Imagine Dragons: The Billboard Cover Story
Platinum sales, sold-out dates and a top five hit on the Hot 100 -- Imagine Dragons is the breakthrough band of 2013
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard.
Dan Reynolds is knocking back some potato wedges "somewhere in Denmark," enjoying a rare moment of peace amid the frenetic pace as the band he fronts-Imagine Dragons-charges inexorably toward global rock'n'roll superstardom.
This is what momentum looks like. Released last September, the band's debut album, Night Visions, bowed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, passing the 1 million mark in June. (The album is currently at No. 4 on the chart, and has sold 1.1 million copies so far, according to Nielsen SoundScan.) "Radioactive" is the rock hit of the summer, logging a 19th week at No. 1 on Billboard's Rock Airplay chart and sitting at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. "Radioactive" has sold 3.8 million downloads, with the band's first single, "It's Time," moving another 2.6 million.
Even so, there's a certain below-the-radar element to the group's success. "They were selling out big venues across the U.S. before they even had 'Radioactive,' as big as that song is now," Geffen Interscope A&M president/COO John Janick says. "It's interesting because, until you have multiple hit records, sometimes people don't realize how big a band really is." If that's the case, the recognition should be setting in right about now: This week, third single "Demons" maintains its No. 4 peak on Rock Airplay after 19 weeks and is No. 64 on the Hot 100. It has sold 782,000 downloads.
With any rock band's success these days comes the added pressure of having to "save" the genre. "In a genre that many people thought was dying, these guys came in like a breath of fresh air," says Nick Chappell, PD of WROX Norfolk, Va., one of the first stations in the country to spin "It's Time." "They are three singles deep into their debut album and are already a core artist for us," he says. But frontman Reynolds comes across as anything but a self-styled savior. "We like to create big sounds," he says. "We like the guitars to sound big. We want the drums to sound like cannons. A lot of people call it 'anthemic,' but I'd shy away from that because it sounds almost pompous."
As he grinds it out at the European festivals, Reynolds is humble as he marvels at Imagine Dragons' rise to platinum status and headlining dates. "Bands have asked me, 'What do you attribute your success to?' The two things I always say are one, we never said 'no' to anything," Reynolds says. "We'd play birthday parties, weddings, casinos. We wanted to perform and create as much as possible."
So what's the second thing? "Vegas luck," Reynolds says-which, for a group that rose out of the Las Vegas casinos, isn't such a bad thing to have. "It's a matter of biting at the apple as many times as possible. Then, hopefully, those doors will finally open up."
Open up or be kicked down, because it's not all luck. Imagine Dragons had a musical plan, and they aligned themselves with the people who could bring that plan to fruition. And as Night Visions continues to gain steam, the group is reaping the benefits of a solid foundation and a global vision, still in that one-chance-only position of playing to crowds for the very first time.
"This is what we live for as a band, playing to an audience that's never seen us before," Reynolds says. "That's what we did for three years. As touring musicians, we tried to break new cities, where you played for maybe 20 people whose friends had told them about us. You just come out and give it everything you've got and try to win over the crowd. That's even what we did in the casinos in the beginning."
The band learned early on how to convert the uninitiated into fans, doing six-hour gigs-half covers, half originals-at places like Mandalay Bay, O'Sheas and Caesars Palace. Vegas native Reynolds met guitarist Wayne Sermon while attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Together with drummer Daniel Platzman, a friend of Sermon's from Boston's Berklee College of Music, and bassist Ben McKee they made Vegas home base. Playing casinos were hometown gigs, but not to hometown crowds. Vegas is a town of out-of-towners, and the band performed in front of new people every night. "That prepared us to go overseas, go out onstage and feel comfortable playing for people that aren't singing every word, or know every song," Reynolds says. "You can either have the crowd in the palm of your hand or you get bottled. It's a scary thing, if you think about it."
Imagine Dragons independently released three EPs and toured extensively before signing with Interscope or APA (Coda books the group in Europe and the United Kingdom), building a following one show at a time. Then, perhaps the luckiest thing of all happened: Reynolds received an email from Alex Da Kid (real name Alexander Grant), producer of massive hits for Dr. Dre ("I Need a Doctor"), B.o.B ("Airplanes") and Eminem ("Love the Way You Lie") and founder of label/publisher Kidinakorner. The email was to the point: "Yo, I dig your music. Wanna write?"
Write they did, and what started out as a collaborative effort for other artists on Alex Da Kid's roster soon became bigger-"big" being the operative word. "He complemented our sound, because we were so rhythmic, but we couldn't get to the place we wanted to sonically," Reynolds says. "We didn't have the tech savvy to get the bass to hit hard enough and the snare to be big enough. Alex had that expertise to say, 'Let's EQ this and throw distortion on that.' Sonically everything started to come together and sound big and a little more edgy. It was the perfect fit, and we all knew it."
NEXT PAGE: What's In a Name?
Mac Reynolds entered the picture before Alex Da Kid, but he didn't set out to be a manager. He had helped out his brother Robert, who manages the Killers, before going to law school at University of California, Los Angeles, and setting up shop at an L.A. entertainment law firm, where Imagine Dragons was a project. He clicked with the band and made his move, quitting his law gig and moving back to Vegas. Now Mac Reynolds' steady hand at the wheel seems to be, like Alex Da Kid, the perfect fit for a band of deep thinkers.
"We tried early on to be really deliberate about the choices we made, which isn't easy these days because it's really hard to break," Mac says. "But the guys were really level-headed about it and in it for the long haul. We wanted to be smart about our choices, cultivate the music, do all the things a band needs to do to find itself. From a very early stage we all had that goal."
In addition to providing "honest feedback," Mac is clear on his role: "My job as manager is to preserve unity and direction," he says. "Their promise to each other is they would not take any shortcuts on the music. They haven't before and they don't want to now."
Dan Reynolds describes Imagine Dragons as "overly meticulous" in the early going. "We rented out an apartment together with the little bit of money we made from doing cover gigs, and we put a big wipe board on the wall, and everybody wrote down five albums that were their all-time favorites," he recalls. "And everyone in the band had to study those albums and learn them." On the list were Arcade Fire, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Harry Nilsson, 2Pac, Paul Simon and Muse, among others.
They "overthought" everything, including the band's name, which is an anagram of "a phrase that meant something to all of us," Reynolds says. The original phrase is still a secret. "As a musician, you're exposing yourself in so many different ways we thought it would be cool to have something the four of us hung on to," he says. "It seems like such a strange thing to start out with a secret we want to keep from everybody, but we just thought it would be nice to keep something to ourselves, and we've kept it to ourselves for four years."
When it's suggested that a Billboard cover story might be the ideal platform to finally reveal the origin of the band's name, Reynolds replies, "I haven't even told my mom, and she's bothered me about it since day one, so if I told you before I told my mom, she'd probably forsake me as her son."
One thing that Imagine Dragons was clear about from the beginning was its musical vision of fusing synthetic and electronic sounds with the raw and sometimes acoustic elements of rock, powered by heavy, thudding drums and basslines and a potpourri of rhythmic percussive elements. "I was a drummer for four years before I ever learned any other instrument, and it has found a way into my writing lyrically, and I'm a very percussive singer because of that," says Reynolds, who also plays a huge drum "like a madman" onstage, according to Alex Da Kid.
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week's issue of Billboard. Check out some recent Billboard cover stories below: