Interview: Imagine Dragons Slowly Climb to Omnipresent Fame
By Courtney E. Smith
Since their dynamic GRAMMYs performance on January 26, it feels like Imagine Dragons have been everywhere: Saturday Night Live, a high-profile Amnesty International concert, The Beatles tribute. Their hit single “Radioactive” is set to break the record for most weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in two weeks with a solid 77 weeks on and still flying high. They’ve maintained their position largely through radio airplay, crossing over to multiple formats in the year plus the song has been out, and kept it alive with commercial synchs in the trailer for the Stephenie Meyers Twilight follow-up film The Host, a Beats commercial, and various TV shows ranging from Chicago Fire to History and NatGeo channel promos.
Oh yeah, and Matt Holliday of the St. Louis Cardinals made it his walk-up song for the 2013 season.
In short: the song you couldn’t escape in 2013 has caused an explosion of attention for a band the media has largely ignored — or, if not ignored, at least not given the sort of personality-based scrutiny that pop stars and hip hop artists who are one-man shops face up to. They haven’t covered magazines, been followed by paparazzi, had the public scrutinize who they’re wearing on a red carpet or been the focus of illuminating editorial spreads. But now the attention that comes with a condensed and rapid succession of national television appearances is pushing them into the limelight.
In Radio.com’s interview with the band, which was sandwiched in the week between their GRAMMYs and SNL appearances, singer Dan Reynolds made an offhand comment. Between a thought about writing their next album and the band’s desire to release a B-sides album, he got at the band’s level of self-awareness in the eyes of the media and the public.
“I’m sure in the future [a B-sides album] will come, but as of right now we’re pretty focused on putting out an album. We’re still a young band, one album in. I think you have to prove yourself more as an artist before you put out a B-sides album because people have to care enough about your A-sides first,” Reynolds said, laughing.
The conversation came about when asked if they might consider making their second album, the one they’ve only just begun to think about writing and recording, a concept album. It was pretty well dismissed as not their style — with drummer Daniel Platzman cracking a joke about creating a Spinal Tap-esque album devoted to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and guitarist Wayne Sermon affirming their intention to make “good pop songs.”
That’s right, pop songs. Imagine Dragons have been the absolute leader in the latest school of rock to pop radio crossover, so that they don’t inherently and immediately identify themselves as a rock band first and foremost is notable. In fact, when asked, Platzman and bassist Ben McKee affirm that they do think they’re from the rock lineage, but Reynolds isn’t so quick to agree.
“At the end of the day, we let anybody label us as anything they want. I would never be the first to think, ‘We’re like the frontrunner of a rock band!’ The lines between genres are so blurred at this point that we really are just content with whatever. If someone wants to call us alternative, a rock band, an indie band — it’s like,” Reynolds pauses and shrugs. “And none of those things fully apply. We’re not an independent band.”
“We’re a rock band,” Platzman finally interjects.
“You could say we’re a rock band, but there are certainly bands that have more guitar than us…I think the most easy way to make it consumable for the public is to say we’re a rock band,” Reynolds finishes as his bandmates nod in agreement with the sentiment.
It’s a particularly interesting line of inquiry with this band for two reasons. The first is that they were signed to their deal with Interscope Records by producer Alex da Kid, on his imprint label KIDinaKORNER. Kid is best known, prior to his production work with Imagine Dragons, for putting his imprint on records like Eminem’s “Love The Way You Lie,” Nicki Minaj’s “Massive Attack” B.o.B.’s break through hit with Hayley Williams “Airplanes”and Dr. Dre’s comeback track “I Need A Doctor.” As their producer, Kid inherently imprints some crossover elements into the DNA of their debut album.
The second is because this band, even with a pervasive lead single like “Radioactive,” had a hard time cutting through the noise until they did their combined GRAMMY performance with Kendrick Lamar. Lamar is a very credible, very visible fellow nominee who, by Imagine Dragon’s accounting, was the person who requested to collaborate with them on the show. The show’s executive producer, Ken Ehrlich, called it “probably the truest mash-up of the batch this year,” and the whole thing was such a success that both parties decided to reprise the collaboration on SNL the following weekend.
“We both had really similar ideas, actually, right from the get-go. There was no real difference in opinion,” Reynolds recounts. “We both wanted it to be raw, we wanted it to come together in a way that felt natural — we didn’t want to force anything…and we wanted something that was different than what usually happens at the GRAMMYs.”
The other record that Imagine Dragons have already broken with “Radioactive,” and that is very telling about the arc of their rise in popularity, is that it is at present the song with the slowest ascent into the Top 5 of Billboard’s Hot 100 in history.
For them, it’s a story that keeps building. Even as their fourth single, “On Top of the World” makes its debut in the Hot 100 this week, “Radioactive” gets a new lease on life with the release of the remix version featuring Kendrick Lamar. As for what’s next, Imagine Dragons are holding the cards close to their chest but what they’ve learned after this long, slow climb is sure to influence every creative decision they make.
“As for what direction we’re going to go in with this next album, it’s yet to be determined,” said Reynolds. “We’re really in a space right now where we’re creating freely with no direction in mind…We’re always looking to do something new and fresh, to keep it interesting for us because we have to play those songs hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times.”