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
"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.
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).
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?
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
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?
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
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
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?
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