February 11, 2013
By David Huff
"It's Time" For Imagine Dragons
JAM Magazine Interviews Guitarist Wayne Sermon
It's not surprising that Imagine Dragon members Dan Reynolds, Wayne Sermon, Dan Platzman and Ben McKee sometimes pinch themselves as a reminder they aren't living a dream. After years of struggling to find the right groove and sound they felt would not only represent who they truly are, but make a real and lasting impression with the public at large, the pieces have finally fallen into place.
Local bands toll in obscurity hoping beyond hope they're taking steps in the right musical direction that someday will lead to discovery. And then there are those unique groups who instinctively know they will be discovered, it's just a matter of time. Imagine Dragons was such a band. Sporting three Berklee School of Music alums and an enigmatic, naturally gifted front man, this band knew there time would come. The only question was when. The answer is now.
Imagine Dragons debut album, Night Visions,took the band three years to complete, with six of the tracks previously released on independent E.P.'s the band self-produced. These musicians were so confident in their efforts, they even released a documentary about the making of their debut album entitled "Imagine Dragons: The Making of Night Visions". Whether you call it moxie or chutzpah, it's that type of confidence that has propelled Imagine Dragons to where they are today. Their record, fueled by the platinum hit single "It's Time", debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200, and has solidly been entrenched in the Top 15 since its September 2012 release. To top it off, they are about to embark on their first headlining tour, a triple bill involving Atlas Genius and Nico Vega, fronted by Reynolds's wife Aja.
With all stops on its six-week, 23-date North America run already sold-out, Imagine Dragons is more than anxious to hit the road to thank its fans for the unwavering support they've showed them. Though they already have a blueprint in mind for their next record, the band has collectively decided that for the time being, they are going to enjoy this richly deserved moment in the sun. Who could blame them?
JAM: I started laughing when I saw that Dan Reynolds had managed to get his wife's band, Nico Vegas, on this tour as one of your opening acts. I wonder if he realizes there's going to be a pay cut in his future because Aja is going to be getting his Imagine Dragons check, and he will be receiving her share of Nico Vega as the tour progresses through the country.
Wayne Sermon - I am sure Dan will figure it out pretty quickly. (Laughing)
JAM: What exactly were the circumstances under which you met Dan at Brigham Young University?
I saw Dan singing at a club in Provo, Utah with his acoustic guitar. I really liked what I was hearing and what he was doing, so afterwards, I walked up and introduced myself. While doing some small chitchat, the two of us discovered we had the same goals in mind in terms of what we wanted to do with music. Both of us happened to enjoy listening to the same artists. Most importantly, we both were extremely serious about making a career out of music and not just let it be a hobby. Out of that conversation came "Hey, let's start a band!" Dan was moving back to Las Vegas because his family is from there. He told me that's where he wanted to start the band, so on a whim I said, "Okay!" And the adventure began.
JAM: What was this ensemble group you were involved with before you met Dan?
The guitar ensemble group was something I did at the Berklee School of Music where I initially met our drummer Dan Platzman, and our bass player Ben McKee. We all went to school together and played in a jazz fusion ensemble. The three of enjoyed performing together, but after I graduated, we kind of lost contact. To be honest with you, I never thought we'd play together again. Secretly I hoped we might do something down the road, but I certainly wasn't counting on it. When the opportunity came up that we needed to replace members of the group, those two were the first people I thought of. Surprisingly, they dropped everything they were doing and came to Las Vegas. That in itself was pretty amazing.
JAM: Was it you, or Dan, that was friends with the Tolman's, who also moved to Vegas, but eventually returned home to Utah to start a family?
Actually, both of us knew Brittany and Andrew.
JAM: What is it about Dan that convinced you to hitch your wagon to him, so-to-speak?
Well, it definitely was a leap of faith, that's for sure. Some people have that extra something about them. I don't want to embarrass Dan, but I really do think he is something special. When he is on stage, people pay attention to what he's doing as the front man. As a musician, that right there tells you everything you want to know about your singer.
JAM: Here's what I'm trying to get at. There had to be some trait, some quality about Dan where you said to yourself, "Okay, this is the guy! We can make something really happen here musically." Do you remember the specific moment when you realized that?
