EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Imagine Dragons Still Radioactive

– By On Tour Monthly / Photo by Anthony Mair –


Imagine Dragons Still Radioactive

It’s not surprising that the members of Imagine Dragon occasionally pinch themselves as a reminder they aren’t living a dream. After years of struggling to find the right groove and sound they felt would represent who they truly are as a group, the pieces all fell together. The past twelve months have been nothing short of miraculous for the band as they’ve sold out dates from sea to shining sea.

Local bands toll in obscurity hoping beyond hope they’re taking steps in the right musical direction that someday will lead to discovery. And then there are those unique groups who instinctively know they will be discovered, it’s just a matter of time. Imagine Dragons was such a band. Sporting three Berklee School of Music alums in guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Dan Platzman and drummer Ben McKee, coupled with a naturally gifted singer / songwriter, fate would surely smile on these artists. And shine it most certainly did.

Part of the humility of being in this band is facing the unknown without fear, or remorse. Dan Reynolds isn’t ashamed to admit he hears ‘things’ others cannot. It has haunted his every waking moment for years. He doesn’t like to talk about it much, but the voices in his head have become his constant companion. And when his inner muse speaks, the Las Vegas native is quick to take notes. You see, this singer / songwriter’s hearing problem always ends with a cleverly crafted lyrical landscape that delicately balances out the sounds agitating his mind. Such is the price of genius.

Imagine Dragons debut album, Night Visions, took the band three years to complete. Six of the tracks were previously released on and independent E.P. the band self-produced. These musicians were so confident in their efforts, they even released a documentary about the making of their debut recording entitled Imagine Dragons: The Making of Night Visions. Whether you call it moxie or chutzpah, it’s that type of confidence which has propelled Imagine Dragons to the point they’re at right now. Their record, fueled by the monster hit singles “It’s Time” and “Radioactive”, is already a platinum success. The leap of faith all the members of this band took in believing in one another indeed paid off.

On Tour Monthly:: You are part of a new generation of musicians that have grown up with the Internet being an important tool in the development of your music?

Dan Reynolds – The great thing about the technology age we live in, are the abundance of Internet tools available for creating music. I grew up using a lot of audio programs, and really liked one called Cakewalk. It literally turned your computer into a home studio. I then switched to Apple’s Logic Pro. It has lots of sampled instruments in the program that come awfully close to the sounds I look for. For instance, I didn’t have an orchestra on hand when I wanted a viola, but I could synthesize it on my computer. By adjusting the tone close to how I wanted it, I could then record the song with a real orchestra. I don’t feel I have any trouble finding noises that are close to what I am hearing in my head. Also, the musicians in the band all attended the Berklee School of Music. They are incredibly gifted with their instruments. When I bring my demos to the studio for them to hear, they have no problems bringing more life to the music.

OTM: Dan, when you rely too much on technology and not enough on raw talent, couldn’t you be creating a potentially dangerous situation?

DR: Definitely! There is a fine balance for sure. When people ask me what our band sounds like, I always say the same thing. We like to marry the raw sounds of a rock band by instrumentation with the digitized world of synthesized beats. It is something that has always fascinated me. I draw a lot of my inspiration from the ’80s as well as classic rock. Then I infuse those two worlds together into Imagine Dragons. As an artist, I think the most important thing with music is this. At the end of the day, we just do what’s right for the music. This band is very conscious about making our songs sound real and energized. We record them live to capture that energy so it doesn’t sound like a digitized track.

OTM: When I read that you were a prolific writer, it sent up a red flag for me and I’ll tell you why. You have Imagine Dragons as your main creative outlet. Your wife has her band Niko Vega, and together you have a thing called Egyptian. That’s a lot of irons in the fire. Are you spreading yourself out too thin, and are you doing a disservice to Imagine Dragons in the process?

