Brendon Urie: “Just Be A Decent Person – You Don’t Have To Be A Dick!”
This article was originally published in Kerrang! issue K!1735, ahead of Panic! At The Disco’s debut headline slots at Reading & Leeds. We’re re-posting it today, though, in celebration of their frontman’s 32nd birthday. Happy birthday, Brendon Urie!
Since his earliest years, the signs have always been there that Brendon Urie was destined to be a star. At the tender age of three, the Panic! At The Disco frontman would pull pots and pans out of the cupboards of his home in Las Vegas – having recently moved from his original birthplace of St George, Utah – and tap away with spoons and other kitchen utensils, creating his own makeshift drum kit.
“My mom says that the rhythm was always inside my head, and I just had to get it out,” the 31-year-old chuckles, reflecting on a time that, admittedly, he doesn’t quite remember for himself.
Just two years later, Brendon – inspired by Disney films – would then move on to his beloved piano, feeling the inherent need to learn songs by ear. It was, he says, the first time he really knew he wanted to actively pursue music.
“There was a movie I used to watch as a kid called Fun With Music, which was a Disney series that basically taught you about music in this really fun way,” he recalls. “A guy would have a conversation, and another guy would play the saxophone to the sound of talking. It was more about music being a discussion, rather than a genre. It doesn’t have to be one idea: it can be a million different instruments talking to each other to create a conversation, which is really cool.”
Taking his knack for all things noisy one step further, by the age of 10, the now-multi-instrumentalist was in full wannabe rock star mode, making cardboard cut-outs of guitars with yarn for a strap, standing in front of his bedroom mirror and fantasising about a life in the bright lights. “It was just: ‘Oh my god, I wanna be a rock god!’ That was the dream,” he smiles knowingly.
Simultaneously, Brendon also flirted with the idea of trying to become an actor. Clearly, it was second nature for him to perform in some capacity, and keep his audiences – whoever they may be – entertained.
“I’d watch movies and act out all the characters,” he enthuses. “I fell in love with the movie Hook, and my mom – the sweetest woman in the world – cut up my sweatpants to look like the ripped-up outfit when he becomes Peter Pan again. I was so into it, and I’d run around the house and mimic it, and run through all the dialogue myself. That’s just kind of how it was. I was always mimicking other things, whether or not I knew that I would be onstage. It just seemed like, ‘I could do that.’”
Spurred on by his family, Brendon was encouraged to follow his passions.
“My mom would always tell me: ‘Just put your faith in yourself, and remember who you are,’” he smiles. “She would always quote The Lion King and say: ‘Remember who you are,’ when I would go to school. And I thought about that a lot. My mom had a major influence on who I am – I am a mini her, for sure! If you met my mom you’d be like, ‘Oh, I get it now.’ The dance moves, the energy, the bounciness in the head!”
It’s a fitting time to be having this reflective chat with one of the biggest superstars in modern music. Having completed an impressive stint on Broadway in Kinky Boots in 2017, and released a(nother) U.S. Number One album with this year’s Pray For The Wicked, Brendon Urie is now in the midst of Panic! At The Disco’s most successful tour yet. It’s a colossal run of shows that has seen the frontman play to more fans than ever, with pop icon Cyndi Lauper even joining Brendon onstage at a recent date in Long Island.
“That’s a really good summation of how the tour is going,” he laughs of his surprising collaboration. “We’re so grateful for everything that gets thrown at us. Once this tour started, I was like, ‘Holy hell, this is crazier than what I could have possibly dreamed of!’”
As Kerrang! catch up with him during a much-needed off-day in Florida, Brendon is now looking ahead to an even greater career accomplishment: co-headlining Reading & Leeds next week. Some 28 years after his first-ever dabbling with music, it’s not hard to see how he’s made it here. After all, Brendon has a fearless approach to creating art, with a seemingly endless supply of charisma to boot. Leading up a scene often concerned about the purity of rock’n’roll with his own brand of bombastic pop, though? That’s what makes Brendon’s story a truly extraordinary one…
Brendon Urie photographed in London, exclusively for Kerrang!
On Panic! At The Disco’s gloriously-uplifting single High Hopes, Brendon Urie sings of how he ‘Didn’t know how but I always had a feeling / I was gonna be that one in a million…’ The now-LA resident certainly wouldn’t be caught making such a conceited statement in real-life conversation – a more modest human, in fact, you’ll never come across – but he has undoubtedly proved himself as something of a rock anomaly. In a year where friends and mentors Fall Out Boy made the furthest leap yet from their pop-punk roots to widespread criticism (the phrase ‘Sell Out Boy’ becoming a not-so-funny fixture in social media comments), Panic!’s leader has undergone similar stylistic changes with far less division amongst fans.
Let’s just jump straight in with this one, then…
Brendon Urie, how do you get away with it?
He laughs. “I don’t know…”
There’s a pause while Brendon considers his answer, and then he bounces right back into his characteristically chatty self.
