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Published: Wednesday, 4/17/2013

Imagine Dragons' success has been beyond the group's wildest dreams

NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE
Wayne Sermon of the indie rock-band Imagine Dragons performs at the Electric Factory on in Philadelphia. Wayne Sermon of the indie rock-band Imagine Dragons performs at the Electric Factory on in Philadelphia.
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With only one album to their credit, things are going much better than the members of Imagine Dragons could have ... well, imagined.

The Las Vegas-based modern-rock quartet's debut album, "Night Visions" (2012), hit No. 1 on Billboard's Rock and Alternative charts — and No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — and already has been certified gold. Its first single, "It's Time," was a platinum-selling chart smash, partly thanks to its use in the trailer for "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" (2012). Its successor, "Radioactive," did even better, climbing to No. 7 on Billboard's Hot 100.

The success has turned the group into a headlining live act in North America and Europe, and has netted it spots in summer festivals such as Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, the Isle of Wight Festival and more.

"I think ‘Holy crap!' is probably the best way to describe it," singer Dan Reynolds says with a laugh, speaking by telephone from the group's tour bus. "In some ways it feels like it's been a slow, long haul. We've been a band for four years, so it's been an organic build for us. But this last year, particularly, has been that kind of snowball effect. Things have just really taken off.

"So, as an artist, it's a very gratifying thing to have lived off other people's couches and kind of struggled for four years to get to the point now where we have a sold-out tour and are starting to travel outside of the U.S.," he says. "There's so many great artists we've met who deserve to be in that position, so we're just really grateful."

Imagine Dragons grew from Reynolds' own musical ambitions. A fourth-generation Nevadan who started writing songs as an adolescent, he started the group in 2008 while attending Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City. He first met guitarist Wayne Sermon, who also had attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. When other early members fell out, Sermon reached out to classmates Ben McKee on bass and Dan Platzman on drums and viola. A touring fifth member, Ryan Walker, came aboard in 2011.

Imagine Dragons, whose members literally sweated for their art in a rented Las Vegas house that had no air conditioning, was writing original music from the start, but finding places to play it was a challenge.

"In the very beginning years," Reynolds recalls, "we played a lot of cover gigs, because we were in Vegas and we didn't have money to make ends meet. So we begged for the casinos to let us play 50 percent covers and 50 percent originals. They said OK, so we learned 50 to 80 cover songs from bands that we loved."

The silver lining, the singer says, was an in-depth education from some of the best rock music ever written.

"We were picking apart songs by the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Arcade Fire," Reynolds says, "and we learned those songs from the ground up. In doing that you really get to study the songwriting process of a lot of great bands, and that really helped us develop our sound throughout the years."

The key lesson, he says, was simplicity.

"Our rule of thumb in writing every song is that, if it cannot stand alone with just the melody and basic chords on guitar or on the piano, and it has to be dressed up with production, then it's really not a good song," Reynolds explains. "If the song can be sung around the campfire, basically, in that raw setting, then you can dress it up.

"So we've started in that setting every single time," he says. "Nothing can be better than a good melody and good lyrics over a simple chord progression. I think the Beatles demonstrated that really well. If you have that, then you can dress it up however it seems fitting."

Imagine Dragons honed its craft on early EPs such as "Imagine Dragons" (2010) and "Hell and Silence" (2010). The quartet won an assortment of local music awards and headlined the 2010 Vegas Music Summit, all of which led to a contract with Interscope Records and a relationship with Alex da Kid, the British-born writer/producer who previously had worked with Christina Aguilera, Dr. Dre, Eminem, B.o.B., Rihanna and others. His first project with Imagine Dragons was the EP "Continued Silence" (2012), which reached No. 40 on the Billboard 200.

Reynolds credits the producer with helping the group polish its sound and refine its direction.

"I think Alex was really a perfect producer for us," he says. "He came in originally as just a fan. He contacted us and said that he'd bought our EPs and was a genuine fan of what we were doing. So he didn't want to change anything we were doing. He made that clear from the get-go. He wanted to just bring his experience to the table."

Nevertheless, the band didn't hesitate to tap da Kid's expertise.

"He would say something like, ‘All right, what do you guys think about making that kick (drum) sound a little deeper so that you can really feel it in your gut?,'" Reynolds recalls. "And sonically he was able to take us places that we were trying to get on our own already, but we couldn't quite master it, and he had mastered it through his experience with urban beats and electronic percussion, which was so important to us.

"He just helped us understand stuff like the EQ world and what the correct compression should be on the drums and kind of those nerdy producer things that are need-to-knows," the singer says. "It was like going to school, really."

"Radioactive," Reynolds says, showcases the lessons Imagine Dragons learned from its producer.

"We knew that we wanted kind of a powerful production for that song," he says, "and Alex has worked a lot with that big, electronic drum sound. We wanted a song that had the two worlds coming together, the acoustic, raw, rock-band vibe and that energy, together with an almost urban, hip-hop kind of beat. So Alex really helped us to capture a deeper (bass) sound and a bigger snare sound.

"That's where his experience really came to the table and helped make that song what it is."

Reynolds wrote "It's Time" in 2011, "at a very low point of my life," he says. "It was late one night in my kitchen, and I didn't think I would be showing anybody that song. It was really just a diary entry. I was just writing that song for myself, to communicate my feelings during that time, and never thinking that it would play on radio.

"I think that's the case with most of the album," he adds. "We just were trying to write the best music we could, songs that were honest and real for us. And then to see that it's doing so well on radio and with fans has been surprising to all of us."

Looking back, however, Reynolds — who also performs with his wife, Aja Volkman-Reynolds, as the rock duo Egyptian — is happy that the group had time to develop before making its first full-length album.

"The last thing we wanted to do was to put out our first album when we didn't understand exactly who we were as a band," he says. "We needed that time and that development to really find out who Imagine Dragons was and to have a unique sound that was ours and a message that we felt was worth saying. Before we tried to show it to the public and have them understand it, we had to understand it.

"So releasing those EPs and playing those hundreds and hundreds of shows bonded us together and helped us have that time to really understand what we wanted to do," Reynolds says. "I think it was really important for us."

The four feel that there's plenty of life left in "Night Visions," certainly enough to see the group through the rest of this year, but a sophomore album is certainly on their mind.

"We definitely are kind of habitual writers," the singer says, "so we're always writing and doing stuff on our laptops, because that's what we love ... "

With another album, of course, will come new pressure. A first album is always a surprise, but the second has to measure up. More than one band's second outing has faltered under the weight of fans' expectations.

"We've certainly been very busy," Reynolds says, "and that's helped. We haven't had much time to think about the success of things. I don't understand even how far the band has come unless I talk to my mom and she's like, ‘You know, I was talking to Aunt Suzy yesterday, and she saw your band on such and such.' Then I think, ‘Wow, man, that's really crazy that even my aunt knows about it.'

"But, other than that, we've just been so lost in the music that it helps us to just keep our heads down and continue to do what we love, to just write honest music and not think about anything else too much."



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