Dan Reynolds, frontman for the uber-successful band Imagine Dragons, is fully aware that time is fleeting. While some may hang their proverbial hats on the fact they’ve sold tens of millions of albums, filled venues like Madison Square Garden in New York City, or worked with big names like Kendrick Lamar and Rick Rubin, Reynolds instead keeps his eyes and mind looking largely forward.
The day after selling out a place like MSG, he says, he doesn’t grin from ear-to-ear in rest. Instead, it’s onto the next task. The morning after such an event, he wants to write the next great song. Reynolds, who has accumulated billions upon billions of song streams, released his latest collection of songs with his anthemic band earlier this month. Billed as a double album, Mercury—Act 2 dropped on July 1 while its sister LP, Mercury—Act 1 released in September 2021. Both are twined by thoughts and the effects that death has had on Reynolds and his surrounding family and friends. Yes, time is fleeting. Always.
“It’s all kind of morbid,” Reynolds, 35, tells American Songwriter, regarding the subject matter of the new LP. “But I like to think of it more as… how important every moment is and how life is fragile and fleeting.”
It might be a surprising task to square such a big, bombastic band, and one that’s so popular at that, with a group so willing to explore the end, mortality, and demise. Imagine Dragons is a huge group, both in footprint and sound. One might assume the group writes songs about fancy cars or taking spaceship rides to Saturn with billionaires, laughing all the way through glasses of champagne. But Reynolds’ feet are often planted firmly on the ground. He’s measured. When asked, he remembers as much of the early days hustling in Las Vegas as he does those on stage in front of tens of thousands.
“If I’m being honest,” he says, “I don’t spend much time thinking about those things [his massive successes]. My focus is always on the present moment and the future. I don’t spend much time thinking about the past. Certainly, when something great happens that I’ve dreamt of ever since I was young, like selling out Madison Square Garden for the first time, it’s like, wow, that’s incredible. But the day passes and the next day I’m focused on the fact that I want to write a great song today.”
Time is finite. Lives are, too. And Reynolds says his sole ambition, speaking in broad terms, at least, is to “do everything and see everything and accomplish everything possible.” Accomplishments merely lead to more doors opening. There’s no point in really looking back. Yet, for the purposes of an interview, it’s a necessary act. Indeed, Reynolds, who grew up playing piano from ages six to 16, had diverse musical interests as a young person. With piano, he studied the classics: Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. In middle school, he played tenor saxophone in the school jazz band. At 12 years old, he began taking drum lessons at home. Around that time, he started making music and recording songs. When trying to find a reason or pattern behind his early work, Reynolds says that he merely took the “path of least resistance.”
“Following the path of least resistance tended to bring me constantly to music and instrumentation,” he says.
Eventually, he realized he was the only one around him recording a new song every day. That his middle school, and later, high school peers didn’t seem to have the same motivations. That’s when he began to pick up on the idea that maybe what he was doing was strange, or at least different than most other kids around him. Quickly, Reynolds realized he had natural ability, and musical acumen. Melody has always come easy to him, he says. Same with vocal intonation and pitch. But the songwriting process itself took work.
“I wrote a song almost every day since I was 12,” he says. “I have thousands of these songs, fully recorded with verses, lyrical melody. It was a diary for me since I was a teenager and it still is. Repetition. The 10,000-hour rule is a real thing, I think. I believe that it has to be a lifestyle.”
Early on, the band struggled. There wasn’t much “glitz and glamour,” Reynolds says. It took three-to-four years before the group got a record deal. Prior, they were four “poor musicians” living together in Las Vegas, playing casinos to make ends meet. And they were “barely doing that,” he adds. Reynolds recalls handing out flyers all day before a show to get people to come out. There was a great deal of hustle in the desert heat. After those initial first four years as a band, after they were signed, things took off quickly. Reynolds calls it a “blur.” Imagine Dragons booked a sold-out tour with AWOLNATION and have never really looked back. When asked if he misses the salad days of hustling, Reynolds laughs. Not really. He doesn’t miss scrounging for grocery money, wondering if he needed to get a second job to support his then-young family.
“I don’t miss begging people to come to our shows,” he says. “The only thing I miss maybe is the celebration and the camaraderie between the band when things start to happen.”
