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Cover Story: Imagine Dragons

| February 2, 2015


It’s one of those curious historical yarns that grew in stature – and modern-day relevance – with each retelling. In 1806, a dapper 20-something gentleman visited the clinic of a London doctor, renowned for his successful treatment of depression, which was then dubbed melancholia. The patient sat down and described his sorry state – he was so depressed, he could barely get up each morning, he sighed, and life itself had become pointless. The physician hit upon a brilliant idea. Instead of one of his usual powders or elixirs, he offered another prescription: Two tickets to see a Covent Garden performance that night of the pantomime Harlequin and Mother Goose, starring the world-famous clown Grimaldi. Surely that would cheer the man up.

The patient sighed, dejectedly, then offered a reply that went on to become one of the drollest punchlines in the annals of psychology: “But Doctor, I am Grimaldi.” No rim shot necessary, maestro. The deliciously dark irony would ricochet through the ages, and come to symbolize the true essence of clinical depression – the fact that sometimes the happiest, most popular people are the ones who are secretly the saddest. Like the late comedian Robin Williams, for example. But Dan Reynolds never pictured himself as a latter-day Grimaldi. The tall, lanky frontman for powerhouse Las Vegas quartet Imagine Dragons was, to all outward appearances, an arena-filling superstar, courtesy of the band’s smash 2012 debut Night Visions, which sold over four million copies worldwide and launched a veritable cavalcade of hit singles, like “It’s Time,” “Radioactive,” and “Demons.” The disc would eventually win a Grammy, a World Music Award, two American Music trophies, and five Billboard Music Awards. Reynolds himself would be honored with a prestigious Hal David Starlight Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

What could possibly go wrong? And where does Imagine Dragons’ new sophomore salvo, Smoke + Mirrors, fit in?

Last June, Reynolds and his group (guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Ben McKee, and drummer Daniel Platzman) stood atop a harbor rooftop in the exotic city of Hong Kong, and saw that life was not only good, it had gotten downright surreal. They were there for the world premiere of Paramount’s latest installment in its Transformers series, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and they palled around with its star Mark Wahlberg (“He’s just really cool and chill, and he was wearing just jeans and a T-shirt – I kind of had a man-crush on him,” Reynolds chuckles) before they launched into a mini-concert spotlighting the anthem they’d penned exclusively for its soundtrack, “Battle Cry,” in front of a giant, glowing-red Transformers logo, with a 21-foot-tall Optimus Prime robot nearby, while celebratory fireworks lit up the night sky. Tons of celebratory fireworks.

“They definitely pulled out all the stops,” says Reynolds, 27, who was escorted around town by Paramount music exec Randy Spendlove. “I think it was the biggest fireworks show in Hong Kong history, and that was our first time playing there, and the crowd was just crazy. A lot of the people knew the music, knew our songs somehow – I don’t know how. But honestly, Hong Kong ended up being one of my favorite places that I’ve been, and it’s like a different world. You kind of feel like you’re on alien planet, because you can walk around at midnight and feel totally safe, and everybody there is really, really kind and polite. It opens up your eyes to what it would be like if people in America were maybe a little nicer to each other.”

To commemorate the significant occasion, Reynolds had a suit tailor-made while he was there. “They make these suits that fit like a glove,” he explains. “It’s the only real suit I have, and I wear it any time I can. If we’re just going out for a hamburger, I’ll put the suit on.” There have been many standout moments like that, he sighs. Like meeting Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and having Ringo tell him that he’d bought Imagine Dragons’ CD and was a huge fan. The singer is still trying to wrap his head around the concept – that his music actually blew away a Beatle.

“It’s just been a whirlwind over the last couple of years,” admits Reynolds, who is happily married to Nico Vega’s Aja Volkman, with whom he has a three-year-old daughter, Arrow. “It’s been the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows, in my entire life. And you’d thank that it would just be all highs. But it’s just that your life just changes so much, and you see the world in a different way. And everybody treats you different at home, and it’s like everything changes.” He pauses. “This was everything we could have hoped for, but on the same note, it was definitely the worst depression I’ve ever dealt with. And I don’t understand why, because everything in my life is wonderful – I’ve got a beautiful little girl, a great wife, and the band has gotten everything I could have hoped for. And yet I was depressed as hell. So I’ve been working with a therapist now for six months.”

