The untold truth of Imagine Dragons

Depending on your opinion of them, Imagine Dragons is either one of the few great arena rock bands to emerge in recent years or the final nail in the genre's coffin. Their unabashedly varied influences have created a brand of pop rock that borrows from EDM and even hip-hop. That plus their ear for a catchy tune has propelled the band to numerous hits and millions of album sales. While hordes of fans adore them, their style has remained divisive within the ranks of the more traditional music community, to the point that noted industry publications like Spin and NME have discussed the possibility that they're the "worst band in the world."

This sort of "love them or hate them" dynamic, of course, is far better than being so dull that everyone in the world just shrugs and ignores you, and the story behind the band is just as peculiar as their place in the world of popular music. Here's what a lot of people don't know about Imagine Dragons.

​The secret behind the name

Imagine Dragons is a pretty innovative band name, but did you know it might be hiding an even stranger one? According to ThoughtCo, the name is actually an anagram, and only the band members know what it truly stands for. Predictably, this has created plenty of speculation. The band's fans have a Reddit thread where they obsess over the "Anagram Theory" and comb the band's back catalog for clues that may or may not be there. Some of their finest suggestions so far include "Raiding Mangoes," "Amigos in Danger," and "Mage Dan Origins," the last one presumably being a reference to the band's singer, Dan Reynolds.

As great it is to imagine that some of the biggest pop hits of recent years have come from a band that's secretly called Raiding Mangoes, the truth may not be quite as exciting. As the American Music Awards website noted before plunging into yet another wave of wild name speculation ("Indigo Managers"! "Ragged Insomnia!"), guitarist Wayne Sermon has insinuated that the real answer isn't likely to be revealed anytime soon and is probably pretty anticlimactic anyway. "At this point, it's been built up so much that anything we say is going to be a letdown. We might just leave it up to everyone's imaginations. They probably have better guesses than the real answer."

​Dealing with hatred from other musicians

Unlike the nigh-universally mocked Nickelback who have managed to become the 11th best-selling band of all time despite their allegedly unlistenable awfulness, Imagine Dragons tends to specifically draw the ire of fellow musicians. Consequence of Sound reports that members of bands like Slipknot, The 1975, Foster the People, and Smashing Pumpkins, as well as Marilyn Manson, have all spewed public hate at the band, and Corey Taylor of Slipknot and Stone Sour has even labeled them "the new Nickelback."

Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds says he finds the criticism "extremely harsh" but has nevertheless taken it in stride for a full decade despite the fact that the bile and hatred has actually affected his mental health. In 2019, he finally addressed the haters and said that while he's not particularly angry about it, he's pretty disappointed in the way the music industry embraces this kind of antagonistic mentality, as opposed to a more healthy environment where artists would actually support each other despite differences in matters of style and taste.

However, Reynolds' biggest gripe is not about himself and his band. He worries that famous figures openly mocking Imagine Dragons can lead to kids getting labeled uncool (and perhaps bullied) just because they commit the crime of liking Imagine Dragons. He's also concerned that his own kids might be made fun of when they grow older because of the assorted nasty comments about their dad's band.

Charity work

Music is obviously the thing Imagine Dragons is known for, but they're also extremely active in the charity circles. The band does tons of charitable work, either by raising money themselves or collaborating with other bands and brands. According to Look to the Stars, they're involved with at least five charities and four causes, and they have a nonprofit cancer foundation of their own. Some of their most high-profile efforts include a headline spot at the Vegas Strong concert, which raised over $700,000 for the victims of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, and a joint project with the Angry Birds brand for a cancer charity.

In addition to all that, singer Dan Reynolds is also a prominent LGBTQ activist. The Independent reports that he created the LoveLoud Foundation in 2017 to support the community and help young people find acceptance within their communities. The foundation has its own festival, which sold out its 17,000 tickets in its first year, and all profits were directed to LGBTQ charities. In 2018, the festival raised a very respectable $1 million for charity.

The early years

Some bands are born ready, while others take some time to find their perfect lineup. As ThoughtCo describes, Imagine Dragons is firmly in the latter category. The band was formed in 2008 and operated as a local cult band in Provo, Utah, before moving to Las Vegas in 2009 in an effort to find a larger audience. But the four-man group that eventually became an internationally renowned hit machine is a very different beast from the old Utah alt-rock darling lineup of the band. In fact, the only person who has been an Imagined Dragon (?) throughout the band's history is singer Dan Reynolds.

