Imagine Dragons: On Top of the Charts, Hey!
With the release of its multiplatinum-selling debut album Night Visions, Imagine Dragons burst onto the world stage in late 2012. The album and its three singles were lodged on the Billboard charts for months, and the song “Radioactive” set records for longevity at the top of the charts for more than a year and a half. Earlier this year, the band won a Grammy and its rendition of “Radioactive” with rapper Kendrick Lamar was one of the most talked-about performances of the February Grammy broadcast. A couple of days later, the group appeared on TV again singing an acoustic version of “Revolution” in a Grammy tribute to the Beatles in front of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. By week’s end, they were performing on Saturday Night Live.
Whenever you see what looks like an overnight success in the music industry, the backstory usually reveals otherwise. In 2008 the group’s lead singer, Las Vegas native Dan Reynolds, started the band with a different lineup. At the time, he was a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. But things began in earnest when the current lineup, including three Berklee alumni, joined. Guitarist Wayne Sermon ’08, bassist Ben McKee ’09, and drummer Daniel Platzman ’09 had developed a musical and personal rapport playing together for three years in Professor Mark White’s Eclectic Electrics guitar ensemble. (See “Atonal Solfege, Eclectic Electrics, and Shout-Outs to Professors” sidebar.) Then they went their separate ways.
They reconvened when Imagine Dragons’ original drummer Andrew Tolman called on Sermon, his friend from American Fork, Utah, who had just graduated from Berklee with a degree in contemporary writing and production. Sermon later beckoned bassist McKee, who left his Berklee studies eight credits shy of earning his degree in professional music, to join the band. A few years and countless road trips later, McKee tapped his former Berklee roommate Platzman. A film scoring major and jazz drummer, Platzman dropped everything he was doing in New York and headed for the band’s home base in Las Vegas. (For a brief time, keyboardist and singer Theresa Flaminio ’08 was also in the group.)
The band had released multiple EPs before the pivotal moment when British hip-hip producer Alex Da Kid e-mailed them about working together. His studio and songwriting expertise and industry connections led to a contract for the group with Interscope Records. The label’s clout helped bring Imagine Dragons’ music to radio and beyond.
There is undeniable musical chemistry among the instrumentalists and Reynolds (who plays music primarily by ear). The combination of intuitive and schooled approaches to the music has blended the best of both worlds. While largely considered an alternative rock band, the influences of edgy anthemic rock, dub step, hip-hop, straight-up pop, and more shine through on their recordings and concert set lists. These days, the band’s sold-out arena shows on multiple continents are drawing enthusiastic fans ranging from teens to middle-agers. Songs by the group are in soundtracks of major Hollywood films and commercials, and their perky tune “On Top of the World” was sung by a children’s choir at President Obama’s 2012 inauguration.
The band has never shrunk from the hard work necessary to gain a toehold in the business, and it was savvy enough to wait until the terms were favorable before signing with a label. For the Dragons, their success and broad appeal is anything but imagined.
The past two years must seem like a rock -‘n’-roll fairytale to you guys.
Ben McKee: Yeah, two and a half years ago, we were still playing cover gigs in little clubs and casinos in Vegas just trying to scrape by. The route to where we are now has been long and intense.
In 2014 alone, you guys have had some highlights playing on the Grammy broadcast, then the Grammy tribute to the Beatles, and on Saturday Night Live.
Daniel Platzman: And all three happened in one week.
Dan Reynolds: It was good that we had four years under our belts before that week came. If we had just blown up in the last year and then gotten those opportunities, I don’t know if they would have helped the band. But we’d had time to get all the jitters and mistakes out before then. To the industry, we appear to be a band that’s been together for a year or so, but in the past four years we learned to deal with things that can go wrong—amps blowing up on stage or forgetting lyrics. I’d suggest to every young band not to let yourself be exposed to the mainstream in that light until you’re ready.
What music were you playing at your early gigs?
Wayne Sermon: From the very start, we played original music, but we couldn’t support ourselves just doing our own shows where 30 or 40 people would turn out. We didn’t want to get day jobs, so we also did lounge gigs playing covers and as much of our own music as we could get away with.
