The genre-splicing, socially conscious and streaming-dominant Vegas quartet has cemented itself as by far the year’s most successful rock band. But who, outside of their fans, is actually taking notice?
Backstage at the filming of Late Night With Seth Meyers on a Monday afternoon, two halves of the Las Vegas-based quartet Imagine Dragons make for odd juxtapositions. Frontman Dan Reynolds, 30 and bassist Ben McKee, 32, are clearly dressed for showtime -- Reynolds wearing a sleek floral jacket and pants set, and McKee in patterned multi-colored joggers -- while guitarist Wayne Sermon, 33, and drummer Daniel Platzman, 31, have yet to get in costume, still rocking more of the sweats-and-tees look. “We don’t have a stylist,” comments Platzman, laughing. “We just wear whatever we’re feeling.”
The half-in, half-out visual scheme represents where Imagine Dragons is at as a band in 2017. On one hand, they’re pop stars, capable of sharing both the biggest national stages and the highest stretches of the charts with the most mononymous of top 40 idols. Of the three hits to scale the top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2017 that have been classified as “Rock,” two of them are by Imagine Dragons: “Believer” (hitting No. 4 in August), and “Thunder” (currently sitting at its No. 4 peak).
On the other hand, they’re still just… a band, one whose inclusive sound makes them an easier sell on 2017 radio, but one whose unmatched level of modern-day success from within the rock world still practically defies explanation. You won't find the answer from critics, certainly, who have roundly dismissed the group when they've even bothered to pay attention, and you definitely won't find the answer from the band itself, whose socially conscientious public conduct eschews any kind of rock-star narcissism or behavior traditionally suggestive of a band on top of the world.
“Damned if we know,” Sermon says after a long pause when asked what they’re doing right that seemingly no one else is.
“A lot of hard work,” is Reynolds’ decidedly unsexy addition to the conversation. “We've all dedicated our lives to music since we were young. Luck, right time, right place...”
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Though their crossover is unmatched among bands in 2017, it’s nothing new for the group itself, who have long been ticketed for the big leagues. Gary Kelly, Executive Vice President/Chief Revenue Officer, Interscope Geffen A&M remembers seeing them as an unsigned act over five years ago, at a Monday night gig in Silverlake, California. “I remember turning to one of my colleagues at the time and saying, 'I can see these guys playing in arenas,’” he tells Billboard over the phone. “They had that type of big sound, and clearly it resonated.”
Kelly’s confidence was quickly justified. The quartet released their debut album, Night Visions, in 2012, and the LP -- a bombastic blend of stadium-rock muscle with hip-hop backbone (largely courtesy of producer Alex Da Kid) and EDM aesthetics -- ultimately went supernova. It spawned three top 20 hit singles (“It’s Time,” “Radioactive” and “Demons”) on the Hot 100, and earned the band both a Record of the Year nomination and a collaborative performance with rap superstar Kendrick Lamar (both for “Radioactive”) at the 2014 Grammys. Five years later, it’s still in the top half of the Billboard 200 albums chart.
The second time out, however, the band’s success was a little more muted. Heavier 2015 follow-up Smoke + Mirrors hardly flopped, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and being certified Platinum earlier this year. But it was a step back from the omnipresence of Night Visions -- the album produced just a single short-lived top 40 hit, the No. 28-peaking “I Bet My Life” -- and it suggested that perhaps the band’s time at pop’s center would be limited to their debut album.
But with Evolve, the band’s more buoyant third album, Imagine Dragons are again a gravitational force in pop music. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in July, and nearly five months on, it’s still hanging around just outside the chart’s top 10, largely thanks to the tremendous popularity of the album’s two crossover smashes. The Dragons also won Favorite Rock/Pop Band/Duo/Group at the fan-voted American Music Awards earlier in November, beating both an established veteran act in Coldplay and a newer phenom in The Chainsmokers.
Perhaps most importantly, the band is catching on with the platform most meaningful to artist momentum in 2017, and most traditionally inhospitable to acts from the rock world: They’re streaming like gangbusters, with “Believer” and “Thunder” earning nearly a billion combined plays between them on Spotify. “We can talk about hip-hop being pop music these days -- if you look at the Spotify charts or the Apple charts, that's what kids are really listening to,” Kelly says. “But when you look at the one record from an alternative rock band perspective [that’s also getting streamed] -- they stand out.”
