October 20, 2012
By David Dunn
Word Play At Its Finest
Frontman Dan Reynolds Speaks With JAM Magazine
Dan Reynolds isn't ashamed to admit he hears 'things' others cannot. It has haunted his every waking moment for years. He doesn't like to talk about it much, but the voices in his head have become his constant companion. And when his inner muse speaks, Reynolds is quick to take notes. You see, this singer / songwriter's hearing problem always ends with a cleverly crafted lyrical landscape that delicately balances out the sounds agitating his mind. Such is the price of genius.
To date, the Imagine Dragons co-founder has created, by his own estimates, a few thousand songs in little over a decade of daily creative writing. Though most of those compositions will never see the light of day, for the very select few that make their way into the public domain, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
The Imagine Dragons debut album, Night Visions, reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts when it was released over this past Labor Day weekend. A single from the recording, "Next Time," has already garnered the band quite a bit of attention. It has been featured in several high profile television shows, including Glee, as well as a motion picture soundtrack. It has also been tapped by Major League Baseball as a theme song for the regular season and the All-Star game.
It's doubtful the sound of a bat hitting a baseball will inspire the inner voice of Reynolds to yell "batter's up" any time soon. That said, you can rest assure this artist is staying busy creating another chapter in the Imagine Dragons book that's sure to be a best-seller. In the meantime, an open invitation has been extended to one and all to figure out the word that inspired the anagram name of the band.
JAM: Your publicist asked me if I had ever heard of the band. I said no. Then she told me I would receive your album online ASAP. I told her don't worry about it, I would check out Imagine Dragons on YouTube, which has become our national radio service. I said that jokingly Dan, but the more I think about it, maybe the joke was on me. YouTube has become a vital service in introducing previously unknown bands to the public.
Dan Reynolds - YouTube is great, especially for this band because all our music is visual. When I was a young kid, and my dad would play music, I could literally picture the music in my mind from what I was hearing. YouTube has really benefited us. Our fans really like it, and individuals like you, unfamiliar with the group, can get an idea of what we're like. It's a great way to connect with fans and it gives them access to us that otherwise they couldn't get. Let's face it, we live in a visual world, and people really enjoy seeing what they hear. As for the importance of it verse radio, I don't really know when it comes to details like that.
JAM: It used to be that promising bands would be developed by record companies and be given time to develop. In essence, they paid their dues, waited their turn. Not anymore. Technology has allowed musicians to make and distribute music for relatively nothing, almost taking away the thrill of being unique when you were one of the chosen few signed to a label. Unless you know the game, your odds of succeeding are miniscule. Do you understand you that Imagine Dragons is in a now or never situation?
Yes, I absolutely do. On the same note, there's still a way to do it correctly. I told you the positives of YouTube, now the drawback. I think it is a sad thing when someone gets on YouTube, looks up a band they've heard about, and then think they are really experiencing the artist's music when they click on the video. They aren't. Also, I think it's sad that people will quickly judge a band by what they see and hear from a YouTube video. With the click of a mouse, they make an instant decision to like or dislike the music before they ever get a chance to fully appreciate what the band is all about.
JAM: That's the new order of music bands live in today.
Well, there is a positive side too. You have to be on your 'A game' as an artist at all times. There are bands, like Imagine Dragons, that are building their own foundations from the ground up. We have been together since 2008. We have lived off the couches of our fans for four years. Every single show that we have played, you can bet someone has videoed the performance and put it up on YouTube. It has benefitted us because our live shows are the most important part of this band. It's definitely our strength. YouTube, right or wrong, has exposed bands in a big way.
JAM: Dan I saw a list of all the instruments you were proficient on. What I'm curious about is this. When you can do everything so well, is it a curse as well as a blessing when it comes to composing music. You know how the song should sound in your head, but getting the other band members to duplicate what you are hearing can be an excruciating experience.
For me I have always been an artist who created more by ear. I took drum lessons, piano lessons and I taught myself the guitar when I was younger. I picked up a few more instruments along the way. However, I have never written a song where I wrote out a chord progression on a piece of paper and transferred it onto an instrument. Instead, I create chords on a piano that weren't typical, but felt right when I played them. Then I made a progression that sounded right in my head. Afterwards, I used whatever instruments I felt the song needed to complete what I was hearing.