McKee: That gave us so much experience playing before an audience. At the casino gigs, no one was coming there to see us, so we got to experiment and learn what drew people in. That’s when Dan started playing the big drums at the front of the stage. It was hard to ignore and drew people in, but also influenced the percussive side of our music.
When did you start to think that the band was going to take off?
Reynolds: Never [laughter]. We had so much self-doubt. We decided we were going to do this to the death, but there were times when we almost gave up. During one of our early tours, we’d saved $1,000 and were keeping it in a pouch in the airport shuttle bus we’d bought to travel in. We were in Oregon at the end of the tour and someone broke into the bus and stole the money, our suitcases, and our passports. We were so poor, that $1,000 was everything we had earned. We were to leave the next week to play our first overseas festivals and had to get expedited passports. I think at that moment some of us quit in our minds.
But every young band goes through stuff like that. We played in dingy bars in the Midwest where the only people watching were in the opening band. You ask yourself then if it’s worth it. But we pushed through. We believed enough in the music to get past those points.
Sermon: There were some places with bad wiring where I was getting shocked every time I touched the guitar strings. I also remember saving up for months to get a new guitar amp. When I finally got it and plugged it in at the gig, it blew up. I quit the band then for a few seconds.
When Alex Da Kid got involved did the momentum really start?
Reynolds: Someone played our EP for Alex in his car, and he sent us an e-mail saying he liked our stuff. We were pretty excited because we were familiar with his work. Alex knew that we had offers from labels but that we wanted to stay independent as long as we could. The terms had to be right and we had to be able to retain our creativity, so we were just saying no. I’m glad we did it that way. We had friends who had been signed and then shelved. Getting with a label didn’t mean you’d be a success. We knew that we had to build it on our own.
Alex told us he didn’t want to change anything about what we were doing, he just wanted to help us do it on a higher level. He helped us sonically in the studio and had other resources to help us, and we’d worked with him enough to trust him. We had enough of a following at that point that we knew we could build on, and it made sense then for us to sign [with a label]. We have complete creative control over everything we do and our terms are much more friendly than those of many other artists.
Alex produced six tracks on the album. Some were produced by Brandon Darner and others you self-produced, but all have consistently great sound.
Reynolds: We had produced all the material on our EPs and were very hands-on, even when working with those producers. The understanding was that we had to retain artistic control, and these guys knew just how much input to give us. It wasn’t that we felt we knew better than them, it’s just that we knew how we wanted Imagine Dragons to sound. Alex was great at helping us get the snare drum to sound a little bigger and the kick to hit a little harder. Brandon is the guitarist from the band the Envy Corps. He produced “Amsterdam,” “The River,” and “It’s Time.” The situation was perfect for us because we could self-produce as we’d done before but also have experienced minds in there to help us get to where we wanted to be sonically.
Do band members have a different roles as you write and produce the songs?
Platzman: Usually the songs are formed on Dan’s or Wayne’s laptops. But we all make song skeletons on our own as well.
Reynolds: I write the lyrics and melodies, Wayne writes the guitar parts, Platzman writes the drum parts, Ben writes the bass lines. We each champion our own areas, but we’re respectful of each other’s opinions. If someone tells me to try something else with my melody, I’ll always do it.
Mckee: When we’re in the studio, we say yes to every idea and then edit out the ones that don’t work out. We’ll vote if there are two minds about an idea and then move on.
Platzman: As we recorded “On Top of the World,” we were going through the bass parts, and Ben kept coming up with new things. We ended up with completely different takes where he was slapping, picking, or plucking the bass. They all sounded good so we put the three different approaches together. Now he has to play the song that way.
There are a lot of different kinds of songs on the record, from alternative rock to dubstep, and a lot in between. Does this range reflect everyone’s different interests?
Reynolds: The music is a blend of everything we listen to. Platzman and I listened to a lot of hip-hop, Ben has country influences, and Wayne comes from classic rock and the Beatles. We never start out saying a song has to sound a certain way. We ask each other how it would sound best. Would it sound better with an acoustic guitar or a synth bubbling underneath? At the end of the day, we believe that a song is good if the melody sounds right with the chord progression and you can sit around and sing those words and melody with just a guitar. If a song like “Radioactive” sounds good that way, then you can dress it up. Whether a song is good or not shouldn’t be dictated by the production.
