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Imagine Dragons' Dan Reynolds: Depression deepest when the band's fame grew (aired 2017)


Originally aired: Jan. 13, 2017

We're doing a summer series, looking back at some of the interesting people and topics we've talked about on State of Nevada over last several years.

The airplane foundered in the sky. But as crashing entered Dan Reynolds' mind, he found himself puzzled at his own ambivalence.

Sure, it’d be awful to die in a crash, he guessed. But in reality, he didn’t care. Even with a loving wife and a new child at home.

“I felt like-- we were on this little jet and it was just really going crazy. It was the scariest experience I had on a plane. But I was totally, I don’t know if ‘at peace’ is the word. I just thought, ‘Man if I die right now, I don’t care.’”

What makes that more striking is that this was at a time when Reynolds and his Las Vegas-based band, Imagine Dragons, was gaining fans around the world. They’ve had number one hits, they’ve won a Grammy. They’ve already sold millions of their first two albums and are in the process of recording a third.

From the outside, Reynolds had everything going for him. Inside, he was a mess. Depression, which he’d dealt with for years, had reached the bottom.

The pressure from the fame, a new wife, a new child – it somehow all combined to bring him down.

“And I thought, man, that’s really awful and scary,” Reynolds said. “Because I have a little girl at home that I love more than anything. And a wife that I love. It felt like a really selfish moment for me. But it also gave me an awaking that I needed to take action.”

He’d been putting off seeing a therapist. He attributes that in part to being one of nine kids in a family of what might easily be seen as super-achievers. Doctors, lawyers and the like.

None of them, as far as he knew, had to see a therapist. He didn’t want to be the first.

But he did. He found one overseas and talks to the therapist via Skype. He’s still doing it and says it was, literally, a life-saver.

“It’s been so great and part of it has been to just be so honest, and that’s why, sitting down with you, I probably haven’t had a conversation this honest since, you know, maybe ever.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Reynolds talked about Imagine Dragons rise to fame; why he was accepted—then rejected—from Brigham Young University; how his Mormon mission to a gang-ravaged part of Omaha, Neb., opened his eyes.

And more.

Joe Schoenmann and Dan Reynolds at KNPR studio/Photo by Brent Holmes

Discussion Highlights:

On fame:

“I don’t know if it is something I’ll ever wrap my head around it” "I don’t know if anyone ever wraps their head around it”

“At first it was really overwhelming. Now it feels like it is just part of my life. But still I don’t grasp it.”

On the band’s success:

“The success of the band is incredible. But it has been so overwhelming, I had to take a step back. It sounds silly saying it out loud but it really was overwhelming.”

“Your relationships change completely. So any friendships I had were really hard for me to maintain, One because you leave and you’re on the road all the time and Two, just the way fame works and success works it wasn’t something that I understood fully and it made me have a hard time having relationships with people. It felt like thin and base level”

“Really my family, my wife are really the ones I’m closest to. I’m really a homebody. I don’t go out very much. I prefer to stay at home. I enjoy my life at home with my 4-year-old, my wife and my family”

On growing up in a Mormon family:

“I grew up with a really conservative background and a really disciplined lifestyle. Then I went on a Mormon mission for two years, which was super disciplined”

“Every Monday night, we had family night. We’d get together and we’d play board games and every night we would have to have dinner as a family together. Everybody would sit at a table and you had to be present for dinner. Those aspects I love. And I would love to keep with my family as much as possible because it was really healthy for me.”

On which of his songs ties him the most to Las Vegas:

Probably our first single “It’s Time.” It is really about Las Vegas the whole sentiment of the city that never sleeps at night and not wanting to leave the city. It being kind of a beginning. I really believe if we started our band in Los Angeles or maybe anywhere, New York City, hot beds for music, our band never would have made it.

We made it because of Vegas. The press here jumped on us. They gave us lots of write-ups. We got write-ups all the time in the Review-Journal and the Weekly. Because there weren’t many bands. So you weren’t dealing with the saturation of Los Angeles where you’re fighting for a spot. On top of that, none of us had money. We were totally broke, but we were able to play these cover gigs on the side to make money.

On Las Vegas:

I love Vegas. I’m really proud of this city. I feel like it’s a really cool city, especially lately there’s been a lot of culture that’s been coming into Vegas and people who are fighting to bring real culture to Las Vegas and the Downtown Project. There is really a part of Vegas I love. It’s not the glitz and the glam of it. I think there is a small town feeling to Vegas that I have experienced that I’m proud of.

On playing for long stretches of time on the Strip:

Mandalay Bay has a stage where they do cover gigs. It’s right next to the sushi lounge. Honestly, the main thing that kept us alive was O’Sheas. We would play six-hour gigs there. You would do three hours on and then a 20 minute bathroom break and then three hours on. I think it was $600 for six hours and we would split it between us and we all shared a house together.

You’re competing with all these slot machines. People are inebriated because it’s really late and it’s the cheapest beer on the Strip. At the time, I loved it. I can honestly say at the time I was excited every night because maybe there would be 20 people who would listen to our band, but now – no.  

On playing six hour gigs:

It was so good for us, because we were awful. We were really terrible. They were pretty good and I was awful. That’s the truth. My voice had a long way to come. And they were all Berklee musicians. They could just play a song for you, if you just said the song and they knew it.

