By Dana Schwartz
June 20, 2018 at 11:30 AM EDT
Jimmy Fontaine

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The Museum of Death on Hollywood Boulevard is a tourist trap for the macabre and true-crime addicted where, for the price of $17, one can wander through an eclectic collection of skulls and serial killer memorabilia. It is not for the squeamish. Fortunately, Brendon Urie isn’t.

“Dude, I was really into Heaven’s Gate,” the Panic! at the Disco frontman says, as he makes his way over to a small display that’s dedicated to the former Southern California-based cult. Urie considered using Heaven’s Gate images for his last album, “But then I thought, That’s a little too dark.” Instead, he included some of the symbolism — challises, pentagrams, cult robes — in the music video for “LA Devotee.”

Thirteen years ago, Urie’s Las Vegas-bred band released “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” which became a ubiquitous emo anthem among the suburban Hot Topic set. The group (of which Urie is now the only official member) has subsequently shed the sentence-length song titles and guyliner-caberet aesthetic in favor of a big-band, electric rock sound. Where the glam-goth element of previous albums had been made explicit — through song titles (“The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage,” “Far Too Young to Die”) and music videos (the Victorian Irish wake for “Ballad of Mona Lisa”; the Heaven’s Gate-themed “LA Devotee”) — their sixth album, Pray for the Wicked, is a more subtle reckoning with mortality: party-ready tracks with horn sections and shimmering vocals, the soundtrack to both your night on the town and your existential hangover in the morning.

“I had no plans on making an album,” says Urie, as he winds past a corner shrine devoted to the Donner party. “I was just inviting my friends over to my house, and I was like, ‘Let’s just work on tracks and see what happens.” He didn’t recognize that there was a through-line connecting the music he was making “until about eight songs in.”

Prior to recording, Urie brought his seemingly endless vocal range to a sold-out, ten-week run as the lead in Kinky Boots on Broadway.

“That was the most terrified I’ve ever been,” he says. “I was so scared. The day before I almost cancelled. I called my manager and I was like, Dude, I’m having anxiety attacks, and literally I can’t breathe. He talked me off the ledge a little bit… and then I got off the phone and I started meditating a little, and I was thinking, this show isn’t about me, why the f—k am I making it about me? I’m putting my emotions ahead of everyone else. F—k my emotions. I’m contributing to this thing. Just show up. If they believe in you, it’ll be fine.”

When Urie curses (which he does, often), it’s not angry or bitter: he swears joyfully, like a teenager who likes the feel of the words in his mouth. Urie exudes a friendly live-in-the-moment joie de vivre that would seem incongruous with the gothic aesthetic of his discography if it didn’t make complete sense when it was standing there right in front of you, five-foot-nine, with a perfect pompadour and leather jacket. He is Bojack Horseman’s Mr. Peanutbutter in a crossover episode with The Addams Family. 

True to form, as Urie continues to wander through the museum’s increasingly gruesome rooms lined with photographs of bleeding corpses, he begins to chat about life after death.

“Growing up, in Mormonism, there were talks of the afterlife, but my questions were always about our time here,” says Urie, who is now an atheist. “I want to know what’s going on, and they couldn’t answer those questions because they were so focused on the future. I’m not too nostalgic.”

And yet, the not-too-nostalgic Urie still immediately named the band’s first massive hit, “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” as his favorite Panic! song. “I still love that song,” he says. “You know what’s cool? Every time we play it live, I look out at the fans and they’re singing it back to me, I see it in their eyes and I’m like, That’s how I felt when we’d first go to shows and play this. It changes the meaning to me, I get more excited seeing how it affects them. It doesn’t matter how I feel.”

And with that, Urie walks out of the Museum of Death, back in the land of the living.