Your lyrics are just abstract enough that listeners can relate the song to their own experiences.
Reynolds: When I was growing up, some of my favorite lyricists were Paul Simon and Harry Nilsson. They both could give a simple message that was metaphorical enough that people could find their own individual interpretation. Some lyrics are so obscure that you don’t know what the writer is saying. I like songs where I have an idea about what’s being said but I’m not fully sure. I like to have to really think about a song and make my mind up about what’s being said.
The liner notes show that everyone in the band gets a share of the publishing. What prompted such a democratic approach?
Reynolds: We’ve been through enough together that we all appreciate each other and want things in a way that feels right for everyone. We do our best to make sure everybody is treated fairly for their input. It is a very collaborative effort.
Who made the final choice of the songs on Night Visions from the many tracks you had recorded?
Platzman: Choosing what demos we’d take in and fill out and then what finished songs would be on the album was the hardest part of making the record. We took about 20 demos in. We have even more demos as we get ready for the second album. Majority rules after we talk through everything.
Reynolds: I will tell everyone the story of each song and what it means to me. Sometimes that can sway someone’s opinion.
McKee: We want the best material to go on the album, but we also want it to be more than a collection of singles. We want an album that people can put on and listen to as a whole, like Dark Side of the Moon. We want it to be like a movie, where you go on a musical journey. Taking the best songs and creating momentum in the collection was quite a process.
After the success of Night Visions, how do you feel about having to follow that album up?
Reynolds: It’s only daunting if you let it be daunting. We are not worried about what the critics will think—or even what the fans are going to think. We’ll just make the best album we can as we did with the first one. We’re not thinking about making a high-concept album, a really poppy album, or Night Visions II. We will put out whatever feels natural and we’re proud of.
Platzman: In his book Effortless Mastery, Kenny Werner talks about creating or practicing out of fear. We could fall into a trap thinking that people really liked Night Visions and become afraid they won’t like the new album. That could lead to fear-based decisions about what the new songs should be. And that approach is not going to produce good art.
The band’s songs frequently feature a variety of cool textures in the guitar parts.
Sermon: The sound of guitars has been a staple in rock music for years, and I never get bored with it. But it has been done so well by so many people in classic rock that I like to experiment with textures and find pedals that make the instrument sound less like a guitar. The intro to “Tiptoe” is a good example of guitars not sounding at all like guitars.
Many called the band’s Grammy performance of “Radioactive” with Kendrick Lamar and the cannons shooting red powder onto your white suits a highlight of the show.
Reynolds: The show producers gave us free reign, so we came up with all that on our own. We got together with Kendrick and decided that we wanted things to start out looking very glossy and nice, all white, clean, and pure. Then we wanted to wreck it and make it look tribal. We wanted the red powder to ruin the scene to give it a raw rock/hip-hop vibe. An hour before the performance, the producers were talking about nixing the cannons because the powder would get all over everything. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were to be the next performers, so they didn’t want a mess for them. We told them the whole concept wouldn’t make sense without the cannons, and they let us go ahead with it. Luckily, it all turned out OK.
In a recent National Public Radio story about the chart longevity of “Radioactive,” the commentator opined that historically, rock songs with some spiritual imagery have connected with audiences. She called some lyrics in “Radioactive” apocalyptic, straight out of the Revelation of Saint John in the Bible. What’s your take on that?
Reynolds: I think a lot of rock bands allude to spirituality, and for many people spirituality is a big part of life. Our music really isn’t religious. All of us in the band are spiritual in our own ways, but we fall on both sides of being religious or nonreligious. Since I write all the lyrics, I’d say the song is just about life. Art is generally an expression of emotion and feeling, or what you make of life. Sometimes there are spiritual themes.
How have you adjusted to the rigors of being a touring rock band?
Platzman: To be able to perform music at this level is a dream come true. When I talk to friends and family back home, they’re surprised to hear that most nights we sleep on a bus that drives through the night. We don’t always go to hotels since we often have shows in a different city the next day. We sleep on little shelves. It’s not a party.
