Panic! at the Disco's Debut Turns 10: Oral History Told by Brendon Urie, Pete Wentz & More
It was the blueprint for how today’s acts aim to break via YouTube, Vine and Twitter, before Vine and Twitter were even launched.
Sunday (Sept. 27) marks the 10-year anniversary of one of the most polarizing albums of our time: Panic! at the Disco’s impossibly ambitious, Vaudeville-meets-pop-punk opening statement, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. It sold 2 million copies in the U.S., won the VMA for video of the year, and launched an entire record label -- all this from four Las Vegas teens who were signed before ever playing a concert.
Today, it is expected -- almost imperative -- that the Internet plays a pivotal role in establishing a new act. But when Panic! at the Disco formed in 2004, the idea of an artist breaking via the Web was novel, met with the same curiosity as Panic!’s paisley suits and eyeliner. They’d never performed, but that didn’t stop them from posting two demos to the LiveJournal page of Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz, who rushed out to Vegas with visions of a new record label. It was the blueprint for how today’s acts aim to break via YouTube, Vine and Twitter, before Vine and Twitter were even launched.
But there’s more than that. There’s the story of four teens bolting from their high school graduation for a recording studio, growing up on the road, and laying the foundation for Decaydance Records (now DCD2), which continues to thrive. There’s also a hilarious mix-up involving security and a Jonas Brother backstage at a concert. There's drama with the Killers and Kings of Leon. Here it is, retold by the people that lived it:
Brendon Urie - Panic! lead singer
Pete Wentz - Fall out Boy bassist, Decaydance/DCD2 founder who signed Panic!
Jon Walker - Panic! bassist, 2006-09
Matt Squire - A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out producer
Scott Nagelberg - Panic! manager, since 2004
Bob McLynn - co-founder of Crush Music, which has managed Panic! since 2004 and launched Fall Out Boy
Guitarist Ryan Ross declined to be interviewed. Drummer Spencer Smith and bassist Brent Wilson could not be reached.
Brendon Urie: In Las Vegas, every band sounded basically the same -- this post-hardcore, nu metal stuff. The walls were really thin in our practice space, and on each side of us it was those kinds of bands. We were trying to compete with that.
Bob McLynn: Pete was one of the first guys doing the music-blog thing, finding bands online… He brought us Gym Class Heroes, The Academy Is…, these local guys from Chicago. These kids hit him up on LiveJournal, and he wanted to sign them, sight unseen.
Urie: Luckily Ryan and Spencer had laptops, so we were able to mess around on GarageBand… I broke Ryan’s laptop one time and we had all our demos on it. We were like, “Holy shit, we don’t have a laptop and we don’t have a backup?” I thought I completely screwed us, but luckily he was able to play the files off the laptop I broke.
My parents had a desktop and I was starting to learn to record and produce. A lot of the stuff was Spencer and I recording beats, writing the song, and putting the song over it. And I still use that writing method once in a while, a little throwback.
Pete Wentz: One of them -- I think Ryan -- was commenting (on my LiveJournal) along the lines of, “I do this band, check us out.” I was thinking I’d check out his band and tell him how bad it is. I think the song was “Time to Dance,” and I thought I wanted to sign them, or do something. Panic! was the genesis of Decaydance and DCD2 -- let’s build this platform that other bands can use.
Wentz: I think I drove to Vegas with my friend, went to their practice space, and it was like a thousand degrees, basically a hallway. They were like, “We don’t really know how to play the songs because we’ve never performed them.”
Urie: We weren’t old enough to play shows. If we attended, we’d be kicked out by 9 p.m. because you couldn’t be on the strip past 10 p.m. if you were under 18. It was a struggle finding venues to play in and bands to play with. It was kind of pointless, so we just spent most of our time writing songs. We explained that to Pete and he said, “Yeah that’s awesome. That’s exactly what you need to be doing -- writing songs and trying to perfect the craft, instead of playing shows to get people to notice.”
I had only heard about Fall Out Boy a couple months before we contacted him. I heard “Saturday” and “Grand Theft Autumn” and thought the lyrics were smart and the singer was insanely talented… We met [Wentz] in a casino. It’s now Planet Hollywood, but it was called the Aladdin back then. We met him at the hotel. He was there with some hot girl, just chilling and looking awesome. We went out to our practice space and we didn’t have the instruments to play the demos, so we just played acoustically, for him and this girl. He was like, “Cool, that was good.” That was all he said. We went down to Del Taco, and over a meal he explained that he wanted to sign us.
McLynn: Brendon was 17 when we started managing them. We had to get his parents to sign off on the contract. I think he was 18 by the time the album came out. They were all teenagers.
Scott Nagelberg: They finished their last high school final. They didn’t go to graduation; they got in a van and drove from Vegas to College Park, Maryland, where they made the record with Matt Squire on a very generous budget of $10,000 -- $11,000 if you include mixing.