JAM: You are part of a new generation of musicians that have grown up with the Internet being an important tool in the development of your music?
The great thing about the technology age we live in, are the abundance of Internet tools available for creating music. I grew up using a lot of audio programs, and really liked one called Cakewalk. It literally turned your computer into a home studio. I then switched to Apple's Logic Pro. It has lots of sampled instruments in the program that come awfully close to the sounds I look for. For instance, I didn't have an orchestra on hand when I wanted a viola, but I could synthesize it on my computer. By adjusting the tone close to how I wanted it, I could then record the song with a real orchestra. I don't feel I have any trouble finding noises that are close to what I am hearing in my head. Also, the musicians in the band all attended the Berklee School of Music. They are incredibly gifted with their instruments. When I bring my demos to the studio for them to hear, they have no problems bringing more life to the music.
JAM: Dan, when you rely too much on technology and not enough on raw talent, couldn't you be creating a potentially dangerous situation?
Definitely! There is a fine balance for sure. When people ask me what our band sounds like, I always say the same thing. We like to marry the raw sounds of a rock band by instrumentation with the digitized world of synthesized beats. It is something that has always fascinated me. I draw a lot of my inspiration from the '80s as well as classic rock. Then I infuse those two worlds together into Imagine Dragons. As an artist, I think the most important thing with music is this. At the end of the day, we just do what's right for the music. This band is very conscious about making our songs sound real and energized. We record them live to capture that energy so it doesn't sound like a digitized track.
JAM: When I read that you were a prolific writer, it sent up a red flag for me and I'll tell you why. You have Imagine Dragons as your main creative outlet. Your wife has her band Niko Vega, and together you have a thing called Egyptian. You have too many irons in the fire. You have bits and pieces of music strung together here and there, and you're not concentrating on any one entity to make it the best it can possibly be. Are you spreading yourself out too thin, and are you doing a disservice to Imagine Dragons in the process?
Well, that's a great question. Every artist has to be careful to keep their focus on the job at hand. For me, I really have an OCD personality. Since I was 14, I literally almost wrote a song a day. It has been that way pretty much my entire life. I am 25 now, so in 11 years I have written thousands of songs. Not all of them are great or should be heard by anybody but myself. Some people sit down and plan their days out, some do athletic endeavors. I chose to write music. It was the way I communicated, the way I found solace. I have done it for so long, and at such a high volume, that songwriting has never been a pain for me. I have never felt I was spread too thin when it came to creating songs. To make a long story short, I don't think I have too many irons in the fire, as you suggested. Actually, I feel as though I can never do enough music. If I was doing ten separate projects right now, I would probably be happier because I love what I do. Right now, I'm very obsessed with Imagine Dragons. It is where my focus remains. My wife spends all her time on Nico Vega. Our side project has sort of taken a back seat because both our projects are requiring a lot of attention. I'm sure there will be a day in the future where we'll find time to work on side projects. In the meantime, I'm strictly Imagine Dragons.
JAM: I understand the therapeutic value in writing. I felt the same way growing up. I chose a different creative writing path to go down than you did. But here's the thing I find puzzling about your craft. How do you know you have finally found yourself in a serious band that has the chops, has the talent, to make your dreams come true? You can enter and win all the Battle of the Band contests you want, Dan, but that doesn't get you to the next level. When did you really know you had finally gathered the right combination of musicians together to make a legitimate run at your own 'field of dreams'?
That's another very good question. Imagine Dragons is the first project I have ever done that from the second I started, this was a very serious deal. When we got together, the first thing we did was go into a room, sit down with a pen and a paper, and mapped out our vision of what Imagine Dragons was going to be. We talked about what we wanted to say musically, who we were all inspired by, how that would affect our sound, and what exactly our sound would be. The four of us talked about the artist's we aspired to be; what would we do to be unique to ourselves. From day one, this was a very serious project. In fact, one of the guy's still had a semester left at Berklee and dropped out. He moved to Las Vegas on a whim to get this band started. It was very evident to everybody involved with the project it wasn't something to be taken lightly. This was very serious endeavor. We all had something we wanted to say and wanted to do it correctly. All of us take our art very seriously and still do. Every single note we play, every visual the music creates, every video this band makes, every lyric I write, there is a real thought behind the action. There's also a great deal of time put in to executing it. I don't know if there was an "aha" moment along the way. From the very beginning, the four of us took the project very seriously and nurtured it like it was our child.
