Imagine Dragons weren’t completely satisfied with their last arena tour, which was launched hastily in 2014 after “Radioactive” became a huge hit. “The first record blew up so fast that we didn’t have any time to really get creative,” frontman Dan Reynolds says of the shows in support of 2012’s Night Visions. For their summer tour kicking off tonight in Portland, Oregon, Imagine Dragons worked with Nine Inch Nails’ production team for a high-tech show that will reflect their new album, Smoke + Mirrors. “We’re going to be playing with people’s perspectives a lot and make them have to look twice at things to understand what’s going on,” says Reynolds, who also spoke to Rolling Stone about why touring is hard, his list of dream covers and why the band can play pretty much anything.
You guys never really stopped touring since Night Visions.
We started seven years ago by playing four times a week. We weren’t a band doing one show a month. Since we were in Vegas, we could play all the lounges, so our lifeblood has always been the road. That’s what keeps us happy as people. As human beings, we feel like we’re most comfortable on the stage. It’s not the greatest for having a life, a family, or steady things, but it’s great for people who want to constantly be onstage and that’s where we like to be.
On the last tour you had a giant oval screen behind you. What will the production be like this time?
We wanted to change it up. The first record blew up so fast that . . . it was, “Wow, suddenly we’re playing theaters, amphitheaters and now arenas.” It was a quick process. For this one, we had a year before we knew we were gonna play these arenas. We’re working with a good company that did the Nine Inch Nails tour. They’re just really tasteful and great artists that understood our vision. The production is completely different. We did a very stripped-down version of it in South America, but in North America there’s all these moving parts. It’s going to be a full-scale arena production and we’re really excited about it.
How will it be different from the Night Visions tour?
The title Smoke + Mirrors really runs well. We didn’t want to create a magic show, but we wanted to play off visual confusion. The record is all about self conflict. It’s an introspective record that’s really trying to peel apart my life and see what’s real and what’s not real, so we wanted to display that onstage visually. There’s a lot of playing with perspectives.
There’s a lot of really groundbreaking production that these guys are doing. They’re really on the edge of what can be done with projection mapping and things like that and we haven’t done that yet anywhere. From a songwriting standpoint, we’re gonna be playing the entire new record as well as a bunch of the old record, which is refreshing because it was aggravating as a band to play festival headlining spots with only one record. When you’re the headliner and you’re going on after a bunch of acts that have been around for years and have a huge repertoire, it doesn’t feel good to play one record. It’s just a difficult position to be in. It’s tricky, but we’re still figuring it out.
Can you explain how you’re going to use “projection mapping”?
I don’t want give away too much but it uses projection to create almost 3-D imaging. You project onto things you wouldn’t normally project on. It plays with your sense of perception and your depth of perception and makes you take a second look at things. The main thing we wanted to do was for people to walk into the arena and enter the world of Smoke + Mirrors. We also worked with Tim Cantor, whose art will be incorporated throughout the live show. We wanted them to enter Smoke + Mirrors. We’ve really expanded everything, both sonically and visually, beyond watching just the band play onstage.
Are you used to playing arenas at this point?
I feel pretty comfortable. We did a whole arena tour at the end of the last record. Before that tour we did a full amphitheater tour and before that we did a full theater tour. We did a full U.S. tour for Night Visions like three or four times. It was pretty ridiculous – even though this is our second record, it feels like our fifth tour in the U.S. But I feel pretty comfortable on a big stage now; in fact, I feel more comfortable on a big stage than a small stage. We did a small club tour and it totally brought me back to those venues from seven years ago and I realized I felt more accustomed to playing bigger rooms.
You’re known for playing left-field covers. You recently covered “Blank Space.” Will you break that out on tour?
I think we’ll change it up, honestly. We always like to make ourselves a little uncomfortable. When we started, we had to learn over a hundred covers because in Vegas we were doing 50 percent covers, 50 percent originals. When you have to learn that many, it’s nice to change it up. Every day we will be driving and something will come on and we’ll say, “Let’s figure that out.” The musicianship of the guys is just great. They went to Berklee and are great musicians. I’m personally just trying to push them to their limit. Before we even started the band, they were in this jazz-fusion guitar ensemble the Eclectic Electric. It was just as nerdy as you can get as a musician. Once you can play jazz, it’s really the most difficult form of musicianship, so I’m just trying to get them to push themselves. I’m sure we’ll play some weird things. I’m sure we’ll pull out some things to push them.
What will you suggest?
I really want to do “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon. I think that’s actually a selfish choice, because Paul Simon is such an interesting melody writer. He fits in so many words but it doesn’t feel clunky. It’s totally his own thing that nobody else does. I’d love to cover that on tour, plus the vibe of it just feels so good. I’ve been listening to Graceland like crazy so I’m sure we’ll pull a Paul Simon out. I’ve been listening to a lot of Brazilian music and world music. We love the Rolling Stones. Honestly, I haven’t put much thought into it yet. We did “Toxic” by Britney Spears back in the day and it’s just so difficult to do. It’s a really cool song, the production is super awesome, but it’s really hard to do.