Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds on Mercury – Act 1 and Embracing Vulnerability

Music Features Imagine Dragons
Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds on Mercury – Act 1 and Embracing Vulnerability

When you’ve become one of the most successful rock bands in the world, with 46 million albums and 53 million songs sold—alongside 74 billion streams, and counting—it’s good to stay grounded with an absurd, self-deprecating sense of humor. So this March, when Las Vegas juggernaut Imagine Dragons (title holders to said impressive figures) retuned with “Follow You,” the first single from their new Rick Rubin-produced Mercury – Act 1 set, released today (Sept. 3), it got downright silly with its accompanying video. The clip opens with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia TV stars (and real-life couple) Rob McElhenney and Kaitlin Olson walking to a stage-side table in an empty, but well-lit nightclub, as she informs him that she’s hired his favorite band to play a private concert as a present. To which he excitedly responds, “The Killers? You got The Killers to play for my birthday?” No, she corrects him, it’s that other little outfit from Nevada, Imagine Dragons, and he grumbles a sulky, “That’s your favorite band—I don’t wanna hear those guys.” But vocalist Dan Reynolds and company have already strolled onstage, prompting Olson’s admonishing hiss: “Well, you know what? They’re like, seven feet away, and also it’s too late, so just enjoy!”

Then the campy clip, directed by longtime Dragons collaborator Matt Eastin, really picks up surreal speed, as Olson imagines the John Cena-muscular Reynolds shirtless and flirty, while McElhenney pictures himself onstage assuming the roles of guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Ben McKee, handlebar-mustache-sporting drummer Daniel Platzman, and finally the frontman, shirtless himself as he floats through the air to deliver a loving rose to Olson, who has a new appreciation for her beau. It ends on a hilarious note, as well, as the pair jump up to leave as Reynolds pleads, “No! Guys! We have 10 more songs!” And oddly enough, the goofiness syncs perfectly with the panoramic paean, which has a sing-song nursery-rhyme feel underscored by sweeping keyboards, which give it a gospel-plush feel. It’s another in a long line of bright, uplifting Imagine Dragons anthems, written when Reynolds was struggling to extricate himself from another bout with oppressive darkness, his worst yet. And he’s had quite few in his Grammy-winning 13-year career, including “Radioactive,” “Demons,” “Believer” and “Thunder,” four singles that each surpassed one billion streams, the first group to accomplish the remarkable feat.

Reynolds just turned 34 on July 14, having navigated, then blossomed during the so-called “Christ Age,” 33, as many artists do, when life-changing spiritual truths will be revealed to you if you’re open to them. Ergo, “Follow You” is Reynold’s adoring ode to his wife and mother of his four children, Nico Vega anchor Aja Volkman, whom he nearly lost in a trial seven-month separation, pre-pandemic. As the fable goes—and the brutally frank singer always tells it like one—he was driving to sign their divorce papers when he got an eye-opening text from her that changed everything. The couple stayed together and thrived, with her forming the new duo TWO last year and her LDS-raised husband writing some of the most reflective, soul-searching material of his life for Imagine Dragons’ fifth Mercury epistle, including: the tropical-bopping “Wrecked” (which actually mourns the passing of Reynolds’ sister-in-law) and the sinister stomp “Cutthroat,” concerning a friend’s recent suicide. Elsewhere, there’s a funky “Lonely” (“These pills don’t work,” he lyrically carps); a swaying “#1” (“These leeches got to go / I need a safe space”); a delicate piano fugue called “My Life” (“I’m trying to be somebody else / It’s impossible to be myself”); and a clamorous “Dull Knives” (“Inside I’m a mess but you’d never know / Won’t someone please save my life?”).” And when Reynolds cheerfully chirps in the self-explanatory “No Time For Toxic People,” “It’s a beautiful day / I’m gonna keep it that way,” you actually believe him. As the penultimate of 13 album tracks, it feels like a conclusion he’s come to, a hard-won morsel of wisdom that he’s happy to share with others, in Imagine Dragons’ patented spoonful-of-sugar style. He was glad to share some insight with Paste, as well, on the eve of Mercury – Act 1’s launch.

