Imagine Dragons Bring Students Behind the Scenes on Smoke and Mirrors Tour
Imagine Dragons welcomed a group of Berklee students backstage on its current worldwide tour, which began in Chile this past spring and continues through Asia, Australia and Europe until November 2015, during its Boston stop at the TD Garden July 1. Following a spirited soundcheck with songs from its second album and tour's namesake, Smoke and Mirrors, the chart-topping band was joined by touring member and multi-instrumentalist William Wells '11 and front-of-house (FOH) sound engineer Scott Eisenberg '99 to answer questions from the students in attendance. The band shares experiences from its start at Berklee to their global success as well as backstage details of life on the road, excerpted here.
Life on the Road
Can you give us a day in the life on tour?
Bassist Ben McKee '09: We play a show. We get off the stage. Eat immediately after, then you shower, get on the bus, climb into your bunk, wake up in the basement of the next venue, go to catering, make yourself some kind of breakfast, go do the first batch of promo, go do soundcheck, another meet and greet, more promo, hopefully get to eat dinner.
Singer Dan Reynolds: For the record, this is not every day. Once you get to this level, discipline has to set in or else you cancel shows and disappoint thousands of people a night and feel the wrath.
Drummer Dan Platzman '09: Our first time playing clubs in Europe, we were so excited, so we were burning the candle at both ends. Everyone was trying to do everything we could, and we were sick as dogs by the end of that tour. But fun! But fun!
How does being on the road affect your writing and production?
Reynolds: It totally affects everything. The way you see the world changes. If you’ve traveled a couple of times it’s nothing compared to living around the world for a year. You just see the world in a different way, so that automatically, especially as a lyricist, it will change your viewpoint on everything. When we played Rock am Ring [festival], we played in front of over 100,000 people and I remember being on stage and thinking, man, I wish we had a certain type of heavy song that would have been great for Germany, so when it came time for this record, we sat down and thought, well let’s write a song that will be right for Rock am Ring. But that doesn’t happen until you travel. So it changes everything, especially when you’re playing bigger venues like this, you know which songs will translate live. Sometimes you will have a song that’s perfect on the record, and you could play it perfectly and have all the energy, but it will never translate live. You kind of learn it the hard way.
Developing and Maintaining the Craft
For drummer Platzman: How do you keep your muscles from going completely dead?
Platzman: I've been fortunate enough not to have muscle or tendinitis issues. I take stretching very seriously. I'm from Atlanta, and my teacher growing up was Barnum and Bailey's touring drummer for like 20 years, and he instilled that in me; it’s just like being an athlete, you don't want to pull a muscle or you won't be able to play. And then when I got to Berklee, Jackie Santos taught me these karate stretches—ten seconds up, ten seconds down, ten seconds left, ten seconds right—and that keeps me really loose. And I warm up for 45 minutes before every set. But more than the muscles issues is the blister issues. I’ve had tours with so much blisters and bleeding. You have to play hard, but when you’re touring in Scandinavia in the winter, it’s freezing and really dry, your skin turns to tissue paper.
For vocalist Reynolds: How was getting back to touring after your vocal surgery?
Reynolds: It was a really scary process. I remember the first time I sang. After I had the polyp removed, you don’t sing for a month, you don’t really talk or anything. The first time I felt my voice, it felt so different, really scary. And then I gave it a few months and it was totally back to normal. Now we strictly stay to the rule of three days of three shows, one day off, never do more than that.
Platzman: No more morning radio promos at 10 am where you have to sing later in the day. It just kills your voice.
Reynolds: Especially when you’re a baritone, there’s so much length, it’s really difficult. We learned the hard way. I meet singers every single day that are breaking who ask me, 'What do I do?' And I ask what their schedule is like, and they say six shows in a row—most people sing one show, then they’re dead.
Do you guys still have time for personal practice?
Reynolds: No matter what, we make time to practice beforehand. And you just grow a lot on your instrument just doing it for two hours a show every night. Even as a vocalist, I sing completely different from six years ago, just being on stage and getting a bit of vocal training, but for all you guys at Berklee, you’re already super proficient. I’m the only one who didn’t go to Berklee, I was not a trained vocalist, but I feel like all you guys still practice every day, there’s never a cap—when do you get perfect at your instrument?
On Live Sound
How do you account for this place being filled later during soundcheck?
FOH engineer Scott Eisenberg '11: Some newer venues have more [sound] treatment, but every one is different. When we moved from smaller clubs to arenas, it was just figuring out, well, how’s this supposed to sound in here, but the more you do it, you get an idea. It’s still a huge room, but when you put in 10,000 or however many people it holds, it definitely changes what’s going on.
