Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds on fame, fans, burnout and Mormonism ahead of Hong Kong gig
Hong Kong-bound Las Vegas rockers found worldwide success with their first two albums, toured incessantly for seven years, burned out, took a sabbatical, and returned this year with Evolve, their critically acclaimed third album
The last time Imagine Dragons came to Hong Kong, the tour that brought them here almost cost them their sanity.
“We’d been touring incessantly for seven years straight and we were burned out pretty hard,” Dan Reynolds, frontman and founder of the Las Vegas pop-rock titans told AM/FM video magazine earlier this year.
Their gruelling schedule took such a toll that Reynolds put the band on hold for a year while he sought treatment for depression.
And so began a hiatus that not only recharged the stars of global hits including Radioactive and Demons, but also began the gestation period for this year’s critically acclaimed comeback album Evolve, which the five-piece band will introduce to Hong Kong when they perform at the AsiaWorld Expo on January 13.
“We went home and reconnected with communities and family and friends,” says Reynolds. “We were able to have a different perspective and it gave us a chance to see how far we’d come.”
The experience was a positive one. As its title suggests, Evolve shows the band, which formed in 2008, had matured into a world-beating act. It is stripped back and lean in comparison with the band’s previous two albums, Night Visions from 2012 and 2015’s Smoke and Mirrors, the album that made them global stars in the mould of indie-pop favourites and fellow Las Vegans The Killers.
It’s also a lot more raw lyrically too, something born largely from Reynolds’ resolve to open up publicly about his lifelong struggle with debilitating bouts of depression.
It became Imagine Dragons’ first album to win the approval of both critics and fans, as was reflected in November when the band gained its fourth Grammy nomination, and spawned another clutch of chart-topping worldwide hits, including the dance-heavy banger Believer.
The change in tack didn’t happen by chance. During the band’s sabbatical, Reynolds made a conscious effort to look deeper within himself for material.
“I had been really insecure about opening up about things like this,” he says. He decided to “make my weakness my strength”.
“I was always hiding behind metaphors,” he adds. “I knew that I had to express myself honestly.”
Imagine Dragons’ commercial success and diehard following among the same demographic that goes bananas for lighter fare, like Ed Sheeren, has tended to undermine the band’s credentials. Rock snobbery means that the band’s apprenticeship in the indie bars and clubs of Boston and Las Vegas has been largely ignored as the cynics have focused on the big cheques they get for filling arenas and stadiums the world over.
Reynolds is defiantly proud of his band’s music and the popularity of it.
“One of the reasons we called our band Imagine Dragons is so we had no boundaries,” Reynolds told the BBC. “We created music that was all over the map because we didn’t want people to expect power chords on my guitar or a simple pop song every time. We wanted the leash to be gone and for us to be able to run wild in the field.”
The band’s perception as pop do-gooders hasn’t been helped by the fact that Reynolds and guitarist Wayne Sermon were raised as Mormons, a vilified faith that neither has evangelised but which, also, neither has denounced.
Reynolds has sought to bridge the gap between his faith and his fans, seeking to dispel the latter’s misgivings about the former in a documentary shown at this year’s Sundance Festival. Believer, whose title was taken from the band’s recent hit single, was born of accusations that as a Mormon, he must share the faith’s disapproval of homosexuality. The film explores not only his own embrace of the gay community but also his hopes for Mormonism’s eventual acceptance of it.
“Mormonism is more than just a religion, it’s my culture, it’s my life, it’s my whole family,” he told Hollywood showbiz journal Variety. “So this is something that’s weighed on my heart and mind for a long time, and I’ve seen how destructive and harmful it is to teach our children that being gay is a sin.”
Reynolds doesn’t care what the cynics think because he has no need to – his band has one of the most rabidly devoted fan bases in pop. Like The Smiths decades before them, their fans are attracted to the fragility and vulnerability that Reynolds’ lyrics evoke. For them, he is an empathetic figure, an unusual quality in a rock field dominated by witty and approachable but nevertheless hairy and macho blokes like Dave Grohl or Josh Homme.
“I write what I feel. I can’t explain myself. I don’t understand my head and heart most of the time,” Reynolds wrote on Twitter as Evolve was released. “It feels like a puzzle that I just can never solve. I’m not put together. Music is the only thing that speaks for me. It always has. I can explain myself finally when making a song.”
The heart-on-his sleeve approach taken on Evolve has won a new legion of followers. For Reynolds, that means he has to work harder for his enlarged “family”.
“A lot of our fans really invest their life into this band,” he told the BBC. “They come to every show, they get tattoos, their whole wall is lined with Imagine Dragons things. And I get it, because I was that kid, you know? That’s what Nirvana was to me when I was a little kid. Kurt [Cobain] was everything to me.
“So I feel a responsibility to all of the people who invest their time into Imagine Dragons … an obligation to be honest and tell them what my heart says.”
Imagine Dragons, Jan 13, 8pm, AsiaWorld Expo, HK$388-HK$888, hkticketing.com