In the not so distant past, it would have been a near impossibility to live in America and not have heard the song ‘Radioactive’. If you turned on the radio at any point during 2013, you will have heard that song on any given station. If you turned on the television, you will have that song in some commercial. If you went to the cinema, you heard that song on some soundtrack. If you went to a parade or rally or football game, you heard that song played by the marching band. Imagine Dragons’ supernova hit was everywhere.
The band in no way could have ever anticipated when they first hit the studio to record their second single that it would become certified diamond [10 million copies sold], certified the longest-charting single on the Billboard Hot 100, all while earning them a Grammy and becoming the #1 Most Downloaded Song in Rock History.
“We were expecting the album to come out and sell 1,000 copies, or hoping for it at least,” says Dan Reynolds, the band’s frontman. “We were beyond blown away by how well it did. None of us expected or planned for it. It’s been a journey; it feels like it’s been forever. We don’t want to take it for granted, and we still just soak it all in everyday, in every new city, with every new show.”
From playing to half-empty casinos for Top Ramen money to worldwide sold-out tours and three hit records under their belt, Imagine Dragons had become an American household name.
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 their punchy pop anthems. “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,” Reynolds says. “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 bloated corpse of alternative rock radio, never predicting their debut, Night Visions, would gain them immediate global super-stardom when it released in 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 says.
Reynolds echoes 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 replies. “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 band’s music resonates with so many people across so many ranges. Even though Imagine Dragons has exploded to life again on every radio station in the civilized world with their latest genre blending hits ‘Thunder’ and ‘Believer’, it still hasn’t exploded their ego too much. “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 explains. “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 adds. “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 jokenly chimes in.
Top 40 radio has changed quite a bit in recent years and has granted alt-rock / rock-leaning bands and crossover bands some major mainstream success.
Imagine Dragons’ catalog, especially Evolve, allows 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 adds.
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. “We definitely wrote [Evolve] with these far off hopes and expectations of maybe playing for lots of people in far away places. 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 pauses before joking, “...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.”
Photography by Shauna Marinchik
Written by Heather Seidler