Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds' mind is fully blown. After years of grinding it out in half-empty clubs, the Las Vegas band is facing a sold-out world tour, appearances on Leno and Kimmel, and a single, "Radioactive," that's the biggest rock hit of the year.
"I'm just trying to keep my head from spinning too much," says the frontman. "Everything has been crazy."
The group, who sound like a mixture of Mumford & Songs and Coldplay, have spent the last year and a half on a grueling world tour. "There's not much glamour to it," Reynolds says. "We're on a bus where every bunk is full with a bunch of stinky dudes. You wake up, go straight to to an interview, do interviews all day and then do the show at night. You repeat that in every city. It's hard to keep it fresh sometimes."
That said, the group is thrilled that people are responding to their music with such intensity. Just two years ago, they were were playing Las Vegas casinos to pay the rent in their shared apartment. "They told us we had to learn 50 songs and perform six-hour shows without any bathroom breaks," Reynolds says. "We were so desperate that we agreed. They let us pick the songs, so we went with songs by the Cars, the Cure, Arcade Fire and U2. It was really good, because we learned the music of the bands that influenced us . . . The drunk people loved 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by the Proclaimers. They would get up on the table, or dance onstage with us."
The group rotated between gigs at Caesar's Palace, Mandalay Bay and the recently shuttered O'Sheas. "We'd play in front of these blackjack dealers in bikinis and dudes just sitting at slot machines," Reynolds says. "The ding-ding-ding from the slot machines was louder than the tiny speakers they gave us. We would do four nights a week and they'd give us $400 for the six hours. It gave us enough money to pay rent and eat Top Ramen or Taco Bell."
Playing casinos for Taco Bell money was hardly the life Dan's parents envisioned for him. He comes from a huge Mormon family in Las Vegas, with seven brothers and one sister. "I'm the second youngest son, and many of my brothers became doctors and lawyers," Reynolds said. "My mom really didn't want me to join a rock band."
Like most Mormons, Reynolds was sent on a two-year mission when he was 18. He could conceivably have gone anywhere in the world, but they sent him to Omaha, Nebraska. He wasn't exactly thrilled at his assignment. "I was like, 'Dude, what is this?'" he recalls. "I thought it was the worst."
The experience was a tremendous challenge. "People would throw slushies out of car windows at my head," he says. "I was just this goofball in a helmet. Nobody thinks you're cool in a white shirt. People would actually spit in my face."
The church only gave him $10,000 to support him for the entire two-year period. "That's supposed to cover all our food and room and board," Reynolds says. "It was good, because it knocked me down. I was this 18-year-old kid, and I thought I was cool. I realized I wasn't so cool. When I came home I really grew up . . . But I don't want a pity party here. A lot of people were great. They'd take me into their homes and feed me. I worked on a lot of farms and left thinking people were greater than I thought beforehand."
He registered at Brigham Young and thought about a career in the FBI, but music began slowly taking over his life, and he formed Imagine Dragons with some college friends. They released their first EP in 2009 and began gigging around the country in their Subaru. "On our first few gigs in Los Angeles we had to pay to play," says Reynolds. "We played once at the Hollywood Cabana Club and had to pay $150 because we couldn't sell enough tickets."
Not long after parting ways with their drummer and pianist in 2011, Imagine Dragons signed with Interscope and began recording with producer Alex Da Kid, best known for his work with Eminem and Nicki Minaj. "He reached out to us in an email," says Reynolds. "We'd been an indie band for years, and we turned down many offers from major labels because they just didn't seem right. But then Alex reached out to us and said something like 'Yo, I dig your songs. Hit me up.'"
They decided it was worth a shot. "He told us to just sit down and write what we'd been doing," says Reynolds. "It immediately felt comfortable. He wasn't trying to make some band that existed in his mind . . . He had this way of helping us get percussion sounds that were a little bit harder and a little edgier. It made all the difference. He understood we were very percussive and rhythm-based, so he helped us capitalize on that."
The band released their debut LP, ,ight Vision. in September of 2012. The single "Radioactive" slowly began climbing the charts. "That's basically a song about my struggle with anxiety and depression," Reynolds says. "It's about becoming self-empowered and rising above that. I wanted to write a masculine and primal song about conjuring and rising above human weakness. Alex really helped us with that one. It has a dubstep vibe to it. We'd try something like that and it wouldn't be heavy enough. Alex can come in and say, 'Let's add this distortion,' and then suddenly it clicks."
The song is in heavy rotation on Top 40 radio. "We had no idea that would happen," Reynolds says. "We're a little flabbergasted. There's a lot of artists that opened the door for us. We wouldn't be where we are if not for groups like Foster the People, Mumford & Sons. Top 40 radio has changed a bit in recent years and allowed in these bands that are a little more alternative-leaning."
Numerous rock writers have compared Imagine Dragons to the Killers. "I think we get those comparisons because we're a rock band from Las Vegas and we use synths," says Reynolds. "But at the end of the day, they're a great band. I never mind when someone makes those comparisons. I also understand why people want to compare us to other groups. Arcade Fire is a huge influence on us, and I love Coldplay's first album and listened to it quite a bit. But growing up, my two favorite songwriters were Paul Simon and Harry Nilsson."
Imagine Dragons just got back from Europe and immediately began a U.S. tour. "We have the whole year booked up," says Reynolds. "Every single day we're either playing a show or traveling to a show. I try to not look at the schedule because it's just overwhelming . . . I actually had a polyp removed from my vocal cord the other year because of overuse. I had to take vocal lessons to learn how to pace myself."
Even though their first album is just now taking off, Reynolds is hard at work on the group's follow-up. "I'm always writing on my bunk on the bus," he says. "I have a little USB microphone and a MIDI controller. It provides me my sanity through touring. I have hundreds of demos. It's like my journal, and I'm always writing something new."
This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: Imagine Dragons Go 'Radioactive' on the Charts