How does that change for [the band]? I imagine the audience affects that.
McKee: More than the acoustics of the room, the sheer volume of that many people screaming and singing along changes what’s going on.
Platzman: We all use in-ear monitors so we get to control what [sounds] we get. I'm the school of less is more.
Mckee: For me, I mostly have what I need to be able to lock in. I have myself, his vocals, a little bit of everyone else's vocals, my own vocals, and everything else I mostly get mostly from mic bleed and from myself. I have to turn the drums all the way down to be able to hear everything else. Every vocal mic is a drum mic. [laughter]
Do you play with click tracks at all?
Reynolds: Yes, but it depends on the song. There are some times when you just want to feel a song, you don’t want to be to a click, but when you get to all the lighting and programming, we have huge columns moving, so it’s all synced.
Guitarist Daniel Wayne Sermon '08: There are two computers, one goes down, one switches over, and we run DP [Digital Performer]. Platzman has an iPad so he can choose what he plays. For my guitar rig, I don’t have to make any switches— it’s all MIDI.
Platzman: When you have a bunch of tracks with click you have to find a way to make it organic and breathe, so what we did, we found intros and outros to songs to involve it, and we can remember the tempo and get close enough, so that if we start it in the right place we can adjust, and it breathes life into it.
Sermon: Some songs, I’ll intentonially bump up a few BPMs from the album version, just because some you want to drive.
Advice for Students
A few years ago, what was something that kept you going, or something you knew before?
McKee: Practice less, and meet more people. Go out there and meet people, and don’t just focus on isolating yourself and making yourself be the best performer. Meet people, be friends with people, be a reasonable person, have reasonable expectations, and don’t just count on your skills to get ahead. It’s all about interpersonal skills, to be able to roll with the punches, get along with people.
Sermon: When I graduated Berklee, I knew I wanted to do music, and that was about it. Be open. As long as you're dedicated to music, that’s what's important.
Platzman: And if you look at how we came to be in Imagine Dragons, it's because the three of us did Mark White's guitar lab, The Eclectic Electrics for guitar sight reading—five electric guitars, bass and drums—and we did that for three years, never thinking we'd be in a band together; we were just doing it because we loved Mark.
Read more about McKee, Sermon, and Platzman's experience with Mark White's guitar lab at Berklee.
McKee: Never thinking we'd play pop music.
Platzman: Not going into it thinking we'd be a rock band or anything.
Sermon: Another important thing to note, I knew other drummers, other bass players, maybe they were better in some aspects—
Platzman: —Definitely, it's Berklee [laughs]
Sermon: The reason I called them and thought of them—they were very skilled, and I had no problem with that, but it was because I liked them as people. It wasn’t because they can shred like crazy. It’s a pop act, all we need is people I can be on a bus with for 12 hours and then be cool.
Reyonlds: The most important thing that has gotten us anywhere is from day one, walk in every venue, be nice to every techie, be nice to every lighting guy, because you never know. The word spreads so fast in this industry. And you never know what show’s gonna break you. The reason we broke, we played some small show and there happened to be some young teenager dude who bought our EP and happened to be the assistant to a producer who worked at a label, and he showed the CD to them—this is after four years being a band and grinding it—and he played them the CD one day in the car, popped it in, and the producer said, 'Oh I like this, what is it?' emailed us and then we ended up signing to Interscope Records. So you never know what's going to break you, so every show, you take seriously, give it 100 percent. Say yes to everything, until you get to a bigger level. Then say no a lot. [laughter]
What are some of your biggest learning experiences along the way?
Sermon: I think when things go wrong you learn the most, like when we were on stage in Vegas, playing three in the morning in a casino lounge and my amp blows up and you have to figure out what to do. I think those aspects are when we really grew as a band. Like when things go wrong and stuff isn't perfect, how do you deal with that? Like on stage now, if something goes wrong we can deal with it better because we've had a lot of hours on stage.
McKee: If an amp explodes now, we just laugh at the flames. [laughter]
Reynolds: And I'd say, really love what you do, and put your full honest self into whatever you do because as an artist, especially if what you’re doing is successful, you’re going to end up getting tons of hate. And the only way you can see through that and be a healthy individual is if what you're doing is real to you. Be true to yourself as an artist, don't create anything for anybody else, don’t try to please hipsters, don’t try to please the pop world, that just leads to disaster, trying to please a particular niche. Whatever it is, just be real for you, and you’ll survive. You guys are all on the right track going to Berklee. So just keep doing what you're doing.
McKee: Guaranteed success in the music industry! [laughter]