by john katsilometes
photography by jeff gale
styling by dee anderson | February 5, 2015 | People
Grammy-winning Imagine Dragons—whose second album will be released on February 17—may be one of the greatest acts ever to break out of Las Vegas lounges, but they won’t forget the empty rooms they played on the way to rock superstardom.
The members of Imagine Dragons sit on couches in a tour bus, surrounded by the detritus of the day’s photo shoot. Half-eaten bagels and wilted, picked over salads are strewn across the rig’s counters. Littering the floor are clippings from the beards of drummer Daniel Platzman and guitarist Wayne Sermon, which have been pruned, just slightly, by a stylist.
The group’s laconic bassist, Ben McKee, looks around at the scene and his bandmates and shakes his head.
“Rock stars,” he says. “Crazy, right? Try it.”
McKee is mocking the concept in characteristically self-effacing fashion, but there is no escaping the fact that these buddies from Las Vegas are rock stars by any definition of the term. Among Vegas bands today, only their friends in The Killers can approach them in terms of worldwide appeal. The release of Imagine Dragons’ debut album, Night Visions, featuring the hit singles “It’s Time” and “Radioactive,” was the moment the band “blew up,” to use a rock industry term. It thundered to number two on the Billboard charts in its first week, secured double-platinum status (marking 2 million copies sold) in less than 18 months, and earned the band a trophy case of honors, most notably the 2014 Grammy Award for best rock performance for “Radioactive.”
“We love big songs that are larger than life,” says frontman and vocalist Dan Reynolds. “We’re from the city that’s larger than life, and we want to be that. Those things just come naturally. That’s what Imagine Dragons is, and it just so happens that it was also able to be commercially successful.”
Reynolds pauses for a moment. “But really, we weren’t trying to write a commercial album.”
In fact, not long before Billboard named them the “Breakthrough Band of 2013” and Rolling Stone declared “Radioactive” the biggest rock hit of the year, Imagine Dragons was playing for fewer than a dozen fans a night at local bars like Hennessey’s Tavern and Beauty Bar, both on Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas (not far from their rockstar photo shoot, actually), and at casino venues such as O’Sheas (now the site of the Cromwell), South Point Showroom, The Pub at Monte Carlo, and Ovation at Green Valley Ranch (which has been shut down in favor of a bingo room).
In a story that has become part of Vegas lore, just before the Bite of Las Vegas food and music festival in October 2009, Train frontman Pat Monahan fell ill, forcing his group to pull out of the annual event at the city’s Desert Springs Park. The organizers chose Imagine Dragons to fill out the lineup, and the band played to its largest crowd at the time, about 22,000. Four months later, they headlined the Hard Rock Cafe on the Strip and landed touring assignments such as opening for Nico Vega. (In a very Vega/Vegas turn of events, it was at a December 2009 show at the now-shuttered Wasted Space at Hard Rock Hotel that Reynolds met his future wife, Nico Vega singer Aja Volkman.)
The members of Imagine Dragons may not think of themselves as rock stars, but their hometown Vegas fans disagree.
Given their current stadium-filling success, some fans may find it hard to believe that Imagine Dragons began as a lounge act. Yet like casino legends such as the Rat Pack, Wayne Newton, and Bobby Darin, they’ve transcended their humble beginnings—and the unlikely story of their rise isn’t lost on the group.
“We’ve played a lot of empty shows,” says Reynolds. “We’ve played to nobody.”
“But to get onto a stage and actually be performing with a group, that’s a totally different set of skills and a different mind set,” adds Platzman. “When your amp breaks onstage, explodes, shocking you, you have to know what to do.”
Namely, you sing a cappella—to a crowd of revelers who have one eye on the stage and the other on the beer pong tournament.
“You also have to learn how to interact from the stage with an audience when you’re playing gigs in front of fresh crowds,” McKee says. “We would play gigs at O’Sheas where every 45 minutes you’d take a break and the room would clear out and in would come an entirely new group of people. Here we are, we’d have to make six first impressions every single night.”
“This is a very unique way to become successful as a band,” says Sermon. “I don’t know of any band who has done exactly what we’ve done as far as the path we’ve taken. Every band has its own path, but as far as playing lounges in casinos, I don’t know if that’s been done before.”
