(Not quite) Next Big Things: A look inside Imagine Dragons' quest for rock stardom
(We had it all worked out. When Imagine Dragons came to Ybor City on Oct. 24 for a show with Awolnation, we were going to shadow them all day for a behind-the-scenes look at the work that goes into becoming a famous rock band. This article was designed to coincide with their performance at Saturday's 97X Next Big Thing festival ... but today, after singer Dan Reynolds developed a throat infection, they've had to cancel. Still, rather than let the story go to waste, we figured we might as well post it here. We still think it's an interesting look at a band on the rise, even if Imagine Dragons won't be coming back to Florida until 2013. Here's the story as it was originally slated to appear in Friday's tbt*.)
Daniel Platzman shuffles from his tour bus into the light of 11 a.m., just long enough to reach a smaller, idling limo bus up ahead. Bags of food are waiting inside. Platzman pries open a foam container from the Stone Soup Company.
“This is apparently a chicken sandwich,” he says. “I was told breakfast.”
It’s Oct. 24, and Platzman and his band, Imagine Dragons, are in Ybor City for a concert with Awolnation. It’s the third of four shows in four nights, including a wild gig in Atlanta the night before, after which the band hung out until 2 a.m. signing autographs for fans. No one slept well on the eight-hour drive to Tampa.
Breakfast or not, Platzman palms the chicken and chows down. Fuel is fuel. Imagine Dragons are staring down a 15-hour day of self-promotion, networking, meet-and-greets and — oh, yes — a concert, too, on this, the 49th day of a 50-day, mostly sold-out North American tour.
Imagine Dragons are one of the year’s most promising young pop-rock bands, a group whose soaring, sweeping sound — think Coldplay, The Script and Fun. — has yielded a pair of big hits in It’s Time and Radioactive. In September, their debut album Night Visions hit No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200, and they just wrapped up two weeks of sold-out shows across Europe. On Saturday, the band will play the annual 97X Next Big Thing concert at Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg, and of all the bands on the bill — Bush, Rise Against, Silversun Pickups, the aforementioned Fun. — few seem as fit for the label “Next Big Thing” as Imagine Dragons.
Yet when they arrive in Tampa in October, Imagine Dragons are still mid-stride in their leap to the big time. This is the band’s first time touring by bus — until now, they traveled in an old airport shuttle dubbed the Dragon Wagon. They still carry their own instruments. They hang out with fans after shows. They still see themselves as a band on the rise.
Before Imagine Dragons can go from Next Big Thing to Big Thing Period, they still have days like this.
Imagine Dragons got their start as a rock 'n’ roll cover band on the Las Vegas Strip, playing songs by Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and the Cure five nights a week, for up to six hours a night.
“We each picked 10 of our favorite and most popular songs that we knew, and then we all came together and learned everybody else’s songs,” said bassist Ben McKee, who, like Platzman and guitarist Wayne Sermon, studied at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. “They’re all songs that we liked. But it also helped us to know each other. When we were first starting out, we immediately got this glimpse into everybody’s favorite songs. It kind of brought us together.”
At every gig, the band always tossed in a few originals. “We never did a full cover show,” said singer Dan Reynolds.
The band spend two years touring and recording EPs before signing with Interscope Records. In February, they released their fourth EP, Continued Silence, which contained It’s Time and Radioactive. Both singles clicked with a commercial audience, reaching the top 10 of Billboard’s Rock Songs chart, and setting the stage for Night Visions’ impressive debut. Moreover, several tracks on Night Visions were licensed for use in TV shows and commercials.
“I was in a movie theater, and two of our songs came on in trailers back to back,” Sermon said. “I was sitting there in my seat, kind of slinking down, going, 'Uhhh...’ Hearing your songs in a big surround-sound system like that was pretty trippy.”
