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.