Imagine Dragons: “That arena sound excites us, we don’t need to apologise for it”
Ahead of their debut Australian tour Imagine Dragons guitarist Wayne Sermon explains to JODY MACGREGOR why there is nothing wrong with stadium rock.
When Muse said they’d been inspired by going to a Skrillex concert, I imagined them taking one of their arena rock songs and layering in a cheesy bass drop so mammoth cavemen would hunt it with spears. What we actually got was incoherent and top-heavy; what we should have got is ‘Radioactive’ by Imagine Dragons. The Las Vegas band play with a gleeful lack of subtlety, as if they’re determined to steal back all the dusty but crowd-pleasing rock ‘n’ roll tricks other genres have made off with. As well as dance music’s current love of rock bombast, they use plenty of the singalong choruses Mumford-style festival folk has made its own. They might be unhip influences, but the end result is effective. Their album Night Visions has swagger and sincerity.
When I talk to guitarist Wayne Sermon he’s in New York, where the band have travelled to perform on Good Morning America and then take a break to see the sights.
What was it like playing on Good Morning America?
It was cool. It was a little strange. The live TV things are always a little bit different. I think there’s an added level of stress that we don’t normally feel when we do these kind of things, so it was exciting and I think it went reasonably well. There was a really good crowd there, so I think that we’re happy with it.
It must be odd for you because you’re from a small town in Utah, right? A place called American Fork?
I love that name, by the way. American place names are amazing. There’s nowhere in Australia with a name like that.
No Australian Fork, really?
No, we don’t even have an Australian Spoon. What was it like growing up there?
It was cool. I wouldn’t change it for anything. There’s something cool about living in a small town where you know everybody. That’s how I felt growing up in American Fork. At the same time it’s been kind of awesome, Imagine Dragons has been a vehicle for me to visit places that I really don’t think I would ever have been to. Certainly Australia is one of those places.
You went from American Fork to Boston, right? You studied at the College of Music?
I did, yeah. I decided I wanted to do music when I was 12 or 13 – try to pursue it professionally – and I knew the best way to do that was to find other, like-minded people. I went to Boston out of high school and had a completely different experience. East Coast/West Coast life is pretty drastically different I found. It was a lot different to be in Boston by myself, with no support system or anything like that, just me on my own. Luckily I had some good friends there that got me through it and a couple of them have stayed with me and are in the band now.
When you were at the College of Music, what did you study? How many instruments do you play?
Maybe only one or two that I would be proud of. Piano, cello [and] guitar are sort of the ones I can play. I fiddle around with mandolin and a few other things but really I’m only proficient on guitar at this point and that’s what I studied there. Really what I studied most was composition and scoring. Doing orchestration, that’s what I thought I wanted to do. Daniel [Platzman], the drummer, he was studying film scoring. He was gonna score films and he was on that path to do that and this thing came up and grabbed us all, I think it changed our path pretty drastically.
So classical composition was what you wanted to do when you enrolled there?
We were all into nerdy avant-jazz music. Berklee, really it’s mostly jazz. We were completely inundated with jazz music all the time. We hadn’t really thought of pop music for years. We were playing jazz together; we were even in an ensemble together, me and the other two guys. It was all jazz.
Did your ensemble have a name?
It did! It was called The Eclectic Electric.
You gigged around Boston?
A little bit. We did a few gigs around town, mostly just for fun. It’s hard to get too many people to listen to that kind of music in the same room and so we did struggle with that, but we had a lot of fun. We still like jazz, and we still listen to it and play it, but we kind of fell back in love with pop music and rock music, which is what we all grew up with anyway. We fell back into our first love, I think.
“The thing I like to do with guitar is make it sound not like a guitar”
How did you meet [lead singer] Dan Reynolds?
It’s one of those crazy things, just one of those people you meet, a friend of a friend. A mutual friend of ours is like, “Hey, I know this guitar player. You should hook up with him and see if you have anything in common.” I went to a show of his actually; it was just him playing acoustic guitar and stuff. It was a small show and I just noticed something a little bit different that I hadn’t really seen in a lot of people. Some people have that extra something; as frontmen they command a certain presence on stage when they play. That’s a really important thing to rock music, to pop music. I saw that in him pretty immediately. We talked and had a lot of stuff in common, we listened to the same bands, we had the same ambitions with what we wanted to do with music. We were both very ambitious in our goals. And so I hitched my wagon to his star, so to speak. I moved to Vegas, which is where he was from originally. I think he’s a third-generation Las Vegan so he informed me there was in fact a music scene in Las Vegas. I didn’t believe it really but I trusted him so I just moved there. The other two guys moved very shortly afterwards.
