On November 23, Imagine Dragons debuted “I Bet My Life” at the American Music Awards. The Las Vegas band had struck platinum with 2012’s Night Visions and single “Radioactive,” but could the Grammy winners repeat their success with this song from their soon-to-be released, currently untitled album? According to Rolling Stone, the answer is a resounding yes. The magazine declared, “based on bone structure alone, [it] certainly seems destined to be a smash.” All this got us wondering: How exactly does Imagine Dragons go about writing a hit song? There had to be a process behind the magical mojo that propelled them to international stardom. In advance of the band’s December 11 performance at X107.5’s Holiday Havoc, we asked charismatic frontman Dan Reynolds for his songwriting secrets. Here, Reynolds explains how he and his bandmates created “I Bet My Life”:
Start building the rhythm. It starts typically on my computer, typically at night, thus the first album was called Night Visions. I’ll pull out my laptop and start building, usually with rhythm first. Because I was a drummer before I was anything else, what I first hear in my head is a beat. But with “I Bet My Life,” Wayne [Sermon, Imagine Dragons guitarist] sent me two guitar samples, and I pieced them together in Ableton [music production software].
Create a sonic environment. Then I start building around the [rhythm/guitar riff], and create an environment. I don’t really have a story or a thought planned, but I’m in some sort of state of mind when I’m building the structure of the song. Then, based on where it goes, that’s where my mind goes. “I Bet My Life” was one of the last songs we wrote for this new album, so it was written really recently. A lot of the new album was written on the road, with this process. I’d either start something on the computer or Wayne would send me a guitar riff, and I would build it into a bare-bones structure.
Add melody and lyrics. Because I’m a very percussive writer, I write lyrics and melody at the same time [over the structure]. I’ve been writing [songs] since I was 14, and it’s always been my journal entry. If I came home from [Kenny C. Guinn] middle school, and felt like the kid who had a big gap in his teeth and a lot of acne, then that’s what I was writing about. It was a way to say things I’ve never been able to say aloud because I feel awkward about it. “I Bet My Life” is a song about my ongoing strange relationship with my parents. It’s great at times, and it’s not so great at other times, just because we have different ideals. “I Bet My Life” came together in one night as a skeleton; it wrote itself very easily. Some songs take a week of me sitting with it on my computer, and some songs write themselves in a night. That was one of those songs—like it was already in my head waiting to come out.
Put the song demo up to a vote. I write so much that I have way too much material. We’ll make a website that will have 100 demos up, then everybody will listen to all of them and email their favorites. We’ll see what is consistently on everybody’s list and work through it like that. We’re picking one-fifth of the demos to record. It’s very democratic. But there’s more that goes into an album than just picking the 10 best songs. It has to be 10 songs that tell the right story, have the right vibe and the right momentum going from song to song. They have to work well together as a unit, have a theme.
Self-edit in the studio. Typically we’ll pick 20 songs and record all of them in the studio. We start by playing the song live in the studio to see how it feels. It’s like when you write a rough draft in English class, then the teacher marks it all up, then you scrap half of it and try to make it better. We’re really into the self-editing process. We bought a house in a really normal old-school Vegas neighborhood and turned it into a studio. We renovated the whole inside and gutted it. The guys are big gearheads, so it was like Christmas for them picking everything out for the studio. It’s feels very homey, which is perfect for us. We did the whole album there, and I’m really happy we did. There’s nothing worse than going into a studio that’s super expensive. You sacrifice the work, because you’re rushing things. You’re putting a price on your art, and that’s just awful. We’re able to say, “All right, if this takes six months, then it takes six months.” We already bought the house, so we’re not paying per hour. It really makes it more relaxed, and allows you to spend the time you need to spend.
Narrow it all down. We’ll narrow down those 20 songs that we recorded to 10 for the album. Then the next discussion is, “OK, but does that make a great album?” These are our 10 favorites, but is it 10 slow ballads that have nothing to do with each other lyrically? That’s not going to be a good album. We need to open our minds, go back to the drawing board and see what songs tell a story together. There’s a big whiteboard in the studio, and we write ideas or jot down different songs down and see how they look together and erase it and put up something else. It’s an editing process. There are a lot of elements that go into it, but somehow we carve through the chaos.
Try to like it! A lot of artists I meet are very self-critical and never happy. Looking back even at Night Visions, there are a million things I’d do different now. At the end of the day you just have to learn to be proud of your work, but of course, you hate everything you do. It’s just an awful life being an artist. But it’s also great, because you’re happy when you create something for the moment that you create it—that’s about the only time you’re happy with it.
X107.5’s Holiday Havoc, 8 p.m. Dec. 11, The Joint at the Hard Rock, $44.50 and up, HardRockHotel.com.