Matt Squire: Panic! sought me out. I hadn’t been doing this long. They heard my indie records and they wanted to work with me. I think their management wanted them to work with Mike Green, another amazing producer, who had just done Paramore’s All We Know Is Falling… I think Crush Management and Fueled by Ramen were like, “Who is this dude?”
Check out the demo of "Time to Dance," one of the tracks that convinced Wentz to sign the band:
Squire: Fall Out Boy was really hoping for another successful artist to launch. There were timelines and demands. We had to make the record in three and a half weeks -- mixed, mastered, done. They came to me with, like, five songs. The rest were written in the studio, in pre-production.
I put them in a studio and told them to set up as a band, and went in the control room to make a phone call to their day-to-day manager Scott. They were trying to set up, and they didn’t know how to use their guitar tuner, their live tuner. They’re all standing around trying to figure it out… I interrupted Scott: “Have these guys ever played a show?” He’s like, “No. Why?” “Never mind!”
Urie: Pete is such a smart lyricist, so he was always there to help out with a line here, a line there. We’d ask his opinion and he would tell us. That really helped a lot.
We saw that Fall Out Boy had a couple song titles that were really long. We were like, “Oh, that’s fun.” We started doing it. Bands like Name Taken and a lot of the bands in the scene were doing cool stuff like that, so we took it a step further. Nobody had song titles that were as long as ours. A lot of it was just inside jokes. The song “I Constantly Thank God for Esteban” was from an infomercial for these guitars. It’s such a shitty infomercial -- a lady on there has one of the guitars and she’s like, “I constantly thank god for Esteban!” So we wrote this song with Latin flavor, like, “F--- yeah, we’re using that.”
Squire: The Vaudeville stuff was kind of all they wanted to do. By the time they got to the studio, they had this identity crisis. They didn’t want to sound like Fall Out Boy, so they wanted to do all this Beatles-y shit… I took them out to lunch and said, “Why don’t we tell the story of that creative evolution as the theme of the album?” You guys are from Vegas and you did some dance shit… now you’re exploring new territory, and that’ll be the second half of the album. They didn’t want to put the rock songs on the album. This was the only way I got them to agree to it.
Urie: “London Beckoned for Songs About Money Written by Machines” came after we met with Pete and our management. They were explaining, “If this does take off, you will need to deal with webzines and interviews.” It kind of irritated us, just to the point we wanted to relay, “If we’re gonna do that, guess what -- we’re going be your f---ing wet dream.”
Every song that we wrote for the first album made it. We didn’t think about writing a bunch of songs and picking the best ones. We had to just make the best songs we ever wrote.
Squire: Brendon’s voice was blown out for almost the entire tracking of that record. I think we had one good vocal day where we sang all the songs, at least all the choruses and high parts were one session.
Story continued on next page
Urie: The first show we ever played was at my church. My mom said we could play because there was this youth dance. I grew up Mormon, and there’s a dress code -- you have to wear nice clothing. So I told the guys, “It’ll be really fun, a lot of cute girls, and a lot of people our age, but we have to dress up. We have to wear suits and ties." That’s where it started… We were super into [the band] Louis XIV, and they were dressing so cool. We were fans of Vaudeville, Victorian-era dress and all that dapper stuff… We were showing up, like, “Look at this blazer I bought!”
Wentz: Before the Nintendo Fusion Tour, they were in basketball shorts and hats. Then they showed up the first day of the tour in these paisley suits. I was like, “What the f--- is happening?”
Nagelberg: On the first tour supporting Acceptance, and then when Fall Out Boy took them out, they were always in character. They wouldn’t take the suits off. They’d be driving in the van, 90 degrees outside, no AC, suits on.
McLynn: On their first whole album cycle, they wore suits for everything. They came to New York City -- they’d never been before -- and they came to our office in suits. [Original bassist] Brent [Wilson] had bird shit all over his shoulder. The first thing after he got off the subway, a bird shit on his shoulder.
Wentz: The first time they got onstage on the Nintendo Fusion tour, their mics weren’t working. I was like, this is the greenest band ever.
Wentz: That tour was like Lord of the Flies -- the inmates were running the asylum… I remember we switched their intro music to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and thought it was going to be so funny, but people just sang the song and were so into it. I think we filled their van with confetti one time. Nothing was too ruthless. Our band came up on tours with bands like Less Than Jake, and the pranks were much more brutal on those tours -- more, like, actual hazing.
Nick Jonas was at a show in Jersey. He was taking his insulin in the bathroom, and they busted him and thought he was doing drugs. I actually talked to Nick about that a couple months ago at a Jingle Ball.
Squire: They had a f--- you attitude, which was awesome. They had no interest in being on the radio. Panic! and Fall Out Boy were blowing up, and Atlantic was starting to get excited… They were starting to go, “Who is this? Let’s throw it on the radio and see if it works.” After a couple months, they were like, “You can do ‘I Write Sins.”’ That was not the label’s pick, but they were right.
