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How Rick Rubin and a Psychedelic Experience Helped Imagine Dragons Reimagine Themselves

Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds explains the very personal origins of the band’s first new songs in three years

Imagine Dragons

Neil Krug*

Imagine Dragons’ just-released “Cutthroat” is, by far, the edgiest single of the band’s career. That song, and the more buoyant “Follow You,” are the first teasers from an as-yet-unannounced new album from the group, which will be their first release since 2018. Frontman Dan Reynolds explains how the new album’s producer, Rick Rubin, along with an experience with ayahuasca, helped him reshape his band and his life.

“Cutthroat” is really different for you guys.
Rick dug in really hard with us on that song in particular. Rick was like no one else I’ve ever worked with. With the legend of Rick Rubin, you don’t really know what to expect. Other than the pictures you see of him laying on the couch while he was working with Kanye West or something. But he was so different than I expected.

How so?
I always thought of him as  this very hands-off lord overseer, or as a man of few words, I guess. And he was not that. He was very hands-on, very actively engaged. I guess the the part that matched my expectations was, he was very direct. That’s what I liked the most. We typically self-produced our music, for the most part. And sometimes that’s good for us, and sometimes it makes it hard, because you have four guys that are all going in different directions. But Rick was really good at just leading the ship and being very direct and not mincing words. If he liked something, he liked it. And if he didn’t like it, he told you it was terrible. I think we needed that.

During Covid, I sent him 100 songs that I’d worked on over the prior three years. And he wrote comments on every single song in an email. This is when we were just talking about whether or not to work together and getting to know each other. I wasn’t expecting that. I felt like he was going to say, “This is too much for me to listen to,” or not really dig in. But he dug in on all of them and gave me very direct comments.

How did the two of you get connected in the first place?
Well, I was really familiar with his work because I grew up on a lot of hip-hop. He worked on records that were very influential to me, whether it was Kanye or whether it was the Beastie Boys. I saw Rick, you know, always there. Especially with Kanye, I heard him pushing in ways that almost felt uncomfortable. And I think Imagine Dragons has needed that. I feel like one of our biggest flaws as a band is comfort. With “Cutthroat,” for instance, he embraced the parts of Imagine Dragons that were a little uncomfortable for me, that usually I would kind of hide. I would have never put that song out, or never explored that demo, because it’s too strange for Imagine Dragons or something. But he helped me embrace that and love that about myself. And that really helped the process.

Given the references to Wellbutrin and serotonin on that song, I take it you’re addressing your experiences with depression.
Yeah, that song is really an exorcism of self-loathing. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of years of my life kind of [feeling] “woe is me.” I don’t know if depression is a genetic thing for me or whether it came from religious crisis. I was raised in Mormonism, and it wasn’t really for me. That was hard for me to come to terms with in my brain. But for whatever reason, around my teenage years, I really started to deal with mental illness, seeing a therapist and trying different medications.

That was the focus of all my music, and [there was] a great amount of focus on self. And that song is about kind of exorcising, trying to cut out, that self-pity, and embracing life and all that I’ve been given. A big theme of “Cutthroat” and a lot of the songs on the record is the finality of life. I lost my sister-in-law to cancer last year. I was actually in the room with my brother when she passed. They have seven kids. It was the first time I’d ever actually been in the room with someone who passed away, and that really hit me in in a different way, making me think about every day differently, and how am I spending my time. The year before that, one of my best friends took his life. It just makes you grateful for your health, grateful for each day. People will hear it and think the song is angry at someone else. But it’s really angry at itself.

How did you get to that place?
Something I explored that was really life-changing for me is, I did ayahuasca. It was really transformative for me, in helping me to see things that don’t matter and letting go of those things and seeing things that do matter and embracing those things. So that really transformed this whole record for me. Obviously, I’m not looking to come out and be, like, Mr. Ayahuasca or something. But it was really transformative for me. It helped me to make leaps and strides in my mental health.

What were the circumstances like? Did you go to the jungle, or just sit in your living room?
Actually, me and my wife had been separated for seven months. We were going to get divorced. This was during Evolve, our last record, and I was out on the road, and we hadn’t talked for seven months. We’re just going through an attorney at that point. And I came home, and we were going to meet together to sign the papers in a room with our attorneys. And we kind of just looked at each other across the table. She had texted me right before the meeting all these things that were just so revelatory and really hit me on a deep level and were places we had never explored together, that were really healing for me.