“I have no shame – I love pop music! I mean, the reason for pop music is popular culture: it’s popular music because people want to be excited, and people want to hear something that is exciting to them, and that’s usually something that’s different. Or it can make you reflect on something from your past, you know? Like, Finesse by Bruno Mars reminds me of 20 other songs from the ’90s, and brings me back to being a kid. So that can be a good device… but I really don’t know. I don’t know…”
Indeed, from the wonderfully jubilant horn arrangements on Hey Look Ma, I Made It, to the cabaret-tastic Roaring 20s and beautiful piano ballad Dying In LA, the rock elements are few and far between on album number six. Crucially, though, it’s delivered by Brendon’s smoother-than-silk tones, expert showmanship and “no rules” outlook – and it all combines to create one spectacular, cohesive whole.
Panic!’s record-breaking single, High Hopes
Having been raised on a broad musical diet of Celine Dion, Journey, Wu-Tang Clan and so much more besides, Brendon boasts a refreshing all-inclusive attitude that has followed him throughout not only his life, but his career. After being pigeonholed into emo with dazzling 2005 debut A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, Brendon has hopped between everything from psychedelia (2008’s Pretty. Odd.) to jazz and swing (2016’s Death Of A Bachelor). Naturally, he’s kept that going with the melting pot that is Pray For The Wicked.
“We’ve never cared about labels that people threw at us: whether it was ‘emo’, or ‘pop-punk’, or ‘whiney rock’, or whatever the hell it was,” he nods. “I feel like any artist wants to just create music without having to line up with a certain category, and it’s very cool to not have to hold to one genre.”
Embracing musical freedom, Brendon emphasises, is the most ‘rock star’ move an artist can make.
“That’s the better definition of a rock star: you do what you want, but you don’t step on people to do what you want,” he encourages. “Creatively you do what you want, and I think there is a very big difference. Donald Trump does what he wants, but he’s a fucking asshole – he’s encroaching on people’s rights. So if you’re not doing that, and you’re not doing any harm to people, and you’re just creating for you, then definitely do what you want – why not? I think ‘rock star’ has that stigma of: ‘You’re just crazy, and you party hard, and you’re with different women every night, and you’re trashing hotel rooms, and treating interviewers like shit, and you just don’t care!’ That seems like it was the ‘rock star’ thing that came from ’60s and ’70s rock.”
We remind Brendon of a 2006 Kerrang! interview where, even in the aftermath of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, he insisted that he definitely wasn’t a rock star. With millions more records to his name, and a bigger and more rabid audience than ever, does he feel any different these days?
“If it satisfies someone to call me a rock star, then do it – I don’t give a shit! But I call myself an entertainer,” Brendon jokes. “I’m just such a homebody, you know? I’m a domesticated man. If I were to say that I’m a rock star to my wife, she would bust up laughing and be like, ‘Go take the fucking trash outside!’ And I’d be like, ‘(Hangs head) You’re right, it is my chore.’ But, I don’t know… I know what I love to do, and I know what I’m passionate about, and I know what makes me happy, and I just want to continue doing that.”
The singer’s dedication to following his heart comes naturally, though not always easily. While the Brendon of today appears an unshakeably confident and bold rock star – sorry, entertainer – his enthusiasm for performance used to manifest itself very differently.
With his pot-and-pan-bashing days behind him, in eighth grade, Brendon – talented and eager, yes, but with a dash of arrogance – was a fully-fledged drummer. His dexterity behind the kit meant that his then band teacher decided he was going to help secure his wide-eyed 13-year-old student an early scholarship.
“My teacher wanted to film me playing a drum solo,” Brendon remembers, with a wince at what came next. “And in my brain, I was like, ‘I’m going to fuck with all of these people!’”
Instead of getting stuck in to the recital with the rest of the band, Brendon suddenly stopped playing after two short seconds, before counting his classmates back in “like a jerk”. “I didn’t give them what they wanted, and my teacher pulled me aside and was like, ‘If you ever do that again, you’re out of my band. You’re gone.’ It was like [2014 film] Whiplash – it wasn’t that cruel, but it was that intense.”
It wasn’t until his later years that Brendon was able to truly understand why he’d behaved in that way.
“I just thought about it, like, ‘Man, why do I need to make people feel uncomfortable to make them think I’m confident?’” he admits. “That’s really what it was, and it took some time to learn. I was a shitty teenager, and I was definitely inconsiderate of a lot of things. That was a lot of work – it’s a lot of work to be mean and cocky (laughs).”
These days, Brendon can still take centre court onstage with Panic! At The Disco, but without even the faintest air of ego. He grooves, backflips and leaps around the stage half-naked, in tight leather pants that no-one else would ever get away with wearing. He’ll hold the crowd in the palm of his hand even tucked away behind a piano, or reach unthinkably high notes while surveying his adoring fans up-close. Brendon is, in short, the king of performing. It doesn’t mean he’s not quietly worrying on the inside, though.
“I think that artists in general – whether they’re actors or musicians or whatever – our insecurities are masked entirely by what our art accomplishes,” he observes. “If you’re looking at a movie with, like, Chris Pratt or somebody, and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, they seem so cool and confident…’ I guarantee you that throughout some of that stuff, they’re sitting there freaking out and they’re so insecure. They’re like, ‘Is what I’m doing wrong? What is wrong with me?’ We all have those doubts – we’re all human beings dealing with that stuff.”
