Opening Doors: Imagine Dragons’ Bassist, Ben McKee, talks about the band’s exciting journey

Creating hit songs, completing albums, and finishing nation-wide tours are series of feats in a recording artist’s career. This is why individuals who want to fully pursue music should be ready to dedicate their life to it and LOVE it, like the Las Vegas-native band, Imagine Dragons.   

In a telephone interview, Ben McKee, Imagine Dragons’ bassist, tells me, “We’ve all been playing music for a long time, and performance is where we feel most comfortable. It is magical to be in a space, especially an intimate one, where everybody can be a part of that same community. The music doesn’t become alive until you’re sharing it in a room with a crowd and feeding that energy.”

I saw Imagine Dragons perform at the lounge in Delancey, Pianos, on March 7th, and the experience from watching the band was electrifying. Their music was my greatest motivator for trekking out to Pianos to personally approach Imagine Dragons. Now, I am happy to bring my conversation with Ben to this month’s full-length band feature right here on Music Historian’s, Hear, Let’s Listen.

 The Busy First-Visit to the Big Apple: “That performance was our third one that day”

Getting this band’s attention was not easy. Following their showcase at Pianos, everybody in New York City wanted to meet Imagine Dragons. That evening was also the end to a busy first-time in the Big Apple. Ben explains:

“We drove all the way from Boston to make an 8:00am sound check earlier that day. We performed on the set of Mark Hoppus’s show on FUSE TV; then we had a couple of interviews at a few radio stations; went to another showcase; then made it to Pianos – our third performance that day.”

So what is it about Imagine Dragons that has recently caught the attention of disc jockeys, popular music figures, show hosts and of course, fans everywhere? The answer might hide in a sense of ‘mystery’ the band incorporates in both their music and image.

A Factor of Mystery: “We leave all the songs to the listeners’ interpretation”

When I listened to songs like “America” and “It’s Time” I felt that the singer, Dan was touching on the life philosophies and issues that affect everyone as a collective. Another song, “Cha-Ching” which the band performed at Pianos that night helped me imagine a more specific story – one about the tiring strife Americans experience when competing in the business world. These are the lyrics I recall:

“You’ll be a worker/ I’ll be your soldier/…/I’ve never seen this side of you…”

Dan Reynolds (right) and D Wayne Sermon (left) performing at Pianos

When I asked Ben about the meaning of “Cha-Ching,” he explained:

“Dan writes all the lyrics. He tries to write lyrics that are not so definitive. He focuses on something he’s feeling and tries to translate that into lyrics and a mood that people can connect with and attach their own meaning to. We leave the meanings of all our songs a little bit to listeners’ interpretation.”

Further into our conversation, I also learned the band’s name is another big mystery.

“The name, Imagine Dragons, is an anagram,” claims Ben. “We in the band all agreed on a statement and we switched the letters around to create this name so that nobody would guess the statement.” Fans from everywhere have already tried to decode the name ‘Imagine Dragons’ and uncover the hidden message, but nobody has come close. According to Ben, the band is “happy to keep it a secret.”

While the meaning behind Imagine Dragons’ name and music is undefined, their story as a band that gradually built their reputation on the popular music scene is clear and inspiring.

“When we met, we never thought that we’d go on to play pop music in a matter of years.”

Ben McKee, Imagine Dragons’ Bass Player at Pianos in NYC

In his early years, Ben’s love for music stemmed from trying to emulate his father on the acoustic guitar. By the 5th and 6th grade, Ben was forced into playing acoustic bass.

“Up until the 5th grade, I played violin, but then, my elementary school band needed a bass player. Later, in High School, I became part of a jazz trio, and that’s where I really learned to play the bass more proficiently.

“This led me to study at Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts, where I met Wayne (the guitarist) and Platzman (the drummer) who are in the band now.”

A few years later, a telephone call from Wayne led Ben to make the decision of pursuing performance and songwriting full-time with Imagine Dragons.