JAM: I see Brittany and Andrew Tolman listed as past members. I don't want this to sound rude, but were they replaced because they didn't see the vision?
No, no that's not rude. I'm glad you brought the question up. There are people out there still curious about what actually happened to them and they deserve to know. The Tolman's are married and they both sacrificed quite a lot for this band as well. They moved from their home in Utah to Las Vegas to start Imagine Dragons with us. Brittany, from the very beginning, had told us this wasn't her thing to be in a band. She would be a temporary keyboardist for us until we could find someone to take her place. Her desire was to start a family with Andrew and be a mother. It just so happened that we couldn't find a keyboardist to replace her for quite a while. This went on for over a year. Finally it just came to the point where Andrew and Brittany had to make a choice. It's hard being a musician. You're in a new town every day, you are traveling, and you're really living off of nothing in the early years, absolutely nothing. We were all scraping by, playing cover gigs on the side, so it was hard on us. The day finally came where Brittany and Andrew said they were ready to start a family, and they wanted to settle back in Utah. They just weren't going to be able to continue on with the band. Everyone absolutely respected their decision, and today we're still really good friends. There was no blow out at all between us. They wanted to pursue their lives together, have children, and do it back in Utah.
JAM: Single or married, music is a difficult undertaking once you take the act on the road. The personal sacrifices are tremendous, and the rewards few and far between until you finally hit your stride, especially when you first start out.
Everything you just said is right on the money. This is a hard life. It is especially difficult in the beginning. There are no tour buses and nice hotels. Many groups break up in those early years because the conditions they encounter are just too tough to overcome. Unless you are doing this for the right reasons, the grind of it all will separate you from the pack and definitely test your resolve. If you aren't suited for this business, you'll find out quickly when you start touring. Whenever anybody asks me if they should pursue their passion for music, I tell them don't be a musician just to be one. Be a musician if you have no other choice, if it is the only thing you know how to do and it fulfills you. Don't do it if you think it will lead you to some lavish lifestyle of fame and fortune. That is more the exception rather than the rule.
JAM: As a songwriter, you understand that lyrics are just words until the music is added. The thing is, how do you know you are creating the right music for the lyrics you have composed for a particular song? Is there a process you go through?
Actually, for that exact reason you just mentioned, I always write the lyrics after the music has been created. I know songwriting is different for everyone, and I'm not saying there is any right way to go about composing it. It just happens to be the right way for me. I create a landscape of sounds that sets up a tone and feeling that induces lyrics to sort of pour out. That's how it has always been for me. I know there are people that write prose or poetry first, and fit the music in later. If that works for them, then that's great! What works for me is to create music that will inspire certain word phrasing to come out of my head. When I hear those sounds, it brings forth emotions inside me. That's when I start writing lyrics.
JAM: Did you ever reach a crossroads with the music in this band where you could actually take Imagine Dragons in several directions? For instance, did you ever consider exploring the Christian music market?
No. My music has never had any religious overtones.
JAM: I'm not suggesting your music does. What I'm saying is this. Sometimes it makes sense for an accomplished band just starting out, to explore the path of least resistance. By going down that avenue, it gives the group the necessary time to get their full bearings on the direction they really want to pursue.
Well, that may have worked for other people in the past, but not with this band. That option was never on the table or something I ever thought of pursuing. It is an interesting question though.
JAM: Whenever I have finished writing a story, I'll walk away for a few hours so I can look at it again with a fresh pair of eyes. Inevitably when I come back to the story, I'll start changing the sentence structure or wording because something doesn't sit right with me. My point is this. I have come to realize there's no such thing as a perfect story. I would think the same scenario I just talked about occurs with songwriters as well. How do you know when you are happy with a song and it's ready to go?
We are really tough critics on ourselves. We write a lot of music and then we narrow it down. Then we rewrite and rewrite, then narrow down the songs again. For this album, we wrote 100 songs. Literally 100 demos went into making the Night Visions record. Actually, collectively we wrote many more songs than that, but this 100 fit the theme we were going after. After we settled on that particular batch of tunes, we then narrowed it down to 50. From there we cut the list down to twenty songs, which we went ahead and recorded. Based on how they turned out in the studio, we narrowed the choices down to the final dozen songs.
