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Before it was on top of the world, Imagine Dragons was just another rock band. Founded in 2008 by current vocalist Dan Reynolds and former drummer Andrew Tolman, Imagine Dragons slogged away, touring endlessly and losing member after member before breaking through with its 2012 debut, Night Visions. The 2014 Grammys proved pivotal for the band — Imagine Dragons won Best Rock Performance for the blockbuster single "Radioactive" and pulled off an eye-popping onstage collaboration with Kendrick Lamar.
A year later, Imagine Dragons delivered a second album, Smoke And Mirrors, then took a much-needed break. After touring for years on end, the band was spent — Reynolds, who struggled with one of his worst-ever bouts of depression, in particular. "We got off the road and I spent a lot of time reading self-help books and meeting with a therapist, and kind of trying to find a sense of solace and spirituality," he says.
Getting to a healthier and happier place sent the band down new sonic roads for its new album, Evolve, which Reynolds describes as "more minimalistic" and "more colorful." This record is a landmark of sorts for Imagine Dragons, says guitarist Wayne Sermon, who characterizes the band's development over its first two albums as "playing catch-up with ourselves." Now, Sermon says, he and his bandmates "finally feel like we're starting to feel comfortable in our own skin."
Upon the release of Evolve, Reynolds and Sermon sat down with Michel Martin to talk about depression, spiritual seeking and the road to success. Hear the conversation at the audio link and read on for an edited transcript.
Michel Martin: How did your sabbatical come about? Was it an agreement that all of you made that, after a certain point, you'd jump off the train for a minute?
Dan Reynolds: I think it was a necessity. We'd been touring straight at that point for — I wanna say, seven years straight? So yeah, I think we just all needed it to reconnect with normal life and home and family and just to get grounded.
You've been very open about the depression that hit at the height of when you were touring. Was that a part of it?
Reynolds: You know, I've dealt with it since I was young. But [it] would typically come in three- to six-month bouts, and after the record came out, I think so much happened at once. I just got married, we'd had a baby. The record took off. All of these really beautiful, wonderful things happened. But I think it was really overwhelming for me and I ended up kind of going through a year of really heavy depression. It was probably the worst that I'd ever had and it got to a point where I really had to go seek help, and I decided to talk about it because I think that it's something that a lot of people hide.
Wayne has also dealt with depression for years, and so both of us went through it together in a lot of ways. It was cool because we were able to speak up with each other about meeting a therapist and what was that like. It was a tricky thing, but we're all really close and they were with me through it a 100 percent.
Wayne Sermon: I don't really know how you could possibly hide anything from your band members. [Laughs.] You're with these people more than anyone else, and more than you've ever been with even your family. And so, I don't know, even if we tried to hide things from each other I think it would not work for very long.
I do think for a lot of men it is hard to talk about. I wondered whether your being artists helped that or hurt that? I mean, part of your job as artists is to articulate for people what other people cannot.
Sermon: There is like the stigma attached to it, you know. It's hard to feel like a manly man, and to feel validated as a man, and admit that you're struggling with something that's eating you from the inside. And I think that's something a lot of people deal with. And yeah, it was really hard for us.
Both of you have a shared religious background: You both grew up as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or the Mormon church. And I couldn't help but notice the religious references that are in the music.
Reynolds: I wouldn't say religious references as much as just a spiritual reference. I think since I was young, spiritual things have always been interesting to me. In fact, supernatural things. ... But as far as faith — it never came easy for me. And in fact, I really struggled with believing in Mormonism since I was young. I grew up in a large family — eight boys, one girl — and everybody went on missions and everybody seemed to be super full of faith. And for me, I really had a hard time believing in anything, even a God.
But I was infatuated with it and I would read a lot and study a lot, just because I wanted to believe. So then I went on a mission, because I wanted to believe. I thought, well, if I invest myself, I thought I would find something. But I think in doing that, I ended up getting even more lost and feeling like there were no answers. So a lot of the music is kind of speaking about sometimes searching and hoping for answers, but coming up empty-handed. And that was scary for me, in a lot of ways.
There's one song on Evolve, "Believer," that immediately caught my attention. What inspired it?
Reynolds: I think that once I got home and took time off the road, for all of us, we were able to for the first time have perspective. You know, anybody who deals with depression knows that it comes and it goes. Who knows where I'll be next year, but as for right now, in this moment, I'm really happy and ... tired of searching and asking questions about, you know, is there a God? Is there not? I'm really done asking those questions.
Do you have any advice for people who are starting out where you were seven years ago?
Reynolds: I would say — have no ego. We opened at a mall for a mime in Las Vegas. We said yes to every single show. And looking back, maybe we should have said no to that one. [Laughs.]
Sermon: No, no, no. We wouldn't have this story!
Reynolds: Yeah, we wouldn't have this story. But I think that you have to pay those dues, you have to take every chance you have to be seen. And that was important because finally one day someone was in the crowd who mattered in the music industry and they got our EP and they took it to somebody and then we got signed.
And look, there are a million bands that are way more talented that have been doing this for 20 years, and they never get signed. And so they would say, "Oh, that's BS." And to them, I would say — I totally get it, there's also luck involved. We had Vegas luck on our side and a lot of hard work and we dedicated our lives to music. And that's all you can do.
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