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By Jon Wiederhorn
It was 110 degrees outside in Bakersfield, California; and Panic! At the Disco front man Brendon Urie was especially grateful that the air conditioning on his band's bus was working.
"It's probably going to feel just as hot under the lights at the show tonight. But it's gonna be awesome," he said just a few hours before his band was scheduled to take the stage on the Tour to Save Rock and Roll, which also featured Panic!'s old friends Fall Out Boy.
While the title of the tour is tongue-in-cheek, Urie does think rock music has became stale over the last half-decade. However, he's convinced that it's starting to rise from its dormancy, and Panic! At the Disco want to be at the forefront of the reawakening.
"Rock 'n' roll is definitely changing and evolving," he told Yahoo! Music. "A lot of genres are blending, and I think that's really exciting. We're just doing our part to keep things fresh."
That aspiration reflects strongly in Panic! At the Disco's recent output; from their wild, surreal videos for "Miss Jackson" and "This is Gospel" to the multifaceted music on their fourth album, Too Weird to Live, To Rare to Die!, which comes out October 8. And the band remains as striking as ever live, both visually and sonically. They continue to combine sheer charisma and a keen sense of fashion with melodies that range from quirky guitar- and keyboard-driven pop to sweeping, dramatic rock anthems.
Equally impressive, Panic! At the Disco are maintaining their momentum without co-founder and drummer Spencer Smith, who is taking time away from the band to kick a longstanding addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol.
Currently, the band's drum tech, Dan Pawlovich (from the band Valencia) is taking Smith's place. "He learned the set straight away," Urie said. "He had been watching us play and filling in. He's doing a good job."
It's a good thing Pawlovich is comfortable and competent behind the kit, because right now it's unclear just how long Smith will be gone. "We haven't talked about specific dates for when Spencer can rejoin us," Urie said. "We're fully focused on him getting better, and when he's ready to come back, he will. I don't know if that will be an immediate turnaround. I doubt it, but we're staying positive."
In a July 30 post on the band's website, Smith wrote, "Last fall, after months of trying to quit and only making it two or three weeks, I entered treatment. I was extremely lucky to have the support of my family, band mates, friends, and my girlfriend. I've met too many people who have lost everything and burned every bridge they have due to their addiction. I can honestly say that without the love and support of those closest to me, I wouldn't be here, sober, and able to write this today."
Spencer played several shows with Panic! At the Disco after exiting rehab, but he dropped off the tour because it was too tempting to slip back into old habits when he was on the road. "A lot of times, alcohol goes with being on tour," Urie told Yahoo. "When you're out on the road, most people in the crew and the band fall into that world of drinking to pass the time because there's a lot of downtime and not much else to do. I don't think it has ever held me back at all, but for someone like Spencer, it’s hard to be on the road when something like this is plaguing you."
Despite the problems Smith has caused, Urie insists the drummer has the band's undying support. "I've always supported him and loved him and that's something I’ll continue to do," Urie said. "It's always a surprise when stuff like this happens. He's been fighting this for years, and we've watched him. But it's something we'll continue to support him about, as long it takes."
Panic! At the Disco's fans also show no sign of abandoning the group. In advance of the release of Too Weird to Live, To Rare to Die!, the band released two music videos, both of which have gone supernova on YouTube. The official video for the propulsive, dance-pop, electronic-embellished "Miss Jackson" has received more than 3 million views since it was posted on July 15. And the emo-enhanced new-wave odyssey "This is Gospel," which debuted August 11, has already garnered over 1.8 million views. Both videos are inventive and nightmarish narratives that demonstrate how much a band can do with a limited budget if they have a talented, creative team to work with.
The latter, directed by Daniel Cloud, depicts Urie as a hospital patient on an operating table resisting as surgeons try to cut him open. During the video, Urie is placed in a coffin, submersed in water and has his shirt ripped open, revealing coils of intestine-like rope the doctors use to try to bind him. But each time the physicians try to do him in, Urie escapes...until the very end when he is held against the table and flat-lines.
"Miss Jackson," directed by Jordan Bahat, is even more macabre. During the clip, Urie plays a tragically doomed character who wakes up next to a dead girl. When he becomes conscious, he seems equally freaked out and possessed. He washes her blood off his hands, engages in a frenzied dance outside of a Las Vegas hotel, and eventually drives a car into the desert. There, he encounters a witch who imbues him with her spirit, then has him behead her with a samurai sword.
