Drummer Spencer Smith ties up some loose ends about Panic! at the Disco’s third album Vices & Virtues, explains how the recent lineup change has redefined the duo, and recalls the perspective of blowing up at an early age.
First off, congratulations on the No. 7 debut.
Oh, thanks man.
I know you’ve kept a low profile the last couple years. Was that something you were expecting at all?
I think that when we split a couple years ago, it sort of felt like a new thing, even though we were still Panic! For us, it was an opportunity to take the record and the band wherever we wanted to. We knew that fans would sort of listen to it as a new thing, knowing it was going to be different or not knowing what to expect.
It took us a little while to figure out how we worked, just the two of us writing. Also, once we got into writing we wanted to make sure we were happy with exactly where the record was going and everything. It just took a little bit longer than we would have liked.
Then when we actually got to the point where we had a good amount of songs, we ended up just doing what we always do. You always think the newest thing is the best thing, and the oldest idea you don’t like anymore because you’ve heard it over and over. So we just kept taking off old songs and putting new ones on, and at some point we had to say, “OK, we’re done or we’ll never be done.” So yeah, I think that it was good and time we needed to figure out exactly what we wanted to do.
Obviously, this record you did with two guys instead of the full four that you’ve done in the past. Was there anything about working with just two people that surprised you or you found particularly challenging?
At first, I think we were a little bit nervous. I guess we weren’t really nervous not thinking that we could do it, just nervous because it was a new thing and nervous that there was some initial time needed to become comfortable working with just the two of us. Musically, it wasn’t actually that big of a change. Me and Brendon had done a big part of the music, and even vocal melodies and things.
I think lyrically was probably the biggest change. Brendon was coming from writing maybe two or three songs on the other records, and now having to step up and do the whole album. He just wanted to make sure that he was confident in his voice and in what he wanted to say, because he was going to be the sole person working on whatever was expressed lyrically. That just took a little time. I think once we got into the rhythm of everything, that all went away and we were just excited about what we were working on. But at first, there was definitely a little bit of butterflies in the stomach.
Did you record the instruments just with the two of you?
Pretty much everything except for horns and strings. All the orchestral stuff was other people. But yeah, everything, all the guitars and keys and drums, was us.
I know you scrapped that one album that you wrote before Pretty. Odd., and then this one had its own growing pains and challenges. Would you say this album was the most difficult one that you’ve had to write so far?
Yeah, I think you probably always feel that way at the beginning of the writing. For us, we had this success with the first record we put out and some of the first songs we had ever written with the four of us. Having that happen was an amazing thing, but at the same time it was weird to have eyes on you, and people being curious about what you were doing and what you were releasing next.
When you’re that young, you’re changing so much and there’s so many new influences that you have. One day you want to be this kind of band, and then the next day you’re into something else and you want to be in a different band. We didn’t really have that ability to just change without there being fans there and an expectation.
Ever since we went through the lineup change, it gave us an opportunity to do whatever we wanted. It gave us the ability so that people would understand if it was different it was beyond just the fact of saying, “Well, we’re older, so that’s why it’s different.” There was this distinct change in the people that were writing the music. We thought of it as our chance to define whatever we want the band to be right now.
This album has a lot of different sounds and it sounds like you played around a lot with the production, which you worked on with both John Feldmann and Butch Walker. What was some of the stuff you experimented with during the process of being in the studio?
I think there’s pretty distinct styles going from John to Butch. We initially started demoing stuff with John because he was free and his studio is kind of his house. He was letting us work up there. Some of the stuff we were really happy with, and we thought it could potentially be the record.
We just went from there, and started writing and recording stuff with John specifically for the album. I think the best thing he gave us was the work ethic. He’s sort of nonstop. He wakes up early, has a cup of coffee, and then he goes for 13 or 14 hours before he’s finished. We were definitely coming from more of a relaxed approach, and I think it was good to get a kick in the ass.
Butch was amazing as well. He gave us more of the ability, now that we’ve left, to record things on our own. I think we learned a lot about how to record things – how to get a vocal sound, how to get a good guitar sound, what mics to use. That was something we were always interested in but never really had the time to learn. I think now, moving forward, we’re in a better position to almost co-produce stuff or do demos. It was great working with both of them.
Brendon has kind of been describing this album as a study of human behavior, and I guess he got the album title from the seven deadly sins. What is this album about for you?
We definitely went through some unique changes in things outside of music before we wrote this record, definitely more so than the last record. We were writing about stuff that was totally different than what we experienced for the two previous records. We knew that for fans of ours, going through the split and all that stuff, if we didn’t talk about it or didn’t address it, it would be a little bit weird. It’d be this weird elephant in the room where everybody knew what happened but acted like it didn’t. That was something we wanted to touch on, and there’s a couple songs that have lyrics about that.
The record is sort of about going from being comfortable with we’re you’re at to having something happen where you get thrown in totally the opposite direction. You’re so disoriented that you have no idea of really what’s going on, what you’ll be doing in the future or where things are at. It’s about working and pushing forward to get back to that point where you’re excited and happy about what’s going on. I think that was what was happening throughout the writing, and it made its way into the songs.
