Imagine Dragons on their Path to Success, Vegas, Meeting Flavor Flav and Getting Electrocuted

Things don't look so bad from the top.
Things don't look so bad from the top.

If you've caught the lackluster Carell/Buscemi/Carrey comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone since it opened last weekend, you've quickly become well-acquainted with Imagine Dragons' "On Top of the World" if you didn't know the song already. The folky tune is utilized repeatedly in Burt Wonderstone as a go-to motif for when a sequence that's exuberant, uplifting and cathartic--maybe even schmaltzy--is about to unfold. The song is an apt choice for such use not only because it's truly joyful but also because it's about as zeitgeist-y as a musical cue in March 2013 can get.

"On Top of the World" comes from Night Visions, the 2012 debut full-length by the Las Vegas-rooted Dragons. All this talk of Dragons is convenient since Visions is practically some kind of mythological beast itself. The record is both the product of a young rock band and a dominant force on the Billboard charts; nowadays, albums get to be one but not the other.

As of this writing, Night Visions stands at no. eight on the Billboard 200. Its songs are doing handsomely over on the Hot 100, too, what with "Radioactive" stationed at no. 17 and "It's Time" at 23. If Billboard's recently redesigned site was less of a Rubik's Cube to navigate, we'd be able to tell you more. Just know that "On Top" has done pretty swell for itself, too.

The four-piece, who are in the midst of doing preposterously good touring business (Take a gander at this recently tweeted tour poster), come to House of Blues Anaheim tonight at 7:30 p.m. with Atlas Genius and Nico Vega. Before the show, we caught up with guitarist D. Wayne Sermon. As an interviewee, he's a rare and fascinating combination of affable, open, self-deprecating and business-minded. Press ahead for his thoughts regarding Imagine Dragons' origins, good times, bad times and inspirations (plus a cameo from hip-hop's most unavoidable hype man).

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OC Weekly (Reyan Ali): In one of the other stories written about Imagine Dragons, the writer describes the story of the band starting with Dan Reynolds deciding that he's going to move to Las Vegas after school isn't working for him, and then he convinces you to go along, too. Is that accurate? If so, how did he convince you?

D. Wayne Sermon: Yeah, it wasn't that hard to be honest. For whatever reason, it's just something I wanted to do. I had just graduated from school at Berklee College of Music [in Boston], and I was pretty serious about making a career out of it. I just didn't want to get a degree in music and then not use it and go into something else like a lot of people do. I wanted to utilize some of the skills I'd learned and be a musician. It's not quite like being a doctor or lawyer where you can take the LSAT or the MCAT, and go to school for four years, and then boom, you're a doctor. There's extra steps after you graduate music school where you actually have to make it happen so I was kind of serious about it.

I saw in [Dan] some characteristics that I knew that I would need if I was going to start a band with somebody. That person would have to be a good front man and have to obviously have a good voice but most importantly have a knack for songwriting and know what it means to write a good song and know what it means to be able to write hooks and deliver them in a way that's original and unique. He definitely fulfilled that [criteria] for me as someone I would kind of hitch my star to because, y'know, in popular music, so much of it is about that lead singer and about that front man, and what they can do. However good the band might be, if the lead singer or front man isn't up to snuff, then [the band is] sort of dead in the water in a lot of ways. There's definitely a mutual respect between the two of us. When I actually started to move out there, that's when I called two guys I had met at Berklee [Ben McKee and Daniel Platzman], and they were the first two people I thought of when we needed a bass player and a drummer.

When you were first getting the band off the ground, there was a whiteboard you'd write things on. What were some things you specifically wrote on it?