The group's original lineup included Reynolds, Andrew Tolman, Andrew Beck, Dave Lemke, and Aurora Florence. Guitarist Beck and keyboard player Florence left the group almost immediately, and were replaced by current guitar player Wayne Sermon and Andrew Tolman's wife, Brittany. Lemke was the next to leave, at which point Sermon brought bassist Ben McKee into the fold. The last current band member, drummer Daniel Platzman, stepped in when the Tolmans quit in 2011. Brittany Tolman's replacement, Theresa Flaminio, played keyboard on the band's first album, but when she left Imagine Dragons stuck with a quartet and things calmed down on the lineup front.

Struggle with depression

Dan Reynolds, the lead singer of Imagine Dragons, is quite open about the fact that he struggles with mental health issues. As BBC reports, it hasn't always been this way: When the band was riding its first tsunami of popularity with hits like "Radioactive" and "Sucker for Pain," Reynolds was wrestling with severe depression while simultaneously adhering to the absurd schedule of a newly world-famous entertainer. In 2016 and early 2017, he pushed through a full world tour of 110 concerts on five continents, at which point he realized he was becoming so numb that he needed to get help, or he would lose his family and his life.

Reynolds says depression has been with him since his school days, but back then he'd just "ride it out" whenever it hit. Later, he avoided medication because he feared it would change the way he made music. It wasn't until 2016 that he first decided to see a therapist and face his issues. He has since started treating his brain by changing his diet and taking up yoga and meditation, which has been a game-changer for Reynolds. He says he finds it difficult to calm down his brain and that he would very much like to do it without the aid of antidepressants.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

They recorded their debut album in a casino

In 2012, Imagine Dragons recorded their first album, Night Visions, and the place they recorded it was pretty unorthodox, according to alt-rock station 105.7 The Point. (If you need any context for the band's rapid rise to global fame, they were considered to be an "up-and-coming alternative rock band" as recently as 2012.) Fittingly enough for a Las Vegas band, they recorded their debut album in a casino — namely, on the third floor of the Palms. As Diffuser reports, the band had already worked there on an EP and evidently the experience was good enough to go back.

Of course, they didn't just set up their equipment in the middle of a casino and hope no one would ruin their drum track by hitting the jackpot. The casino had a recording studio that guitarist Wayne Sermon describes as "world-class," and while the space itself was obviously soundproof, he says the atmosphere was quite surreal. The band would walk through a busy casino and lock themselves into a small, isolated space without windows so it was easy to forget what was outside. Then, they'd get hungry and walk out of the studio, only to be hit with the bustle of gambling all around them.

A horrible disease

Motley Crue's guitarist Mick Mars is arguably the most famous person suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, a rheumatism-like disease that can cause spinal joints to slowly fuse together. We say "arguably" because Dan Reynolds also suffers from the same disease. It's strange to think that the diminutive, withered Crue guitarist and the strapping, 6'4" Imagine Dragons singer are fighting the same illness, but they are. Reynolds started experiencing stiffness and strange hip pain in his early 20s, and the worsening pains made him seek help from several doctors. Unfortunately, he was misdiagnosed again and again, and the pain eventually got so debilitating that he couldn't handle playing shows. Even picking up things was an insurmountable challenge.

Reynolds was finally diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis when he was 24, but instead of being crushed by the bad news he was actually relieved because he no longer had to stress about a mystery illness. He's now able to manage his condition, and with a careful exercise, diet, and treatment plan he only experiences one or two minor flare-ups per year. He has also partnered with a pharmaceutical company to raise awareness of the condition, using things like online quizzes with clever titles like Monster Pain in the AS.

The Spider-Man connection

What do Imagine Dragons and Spider-Man have in common? According to Cleveland.com, not a lot — but that's just because the band was too good at songwriting. Reportedly, hit producer Alex da Kid started working with Imagine Dragons because he was looking for inspiration for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the Broadway musical he was developing with U2. Da Kid figured that the up-and-comers would be ideal collaborators for the Spider-Man score, but soon ran into a problem: The demos Imagine Dragons had recorded were "too good."

