When the singer of the biggest new rock band of the moment meets you with a smile at breakfast (Breakfast! Not even brunch!) it’s clear that a new breed has evolved. There’s no time for drugs or groupies in music today, an era when bands need to work twice as hard for half the sales figures of a decade ago. That’s why there’s probably a shadowy corner of the music business where scientists are working on cloning Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons.
This earnest Mormon from Las Vegas has a wife, a baby, a charitable disposition and a strict exercise regime that means he works on an elliptical cross-trainer the moment he leaves the stage. “I really don’t know if this is the norm now but I would say we have worked as hard as is humanly possible,” he tells me over eggs and potatoes in Paris. He has let the other three band members go on ahead to the next gig in Lyon, preferring to deal with the media early doors because it means a night in a hotel bed instead of folding his 6ft 4in frame on to a tour bus bunk yet again.
“We made a deal with each other, that if we were gonna be gone on the road we might as well do everything we can to make it count, go everywhere that we possibly can,” the 26-year-old continues. The result of 18 months, during which Reynolds estimates Imagine Dragons have played well over 300 gigs (“Three days on, one day off, sometimes four days on, not including radio and TV spots”), is a debut album that is a worldwide success — gold in Germany, Australia and here, platinum in Canada, Sweden and the US.
They’re already at arena-filling level at home and play three nights in the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy here at the end of this month. Those audience numbers equate to one night at the O2 but they didn’t want to skip a step. “Everyone says Brixton is one of the coolest rooms in the world. We don’t wanna look back and say we never got to play Brixton.”
I saw their show at L’Olympia in Paris and it’s a riot. Drummer Daniel Platzman, guitarist Wayne Sermon and bassist Ben McKee, all graduates of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, provide a polished backdrop to Reynolds’s powerhouse, emotional voice as he roams the stage pummelling the various giant drums scattered about. There are balloons filled with confetti and a sound that ranges from the cutesy mandolin of It’s Time to the surprise dubstep bass of the aggressive anthem Radioactive. It’s slick mainstream rock with an electronic sheen and enough sudden shifts in style to keep them more than interesting enough.
“We wanted to be a rock band with a very percussive element. We were so consumed with beats and electronics,” the singer explains the next day. They were approached by London producer Alex Da Kid, known for giving rock heft to pop hits such as B.O.B’s Airplanes and Eminem and Rihanna’s Love the Way You Lie. His production sheen and some extremely catchy tunes have allowed the band to sneak into a chart that is still relatively rock-free. “People call us alternative. What we are I don’t really know but there are only a couple of bands like us in the charts.”
A Killers connection has also helped. Two of Reynolds’s older brothers manage both Imagine Dragons and the longer-established Las Vegas band. “They’re straight shooters, I trust them,” says the singer. “Your brother will always tell you when you suck.” But that’s not to say that Imagine Dragons haven’t paid their dues. They cut their teeth four years ago as a lounge act in casinos including Caesar’s Palace and Mandalay Bay, playing sets of half covers, half original material for six hours at a time.
“We could wear whatever we wanted, which was unfortunate because we dressed terrible. The pay was bad but it was good for us as a band to get so many hours of stage time.”
The third-youngest of nine children in a Mormon family, Reynolds casts himself as the rebellious one who was often in trouble at school. “Religion never came easy to me,” he says. But at 18 he still did the obligatory two years of Mormon mission work, sent to Omaha in Nebraska where he encountered gangs, drug addicts and broken families. “That was not something I saw growing up in this nice family, so it was an important part of my growth.”
Today the band is among the more saintly in rock music. Two weeks ago they were singing their songs to terminally ill children in a hospital in Utah. The video for their song Demons is dedicated to teenage cancer victim and fan Tyler Robinson, with whose relatives they set up the Tyler Robinson Foundation to help families facing childhood cancer.
“It comes so naturally to be self-centred as a musician — people telling you how great you are all the time. You need to be levelled down. You go and visit these kids and you walk away with a whole changed perspective. If you don’t, you’re not human. Honestly, it’s really selfish. I’m not telling you this to say, look at all the great things we do. We do it so we can be happy with who we are as people and be able to live with ourselves.”
And he’s happy with his success, to a point. Worryingly, this new breed of rock star also seems to come with a new set of problems. He’s been diagnosed with stress-related high blood pressure, and recently has been waking up to find that his jaw has been locking. The doctor asked if he’d suffered a serious trauma, perhaps a death in the family. “I just laughed,” he says. A platinum-selling album isn’t quite the same thing — or is it?
“Mentally it can be so… I don’t want to say so bad because it’s great. It’s wonderful, everybody would want to do it, it’s a great life and we don’t deserve your sympathy. But I now understand for the first time why so many musicians do drugs.”
He also has ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis in his hips, which he says reared up at around the same time he started the band. He has to give himself an injection of immunosuppressant every fortnight, which makes him more susceptible to sickness on the road. The condition is also the reason he’s so dedicated to the stairstepping exercises.
It’s a long way from the rock ’n’ roll debauchery of the Sixties and Seventies but at least they’re in this game for the right reasons. “Our attention was never on girls or parties. We were just nerdy dudes, none of us are particularly great-looking. We were just obsessive with music and wanted to share it with people. At the end of the day the most important thing is music. You could be cool-looking and have a great live show, but if you don’t have a good song, nobody cares.”
Thankfully, in a career that is clearly bad for their health, that’s the one thing they needn’t worry about.
Nov 25-27, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 (0844 477 2000, o2academybrixton.co.uk).