Art by Saner. On Daniel Platzman: Mixed-media baseball jacket, Vince ($995). Neiman Marcus, Fashion Show, 702-731-3636. Midwood shirt, Ovadia & Sons ($265). Barneys New York, Grand Canal Shoppes at Venetian and Palazzo, 702- 629-4200. Kane jeans, J Brand ($169). Saks Fifth Avenue, Fashion Show, 702-733-8300. Belt, John Varvatos ($295). Hard Rock Las Vegas, 702-693-6370. Boots, All Saints ($340). The Forum Shops at Caesars, 702-920-0745. ON WAYNE SERMON: Shirt, All Saints ($125). SEE ABOVE. Jeans, Neuw ($159). PVD hematite Terzio bracelet, Swarovski ($180). Fashion Show, 702-732-8161. Boots, SAND Copenhagen ($580). Necklace, Wayne’s own. ON DAN REYNOLDS: Short-sleeved Henley ($178) and Fleetwood spring boots ($898), John Varvatos. SEE ABOVE. Kane jeans, J Brand ($169). SEE ABOVE. Meteorite Signet ring, David Yurman ($695). The Forum Shops at Caesars, 702-794-4545. Rings, Dan’s own. ON BEN MCKEE: Leather Nelson jacket, Ovadia & Sons ($1,795). SEE ABOVE. Short-sleeved Henley, 7 For All Mankind ($98). The Forum Shops at Caesars, 702-369-0924. Jeans, Dior Homme ($840). Wynn Las Vegas, 702-770-3496. Harrison lace boots, John Varvatos ($448). SEE ABOVE. Faceted metal 10mm Band ring in sterling, David Yurman ($475). SEE ABOVE
While relating this early chapter in the band’s story, Reynolds takes a moment to consider what exactly Imagine Dragons stands for and what kind of music it makes.
“I think the most important thing to us has been our authenticity,” he says. “At the end of the day, we want to be creating music that is real, the best music that we know how, the music that we love and we embrace with a real message. That is always number one for us…. The second we create a song because we’re trying to be something we aren’t, then I think we’ll all be ashamed of each other.”
McKee adds, “We have to live with this music and perform this music for however long we’re going to be on the road with it. If it’s not something that we’re going to be proud of, it’s going to kill us creatively.”
On the new album Smoke + Mirrors, set to be released on February 17, Imagine Dragons borrows from its Vegas history, with imagery summoning the dazzling illusions of a Strip magic show by David Copperfield or Siegfried & Roy or a lavish production by Cirque du Soleil, while the thundering tribal drumbeats heard throughout the band’s studio work and stage show evoke the percussive Blue Man Group.
“We’re all about kind of creating vision boards and putting up pictures,” Reynolds says. “We’d be traveling the world and we would be inspired by the architecture. There were a lot of things coming together, but there was one definite theme that we started to kind of see through the music, and it was this kind of illusion of being famous compared to who we really are.”
Which is a band that represents its hometown both willingly and effectively. Imagine Dragons is featured in the latest ad campaign from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, reminding a national audience how groovy it is to visit Vegas.
“If there’s anything we can do to bring Vegas more on the map, in different ways than how people see it, we will do it,” Reynolds says. “Las Vegas has a reputation for being this very dangerous and crazy place, but there is so much more to it than that. It’s the place where we became able to grow as a band and be able to pay our bills. We take our representation of Vegas very seriously.”
