June 17, 2017 - 1:07 pm
Updated June 18, 2017 - 9:16 am
The table is set with sandwiches, sunglasses and rock stars who don’t act much like rock stars.
It’s a Friday afternoon in late May. Two days from now, Imagine Dragons will take the stage at the Billboard Music Awards, an array of oscillating blue laser lights fanning out behind them, rows of spit-shined celebrities in front of them, performing to a TV audience of nearly 9 million.
As frontman Dan Reynolds, tall as an NBA shooting guard, bobs up and down like a buoy in choppy waters, the band will pound out their recent hit “Believer,” which has spent a record-smashing 19 weeks atop the Billboard Top Rock Songs chart and has been streamed over 220 million times on Spotify.
It’ll serve as the unofficial launch of the publicity push leading up to the release of Imagine Dragons’ forthcoming new record, “Evolve,” an album minimalist in sound — at least by these dudes’ standards — and maximalist in confidence.
But first, lunch.
Back from rehearsal at T-Mobile Arena, the band is doing what you do when your day is drawn-and-quartered by numerous demands on your time, each pulling in the opposite direction: multitasking.
This means eating, conversing with a reporter and getting ready to go over wardrobe options for the show, all at once.
Racks of clothes fill the living room adjacent to where the band sits as the group’s stylist pores over her wares, the dining room table flush with an array of shades, ties and other fashion accessories. They’ll all pretty much remain orphans (aside from the gold chain that Reynolds sports during their Billboards performance, this is a largely unadorned bunch).
This is the Imagine Dragons’ home base, a west valley house that they converted into a studio, where the band recorded “Evolve” with an array of big-name producers.
In the main tracking room next door, the hot tub has been drained so that microphones can be placed inside to capture the natural reverb, while sunlight pours in from large windows facing a pool.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we were working in a studio with lots of sunlight in it,” observes drummer Dan Platzman, dressed in black right down to his fedora.
His words are telling: “Evolve” is defined by an inner and outer radiance, the former newfound and hard-fought.
Imagine Dragons’ rise to fame has become the stuff of local lore: Four buddies graduate from living in a small house together, subsisting largely on Del Taco while playing marathon gigs in casino lounges and downtown dives to become one of the biggest bands of their ilk, selling nearly 10 million records in addition to 27 million singles. Their 2012 debut, “Night Visions,” stayed on the charts for over two years as the group became the only band in history to have two of the top 10 most downloaded songs of all time (“Radioactive” and “Demons”).
But behind the scenes, everything wasn’t always so golden, especially for Reynolds, whose inner tumult was as pronounced as his outer success.
While Imagine Dragons’ previous record, “Smoke + Mirrors,” debuted atop the Billboard album chart and cemented the band as an arena-filler, it also chronicled some serious emotional turbulence.
“I was in a really heavy state of depression for a couple of years,” Reynolds acknowledges. “ ‘Smoke + Mirrors’ was really introspective for me, (there was) self-doubt, doubt about belief, doubt about the world.
“It was a searching record,” he continues. “This record is a place of arrival.”
Where there’s ‘Smoke’ there’s fire
It’s a tale of comeuppance, propelled by snapping fingers, a bass line that works the body like a masseuse’s hands and modulated backing vocals whose squawks are suggestive of warring macaws.
“Kids were laughing / In my classes /While I was scheming / For the masses, ” Reynolds sings on “Thunder,” stretching his voice like wet taffy. “Who do you think you are? / Dreaming about being a star?”
And then Reynolds answers those questions with audible relish.
“They say you’re basic / They say you’re easy / You’re always riding / In the back seat / Now I’m smiling from the stage while/ You were clapping in the nosebleeds.”
“Thunder,” the second single from “Evolve,” encapsulates an album defined in large part by a kind of spirited, look-at-me-now self-assurance.
Above all else, it’s a record about coming into one’s own.
“ ‘Thunder’ is: ‘I’m so happy for a really (crappy) middle school and high school existence and getting kicked out of college,’ ” explains Reynolds, who attended UNLV and BYU for a time. “It’s reflecting on all those things and saying, ‘Good, I’m happy for all that because that brought me to this place of being. It created angst inside of me that bred art.’ ”
Contrast this with “Smoke + Mirrors.”
The album’s very first line: “I’m sorry for everything / Oh, everything I’ve done,” Reynolds sings on “Shots.” “From the second that I was born it seems I had a loaded gun / And then I shot, shot, shot a hole through everything I loved,” he adds.
As Imagine Dragons’ profile continued to rise, Reynolds’ emotions often took the opposite trajectory.
“I was really depressed, just plain and simple, during ‘Smoke + Mirrors’ and a lot of ‘Night Visions,’ ” he says. “I’ve dealt with depression since I was young, but there was something about our lives being turned upside down and our interactions with people changing, I think it threw me.”
Reynolds began to find his way last year, though, when Imagine Dragons did something they never had before: take a break.
“During the time off, I did a lot of self-work,” he says. “I met with therapists and I worked through things that were hard. I faced a lot of truths and realities that I didn’t want to face, that had been just building up. That gave me clarity, brought color back into my life.”