Oh, I wish I could remember all of them. We should have taken a picture of it. I don't recall all that was on there, but I do know that we definitely we wrote a lot of our goals and ambitions for the band. I think the very first one we wrote was probably influences--the bands that we liked and bands we wanted each other to be exposed to and listen to. We all liked the same classic rock bands: Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Boston, Harry Nilsson, Simon & Garfunkel. We all liked that kind of '60s and '70s rock and songwriter stuff. That was cool to be able to have that in common. From there, it diverged quite a bit. There were some of us that liked the Cars and [the] Cure and New Order and Joy Division, and there's others of us that were more '90s kids that listened to Third Eye Blind, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and stuff like that. Between the four of us, we listened to everything.

Early on, you made your bones by playing on the strip in Las Vegas. What was the most entertaining/absurd story or person you encountered while playing the strip?


I remember we were on our way to a gig I think in the Hard Rock Lounge, probably a year into being a band, and we ran into Flavor Flav in the elevator, so we hung out with him and made small talk for about 30 seconds, and then he went off and did his thing and we went off and did our thing. But yeah, we have 30 seconds we will always cherish together in the elevator.


Was there a clock involved or no clock involved?


I don't remember a clock being involved. He must have forgotten it because I don't think he would in his right mind go out without his big clock.


How long did playing on the strip last?

Probably three years. The thing about it was we started doing those sort of gigs more on the side than anything else, to be honest. From the very beginning, we were doing original shows, and there's actually a lot of clubs [in Vegas] for an original band wanting to play original music. That was always what we were doing on the weekends. It was always what we had our eye on. Six months into being a band, we were like, 'Hey, rather than having to get a side job to support what we're doing, why don't we just go to casinos? We're in Vegas. Where else can you get away with going into a lounge and playing somewhere and have them pay you 500 bucks? That's just not something that you get in every city.' We took advantage of it.

 

Between three and five times a week probably, we would do those [sets], and between four- and six-hour sets. In all that time, we definitely learned a lot about each other and [built] up our stamina to play that long. We pretty studied the hits spanning 50 years of pop music. [With] playing all those songs over and over again, hopefully, something rubbed off on us in that whole process.

How did the signing to Interscope happen? Were you playing a showcase, did an A&R guy find you, did you submit a demo or what? What were the circumstances and how fast did it unfold?


There wasn't much of any showcase-type thing. We had never really done something like that before. We were always a little bit wary of that route. For us, it was the attitude of 'Let's do this ourselves until it comes to the point where it [doesn't make] sense for us to do it. Rather than focusing on getting a label deal [or] things that are out of our control, let's focus on what we can control, and we can build our fans one at a time.'

Really, for three-and-a-half years, that's exactly what we did. We put our minds on things we could control, and we saw that the industry had changed so much that things certain in the '90s were far from certain now as far as the industry is concerned. We just put our heads down and did our own thing for as long as we possibly could.

Finally, Alex da Kid reached out to us, who is a producer. He has produced a lot of bigger names out there, so when he reached out to us, we were sort of interested in at least trying things. We like to be open to all sorts of possibilities. We went and had a writing session with him and showed him some music. He showed us some of his music, and it became apparent really early on that we vibe together in the same way that me and Dan had vibed together four years ago. It was that same sort of feeling when things are easy and nothing is forced or awkward. It's just a mutually understood feeling when you understand each other in a musical way, and so that's definitely what happened with him, and that's when we knew it was the right time to sign and hopefully take things to the next level and to get more people to hear our music. It really worked out as well as it possibly could've, and we're still scratching our heads about just how easy it was and how obvious it became.


I was just checking the Billboard Hot 100 and saw two of your songs in there in the top 25. There are so many rock bands out there who do not have any presence within the Hot 100, especially within the top 25 spots. Do you have any theory about why you guys are getting that when so many other rock bands are struggling to get any kind of viable commercial success?