Obviously I felt Dan was extremely talented the very first night I saw him perform. But again, to be honest with you, I didn't know for sure he had that "it" factor until we actually played our first concert together as a band in Vegas. It was a pretty crappy rock club and there was something like ten people inside the place to see us play. As I was watching Dan perform that night, it really dawned on me that he was someone I wanted to be serious with as far as music was concerned. He had such a commanding presence on stage, it was literally impossible to put into words what this thing about him was that was so inspiring. As a musician, when you experience something like that firsthand, you know exactly what it is without ever saying a word. Dan simply had it, and from that point on, there was no looking back.
JAM: Why did you decide to move to Vegas on a whim if you had even the slightest doubt you had a future with Dan? I mean, how long had you known each other before he said, "Hey, let's start a band in Las Vegas. You want to go with me?"
I had probably known him for about a month.
JAM: Are you telling me the truth?
Yes, it happened that quickly. I mean, I wasn't doing anything else at the time.
JAM: Well, there does come that moment in every musician's life where they have to take that leap of faith or forever live with the thought of "What if?"
You're exactly right.
JAM: Once you arrived in Vegas, how did you know what music to focus on, direction to take, what to build a foundation on?
Well, that's a good question. Finding an identity for this band was something that took a long time. Obviously Imagine Dragons didn't happen overnight. We didn't know exactly who we were for a long while. This is going to sound a bit naive to you when I say this. It wasn't until our first full length album was recorded the four of us really had a firm grasp on what kind of statement we wanted to make with the music and as a band.
JAM: You're telling me that when you were recording Night Visions, the direction and vision of Imagine Dragons finally came into focus?
There is a lot of trial an error that goes into the making of a band. Everyone has their musical influences of bands they grow up with. As a group, you try to find a common ground from the collection of sounds that appeal to you. There was a lot of searching, a lot of experimenting and definitely a lot of failure too in creating our music. We wrote a lot of songs that weren't great. We played a lot of gigs that weren't great. We had our share of bumps and bruises, but in the end, we came out better for it.
JAM: So Brittany Tolson tells her husband Andrew she wants to go home and start a family. After a year, she's tired of being the temporary keyboard player in the band. It's time for them to leave. It's just you and Dan now. Is this where you come up with the idea of contacting Ben and Daniel?
Actually, Ben had been with us from the beginning as well. He came into the picture the same time I did.
JAM: I thought he came as a packaged deal with Daniel?
No, what happened was this. Ben had about eight credits to go at Berklee before he could graduate. I called him up in Boston while he was in school to let him know I was about to move to Las Vegas to start a band. I said, "You know, I'm starting this project, if you are interested, we'd love to have you. I know you have school, but if you're interested in playing, let me know, because this is all going to happen in Vegas." A few days later, he calls me from school and said, "How serious were you about that offer. I am ready to get out of here." That was it. Ben just packed up everything he had, left school and moved out to Vegas with us.
JAM: So after Brittany and Andrew left, that's when you called Daniel?
Exactly! After they decided to leave, it just occurred to me to call up Daniel. He was actually doing stuff in New York like film scoring and playing a bunch of jazz gigs. He was someone Ben and I were always friends with. We thought it would be a no-brainer for him to step in.
JAM: Was it a no-brainer for Daniel to drop everything he was doing on a hope and prayer, which is basically what all of you were living off of at the time.
He dropped what he was doing and relocated to Las Vegas, so that pretty much answers the question.
JAM: Once again, we're back to that 'leap of faith' question again.
I would say that assumption was pretty close to the truth with Daniel. Our band wasn't a household name by any means. We weren't ultra-successful and when the Tolson's left to go back to Utah, we were basically starting from ground zero again. Daniel was putting a lot on the line when he moved out to Las Vegas, as we all were. A lot of his faith stemmed from the trust he, Ben and I had formed back in Berklee when we were playing jazz together. We all appreciated one another's taste in music, and when we performed together, the musicality between us went through the roof. I think his decision to join us had a lot to do with that.
JAM: After Daniel finally made it to Vegas, the process began anew to build a musical foundation in which to build the band around.
In a sense, yes! The Tollman's were very talented, and they definitely left a hole in the band that had to be filled. During a transition like that, you go through a process of relearning people all over again. The three of us, Ben, Daniel and myself, had known each other for a very long time - Dan not so long. There was a breaking-in period for all of us when it came to personality, music, pretty much everything it takes to be a band. Considering the circumstances, the transition went pretty smooth.