Reynolds: We were never in this for the rock-‘n’- roll life. I don’t know how any band could work at this level without living a pretty healthy lifestyle; bands that don’t either break up or can’t hack it. We play a two-hour set each night, we’re writing music for a new record, and we do lots of promos and interviews. Some of us have family members with us on the road. But it’s not that we don’t make a little trouble sometimes [laughter].
Platzman: You have to pick your battles and ask yourself, “Is it really going to be worth it to stay out all night until lobby call?”
How did you develop your international fan base?
Reynolds: We are very hands-on with our fans interacting through social media.
McKee: We also focused on building a grassroots movement before we started going overseas. We didn’t wait until we had something going on before we went there to tour. We started out playing small clubs over there.
Platzman: There were people who had heard our music on an Assassin’s Creed [a video game] commercial and took the train from Hungary to Germany to hear us play. It was at the time when we were hustling at the merch table each night trying to meet every fan.
Sermon: On our first two tours over there, we lost tens of thousands of dollars.
Reynolds: But it was so important to show these fans that we would build things over there the same way we built them in the States. It was the same progression; we started in the clubs, then theaters, then amphitheaters.
How did you break through the throngs of bands out there to get to the level you are at now?
Reynolds: Hard work and a lot of Vegas luck have helped. I remember playing the South by Southwest Festival [SXSW] as a young band. Thousands of awesome bands come to that. It’s both amazing and depressing to see that there are so many people trying to do what you are doing, and they are doing a great job. At SXSW we played 15 shows in three days. I ended up getting a polyp in my throat and needing surgery. But we just worked hard and kept at it. We took any gig we were asked to do. We are just now beginning to say no. Last year I saw a website that listed the busiest touring bands based on the number of shows and miles traveled. We were listed at number three. Touring is an important part of what we do.
What can you say about your approach to the creative process?
McKee: All of us have somewhat different musical backgrounds, even though we all have some common ground in classic rock. I think that taking a collaborative approach to the music given our different backgrounds has helped us to find a broad spectrum of things fans can relate to.
Sermon: Beyond that, we are relentless in making the songs the best they can be by breaking them down and building them back up again. We know somehow if a song is good enough to make the record. And we are harsh on ourselves; the process is kind of brutal.
Reynolds: Removing ego from the creation process has been the most important thing for us. It’s not always easy, but we’ve learned to respect each other over the years. We don’t have to tiptoe, but we are careful. If you are an author, you write a first draft and then other ones until you’ve got a good book. In music, your demo might be perfect. The vocals on our song “Rocks” came from the first demo done on my laptop. They sounded right and we used them for the record. Other songs, like “Nothing Left to Say” started out as a two-minute song, but on the record it’s over eight minutes long. The verse for “Amsterdam” was originally the verse for “It’s Time.” But it just didn’t work, so I rewrote the lyrics and made two songs. We really believe in editing.
What would you like to see Imagine Dragons doing in five years?
Reynolds: I hope we will have a few records under our belts, be on tour somewhere in the world, and not be too different than we are now. Our biggest goal is to retain a bit of anonymity and a somewhat normal life, and do what we love with the music. We got into music because we love performing every night. I am excited about tonight’s show, even though I’m going to sing the same songs I’ve sung for two years. But I’m excited because I’m doing what I’ve loved since I was 12 years old.
Platzman: I remember playing jazz shows and if six people showed up, I’d be so happy. It is amazing to go from that to arenas with thousands of people every night. There is electricity in the air when you go out on stage, and we are addicted to that feeling.
The band also uses its popularity to aid charitable causes. How did it feel when you recently raised a quarter of a million dollars for your own Tyler Robinson Foundation?
Reynolds: That was just one night for us, but the money is going to help make the lives of people going through an awful disease [cancer] a little better. Being a musician can sometimes be a selfish lifestyle. Every day we are spending time telling everyone about ourselves. It feels really good to do something that makes a difference for others.
The other day, we weren’t having such a good day and we’d forgotten that we were scheduled to see some of the families who’d been helped by the foundation money. Meeting them really changed our mood. I’d tell anybody, “If you want to feel better about life, get involved in helping others.” It takes a little effort, but it makes you see the world in a different way.