Had you ever been to Vegas before or was that your first time?
I’d been there before, it’s only about six hours from where I’m from. I’d been there – a lot of the bands wouldn’t come through where I was living so I’d have to go to Vegas, that was usually the closest place. I had been there but honestly I had only been on “The Strip” and I had the same perception most people do when they go to that city. There’s that one square mile of land that everyone goes to and no one really knows anything after that, but really it’s a sprawling city and there’s tons of people that live there. There’s local places to play and there’s local places to hang out, there’s an arts district downtown that I didn’t know about. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that as a band it was a good place to be from.
Where did you play your first gig as Imagine Dragons?
I remember it very well. I remember we had all moved to Vegas, I think it was June 1st even, the day our first rehearsal was, and we had already planned a gig for June… 6th, I want to say. We had set ourselves up for the pace we were gonna set ourselves very early on, it was pedal to the metal right from the beginning. We had to have material so we wrote together and practised for eight to 10 hours each of those days and got a few songs together so that we could play. Our first gig was interesting. It was at a rock club; it was called Sinister Rock Club. I think it’s since closed down because someone got shot there, so it was not the best place probably in Las Vegas to play. But it was memorable.
Was it memorable for your performance or the venue?
Both, probably. I remember our bass player, Ben [McKee] – when you go to a show and you see the band scrambling, trying to get all their gear set up really quickly so they can play the most songs they can, we were in the midst of doing that, we were about ready to play [when] Ben turned on his amp and it exploded on stage, started smoking. It was pretty awful. Our first gig we were down on gear already, so we had to borrow someone else’s amp. It was probably as good as we could have expected for being our first show. Definitely never want to go back and listen to the recordings.
I know that you’ve described yourself as a bit of a gearhead, were you like that when you started out?
I kind of was. I’ve always been inspired by that. My first experience with music was my Dad’s study and he had a huge vinyl record collection and he had a really nice sound system. A real audiophile-quality tube and amplifier, really nice vinyl back and super-nice speakers. That was his pride and joy, it was one of the things that he loved most. And so that was my introduction to listening to music. I grew up listening to Abbey Road on vinyl and Rubber Soul, Led Zeppelin, Iron Butterfly. That was my introduction to music and to guitar. I’ve sort of been obsessed with gear and making stuff sound that good because to me it’s hard to beat that stuff on vinyl with a really good system, I’ve been chasing that ever since.
What’s your live setup like? Do you have a lot of pedals?
Yeah, I have a little too many probably, but I’m trying to be better about it and I’m trying to only bring ones I use a lot. But I use a lot. And I run a stereo system so I have two amps, a bunch of guitars, probably too many pedals, but it’s good. It helps me get a lot of textures, it helps me shape a lot of the sounds that I have in my head, because really all these things exist only to transcend all that and become what people hear and texture and all that. As much of a gearhead as I am really it all comes down to the music and if it’s helping you and inspiring you. If it’s not, get rid of it.
There is a lot of texture in your songs. Do you think that comes from your composition background or is it that part of liking equipment and wanting to play around with different sounds?
You know, that’s a good question. I think it’s a little bit of both. My approach as a guitar player has been, there’s probably a lot of sounds that you’re hearing on the record that you think are synths or you think aren’t guitar, but they actually are. The thing I like to do with guitar is make it sound not like a guitar. People have heard guitar for decades and they know how it sounds, but I’m making things sound different. A lot of high synth parts or string parts are really just guitar manipulated a lot.