Reynolds wasn’t alone in feeling like he needed to catch his breath after running himself ragged trying to keep up with the pace of his own life, sucking oxygen after the emotional wind sprint that was Imagine Dragons’ rise to stardom.
“From the moment we released ‘It’s Time’ to the moment we started taking this time off, we had just been going through the ringer, like in a dryer, just tumbling around,” says bassist Ben McKee. “We used to do it just for ourselves, and once it became a keep-the-momentum-going kind of thing, I think at some point we might have gotten to where we were burning out a little bit.”
Yeah, Imagine Dragons realized plenty of their dreams along the way, but the flip side is, when you’re living the dream, you can sometimes feel like you’re sleep walking through your own life.
“It’s hard to be in one of these album cycles and, at the same time, take a step back and really observe what you’re doing, what effect it’s having, all of these things,” Platzman says. “Taking a year off and actually reflecting on all this really gave us valuable insight on the whole creative process. We really mixed it up, tried some new things, and found a place of honesty, authenticity.”
From underdog to pick of the litter
Three beams of light crash through a grid of darkness, a simple image born of complex emotions.
“That’s what this record represents to me,” Reynold says, reflecting on the cover art to “Evolve.” “We came from a place of searching and feeling lost to a place of being OK with not having the answers in our lives and letting go of that.”
That’s not all they loosened the reins on.
The band co-produced their first two records with British hitmaker Alex da Kid, sharing a few writing credits with him but otherwise penning everything themselves and being very hands-on during the recording process.
But for “Evolve,” Imagine Dragons recruited a who’s who of producers and songwriters, including New Zealander Joel Little, Lorde’s right-hand man; John Hill, whose resume runs from Portugal. The Man to Devo, Rihanna to Shakira; and Swedish duo Mattman & Robin, whose credits include Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez and others.
“We were always afraid of producers, I think subconsciously, because we didn’t want anybody doing the work for us,” explains guitarist Wayne Sermon. “We don’t want anyone to come in and change (things), we don’t want to give him, or them, that power. So we were afraid of it a little bit, to give up that freedom.”
But they felt they gained more than they sacrificed: They could just focus on creating, generating ideas, let someone else worry about capturing the right sounds, picking the right take. They used their collaborators as sounding boards, exploring different creative guises, resulting in an uninhibited-sounding recording where there’s less texture than before, but also more risk-taking.
“In the past, I think we were having trouble putting down on paper the thoughts that were in our minds sometimes,” Reynolds says. “Sometimes we over-produced. With this record, we were able to take a very minimalist approach, bring in producers to help us pin down what Imagine Dragons is. Sometimes it takes an outside eye to come in and say, ‘You don’t need 50 layers of violin on this song; let it have just one violin that sounds right.’”
“Evolve” opens with the sinuous funk of “I Don’t Know Why,” a paean to dangerous love, before zigzagging into the rocket-lipped “Whatever It Takes,” where Reynolds delivers his words as fast as the dude reciting all the side effects at the end of a prescription drug commercial. From here comes the kind of triumphant rockers used to soundtrack dramatic sports montages (“Mouth of the River”), full-throated rebel yells (“Rise Up”) and woozy piano pop with Queen-worthy choruses (“Yesterday”).
The cohesion from all the disparate sonics comes from Reynolds’ be-the-master-of-your-own-destiny lyrics (“Don’t you tell me what you think I could be”; “You can reach for the moon, anywhere your dreams could take you”; “Take what comes, love”), and the clear sense of a band not worrying about expectations three albums in.
“It’s kind of like high school, man,” Sermon notes with a smile. “Tenth grade is like the first album. By the time you get to the third album, you’re a senior. You think you’ve got your life figured out a little bit, even though maybe you don’t. But at least you feel like it.”
They have always prided themselves on being down-to-earth dudes, almost to a fault.
“One of the things that’s really helped us keep our heads on straight is that it really has nothing to do with us,” Reynolds told the R-J in a 2013 interview prior to playing a sold-out gig at The Joint, their biggest Vegas show up to that point. “People are reacting to the music. We’re nobody special. None of us was the cool person in high school, the popular kid. None of us was good at sports. Even now, we’re just regular guys.”
Here’s the thing, though: They’re not. It’s easy to grasp what Reynolds was trying to convey with that quote, that success hadn’t changed who the band members were as people.
And in fact, they remain a highly approachable, inauspicious bunch, friendly and forthcoming.
But success changes everybody and everything — not always for the worst — and perhaps the most discernible difference between Imagine Dragons then and now is that they’ve grown comfortable with their status. They no longer see themselves as underdogs. They don’t carry themselves as if they have something to prove nor do they instinctively deflect the trappings of fame.
They’ve grown comfortable beneath the spotlight’s hot glare.
They’re done sweating.
“The other day, my wife was like, ‘Hey, are you nervous going to the Billboard Music Awards?’ ” Reynolds recalls. “And my answer has always been, ‘Yes, I’m extremely nervous’ — any time we do late-night television, any time we go to an awards show. I think we always felt like this little band out of Vegas that’s going into a room with these big stars. At least I felt that way.
“And for the first time, when my wife asked me, ‘How are you feeling?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not nervous,’ ” he continues. “I feel … content. I feel like we have nothing to prove. I feel like we are just what we are.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.