The band’s first stop on Oct. 24 is Cox Radio in St. Petersburg, the home of modern rock station 97X. Interscope’s man in Florida, Jason Elias, boards the bus and gives them the lay of the land: 97X has long been a huge supporter — they just bumped Radioactive up to four plays a day — so Imagine Dragons will play an acoustic set, hobnob with contest winners and promote their appearance at Next Big Thing.
Reynolds gives Elias a hearty handshake. “You’ve been hustling,” he says.
“You guys have been hustling,” Elias says.
Inside, station employees greet them with peanut butter cupcakes and decaf tea with honey for Reynolds. (Caffeine, he said, is as bad for a singer as alcohol. “It dehydrates you.”) The band lugs their gear up a cramped elevator to an empty soundstage to tune up. Reynolds loosens his lips and stretches his abdomen, wailing, “Wheeee-EYYYYYYYE-ohhhhhh....” A few Cox Radio bigwigs come by for photos, and Reynolds shuffles off to tape an interview with Seth and Drew, 97X’s morning DJs.
Playing nice with radio stations is a big part of Imagine Dragons’ strategy. The day before they arrived in Tampa, hugely influential New York Top 40 station Z100 added It’s Time to their rotation, which could be massive. After they leave 97X, Imagine Dragons will cross the bay for another acoustic set at 93.3-FLZ, which isn’t on board yet, but Elias says they’re close. There, Reynolds greases the wheels by recording a series of promos the station can drop in throughout the day:
We’re Imagine Dragons, and this is our song It’s Time.
Hey, we’re Imagine Dragons, and we are 93.3-FLZ!
Wanna meet us backstage?
Listen all week to win!
This is how you get in!
“Radio has been a really amazing tool for us,” Sermon said. “We’ve found that it has made a difference in fans showing up at shows that normally wouldn’t show up. But on the other side of the coin, last night, in Atlanta, we aren’t played on the radio much at all. And there was such a big crowd there for us that it made us wonder how that happened. Hopefully we’re growing in an organic way, and it’s pretty cool to see.”
As a crowd files into the 97X soundstage, Imagine Dragons lounge in a conference room signing CDs and posters and talking about life on the road, from the surprisingly tame highlights (scoring an off-the-menu chocolate Coke at a Ted’s Montana Grill) to favorite tour pranks (like handing out their tour manager’s cell number). They debate whether to wear sunglasses for this set, or whether that would make them look too rock-starrish. Elias reminds them that they’ll be on camera from the moment they leave the room. “So don’t pick my nose?” McKee says.
Elias says he’d like the band to play three songs here, and the band says sure, as long as Reynolds feels up to it. The singer fears his voice is ailing — it’s been a long tour, he’s battling allergies, and he thinks there might be a crack in his window on the tour bus. It doesn’t help that he’s 6-foot-4, and the bus’s beds are 6-foot-2.
But in the end, the set goes off without a hitch, and fans line up for photos and autographs. They grasp the band’s hands, clutch their necks, step on their feet. Many say they’ll be at tonight’s show.
“You guys are amazing,” says Amanda Burgess, 24, of St. Petersburg. “I’ve only heard your It’s Time song, but now, I swear, I’m going to go get all your music.”
Over at 93.3-FLZ, the band plays two songs, but they also submit to an engaging Q&A with fans and staffers. Someone asks one of those goofy radio questions: If you were a chair, which celebrity would you let sit on you?
Most of the guys give jokey answers, but McKee says he’d pick Lights, a pretty Canadian pop singer who’s long been his celebrity crush. The rest of the band loves this — so much so that immediately following the meet-and-greet, Reynolds pulls out his phone and tweets from @imaginedragons to @lights: our bass player has a huge crush on you. Thought you should know.
In the next hour, those words are retweeted dozens of times by fans around the globe. McKee squirms as the rest of the band relishes the awkward, highly public nature of his introduction to his celebrity crush, and wonders how creeped out she must feel. Someone pulls up Lights’ bio, and says it looks like she’s already married.
McKee chuffs up. “Yeah?” he says with mock bravado. “What band is he in?”
