How a Vegas bar band became the biggest breakout of the year
Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons has a baby daughter, Arrow, named after the Harry Nilsson song "Me and My Arrow." She's 10 months old, but, Reynolds says, "I've been with her about a month and a half of her whole life. That has been one of the hardest parts of the last year."
Almost everything else has gone incredibly right since the band released its debut album, Night Visions, last September. Founded in Las Vegas in 2008, Imagine Dragons – singer Reynolds, guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Ben McKee and drummer Daniel Platzman – are 2013's modern-rock breakout story. Night Visions, now platinum, is the year's second-best-selling rock album after Mumford & Sons' Babel, while the former's opening track, the glacial-hip-hop stomp "Radioactive," is the top digital rock single, selling more than 3 million copies.
On the road, Imagine Dragons have jumped from clubs to amphitheaters and prime festival slots with few days off. Last year, the group made its New York debut at the tiny downtown club Pianos. In July, Imagine Dragons were back for their fifth area date in 18 months, performing for 15,000 fans on Long Island. Over the next four days, the band appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, played a big outdoor concert in Nashville with an orchestra, then spent 19 hours in a tour bus getting to the next gig, for 5,000 people at Echo Beach in Toronto.
"I don't want to say it feels like a dream, because it doesn't – it's very real," says the 26-year-old Reynolds, enjoying some fresh air on a patio backstage before that show. "But it's different than you ever thought. We worked for so long to get to this. Now that we're here, I'm just confused."
Tall and trim with a warm, energetic personality, Reynolds is a Vegas native from a large, tight Mormon family; two of his seven brothers, Mac and Robert, are the band's manager and lawyer, respectively. "The only time I comprehend it," Dan says of the sudden crush and glory, "is when I talk to my mom. She's like, 'The neighbors came over. The daughter wanted you to sign something.' That hits home – the neighbors know. Or the cool kids in high school. They'll text me: 'Hey, man.' I'm like, 'Dude, I know you were making fun of me when I started the band. Now you're hitting me up for tickets.' " Reynolds' eyes light up more in mirth than irritation.
Sermon – who is 29, also Mormon, from American Fork, Utah, and a graduate of the Berklee College of Music – is less conflicted. "It's exactly what we've been waiting for," he contends. "But if we'd had this success in our first year, as some bands do, we wouldn't have survived. The music wasn't good enough. We weren't close enough. We needed those thousands of hours, playing to five, 20, 50 people, trying to win them over every night."
Sermon is referring to Imagine Dragons' boot camp in Las Vegas, playing up to six hours a night in casino bars for gamblers, drunks and tourists. For a time, the band members lived together in an apartment with patchy air conditioning. (Remember, this is Vegas, where temperatures in the summer can top 110 degrees.) Lima beans and white rice was, McKee says, "the go-to meal." But it was a productive ordeal. Three of the songs on Night Visions – the contagious, mandolin-flecked march "It's Time" and the surging anthems "Amsterdam" and "Hear Me" – were in those Vegas sets next to the Rolling Stones, Cars and Cure covers. And Imagine Dragons' signature use of extra percussion, including concert bass drums and the massive Japanese taiko featured on "Radioactive," started there. "We've always been a rhythmic rock band," says Reynolds, who plays all of those drums onstage. "I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop of the Nineties – Tupac, Biggie. That finds its way into the music."
The Toronto show, mostly drawn from Night Visions, is basically the craft and ambition of those Vegas nights writ large and grand, by a band determined to entertain and connect. There is a Who-ish flair to the drum breaks in "Amsterdam" and "Tip Toe," while the singalong magnetism in the Red Hot Chili Peppers-flavored cheer of "On Top of the World" and the early-U2 urgency of "Nothing Left to Say" are especially effective in the open air.
"We bonded over rhythm," says Imagine Dragons' British co-producer and label head Alexander Grant, a.k.a. Alex Da Kid. Grant, who has cut hits with Eminem and Nicki Minaj, started working with Imagine Dragons after hearing the group's three self-released EPs. "I thought it was the best songs from a bunch of different bands," he says. "It's hard to find that consistency in one band" – and one that is, Grant notes, "great live too." Indeed, it's not enough for Reynolds, on this tour, to thwack every drum on the stage during "Radioactive." He spends much of the song overhead, spinning on guide wires, hitting a bass drum hung from the lighting rig.
In 2008, Sermon was back in Utah, after Berklee, when he saw Reynolds sing at a show in Provo. "He had 'it,' " Sermon says, meaning "when you see someone onstage but they don't demand attention. They command it. He was being himself."
Reynolds had been considering a career in the FBI but changed his mind after his mother asked him how he would feel if he had to shoot someone. He and Sermon decided to start their new band in Vegas. The guitarist drew on his Berklee friendships. McKee, who is 28 and from Northern California, quit Berklee a semester shy of graduation to be in the band. Platzman, 26, is from Atlanta, majored in film scoring at Berklee and joined in 2011 after some lineup changes. Reynolds is an untrained singer who developed his strong, supple mix of epic Bono, some Anthony Kiedis and a Nilsson-like near-falsetto the hard way – as he says, "performing, losing your voice, finding out why, work on that." That inquisitive zeal and self-examination run through his lyrics too. "For me, faith has never been an easy thing," acknowledges Reynolds, who went on a two-year Mormon mission to Nebraska when he was 19. "It's never cool to say you're religious, especially in the career I'm in. But I felt rock & roll was about doing something not cool – and making it cool."
Asked about a line in "Rocks" – "Why can't I see/What's right in front of me?" – Reynolds concedes, "That's been my life story. I meet so many people that know their life path. It drives me crazy not to know. When I was on my mission, I spent so much time sitting with pastors, saying, 'Tell me why this is.' I've sat with Satanists, atheists – 'I'm interested, I want to know.' My parents taught me that: 'Do what's right for you, and question everything.' And that's how I'll teach my kids."
Imagine Dragons (an anagram of a phrase that Reynolds declines to reveal – "It has meaning to us, maybe a little more to me," he says) plan to be around for the long run, but they're working like it could all end tomorrow. "We had an accelerated bonding experience at the beginning," McKee says. "We are taking advantage of everything, because this is something we will not be able to do again."
Platzman puts it this way: "The mantra of this band is not to skip steps. Whatever happens, it will not be because we didn't work hard enough." There are tour dates booked into next spring, and Platzman estimates the band has amassed "a hundred-something demos in the vault" for the next album: "If Dan has two hours off in a hotel, there will be two new demos."
"We wanted to be this busy," Reynolds insists. "We say yes to everything: 'Hey, Latvia wants you to come play.' How can you say no to that? There will be a huge crash and burn one of these days," he adds, smiling. "But not yet."
This story is from the August 29th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.