When country singer Tim McGraw made his entrance onto the Blossom stage earlier this summer, the Imagine Dragons tune "Radioactive" played at full volume on the house PA system. With its percolating electronics and defiant chorus ("welcome to the new age, welcome to the new age"), the song got the audience (and the beefy McGraw) pumped for McGraw's ensuing performance. Dragons guitarist Wayne Sermon didn't know McGraw was using the song to start his show.
"That's cool," he says during a phone interview from a tour stop in Moscow (yes, that Moscow), where the band was about to play a show at the enormous Arena Moscow. "That's really awesome. That's amazing. He's legendary."
The fact that McGraw, a guy working in a completely different musical genre, knows about the band suggests the extent to which it has penetrated popular culture. Just a couple of years ago, the guys were barely scraping by. Sermon and singer Dan Reynolds, who met in Sermon's hometown in Utah, had moved into a small Las Vegas house with no air conditioning. They were living, as Sermon puts it, on a diet of rice and beans. More often than not, they'd lose money when they played a show. Their amps would blow out. They'd get beer spilled on them while playing small, shitty clubs. But Reynolds insisted there was enough of a music scene in Vegas that the band could find a foothold.
"I didn't think there was much music going on in Vegas," he says. "But I trusted Dan. I find that from being there for a few years that there's that one square-mile of land that everyone hangs out. Las Vegas is a spread-out and massive city and it goes on for miles. If you can go past the strip, there are places you can play. There are clubs and bars that welcome local music. I think it's even becoming more so that way. More bands are coming from there and playing there. It's moving toward being more focused on art and culture and having a culture of its own rather than the glitz and glamor of the strip."
After forming in 2010, the band self-released three EPs and then hooked up with producer Alex Da Kid (Dr. Dre, Nicki Minaj, Eminem), who took over production duties on their full-length debut, Night Visions. His input helped shaped "Radioactive," which benefits from a subtle layer of synthetic beats.
"We thought it turned out really well," Sermon says of the song. "[Singer] Dan [Reynolds] locked into the lyrics of the song and he locked into a great melody. We all knew it was a special song. Stylistically, it was something we hadn't done before. That always excites us. It was a direction we wanted to go. Having Alex helped us make the bass drum bigger and snare hit a little bit harder. We were excited about bringing him on board."
While there's a certain irony to the fact that a band from Vegas, the site of so many atomic tests, would have a song about radioactivity, Sermon says the song is really about the search for self-fulfillment.
"There's a lot of symbolism, and I think generally it's more about personal redemption and awakening in oneself," he says. "It's about waking up and doing things better as the day goes forward. That's the underlining theme of the song."
Not all the tunes sound like "Radioactive," either. "Tiptoe" has a Gothic, Cure-like vibe to it and "Amsterdam" features the kind of guitar tones you associate with U2. "On Top of the World" even makes use of world beat rhythms and evokes Paul Simon, one of Reynolds' faves. The album is eclectic but not disjointed.
"That's something we're really mindful of," Sermon says. "It's a balance thing for us. It probably is for every artist. We figure we would rather err on the side of doing what interests. There's a lot of music and influences and interests. We didn't want to pigeonhole ourselves on this first album. We're really into percussion and we have a lot of drums on stage. We have a lot of drums and percussion in the studio. We like things to sound big and larger than life. That's something we always liked. Some songs lend themselves to more electronics and synthetic things. We thought we could dress things up in the production aspect as long as the song is good."
As an example, Sermon, who studied jazz and classical guitar at Berklee, cites the Beatles.
"They dressed their songs up in so many different ways," he says. "From 'Norwegian Wood' to 'Day in the Life' or something as simple as 'Yesterday.' Those are amazing songs that you could sit down and play on the guitar. That's what you want. At the end of the day, you have to be able to sit down and play the song on an acoustic guitar and have people like it."
While the current North American tour is completely sold out, Sermon says the band isn't struggling to cope with the instant fame. Traveling around the world can be a grind but Sermon says he often thinks back to the band's early days and appreciates the fact that fans have embraced the group so wholeheartedly.
"We're still learning and growing as a band," he says. "We do know that we never want to be just one thing. The kind of music we like is so varied that we could never create music that sounds the same. There's too much awesome music by other bands, and there's too much going on in the world of music to be constrained. The fact that people have tapped into that and appreciate it is really cool to us. Not that we don't get tired. But no one wants to hear a musician in our position complain. The majority of time we're having a ball."