“Wayne started Imagine Dragons when he moved back to his hometown in Provo, Utah. Then, he moved his band to Las Vegas, and that’s when he invited both me and Platzman to join.”

Soon after the band was complete, the group created a definite style and sound. Introducing it onto the Las Vegas music scene however, was a challenge. According to Ben, Las Vegas is a great city to perform as a cover band, but original bands have a harder time gaining attention.

“A lot of venues will actually want to schedule cover bands in order to attract tourists. When we started, we played cover songs at Casinos by night, and spent the day composing original music. Then, we gradually introduced Imagine Dragons’ original sound into these sets, and found that people, both local and tourists, were stopping to watch us.”

This recognition opened the door to the next big opportunity – performing Battle of the Bands at festivals for four consecutive years and landing in first place a total of three times. Although they landed in third place at their fourth performance; this show would have the greatest impact on the group.

“Playing in front of 20,000 people… had the greatest impact on our career.”

“The Bite of Las Vegas is a music and food festival in Las Vegas, and the Battle of the Bands showcase within this festival is called Battle of the Bite.

“In our fourth consecutive and last performance at Battle of the Bite, we came in third place; just far enough to win a spot on the local stage. It just so happened, that when we performed on that set that afternoon, the promoter of Battle of the Bite was watching from the audience.

“Later that evening, Train, was supposed to perform on the same stage, but singer, Pat Monahan came down with a sore throat, and the band had to cancel their show. The same promoter who saw our show earlier helped place us in Train’s spot.

“Although we didn’t win Battle of the Bite, we played in front of 20,000 people that night. That moment had the greatest impact on our career.”

Imagine Dragons’ history holds a lesson – you don’t have to win every battle to open the next door in your music career. For Imagine Dragons, the opportunities that followed their performance at Battle of the Bite included a contract with Interscope Records in 2011 and working with popular music producer, Alex Da Kid.

“He believes in the music we are making, and he wants to help us bring it to more people”

“One of his assistants [Alex Da Kid’s assistants] presented him with a CD of our old music,” explains Ben, “and Alex connected with it and he loved our sound.

“He wanted to help us realize more of our own vision and work with us to release our music on a bigger scale. He believes in the music we are making, and he wants to help us bring it to more people, which is also what we want.”

Imagine Dragons is currently working with Alex Da Kid on their first full-length album, which they hope to release around this Fall. The title of their upcoming record is a mystery for now, and they can’t wait to reveal it to fans.* They also just wrapped up the music video for their single, “It’s Time,” and are planning to hit the road again in May. In the long run, Ben and the band hope to continue doing the one thing they love most – music.

“It’s been great, and we hope to continue doing it on a bigger scale.”

“Music is the primary way we express ourselves. We are not the most social people, and we feel we are in our element when we perform music. We feel that we can expose ourselves in a way that makes us feel less vulnerable than in other situations.

“We also love connecting with our fans as much as possible. Even with the increasing attention from the press – which we also enjoy – we always want to connect with those who travel great distances to see us perform.

“We are a band that lives and thrives when traveling on the road and performing live for crowds. It’s been great, and we hope to continue doing it on a bigger scale.”

“We never planned on doing music as second to our everyday lives.”

At the end of our conversation, I thought about the exciting road Imagine Dragons traveled so far. I realize an exciting journey like this one is rare, and it doesn’t come easy.

The life of a recording artist is not for the opportunistic job-seeker or entrepreneur, but for the most dedicated artist that is willing to devote years of practice to their craft. The road to bigger opportunities – whether it is a record contract with a big label, going on a nation-wide tour, or releasing a full-length album on a national level – is a long one. Luckily, Imagine Dragons accepted the challenge from what seems like, the moment they started.

Ben says, “We never planned on doing music as second to our everyday lives nor to escape our lives. This is our life and it’s what we wanted to do.”

*The full-length album by Imagine Dragons was released on September 4th, 2012 and it’s titled Night Visions. The record is available for purchase on iTunes.