photographer / Joshua Shultz
story / Heather Seidler
location / MDCI House
Some songs just get under your skin. Others crawl into you like ghosts, creeping through your veins and becoming inherent to a time or place, igniting some buried feeling, and they’re in; you can never quite shake them. Imagine Dragons’ explosive single “Radioactive”, labeled “the biggest rock hit of the year” by Rolling Stone, is one likely of those songs.
When Las Vegas quartet Imagine Dragons first hit the studio to record their debut NIGHT VISIONS, there is no way they could have predicted the album would quickly end up on every blog, break music chart history, hit Platinum in record sales, win awards, and reach fever-pitch across all the Top Ten lists. But that happened. Fast.
“It’s been a journey; it feels like it’s been forever. But in the same note, it feels like it’s been one long day,” said Dan Reynolds, lead singer/multi-instrumentalist. “We were expecting the album to come out and sell 1,000 copies, hoping for it at least, and we were just blown away by how well it did. None of us expected or planned for this. We are really appreciative of it, because we’ve seen so many bands over the years who are touring hard on the road, who are very deserving of the success that we’re experiencing. We don’t want to take it for granted, and we just soak it all in everyday, in every new city, with every new show.”
From playing to half-empty casinos and clubs for Top Ramen money to a rigorous worldwide sold-out tour, you’d think that kind of quick exposure might detract Imagine Dragons from their rock n’ roll roots and humility, but Reynolds keeps it real. “We’re away from home; we’re away from family; we’re away from friends; and we’re also trapped in moving steel with each other all the time. But luckily I’m the smelliest, so from my perspective, it’s not that bad.”
Reynolds and his Berkley-trained bandmates, Wayne Sermon, Ben McKee and Daniel Platzman, all play multiple instruments and each bring their specific diverse element to the mix. “We all came from very different backgrounds. We’re influenced by hip hop to 80’s, from classic rock to old country–there’s a little bit of everything sprinkled in there. That’s what creates the Imagine Dragons sound. How we come together is very collaborative, and we’re very respectful of each others ideas as artists. We get in a room, and we hear everybody’s two cents on everything. That’s what ends up putting the lifeblood into an Imagine Dragons song.”
The band first came together four years ago, in hopes of successfully carving out a unique place for themselves in the tough alternative rock world, not predicting NIGHT VISIONS was a sure-fire way of gaining global super-stardom when it released September 2012. Determined to steal back some of the familiar but crowd-pleasing rock n’ roll tricks other genres have made off with, adding their love of rock bombast, they use full-throttle rhythms and plenty of singalong percussive choruses that don’t follow the familiar pattern for hard rock, heavy metal or even pop rock. “Music is supposed to be universal and cross all kinds of boundaries,” Sermon said.
Reynolds echoed Sermon’s thoughts. “It’s never been our goal to be a band that creates music that’s for a niche. We’ve wanted to create music that could go through those boundaries. It’s not a part of society that I think any of us really care for, you know, the whole “too cool” or “hipster-y” thing. We’re just about creating music that’s real for us and hopefully connects with people. That, for us, is what music is about.”
Since they managed to rule today’s chart music without reducing the significance and originality of their sound, I asked them what they thought was essential to making Imagine Dragons a successful, functioning and evolving unit. “I think that it’s all about honesty,” Reynolds answered. “It’s been the number one thing from the beginning. Just creating something that’s real for us, not buying into hype. You have to own your music before anybody else. We try to write music that comes from an honest place that we can stand behind and say that this is something we’re proud of creating. We want to make it worth being out there.”
Despite the hyper-humility of his answer, it would be an accurate explanation of why the album resonates with so many people across so many ranges. Even though Imagine Dragons has exploded to life on every radio station in the civilized world this year, it doesn’t look like they’re letting it get to their heads. “For us, it’s always been about music. It’s not about how cool we are as people, or the cool people who listen to us. It’s about the music that people connect to. I think that’s a miracle,” Sermon said. “With that in mind, we have to keep on writing the way we’ve always written, be true to ourselves and follow our gut. Not listen to other people, just listen to each other.”
“I think open-mindedness is a theme we have, as far as where our musical inspirations come from. That’s really important to us,” McKee added. “We need to stay open-minded and not prejudiced to new experiences. There’s so many different kinds of music we hear that some may feel aren’t very compatible with the music that we’re writing, but music is universal. Naturally, if you keep a wide open mind, you’ll evolve as a songwriter just by having these new experiences. I think it’s something that will continue to allow our music to develop and have longevity.”
“I think as long as we never run out of new drums to experiment with, we’ll continue to be very successful,” Platz weighed in, with a ubiquitous smirk.
Top 40 radio has changed quite a bit in recent years and has granted alt-rock bands like Foster the People, Arcade Fire and Imagine Dragons some mainstream success.
NIGHT VISIONS encompasses melodic matter of all kinds, allowing for listeners to relate to the lyrics while enjoying all of the experimental and rhythm-based qualities that Imagine Dragons infuse into their music. Watching the band live, you can see their commitment to doing something…well, alternative. This includes some gigantic 300 lb drums, rope swings, and Reynolds suspended in air, dangling from ceilings, spinning like a gymnast mid-air, hanging upside down while banging on those notoriously boomy drums. Drums that floss your insides with huge chiller sounds.
“Our goal from the beginning has been to be a live act. That has been our number one goal: to draw people out to a live show. The album is really just there to attract people to come out and see the show live. That’s where we really feel like Imagine Dragons lives, in the live setting,” Reynolds revealed. “We’re always looking for new ways to shorten the gap between the audience and the performer; that’s always been our goal. We want the line of communication to be immediate. I want someone to walk away from the show feeling like they were part of something, rather than coming out and watching an artist indulge in their music. Our favorite shows that we went to growing up, whether it was U2 or G-Love and Special Sauce, were all very much an experience, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
“Our attitude has always been ‘is it possible?’ Our attitudes will always be about pushing the envelope,” Sermon added.
Still inescapable on the airwaves, Imagine Dragons continues playing shows around the world and writing from hotel rooms and tour vans in their down time. Reynolds is hard at work in his bus bunker with his little USB microphone and MIDI controller. “Getting to experience different cultures is very influential when we’re writing on the road. You’ll see some beautiful architecture and these cobblestone streets, and you’re in your hotel at night…there’s so much inspiration to be taken from that,” Reynolds said.
“We definitely wrote music with these far off hopes and expectations of maybe playing for lots of people in far-away places,” Sermon elaborated. “Our music has always had that kind of anthem-like quality to it. We certainly didn’t count on that happening, but we were hoping for it. It seems like now we are playing music for the crowd we’ve always been writing for.”