“I remember two years ago we played this same festival and we were thrilled to get a 12:30pm slot,” says Imagine Dragons guitarist Wayne Sermon, reminiscing about the band’s 2012 appearance at Dover, Delaware’s Firefly Music Festival. “When we play tonight, we’re going on before Outkast. Which is insane. It feels like we have something to prove.” Sermon and the rest of his bandmates may think they have a lot to live up to, but the deafening roars of the thousands packed around Firefly’s main stage when the band finally hit the stage tell a different story. To their legions of fans worldwide, Imagine Dragons have already proved their point.
But such wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t long ago that the Las Vegas quartet were playing shows in tiny clubs, wondering if anyone would turn up to their gigs or if they’d even made the right career choices. Then came their 2012 album ‘Night Visions,’ a slow-burning debut album that erupted with the release of the single “Radioactive,” which spent a record-setting 87 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That feat was followed by a slew of other successful singles, headlining festival gigs around the globe and armloads of trophies – including a Grammy, five Billboard Music Awards and a Songwriting Hall of Fame honor for frontman Dan Reynolds. The band is so hot now, they’re taking calls from Hollywood honchos like Michael Bay, who tapped Imagine Dragons to write the theme to his summer blockbuster ‘Transformers 4: Age of Extinction’ (out today).
We caught up with the band backstage at Firefly to find out what life is like on the other side of success.
Billboard: You guys just flew back from Hong Kong, where you performed at the “Transformers 4” premiere. How’d it go?
Dan Reynolds: It was our first time ever going to Hong Kong. For many years, we were a young band who would go to a new city and have nobody come out to see us, so we still have that expectation when we go to a new place. But right when I got there, there was a lady who came in to clean my hotel room and asked if we could take a picture together. I was like, you know who we are? And she said, “Yes, I have your CD!” That was a cool way to arrive into a city. Social media makes the world so much smaller and the band has grown large enough, things move organically on their own throughout the world. But we loved Hong Kong. And it was incredible to be a part of such a big movie premiere. It was our first time for that, too.
Director Michael Bay hand-picked you guys to write the theme for the film. How easily did "Battle Cry" come together?
Dan R.: It was so organic. Originally, we didn’t think we were going to be able to do it. We’ve been saying no to everything because physically we just haven’t had time. But we got into a room with him, he told us the story and I had a melody that rang in my head right from that moment. Some songs take a year to come together, but “Battle Cry” wrote itself very quickly. It was cool to compose a song in a more cinematic way – we tried to create something to benefit a visual as opposed to just being true to the song. And then working with Hans Zimmer and Steve Jablonsky – legends. That was huge for us.
Speaking of huge, “Radioactive” recently finished a record-setting 87 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. When did it sink in how mammoth that song had become?
Drumer Dan Patzman:I don’t think there’s any way it could have sunk in yet. I mean, that’s just a staggering statistic. Luckily we were in the eye of the hurricane when it was happening. We were on tour for that whole period of time, so from our perspective we weren’t really seeing the effect of it. When we’d go home to see our friends and family they would tell us about it, or we’d be in the car and we’d hear it. It was pretty crazy because … it’s a really heavy song and it’s not the kind of tune that gets played on the radio a lot. It was cool to see the people pick it up. We didn’t choose that song as a single -- the fans chose that song.
But being on the road, certainly you saw how your fan base was swelling show after show.
Dan R.: I remember the first show that we played in Sacramento. I called my mom that night and said “Oh my gosh, we just played for 600 people!” And now to be doing arenas... It’s funny because even though it’s blown up so quick, we were so adamant about not skipping steps. There was a point where we could have been playing in an amphitheater, but we chose to play in a club instead. It was important for us not to skip steps -- even as we were running up those steps.
Some bands get nervous about making new music after having such huge success. How is it affecting your writing process?
Dan R: I think it’s actually been helpful. It could be very detrimental to a band. You could say, now we have this popularity now and we need to show that we can make a really long art record. Or you could be like, e have to make a hit single and we need to put it out now while it’s still hot. But instead of all those things, we said let’s step back and do exactly what we’ve always done, which is write a ton of demos, take our time with it, hand select each one as a group without outside influence, and make music that we love. We’re going to have to play it live a million times, so let’s embrace it first and foremost. And then if we love it, hopefully our fans will love it.
How much new music is in the can so far?
Dan R: We have 105 demos. But we’ve been writing on the road since "Night Visions" came out two years ago – it’s not like we went home and wrote 100 songs. We’re pretty much losers and we don’t go out very much. So we’ll be in a city in a hotel room and … the person in the next room will be banging on the wall screaming “Stop singing, it’s 2am!” But I’m singing into my computer and some of those vocals will make the next record. We’ve bought a house in Vegas, that we’ve renovated it into a studio so we didn’t have to worry about budgets or anything. We told the record label it will be out when it’s ready.
Until then, you still have a lot of shows to play. What goes through your mind these days when you walk out in front of thousands of fans?
Dan R.: It’s a very finicky industry we’re in. We realize that, and we’re not trying to take anything for granted. When we walk onstage tonight, even though we’ve played a million festivals this past year, even though we just flew in from Hong Kong and I feel a little loopy and I have to go on a steroid because my voice is dead, we still feel like we’d better give 100 damn percent because there’s so many musicians who want to be where we are. We’re still hungry. And when we’re not, we don’t deserve to be here.