Imagine Dragons – The Beatweek Interview: Smoke + Mirrors and more

With their new album Smoke + Mirrors debuting at number one and their U.S. tour about to get underway, Imagine Dragons is having a busy 2015. Daniel Platzman speaks with Beatweek Magazine about how the new songs came together, how the band members blend their disparate backgrounds creatively, what to expect from the live shows – and the story of how he lost his beard.

Do you remember where you were when you first heard Smoke + Mirrors had debuted at number one?

That particular day we were playing in my home town of Atlanta, and I had a little bet going with our label president Alex Da Kid where if we hit number one I was going to shave off my beard. So I remember because I shaved off my beard in Atlanta, Georgia at my parents’ house. memorable.

How much of this record was written on the road?

The majority. By the time we were setting foot in the studio we had over a hundred demos, verse-chorus-bridge ideas, in place. That’s just how we do it. We like to go in with an excess amount of material and then filter out the very best, and try to piece together a collection of music that’s going to tell a story and that belongs together. I hear stories about bands that go into the studio with nothing written and they just get in a room together and they magically make music. That’s so awesome, and I’m really jealous.

Writing on the road just makes sense for us therapeutically. Writing music us what we do, and you get these little weird pockets of time. We finish a show and we get on the tour bus and we’ve got to drive. We’re still adrenalined up from the show and we can’t go to sleep, so let’s sit around and talk and see if we can be productive. So we have a really large collection of songs to choose from before we set in the studio. And then it’s just a matter of taking those songs, completely deconstructing them, building them back up Imagine Dragons style, trying everyone’s wackadoo ideas.

Your first album was recorded at a recording studio inside a Las Vegas casino. This time you recorded in a home studio. How was the process different?

The studio at the Palms was amazing. Great room, great people, we had a great time there. But obviously we were renting a studio. So the mentality when you’re renting a studio is you’re spending a lot of money, so you want to get the absolute more productivity and efficiency out of that time as possible. We ended up with twenty, twenty-one hours days. You only have the studio for X amount of days so you have to get the most you possibly can out of that. I enjoy working in that condition, being really intense with long days. There’s a certain masochistic fun aspect to that.

But having your own studio and not having that mentality was really awesome. It’s a luxury a lot of people don’t get. We’re not taking it for granted at all. It was amazing. We were actually able to set our own work schedules, try to keep it nine to five, try to keep it healthy. My ears stop working after I’ve listened to something for enough hours. I don’t know what anything sounds like anymore. It’s so nice to be like okay, I’m going to turn my ears off, we’re going to stop, we’re going to pick this up tomorrow. Sleep on it. Bounce it out, listen to the demos that night, listen to the demos in the shower, head back to the studio with new ideas.

What was is about the song Smoke + Mirrors that led you to make it the title track?

We were all really drawn to that demo when we first heard it. We knew there was something special about it. We all connected with it. When we were starting to put together the album at the very beginning, we all remembered that demo and we felt like it really represented what we were trying to accomplish with our second record. There was something about that song. It’s still very much Imagine Dragons but it had a freshness to it, and maybe a maturity. Maybe we hope a maturity that shows that we’re not the same band, we’ve grown up a little bit, we’ve put some years on and played some shows.

There’s a moment in that song where the percussion kicks in quite suddenly.

You’ve got the buildup to the chorus coming up, and we all love listening to classic rock records. As a drummer I’ve got to give a huge shout out and pay my respects to Mr. Phil Collins. So to me it’s more a roto tom gated reverb, total eighties tom fill. It’s an intense moment. There’s a lot going on lyrically at that moment in the song.

Aside from the singles and the title track, do you have a personal favorite song on the record?

Dream is one of my favorite songs off the record. That one hits really hard for me personally. Lyrically I connect with a lot. That song in the studio, Ben busted out his upright bass, Wayne got out his cello, I got out my viola my violin. We actually recorded an in-house string quartet and really went to town with the string arrangement. I felt like it really came together at the end.

Do you think your younger fans will know what a Polaroid is?

Maybe it’s just because I’m from Atlanta, and Outkast was telling me to shake it like a Polaroid picture growing up.

Dan was trick or treating with his family and then that melody hit him like a lightning bolt, and he said ‘I have to go. I have to go record something really quick.’ And he ran into the hills and quickly wrote that demo and went back to his family so he could trick or treat with them. When Dan came in with that demo, we were at a phase of the album where we had a pretty good idea of what Smoke + Mirrors was going to be, and we had already gone through three rounds of I don’t want to say arguing but passionately trying to figure out which songs were going to make it. Obviously you fall in love with these songs, and it’s so personal and it’s a matter of opinion. We were on the same page for pretty much all of it, but then everyone had one song where you weren’t sure what was going to happen. We finally come to the balance of what the album was going to be, and then Dan write the demo for Polaroid, and we’re like crap, that has to go on there.

The four members of Imagine Dragons are from different parts of the country. Do you think that impacts the band?

Being from different places is one thing, and then also everyone in the band kind of comes from a different musical niche. There’s plenty of musical overlap between all four of us, and there’s plenty of music we all love. But Ben for example is from NorCal. He has an extensive knowledge of singer-songwriters like Warren Zevon and Tom Waits. Ben loves country. He knows all the Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. He knows some really cool music none of us know. Wayne grew up listening to all the classic guitar rock. He can play me the guitar solos off of Boston and Pearl Jam’s records. He’s got that whole bag of tricks going on. Dan and me were the two who grew up listening to hip hop. Dan knows way more Tupac and Biggie and all that west coat hip hop. And then also Harry Nilsson is a huge inspiration to Dan. And then I have my own jazz classical background I bring to the table too, and prog rock. King Crimson is my jam. I think there’s absolutely an advantage to having everyone come from a different place of expertise, and bringing those things to the table. Because ultimately what we get is the cream of the crop of all four of those. You get the best of every world. When we are in the studio and we’re trying to figure out what to do with a song, there’s so many different places we can try to reach back to.

On your last tour you had those giant drums on stage. Can we expect more of that kind of thing this time around?

We are Imagine Dragons. We love our drums. There will certainly be lots of drums going on with the live show. That being said, fans should certainly not expect the exact same setup from the Night Visions tour to the Smoke + Mirrors tour at all. We have a lot of ambitious ideas of production that we’re going to be tinkering with. We’re really trying to push the boundaries of what a live show experience is for an audience member. Without revealing too much, we certainly have some new drums that we are very excited to unveil.

Do you find that the older songs evolve as you play them more live?

The more we play something live, the more opportunities we find within the song to do things and to bring it out and take it that extra percentage up in intensity and enjoyment. We’ll be playing and something will happen. Maybe Wayne plays a different thing in a section than he usually does, and we all hear it and we all go “That was awesome, you should play that every night.” And he bashfully bats his eyes back and says “Really, guys?” I’m just kidding. But the more you play it live, the more insight you get.

Bill Palmer
Bill Palmer is Editor in Chief of Beatweek Magazine. His editorial contributions include interviews with musicians and iPhone industry coverage.

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