So we throw up our hands. We’re like, “This is not where we need to be, we need to go to lunch or something.” So we left and went to lunch. She told me that she had done ayahuasca and it had changed her life. She said, “Hey, I’m gonna do it next weekend, if you want to do with me.” So I did a little research on my own, and then we went into it together and it just really changed my life, man. In such a profound way that it’s hard to put into words without it sounding corny.

It brought us back together, and we’ve been happily married for years since then, and we have a 16-month-old child. It brought me to really healthy ground and self-love that I hadn’t been able to come to.

I’ve heard good ayahuasca stories from people, but that might be the the most positive one. I’m still too terrified to try it personally, but…
It’s so terrifying. The last thing I do is tell people like, “Hey, you should do it.” Because it’s such an undertaking. And I don’t think it’s for everyone. But it made me see religiousness in this way that was so tiny.

Tell me about the actual writing of “Cutthroat,” and what Rick brought to it.
I didn’t know  what he was going to think, because it’s such a strange-sounding song. When we showed it to him in a demo format, it was still very aggressive. But it also was maybe holding back in some ways. It could have been more manic, I guess. I definitely dealt with a bit of mania throughout my life, and I think I was in a pretty manic space when I wrote that song. And Rick, one of the things he pointed out right from the beginning was, “You need to embrace those parts of the song.” Like, the song sounds like it wants to be manic, but it’s not. And it wants to be angry, but it’s not quite angry enough.

So we took the whole song apart. We brought in Cory Henry, who is an incredible gospel organist, and a multi-instrumentalist, just a complete genius. Rick told us about him, and he came in to the studio, we built the song up with an organ, which seems so strange to me. But it was Rick’s idea. And it brought this almost religious fervor of anger. It was so fulfilling to me as an artist, because that song needed to be angry — anger and darkness can be a really fantastic thing at times.

How do you typically write your music?
The DAW that I’ve used for many years now is Ableton. I usually sit here where I am right now, with a keyboard and percussive instruments and stuff. And I typically will write a demo almost every day. I’ve done this since I was about 12 or 13. I have thousands of these demos. A lot of them are completely terrible, but the process has been very therapeutic. Either Wayne [Sermon], our guitarist, will send me something he’s been working on, or [Daniel] Platzman, our drummer, will send me something he’s been working on, or I’ll start it here.

What changed the most with Rick?
With Rick, we went in with about 40 songs, and then we just tried to understand the theme of exactly what’s going on, which in the past has been very difficult for me. One of my greatest weaknesses is being too metaphoric out of fear. I’ve had a great fear of honesty in my life, fear of being honest about things in a very public way that would hurt my family or the people who I care about the most. And because of that, I would write songs that were overly metaphorical.

A lot of the songs in our discography, the ones that I don’t like or haven’t aged well for me, are the ones where I was trying to bury what I was actually saying. My favorite songwriters, like Bob Dylan or Cat Stevens or Paul Simon, are really on the nose. Harry Nilsson, very on the nose.  So I really tried to embrace that on this record, and Rick also pushed me really hard to just be more direct.

How about the other new song, “Follow You”?
“Follow You” is the opposing sonic side of the record. The record, at least in my head, is kind of split into two sides. Part of it is looking outward, part of it’s looking inward, a little more organic, sometimes more aggressive, chaotic. And the part of the record that’s that’s looking inward is “Cutthroat.”

Whereas “Follow You” is very put-together. It’s a love song, which we usually don’t write, because it just feels redundant or cringey for me. I’m not great at writing love songs. But when I got back to Aja and we came together through ayahuasca, of all things, it was so harrowing an experience for me that I was so grateful for groundedness and loyalty to people that I love. So “Follow You” is about loyalty. It’s about me and Aja coming back together.

It’s inspired by the Beach Boys, which I grew up on, and it was a very playful, fun song. Again, Rick really pushed me to to embrace our sonic versatility, to embrace the extremes.

Is the album done?
Yeah, yeah, the record is is complete. These two singles are kind of to navigate the fans through what to expect with this record, which is the two sides to it, and the extremes of it. Also, the name of the record kind of correlates with it. I think I’m not supposed to say what the name of the record is yet. But it speaks to that.

You recently donated your childhood home in Las Vegas to Encircle, a group that works with LGBTQ+ youth. What was behind that choice?
I grew up in a home that was filled with love and laughter. When my parents told me they were selling their house this year, after 30-plus years of raising nine children in it, the idea came to me that it would be a perfect home to provide a place of love and refuge for the LGBTQ youth of Las Vegas. I always felt loved and celebrated in that home, so my only hope is that it will bring joy to many more people for years to come.

From Rolling Stone US