Rock

Imagine Dragons' Dan Reynolds on The Weeknd's 'Blinding Lights' Passing 'Radioactive' Hot 100 Record: 'He's a Genius'

Imagine Dragons "Radioactive"
Courtesy Photo

Imagine Dragons "Radioactive"

Seven years ago, Imagine Dragons made history on the Billboard Hot 100 with just their second single as a band. Following the chart breakout of their anthemic 2012 debut hit "It's Time," which peaked at No. 15 on the Hot 100 in early 2013, the Dan Reynolds-fronted group released "Radioactive," a massive-sounding arena-rock chest-beater warped by hip-hop dynamics and dubstep-influenced production.

The song didn't sound much like anything else on radio in 2012 -- or 2013, or 2014 -- but it eventually stretched out over all three calendar years, crossing over to multiple radio formats, becoming an iTunes best-seller and even briefly holding the record for the most-streamed song in Spotify history. The song first debuted on the Hot 100 on Aug. 18, 2012, and on the chart dated Feb. 28, 2014, it broke the record (previously held by Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours") for the longest stay in Hot 100 history in its 77th week on the chart -- holding on for another 10 weeks, until finally falling off the chart dated May 17th, 2014, after an 87-week run.

In the seven years since, few songs have even approached that historic run: until this year, the only song to really get close was AWOLNATION's "Sail," whose run was concurrent to that of "Radioactive" -- but which only lasted 78 weeks before falling off. But in late 2019, pop superstar The Weeknd released a two-pack of new songs which would make pop music history in the years to come. At first, "Blinding Lights" was the lesser of the two hits, debuting at No. 11 on the Hot 100 while its partner "Heartless" ascended to the No. 1 spot -- but it would prove the much longer-lasting, reaching No. 1 for four weeks in 2020, spending a record-breaking 57 weeks in the chart's top 10, and this week, passing "Radioactive" for all-time chart longevity in its 88th week on the chart.

Last week -- with his band's signature hit just days away from ceding the Hot 100 record to "Blinding Lights" --Reynolds talked to Billboard about his memories of recording "Radioactive," why he never expected the song to do what it did, and how he couldn't be happier about The Weeknd being the guy he's passing the long-endurance Hot 100 torch to.

When you were recording “Radioactive,” I’m sure you didn’t have any thoughts of it becoming one of the biggest hits in Hot 100 history -- but did you have a sense that it was going to be a pretty big song for you guys?

When we were making the song, it felt really strange, in a cool way. Like, I was excited listening to it, I was excited to show it to my friends, because it was weird. I mean, at that point, we were nothing. My band wasn’t signed at that point, when I wrote that song. And so I had no idea that it would be anything close to what it was. But I did feel that it was special, and interesting. 

But once we signed [to Interscope], it wasn’t like everybody at the label was like, “This is the song.” In fact, it was the opposite. “It’s Time” was the first single, and we [already] had “Radioactive” at that point. Nobody thought that that song would play on radio. In fact, I remember our radio department specifically being like, “This song won’t play on radio.” But the song just started to go on its own, and then it just went to radio because it kind of had a life of its own, and it kinda dictated its own way. 

Long story short, I had no idea. No idea whatsoever. 

Was it in its final form production-wise at that early stage? 

Yeah, it was really exactly what you hear [now]. We had that song recorded before we signed. It started with me and Alex da Kid in the studio, together. He had worked together a basic track, which was like a kick and a snare, and that dubstep kind of sound to it. And then I recorded melodies -- and my guitarist came in, and he recorded guitars, and then we did this intro/interlude, with the guitars. And then we brought in the bass player and the drummer, and put on a little bit of live bass, and a little bit of live drums to kind of bring that live sound to a synthetic sound. Which is what we’ve always been interested in, this kind of digitized-married-with-the-organic [sound]. 

So what was it after the success of “It’s Time” that convinced you and/or the label that this would be the logical choice for the next single? 

It just did it on its own. Like, it started to get syncs -- I think it was Assassin’s Creed, if I remember right, [that] wanted to use it for a trailer, then it got put in a trailer for that. And people started to hear it, and share it -- it just was a viral song... There was no magical format, no repeating it. I’ve had people ask me, “What did you guys do to make that song big?” And the song just wanted to be big. Love it or hate it, the song just did what it did. You can’t manipulate that big of a hit. Especially in this day and age -- like, nobody knows how to do that. And certainly, that song was never thought of as a focus track. It almost didn’t make the record [2012 debut LP Night Visions]. 

I wrote “Radioactive" in this room, and I had an engineer record my vocals. And he came and listened to it, and his reaction was like, “Whoa, this is really weird. But let’s listen again.” And typically, Alex [da Kid] is like, very quiet -- he’d listen and be like, “Cool.” But that one in particular, we were both like, “This is weird!” And it was before… dubstep was not in the mainstream world yet. It was just starting to peek out. And that’s another thing about “Radioactive" -- I think it was just the luck of the time, too. It was like, Skrillex was just starting to become a mainstream [artist], and bringing dubstep to the mainstream, but it hadn’t been in pop radio in any format, or alternative radio. 