Imagine Dragons thriving on streaming may be surprising, but it's hardly shocking. The group's focus on beats and drops as much as on riffs means the can blend in on playlists with Lil Uzi Vert and Taylor Swift as well as they can with Kings of Leon and Cage the Elephant. It's not just a bunch of passive playlist listens responsible for their Spotify and Apple success either, as Kelly explains. "Sixty-nine percent of those streams from those two partners are lean-forward" -- meaning streams that were actively sought out by listeners -- "which means only 31 percent are basically coming out of a playlist directly, which I think would probably blow people's minds. Because you might have a critic who would say, 'Oh, they just happen to be getting their plays from a playlist.' Which is essentially not the case. Their songs are really sticky."
So, again: What’s the difference with these songs?
“We have a lot of people asking us that -- I don't know the answer,” says Reynolds, before offering a broader explanation: “One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was: At the end of the day, it's all about the music. And it's such a cliché, but at the end of the day, you're making a song that people will want to listen to or not. So we try to create music that we love.”
“There's artists out there that have really strong brands -- incredibly strong brands,” adds Sermon. “For us, we can’t afford to have a bad album, because we know with our band, it's gonna be about the music. Our band is gonna live and die by the music.”
By that logic, then, does that mean that the band considers the blockbuster Evolve to be a better album than the commercially underwhelming Smoke + Mirrors?
“Yeah, I think Evolve is better,” Reynolds allows. Pausing, he clarifies: “Actually, it depends what the word ‘better’ means. I think that Evolve is a more palatable album for this generation and this time period.”
In many ways, Imagine Dragons makes sense as the most palatable band for this generation and this time period. Their music, while unmistakably rock-based, has -- like much of what radio currently defines as “alternative” -- largely drifted away from typical guitar-bass-drum construction, to encompass larger swaths of pop production and hip-hop rhythms. Like Twenty One Pilots, the only other American band from this decade playing on the same figurative (and occasionally literal) top 40 stages, Imagine Dragons come from the rock world, but are not tethered to it.
“A big reason I'm a fan of the Dragons is because of that mixing of genres -- the feeling like you can evolve,” says K.Flay, a fellow genre-ambiguous singer-songwriter grouped under the “alt” umbrella, and an opening act on the band’s current tour. “You're not limited to one set of instruments or one set of synthesizers or whatever.”
It feels logical in an era where all major genres -- not just rock -- are increasingly defined by what they take from other forms of music. The world’s most popular rapper spends half his albums singing. The year’s biggest country hit sounds like it was co-produced by DJ Mustard. The most unavoidable EDM duo of the decade seem like they really, really want to start a late-'00s blog-indie band. To try to conquer the charts in 2017 with nothing but a six-string and an amp turned to 11… it might not be regressive, exactly, but it’s probably not terribly realistic.
“Genres are such a strange thing at this point in time,” Reynolds comments. “We've never been aggressively like, 'We are a rock band.' We really leave it to the world to decide what kind of band we are.” (Actually, the Recording Academy recently decided on the Dragons being a pop band -- on Tuesday (Nov. 28), they were announced as Grammy nominees for best pop duo/group performance (“Thunder”) and best pop vocal album (Evolve), but were shut out of the rock categories altogether.)
Still, in the pop space, where bands of any stripe are in relatively short supply, it often falls to Imagine Dragons to serve as the default keepers of the rock flame. At the Billboard Music Awards in May, following the group’s performance of “Believer,” Reynolds was selected to deliver the show’s spoken tribute to late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell. On recent tour stops, they’ve also taken to paying homage to the late Tom Petty, performing “I Won’t Back Down” during their acoustic side-stage set. They're striking history lessons coming from the Dragons, because there's no obvious Cornell or Petty DNA in the band's music specifically -- except for in the size of the venues they tend to play.
The band resists the urge to claim any kind of status as classic-rock torchbearers, however. “There's bands that are holding down the traditional guitar-based, 'We're a rock band. That's what we'll do forever,’ and I think that’s great,” Sermon says. “That’s not who we are. At least for me, it's always a strange thing. I'm happy, because I love rock music, so when our band gets called a rock band, there's part of me that loves that. And there's part of me that shies away from it, because it's not really our story entirely.”