On why his bandmates kept him around even though his voice wasn’t great:

They believed in my passion. Looking back and listening to how my voice sounded in the early recordings, I was really pitchy. My brothers always called me Cookie Monster growing up because my voice was always… I sang from a wrong place and so I was always damaging my voice. I ended up getting surgery in the first two years of the band because I had a huge polyp. Then I had to take singing lessons.

The passion is what they all saw. I think that’s what we all connected with. They knew we were making art that we all believed in. This lead singer – for better or for worse – believes in it. And I think that’s what kept them around.

On going to BYU:

I applied for BYU. I got accepted right out of high schools. Two weeks before I was supposed to go to BYU, I went and saw a bishop. And they ask you certain questions to see if you are ‘clean,’ if you’re living by a code of conduct to go to BYU. And I had lied for a couple years about certain things in my life.

I sat down with the bishop and I was really tired of lying about things. I just got to this point in my life where I thought: I’m not going to lie about anything, no matter what it is… so there is this older guy saying, ‘what have you done?’ And I said, ‘these are the things I did.’ And because of that I couldn’t go to BYU… So had to go home and tell my mom, ‘yeah mom I can’t got to BYU in two weeks.’ She asked, ‘Why can’t you go’ And so I had to tell my mom these are things I’ve done that are sinful. I stayed home and I had to go to UNLV. I really did not want to go to UNLV. All of my friends went to BYU.

On going to UNLV:

I stayed home. I want to UNLV. I got straight As. I knew nobody. I walked from class to class with a hoodie on and was super depressed for a semester. I felt like I was this sinful kid. Then I went on a mission and I came home and went to BYU.


On the band’s evolution:

You can’t help but have an evolution as a band. One because you’re changing, you’re growing up as the band grows up. Two, it’s very easy for musicians – and very prevalent – for musicians to become jaded or competitive about certain sounds that are out now that are popularized. Or this critic said this about me so I need a change. All these things is a part of art. It comes in and for better or for worse it can change the art. We try really, really damn hard to shut those things out and just have it be an evolution of what the band wants and how we want to grow.

On defining the band as a ‘rock band’:

“We have a guitarist so people call us a rock band.”

“I wouldn’t say we’re a rock band.”

“I like poppy music… I think a song exists on a poppy melody. If you don’t have a good melody it’s not a song I want to listen to. There are very few things I listen to and enjoy that are… like I enjoyed Radiohead’s early work. I don’t listen to Radiohead anymore.”

On having a similar dynamic as the Beatles’ McCartney-Lennon relationship:

Wayne Sermonm, the guitarist, is 100 percent... Lennon is his idol. He spellchecks me on everything. When I wrote “On Top of the World” for instance, I loved that song. I wrote it and I was so happy. I listened to it and it made me happy. It felt good. It was simple. There was no complexity to it. It sounded like a song that had been written before and that made me happy. It made me feel like I had done something brilliantly melodic.

Wayne came and listened to that song and it was his least favorite song on the album. From the earlier version to where it went, it was a process of Wayne sitting down with me and changing it. It definitely happens. 

 On going on a LDS mission in Nebraska:

It definitely influences me in tons of ways probably lots of ways I don’t even know. One year of the mission I was in a tiny, population-6,000 towns. They were just there because the trains ran through there. Western Nebraska. Seward, Nebraska. Phillipsburg, Kansas. These places that nobody knows of. They’re tiny. A lot of drug problems. A lot of meth goes through there. I spent a lot of time knocking on doors like you see in the Mormon musical [“Book of Mormon”]

Singing: “Hello my name is Elder Reynolds”

And sharing a message about God and Jesus Christ. You know I always had doubts, but I was like, ‘if I’m here, I’m going to do it. I’m not going to waste my time. I’m going to do it 100 percent.’ But honestly, I spent more time asking people what they believed and being really intrigued by other people’s beliefs. I really enjoyed sitting down and having good conversation. Other than that I spent a lot of time doing drug rehabilitation. We had a program that we put people on to get them off drugs.

There were beautiful people. The most friendly, incredible people that you would ever meet. And really interesting people. I sat down in the house with Satanists. And I was so intrigued because I had never met a real Satanist and their house was a little eerie and scary, but they were really intelligent and funny and cool and quirky. It opened my eyes up in big ways.

The second half of my mission I was in north Omaha, which at the time had the highest shootings per capita in the U.S. It has a really, really scary area. We actually lived in these projects. You pay for your mission. It’s a big misconception. People think you go out and the church pays for it. You pay for it. You save up $10,000 and then you live off $10,000 for two years. The church doesn’t do anything. With $10,000 with two years, you can imagine what you’re living conditions were.

We worked with primarily with families where every single kid was in a gang and the thing is they didn’t have a choice whether or not to be in a gang. The biggest thing I learned from my second year was the cycle of the ghetto, it is so hard – the reality of it. If I had been born and raised in North Omaha, I absolutely would have joined a gang, no questions asked. You don’t join a gang, you have no protection on the way to school…And on top of it, most of them don’t have a family taking care of them, they have a single mother, who is taking care of them, and this is their family.

It opened up my eyes in so many ways.

And actually the most kind, wonderful people I met were in the ghettos of North Omaha. They were humble. They would let you in. They would feed you. Whereas, when you’re in the rich neighborhoods, typically, people would not feed you. They would not let you in. I felt more scared for myself in the rich neighborhoods. People would throw Slurpees at you. These entitled rich kids would come by and just hassle you or just throw a punch and then run away. 

Dan Reynolds, singer, Imagine Dragons

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.