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Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds On Paul Simon, New Music, Rick Rubin And Music As An Escape

Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds, says, like most artists he considers himself an empath, someone who is sensitive to and in touch with the needs of others.

As an artist/empath these are incredibly trying times. Whether it’s in Europe, where the band is currently on tour and playing to refugees displaced by Russia’s attack on Ukraine, or here in the band’s native States, where the recent SCOTUS rulings threaten to tear the country apart at its core this Fourth of July weekend, the world is divided and on edge.

So Reynolds is very grateful for the two hours a night he gets to front Imagine Dragons and bring people together and offer them an escape from the division and animosity. And now the band is in the enviable position of having 18 more songs to draw from with the excellent Rick Rubin-produced Mercury – Act 2.

I spoke with Reynolds at length about the escape music provides, working with the iconic Rubin and how it made him a better songwriter, the joy of playing live and how the band’s fans help get him through the rough times.

Steve Baltin: Where are you today?

Dan Reynolds: I am currently in [laughter] Stockholm. Flew in early this morning from Poland. Got in about 4:00 AM. So still reeling and figuring it out here.

Baltin: How’s the tour going over there?

Reynolds: It’s great. We’ve been out for about six months now ’cause we started in January in the U.S. and now we’re in Europe. It’s a mix of our own shows and festivals. Tomorrow’s Lollapalooza here in Sweden. Last night was Open Air festival in Poland, night before was our own show in Vienna or something, but it’s been great. People I feel like have been really hungry for live music. So there’s definitely like a magic in the air for all the shows of just a deeper gratitude for public gatherings. [chuckle] People are happy to be together, happy to be singing along to music.

Baltin: Here in the States this last week dude has been difficult to say the least. We’re a mess here. I interviewed Bananarama on Monday while they were in the U.K. and it still affects everything. So I’m very curious what the vibe is there ?

Reynolds: I think it’s a little mix of everything, and it’s hard because I don’t have great perspective on how the people here are feeling. I feel the same as you still, because I keep up on the news and what’s going on there and it does feel like a s**t show. And that’s why I love music so much. At least for two hours out of every day, I get on a stage where the world suddenly feels very united and everybody’s on the same page and everybody’s just celebrating life. Like it’s kind of this false security, right? When you’re playing shows that you get this sense of, I don’t know if it’s false, but you get a moment where humanity feels really great. Then you walk off stage and you check the news and then it’s really sad. But also, European people every night are bringing flags like Ukrainian flags and like they’re all over the audience everywhere. Here we were last night in Poland. And I know that there’s tons of refugees there who had came to the show and they’ve been sending us emails saying, “We’re living out of a suitcase and we’re gonna be at your show,” and tons of flags. It’s been a mix of emotions to say the least. And then on the same note we have what’s going on in America right now which is obviously we’re going backwards in time. It feels really devastating. So I don’t know. I have a lot of mixed emotions about it.

Baltin: I don’t think it is a false sense of security. We feel kind of screwed as a civilization, but there are so many good people out there and we don’t always get to hear those stories. And I think with music, you’re seeing that goodness again. So talk about how that inspires and excites you being able to be part of that again.

Reynolds: I think that’s why live music is so incredibly important and it always has been. It’s a reminder of the things we can unite on in a very large way. People come from far right, far left, and they’re together dancing and feeling connected and we need that as a reminder that hopefully we can work together, because off stage, it feels like we certainly can’t right now, especially in America. It just feels like a broken, hyper-divided culture. And there’s no middle ground and nobody’s listening to each other. Yeah music is truly a magical thing. I feel blessed every day that I get a constant reminder of this. Also I feel like I’d be in more of a bleak mood every day probably.

Baltin: And you’re getting to actually help with that by bringing people together.

Reynolds: I hope so. I like to think that. I, really try to remind myself every day that where much is given much is expected and to really try to give light and love and not dial it in. Especially when you’re in the middle of the grind of tour. Like last night, I remember right before I was getting on stage, feeling like I just didn’t want to do it that night. Every musician has nights where maybe you’re just like, “I have a two-hour show ahead of me.” And maybe you had a bad day and you got in a fight with your wife or something and now you have to go on stage, but then you remember how lucky you are and blessed you are to be doing it. And I’ve worked my whole life to get here. So, then we had a great show. I got onstage and the crowd brought incredible energy and love and that makes it easy.

Baltin: It must also be inspiring to know you are giving people an escape for two hours.