Nagelberg: KROQ started playing it. This was before we were upstreamed to Atlantic; it was just us and Fueled by Ramen doing it. No one was working it to radio, but a bunch of stations started picking up from the buzz. It wasn't top 40 at first; it was all alternative. Atlantic came on later, when we were already doing our thing.
Jon Walker: I was on tour with Panic! as a guitar tech for The Academy Is… We met when I fixed one of Ryan’s guitar pedals. Within a month, they told me they were thinking of replacing their bass player.
Squire: Brent [Wilson] was their bro. He wasn’t competent as a bass player, but I think they were OK with that because in the studio it was cool. I think he started not showing up live… They had to do what they had to do. I remember talking to Spencer about it. I was the last holdout of, “No, your chemistry! Work it out!” But he wasn’t stepping up to that level of professionalism.
Walker: I learned the bass parts from the record at home. My first gig was the KROQ Weenie Roast in front of 15,000 people. They called me the night before saying their bass player didn’t show up… I decided pretty quickly I wasn’t going to wear eyeliner, but that didn’t stop the rest of them.
Nagelberg: They basically wanted to bring the set of Moulin Rouge! on [their first headlining tour], sketching out windmills, Panic!’s name in lights. They wanted dancers and this narrative story. We went for it. We were like, "This is not normal," but it was worth it to us -- let’s continue to make these statements. Nobody had ever seen a show like that from a band like Panic! You usually don’t see 15-foot windmills.
Squire: I remember they were on the arena tour after shit had just gone nuclear, and they were selling 30, 35 thousand albums a week. They came to D.C. and we went to dinner and ended up in a car listening to music, hanging out for the first time in a year. We cracked up laughing like, “Holy shit, did you ever expect this to blow up?”
Wentz: They were on the cover of Rolling Stone before us. As much as it was the band I loved, I was like, “F--- it, now we have to get the Rolling Stone cover.” It was a little like the U.S.-Soviet space race. But at the end of the day, we were still friends.
Urie: We got thrown into the beef with the Killers’ Brandon Flowers out of nowhere. We had no beef with them. Pete and Brandon threw us into that, man! That was unfair, I love both of them. I still am a huge fan of the Killers. Even his last album was really cool. It’s easy to use that as a catalyst to project yourself further into the public eye, but we never wanted to start beefs... We’ve had a bunch of bands talk shit on us, but I’m a fan of all of them! Kings of Leon said some stuff… We watched karma happen. You talk shit, and at a live show, a bird shit in his mouth.
Wentz: They were shooting a video for “Lying Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off,” and we tried so hard to convince them to be in the video. At the last minute, they were like, “We’ll do it, but only if we can have giant fish tanks on our heads.”
Nagelberg: The next tour on the album was the Nothing Rhymes With Circus Tour, going into larger theaters. I remember Spencer saying, “I want to play on top of a 20-foot carousel.” We put together this tour -- choreographed, scripted, stage-blocking. I think that was the moment that took Panic! out of that world that people associated them with. They netted 5 percent of what they grossed. Normally you want to be around 50 percent, but to the team, it was an investment, a statement.
And they won the VMA that year. That was at the end of the touring cycle. They were nominated for a bunch of awards -- best new artist, best rock video, etc. -- and we lost all of them. For video of the year, we were up against Madonna, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and we won. That video was probably shot for a fraction of what the others were. It was a huge statement to the entire music community: This is the future. This band started online. They’re utilizing this new space that nobody’s done before.
Panic! at the Disco followed up Fever with 2008’s Pretty. Odd., a psychedelic, Beatles-influenced album that managed roughly a quarter of its predecessor’s U.S. sales. The band persevered, however, and still regularly posts alternative radio hits hits for a fanbase that remains rabid. After sharing the songwriting spotlight with Ross, Urie is now the true center of attention.
Billboard reviewed Panic's 2014 Madison Square Garden Theater show, which was largely attended by fans that were likely too young to be paying attention in 2005. “Out of all the bands in our office, their fanbase is by far the most active,” Nagelberg says. “Moreso than Train, even Fall Out Boy. Their hits aren’t as big, their ticket sales aren’t as high, but they’re so loud. It’s special.”
Much of this is due to the enduring radio success of “I Write Sins Not Tragedies.” It went all the way to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its initial run and remains a popular recurring track pick. “If you’re listening to alternative radio, you’re going to hear that song,” Nagelberg says.
Another DCD2 band, New Politics, recently played host to the label’s new class -- including Urie -- in the video for “West End Kids.” The shoot features Fall Out Boy, vocalist Lolo (who sang on Panic!’s 2013 hit “Miss Jackson”), pop/hip-hop artist Max and Travie McCoy, former MC of Decaydance vets Gym Class Heroes.
Since Fever, Panic! has remained with Decaydance (now under the moniker DCD2 Records) and is prepping its fifth studio album. It’s likely to include “Hallelujah!,” which has so far peaked at No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 and 11 on Alternative Songs.
“I’m stoked,” Wentz says. “Ten years later, still doing the label and signing new bands is pretty exciting.”