Breath of Life
By Liquid Todd
There must be something about going slowly crazy—and quickly broke—in Sin City that either brings out the best in an artist or destroys them for good. After a few years of grinding out a living as working musicians—playing cover songs in Las Vegas casino lounges—the members of Imagine Dragons were seriously considering hanging it up. Especially frontman Dan Reynolds.
“We were always broke,” Reynolds says. “We were just really surviving off of Taco Bell and just scraping by.”
Even for a guy who freely admits to having fairly regular mood swings, Reynolds remembers that time as being particularly shitty. “It was definitely one of my lower points in life,” he says. “I’m always on a little bit of a rollercoaster ride. I’ve always dealt with anxiety and depression and that was one of those moments when I was on the downswing.”
Then he wrote a song that perfectly described what was happening in the band’s lives and careers which resonated with so many others struggling with flat earnings and a yawning inequality gap. “It’s Time” may have been written about a moment in the life of Reynolds and the rest of Imagine Dragons but it described what was going on with a whole lot of other folks in this age of austerity. And when the world is kicking your ass, an anthem about clawing your way back from the edge of the abyss turned out to be a timely soundtrack for a beat-up planet yearning for a comeback.
Now that “It’s Time” has been certified platinum, debut album Night Visions has been released and the band has embarked on its first headlining tour (supported by Atlas Genius) success seems like it was just a matter of time for Imagine Dragons. But at the time, the band wasn’t at all confident about the inevitability of their ascension.
“I think he [Dan] was going through some tough times on a personal level and the band had been together for a couple years. And we were sort of at a crossroads,” guitarist Wayne Sermon explains. “Do we keep doing this or do we try something else? And ultimately the decision was made to keep going and to keep writing and to keep playing as a band. And that song was written right at that time.”
“That song was started on Dan’s laptop,” says guitarist Wayne Sermon. “He just started stomping and clapping and singing a simple melody. And that was really the birth of it.”
“I was just in my kitchen one night writing about battling that and a new beginning and trying to stay true to my roots,” Reynolds adds. “I never thought I would ever show it to anybody. It was really just a song for myself. I especially didn’t think it would be played on radio or anything like that. It’s pretty crazy to see where it’s come.”
Since its release, “It’s Time” has achieved the rare feat of “crossing over.” Starting at Alt Rock radio it then conquered the Adult Alternative (AAA) format and finally pogoed up the pop chart. The video of a grim Imagine Dragons striding in slo-mo across a barren landscape has been viewed nearly 16 million times—and counting.
“You never know how the cookie might crumble,” Sermon says. “But that was definitely a huge song that did a lot of awesome things for us. You never know that kind of stuff when you’re writing these songs. You just sort of try to write the best song you can and you try to write as many as you can. To have one turn out that people actually respond to, and that resonates with people in a certain way—it’s nothing short of amazing I think.”
“Radioactive,” the second single from Night Visions—anchored by a dark, analog-textured synth bassline.
“From playing in the casinos back in the day we gained an appreciation for all kinds of different music,” Sermon says. “And that song just kind of lent itself to a sort of organic meets inorganic big electronic sound.”
The video for “Radioactive” is far more lighthearted than Imagine Dragon’s first but describing it would take a whole other article. A longer article, too. All I’ll say is that at one point Lou Diamond Phillips gets his ass kicked by a pink puppet with glowing eyes and a killer left hook.
“We sort of wanted to do something a little off-the-wall with the video,” says Sermon. “I think everyone was sort of expecting another post-apocalyptic thing but we didn’t want people to think we take ourselves so seriously all the time and it kind seemed like a fun idea.”
“To be honest with you the song is really about self-empowerment and overcoming what seem to be insurmountable odds,” says Reynolds. “We wanted to tell that story in the video in a way that was different than how the song visually projects itself. But we didn’t want to do something that was just cookie-cutter, out-of-the-box what you would expect. Some of our favorite videos growing up were like the Foo Fighters where they didn’t take themselves too seriously and just had funny videos that were strange and quirky. We wanted to do something like that. I’m sure we’ll have some videos that are more serious than others but ‘Radioactive’ just kind of came together in a different way.”
Following the lead of other bands that find success in Sin City, Imagine Dragons has been spending most of its time in Los Angeles, which suits Sermon just fine.
“I have some friends there and I’ve been there sporadically throughout my life and I actually haven’t spent that much time there yet,” Sermon says. “But living there has been pretty incredible. I love it. I love California. I think it’s one of the best states in the country to be honest. There’s something for everyone there. There’s the beach. There [are] mountains. There are awesome cities and amazing food. The food is incredible—pretty much across the board. I’m a fan.”
But for Reynolds, the line in “It’s Time” where he declares “I’m never gonna leave this town” wasn’t just an idle boast. “We really don’t live anywhere,” he says. “But Vegas is still home. I have an apartment in LA just because I was writing so much there and commuting so much it was just a pain but when I buy a house or have some time off I’ll definitely settle in Vegas.”
And it’s probably good that Imagine Dragons worked so hard and lived in such a Spartan fashion for a couple years before it found success.
“Honestly we’ve been doing this for about four years now at this point and we’re used to it,” Reynolds says. “It’s like life you know. It’s not as shocking as it would be if we’d only been a band for a year and everything blew up overnight. We’ve really been on the road now for at least three years.”
Those three years were all about playing whatever gig it was offered for whatever the promoter would pay. And racking up a lot of miles on the band’s van odometer.
“The first year we kinda struggled playing the casinos around Vegas but after that we bought a little van for ourselves and really lived on the road. So nothing’s shocking to us,” Reynolds says. “We lived on our van’s couches for years and now we have the luxury of having a bunk in a tour bus which is pretty amazing. We feel like we’re living the life of luxury—having a bunk on a tour bus.”
Despite the constant touring, the band still finds the time to keep writing new songs along the way.
“We’re always writing,” Reynolds says. “We’re just creatures of habit, I think—the whole band. We feel like if we’re not creating we all get a little moody. We’re always writing. But we’re pretty focused on Night Visions right now and the tour but we’re always writing material in the bus or in the green room. We’ll pull out a little MIDI controller and Logic [digital audio workstation software from Apple] on our computer and make demos all the time.”
Wherever the members of Imagine Dragons—and their stuff—end up living, both Reynolds and Sermon agree that the band is right where they want to be right now—on tour and loving every minute of it.
“To be in the headlining spot—there’s nothing like it,” Sermon says. “It’s what we’ve been waiting for for years. And it’s everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s incredible.”
Reynolds concurs. “I don’t think there’s anything else in the world that any of us would rather be doing. This is what we wanted to do and we really set aside any other thing. There was no Plan B. Early on I thought of being in the FBI but music kind of took over my life. I don’t think we’ve had any time to even think about doing anything on the side.”