JAM: Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush once told me their greatest challenge as musicians was to come up with music that complimented the tremendous lyrics that Neal Peart wrote. It was a challenge they relished because of the tremendous respect they had for Neal's writing ability. Does that ring true for this band when it comes to Dan Reynolds?
Absolutely! Dan definitely puts a lot of thought into the lyrics he writes. Early on in the band, we had a small following of die-hard fans, and I remember this one instance we all signed this girl's arm. It was kind of a weird request, but Dan signed on her biceps. At the time, none of us thought much of it. The very next show, she came up to us afterwards and she had all our names tattooed on her arm, as well as some lyrics from a song we had written. Luckily, Dan had put a lot of thought into the lyrics of that song, so he didn't feel bad she had tattooed it on her body. But that moment, I think that's when it hit him that as a lyricist, the words he was creating was more than just someone talking. It went much deeper to people. Neal Peart is a hero of ours. His lyrics are pretty epic, so I understand why Geddy and Alex said that. For our music, it is a collaborative effort. Dan and I are the main songwriters, and we present our ideas to the other guys for their input. Then everyone can pick apart the lyrics and melodies they like, or change the guitar part or drum part, and the song slowly comes together that way. Obviously all songs start as an idea, and by the time we're done dissecting it, the song was a collaborative process.
JAM: You don't go to the Berklee School of Music without knowing what in the hell you're doing. There's a tremendous amount of competition, egos, hubris, you name it and the Berklee students have it. When it comes to the fleshing out the music once it's presented to the group, does the educational backgrounds the three of you possess make it easier for everyone to work on music because of the respect you all have for one another?
I think our dynamic works very well. Now you would think that with me, Ben and Platzman knowing more of the ins and outs of music, the structure of it, the theory behind what's going on etc., they would absolutely be necessary things to have in order to make great music. In truth, it's not. Dan Reynolds doesn't have any real formal education as far as music, and that is a positive for our band. He is just naturally gifted. The music of Imagine Dragons is a mixture of two worlds, instinctual and the thought out. Those two theories don't battle each other, they work in harmony. When you arrive at the final destination of a song, the journey getting there doesn't matter as long as you get there. It doesn't matter if it was a mistake, well-thought out, or instinctual, as long as you get to the point where you're all happy, how you got there doesn't really matter.
JAM: You, Daniel and Ben all know that Dan Reynolds is a prolific writer and has an incredible the gift for crafting songs. Does that knowledge relieve some of the pressure on you three somewhat, because you know he will bring some exciting music to the table when it's time to work on your sophomore album, so let's enjoy this moment we're in right now?
You know, that too is a good question. I think that whatever pressure this group feels, we put it on ourselves. This band really isn't aware of many things outside of our little universe. To partly answer your question, we were working on our next album before we had even finished our first one. It's just the way we think. The four of us have already discussed the direction the next record will take and avenues we want to explore. Given that, we are still really early into Night Visions as far as touring goes, so we're going to stay out for a while. Touring is where our focus is right now. You interviewed Dan, so you know he is always writing and bouncing ideas off everyone. We will probably have 100 demos for the next album before we whittle it down to ten. That's just the way we are. We like to write a lot. We aren't a band that has a hit with every single song we write. Unfortunately, we just aren't that lucky. There are a select few musicians that are factory-like when it comes to cranking out hits time and time again. Each song we write is a roll of the dice. Once in a while we'll roll a lucky one that sneaks in there and pays off for us.
JAM: When Dan told me you all had written something like 100 songs for the debut album, I basically told him that was absolutely ridiculous for a group to create that much work for one album in order to find 12 songs you are happy with. To me, it seems like a form of mental torture you are inflicting upon yourselves because there comes a point where too much is just too much. Have you discussed the fact you just don't need to overload yourselves that much on the next project the way you did for the debut album?
If songwriting was a chore for this band, then it would be a form of mental torture. The thing is, we have never looked at songwriting as something that has to be done. This band just happens to write that many songs because we love to write music. The four of us eat, breathe and sleep music. That's all we do. We write music on airplanes, between gigs, on the road in the bus, in hotel rooms. We have never looked at the songwriting process as something that has to be done, or something that we have to do. With this band, if we aren't constantly writing new material, we'll go crazy from boredom.
