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Vegas band signs a record deal and then scrambles to find its sound

Ryan Ross, guitarist for Panic! At the Disco, wakes up lost more often than not these days. Today, he’s in England, that much is for certain. “I just woke up, so ... yeah, I don’t know,” he admits, still groggy. “I’m somewhere.”

Ah, the life of a rock star: Playing live day-in, day-out; living out of hotel rooms; crawling out of bed as the sun sets. But this, you’ve got to remember, is all very new to Ross and his Las Vegas-based cohorts, three of which haven’t even been out of high school a year yet.

Panic! At the Disco: straight from high school into the charts.

“Things have been happening very fast for us,” Ross says, maybe dropping the understatement of the new millennium. Hell, his band’s moniker is lifted from a Name Taken song (“Panic”) released in April 2004. Seven months later, with only two songs under their belt, Panic! At the Disco was signed to a deal with Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz’s label DecayDance and preparing for a studio cram session to release their September 2005 debut A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. If you’re a musician struggling for a contract of your own, their story can only piss you off. In other words, stop reading now.

Still here? Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Wentz recruited the experimental pop-punk/emo band himself. “We recorded them on my laptop,” Ross explains. “Then we put them on Pure Volume and sent him a link and said, ‘Hey, we met you at one of your concerts. Listen to these songs if you can.’” Two days later, Wentz contacted them, decidedly taken with what he heard. He drove out to Vegas from Los Angeles, where he was recording Fall Out Boy’s second album From Under the Cork Tree. After watching Panic! rehearse, he offered them a contract.

“We’ve been pretty much busy from the week we got signed,” Ross says. “Since then, we’ve only had a week and a half off.”

He’s not kidding, either. Once signed, Panic! had to confront a very real truth: They had no idea who they were as a band; getting DecayDance to sign them was a fluke, really, the result of impetuous kids dreaming outside their reality only to score big in the process. It’s entirely possible that, had they held off posting those songs for just a few more months, their sound would have changed enough that Wentz would’ve kept clicking his mouse right past their link. The word “serendipity” was invented for occasions like these.

“We had about four months, roughly, to write,” Ross says of the compressed timetable foisted upon them after they scribbled their John Hancocks across the contract. “Up until that point we had worked on only two songs” — both of which made the album (“Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks,” “Time to Dance”) — “and they were like, ‘Well, now you got to write a whole record.’ We had to figure out who we were while we were writing.” If the pressure of conjuring up an identity as well as meeting the expectations of so many wasn’t enough, Ross notes, “Everybody except me was still in high school, so they were dealing with school and the band.”


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The outcome of their soul searching is A Fever, a quirky marriage of futuristic bleeps and bloops, vaudevillian instrumentation, and good, old-fashioned punk bellyaching. Stylistically, though, the songs proved more dichotomous than they had anticipated and the decision was made to divide the 11-track album into two halves — one imagining what the bastard child of their patron Wentz and Vegas peers The Killers would be like; the other one more experimental, incorporating unconventional accordions and piano.

The success of A Fever is also owed to its meta-awareness, equal parts tongue-in-cheek fun and prescient snarkiness directed at inevitable detractors. Consider “London Beckoned Songs about Money Written by Machines” (deep breath), on which Panic! call themselves “a wet dream for webzines,” or maybe “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” where they cockily warn their potential abusers to watch their mouths. Their opening lyrical track “The Only Difference Between Suicide and Martyrdom Is Press Coverage” says it all, a manifesto of self-awareness that astounds all the more, considering the mean age of the band. The result? In December, A Fever entered Billboard at number 182. Since then, it’s climbed into the Top 40 with almost 200,000 copies sold.

When you think about how suddenly success has found Panic!, you have to wonder how these four kids are dealing with it all. “I don’t know,” Ross says. “Something new happens almost every day. Some new opportunity. It’s kind of crazy trying to keep up. I think we’re all doing all right, though. Taking it for what it is. No one’s lost their mind yet. We’re just exactly the same as we were before this.”

That non-stop work schedule has landed them in England today, somewhere. Wherever that may be. The experience, nonetheless, is not lost on Ross. “I think it really hit us when we got over here and had our first show,” he says. “The record isn’t even out over here and the audiences know all the words. We’ve never been here before, but it’s like our hometown wherever we go. It’s been mind-blowing, for the most part.”

By Cole Haddon

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