Imagine Dragons played the inaugural Life Is Beautiful in 2013, performing near the Downtown venues where the alt-rockers got their start. Growing right along with their hometown music, arts and cultural festival, the band has been tabbed to return for the third iteration of Life Is Beautiful, this time as headliners.
Much has happened since that show in fall 2013: The Dragons have toured the world, won a Grammy, collaborated with fellow 2015 Life Is Beautiful headliner Kendrick Lamar and put out a second studio album, Smoke + Mirrors. And by the time the group comes home in September, the guys will be somewhere in the midst of North American and European tours.
In a rare quiet moment, before starting tour rehearsals at a warehouse in Primm, guitarist Daniel Wayne Sermon spoke to us about the Dragons’ past, present and future.
You live in Las Vegas, yet you’re always on the road touring. Do you still feel a deep connection to this city?
We wouldn’t be the band we are without Las Vegas. New York, L.A.—it wouldn’t have have worked. For us, Vegas is the perfect place. We had [band members’] parents’ food, which kept us alive for a couple of years. And we could get onstage at Mandalay Bay or O’Sheas and play for hours and hours. You can’t get that experience anywhere else. In other cities, you have to pay a bar to play.
What was it like to play the lounges at Mandalay Bay versus, say, Life Is Beautiful?
That’s another aspect of how our band [benefited from Vegas]: playing for people who aren’t there for you. [We learned] how to play for people and win them over, not only every other night, but every couple of hours, which is a little like playing a festival because not everybody is there for you. A festival is an opportunity for a band to prove themselves. But it’s also nice because at least there are some people there [to specifically see you], whereas at Mandalay Bay that was never the case.
Mandalay Bay was like the deluxe. They always paid the most. You’d get $200 or $300 per person for four hours, so that was a paycheck. We’d also usually be seen at the old O’Sheas—that was the cheapest beer on the Strip. The stage was the size of my couch; our entire band fit up there, playing The Cure between original songs while seven drunks had their arms around each other, yelling “Free Bird” over and over again.
What were some lessons learned from those early days?
The biggest thing is, what do you do when everything goes wrong? What happens when you go onstage and you get electrocuted, or some drunk dude gets onstage and tries to kiss you? Or what happens when someone pours beer on your face? That’s stuff that you have to learn by experience. … There’s no amount of practice that you can do in a basement that will prepare you for playing in front of people. We wouldn’t be the same without it.
Since you and lead singer Dan Reynolds are Mormon, did you abstain from O’Sheas’ famous beer pong?
Dan and I did for the most part. Ben [McKee] and Platz [Daniel Platzman] are a bit of a different story. They’re not really beer-pong kind of guys. They’re more like get-naked-and-try-to-climb-The-Mirage kind of drunks.
How does it feel to have a sophomore album under your belt?
It’s nice to have more material to play at a show. We toured for 2½ to three years straight on one album. We threw in some stuff here and there—old EPs and such—but for the most part we were playing the same songs over and over. It wasn’t getting old—OK, it was getting a little old, let’s be honest. So to interject new life into our show by mixing in old and new is really nice.
Speaking of your live shows, how are you adapting to spending so much time on tour the last few years?
It’s a strange carnie lifestyle—we’re all just glorified carnies. I don’t know how glorified it even is. We’re all one big family. It’s kind of a freak show, and it’s a lot of fun.
What are your favorite songs to play live?
Anything with a guitar solo. “I’m So Sorry” is always fun to play live. “Smoke and Mirrors” is fun. We’re still learning how to navigate the [new] songs in a live setting. Anything where we can go hard and get some aggression out is something we like to do.
With a new album out and an upcoming tour, do you even consider writing new music right now?
It’s always happening. We just finished a couple of demos today. Writing isn’t like, “Now it’s time to write.” It’s just something we do. We don’t do a lot else; we’re music nerds. We don’t feel normal unless we’re doing it.
You’re most often onstage, but when you’re not, what’s your favorite way to watch a concert?
I’m the loser when I go to shows. If it’s seated—perfect. I want to sit in a comfortable chair, have a soda and watch the show from a really good vantage point. I’d never be at the front of the stage mosh pitting; I don’t know how they do it.
You have a 9-month-old son named River. At what age do you start teaching him music?
I’m a little conflicted. You’d think that being in a successful band would make me want to push my kids into doing it, but it’s almost the opposite. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of the music industry, and I’d almost rather him go into something else. It’s strange because my dad was a businessman, and he wanted me to be a musician. And now I’m going to want my kid to be a businessman.
What we have as a band is a needle-in-a-haystack situation. Yes, we worked hard. And yes, we tried to create as many opportunities as we could. But, geez, there’s so much luck involved. We’ve seen so many talented bands with as much drive not be successful—knowing that and trying to make a decision for my kid when he could be a hand surgeon …
I’ll have guitars around, and if he ever wants to play, fine. I’m never going to push him into anything.
If you had a choice, how long would you want this whole thing to continue?
We just played with REO Speedwagon for Jimmy Kimmel Live! as Imagine REO SpeedDragons. It was a blast. Those guys have been together for  years, so … we don’t see any end in sight. We all are getting along [better] musically and personally now than we ever have.
Regarding your Life Is Beautiful show in September: Is it too soon to ask what fans can expect?
We’re going to bring it all. That’s what we did last time. We haven’t decided what it’s going to be. Last time it was Cirque du Soleil—inviting them to be onstage, that was very Vegas to us. There will be something like that this year.
I remember the first time we did our own show at The Joint, and it was a big deal. To headline The Joint was the culmination of a lot of stuff for us. An hour before the show we were like, “It’s Vegas—we gotta do something.” So we made our manager go to the only place in Vegas that was open at the time and had like 30 Elvis costumes. During “On Top of the World,” we had about 30 Elvises onstage dancing and stuff. It’ll be something like that—over the top. Only fitting for Las Vegas.