Ben McKee's decision to drop out of the prestigious Berklee College of Music with only one semester remaining to join Imagine Dragons must have seemed foolish at the time.
In hindsight, the bassist for Imagine Dragons (whose members also include singer Dan Reynolds, Wayne "Wing" Sermon on guitar, and drummer Daniel Platzman) knows his decision to drop out to join the quartet was the right one. The Las Vegas-based musicians have become one of the biggest rock groups in the world. Their second album, Smoke + Mirrors, debuted on top of the Billboard album chart in February. The band's unavoidable epic single "Radioactive" has reached the Recording Industry Association of America's diamond status, one of only five songs in the past decade to have been sold and streamed 10 million times. The achievement puts Imagine Dragons in the same company as Elton John, Lady Gaga, and Eminem.
"It was really crazy and an amazing honor to be included in that elite group," McKee recalls.
As the music industry struggles to reach consumers and make money through streaming and downloads, Imagine Dragons embraces the Internet as a way to lure fans to their visually spectacular shows. In 2013, they were one of the most queried artists on the app Shazam, which aids users in identifying what song they're hearing on the radio. Is this intriguing statistic a result of Imagine Dragons being an inventive band or a public having difficulty discerning the quartet's sound?
"We can't help but be ourselves, but we really try not to be confined at all by the music we're inspired by and inspired to create," McKee says. "We never aspired to cater to one kind of person or musical audience. We're listening to everything from hip-hop to classical music to South American favela music to jazz to country music. You can hear elements of [it all]. With our instrumentation, we lend ourselves to a rock sound, but we're a rock band that plays different kinds of music. We just create whatever we feel like and let the public decide what box to fit it into."
For Smoke + Mirrors , the band could've decided to release more songs in the same vein of the anthemic hits "Demons" or "It's Time." Instead, Imagine Dragons focused more on its rock roots to better fit the sound of the arenas the group finds itself playing.
"[Our first album] Night Visions took off and grew so quickly that we were trying to play catch-up the whole time with production and learning to adapt to performing on bigger stages," McKee says. "With Smoke + Mirrors, we knew we were going to be playing this music in an arena setting. We were able to think of that kind of environment while writing music for the album, [and] we were able to create a world that the music lived in. It's much more than performing these songs onstage. It's a whole immersive experience that our fans get to participate in. It's exciting every night we get to put on a show."
McKee is humbled by the band's phenomenal success, but it hasn't come easily. It's come through years of refining its craft by playing long sets as a lounge act on the Vegas strip. Imagine Dragons subbed in for headliners Train at the last minute for the Bite of Las Vegas Festival in 2009. The group signed a recording contract with Interscope two years later and, soon, Imagine Dragons' ambitious songs became inescapable, anchored by Reynolds' distinct timbre, which can make any lyric compelling.
It was Reynolds' carelessness with his gift that caused him to undergo vocal cord surgery in 2012, just as things were coming together for the group.
"That was a scary time for us," McKee says. "Since then, Dan has been diligent in taking care of his voice. It's a real and terrible fear to have. If I break a bass, I can still get a new one. If he destroys his vocal cords, there's no going to the vocal cord store."
Last year, the band won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance and put on a legendary percussion-heavy number with rapper Kendrick Lamar that had Taylor Swift dancing in the front row as cannons loaded with colored chalk fired crimson particles onstage.
"We didn't get final approval to do the performance until 3 p.m. the day of the Grammys," McKee says. "Paul McCartney's setup was getting covered with this red dust."
Despite its hard work, Imagine Dragons' success was met with inevitable backlash. You could argue that when Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme told a Houston audience two weeks after the awards to "fuck everything, fuck the man, fuck Imagine Dragons, fuck the Grammys, fuck all this shit," it was directed at the producers of the ceremony that cut off his performance with Trent Reznor, Dave Grohl, and Lindsey Buckingham.
McKee recalls being taken aback when he heard about the incident but claims there is no bad blood between Homme and Imagine Dragons.
"I think it was really taken out of context and blown up," McKee says. "Josh called us the next day to explain what had happened. I think it was a mixture of too much to drink and being a little riled up."
He mentions that the two artists since have worked together to raise money for their respective charities.
Imagine Dragons is frequently associated with the Mormon backgrounds of Reynolds and Sermon. Reynolds recently told Billboard that he identifies with the religion but doesn't necessarily subscribe to its culture. Considering how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emphasizes the importance of families, this may inform why he wrote the band's folk-tinged single "I Bet My Life" about the relationship he has with his parents. (The song's video was filmed on the Salt River last year.)
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"I know I took the path that you would never want for me," he croons as if feeling guilty for choosing secular success over faith. While religion influences all artists, McKee says, having a former missionary leading the band doesn't make things complicated for the quartet.
"I'm very much not a Mormon," McKee emphatically says. "We really aren't a crazy party band in the sense that we have bottles of liquor and go out to the club every night. There was a bit of that earlier on, but you quickly learn if you're going to be doing this for a living, you have to treat it as a job and put some time into maintaining your own health and live responsibly. [Reynolds and Sermon's] religion hasn't affected my experience."
Despite the band's past, present, and future battles, McKee has never struggled with his decision to leave college a semester short of a degree, but he thinks about going back from time to time.
"I always used to just say no," he jokes. "I always enjoyed education. If we got a little break from the music in the far future, I could justify finishing my degree as some excuse for going back and having fun at a college."