Oh man, I wish I had the secret to that. I'd probably write a book about it and then I'd make millions of dollars that way. I honestly don't know. We like to joke that any shortcomings we have in the talent department we've always tried to make up for just working hard, and that's something we've done from really the first day we got together. It's sort of like starting a small business on your own. That first year, you're going to lose a lot of money. For us, it was more like the first three years we lost a lot of money. We took it seriously like that. We thought of it in a way that we're building the brand. We're building something that people want to be a part of. We've always had that mentality of working hard. That's not to say other bands aren't working hard. That's where the Vegas luck comes in, too, maybe. We just feel really fortunate and lucky to be in the position that we're in.

Another reason might be the fact that we're just sort of habitual songwriters. All of us are. Writing an album has never really been something that's a chore or work for us. It's always just been something that we do because we have to do it. That sort of fueled having 200 songs to choose from. By the time this first album came out, we had such a huge amount of material not only that we had written recently but material that had spanned four years of songwriting. If you think about it, for every song that made it, there was 10, 15, 20 songs that didn't make it. We try and approach it that way where we realize that there are only so many Paul Simons in the world and every song they crank out is an absolute masterpiece. Some songs, for whatever reason, just turn out better than others. We put as much heart and soul into each song as we possibly can and then we walk away from it. If it doesn't work, then it doesn't work, and you just have to move onto another song. That's how we've approached the whole songwriting thing. Maybe that's made the difference, and maybe that's made us have a strong album. I don't know. It's really hard to say.

 

You've done a lot of interviews where you've talked about how your main ambitions were to get your music out there and be an international band. You really wanted to have that size, that reputation. Now, you're at the point where it's very easy to imagine you going on international tours and being able to make it, so what kind of new ambitions are on your mind for the future of the band?


I wish I felt as comfortably as you do about the international presence we have. We hope to be there. That's still something we're sort of working toward. In the limited touring we've done overseas--we've gone to Europe a few times and obviously Canada--we've found that nothing is given and nothing is handed to you in any country or any market you go to. You pretty much have to earn it over and over again in every country you go to and really in every city you go to. Basically, we're trying to hit as many of those markets as we can and go to as many of these countries as we can just to try and prove ourselves over and over again. Just because you've quote-unquote made it in America, it doesn't really mean you're going to be that big in another country. It's certainly not something that's safe to assume, so that's something we're still working on. I feel like we have some work to do, and we're trying to make up for it just by basically not having a life for the next year and touring off this album nonstop for the next year. We want to really be an international band in that sense.

We've talked about all these really good things happening for you in those last few years. You have TV show appearances, are doing really well in the charts and have a big following. What's the lowest point in the history of the band? You worked for a few years before you got famous. What was the absolute valley if there ever was one?


[Laughs] This is my favorite question because [I] really start reminiscing about all of the awful things we've had happen. It's fun to think about 'em because it makes you really grateful for how things are going now. For me, every member of the band has had a different low point. [With] Ben, probably having to get broken out of jail just minutes before we hit the stage and open up for Temper Trap was probably one of his low points. For me, getting electrocuted on stage was probably my low point. It was one of those gigs where five people show up and you don't really know if it's even worth being there. The venue is so crappy and so dilapidated [and] the power was so bad that every time I would touch my guitar string, I would feel this jolt of electricity run through my body, so it wasn't the most inspiring time to play the guitar for me. That was a tough one. We've had our bus broken into, had all our money stolen, had our passports stolen, our clothes, pretty much everything we own in Portland while we were playing. That was a low one.

Collectively as a band, it was also hard to play our first L.A. show. We had been a band for, like, eight months and finally wanted to tackle Los Angeles and play there, so we drove out there and played this place called the Cabana Club. We had my manager and his friend show up... and that was it. [Laughs] We were sort of unaware of the rule in L.A. where if you don't bring enough people, you have to pay to play. We actually ended up paying the venue like $180 to play that show because we couldn't bring any tickets in. That was sort of like, 'Okay, what's going on? What are we doing here?' There's definitely a lot of low points, but I wouldn't take any of them back. They make you appreciate and feel a lot more fortunate now, to be honest. If we just had overnight success, I think we'd be different people and we'd take all this [success] a lot differently.

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