Reynolds: For sure. And the great reminder is that perspective. I don’t do a whole lot of email. I don’t do a lot on my phone especially throughout the last few years, I’ve stepped back from a lot of things. But one thing that always is important to me is my brother, who is my manager, will send me important stories that we receive. Every day there’s hundreds of these fan emails that come in and my brother goes through them. And he’ll send me some really powerful stories that we get, especially right now from refugees. The band is really large in Eastern Europe. Our show in Ukraine was gonna be one of our biggest shows of the whole tour, and we had to cancel it obviously. Same as Russia, both. Like the band’s massive there. These are stadium shows and it sucks. It’s just devastating what’s going on over there. And I have dear friends that live in Kiev that I’ve been working with throughout the last few years on a computer game, which is a whole different story, but their families are still there. They got out safely, thank goodness, but their families are still there. A lot of these older generation people are not leaving and it’s scary. So my brother will send me these emails daily that I’ll go through and it will be stories of someone who had just barely got out with their life from Ukraine and they’re coming to the show tonight and they’re living out of a suitcase. You get an email like that and it’s a big perspective shifter where you’re like, “Okay, I’m very lucky to be alive and to be doing this. And I better not dial it in tonight.” And that’s why I’ll have him send me those almost every single day, ’cause it’s just a constant reminder. And if it’s not war, it’s like someone whose kid just got diagnosed with cancer and they’re coming to the show tonight and the kid’s going through chemo and he listens to “Believer” every day. There are things like that, which are a constant reminder to really give it everything, ’cause music is everything to these people. It’s everything to me, why wouldn’t it be to them?

Baltin: How are you incorporating the new stuff into the live show?

Reynolds: It comes out this weekend. So now we got a bunch of new songs to add to the repertoire which is crazy, ’cause we have so many songs at this point, putting together a set list and trying to fit it in like a two hour timeline is virtually impossible at this point. And now we’re gonna add another record. I guess it’s good problems to have, ’cause I remember yesterday it being like we were one album deep and that album blew up so fast that it was like, we were expected to be at the top of bills at these festivals. And we had like two songs that people knew. So luckily the times have changed and now we have a lot of songs to be able to go through, but yeah, it’s just, there’s always something.

Baltin: Are there songs from the new album that you are particularly excited to play live?

Reynolds: Yeah, for sure. “Younger,” I’m really excited to do that. This is our first stadium tour and that song just feels like it’s meant to be with like fireworks in the sky and at night. I also think, “Take it Easy” is one of the songs on the record that is one of my favorites. It’s kind of this jangly, kind of dirty reflection of faith and loss of faith. And I think that’ll be a fun one to play. It feels like a closure of sorts. But then, “Sharks” will be really fun to play live. “Bones” has been super fun to play live. ‘Cause both of ’em are very tongue in cheek and kind of dance-y. And we don’t do a lot of dance-y stuff, so it’s a nice tempo change. I didn’t realize how many dark, sad songs we have till I’m on tour, then I’m playing “Demons” and then it’s just like, “Okay, we need some stuff to bring some lightheartedness to everything.”

Baltin: Every great artist has that mix of both upbeat and dark songs. So are there a couple of those artists that might inspire you to go more into the light in future?

Reynolds: That’s a great question. It’s hard because I’m trying to think in my head of some artists that like primarily do dark music and then did a happy song. It doesn’t happen that often I feel like ’cause it’s one of those things where like your fans want you to do what you do. There’s that old thing where it’s like, “Do what you do best and don’t do anything else” [laughter]. And I feel like actually we’ve had the opposite problem, which is like, we like to do everything. But it’s been great for us because our fans like it all. They’re used to us doing lots of genre hopping. It’s actually one of the first things Rick said when we were working together is he was excited to work together because he was like, “I feel like your band has not been pigeonholed in that way because you’ve done so many different styles that we can kind of just have fun and serve the song.” A lot of bands fall into that thing where it’s like, “You do this and I like when you do this, but don’t make a happy song.” One of my favorite artists is Trent Reznor. I love Nine Inch Nails, but I’m looking through my head and I can’t think of a Nine Inch Nails really happy song. But I don’t want Trent really to do it. I kind of like when Trent is mad. When I think of Paul Simon, like Simon and Garfunkel, “Sounds Of Silence” is a super sad song. But then also Paul Simon does like “Graceland” and stuff like that.

Baltin: I think artists, and people, in general get more comfortable as they get older and you get more confident in yourself. And you I think are allowed more artistic freedom. So when you look at a song like “Sharks” do you see that being a template for stuff that you guys can do going forward?