JAM: Was it difficult to also adjust to becoming businessmen as well as musicians?
Yes it was. Luckily, the four of us trust each other implicitly. We haven't had any internal issues with this band that weren't easily solved. The business itself can be complicated, and there is no doubt it can get hairy until you actually go inside the belly of the beast to try and understand it. Overall, the business side of things has been fine. We are lucky to have a good team behind us, so that alleviates the business issues and allows the band to concentrate on the music. Honestly, with everything that has happened to us the past few months, our operation is running pretty smoothly.
JAM: Do you four ever look at your situation as "Hey, after years of playing the game, we have finally won the lottery? Let's put the winnings aside and concentrate on the business at hand." Does that type of attitude enable the band to adopt the spirit of 'all for one, one for all' as you move forward?
I think so. That attitude forms from all the years of NOT being successful. In the early days of this band, we would play four-hour gigs at this place called O'Shay's on the Vegas strip. We'd play two hours of cover tunes with the other half our songs. We did the gig 3-4 times a week and made between $4-500. On top of that, we would book gigs where we would play only original material. We persevered through years of that, just struggling to survive, pay rent, eat and pay bills. Looking back, we're all pretty grateful for going through those experiences. We built up a great camaraderie between us enduring those hardships. Collectively, as a unit, we really believe that had we been successful right out of the gate, instead of earning it one show at a time like we did, it would not have been good for this band.
JAM: You really feel that way?
Absolutely I do! The years we spent growing together, finding out who we were as a band, and then struggling to reach our goals, none of us would change that experience if we could. The four of us feel very fortunate to be in the position we're in today. We know there are other bands out there right now that have worked just as hard as we did. They too, have something relevant to say with their music, but for some reason or another, were never able to scale the heights like we did. There is no question Imagine Dragons is an extremely hard working band. At the end of the day, there is an element of fortune, or luck involved as well. But in this business, you make your own luck. I know the term has been used many times before, but it is true.
JAM: Do you remember any specific "a-ha" moment where you knew the hardships you were enduring as a band was worth it, you were on the right path, and you could actually see the light at the end of the tunnel?
You are really making me think here with your questions. I don't know if there was any one singular "aha" moment with this band. It was more a series of steps we took that always seem to lead us in the right direction. From a very young age, I knew I wanted a career in music. Everyone else in the band felt the very same way. All of us knew from adolescence that music was something we wanted to pursue and were passionate about it. We all grew up in homes where our parents encouraged and nurtured the musical drive we all had. That pursuit has always been a part of our DNA. There's definitely been some awesome peaks and highlights to our journey, but really, there hasn't been any real specific 'aha' moment for me. There's been like a series of them. Music just defines who we are as people.
JAM: I live in Dallas and have watched the local music scene from afar. There will always be local bands, no matter how talented they are, that will remain local bands because they don't have the mindset to see themselves growing beyond the club scene they currently occupy. Some of them may be legendary local bands, but at the end of the day, their fame takes them nowhere. On the flipside, there are groups like Imagine Dragons they start out at the local level, but in their minds, they see the big picture early on. Where do you draw the strength to see beyond what others simply cannot?
You have been asking a lot of great questions in this interview. I think the fortunes of any band rests with the goals you set for yourself mentally. For all of us, our main ambition was to be in a band that traveled the world performing music we created. We saw Imagine Dragons as an international group. I am somewhat hesitant to say we all expected what's happening to actually occur. I remember in the first conversation I ever had with Dan, when we were deciding to work together, the two of us agreed we had to do this on a grand scale. We were not just going to get by. We were not going to be content with mediocrity. We were either going to be really successful or fail miserably. So I have to say that from the very beginning, our mentality was to go for the brass ring. Like I said earlier, I'm a somewhat hesitant to say we expected this to happen, or we were entitled to what we have achieved so far. Our direction from the beginning was very clear. If we focus on our goal, hard work will help us achieve it. That mentality has carried us to where we are today, which is incredible and very fortunate.
JAM: How long do you ride the euphoric wave of this first album before you have to get back down to business again?
It's a good question, because we are really enjoying the fruits of our labor. I know it's a catch-all phrase to say that, but we worked hard to get here. All we can really do is to continue to write like we normally have and prepare for phase two. When the moment arrives, we'll know the time has come to end this chapter and start another one. Right now, we're in Night Visions mode.