Art by Maser. ON DANIEL PLATZMAN: Kane jeans, J Brand ($169). Saks Fifth Avenue, Fashion Show, 702-733-8300. Short-sleeved Henley ($178) and belt ($295), John Varvatos. Hard Rock Las Vegas, 702-693-6370. Boots, All Saints ($340). The Forum Shops at Caesars, 702-920-0745. ON WAYNE SERMON: Cotton/twill shirt, Prada ($770). The Shops at Crystals, 702-740-3000. Low-rise slim jeans, 3x1 ($285). Neiman Marcus, Fashion Show, 702-731-3636. Black PVD bracelet with jet hematite crystal-details Terzio bracelet, Swarovski ($180). Fashion Show, 702-732-8161. Boots, SAND Copenhagen ($580). ON BEN MCKEE: Wool cardigan sweater, Ferragamo ($590). The Forum Shops at Caesars, 702-933-9333. Gray cotton shirt ($630) and black cotton jeans ($840), Dior Homme. Wynn Las Vegas, 702-770-3496. Cashmere scarf ($398) and Harrison lace boots ($448), John Varvatos. SEE ABOVE. Faceted metal 10mm Band ring in sterling, David Yurman ($475). The Forum Shops at Caesars, 702-794-4545. ON DAN REYNOLDS: Shirt, All Saints ($125). SEE ABOVE. Kane jeans, J Brand ($169). SEE ABOVE. Necklace (price on request) and black Fleetwood spring boots ($898), John Varvatos. SEE ABOVE. Meteorite Signet ring with meteorite in sterling silver, David Yurman ($695). SEE ABOVE. Rings, Dan’s own
As evidence, the first single from Smoke + Mirrors speaks to the games of chance that built the city’s hotel-casinos, while also investigating Reynolds’s own path in life. “I Bet My Life” (“I know I took the path that you would never want for me/I gave you hell through all the years”) addresses the resistance felt by the young artist from his family when he decided to roll the bones and seek stardom.
The song is sung by Reynolds, but the entire band contributed to the writing, and it’s easy to see their solidarity.
“You know, I’ve always kind of had strained relations with my parents, just because I was kind of left-of-center compared to what my family comes from, which is a very conservative family of doctors and lawyers,” says Reynolds, who briefly attended Brigham Young University and spent two years in Nebraska while on a mission for the Mormon Church. “I told my mom I wanted to be a musician when I was little, you know. It was scary for her, and she was—she didn’t forbid me, but she didn’t quite… you know, she didn’t…. How can I put it?”
“She didn’t fully embrace it?” Platzman offers.
“There were a lot of people not embracing the band,” McKee adds. “There was a time when we were the only ones who seemed to be embracing it.”
“Yeah, she didn’t fully embrace it,” Reynolds says, laughing. “Especially when I talked about dropping out of college to pursue it. She was scared about it, but my dad was always actually secretly into it. He’s a lawyer, and he’s the one who kind of instilled the love of music into me in the first place. He’s always been into Paul Simon and the Beatles, the Beach Boys—all those artists with the great melodies. That’s where that came from.”
But there’s nothing quite as valuable in validating your chosen career path to your family as global stardom. Reynolds remembers stepping out in front of 100,000 fans at Lollapalooza Brazil last April and being hit with a wall of sound. “Everyone knew the words to every song, and I looked at the others and thought, Okay, this is it. We are in Brazil and all these people know us.”
Daniel Platzman, Wayne Sermon, Dan Reynolds, and Ben McKee.
McKee recalls superstars like Lionel Richie and Kris Kristofferson asking for photos backstage after their acoustic performance at the Grammy Awards show. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler pulled the band aside to express his admiration.
“It’s surreal for these people to ask for a photo with you,” McKee says. “There’s no other way to put it.”
For Platzman, the moment he knew the band had become truly famous was when Weird Al Yankovic released a parody of “Radioactive.”
“It’s long, long been felt in the Platzman family that you know you’ve made it when Weird Al Yankovic parodies your song,” he says. “I called and said, ‘Everyone get on the phone at once!’ I told them, and they freaked out more than they did when we were on the Grammys. It was the biggest Platzman family freak-out of them all.”
Sermon, the band’s wildly inventive guitarist, ponders the very concept of fame before assessing Imagine Dragons’ popularity.
“I have a hard time, the truth is, with feeling like we’ve made it yet,” he says. “I don’t feel like a rock star. We still have a lot of work to do, a lot to prove still. I am being completely honest, but there are times I think, Should I really be here? It’s like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop and we’ll go back to playing O’Sheas.”
At that, the four young men of Imagine Dragons laugh, and, as always, the sound they make is in perfect harmony.
Art by Saner. Grooming by Sunnie Brook/The Wall Group using Head & Shoulders; video by Chris DeFranco/SMP Vegas; digital imaging by Eric Eggly; crew accommodations provided by Downtown Grand Las Vegas