How did the artist arrive at such a stark choice? Not long after the Transformers career pinnacle, a worried Reynolds sat down with his wife, and together they came to this conclusion, logically, lest he wind up like sad-sack Grimaldi. Ever since he was a Nevada kid – growing up Mormon, and even going on a requisite two-year mission to Nebraska, where he felt awkward and out-of-place – he’d dealt with a modicum of depression. But never like this. Never to the debilitating extent that he was beginning to experience as Night Visions climbed the charts. “I was starting to feel a little bit like…I can’t say I was suicidal, but I didn’t feel a whole lot, and it was weird,” he says. He knew he had to seek outside help, he adds, when he was on one life-altering plane trip last year, and the jet suddenly jolted and began losing altitude. “All the people around me were freaking out, but I was just sitting there, and I had no reaction. And that actually scared me, because I felt like I didn’t care – if the plane went down right then, I just didn’t care. That was the moment for me, where I talked to my wife and said ‘Alright. It’s time to go see a therapist’.”

With cognitive couch techniques, Reynolds began to see things more clearly. How he’d inadvertently turned his existence upside down, and filled his life with too much clutter. Instead of living in the now – a la Buddhist philosophy – he had been concentrating too much on the past and the future, and getting lost in them in the process. One by one, he had also withdrawn from all of his old friends, even going so far as to change his phone number to avoid them. It progressed into a subtle vestige of paranoia, he thinks – when someone laughed at one of his jokes, he began to wonder if they were honestly amused, or just chortling along because he was now famous. “You just don’t know – you question everything in your life,” he says. “And it’s totally frustrating, too, because I feel like 90% of the time, it’s actually just in my head, because I have a hard time having relationships.”

The rocker was offered medication for his condition – no tickets to Grimaldi, but some serious anti-depressants. He declined. He wanted to battle his demons, hand to hand, with no chemical assistance. And, bit by bit, he’s been coming out of what he describes as “a thick fog, ever-present in conversation. And now I’m able to recognize it and talk about it. But I would say what I needed to say, just to get out of a conversation, just because I had so much anxiety about it. Then I just ended up living in a foggy way, where you’re just kind of living, and you don’t wake up and you’re happy. I would wake up every day and think β€˜Why the hell am I not happy? Everything is great!’ You do that for long enough, and it just wears you down, to the point where I didn’t want to go out anymore, I didn’t want to see friends, I wasn’t social.”

This was the first official interview Reynolds had done for Smoke + Mirrors, so it was also the first time he was confronting what the album actually represented. Self-produced by the group (along with British producer Alexander ‘Alex Da Kid’ Grant, who signed the group via Interscope to his KIDinaKORNER imprint), the set opens with a chandelier-tinkly, Ambrosia-smooth ballad called “Shots,” with a chorus of “I’m sorry for everything, everything I’ve done/ From the second I was born and since I had a loaded gun.” A whistle-embossed “Gold” follows, and – as it segues into a huge, swaggering rock monster, bemoans a time “when everything you touch turns to gold.” The apologies continue on the Brontosaurus blues stomper “I’m So Sorry,” the Far Eastern-filigreed “Hopeless Opus” (“I’m trying not to face what’s become of me”), a military-cadenced acoustic strummer called “Trouble” (“I’m just a man on a mission…I want no trouble”), and the chiming “It Comes Back To You,” with the telling lyric “All the things that I could be/ I think I learned in therapy.”