Paste: First off, how did you wrangle Rob and Kaitlin into your “Follow You” video? Were you a fan of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia?

Dan Reynolds: Yeah! For the whole band, that’s the one show that we all agree on, and when we’re on the road we’ll always watch it together. So my wife actually had the idea. We just woke up one day, and we were wondering what we should do with the “Follow Me” video, and we started riffing on real-life couples that we knew who would play that role. And right away, we thought Rob and Kaitlin would be amazing, so we reached out to them that very day, and they immediately got back to us with a “Yes, we would love to do this, and we always listen to your band.” So it was the least painful video shoot ever, and I typically do not enjoy shooting music videos. But they were so cool—everything you wanted Rob and Kaitlin to be, that’s what they were. And The Killers thing just sort of came out. And I love Brandon and Ronnie—those guys are just great.

Paste: But “Follow You” really does have the feel of a Sunday morning sermon, of church.

Reynolds: I’m glad that you heard it like that. Because when we were in the studio with Rick Rubin recording it, I said, “Rick, this song just sounds purple to me. Just the richest kind of purple, like when you think of love and worship, or a love/worship idea.” So we brought in Cory Henry, this incredible organist who grew up in gospel and was this prodigy, at only five years old playing all this incredible stuff. So we really tried to give it that gospel presence, because the song was written for my wife, and it was supposed to be a song of worship for her, worship and love. But I don’t know if that comes across.

Paste: Do you remember one of the last times you were in San Francisco, playing a one-off show on scenic Treasure Island?

Reynolds: HonestIy, I have such a bad memory when it comes to the last 10 years, it just feels like a big blur. The guys in the band are really good at remembering towns and venues, but I have a hard time recalling a lot of that. And I don’t know why. I think I just maybe have a really bad memory. Or my therapist would tell me that it’s maybe because it was overwhelming—I’m not exactly sure. But I have a really hard time recalling venues and things. I’m good with faces and names and stuff, but locations are hard for me. I’m never good with locations over the last 10 years.

Paste: Is it a subconscious mental block?

Reynolds: I don’t really know. I just know that it’s been very evident to me, because the other guys in the band recall every place we ate, every place we ate. I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s some big deal—it’s not like some huge talking point with my therapist, like, “I don’t remember anything!” It’s just that I’m not as good at recalling those types of things, and I can’t really cite why. But my guess would be that it’s just been crazy—I’ve been everywhere around the world for 10 years, and my whole life’s been turned upside down.

Paste: How do you see your therapist during a pandemic?

Reynolds: Zoom. Skype. I’ve actually been doing that for years, even before the pandemic. And it’s been great, and I really, really believe in speaking openly about it, because I think it’s super-important for anybody who should be in therapy. That’s my personal belief—it’s a life saver, and I’ve been in therapy now for over a decade. I think that life is hard. Life is very difficult in itself, and especially with Covid going on—human interaction is at an all-time low. We’re interacting very little, so it’s very important just to express ourselves with another human. So at its very base level, therapy is just getting some time to reflect and think and talk about what’s going on in your life, and put it into words. And I think it’s just incredibly healing and important for everybody.

Paste: Do you guys have pets?

Reynolds: I do. I have a two-year-old Rottweiler.

Paste: Good Dog, Carl!

Reynolds: Oh, man! That’s a great book! Nobody knows that book! But he looks exactly like that dog. Exactly. And he is a really good dog, he really is. I love him, and I take him out every day and we spend a lot of time together. And they’re fantastic dogs. I have four kids, and they are so gentle with kids. They have such a mean reputation and I don’t know why—everybody’s afraid of them because they look so intimidating, but they’re really gentle with people. So George has just been fantastic.