Was it validating when the song started to take off? You’d already had the one hit, but a second hit kind of establishes you guys -- and it doesn’t sound like “It’s Time,” so it shows another side to Imagine Dragons.

You know, I didn’t even have that thought. Everything was so whirlwind crazy tornado -- I don’t think I ever even had the thought where it was like, “Oh good! We have another single, we’re not a one-hit thing!” I was on the road every day, traveling the world, performing as much as possible. And everything I had ever dreamed of as a kid was happening, and it just was like mind-boggling to me. And then we’re at the Grammys, and then we’re performing it with Kendrick [Lamar]... everything was just so fast, and intense. 

Do you remember a moment when you could tell, “OK, this isn’t just a second hit, this is like a career-defining, era-defining sort of song”? 

I think when we got off the stage at the Grammys, and I was like, meeting Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and Jay-Z was like, “That was amazing! Wow! That was my favorite performance of the night!” And this is Jay-Z, who I grew up worshipping. I listen to hip-hop way more than I listen to anything else, so ‘90s hip-hop was like, everything I consumed. East Coast, West Coast, Jay-Z, 2Pac, Biggie… that was everything to me. So to be meeting him, to meet Beyoncé, Daft Punk… that was a moment. And Paul McCartney, I met Paul McCartney that night. 

And yeah, just when the song finished, me and Kendrick looked at each other, and I think we both -- like, we gave each other a hug, and we were both like, “Whoa, this is special.” 

Over the course of 87 weeks, how sick did you get of the song?

You know -- I thought I’d be more sick of it. We just performed it last night, for the first time [in three years]. So I’ve taken three years off, we just got together as a band and we were rehearsing, and we played the song. And I loved playing it. I really did. It felt really good to play it. 

Were you paying attention to its chart run while it was going up, and then sticking around?

Our manager would send us an email being like, “This is what’s going on on the charts, this song is breaking this record, it’s doing this…” And we’d be like, “Whoa, that’s crazy.” Or we’d be like, in Amsterdam, and like, half-awake… We never really celebrated it properly. We never were like, “‘Radioactive’ went diamond, let’s all go to dinner and let’s celebrate!” And it was like, “Whoa! Well, OK, we gotta get on stage for yadda yadda and this…” 

These last three years have been the first time that I think everything settled. Everything settled, from like the high highs, the low lows, the hard parts, the good parts, the perspective of it all -- how one in a billion it all was… and I’m just left with a lot of gratitude at this point. I feel really grateful for my health, grateful for “Radioactive” and everything that it did. I love The Weeknd. I think that he’s a genius, I think he’s a melodic genius. And it feels like great company, you know what I mean? 

Do you remember what song “Radioactive” beat in 2014 for the all-time longevity record?

I can’t remember. What was it? 

It was “I’m Yours,” by Jason Mraz. It was 76 weeks, and you got to 87. 

Haha! Now that you say that, I do remember that. 

And there was another song that you were kind of neck-and-neck with at the time, it was…

“Sail”? 

“Sail,” very good!

So our first tour was opening for AWOLNATION. When we were signed, so our first big tour. And everything started to blow up while we were opening on that tour with them. And I love AWOLNATION. Like, really really love the creativity of the work... that kind of genreless creative searching. And Aaron was always writing, and when we were on the tour together he was showing me stuff he was listening to, and it was really just a large genre of creativity. Which I always can appreciate. I know some people hate it, the genreless[ness] of it all, like it feels like it’s meandering… but I love it, so I identify with it. 

We never had any competitiveness -- at that time, especially, we were playing tiny rooms, to like 500 people. It wasn’t like “Sail” was at the top, and “Radioactive” was at the top…

You talk about both “Sail” and “Radioactive” being genreless -- you could probably say the same thing about “Blinding Lights.” It’s kind of in between two or three different genres. Is that sort of the key behind having these hits that last for two years? 

I think songs that get gargantuan -- obviously, I don’t know what the magical key for any of that is. But I think there’s something… melodically, it has to really catch everybody, from like a tiny kid to a grandmother, there obviously needs to be something super-hooky going on with it. But I think it has to be a certain amount weird, too. A lot of these songs that are huge... they’re slow-growers, typically. Because they don’t fly up the chart and fall off. It’s just this long, slow thing.

I don’t really know. I actually have no idea. I’m thinking about all these songs that are huge and I’m like, “They don’t all match up with this.” I don’t know if it’s genreless or not. 

As we're talking, we’re still a week away from The Weeknd potentially beating the record -- is that something you’re going to be monitoring, is that something you care about at all, the passing of the torch?

No, I think it’s probably expected. At some point, something like that’s going to happen, and it’s not something that I’m tallying. And honestly, like I said, I love The Weeknd. So that’s just incredible -- he’s a legend, he’s an icon. I think his music is the type of music that’s going to live on for a long time, and do good things. So if there was ever someone to take the record, I think it’s good company. 

Any final thoughts about “Radioactive” a decade later? Its legacy, what it’s meant to you guys and that moment in pop history?

Yeah, I mean, I love the song. I love “Radioactive,” I’m proud of it to this day. I’m really proud of what that song has done, and did for my life and the life of my kids and my family. And also, it’s really fun to play live.