Fans will rejoice – Smoke is an ambitious, rock-solid effort, with potential hits galore. Like the most obvious, “Polaroid,” a sing-song nursery rhyme with a deceptively simple music-box melody masking a conversely heavy chorus of “All my life I’ve been living in the fast lane/ Can’t slow down I’m like a rolling freight train.” It was the very last track he composed for the record, Reynolds says. “I wrote that song on Halloween night, when I went trick-or-treating with my little girl, and I had this melody that came into my head. And I was singing it to my little girl, and we’d just sing it back and forth because she loves music. And I was in this place right then, when I was just starting therapy, and that’s how I felt – my whole life, I haven’t even had a minute to stop. I’ve just been like a freight train, just blazing through things. And I’ve gotten to this point now where I just can’t do it anymore. I had to change something, because mentally, I’m just falling apart – I know everything about what Imagine Dragons is, but I have no idea who the hell I am. So that’s kind of what that song is.”

The closing Smoke + Mirrors cut, “The Fall,” is set to tub-thumping drums and is its most reflective. “Maybe I’m breaking up with myself,” Reynolds sings, tentatively. Asked to discuss it, the singer draws a breath, but no words come out. He has to consider it for a couple of silent minutes. “It’s actually a love song to my wife,” he eventually reveals. “But it’s really more than that, more than that for me. The chorus of it says ‘Do you know you’re all I know?,’ which is a really simple phrase. But there’s so much power in that phrase, because I feel like, at the end of the day, I started everything over in my life, my spirituality, everything. So I just wiped it clean.

“So the first thing that comes to mind when it’s all clean and there’s nothing there is, I know that I love my wife, and I know that she’s my best friend, and I know that I love my little girl,” he continues. “Those are the things that I know, and that, to me, was the resolution of the album. The resolution is that I don’t know the answers. I don’t know which religion is right – I don’t know that stuff. But what I do know is, I love my wife, I love my kid, and I want to be a good person, someone honest. The rest? I have no idea!”

And that’s okay. Once Reynolds entered therapy, he was embarrassed, afraid to discuss it outside his close-knit cadre (one of his brothers is Imagine Dragons’ manager, another oversees its legal affairs, one of the few arrangements he never questioned during his depression). He changed his mind. “Now it’s come to a point where it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a part of me’,” he confesses. “And it’s okay to accept that you have weakness, or frailty, and that you need help sometimes. I was living in a weird, conflicted, confused state, and I feel like the record really has that on it. But then there are moments of real clarity, too, where I’m like ‘Yeah! This is exactly where I’m supposed to be, and exactly what I was supposed to do!’

“That’s why we called the record Smoke + Mirrors,” he concludes. “And maybe I’m going through some weird thing that happens when you’re 27. But I questioned my entire life, then everything came crumbling down on me. And now I’m trying to figure out what’s actually real. Because – no matter what you think fame is, no matter what your definition of “Gold” is, like in our song – it’s never that. It is not ever what you think it is, sometimes for better. But, uhh, sometimes for worse…”

– Tom Lanham

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  1. Elisangela Cruz Bento Elibrazil says:

    I really sad about Dan situation. I think have therapy will be good for him. And fans love him isnt cause ke is famous, is cause he talks with heart, he is human and That’s the mostra beautiful a person can be.

  2. Madison Larson says:

    Words can’t even express my feelings towards my beautiful and inspiring dragons and how much they’ve helped me throughout my life and how I’ve become the person I am today. Imagine Dragons mean the entire universe to me, I would do just about anything for them. Hearing about Dan’s depression kills me, I mean I knew he was somewhat depressed, but not like this. Hearing what Dan’s going through breaks my heart, and knowing that I can’t do anything to help, breaks my heart even more and literally tears it open. I love you, and please, stay strong. Us true firebreathers will always be here for you, no matter what. #WeLoveYouDanReynolds

  3. Shar Mastrandrea says:

    I am bi-polar. I am not ashamed to say that. It is a disease, as much as cancer is a disease. I’m happy to say I am stable with medication and therapy. I’m happy that therapy is working for you. You are brave to step up and speak to your struggle with depression. Keep up the good fight! And I’m so glad you have Aja and little Arrow in your life. Family is EVERYTHING!!! :)