For Imagine Dragons, innovation and genre-blending are just natural ways to put music together as a band with the capabilities and possibilities afforded to them in 2017. “The Beatles wouldn't have sounded like The Beatles if they had access to infinite tracks, computer music,” Sermon theorizes. “if the four of us just want to do guitar music, I feel like... it's been done before, and it's been done really well, by bands like Led Zeppelin and The Beatles and Pink Floyd. We want to do something different.”
“There are a lot of bands right now who -- I don't want to say revival bands -- but it's a throwback band,” adds Reynolds. “We are obviously pulling from this decade, this time period, because that's what we want and that's what we want to hear again. And we wanna try to do it.”
On Evolve, the band even took the step of calling on outside producers, like Swedish super-duo Mattman & Robin, former Lorde co-pilot Joel Little, and John Hill -- the writer/producer behind the only non-Dragons rock crossover smash of 2017, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still.” Imagine Dragons say this wasn’t as much a pop play as an attempt to get out of their own heads. “We have a really hard time self-producing… because it's hard to know when to say no as an artist,” Reynolds explains. “Because you can say, 'It's incomplete, it's incomplete, it's incomplete,' until somebody finally says, 'No, it's done.'”
Reynolds is also clear to emphasize that while the band may handed the reins over in the studio in the little, the songs are still theirs. “As far as songwriting and creating our songs -- I've written every single lyric that's ever appeared on any record, and [about] 95 percent of the melodies,” he notes. “So we're definitely proud of ourselves as a songwriting band. It's not a pop machine.”
That doesn’t mean that they’re not willing to play the game a little, though. The band’s omnipresence has undoubtedly been aided by a variety of high-profile commercial synchs, including the use of “Believer” in a Super Bowl-aired ad for Nintendo Switch, and a Microsoft placement of “Thunder” in a spot for their Surface Laptop. (Both songs hit No. 1 on Billboard & Clio”s Top TV Commercials chart as a result.) “You're trying to get your music in as many places as possible that make sense, that organically fit,” notes Kelly. “In many respects, synch placement is really no different than a radio station or frankly, a big playlist. It's just another way to get your music exposed.”
The Interscope EVP credits the band for staying in the content cycle even in between albums, both with ad and film synchs, as well as soundtrack contributions like Suicide Squad All-Star team-up “Sucker for Pain,” a Hot 100 top 20 hit. “They weren't just putting out a record, going on tour for two years, then coming back two years later without having actually released content,” he says. “So they were really smart and strategic.”
He also explains that the band’s streaming success isn’t entirely by accident. “We met with all three partners [Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon] separately on a single day, with the band in fact playing music, talking about the long term strategy,” he recalls of the band’s pre-Evolve promo. “It's been a great collaboration [between creative and marketing]. That's how you win."
But both inside and outside of Imagine Dragons, ask people what about the band makes them special, and it’s not the band’s genre-splicing or their business acumen they’ll focus on. “Their songs are really good,” stresses K.Flay. “Even the songs that haven’t been singles… There’s just really, really great songwriting. There aren’t moments in the [live] set where you think, ‘Well, now I’m gonna go pee...”
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Indeed, while their music can be a little blunt at times -- Reynolds himself admits subtlety is an attribute he’s long struggled with as the group’s primary songwriter -- Imagine Dragons songs are reliably powerful and highly accessible concoctions. “Thunder” creates a triumphant, brain-burrowing singalong refrain mostly out of a single word, “Believer” frantically overstuffs its verses before exploding into possibly the year’s most cathartic chorus, and third Evolve single “Whatever It Takes” packs enough lyrical adrenaline to soundtrack ESPN montages for the rest of the decade. Like the best grunge bands and dubstep DJs alike, the Dragons have a brilliant understanding of tension and release, tiptoeing along wire-taut verses with gymnastic dexterity, before trampolining with both feet into gigantic hooks.
“Songwriting is songwriting,” says drummer Platzman. “You should be able to take a song and sing it and play it with an instrument, and that's how a song works. But then we enter the world of production -- how are you gonna make that song come to life?”
To properly animate their world-beating anthems, none of Imagine Dragons see the point in keeping their focus to just the guitar -- not even the band’s lead guitarist. “It's a strange thing to have a whole genre classified by one instrument,” Sermon bemoans. “It’s so stupid. It’s so dumb.”