JAM: Does it take a general consensus among you four to advance a song, or can something else come into play for a tune to make the final cut?
It really comes down to a general gut feeling of what songs move us the most. We consider the compositions that best represent the band and sound compatible with one another, as well as tell a cohesive story in album format. We are very conscious of what songs will help the record flow correctly - to give the music the dynamic ebb and flow of human emotions. We have always wanted to be a group judged on the overall music we make for an album, not a single here or a single there. When people listen to Imagine Dragons, we want them to down and listen to the entire album, track by track. We want people to walk away understanding the concept behind the Imagine Dragons, or at least what we're trying to say. What ultimately makes the cut is what song tells the story.
JAM: I don't want you to think I'm a jerk for saying this, but writing 100 songs for an album is absolutely ridiculous. It is beyond overkill and a form of mental mutilation. What is the cutoff point for this band where you finally say enough is enough?
I guess what it comes down to is this. I've never written a song feeling it was worthless. I've never written a song that tortured me. It is a process I thoroughly enjoy and a way for me to withdraw into my own little world. Some people watch TV for enjoyment. I relax by writing music. I don't even own a television. Listen, it's not like we set out to write a hundred songs for this album, we just so happened to have a lot of songs. A lot of people reading this won't understand when I tell you that we don't have a life outside of music. We experience a real sensation of joy when we create music with our instruments. Some people write differently. They can say all they need to with less material. Songwriting just happens to be the way I communicate to the world around me. I relay my emotions as a human being through music. If I'm feeling sad, I'll write a song to help me get through that. If I am happy, I'll pen a tune so I can remember that moment. That's how it has always been for me. It's not like we needed one hundred tunes for our debut album, it just happened.
JAM: Once a group finally hits its stride, you have a three to five year window to create your musical identity that solidifies the band in the public's mind. The clock is clicking on Imagine Dragons right now.
Honestly, I try not to think about it that much. It's a scary thought really. At the end of the day, I try to write the best music possible to conveying the message I want to get across. I definitely put a lot of thought into every lyric. We take our art very seriously and always will. All I can hope for is we create something that is worth listening to and maybe it helps people in some way. Music has always been a big help for me. It has helped me get through hard times, helped me experience joy. It's truly a crutch for humans. The quickest way to transfer human emotions is through music. People in different cultures, or don't speak the same language, can always connect through music. We are just doing our best job to relay a message.
JAM: How many Berklee musicians are in Imagine Dragons?
Three of the four are from Berklee except me. All these connections came through our guitarist, Wayne Sermon. Ben, our bass player, and Daniel were all friends of his back at Berklee. The Tolman's had moved back to Utah and we needed to replace them. He called them up and explained what we were doing with the band in Las Vegas. Wayne sent them some demos. Ben and Daniel told him they were in to it. He asked if they'd like to join us. They said yes, moved to Vegas, and basically helped us restart Imagine Dragons again.
JAM: Did you meet Wayne in Vegas?
No, he is from Utah. We met through mutual friends while I was going to school at Brigham Young University. The guy is an incredible guitarist. We got together and wrote a few things. The two of us had a similar vibe and take on music. He had just graduated from Berklee and was in a guitar ensemble group writing music. We decided we wanted to start the band in Vegas with Brittany and Andrew. The four of us moved there and started Imagine Dragons. We played our first gig one week after getting arriving in town.
JAM: Was it important for you to find the right name for the band to convey the image or the feel of the music?
Yes it was. It was part of the whole vision we wanted to link together. We had a phrase that we all agreed upon to initially call the band, but then changed our minds. So we made an anagram out of it by switching the letters around and came upon Imagine Dragons. It was one of those words that came up when we were fooling around with the letters, and that was it. I haven't told anyone what the original name we had. We leave up to the fans to scramble the words. They come to every show trying to guess what it is. It's always been a fun name for us. I'm sure there will come a day where we will tell people what the answer to the anagram is, but we haven't yet. It's kind of nice to have something to keep to yourself and keep away from the journalists, but maybe one of these days.
JAM: I would keep the name quiet and use it in a marketing campaign for a new album you're about to release. Whoever guesses the name will get to go on the road with the band for a week, or you'll play a private party for them and debut your new record before all their friends.
That's a good idea. We just might do that.