Imagine Dragons Discuss Recording New Album ‘Night Visions’ – Exclusive Interview
It's only August, but it seems safe to say that Imagine Dragons are having the best year of their young career: Not only was the Las Vegas quartet dubbed one of 2012's 'Brightest New Stars' by Billboard, but their music is popping up everywhere from the 'Frankenweenie' soundtrack to the latest 'Glee' promo.
It's all adding up to a rather meteoric rise for a band most people hadn't even heard of this time last year, but even though they haven't been together long, Imagine Dragons have taken a surprisingly deliberate approach to stardom, releasing a series of progressively more successful EPs that culminated with February's 'Continued Silence.' Topping the Billboard Heatseekers chart and spinning off the Top 5 Alternative hit 'It's Time,' 'Silence' set the stage for the group's debut full-length effort, 'Night Visions,' due Sept. 4.
With a busy summer tour schedule and a series of dates with Awolnation lined up for the fall, Imagine Dragons are in high demand these days -- but guitarist D. Wayne Sermon managed to take a few minutes to speak with Diffuser.fm about the Las Vegas scene, the band's creative philosophy and what fans can expect to hear next.
On behalf of rock fans everywhere, we want to begin by thanking you for doing your part to keep big, anthemic choruses on the radio. From you guys to the Killers to U2, it seems like there's something about that desert that inspires this sort of songwriting.
I know Vegas has definitely had an effect on us and who we are as a band. I moved there to start Imagine Dragons, and I didn't know anything about the scene -- or if there was a scene. It's a place that had a reputation for being devoid of culture, and created a culture for itself.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there's a really great underground art scene in Vegas. In a lot of ways, I think it's a singular place -- in the beginning, we played a lot of casinos and lounges, performing a lot of covers, and I think that played a big part in how we developed -- not only because we had to learn all those cover songs, but because we had to try and entertain crowds that weren't necessarily there for us. People pulling slot machines and checking out waitresses -- we had to overcome that and approach things from an entertainer's perspective.
Continuing with the Las Vegas theme, is it true that the band recorded its upcoming album in a casino resort?
[Laughs] Yeah, that's fitting, right? I was surprised to find that the Palms had a world-class recording studio. We worked there on our last EP, while we were still unsigned, and we were blown away. They have world-class gear and a great staff, and going back there was a kind of full-circle experience.
Recording studios are generally pretty sealed-off environments, but it still has to be strange using one that's in the middle of a 24-hour casino.
It's true. It was a little bizarre. You walk in through the casino floor, and going in and out through all that was strange, but once you get onto the elevators and up to the third floor, where the studio is, it's just like any other. It's isolated, no windows, and you forget there's a casino below -- until you need food, when it comes in pretty handy, because someone can just go downstairs and get whatever you're looking for.
A lot of people are fascinated by the fact that the band's name is an anagram of a secret phrase. Is hanging onto that secret your way of preserving a little bit of mystique in the social media era?
I think that's a fair assessment. You do give a lot of yourself being in a band, and being part of that social media aspect. We're constantly trying to update our Twitter account and Facebook statuses, and doing interviews. We love doing it, and we're happy to have it all available to us, but it's nice to have one thing that's just yours. It's also a fun thing for fans to try and figure out what it is -- we've seen some amusing guesses.
We all grew up listening to rock bands from the '60s and '70s. Probably the first album I ever heard was 'Abbey Road' on vinyl -- I used to sneak into my dad's studio and listen to Zeppelin, Boston, lots of bands from that era who were larger than life.
"Mystique" is kind of a cheesy word, but it's a balance for us. None of us are anything special as far as people -- we're all just dudes doing our best to write music and be a positive force in the world. But at the same time, there are things you have to hang onto for yourself. If that creates any sort of mystery or mystique, then, you know ... we're all about the music, and that's all that matters.
Which would seem to tie into the decision not to use band photos for your album covers.
Yeah, exactly. It's the concept of a band as an all-encompassing idea. An energy, and something bigger than us that people can be a part of. Obviously, people want to know what the band looks like, so we do photo shoots when we have to, but we aren't big fans of them.
The band has taken the somewhat unusual step of releasing a series of EPs instead of just coming out with a full-length album, and in previous interviews, you've described the thought process behind this decision by saying you knew you'd only get one chance to release a debut album, and being a little frightened by that. Is there anything you'd take back from any of those EPs?