Watching the band performing at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, a week before the Seth Meyers taping, the arena-rock lineage of Imagine Dragons does become a little clearer. Though the group sounds increasingly digital on record, live they still present mostly as an analog rock band, complete with guitar solos at center stage, extended drum breakdowns, and the aforementioned acoustic side-stage set. It’s hardly Spinal Tap enough to alienate the teenagers in the front row whose own rock history might not go back much further than the Guitar Hero series, but it also might feel a little more familiar to the parents sitting next to them.
One part that might be a bit jarring to those parents weaned on classic rock and hair metal comes about halfway through the set, as between songs, Reynolds addresses the audience to discuss his history with mental struggles. “I suffer from depression, and I have a therapist,” he reveals to the crowd. “There is nothing weak in saying that. In fact, it’s incredibly strong… my therapist is incredible, and the best thing I ever did is reaching out and asking for help.”
That may sound like an unexpected digression for a band to make in the middle of a triumphant arena show, but it’s actually fairly on-brand for Imagine Dragons. When I ask them a week later if their now-established stature as a third-album band gives them the confidence to make statements like Reynolds’ therapy speech, the band understandably bucks at the suggestion that this is anything new for them. “We've had the Tyler Robinson Foundation [fighting against childhood cancer] since the early days of the band,” Platzman retorts. “We've always been looking for ways to give back to the community. And I think we just find ourselves in a place where we have a greater ability to do that, so now we're just doing more.”
For most of their career, the band has essentially had to fight the conception that they don’t give a shit. That comes from both media members who erroneously assume their MOR dominance makes them descendants of thoughtless early-’00s butt-rock merchants Nickelback or Three Doors Down, and from actual fans who fear that Reynolds' Mormon background makes him closed-minded to other ways of life.
Though Reynolds has admitted his faith -- which he grappled with for much of second album Smoke + Mirrors, though he says he largely set it aside for Evolve -- made him preach homosexuality as a sin when he was young, he’s since actively embraced his LGBTQ fanbase, even receiving the Hero Award from suicide hotline the Trevor Project. “One of the reasons I’ve felt such a need to speak out on this is I’ve gotten countless emails and letters from fans around the world who said, “I’m gay, but I know you’re Mormon, so that probably means you don’t accept my lifestyle,” Reynolds told Billboard in June. “That was devastating and it broke my heart to get letters like that. I’ve written back to these people to tell them, “No, I do support you and I’m here for you.’”
That streak of preaching inclusiveness extended to this year's AMAs, where Reynolds used the band’s acceptance speech for their Favorite Rock/Pop win to shout out the night’s female-stacked lineup. “This is the country that I know, which is one of powerful women. I’m talking about our women; talking about empowering our LGBTQ youth,” Reynolds said. “May we continue to progress as a nation towards one of love, of equality, no divide. There’s been way too much of that this last year, so to start the night like this just feels right. Peace, love, equality for all!”
Really, while Imagine Dragons’ sincere wokeness and seemingly legitimate humility doesn't make them the most fascinating of tabloid or social media follows, it's just as much a part of what makes them such an important band for right now as any of their Spotify algorithm-catching. In an era where the sex-and-drugs part of rock ‘n’ roll history is feeling less glamorous and more toxic than ever, the biggest band of 2017 is a bunch of conscientious family men -- Reynolds and Sermon are both married with kids -- with no interest in rock star excess.
“I have a very different definition of rock 'n' roll than some people -- I really believe the whole spirit of rock 'n' roll is you do you, regardless of what everybody else thinks,” says Reynolds. “It never was to me, ‘Be a really selfish person who does a lot of drugs and doesn't give two shits about anybody… I've got three little girls. That's not anything I want them to associate their dad with when people say, 'Hey, Dad is in rock 'n' roll.' Not that rock 'n' roll. I have no desire to be a part of that selfish world of douchebags that think they're more entitled than other people.”
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Of course, you might not be familiar with the band’s sense of social conscience and general good works if you’re not a fan, because if you’re not a fan of Imagine Dragons, you might not know that much about them altogether. Despite being a group that’s undeniably one of the key pop acts of 2017 -- and in an age where pop stars are taken more seriously than ever before, in both their artistry and public statements -- not that many people seem to want to talk about Imagine Dragons.