DR: Well, that’s a great question. Every artist has to be careful to keep their focus on the job at hand. For me, I really have an OCD personality. Since I was 14, I literally almost wrote a song a day. It has been that way pretty much my entire life. I am 25 now, so in 11 years I have written thousands of songs. Not all of them are great or should be heard by anybody but myself. Some people sit down and plan their days out, some do athletic endeavors. I chose to write music. It was the way I communicated, the way I found solace. I have done it for so long, and at such a high volume, that songwriting has never been a pain for me. I have never felt I was spread too thin when it came to creating songs. To make a long story short, I don’t think I have too many irons in the fire, as you suggested. Actually, I feel as though I can never do enough music. If I was doing ten separate projects right now, I would probably be happier because I love what I do. Right now, I’m very obsessed with Imagine Dragons. It is where my focus remains. My wife spends all her time on Nico Vega. Our side project has sort of taken a back seat because both our projects are requiring a lot of attention. I’m sure there will be a day in the future where we’ll find time to work on side projects. In the meantime, I’m strictly Imagine Dragons.

OTM: I understand the therapeutic value in writing, but here’s the thing I find puzzling about your craft. How do you know you have finally found yourself in a serious band that has the chops and talent to make a serious go at this business? You can enter and win all the Battle of the Band contests you want, Dan, but that doesn’t get you to the next level. When did you really know you had finally gathered the right combination of musicians together to make a legitimate run at your own ‘field of dreams’?

DR: That’s another very good question. Imagine Dragons is the first project I have ever done that from the second I started, this was a very serious deal. When the four of us got together, the first thing we did was go into a room, sit down with a pen and a paper, and mapped out our vision of what Imagine Dragons was going to be. We talked about what we wanted to say musically, who we were all inspired by, how that would affect our sound, and what exactly our sound would be. The four of us talked about the artist’s we aspired to be; what would we do to be unique to ourselves. From day one, this was a very serious project. In fact, one of the guy’s still had a semester left at Berklee and dropped out. He moved to Las Vegas on a whim to get this band started. It was very evident to everybody involved with the project it wasn’t something to be taken lightly. This was very serious endeavor. We all had something we wanted to say and wanted to do it correctly. All of us take our art very seriously and still do. Every single note we play, every visual the music creates, every video this band makes, every lyric I write, there is a real thought behind the action. There’s also a great deal of time put in to executing it. I don’t know if there was an “aha” moment along the way. From the very beginning, the four of us took the project very seriously and nurtured it like it was our child.

OTM: Wayne, what exactly were the circumstances under which you met Dan Reynolds at Brigham Young University?

Wayne Sermon – I saw Dan singing at a club in Provo, Utah with his acoustic guitar. I really liked what I was hearing and what he was doing, so afterwards, I walked up and introduced myself. While doing some small chitchat, the two of us discovered we had the same goals in mind in terms of what we wanted to do with music. Both of us happened to enjoy listening to the same artists. Most importantly, we both were extremely serious about making a career out of music and not just let it be a hobby. Out of that conversation came, “Hey, let’s start a band!” Dan was moving back to Las Vegas because his family is from there. He told me that’s where he wanted to start the band, so on a whim I said, “Okay!” And the adventure began.

OTM: What was this ensemble group you were involved with before you met Dan?

WS: The guitar ensemble group was something I did at the Berklee School of Music where I initially met our drummer Dan Platzman, and our bass player Ben McKee. We all went to school together and played in a jazz fusion ensemble. The three of enjoyed performing together, but after I graduated, we kind of lost contact. To be honest with you, I never thought we’d play together again. Secretly I hoped we might do something down the road, but I certainly wasn’t counting on it. When the opportunity came up that we needed to replace members of the group, those two were the first people I thought of. Surprisingly, they dropped everything they were doing and came to Las Vegas. That in itself was pretty amazing.

OTM: What is it about Dan that convinced you to hitch your wagon to him, so-to-speak?

WS: Well, it definitely was a leap of faith, that’s for sure. Some people have that extra something about them. I don’t want to embarrass Dan, but I really do think he is something special. When he is on stage, people pay attention to what he’s doing as the front man. As a musician, that right there tells you everything you want to know about your singer.

OTM: Was it you, or Dan, that was friends with the Tolman’s, who also moved to Vegas, but eventually returned home to Utah to start a family?

WS: Actually, both of us knew Brittany and Andrew.

OTM: Dan, were the Tolman’s replaced in Imagine Dragons because they didn’t see the vision?

