Imagine Dragons bassist Ben McKee talks about the perils of success
Special to Lake Tahoe Action
If you go
What: Imagine Dragons
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday, July 18
Where: Harveys Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena
Tickets: $89.50 and up
In a time when rock bands have struggled to sell albums and get radio play, Imagine Dragons has quickly blasted into the forefront of the music scene.
The Las Vegas-based group’s 2012 major label debut, “Night Visions,” caught on in a big way. With three multichart hit singles; “Radioactive” (which won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance), “It’s Time” and “Demons;” “Night Visions” became 2013’s fourth best-selling album. And as Imagine Dragons continued to build momentum in 2014, the band won Top Rock Album honors at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, one of 14 nominations Imagine Dragons received from “Billboard” magazine.
The band appears to be sustaining its success with its recently released follow-up, “Smoke + Mirrors.” The album debuted at number one upon its release in February (with first-week sales of 172,000 copies) and the singles “Shot” and “Bet My Life” have been top 10 rock hits.
With its huge success, Imagine Dragons found themselves headlining arenas before the touring cycle for “Night Visions” was over, and now the band is headlining one of the summer’s most anticipated amphitheater tours.
Going from being virtually unknown to one of rock’s biggest bands in the space of just a couple of years was obviously quite the whirlwind.
While the success felt very rewarding, bassist Ben McKee said it also changed the lives of the band members in ways that were not so welcome or easy.
“It’s definitely been a struggle to keep any kind of connection to people,” he said in a mid-May phone interview. “Over the last few years of touring, there’s really been a detachment from the people who were my close friends. I haven’t gotten to see my family as much. And it was definitely hard. You kind of have to turn off the part of yourself that is a person and just get into the motion of the machine. It’s like keeping in contact with those people makes staying on the road so much harder. It makes you miss that sort of normal life that you crave but you just don’t get when you’re on the road.”
The band member, though, who probably struggled most with fame and life in a fast-rising rock group was singer Dan Reynolds.
“I think it was extra hard for Dan also having a kid and a wife,” McKee said. “He had, his (first) child was born right in the middle of everything going completely insane. I think he got to go and be there for like the day before and the day after his child was born, and then he had to go and fly away for a weekend to do promo in Europe.”
Reynolds has detailed some of his struggles in interviews, and the lyrics on “Smoke + Mirrors” reflect the roller coaster ride of emotions that came with Imagine Dragons’ rise to arena-filling popularity.
On some songs (“Hopeless Opus” and “Shot”) he shows considerable guilt, blaming himself for relationships damaged or lost. He hints at battling depression on “It Comes Back To You.” Reynolds also ponders success on “Gold,” questioning who and what he can trust “when everything turns to gold.”
The stresses faced by McKee, Reynolds and bandmates Wayne Sermon (guitar) and Dan Platzman (drums), though, did have a benefit in one important respect.
“It’s brought us closer, absolutely,” McKee said. “We are 100 percent family. We are, I think, closer to each other at this point than we are with our families. I mean, we’ve been through everything together, and we are the only people who can relate to the bizarre way that our life is. People don’t really understand going on tour and what it’s like to have our band explode and just like be in the middle of that experience. We know where we’re coming from, and we also, every step of the way, we’ve made these decisions together. We’ve created this music together. We’re out there every night performing together. We’re brothers, we’re teammates, we’re best friends. We’re all of that.”
In approaching the challenge of trying to follow up on the success of “Night Visions” with the “Smoke + Mirrors” project, the group set things up so the making of the album could be as pressure-free as possible and there would be ample time to experiment musically.
“With ‘Smoke + Mirrors,’ we bought a house in Las Vegas,” McKee explained. “We turned it into a recording studio, and we moved in there for, I mean, we were there for six months, eight months. But besides that, we had been writing demos on the road. The writing process didn’t really change. We’ve always just kind of written music. Demos are created when we’re on the road, when we’re at home, just sort of as a way of journaling. It’s like a hobby. Then when it’s time to go in the studio, we look at these 100, 150 song sketches and kind of concentrate on the ones that we feel have the strongest core as a song and sort of paint a cohesive picture together. We really appreciate albums and listening to songs as a collection, not just cherry picking something for a few singles.”
The music that emerged on “Smoke + Mirrors” retains the stylistic template established on “Night Visions.” The mix of traditional rock instrumentation and electronic elements remains (with a little less emphasis at times on synthetic sounds). Deliberately paced songs like “I Bet My Life,” “Dream” and the title track retain the epic sound and huge beats that characterized “Radioactive” and “Demons.” The group’s pop sense also returns intact, as songs like “Shots,” “Trouble” and “Gold” come with inviting melodies, and there’s plenty instrumental ear candy to go with the dynamic melodies of “Hopeless Opus” and “I’m So Sorry.”
McKee said the group’s headlining sets this summer will include most, if not all, of the “Smoke + Mirrors” material, plus a good helping of material from “Night Visions.” McKee also feels the band will be able to present a more cohesive show where the visual production complements the music.
“I don’t want to give too much exactly about what we have going on, but when we did the ‘Night Visions’ tour, when we released that album, we didn’t really know what was going to happen with it,” he said. “During the two and a half years we were on the road with that album, we kept upping the size of the venues we were playing and we kept on to have to kind of play catch up and figure out a way to make our production grow while we were on tour.
“But with ‘Smoke + Mirrors,’ we knew we were going to be starting at a bigger place and had the opportunity to put more time into crafting production to go with the album, to create a whole world, a whole kind of landscape for this music to live in,” McKee said. “We wanted to create something that would really feel like more of an experience to draw the audience in than just the experience of us getting up there and playing the music live. I mean, we didn’t want to distract from the music. We’re still up there playing as hard as we can every night, but it’s a whole moving, changing, evolving landscape around us that really fits the vibe of the music.”
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