Paste: I’m sure the outsider’s uninformed view would be that you’re a successful rock star, so what do you have to complain about? Your life must be perfect. So how could you have possibly separated for seven minutes, let alone the seven months that actually elapsed?

Reynolds: Well, life happens. And our relationship has been going for over a decade now, and anybody who’s been in a long relationship knows that it’s ups and downs and it’s work, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes people are in a relationship that isn’t healthy, and they should move on, and some people just should never be in a relationship because they louse it up. But Aja and I really have been so much together—she’s been with me since before the band, if anything, and she’s badass. And she actually co-wrote one of the songs on the record, “Dull Knives”—we sat down together and wrote that song. So she’s my other half, and we worked through it, worked through a seven-month separation without talking , and kind of reassigning ourselves in life after seven years of marriage. And we did really have a lot of breakthroughs in those seven months, and that’s why we decided to come back together actually at the divorce table, when we finally sat down there.

Paste: What was in that text she sent that turned everything around? They must be the most amazing words, ever.

Reynolds: And it’s funny, because “text” sounds so trite—it’s a word you normally associate with emojis, you know what I mean? But it’s really a modern-day letter. Letters have moved on, and words can move mountains now. And after seven months without speaking, we had both grown a lot. I was out on the road, touring the world, while I was just in a super-dark time of my life, and this was pre-pandemic, while touring our last record. So we both were going through a lot, and she just wrote me this long letter about navigating through life, and forgiveness and acceptance and growth, and how we were gonna be co-parents together and figure this out. It’s kind of hard to explain because it was in that short format, but it was everything I needed to hear, and everything she needed to say, as far as her own truths. And I dunno—when we sat down at that table, I was like, “Why are we doing this again?” We both were crying, and then we just stood up and walked out. And we had been seeing just these two lawyers, and after seven months of no talking, with just these lawyers talking instead, it was horrible. And as anybody who’s been through a divorce knows it’s a horrible, horrible, horrible process, especially with kids. So we decided to go to lunch, where we decided to start dating again, and it was like day one—we just started dating again, and after a couple of months I re-proposed, as if we’d never considered divorce in the first place.

Paste: Where did you go on those first Version 2.0 dates?

Reynolds: Well, we were in L.A. at the time, although Vegas is our hometown. But I’m trying to remember, and I don’t really know—I don’t think it mattered. We just walked around L.A., we went to different restaurants. We just hung out and played board games together—we just hung out like we used to do, and enjoyed each other’s presence and conversation, and we just filled each other in on what had been happening in our lives over the previous six months. She had had a really big spiritual growth with ayahuasca and all this stuff and introduced me into that, and that’s a whole conversation for another time. And honestly, when I’m talking about ayahuasca, it sounds so corny, and typically, I’m not a proponent for drug use, but I don’t see ayahuasca as anything but medicine. I’ve lost a lot of friends to addiction and drug use over the years, so I don’t recommend this for anyone with addiction. And I hate that qualification, I hate it, hate, hate it. But that being said, ayahuasca had a really big influence. And anyways for me, I suffered from severe anxiety and depression for years, and the little that I have seen, and the research that I have seen—especially people who I’ve talked to have dealt with serious depression—ayahuasca is life-saving. It’s been absolutely life-saving. So it’s kind of hard for me not to talk about, because it’s been so transformative for me, and yet it’s so taboo, which is hilarious because all of America is prescription-crazy with methamphetamines and all sorts of things. But anyway, it transformed my life. It transformed my relationship, it transformed my life, so it’s something I kind of like to talk about.

Paste: It’s suddenly being discussed in similar terms by a lot of celebrities, as are mushrooms, psilocybin and other things. But the most interesting uplifting vibe you tap into here is classic 1960s reggae. And reggae is one of the most feel-good musical genres ever.

