Panic! High School Musical

By | January 23, 2007 at 1:28 AM

Panic! at the Disco went from a group of teenagers who’d written only
three songs and never played a live show to the biggest new rock band
in America. Their secret: Put together a band the way you’d create a
MySpace page and let the kids run wild

Ryan Ross bought his C55 Mercedes three months ago, but it’s been
parked in his Las Vegas garage ever since. When the Panic! at the Disco
guitarist climbs behind the wheel, cues up Tom Waits’ new Orphans
collection and starts pushing buttons on the navigation system, he’s
still not sure how it all works. Ross is searching downtown Vegas for
Panic’s favorite local sandwich chain, Port of Subs, to grab a quick
bite before the second-to-last show on the band’s arena tour: a
sold-out concert at the Orleans Hotel & Casino for 7,500 fans,
their families, friends and three-quarters of Fall Out Boy, who flew in
from Los Angeles to see their proteges’ biggest hometown gig yet. Later
tonight, Ross, 20, will face the crowd dressed as a gothed-out Oliver
Twist, black liner fanning from his right eye like a tangle of tree
branches and a newsboy cap covering his thick brunet quiff. But it
won’t be Ross’ first time onstage at the Orleans: Two and a half years
ago, he was here in a gown and mortarboard for his high school
graduation.

When Ross walks into a strip-mall Port of Subs with drummer Spencer
Smith and singer Brendon Urie, both 19, the shop is empty except for
two cold-cut slingers, neither of whom recognizes the three local
celebrities clamoring to upgrade to combo meals when they hear that
Rolling Stone is picking up the tab. A few bites into his sandwich —
“the Pilgrim,” with turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing — Ross rubs
his jaw and notes that his wisdom teeth are coming in. After listening
to Smith and Urie discuss how generous a helping one ought to get when
one requests “extra mayo and mustard,” Ross remarks that the Pilgrim is
his second Port of Subs sandwich since this morning. When Urie says
he’s only on his first, Ross is befuddled: “What have you been doing
all day?”

“I had to pack my Dior case,” Urie answers, as if it were the most
normal thing in the world for a teenager shoveling five-dollar fast
food into his mouth to have a $1,500 bag from a Parisian couture
designer. “And then I cleaned my room. Because it was starting to
smell.”

In mid-December, when I traveled with the band through Vegas, San Diego
and Los Angeles, they were about to settle into their first real
vacation since signing to Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz’s Decaydance
label in late 2004. Back then, Smith and Urie hadn’t even graduated
from high school, the band had only three songs in its arsenal and
Panic had yet to play a single live show. But as 2006 wound to a close,
the biggest new rock band in America had album sales going on double
platinum and was still scanning 20,000 copies a week of its debut, A
Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. (The disc, which announced the arrival of a
new breed of emo augmented by synthesizers and computerized beats, was
recorded for a paltry $10,000.) Panic’s single “I Write Sins Not
Tragedies” — three minutes of pizzicato strings, power chords and
cabaret melody — has become an unlikely yet unstoppable Top Forty hit
and earned them MTV’s award for Video of the Year. They’ve followed it
with a series of similarly over-the-top clips (the latest, for “Lying
Is the Most Fun a Girl Can Have With Her Clothes On,” imagines a world
where people spend their lives with their heads encased in fish tanks)
that have flooded YouTube with fourteen-year-olds who missed out on the
campy Technicolor of MTV in the Eighties.

“We didn’t expect this album to have any success,” says Ross, the
group’s introverted lyricist and main songwriter. “I don’t really think
it’s that good. It was more like our experiment for figuring ourselves
out. We just wanted to grow for a couple of years and really show
people what we can do on the next album. But we didn’t get to do that.
For a while, we didn’t even want it to be played on the radio or MTV. I
remember asking our manager, ‘How can they play our song if we don’t
want them to?’ He said, ‘Labels usually pay radio stations to play
bands. They’re playing you for free, and you want to stop it?’ From
that point, I was like, ‘I’m gonna have to look at this a little bit
differently.'”

“We weren’t pessimistic,” says Smith later, between fielding calls from
his mom as he drives to the Orleans in his new Nissan 350z two-seater
sports car. “But I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were still in a
van playing to a couple hundred kids right now. Fall Out Boy toured for
three years in a van and trailer. That’s what bands in this position
usually do.”