I don't think so. Each one of those EPs was a snapshot of what we were at that time -- there are songs I'm more proud of than others, but that's always true. We totally own everything we've done as a band, and I think it's just nice to finally be able to say that after all those snapshots, we've become something. Which isn't to say what we are now won't change, but we've found something -- struck something. We have a sound that people respond to.
I'd say now that the idea of putting out an album is equal parts daunting and exciting. We grew up on albums, you know? We all listened to vinyl growing up -- we put on the record and listened all the way through. It wasn't so much about the hit song of the day. That's something we want to retain, to keep the culture of the album going, and to do that, we tried to write the best possible songs. To tell a story.
If the latest EP was a novel, then I think the album is that novel with all the pages kind of filled in. More of a statement, I think.
It used to be that artists had to tour for a while and save up a bunch of money before they could afford to record, but a lot of those financial barriers have gone away. It's wise for a band to self-impose a sort of creative incubation period the way you have. Do you see more EPs in your future, or are you an album band now?
We haven't really had a discussion about that. My gut is that we'll probably be doing albums from now on, but our mindset has always been that when a group of songs is ready for people to hear it, then we'll release it. That's kind of been our guiding motivation, and the way we've done things up to this point.
Now things are a little different, and we have a little more recognition, so it isn't about getting every little thing out there for people to hear it. It's more about maintaining who you are as a band, and writing songs that are cohesive enough to hang together as an album. But who knows how things will go?
Often, an album will sit in the vaults for a while before the label is ready to release it, but you recorded 'Night Visions' relatively recently.
That's right -- and speaking of technology influencing the way bands write and record, I think it's important to point out that we embrace everything, and on 'Night Visions,' we did everything. We all write, and we all have the gear to produce our own music, so we did as much as we could that way -- and once we exhausted those resources, we felt like there was something a studio had to offer that you can't get on your own. No one can afford that kind of gear.
So for a lot of the drums, vocals, and even some of the guitars, it just worked better that way -- to take advantage of that equipment, and the staff's training. Whatever works. If it sounds right, it is right. That's kind of been our motto.
The pitfall these days is that you can make pretty much any sound you can think of, and do it relatively affordably -- so it's hard to know where to draw the line between fulfilling your vision of what a song is supposed to sound like and simply overproducing it.
That's so true, and we're always watching ourselves for that. Sometimes we're guilty of it too, but for the most part, we just try to write a good song -- and if the lyrics and the melody hold up, and your production serves the core of what they're about, then the message will translate.
At the end of the day, if people are grabbing onto a song, they aren't doing it because of the production. They have an emotional reaction to it, and that's the most important thing -- not lining up every drum beat. It's making sure that the vibe is right, and I think that's a lot trickier than making everything perfect.
There's almost too much available now. I was just reading a book by Geoff Emerick, who engineered for the Beatles, and it struck me how many technological limitations they had to work around. Doing the things they did -- there were so many boundaries and obstacles.
I feel like those limitations helped them with their craft, whereas today, you can just use Pro Tools and you're done. I don't think the Beatles would have been the same band if they hadn't had to work through those struggles.
So then how do you find your own limitations? How do you find things to push up against when there are no boundaries?
It's almost counter-intuitive to think about it -- the idea that boundaries are freeing. It's a universal truth, really, and they make us all who we are.
I think we, as a band, are getting closer to knowing where to go. We know we don't have to do everything creatively anymore, and I don't think that was always the case for us. We were always looking for a new keyboard, or new bands to listen to and learn more about who we are. But we've stopped feeling like we have to go outside ourselves.
We've discovered this sort of recently -- at least I know I have. As far as how we navigate this problem, when the tire hits the pavement and I sit down to write, I don't have a thousand pieces of gear. I have my laptop, my Logic gear and my little 20-key keyboard with some knobs on it. That's pretty much what I use to write.
For better or worse, we've always been that way. It works for us. We've also learned a lot from Alex da Kid, who signed us and runs our label. He took us under his wing and showed us how, even if it's a Grammy-winning song, it probably started on his laptop, a little keyboard, and some middle-of-the-road recording gear.
It's not so much about how many choices or pieces of equipment you have, it's about the song. And if it sounds right, it is right.
Watch the Imagine Dragons 'It's Time' Video