DR: No, not at all! There are people out there still curious about what actually happened to them and they deserve to know. The Tolman’s are married and they both sacrificed quite a lot for this band. They moved from their home in Utah to Las Vegas to start Imagine Dragons with us. Brittany, from the very beginning, had told us this wasn’t her thing to be in a band. She would be a temporary keyboardist for us until we could find someone to take her place. Her desire was to start a family with Andrew and be a mother. It just so happened that we couldn’t find a keyboardist to replace her for quite a while. This went on for over a year. Finally it just came to the point where Andrew and Brittany had to make a choice. It’s hard being a musician. You’re in a new town every day, you are traveling, and you’re really living off of nothing in the early years, absolutely nothing. We were all scraping by, playing cover gigs on the side, so it was hard on us. The day finally came where Brittany and Andrew said they were ready to start a family, and they wanted to settle back in Utah. They just weren’t going to be able to continue on with the band. Everyone absolutely respected their decision, and today we’re still really good friends. There was no blow out at all between us. They wanted to pursue their lives together, have children, and do it back in Utah.

OTM: Single or married, music is a difficult undertaking once you take the act on the road. The personal sacrifices are tremendous, and the rewards few and far between until you finally hit your stride, especially when you first start out.

DR: Everything you just said is right on the money. This is a hard life. It is especially difficult in the beginning. There are no tour buses and nice hotels. Many groups break up in those early years because the conditions they encounter are just too tough to overcome. Unless you are doing this for the right reasons, the grind of it all will separate you from the pack and definitely test your resolve. If you aren’t suited for this business, you’ll find out quickly when you start touring. Whenever anybody asks me if they should pursue their passion for music, I tell them don’t be a musician just to be one. Be a musician if you have no other choice, if it is the only thing you know how to do and it fulfills you. Don’t do it if you think it will lead you to some lavish lifestyle of fame and fortune. That is more the exception rather than the rule.

OTM: So Brittany Tolson tells her husband Andrew she wants to go home and start a family. After a year, she’s tired of being the temporary keyboard player in the band. It’s time for them to leave. Wayne, it’s just you and Dan. Is this where you come up with the idea of contacting Ben and Daniel?

WS: Actually, Ben had been with us from the beginning as well. He came into the picture the same time I did.

OTM: I thought he came as a packaged deal with Daniel?

WS: No, what happened was this. Ben had about eight credits to go at Berklee before he could graduate. I called him up in Boston while he was in school to let him know I was about to move to Las Vegas to start a band. I said, “You know, I’m starting this project, if you are interested, we’d love to have you. I know you have school, but if you’re interested in playing, let me know, because this is all going to happen in Vegas.” A few days later, he calls me from school and said, “How serious were you about that offer. I am ready to get out of here.” That was it. Ben just packed up everything he had, left school and moved out to Vegas with us.

OTM: So after Brittany and Andrew left, that’s when you called Daniel?

WS: Exactly! After they decided to leave, it just occurred to me to call up Daniel. He was actually doing stuff in New York like film scoring and playing a bunch of jazz gigs. He was someone Ben and I were always friends with. We thought it would be a no-brainer for him to step in.

OTM: Was it a no-brainer for Daniel to drop everything he was doing on a hope and prayer, which is basically what all of you were living off of at the time.

WS: He dropped what he was doing and relocated to Las Vegas, so that pretty much answers the question.

OTM: Once again, we’re back to that ‘leap of faith’ question.

WS: I would say that assumption was pretty close to the truth with Daniel. Our band wasn’t a household name by any means. We weren’t ultra-successful and when the Tolson’s left to go back to Utah, we were basically starting from ground zero again. Daniel was putting a lot on the line when he moved out to Las Vegas, as we all were. A lot of his faith stemmed from the trust he, Ben and I had formed back in Berklee when we were playing jazz together. We all appreciated one another’s taste in music, and when we performed together, the chemistry between us went through the roof. I think his decision to join us had a lot to do with that.

OTM: After Daniel finally made it to Vegas, the process began anew to build a musical foundation in which to build the band around.