Turns out Lights’ husband is, in fact, the singer of a punk band called Blessthefall. But that doesn’t stop her from tweeting back:
Radio appearances like these constitute just a fraction of the band’s fan interaction. They also hang out after shows, at the merch table and outside the tour bus as kids with ticket stubs and borrowed pens beam for photos. (You’d be surprised how often the flash doesn’t work.) Over dinner at the Bricks, a few humble, apologetic diners inch up with iPhones, and of course the band obliges. And then there’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram...
The more famous they get, the harder it becomes to accommodate every request. They’ve become a target for professional autograph seekers — guys who don’t care about the band, just their signatures — who wait outside gigs with generic drum heads and pick guards, hoping to score a small piece of memorabilia they can flip on eBay. The band tries to avoid the “eBayers,” often declining to sign or just plain messing with them. If an eBayer claims to be a fan of Imagine Dragons, Platzman says, he might pretend to be someone else. “We’re Walk the Moon,” he’ll say.
But if they sense a fan is for real, the band does not hesitate to go the extra mile.
After their set at 93.3-FLZ, Reynolds places his guitar pick in his wallet, where he’s stored it for the past two years. A 16-year-old fan, Yesenia Camacho of Brandon, asks why he’s kept that particular pick so close for so long. Reynolds says he doesn’t know, because to be honest, it was never that great a pick in the first place.
He reopens his wallet, and hands the pick to Camacho.
In May, Imagine Dragons boarded a red-eye from Las Vegas to Tampa for the 97X Memorial Day Backyard BBQ at Vinoy Park. Reynolds capped their energetic set by diving into the crowd and surfing to the back of the lawn. Then the band did what they always do: Hang out by the merch tent with excited fans.
None of those fans knew that that very morning, McKee’s ailing grandfather had died. The band was on the plane when it happened.
“I landed in Tampa and turned on my phone, and had a very somber voice mail from my mom,” McKee says. “He’d had a few different heart surgeries. ... It wasn’t a total shock, but it was still something that we didn’t see coming so quickly.”
The rest of the band did what they could to make sure McKee was okay for the show — “just making sure that I had my space when I needed it, coming and letting me talk things through with them when I needed that,” he says. “We’ve been through everything together. We are a family. We all are there for each other, all the time, in band life and in personal life.”
There are stretches of silence on the bus trip back to the Ritz. Reynolds stretches his legs into the aisle, eyes pulled shut behind black Ray-Bans. He and his wife had their first baby, a girl, this summer. When asked if he’s gotten to spend much time with her yet, he simply shakes his head.
The concert is long over, and Reynolds looks a little glazed over by the time he signs his final autograph outside the tour bus. His voice held up tonight, but he was clearly winded, at one point hunching over to catch his breath during a rapturous ovation for Radioactive. The band has a hotel room waiting in Orlando, but it’s well past midnight, and the tour bus is still in park. Tomorrow, they’ll do this whole thing all over again.
“These last couple months have been overwhelming,” he says softly. “But the truth is, I’m grateful.”
There are moments when Imagine Dragons’ hard work pays off in astonishing ways. Following their soundcheck at the Ritz Ybor, the guys were strolling through Ybor City when they overheard a worship band at Relevant Church rehearsing a familiar song — Demons, which happens to be track 4 on Night Visions. So they stopped in, greeted the stunned parishioners and offered an impromptu music lesson. “That was just an amazing thing to run into,” McKee says. “To actually sit down with those kids and go through the parts with them, it was great.”
Before today, those kids might have been casual fans of Imagine Dragons. Now, they might be fans for life. At every tour stop, that’s the goal: Connect with just a few more people than they did the last time through. That’s how careers are built. City by city, gig by gig, fan by fan.
“We’ve played for five people before,” Platzman says. “So to come back to one of those places, where hundreds of people know every word to every song, that’s when I’m like, This is moving really fast.”
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photos: Luis Santana, tbt*