Actress and model Kristina Bowden ("30 Rock," "American Reunion") played the witch, and at first Urie was afraid she would back out. Fortunately, that didn't happen.
"She's the sweetest person and she was so down with the idea," Urie said. "She said, 'As long as you don’t actually behead me, I'm cool with it.'" That part was accomplished with some convincing CGI.
"She was such a sport," continued Urie. "She wound up staying with us until 5 a.m. doing the shoot. It was late when we started, because we had to get the night shots in the desert. But it was insane because it was still 108 degrees outside, which blew my mind. Kristina and her husband Ben stayed outside almost the whole time just hanging out. We were so glad they were so understanding. They could have been super bummed and nervous about it, and being out in the desert at 4 a.m. But they were awesome, and we had a great time."
The successful videos should lead up nicely to the release of Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! Urie borrowed the title from a line in the film adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and in some ways the impulsive vibe of the songs and the hedonistic elements that went along with their creation parallel the insanity of the movie.
"The album sums up a lot of how I feel about Las Vegas," Urie says. "There are themes there that are like pages out of a diary from my memory – things I had actually been through that I hadn't had the opportunity to analyze. For me, the best way to be therapeutic about something is to sing about it. Putting my thoughts into words and revisiting them is cathartic."
Las Vegas is called "Sin City" for a reason; there must be a million incidents that inspired the slogan "Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." While Urie’s revelations were rooted in the celebratory spirit of the gambling mecca and his recent experiences there, those incidents weren't necessarily decadent or hedonistic.
"When I was writing the album, I was going back and forth between Los Angeles and Las Vegas to see my family, who still lives in Las Vegas, which is where I grew up," Urie explained. "We were 17 years old when we started touring and we didn't have the opportunity to play shows there or participate in the things Vegas is known for – the debauchery and a lot of the stuff you do when you're 21. We were really bitter at the time, and to be able to go back and experience that stuff in a new light, and to experience those things at the age I'm at now, opened my eyes a little bit. But raging like a rock star has never been my scene."
Instead, Urie became immersed in the club scene and watching people lose themselves in the heartbeat of dance music. "I never went to dance clubs when I was younger," he said. "I wrote it off and went, 'That’s not cool.' Then I experienced that stuff myself and noticed how powerful it was watching these people in this room just let loose. They were dancing like no one was there, but also communicating in a way where they meshed together in an ocean of beautiful chaos. And that hit me pretty hard. I said, 'Wow, I want to make music like this that makes me want to dance and makes other people want to get together in a community where you can have a good time."
It would be a stretch to say Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die! is specifically a dance album, but many of the songs incorporate a carefree spirit and use more electronic dance beats than the band have previously used. Whether Panic! At The Disco are playing '80s influenced pop like Duran Duran or more indie-oriented, navel-gazing fare that resembles the Smiths, they do so with one foot pointed at the dance floor. Urie credits his new style of songwriting to his fascination with contemporary hip-hop producers and modern technology.
"I've learned a lot from listening to different hip-hop artists, because there are no rules. Their production is so great, and they're really breaking boundaries in terms of how music can sound. I don't think there's a specific hip-hop sound in this album, but the idea of having no rules really rubbed off on me. I was working with a lot of different synthesizers and arpeggiators that I hadn't seen before. I used to write songs based on a lyric or a melody, but now these sounds were dictating the songs. I would hear an arpeggiator, and I would mess within the oscillators, and it would trigger something musically for me or send me in a direction that I would never have gone before. And that pushed this album to evolve in its own eclectic way."
In the end, Urie is thrilled with the way Panic! At the Disco have embraced their new technology and influences, because it helped him create a record that stimulated him as a songwriter. Instead of going through the same old routine, he was able to experiment with a variety of new ideas and techniques.
"I've always been that ADHD kid – the spazz," Urie admits. "I bounce from one thing to the next. I can't stay on one subject for too long. I'm always jumping around the room. So it's very much in my being to want to try different things. There are songs on this record that sound like Depeche Mode or A-Ha's 'Take on Me,' but then there's songs that sound like '80s rock anthems. It's all over the place and that's really exciting to me because I never get bored with the record."