You have released six b-sides so far as various bonus tracks here and there. Those have been getting a pretty positive response, and I know I like a couple of them more than some of the stuff that made it onto the album. How did you decide to whittle those out and end up putting only 10 songs on the album?
It’s interesting because I think for us we would have liked to have had a record that was 16 songs or something like that. It’s kind of a hard thing where nowadays it’s more about what the people that put the music out want to do. It’s more, like, less songs but release them more quickly, or something like that. More records in a shorter amount of time.
Music has shifted back towards almost how it was in the ‘50s, where it’s so single driven and a lot of people are less concerned about full albums. The compromise for us was, OK, if the record is 10 songs then we’re going to release quite a few b-sides and bonus tracks.
For us, if we weren’t happy with it, we wouldn’t release it at all. So releasing it as a b-side isn’t really us saying it’s a song that’s not as good. For whatever reason, it’s hard to look at all the songs that you have at the end of the record process in the same way. Some of them are brand new, some of them are a year old, and you sort of view them differently. It’s hard to view it how people that haven’t been working on any of the music are able to look at the songs. I’m glad we were able to release them as bonus tracks and get them out that way.
Are you still sitting on a lot of other songs?
There are still a good amount of ideas, but more like almost half-done ideas. There’s a lot of songs that got started but never made their way into full completion. We’ve also kept writing since then, so we’re still sitting on a lot of 30-second-long demos. Hopefully, as we go on tour, and continue writing and working on stuff, they can make their way into full songs.
Was it ever toyed around with putting “New Perspective” on the album?
No, we always thought of that song as this thing on its own. It was written a few months before we started writing for the record, and also not even with the mentality of it ever making it onto the record. It was nice that we could just put it out as something saying that we’re still a band, even though it was Brendon and I. We kind of always thought of it as just for the soundtrack or as an individual single.
So there’s a few loose ends I have about that album that I want to tie up real quick. At one point Mark Hoppus was supposed to produce a song or two. Did that ever happen?
It didn’t and I don’t really know why. I think it was because we got off the Blink tour and talked about it, and then a lot of things started picking up for them. They started talking about doing another Blink record. Then he got his TV show on Fuse and all that stuff.
We were kind of in this weird thing where we were off somewhere working on new songs for the record, he was doing his thing, and it never linked up. We’re supposed to see him soon. I think we might be doing a show, so I’m going to bring that up to him. I’m going to tell him he’s got to get back into the studio.
Maybe for the next album.
I believe you also did some writing with Rivers Cuomo. Did anything ever come of that?
Yeah, it was interesting because we only did an afternoon’s worth of writing with him. It was something that Butch Walker did, who had done their record at that point just a few months before. It was sort of just friends of friends, and we thought it’d be cool. We were such big fans of Weezer, and had been for so long, that we definitely weren’t going to say no to that opportunity.
It was great. We had a good time. We did write a song. It’s sort of sitting in that weird space where we aren’t sure whether to release it as a bonus track or a b-side, or hold onto it and release it later. It was fun. I know now he’s doing a lot of different co-writes with other people, too. He’s definitely a good dude to work with.
I heard you worked with the fun. guys as well. Is that true?
Yeah, we worked for a week with Jack and Nate. That was awesome, and perfect timing for us because it was early on in the writing process. They were there, Nate having gone through some stuff with the Format, and were just great guys to talk to to get motivated and get excited about working on the record with the two of us.
That was something that really motivated and inspired us. We are actually going to release one of the songs that we did with them that has two different versions, one of Nate singing and then one of Brendon singing. We’re going to release it with one b-side from each of our bands sometime around the U.S. tour. That’ll be a 7-inch thing.
You experienced almost like an overnight success right after your first album came out. How do you think experiencing that at such an early age impacted the band?
There’s two ways that I look at it. One way, having that initial success obviously made the possibility to be in a band for a living something that was easily doable. It just became a thing. It became, well, OK, now this is your career, because it was that big. You don’t have to worry about getting another job after you get off tour, which was amazing. That’s what we always wanted, and something that we hoped a few records done the line could potentially happen.
But at the same time, that happening then, you kind of get in this spot where you’re known best for a song that you wrote when you were still a senior in high school. It’s like, all right. That’s something that’s happened to a lot of people, whether they’re our age then or whether they had that individual big song later on, wherever you’re at at that point.
For us, we ended up, and have been going through a lot of changes since then, and have tried to just say, “Well, we’re going to write what we want to write, stay true to the genuine changes that we’ve gone through, and not try to chase what we think people liked us for four or five years ago.”
It’s a hard thing to tell because you can’t ever have the perspective of a fan. You can’t ever see it from the outside. The goal is to try and make something that people like. People expect for us to do something different and not know what the next record is going to sound like. For us, that’s all that we can do, and hopefully that’s what people like about the band.
I remember I saw you on your first tour with Acceptance, so it’s been crazy following you since then.
Wow, man. That’s amazing. Do you remember what city it was?
It was in Pomona at the Glass House.
Yeah, dude. I know that venue. It has that skinny stage but it’s pretty wide. It’s a cool venue. That’s a fun spot to play. That’s awesome.