That’s particularly true for critics, who seem to be the final remaining quadrant of music consumers that Imagine Dragons has yet to curry favor with. They’ve got a long way to go in that regard: Evolve has an aggregate score of 47 out of 100 on crit-collecting website Metacritic, one of the lowest scores for any 2017 album, and six points lower even than Fergie’s widely mocked Double Duchess album. Perhaps more tellingly, the page for Evolve lists only seven reviews total; Radiohead’s recent reissue of their 20-year-old OK Computer LP has over twice that many. Critics aren’t just panning the album, most of them are ignoring it altogether.
The reasons for this are fairly understandable, if not entirely fair. The group’s wide reach and occasional self-seriousness makes them an easy target, and as a band of incredibly successful white dudes, they get the benefit of the doubt from nobody. Plus, while their genre-bending sound and pro-synergy attitude makes them a perfect crossover act for 2017, it doesn’t exactly endear them to rock critics, who tend to pine more for the familiar sounds derived from ‘80s and ‘90s alternative, as well as PR approaches that scan as less obviously commercial.
It’s also worth remembering that traditionally speaking, bands of the Dragons’ stature are no stranger to music-media scorn. Led Zeppelin was famously panned in Rolling Stone. Journey and Bon Jovi were critical poison for the entirety of their commercial peaks. Linkin Park were dismissed as “derivative pretenders” while The Strokes were hailed as the future of rock. Historically, with just a handful of exceptions, the most popular rock artists and the most acclaimed rock artists just aren’t supposed to be the same people.
But it’s a lot of those artists that have lived at the center of that Venn diagram who the Imagine Dragons guys consider their heroes. When asked whose career they’d like to have a decade down the line, the band shouts out U2, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, even former Grammy collaborator Kendrick Lamar -- all dudes who, at least at points in their career, married enviable mainstream popularity with ravenous media attention and accolades. So does it bother the band that so far, they’ve only been able to satisfy one side of that equation?
“In our earlier years, yes,” Reynolds admits. “I'd be lying if I said it didn't hurt to read some critic who didn't like our music. And that was all really overwhelming for me, because I had always created music as a 14-year-old kid who showed it to my dad, and my dad said he loved it. So once our music went to a mainstream level, that was hard for me to stomach.”
Reynolds says he doesn’t take it to heart the same way at this point in the Dragons’ development, though. “I guess I just have gotten into a place -- I don't know if it's because I'm 30 years old -- where I really know who this band is,” he says. “I'm incredibly proud of the work that we've done and the music we've put out. And I've gotten to a place where I'm really happy with who we are. The [negative] words really don't affect me like they did years ago.”
Reynolds does see a difference between legitimate criticism and outright bullying, however, both of which he says the Dragons have received. “We live in this world of keyboard warriors who can type something from afar -- it can do just as much damage as you being the bully on the schoolyard that people talk out against so adamantly today,” he says. “I’ve seen music criticism that has been like a schoolyard bully. But I've also seen music criticism that's been really great and has been on point. And stuff that I've read about even our band, that I say, 'You know what, very valid. I've got a lot of work to do…’”
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Of course, history would also indicate that Imagine Dragons’ critical rep might not last forever. After all, in the decades since their initial poor receptions, Led Zeppelin has become rock canon, Journey were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with Bon Jovi potentially to follow next year) and more nice things were written about Linkin Park in the week following Chester Bennington’s 2017 death than there were in the near two decades of the band’s existence prior. When rock’s future inevitably becomes its past, it’s a lot easier to objectively assess who actually mattered in the present. A similar reevaluation could very plausibly be due for Imagine Dragons a generation from now, no?
“I would say we're not waiting on it,” Reynolds calmly states. “I think we'll continue to create the music that we do and be true to who we are as people. And whether or not a rock critic likes that or not, it's not something that I'm gonna waste my life concerning myself with.”
Again, it may just come down to the songs outliving the doubters. “We were talking about it after Petty died -- like, 'OK, how do you [become one of these artists] who have long careers, and have hit songs across albums?” relates K.Flay. “And I do feel like it just boils down to really good pop songwriting. And I think certain people just are able to do that, and I feel like they have [those songs] on these first three records. I kind of can't see any reason why they won't keep doing it.”