Imagine Dragons never got to join forces with Peter Parker, but one thing led to another, and da Kid ended up producing the band's first album, Night Visions. Unfortunately, the story doesn't say just which of the album's songs were originally considered for the musical. Still, in the interest of pure speculation, wouldn't "Radioactive" or "It's Time" make a lot of sense in a Spider-Man musical context?

The Tyler Robinson Foundation

Imagine Dragons has its own charity called Tyler Robinson Foundation, which helps cover basic living expenses for families dealing with childhood cancer. You'll notice that none of the band members is named Tyler Robinson, though. Unfortunately, there's a pretty sad story behind the name.

According to Deseret News, Robinson was a 16-year-old Imagine Dragons superfan who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He found strength in their music, and their song "It's Time" became a sort of personal anthem. One day, he was attending one of their concerts in Utah when vocalist Dan Reynolds happened to spot Robinson from the crowd, singing along to the song, and connected with the young fan. The band learned of the boy's condition, and they ended up keeping in touch after the concert and throughout Robinson's treatment. After being declared cancer free, he unexpectedly fell in a coma and passed away in 2013, only 17 years old.

Today, Tyler Robinson's legacy and positive outlook on life against all odds live on in the form of his namesake foundation. He has also been immortalized in the band's official catalog: The cell phone video his brother recorded at the concert where Robinson and the band first connected is included in the music video for the song "Demons."

Their distinctive style

Imagine Dragons is known for a very distinct, drum-heavy style, as befits a band with two able percussionists (drummer Daniel Platzman and frontman Dan Reynolds). According to the New Yorker, this is not just a stylistic choice. No, this signature sound was born out of necessity. During their early days in Las Vegas, the band played a lot of parties, and the parties generally took place in casinos. They immediately discovered that they were competing with the sound of a whole bunch of slot machines, and learned to counter the clanging by developing an explosive, percussion-driven sound that could cut through the gambling.

In a 2012 interview, bassist Ben McKee revealed that the ambient noise wasn't the only thing they were fighting in those early days. He says the stages they played were tiny, the casinos smoky, and distractions were everywhere, so no one would have even noticed them if they hadn't literally learned to bang their own drum.

The documentary

As a mightily popular band, you'd Imagine Dragons naturally has a documentary named after one of their songs. There is one, called Believer … only, despite being named after an Imagine Dragons song, it's not actually about the band at all. Instead, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal describes, Believer is a documentary the band's singer Dan Reynolds made about young LGBTQ people who also happen to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called Mormons) — a religion that doesn't generally approve of their orientation.

Reynolds, who is a Mormon himself, has a strange, dual role where he's one of his religion's most prominent faces, yet has tons of LGBTQ fans struggling with its restrictions. The documentary focuses on his efforts to organize his LoveLoud festival in Utah (the Mormon heartland) to promote support and acceptance of LGBTQ people, with all profits going to charity. In the process, he has to juggle his own genuine wish to help these people while also trying to avoid alienating his church, and address concerns like soaring suicide rates among young LGBTQ Mormons.

Reynolds knows that one documentary can't change an entire religion, but hopes that by addressing this taboo, he might at least help start important conversations at a few Mormon dinner tables. At least in the entertainment industry's eyes the effort was successful: In 2018, Believer received the Hollywood Documentary Award.

Jazz roots

Imagine Dragons is quite hard to categorize outside the way-too-generic "pop rock" genre most media seems to file them in. However, if you ask the band members themselves, at least three Imagine Dragons out of four have never worried about being labeled "rock" at all. Instead, as the New Yorker reports, guitarist Wayne Sermon, drummer Daniel Platzman and bassist Ben McKee are all trained jazz musicians. They met at Boston's Berklee College of Music and all of them played in various jazz ensembles before destiny came calling and threw them into one of the world's biggest rock outfits. Still, even at the height of their fame they haven't forgotten their roots. While on the road, these unlikely rock stars have been known to spend their nights off checking out interesting jazz joints and, on occasion, playing Scrabble.

The band's singer, Dan Reynolds, is decidedly not a jazz man, but as CBS News notes, he's also a far cry from your average rock star. Reynolds highly dislikes the "drugs" part of the classic "sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll" trifecta, and his cleaner approach combined with the musical expertise of his bandmates has led to a fairly unique take on the concept of a rock band.