I think the composition part of my education has played a large part in it – it’s all about texture, it’s all about creating contrasts and filling space. We all have that approach. I think there’s danger in that too, you can over-produce something too and we’re always having to check ourselves with that because we just throw a thousand things at the wall and see what sticks. Part of producing and part of making a good record, it’s as much about peeling things away as putting things up there, because as many tracks as there are on each song for each track probably two or three tracks got erased because it’s just clutter. It’s a tough battle. We’re still learning. We haven’t perfected it yet, but I think as sparse as you can be while still getting the sound you need is the best way to go. That’s what we’re learning at least.
“We just throw a thousand things at the wall and see what sticks”
For the album you worked with Alex Da Kid, who seems like an unusual choice as a producer. His background seems like it’s more in hip-hop and pop, he’s worked with people like Rihanna and Christina Aguilera. What was about him that interested you, and what did he bring to it?
My reaction was kind of the same as yours. It was like, “OK, cool, he’s done a lot of hip-hop, he’s in the R&B world, the pop world, but what is this going to be like? How is this going to relate to us?” We try to walk into a situation with some sort of open mind and he was successful enough as a producer that we certainly thought it was worth giving him a shot. It was really simple, he just wrote us one day and said, “Hey, I like your music, why don’t you come to LA and write with me for a day and see what happens?” And that’s what we did. We went in there and it was just easy. Probably the number one way you can tell if something’s going to work, if it’s easy to write with somebody, if it’s not a chore to write eight bars of music, if it just works naturally. It’s kind of the way me and Dan were when we first met. It was easy to write together. And we felt that with Alex Da Kid too. As a producer he’s really great because he knows when to step back and he knows when to be really involved.
And there’s songs on the album that we produced ourselves and that he trusted us with, to get the results that we needed for the songs that needed extra touches. It worked out really well. He’s there when we need him to be there, he can observe when he needs to observe.
What’s an example of one of the songs you produced yourself?
‘It’s Time’ was written probably two years ago. We recorded that and it stayed the same, so that’s one that we’d done ourselves. Probably half the album is our production, maybe a little bit more is produced ourselves. There’s some songs like ‘Radioactive’ especially is one song that we felt like we could benefit from Alex’s know-how. Just the size of the drums, the size of the snare, the size of that bass, that’s the kind of stuff he’s really, really good at. He knows how to make stuff sound huge, especially in the percussion area. We find that with the more percussion-based stuff that we do – which by the way we were already attracted to, we love percussion anyway so that’s another area where it’s a perfect match – he just adds. He adds a lot to that kind of stuff. Whenever we need that element he’s right there to provide it.
The bass drop in ‘Radioactive’ is massive.
It really is, it’s huge.
I wanted to ask about that huge sound of yours. It’s the kind of sound you don’t hear often in indie rock any more, because it’s an ambitious, stadium-filling sound. It’s like a lot of musicians don’t aim for that any more because people’s expectations are lower, people think you can’t play to that scale of audience so you shouldn’t make that scale of sound. It’s like nobody told you guys that, or you didn’t believe them.
I think a lot of that happened just based on growing up in Las Vegas. I mean, growing up as a band there we would play a lot of casino gigs and, man, it was hard to get people’s attention at those things. Especially when you’re doing these lounge acts and you’re in Caesar’s Palace and there’s things that people could be looking at or doing and you’re just another one of the background noises. There’s bikini blackjack dealers, there’s slot machines, there’s a million other things that people have to occupy their time. If we were gonna be asked to come back and play again we had to bring people in, we had to make them sit down and actually listen to music. In doing that, some delicacies get lost because you’re trying to capture people. I think there’s a time to be delicate and I think that that’s important, but we find the bigger we sound or the bigger we make things sound the more attention we get on stage. It started innocently like that.
I think the other half of it, we just grew up listening to bands that did that and weren’t afraid of that. U2 is not afraid to sound huge. Coldplay’s not afraid to sound huge. There’s a lot of bands, Arcade Fire is probably the best example of a band that just sounds big and they don’t care that they sound big. That’s who they are; there’s eight people on stage all banging different things. That arena sound excites us. We don’t need to apologise for it.
Imagine Dragons tour:
Tuesday, October 15 – Powerstation, Auckland (All Ages)
Wednesday, October 16 – Palace Theatre, Melbourne (18+)
Friday, October 18 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney (All Ages)
Saturday, October 19 – The Hi Fi, Brisbane (18+)
Tickets on sale Wednesday, July 24