In Panic! At The Disco’s early days, Brendon even admits to letting his insecurities get in the way of certain opportunities. He tries not to let those feelings affect him as best as he can now.
“Throughout the beginning of Panic!’s career, if I started to say no to stuff based on fear, I was much more sad later on,” remembers the frontman. “I never thought I’d be on Broadway until they offered me the gig [on Kinky Boots]. And I was like, ‘I’m terrified, but I’m still going to try it.’ I think if I said no based on fear, I would have been so regretful. It was such a challenge, and ultimately just the greatest reward at the end. I felt so happy at the end of it – but all the way throughout I was freaked out, like, ‘Am I doing a good job? I don’t know what’s happening!’”
As recently as the end of last year, however, Brendon let his anxieties win. Unafraid to show his vulnerable side, Panic!’s leader opened up on one of his many Q&As via an Instagram live stream. He told viewers that he’d had a panic attack while out shopping. It moved him in such a way that he was forced to simply leave his groceries and head home.
Brendon elaborates further.
“I had, like, 15 items in my cart, and I was walking around with a full list of stuff to get, and halfway through I just got this overwhelming fear that I couldn’t breathe, that I was going to die, and everything was freaking me out,” he explains. “I just ran: I left the cart and ran out of the grocery store and sat in my car trying to breathe, hoping that I could get back in there and finish shopping. I thought about it for a second, and then was like, ‘Nope, I’ve gotta go home.’ Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. At least I sat there and came to a conclusion of, ‘Can I do this thing?’ I think that’s the best we can do, and hopefully it just gets better with time – at least, it has for me.”
Brendon Urie photographed in London, exclusively for Kerrang!
Brendon Urie thinks about the world in many different ways. And not just philosophically – he’s in awe of science: multiverse travel, string theory, quantum physics. It’s such an interest, in fact, it even inspired a last-minute addition to Pray For The Wicked: King Of The Clouds.
“I had been writing this instrumental track, but during it I was so high that I started talking about [legendary astrophysicist] Carl Sagan, and the 11th dimension,” Brendon chuckles. “I pulled up this video and was talking about all this stuff, and I was like, ‘Dude, imagine that you’re in the second dimension, and the person from the third dimension comes into the second dimension, and all they would see is a little slither, because that’s all they can perceive, so the fourth dimension would just be light!’ And I started just pontificating on stuff that I had no understanding about.”
This is a regular occurrence for Brendon Urie. In fact, he contemplates it “all the time”.
“I’m an atheist, but that just means that I don’t believe in one god – I think there are so many other possibilities,” he grins, eyes lighting up. “[Physicist] Michio Kaku had the coolest thing to say about God: ‘It’s cosmic music through hyper-dimensional space,’ or something! There’s some wild quote, and I just thought it was so gorgeous, the way he put it. I was just like, ‘Man, that’s so cool, it’s just beyond our understanding, and it’s something we can’t grasp but we can feel, and that’s maybe what God is.’ It’s so beautiful. And then that starts thinking about the theory, and what that means, and how it’s all tied together – how we know nothing, and that makes me so happy, that we’re so insignificant!”
Really? You enjoy feeling insignificant?
“It’s liberating for me,” Brendon nods. “It takes the pressure off. I think, when I put more importance on myself, it makes me feel like I have more of an obligation to rise to the occasion. It doesn’t matter – I’m nothing, so let’s just reach and see what happens! My whole family are still religious, and I understand that need for that validation – for them, it totally makes sense, and I would never push any agenda on them. But, for me, that’s just how it works.”
Despite his refreshingly carefree world view, come the August bank holiday weekend, there’s going to be two giant fields of people who hold Brendon with the utmost importance. And rightly so.
The occasion is not lost on him. He thinks back to his younger self, cardboard guitar in hand. What would little Brendon think about seeing his band’s name atop the Reading & Leeds bill?
“Oh my god… it would blow 10-year-old me’s mind!” he smiles. “My head would explode at that point, thinking, ‘How the hell did you get there?’ I think 10-year-old me would not believe it, at all!”
Though there’s every possibility that Brendon will be feeling the pressure inside, he’ll be taking it in his stride and embracing his magical situation – both in music, and outside of it – nonetheless.
“I just like communication and interaction,” he concludes. “When you’re alone for too long, you get sad; you can start to feel a little despondent and detached from humanity. So the more that I can get out and reach out to fans and talk to people, I feel a little more in tune with what’s going on. It’s just nice to be nice, right? And it’s happier to be happy (laughs).”
Panic! At The Disco’s leader is clearly not your typical rock star. It’s what makes him so special, after all. But maybe it’s time that we changed the term to fit Brendon Urie’s ideals?
“Yeah! ‘Do what you want creatively and hopefully that’ll make you a better person,’” he grins. “Just be a decent person – you don’t have to be a dick!”
Panic!‘s video for Hey Look Ma, I Made It