Rock

20 Questions With Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds: How Their ‘Incredibly Cathartic’ New Album Came to Life

Imagine Dragons
Eric Ray Davidson*

Imagine Dragons

In the same week that Imagine Dragons’ 2012 smash “Demons” was certified diamond by the RIAA, the band released a new album, Mercury – Act 1, that challenges the hallmarks of its long-successful sound. Such has been the key to the group’s consistency: as Imagine Dragons has evolved in order to avoid staleness, they have continued spinning off radio hits more reliably than perhaps any rock band over the past decade.

For Mercury – Act 1, Imagine Dragons recruited executive producer Rick Rubin for an exploration of grief, loss and acceptance partially informed by the pandemic. Frontman Dan Reynolds sounds possessed with anger on some songs, and more soulful than ever on others; throughout the project, however, he makes emotional honesty his main priority, and peels back who he is better than ever before.

Reynolds marked the release of Imagine Dragons’ new opus by answering Billboard’s 20 questions on the album’s creation, his musical beginnings and his hopes to soon take Mercury – Act 1 on the road.

1. What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?

Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson on CD.

2. What was the first concert you saw?

The first show/festival I ever attended I was performing at. The first show I paid a ticket to see was G. Love & Special Sauce in Las Vegas around the age of 18.

3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid?

My mother is a homemaker and teacher, and my dad is an attorney.

4. Who made you realize you could be an artist full-time?

When I started writing songs at the age of 12 my dad would come home from work each day and sit down and listen. He would give me feedback. Push me to be better. He would share his favorite records with me. He was my first audience. He still watches every show he can, either in person or on YouTube, and gives me feedback to this day.

5. What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?

I have done everything I could have ever dreamed and more. I would’ve felt completely fulfilled just to be able to provide for my family while being a full-time musician. That was my ultimate goal. Once I achieved that, the rest really has just been a cherry on the top. I think it’s a dangerous game to continually chase some thing more, instead of just focusing on what you have been given. And I have been given a lot.

6. How did your hometown/city shape who you are?

Las Vegas is a performing town. A town of high stakes, drama and eccentricity. Everything is over the top and over blown. I certainly try to embrace all those qualities. Because we grew up performing in those casinos on the strip, I think that performer spirit is embodied in everything we do as a band. It’s also a town of high highs and low lows. And I’ll be damned if my therapist didn’t point out that correlation for me personally a long time ago.

7. What’s the last song you listened to?

“Motorcycle Drive By” by Third Eye Blind.

8. If you could see any artist in concert, dead or alive, who would it be?

Harry Nilsson.

9.  What’s the wildest thing you’ve seen happen in the crowd of one of your sets?

At a show in South America, the crowd grabbed a big quilt and were holding onto the sides and launching people incredibly high into the air out in the field while we were performing. It felt like they were going 100 feet into the air and then falling back into the quilt. It was hard not to watch and lose track of what I was doing onstage. I really thought someone was going to die out there.

10. How has the pandemic affected your creative process?

It certainly was an isolating and lonely time period for everyone. The record certainly speaks to that at times both sonically and lyrically.

11. Mercury – Act 1 is perhaps the band’s most honest, unflinching lyrical statement. How cathartic was the process of putting these songs together?

Music has always been my refuge, but this album in particular was incredibly cathartic for me. Rick Rubin sat me down and made me go over every single lyric from every song. That was a really daunting task for me that I had never undertaken with any producer. However, it pushed me to be more vulnerable and honest and less metaphoric and guarded. I’m grateful for that looking back. At the time I hated it.

12. What do you hope fans take away from the emotional extremities of the album?

As always, I only hope that it brings them a feeling of connectedness. I hope they feel less alone. I hope it gives them a sense of peace and relief. Moments to be angry with. Moments to cry with. Moments to feel joy and dance around the kitchen to. Just connectedness.

13. How would you describe Rick Rubin’s influence on the sound and vision of the final product?

It’s hard to put that into a couple sentences. Rick was incredibly influential in so many ways. A lot of the work happened outside of the music. It happened in a long conversations about life. He taught me to embrace vulnerability and not shy away from who I am. To stop guarding myself and to let go.

14. What compelled you to release “Follow You” and “Cutthroat” -- two very different songs in sound and approach -- as the first two previews of the album?

The record has two sides to it. Part of it is about looking outward and putting the pieces together. It is structured and tempered to a degree. The other half is about looking inward. It is chaotic and darker. Much less put together. We wanted to lead the record with the two far opposing sides so that the fans could start to understand the themes of the record.

15. Meanwhile, your smash hit “Demons” was recently certified diamond by the RIAA. What does that song represent for you, years after its release and after all of its success?

I’m very proud of that song. It was one of the first songs I wrote with this band. I was a hungry young artist struggling with depression. I wrote that song late one night in a studio by myself before we were ever signed. I remember showing it to the band and our producer and working on it more with them and talking about how it felt very special. Just the intimacy of it while also hitting hard sonically. It was a strange juxtaposition. We all believed in it from the very beginning. However, we never could have guessed what it would go on to do.

16. What’s your karaoke go-to?

“Tainted Love” by Soft Cell.

17. What’s one thing your most devoted fans don’t know about the group?

That’s a really tough question. I feel like they know me better than I know myself some days. I really don’t have a good answer to this. I feel like some days my manager shows me things that the fans put together about us that I never knew myself.

18. What movie, or song, always makes you cry?

“Father And Son” by Cat Stevens.

19. What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

Don’t take it all too seriously. And never apologize for being yourself.

20. With the album out imminently, what do you hope to accomplish or experience by the end of 2021?

Hopefully it will become safe enough to take this record around the world and sing it with all the people I love. It is the greatest blessing to be able to tour the world and sing on stages with like minded people of different countries and cultures. I have missed performing. I have missed the travel. I have missed the singing voices. The human connections. I have missed it all.