Reynolds: Yeah, I think so. Imagine Dragons was really formed upon teenage angst. Like it was me writing songs as a 22-year-old who’s stuck in a 16-year-old’s body of angsty depression, and that was the music, a lot of music I was raised on was kind of that, not emo, but very angsty. I loved Dashboard Confessional in middle school. That era of kind of angst. But I agree, I’ve gotten older and I kind of am still a fairly angsty, overly emotional person, but that’s just like every artist probably. As an artist you’re an overly sensitive person, so I’m very sensitive to people around me and my conversations, I could have a sad conversation then I’m sad. Or someone could walk into a room and they’re happy, and I’m suddenly happy, ’cause I’m very empathetic. So I think as I get older though, that’s certainly there still, but I agree when there’s a moment of irony or something, like “Sharks” is a very kind of ironic song. It’s like the world’s full of sharks but wait am I a shark too? But yeah, so when I am in that kind of mood, I really try to capture it immediately because more often than not, I’m not in that mood. So hopefully this record has a little bit of both. Even though it’s a record that’s primarily about death, it’s like post-death, Mercury-Act 1 is really focused on shock of death, dealing with someone close to you who died and suddenly like you’re questioning everything. Everything seems meaningless, every day could be your last. You’re like what the f**k? Like this person was here, now they’re not. As humans, we don’t want to think about death, we just push it out of our minds. But when it confronts you, when someone dies and you’re in the room with them, which is like the first time I had to face that, really shocked me. But Mercury-Act 2 is like post-death, it’s like the grief after it. Now it’s tomorrow. Now, what do you do? Do you just try to forget this person? That’s not gonna happen, so what are you gonna do? So it’s supposed to be a focus on life, I guess is what I was trying to get to. It’s like presence of now, so that’s the theme of Mercury-Act 2, which is like presence, post grief.

Baltin: So when you listen to this as a whole work, what do you take from it?

Reynolds: I listened to it last night ’cause it’s about to come out and it’s a lot for me to take in, one because a lot of the songs were written about dealing with death of my best friend who took his own life. It’s a little heavy for me still, ’cause it’s a little too close to home. And I think in a couple of years, I’ll be able to hear it with different ears. But then there’s a lot of romanticism on it, and there’s some nostalgia, there’s some emotions that it captured that I’m really proud of. Rick really pushed me lyrically to be more vulnerable than ever, and that was hard for me at first. And I think Mercury-Act 2 I feel more comfortable just being less metaphoric. A lot of my favorite songwriters of all time, like Cat Stevens or Paul Simon or Harry Nilsson, you always knew what they were talking about. Like you know what Paul Simon was talking about when he’s like, “A man walks down the street.” He’s just telling stories, and you’re not having to read through the lines with dense metaphors to be ultra poetic. There’s a time and a place, and that’s great, and there’s artists who do that. But the kind of music that I really resonate with, I know or I feel like I know what they’re talking about at least. That’s what Rick pushed me to do for better or for worse. And I hear that on this record.

Baltin: So for you as a writer, when you go back and hear this work, are there songs on here or lyrical stances that you’re particularly proud of?

Reynolds: Yeah, no, I think it was really arduous for me to sit down with Rick Rubin and go over every lyric of every song. I hated doing that, and he insisted on it. So we sat down and I pull out a notebook and he’d be like, “I can’t hear what you’re saying on that line, what did you say exactly?” I’d be like “Oh I said this.” He’d be like, “What does that mean?” [chuckle] I’m like, “I don’t know, Rick, I just was writing it” [laughter]. But he’d be like, “Well, I just didn’t understand it.” But it was probably the best thing to have happen to me because it really forced me to look everything in the eye and either it was worth saying or not. So, yeah, there’s songs on it, like “Take it Easy” and “Crushed” are two that come to mind. “Crushed” has a sense of vulnerability to it that I really love that I would not have been able to do earlier in my career. And, it’s very easy, it comes very natural for me to sing out, to be boisterous and eccentric. I was raised in Las Vegas. Everything is just louder than life, bigger than life, like explosions and fireworks. Like that comes very natural to me. I grew up in a performing family. My grandma was very theatrical and in the theater and from a young age was like, “Speak up when you’re talking, I can’t hear you enunciate.” That’s the world I was raised in, but what was a harder skill for me to learn was to access songs like “Crushed,” which is more subtle, more reserved, more restrained and Rick, that’s something he would push me on too.

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