Reynolds: Interesting. And you know, I will say that growing up, I had two posters on my wall—I had Bob Marley and Kurt Cobain, so those are two people I grew up listening to a lot of. But I hadn’t even thought of it till you said that, so I’d have to listen to it again with that in mind. But I certainly wasn’t intending to make reggae music, but I was certainly into those artists, and I think every artist is a product of what they grew up listening to. You’re a product of your influences, so I grew up in the ‘90s listening to grunge and reggae, so I’m sure it came together in some way, even though you can’t articulate it. People always ask me, “Who are your influences?” And I’m like, “I dunno who’s not my influences? Everything I listened to, I guess.” And I still listen to everything—I listen to a lot of music. And to just pinpoint it down to a couple of people to say who my influences are? That’s a question that’s always been difficult. So I guess I can tell you a couple of people that I love, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they had the greatest influence on my music. My music is the high notes of a million different things I’ve listened to, you know?

Paste: But you have a unique way of synthesizing those influences with every dark, shadowy thing you’ve been through into bright, uplifting, good-spirited anthems. And that is a really rare gift. You’re here for a reason.

Reynolds: I really appreciate that. And I hope so—I’m definitely searching to find those beliefs, spiritual beliefs again in my life, of something greater than myself. I feel like the first 10 years of Imagine Dragons was actually just about my personal spiritual crisis. It was a religious crisis, because I was raised with religion, and when it fell away from me, I felt like I had no foundation—everything I believed and thought was just gone. And it just felt like, “Well, what’s the reason in life?” Where other people have kind of built these foundational spiritual structures to depend on, I just had nothing to pull from, because that I had built upon just tumbled. It was like Jenga, where you pull out the one block and it just makes the whole thing fall. And you’re like, “Well, where do I go from here?” You know? But it’s weird, because every time we’re putting out a record, it just feels like I’ve finished a journal, and I’m putting that journal on the table. Every song I write, the majority of ’em are never about anybody. I wake up most days and I write a song most days, and I collect those songs, or pages in a journal, and they sound different and have different sizes and shapes, but it’s all my words and what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling that day, or what I’m thinking about a song that I want to write. And then when it comes time for the record, it’s like condensing that down. It’s like if someone were to come up and say, “Where are the 10 pages that tell what really happened in that year?” “Okay—here’s the 10 pages.” And that’s what our albums are. And because we write all our own songs, it actually is literally just a personal journal, for better or worse, and people either want the journal to end, or they don’t. And I can’t fault anybody for choosing either side of that, because we’re all here for a short period of time, and you consume what relates to you, or what you feel you need to consume to make life a little better. So to have you say that I’m making people’s lives better? I love that. I would only hope for that, because my only hope is to bring some authenticity and truth to anything I do, and hopefully that involves light, because there’s enough hardship out there already.

Paste: And you said the song that you and your wife co-wrote was “Dull Knives”? That song is brutal—“Inside I’m a mess but you’d never know,” “Someone please save my life”? And then it’s practically screamcore on the chorus.

Reynolds: Yes. And it’s funny, because she brings out more vulnerability for me than anybody else. I feel completely able to be 100% my most vulnerable self with her, so I don’t even know that I would have gone to that place without Aja coaxing me, like, “Hey—say what you’re thinking! Say what you’re feeling! Don’t bury it in metaphors!” One of my biggest flaws as a writer looking back on all these songs is feeling vulnerable but burying it in metaphors. I wasn’t even trying to be poetic, even, so it was just pitiful hearing the song and knowing what I was saying, but not making the adjustment for it. That was really terrifying for me, and this record, along with Aja, really helped me to embrace vulnerability and just speak directly to it. And it was pretty terrifying for me, and it is terrifying for me, because the things that I talk about feel comfortable talking about sometimes. We hadn’t performed for three years, and just performed for the first time last week at my old high school—we went and played a homecoming for the kids out on the field, and I sang a few of the new songs for the first time, and I sang “Wrecked.” And I could not sing that song, I could not get the words out—it’s about my sister-in-law who passed, and I was with her when she passed. We were really close, and it shook me, it really shook me. And I’m thinking, “Okay, now I need to go sing this song every night?” I really don’t know if I will sing that song every night, to be honest with you—I don’t know if I’ll be able to. Even when I was separated from Aja, there was a song on the set list called “Next To Me,” which was the last song I wrote before we got separated. And I ended up having to take it off the set list, because I just could not go out and play that song every night. It was so impossibly hard to sing that song, especially as a performer, because I’m always gonna go to the place where I was when I wrote that song. Any time I’m performing, that’s it—I’m just putting my brain back into where it was when I sat down and wrote that song. And sometimes that’s nice, and sometimes it’s not nice. But that’s what makes a live show important, I think—I can’t wait to get out and perform, even though there are some songs where I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to feel.

