Much has been written about Taylor Swift’s choice to share her new single “Me!” with Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie (the two perform the song on tonight’s season finale of “The Voice”), but perhaps not as much attention has been paid to the tried-and-true formula that has helped land Panic! multiple hit songs: trumpets. Consider last year’s ubiquitous one-two punch of “High Hopes” and “Say Amen (Saturday Night)” as the most recent examples of effective use of horns, but the band’s love affair with trumpets goes back more than a decade to 2008’s “Nine in the Afternoon.”
It’s an element that has made the group’s sound stand out. Katherine Dacey, associate professor of liberal arts at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, explains that the trumpet serves two functions. “The first is novelty: in an industry dominated by digital sounds, any song that uses an acoustic instrument will stand out,” says Dacey. “The second is nostalgia: For Urie, the use of trumpet and strings is a throwback to the Beatles’ ‘Revolver’/’Sgt. Pepper’ era. By blending these older sounds with newer, digitally produced ones, Urie is bringing the Beatles’ songcraft into the 21st century.”
Even more impressive is the consistency with which Panic! has used brass instruments. According to the band’s chief arranger Rob Mathes, they first started experimenting with the sound in 2006. “The first thing I did for [Panic] was ‘This is Halloween’ off of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas,’ a tribute [album] to the Tim Burton movie,” says Mathes. “We shared a manager, Jonathan Daniel at Crush Management. [PATD founder] Ryan Ross wanted to do something different and Jonathan said, ‘I know somebody who can orchestrate this for you and [record] it with a real orchestra,’ and they were into it. I got the sense that they were musical explorers, and just doing strings was not going to cut it. So I intentionally used a contra bassoon — which is a double bassoon that can go almost as low as a piano — and I won the band’s trust forever.”
From that moment on, it was a musical marriage made in, well, perfect harmony. The band asked him to produce their sophomore album, the aptly named “Pretty Odd.” At the time, the group was listening to “Yellow Submarine” and the over-the-top instrumentation struck a chord with their theatrical sensibility. “On ‘Pretty Odd’ we used trumpets, harpsichord and a flugelhorn,” Mathes says.
That sound, along with that of concurrent Beach Boys albums like the iconic “Pet Sounds,” is exactly what the group was going for. “In particular, on the record ‘Nine in the Afternoon,’ they wanted to go full-on [Beach Boys songwriter] Brian Wilson/Beatles,” Mathes recalls. “But their own writing was peculiar enough that it wasn’t going to sound like pastiche. If you go back and listen to ‘Pretty Odd,’ it does sound like Panic! at the Disco discovered the ‘60s, but it’s still uniquely them. Everyone knew that song was going to be the single — it just demanded a kind of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ approach, and everyone loves that piccolo trumpet on ‘Penny Lane.’ It’s one of the greatest sounds in rock history, and yet not a lot of people have gone near it, because why would you touch it? I decided to use it in the orchestration but in an anthemic way — playing out a melody at the very top of the range.”
The instantly recognizable piccolo trumpet popped up again on the band’s latest hit, “High Hopes,” which has not only moved over 2 million adjusted units but also broke a decades-old radio record. Says Mathes: “When you hear the high trumpet stuff on two major hits, you would think: ‘Wow, this is clearly something for them.’” No wonder that elements of the sound carried over to the hit Urie sings with and co-wrote with Swift… which is to say, “Me!’s” so horny, too.
Pictured, from left: Erm Navarro, Jesse Molloy and Chris Bautista
“I’m struck by the use of the piccolo trumpet in ‘High Hopes,’ where it both doubles Brendon Urie’s voice and ‘answers’ his vocal lines,” adds Dacey. “That kind of call-and-response between the voice and brass section was a signature element of funk, soul and R&B in the ‘60s and ‘70s but faded out in the ‘80s with the rise of digital synthesizers. It’s great to hear it again on the radio in a fresh context.”
“Part of Panic! at the Disco’s appeal is that they stand out,” says Tom Poleman, chief programming officer for iHeartMedia, which has embraced the band on multiple formats including pop and alternative. “It starts, of course, with the songwriting and Brendon’s voice, but it’s also largely because of the production and instrumentation. It’s not often to have a hit song with trumpets, but they manage to pull it off in a way that fits on the radio. Some of the best songs through history are the ones that don’t follow a formula, but work in unexpected ways. And that makes them last longer.”
Bringing a brass band and full orchestra on tour, however, is a bridge too far. “When they tour, I pared the arrangements down to a string trio and a three-piece horn section,” says Mathes. “What Panic! has discovered is that there is some sort of timeless power to real instruments. Brendon was never going to go out on tour and just have that stuff on [pre-recorded] track — he wants to create a joyous musical circus.”