Even Wentz admits that he couldn’t have predicted Panic! at the Disco
would blow up so big they would threaten to eclipse his band. “They’re
a freak of nature,” he says. “You can’t explain it. They do absolutely
the opposite of everything a label would recommend, and still thrive.
Major labels could start telling bands, ‘Put on paisley suits and make
your show a circus’ — but it wouldn’t work. There’s something else
there that’s intangible. When you go to their show, you wonder, ‘What
makeup will Ryan be wearing and what are the dancers going to do?’ It’s
like Kiss, but smarter and thirty years later.”

In the age of MySpace, when you can construct an entire persona out of
seemingly incongruous elements and change it as quickly as you can put
up a new photo of yourself, guyliner bands like Panic appeal to the
melodramatic, hyperimagized, Web-trolling youth, who depend on the
Internet to find their next favorite artist. Panic! at the Disco’s
identity derives less from musical referents than from their
cherry-picking of pop culture at large. Their lyrics cite Chuck
Palahniuk novels; their song titles cop lines from the movie Closer;
live covers like Queen’s “Killer Queen” were learned from the game
Guitar Hero. And their look is built from the visuals of their favorite
movies — Moulin Rouge!, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward
Scissorhands — which, like their songs, are full of the heartbreak and
pathos that are never in short supply during high school.

Moreover, Panic are among a new breed of punk acts that includes My
Chemical Romance and AFI, all of whom aim to bring the spectacle back
to rock & roll by focusing as much attention on outfits, makeup and
theatrical stagings as on the songs themselves. Most of their fans —
too young for the heyday of grunge (or even the teen pop that followed
it) — have never seen a rock show. Panic want to make their first
concert nothing less than mind-blowing.

On Panic’s fall tour, their production was so elaborate and expensive
that their manager says the only money they made off the gigs came from
T-shirt sales. The idea, says Ross, was to put on a show, not a
concert. And though they don’t always love playing the same eleven
songs, they say they’re obsessed with sitting around together and
coming up with progressively more eccentric ideas for their
performances.

“I remember Spencer saying, ‘Mom, maybe we can get live animals and
lions and have a carousel onstage,'” says the drummer’s mother, Ginger,
a medical secretary. Big cats never made it into the show, but the
basic concepts stuck: Inspired by Cirque du Soleil and Moulin Rouge!,
the band decided to make its stage set look like some kind of
post-apocalyptic carnival or a Ringling Brothers fever dream. Ross,
whose lyrics are so heavy on two-dollar words they could double as an
SAT prep course, says the staging evolved from his fascination with
Paris “and any true love story, whether it’s Romeo and Juliet or
Phantom of the Opera or Titanic. I don’t know what it is, but something
about the idea of a gentleman wearing a suit and being literate is
fascinating to me.”

During the show — which features an intermission and finds the band
attempting ambitious covers of both “Killer Queen” and the Beatles’
“Eleanor Rigby” — Panic perform dressed in tattered-looking Victorian
duds, their faces covered with stark white, black or red makeup. And
then there are the dancers, whose gymnastic contortions, never-ending
costume changes (Ballerina! Cleopatra! Mental patient!) and bawdy
interactions with the band give the show an element of the unexpected,
even if it goes exactly the same way every night.

Urie’s between-song patter is also premeditated, and the bit that gets
the loudest screams comes about midway through the set, right before
they play “Lying.” “Have you ever dreamt you were in a sunflower
field,” Urie begins, and then with some minor variations describes
running toward a lover for “the perfect kiss.” As he does this, he
approaches Ross and leans his face in close to the guitarist, who pulls
his mouth away just in time, almost every time: In San Diego, on the
final night of the tour, Urie moved in quick enough to plant one on
Ross’ cheek, which immediately flashed crimson with embarrassment. And
then, as he pulls back and the room fills with an audible gasp, Urie
always says something like “Well, this isn’t that kind of dream. This
is about sweaty, angry, crazy, monstrous fucking.” A sea of girls
barely out of training bras shriek with delight at the PG-13 ribaldry.

“There’s plenty of stuff we do in the show to get a reaction,” says
Ross. “Like, fans are always saying that me and Brendon are dating.
It’s funny to me how people freak out about stuff like that. I think
the show almost splits you and makes you choose: Will I like this band
from this point on, or was the show too much? When we were writing
these songs, we were expecting the audience for them to be our age or
maybe a little older. I know that our CD wouldn’t have been allowed in
my house until I was sixteen. I guess parents are a little lenient
these days. Then again, I’ve seen some angry parents in the crowd,
that’s for sure.”

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