Paste:: Another odd footnote is that you and Brandon Flowers from The Killers were both going through very similar things, existentially. He just made his own Nebraska, with Pressure Machine, and there’s a song called “Quiet Town” on it that’s one of his best, ever. And he’s basically trying to go home again, a metaphor for a return to faith, the same kind you’re seeking.

Reynolds: I actually have listened to their new record, and it’s great. And it’s actually a whole new departure for them, but in a really cool way, with all those [inter-song dialogue snippets from local Nephi, Utah, residents] stories that are told. It really is one of those records that you just sit down and listen to in its entirety, and it feels like it takes you somewhere. You really feel like you go to his hometown, and the imagery is so powerful in the songs that you feel like you’re there. So I think they’re great, and I love The Killers—I’ve always loved The Killers. And I knew ’em from before we were signed. Ronnie [Vannucci, Jr., drummer] came to one of our practices, and we were just playing little clubs, and I remember we were so excited to have him there. So we played some songs for him, and he gave us some feedback. And he was super-helpful, and to this day I still remember exactly the things he told me, and one of the things he said—and I can’t remember which song it was, it was one of the early songs—but he said, “You need to focus more on dynamics,” and he was pushing us in that direction. But I don’t know if I ever even achieved that, because the whole point of Imagine Dragons was grandiosity and over-the-top drama. Like, I love Queen. I love that kind of grandiosity that’s … performance. It’s performance, and Las Vegas is all about performance and intense drama. And one of the things that Ronnie was saying was, “Maybe you’re not gonna feel the highs unless you really feel the lows.” So he really pushed us to get more dynamically sound.

Paste: How long after the pandemic did you guys get back together?

Reynolds: We knew we were gonna take a hiatus, pre-Covid. So after our last record, we were so tired—we’d been touring for 10 years straight, so we signed off indefinitely, and we didn’t know how long it was gonna be. And I honestly think we would have probably taken the same amount of time off if Covid had never happened. So everybody kept to themselves, and we sent songs to each other over the internet and still collaborated that way. And I think it came together when Platzman, our drummer, recorded the instrumentation for “Cutthroat” and sent me “Cutthroat” from his studio. So we were all working together doing these demos, and then we went into the studio with Rick for a month and went through 70 of those recordings, and then narrowed it down to 30, and that’s how the record came together.

Paste: But you actually originally wrote 300 songs? And 100 more before that, just for Rubin to analyze? Using my abacus, I calculate that to be around 400 separate songs.

Reynolds: Yeah. Ever since I was 12, I’ve been doing that almost every year. So I literally have thousands of songs. And like I said, it’s just my journal. It’s my journal, so I’m not writing these songs to be shown—the majority of them, I’m just writing for myself. So that’s how we usually go about making a new record. We’ll usually start with 100, maybe 200. But because this was such a long period off, there was just a lot more.

Paste: What are a couple, three song titles that you would never want people to hear?

Reynolds: Well, the name of my band is Imagine Dragons, so that’s a pretty embarrassing name to begin with. So as far as trying to beat that with a totally embarrassing tune? I genuinely don’t have a good answer for that. Our band name is so ridiculous that it’s hard to say anything that would sound more ridiculous than just Imagine Dragons! But I haven’t written a song about my dog yet—I should write a song about George at some point …

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