Imagine Dragons: religious guilt, teenage anguish and the trials of fame

Dan Reynolds is the singer and emotional wellspring of Imagine Dragons, the 12 million-selling phenomenon who merge pop, R&B, EDM and country into their monumentally popular, vacuum-sealed,
training-bra rock tunes. But you don’t have to dig too deep into Reynolds’ lyrics to uncover torment. If second album ‘Smoke + Mirrors’ “was written during the worst place in my life – I was dealing with suicidality,” then their Top Five third ‘Evolve’ “is exactly that – I’ve been  evolving”. It might mark a  breakthrough, but it delves into the darkness beneath Imagine Dragons’ colourful scales…

THE TORTURED TEEN ARTIST

Key lyrics: “Kids were laughing in my class/While I was scheming for the masses/’Who do you think you are, dreaming ‘bout being a big star’” – ‘Thunder’

“When I was in middle school, I had one friend,” Dan confesses. “It’s not a sob story… it’s just the truth. I was not good at making friends. I had a really hard adolescence. Really bad acne, an expander in my mouth so all my teeth were half an inch away from each other, I didn’t fit into any group. I went home every day and I’d make music on the computer, that was my refuge. It was my secret – that’s how Imagine Dragons began. I hate the word outcast because it’s such a cliché, but I was a bit of a recluse. I feel like I’ve been stuck in the head of a teenage adolescent for fifteen years. That’s why Imagine Dragons’ music is always so angsty, over the top, dramatic, almost like a middle school boy complaining…”

His musical ambitions weren’t taken too seriously at home either. Brought up in a Mormon family in Las Vegas surrounded by brothers who were saving lives as doctors or handling huge cases as attorneys, Dan’s music was considered a hobby, right up until he dropped out of college to perform full-time. “It’s taken a while to really let myself believe that art is just as important and that music, as stupid as it sounds, also saves lives,” he says. “It saved my life–– it’s been my real religion.”

THE REBELLIOUS STREAK

Key lyrics: “Just a young gun with a quick fuse… not a yes sir, not a follower” – ‘Thunder’

Dan clashed with his family over religion from an early age. His first songs concerned his loss of faith, “things that I couldn’t say to my Mom and Dad but I could hide it in the music, very metaphorically”, and the strict rules of Mormonism didn’t exactly gel with his natural human instincts. Aged 18, he was kicked out of the Mormon-owned Brigham Young University in Utah when he confessed he’d slept with his girlfriend of four years out of wedlock.

“That was a shaming experience for me,” he says. “My entire community–– or so I felt–– looked at me as if I was dirty, which was devastating and humiliating. I also felt like God looked at me as dirty, even though my heart said ‘this is fine, you’re okay’. I stayed home for a year and all my friends went off to college. It first triggered depression in my life. My whole world just felt like it crumbled. I dealt with that for 10-plus years.”

God should have had more faith in Dan – it’s not like he’s become the Mormon Nikki Sixx. “Even if I wasn’t married, I don’t identify with that part of rock and roll,” Dan says. “The part of rock and roll I identify with is being free and breaking away from whatever is holding you back and then turning around and throwing the double fingers to the sky like, ‘yes, I made it here!’ I feel like that is last year, for the first time I’m screaming to the world, ‘yes, I made it out!’ But I’ve never identified with, ‘now let me see how many girls I can pick up’… As far as drugs and stuff, I understand that appeal big time and I have to be careful because I easily succumb to substance abuse… I’m a very all or nothing person. I’ve stopped myself from chasing down some rabbit holes that I’ve found to be very dangerous.”

THE RELIGIOUS GUILT

Key lyrics: “I wanna live a life like that/Live the life of the faithful one” – ‘Mouth Of The River’

“I’m broken in the prime of my life, so embrace it” – ‘Rise Up

Like many that wander from the narrow religious path of their upbringing for a crafty toke with Belzebub and all his saucy imps, Dan admits to being obsessed with spiritual guilt. “When you tell a 12-year-old boy to sit in meetings with an ecclesiastical leader and confess things about sexuality that make a kid feel guilt and remorse, you’re damaging them immediately from the age of twelve,” he argues. “When I should’ve been thinking about school and girls, I was obsessed with, ‘am I [spiritually] clean?’ I think that’s super damaging and it’s taken me ‘til this age to look back and have full understanding of that.”

Hence Dan’s recent documentary Believer, tackling Mormonism’s practice of shaming its LTBTQ youngsters. “They’re told that their most innate sense of being, which is unchangeable, is flawed and they have to live with that every day,” he says. “I had a few friends growing up who were gay and Mormon. I watched the conflict that they dealt with and the suicide that came alongside it. Now we have research that shows the high suicide, depression and anxiety rates within LGBT youth in Mormonism. Infringing on a child who has no choice to be shameful about things they should be celebrating, like their sexuality… I think that’s one of the most severe abuses there is and I have no tolerance for it.”

Dan still claims Mormonism, although “there’s days that I really don’t believe in anything” and it’s taken him several years, and three platinum-selling albums, to come to terms with losing (most of) his religion. “Like, ‘wait, so maybe we die and the lights go out?’” he muses. “That’s a devastating thing to learn, it broke me. Then on top of going through a faith crisis, to have this band that blows up and the whole world have an opinion about it – great things, terrible things. This is the first year in my life where I can truly say I don’t give a damn.”

THE TRIALS OF FAME

Key lyrics: “Most days I’m keeping to myself, living in my little bubble” – ‘Dancing In The Dark’

It’s not all revving off into the sunset of success, however. ‘Evolve’ hints at the loneliness of the road and the strains fame puts on relationships. And then there are us dratted critics. “[Fame is] a beautiful thing,” Dan says. “I don’t know if I’d be here today if it wasn’t for art and having these people listen. But it comes with shaking the devil’s hand: ‘Yes I’ll open my heart for the whole world to see and let some people take a s**t on it’. And if you’re a sensitive person, there’s gonna be times where you wanna hide in a hole and take it all back, but you can’t… Imagine Dragons has been like opening my chest so everyone can see my heart and saying, ‘Damn it’s really broken, this sucks’. So to have someone laugh and say it was a joke or overdramatic…”

Some might consider Imagine Dragons as a prime symbol of rock being swallowed whole by pop. What would Kurt Cobain make of Imagine Dragons? Dan grins. “What a loaded question. Part of the reason I love Nirvana was I felt [Cobain’s] heart in everything he was saying and I felt it breaking. That honesty was what I identified with. I would hope that he would identify with someone who’s trying to be honest.”