as Brian May, I mean they combined to make “Bohemian Rhapsody” – it’s unreal.
Who do you consider to be an underrated songwriter?
Butch Walker is an amazing songwriter. And I know he’s not really known for it, but to me he’s like one of the most talented, relevant artists today. Just a bad ass. The ways he writes songs is so cool. He’s super honest, but then he can make these stories that you’re not sure if they’re true or not. Which is really hard to do. Because a lot of times you can hear something that sounds so outlandish, you’re like, “That’s not real.” But almost everything Butch does is so true, and it’s like “Really? Wow, you went through that? You got knocked out in a fight? Holy crap.” He’s a talented dude.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
“Bohemian Rhapsody.” It blows my mind. From the key changes to the dynamic from the two separate verses that are one verse that goes into a pick-up chorus that becomes a bigger chorus — that’s the craziest form. The formula for writing that song is so, just, original and unique. I think a lot of people would say that, too. You know, it’s held up as one of the greatest songs of all time. For songwriting ability, it’s just unreal. I wish I would have written that song.