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Thursday, May 22, 2008

“Rock ’n’ Roll is in a Pretty Dire State...

An interview with Panic at the Disco’s Ryan Ross

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Call them Panic at the Disco 2.0.In the short time between their blockbuster debut album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, the band almost entirely reinvented themselves. They dropped the pointless exclamation mark from their name; they gutted their overblown, circus-themed live show, and, most importantly, they exorcized their music of almost all its emo excesses. On their recently released sophomore album, Pretty. Odd., they no longer sound like Fall Out Boy’s younger doppelgangers. The glorified mall-punk of yore has been replaced by psychedelic, often acoustic arrangements clearly indebts to The Beatles, a sound that, while not particularly novel, now puts the band at odds with modern-rock establishment they once so thoroughly embraced.

  In advance of their Sunday concert at the Rave, Panic at the Disco’s guitarist, lyricist and general band leader Ryan Ross talked with the Shepherd about the band’s new direction, why they were ill-prepared for their overnight success, and the sorry state of modern-rock.

How is your current tour different from your last one?

  It’s a lot different. We were playing pretty much small arenas on our last headlining tour, and then we took a lot of time off to do the album, and we wanted to do a tour that put us a little bit closer to the people again. So this tour’s been more about doing smaller theaters for the most part, and just being more ourselves on stage more than anything. We realized there was such a disconnect from people during that last tour at some points that we just wanted to come out there and be able to talk to the crowd and feel more connected.

Was it odd doing arena shows so early in your career?

  Yeah. It was like we didn’t know what was going on. We’d only done one headlining tour before that, then all the sudden we’re playing arenas, on one album. It was really challenging, having no experience, then being in front of eight- or 10-thousand people a night. I mean, we played every song we had on that tour, I think. It was so strange, and we didn’t think about it at the time, but looking back, to do that on one album was really a stretch. I think we’re all having a lot more fun now that we’ve got more material to choose from and we’re more confident. Playing arenas when you’re on your first album is fun, but the thing you’re most worried about is just trying not to mess up because you’re so inexperienced.

I can’t think of another band that’s changed so much after just one album. You guys changed almost everything. What drove that?

  Growing up. Most bands don’t really start when they’re 17, and I think a lot of people go through pretty serious changes from when they’re 17 and 21. When you’re 17, you think you know a lot, but when you’re 21, you don’t think you know a lot, even though you know a little more than you did. I can credit it to that: growing up. Things change, and your mind changes.

Was the whole group changing in the same direction, or was there conflict involved?

  I guess we all were, because we’ve been friends for so long, and we’ve always been into the same things. I guess it was gradual, but it was natural. The first song that we did for the album was “Nine in the Afternoon,” and we never talked about it or had written anything like it before, but when the song was finished the first night we were writing it, we were all happy with it. It was this unspoken thing. We didn’t say, “Ok, we’re going to do something completely different.” We just picked up our guitars and wrote the song. It felt natural. We wrote the song in one night, and it was really a song that addressed how we felt, and the craziness we’ve experienced over the past few years. After we’d written three songs, we paused and said, “OK, this is definitely different, but do you like it? Should we keep going?” And everybody was really excited about it. We never really thought about it again after that point, we just kept doing what felt right.

So there was never a point where you paused and wondered whether your existing fans would like the new sound?

  There was that thought, because we realized it was different. But we thought we would do it, because we thought it was better, and hopefully our fans before could see that we were growing and changing. And maybe some people that didn’t know our band or like our band before might like what we’re doing now. We just really didn’t want to stop ourselves from creating this stuff because it was coming so naturally.

Because Pretty. Odd. is so different from your debut, it’s hard not to look at it as almost a renunciation of that album. Is that how you view it?

  I mean, like is said, I think it was a strange thing in the first place to be signed at such a young age after we’d only been a band for a few months. I mean, that first album is what it is—a moment in time. The guys had just graduated high school. Three days after [singer] Brendon [Urie] graduated we were recording the album, and I think you change your mind a lot at that point in your life. We don’t regret that album or anything, but you know, we’ve always done what we want to do, and what we want to do this time around was a bit different.

Do you think the change in your sound has helped distinguish you from some of the modern-rock bands you’ve been lumped in with?

  I hope so. Basically, the only goal for this band was to do something that wasn’t there before. I don’t really know any modern-rock bands on the Billboard charts that I even liked or listened to. Rock ’n’ roll is in a pretty dire state these days. And hopefully we don’t get lumped in with the likes of some of those bands that we can’t stand.

Are you going to name names?

  [Laughs] Oh, you know. It’s the whole clich, tough-guy rock ’n’ roll that’s dominating the radio and the charts these days. The sort of bad Pearl Jam rip-offs. That’s all the rock stations want to play anymore, and it’s a shame. It’s meathead rock.

Are there any modern-rock bands that you do feel a connection with, then?

  I mean, I wish that I knew of more. We are fans of some bands like The Shins, or I think that the new Silverchair album is really great. Or even a band we’re on tour with right now, Phantom Planet, I think they’re doing great stuff, too. But there’s not a whole lot in the mainstream, which is sad.

Panic at the Disco headlines a 7 p.m. show at the Rave on Sunday, May 25 with Motion City Soundtrack, The Hush Sound and Phantom Planet.