Dan Reynolds: Why Is The Imagine Dragons Frontman So Tortured?From religious guilt, to teenage anguish, and the trials of fame, the evolution of Dan Reynolds is a work in progress
July 9, 2018
Written by Mark Beaumont
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 LP ‘Evolve’ “is exactly that – I’ve been evolving,” says Dan Reynolds.
It might mark a breakthrough, but it delves into the darkness beneath Imagine Dragons’ colorful 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 Reynolds 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.”
The musical ambitions of Dan Reynolds 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, Reynolds’ music was considered a hobby, right up until he dropped out of college to perform full-time.
Reynolds says, “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. 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 Reynolds 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, Reynolds 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 Reynolds; 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,” Reynolds 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 Beelzebub and all his saucy imps, Dan Reynolds admits to being obsessed with religious 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 until this age to look back, and have the full understanding of that,” says Reynolds.
Hence Dan’s recent documentary “Believer,” tackling Mormonism’s practice of shaming its LGBTQ 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,” Dan Reynolds 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.”
Reynolds still claims Mormonism, although “there are 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 has 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 the critics. “[Fame is] a beautiful thing,” Dan Reynolds 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 shit 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 Reynolds 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.”
The evolution of Dan Reynolds continues.
This article was initially published by NME on March 2, 2018
© NME 2018
Also be sure to check out the weekly RTN feature “Lost Tracks.” We focus on deep cuts from rock’s royalty that never received the attention the song deserved, including the unlikely marriage of Heavy Metal and Hip-Hop in a song that gave the finger to the system.