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Imagine Dragons’ New Desolation: The Making of ‘Smoke + Mirrors’

The Vegas rockers behind “Radioactive” fight off vocal problems, ready new album

Imagine Dragons

Dan Reynolds says he still thinks of Imagine Dragons as more as an alt-rock band than a Top 40 pop force.

Mat Hayward/Getty Images

“Dude, I’ve been dreading this,” says Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds. He’s at a microphone in the band’s private Las Vegas studio, trying to get ready for his final roar on an angst-y new song called “Friction.” Reynolds, who underwent vocal-cord surgery in 2012, went on to spend nearly two years shouting the hit “Radioactive” on tour. Screaming his lungs out in the studio comes with risks, but sometimes there’s no other choice. “It’s going to hurt your voice,” he says of his loudest moments. “But it’s an integral part of the band.”

Imagine Dragons are deep into recording Smoke + Mirrors, the follow-up to their multiplatinum 2012 hit, Night Visions. They’re at it six days a week, working through more than 100 song demos to a likely 13 final tracks for the new album, due in February. Among the contenders is a funky blues tune, “I’m So Sorry,” and the soulful yearning and Beach Boys harmonies of “Smoke + Mirrors.” There are plenty of big pop hooks and thundering beats, mostly self-produced with a couple of tracks from longtime collaborator Alex Da Kid.

The success of Night Visions abruptly took Imagine Dragons from 150-capacity clubs and casinos to arenas and an explosive performance with Kendrick Lamar at last year’s Grammys. Then there was the night the band casually arrived on foot to a Katy Perry afterparty while other guests rolled up in limos and luxury sports cars. “There have been moments in the last year where we looked at each other and were like, ‘We don’t belong here,’ ” says Reynolds, who says he still thinks of Imagine Dragons more as an alt-rock band than a Top 40 pop force.

On the road leading up to the sessions, Reynolds would sometimes turn out five demos a week, shouting into his laptop at 2 a.m. “Usually it was when I was sad and depressed,” he says with a laugh. Many of the lyrics on the new album deal with the singer’s struggles with faith and purpose, charting his own path from a deeply conservative Mormon upbringing. “There is a lot of struggle and total joy, total celebration and confusion, on the album,” he says.

After getting off tour, Reynolds, guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Ben McKee and drummer Daniel Platzman bought a house to build their dream studio, loading it with vintage gear and a framed note from Paul McCartney above the mantel. “We all have a strangely healthy relationship,” Reynolds says. “I think it’s because we have no friends except for each other. But we still have a lot of growing to do. Hopefully, this album will be a step in the right direction.”

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