WS: In a sense, yes! The Tollman’s were very talented, and they definitely left a hole in the band that had to be filled. During a transition like that, you go through a process of relearning people all over again. The three of us, Ben, Daniel and myself, had known each other for a very long time – Dan not so long. There was a breaking-in period for all of us when it came to personality, music, pretty much everything it takes to be a band. Considering the circumstances, the transition went pretty smooth.

OTM: I don’t want you to think I’m a jerk for saying this Dan, but writing 100 songs for an album consisting of 11 tracks is absolutely ridiculous. It goes beyond overkill. What is the cutoff point for this band where you finally say enough is enough?

DR: I guess what it comes down to is this. I’ve never written a song feeling it was worthless. I’ve never written a song that tortured me. It is a process I thoroughly enjoy and a way for me to withdraw into my own little world. Some people watch TV for enjoyment. I relax by writing music. I don’t even own a television. Listen, it’s not like we set out to write a hundred songs for this album, we just so happened to have a lot of songs. A lot of people reading this won’t understand when I tell you that we don’t have a life outside of music. We experience a real sensation of joy when we create music with our instruments. Some people write differently. They can say all they need to with less material. Songwriting just happens to be the way I communicate to the world around me. I relay my emotions as a human being through music. If I’m feeling sad, I’ll write a song to help me get through that. If I am happy, I’ll pen a tune so I can remember that moment. That’s how it has always been for me. It’s not like we needed one hundred tunes for our debut album, it just happened.

OTM: Once a group finally hits its stride, you have a three to five year window to create your musical identity that solidifies the band in the public’s mind. The clock is clicking on Imagine Dragons right now.

DR: Honestly, I try not to think about it that much. It’s a scary thought really. At the end of the day, I try to write the best music possible to conveying the message I want to get across. I definitely put a lot of thought into every lyric. We take our art very seriously and always will. All I can hope for is we create something that is worth listening to and maybe it helps people in some way. Music has always been a big help for me. It has helped me get through hard times, helped me experience joy. It’s truly a crutch for humans. The quickest way to transfer human emotions is through music. People in different cultures, or don’t speak the same language, can always connect through music. We are just

OTM: Wayne, you, Daniel and Ben all know that Dan Reynolds is a prolific writer and has an incredible the gift for crafting songs. Does that knowledge relieve some of the pressure on you three somewhat, because you know he will bring some exciting music to the table when it’s time to work on your sophomore album, so let’s enjoy this moment we’re in right now?

WS: That is a good question. I think that whatever external pressure this group feels, we put it on ourselves. This band really isn’t aware of many things outside of our little universe. To partly answer your question, we were working on our next album before we had even finished our first one. It’s just the way we think. The four of us have already discussed the direction the next record will take and avenues we want to explore. Given that, we are still really early into Night Visions as far as touring goes, so we’re going to stay out for a while. Touring is where our focus is right now. You interviewed Dan, so you know he is always writing and bouncing ideas off everyone. We will probably have 100 demos for the next album before we whittle it down to ten. That’s just the way we are. We like to write a lot. We aren’t a band that has a hit with every single song we write. Unfortunately, we just aren’t that lucky. There are a select few artists that are factory-like when it comes to cranking out hits time and time again. Each song we write is a roll of the dice. Once in a while we’ll roll a lucky one that sneaks in there and pays off for us.

OTM: Was it important for you to find the right name for the band to convey the image, the feel of the music?

DR: Yes it was. It was part of the whole vision we wanted to link together. We had a phrase that we all agreed upon to initially call the band, but then changed our minds. So we made an anagram out of it by switching the letters around and came upon Imagine Dragons. It was one of those words that came up when we were fooling around with the letters, and that was it. I haven’t told anyone what the original name we had. We leave up to the fans to scramble the words. They come to every show trying to guess what it is. It’s always been a fun name for us. I’m sure there will come a day where we will tell people what the answer to the anagram is, but we haven’t yet. It’s kind of nice to have something to keep to yourself and keep away from the journalists, but maybe one of these days.

OTM: I would keep the name quiet and use it in a marketing campaign for the next album you’ll release in 2014. Whoever guesses the name will get to go on the road with the band for a week, or maybe you’ll play a private party for them where you will debut your new record before all their friends.

DR: That’s a good idea. We just might do that.

James Villa