Imagine Dragons is largely the product of Reynolds’ hard work as a young person, combined with his natural sonic inclinations and his love affair for several genres of music, including, perhaps first and foremost, hip-hop. The band has, thus, worked with many big-name rappers, from Kendrick Lamar to Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign, and Lil Wayne. He’s also responsible for discovering K.Flay. Not every rocker feels so at home with emcees and beat makers, but Reynolds is like a fish in the ocean when encountering such artists.
“I’m a child of the ’90s,” he says. “I grew up in a wonderful time in hip-hop… Biggie, Tupac, Mase. I just love hip-hop. I’ve probably consumed more hip-hop than I did traditional rock.”
While he had other influences like Alanis Morrissette, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and major groups from the ’90s, it was the larger-than-life rap music that particularly shaped him. He says he remembers the first time he heard “Tipsy” by J-Kwon. How the drums hit so hard and heavy. These sounds and styles influenced his band and continue to. So much so that Reynolds’ love affair with hip-hop helped lead him to the producer for Imagine Dragons’ latest LP: the legend, Rick Rubin. Rubin is likely one of the four or five most important musicians of the past 100 years in pop music (Quincy Jones, Dr. Dre, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Dylan are also likely atop that list). And Rubin, Reynolds says, was a dream to work with.
It was the first time the band worked with Rubin. They brought in hundreds of song options, and demos. And Rubin helped go through them, sorting and culling. Reynolds says the record was put together over the past four or five years. There was lots to cover, sonically and content-wise, including the fact that he’d experienced the loss of friends and family over the past years. So too, has the entire world from the COVID-19 pandemic to police brutality to any number of factors. Suffering, to be sure, has been at the forefront of modern-day news reports. Death, therefore, and its lasting impacts were large parts of Mercury—Act 1 and Mercury—Act 2.
“Rick felt like an obvious choice,” Reynolds says, given his experience in rock and rap.
The band flew to his Malibu studio, after getting to know him over a Zoom meeting, and went to work. Sessions included lots of stories, as one might expect. For example, one day, Reynolds walked into a session wearing a Minor Threat t-shirt, a band that Rubin has worked with in the past. Rubin looked up and said, “Let me tell you a story about Minor Threat.” The band just happens to be one of Reynolds’ favorites, a group he looked to as a younger person to help get him out of a “funk” he was having “with drugs.” Rubin, who has famously worked with everyone from Johnny Cash to the Beastie Boys to RUN-DMC and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is an encyclopedia. A boon for any band, especially one with a history in guitar music and beat making. The result is an excellent new album, with hits everywhere, least of all their latest single, “Sharks,” which is fit for the club or your car as you speed down the highway. It’s up there with past jams like “Believer” and “Radioactive.”
Imagine Dragons, which began in 2008 and released its first album, Night Visions, in 2012 has been working seemingly non-stop for a decade. They’ve been touring almost that long too. Reynolds, who has three daughters, recently took some time off to be with family, but his is not an easy creative mind to quiet. Along with the musical output and success, the band has focused on charity work, too. To date, the group has raised millions to support LGBTQ+ interests, help solve pediatric cancer, and now, more recently, to help the efforts in Ukraine against the Russian invasion. Imagine Dragons has many fans in Ukraine and Reynolds has worked with video game developers there, too. He’s become especially sympathetic to the nation. So, he helps where he can. Reynolds downplays the work, though the efforts are valiant.
“I’m not doing any more than anyone else in my position would have done,” he says.
Now, looking ahead, the band is set to go on tour starting August through the fall (with the rapper Macklemore as main support). This is on the heels of a string of European dates. It’s a lot. It’s easy to imagine that his cell phone beeps every 10 seconds with emails, texts, reminders, and the like. There is a lot of pressure on him, as there is on many in similar shoes. He says he understands why some decide to cancel tours and prioritize mental health. It’s a balance. And while Reynolds is supremely cognizant of the preciousness of time and its fleeting nature, he’s equally grateful for what he’s been able to do, and perhaps most of all, for the gift of music.
“Music never fails to bring me joy or to comfort me,” Reynolds says. “To delight my sense and bring me excitement, or sorrow and someone to mourn with. Someone to be angry with or happy with. Music is consistent. It’s always there. I can always count on it. It never lets me down.”
Photo by Eric Ray Davidson