Imagine Dragons Talk Sex, God, and Rock ‘N’ Roll in Stern Show Return
Dan Reynolds and bandmates sit with Howard on the heels of their new double albumSeptember 20, 2022
Imagine Dragons, the Grammy-winning musicians behind chart-smashers like “Radioactive” and “Thunder,” returned to the Stern Show on Tuesday to chat with Howard about everything from their musical influences and new double album to the time lead singer Dan Reynolds spent two years with another big-name rocker slinging faith and shoveling feces in Nebraska. The group, which also includes lead guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Ben McKee, and drummer Daniel Platzman, also spoke about chatting with foreign leaders on Zoom and ghostwriting hits for pop stars before regaling listeners with an inspired performance of their 2017 single “Believer.” The conversation with Howard covered a lot of ground, but the recurrent themes were Reynolds’ spirituality, his upbringing, and his years-long evolution from Mormon missionary to LGBTQ+ advocate.
“For many years of my youth, I was angry about Mormonism. I did feel like the wool was pulled over my eyes, and I had anger toward my parents,” Reynolds said. “As I get older, I look at it and it works so beautiful for them. It doesn’t work for me.”
It wasn’t the first time Reynolds discussed his faith and family on the Stern Show. In fact, his previous on-air discussion with Howard helped to improve his own relationship with his mother. “It perpetuated a conversation with her that I was never able to have, and now we’re in such a great place,” he told Howard on Tuesday.
Mission: Shovel Sh*t in Nebraska
The Mormon Church is notoriously intolerant of the LGBTQ+ community and Reynolds told Howard he’d always been skeptical of that narrow-mindedness. “From a young age, it felt like a very contradictory thing,” Dan said, explaining how the Church said Jesus loved and accepted everyone but didn’t practice what they preached. “It never made sense to me. And then … there was a kid in our high school who was gay and Mormon, and he went in front of the Mormon temple and shot himself in Las Vegas.”
“I think that was a real turning point,” Dan said of his journey away from organized religion. “It seemed really messed up.”
After high school, Reynolds embarked on a two-year Latter-day Saint mission with openly gay Neon Trees singer Tyler Glenn. The Mormon Church had sent Dan’s brothers to exotic places like the Philippines and Japan. Dan and Tyler were sent to Omaha.
“You don’t get to pick where you go,” Reynolds laughed. “At the time, when I was 19, I was like, ‘I don’t believe this. This is really hard for me, but I’m going to learn a cool language. I’m going to go to Africa. I’m going to go to some cool place. It’s going to be an adventure for two years.’ And then I open my mission call.”
Once in Nebraska, Dan spent his days knocking on doors spreading the good word. He left behind his girlfriend and his cellphone and was only allowed to call home to mom twice a year, on Christmas and Mother’s Day. He was also required to perform “services” for those whose doors he knocked on, including one time when he helped a man clean his disgustingly dirty house. “We came in and there was just shit up to your ankles … rats, roaches, all of it. And then you just shovel shit,” he recalled.
Still, Reynolds is confident his mission in Nebraska helped shaped the man he became. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for it,” he told Howard.
Imagine Dragons Perform “Believer”
Imagine Dragons, who have toured heavily for months in support of their new “Mercury” albums, returned home to Las Vegas a few days back to put on a special show for their hometown fans – Sin City resident Ronnie Mund included. Fittingly, when the band sat down Tuesday morning to perform a live in-studio rendition of their mega-hit “Believer,” they dedicated it to Howard’s 73-year-old limo driver.
Howard and his cohorts were blown away by the band’s performance. “That is a beautiful arrangement of that song,” he said. “I loved it.”
“It just kind of felt fun to do it a little more jazzy,” Reynolds concluded.
Booted From B.Y.U. for Sextracurricular Activity
Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds famously met drummer Andrew Tolman at Brigham Young University, but what many fans of the band don’t know is that was after the strict, Mormon Church-affiliated school had given Reynolds the boot.
“It’s so easy to get kicked out of B.Y.U.,” Reynolds told Howard, explaining a bishop expelled him after Dan came clean about having had premarital sex with his Catholic girlfriend in high school. “I got [back] into B.Y.U. because I went through the [six-month] repentance process and then I reapplied.”
Howard was floored both by the religion’s stringent stance against premarital sex and the fact young men of Mormon faith largely agreed to abstain.
“I didn’t have sex [again] until marriage, until my wedding night,” Reynolds assured Howard.
“You must’ve been so backed up,” Howard remarked.
True though that may have been, Reynolds confessed it was easy to avoid sex when he had to meet with the bishop every week of his repentance to be quizzed on what happened in his bedroom. Though he told Howard many B.Y.U. students lied about their abstinence, that wasn’t something Dan was prepared to do. “I don’t want to be a liar because maybe there’s a God and then maybe I won’t go to heaven, you know what I mean? There was a lot at play in that young kid’s mind,” Reynolds recalled.
Concert Pre-Gaming With God
Reynolds told Howard his spirituality is constantly evolving. “Every night before I go on stage, I say a prayer – that word still feels triggering to me – but I say something,” he said. “In the beginning it was, ‘Dear God, help me to go out here. Help my voice to work. Help me to have good intention, to connect with these people, to bring happiness, joy love … in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
“The next year it would be ‘Dear Universe’ or something … Now it’s, ‘I’m about to go on stage tonight if there’s anything out there,’” Dan continued, adding, “I still do because it brings me comfort.”
Howard wondered if Dan believed in God any longer and Dan honestly couldn’t say.
“I don’t know if there’s any God. I’m not an atheist. To me, personally, that’s as crazy as Mormonism … I don’t trust anybody who tells me they know,” he responded, suggesting his beliefs might be more in line with agnosticism.
It’s apparently a point of debate between him and lead guitarist Wayne Sermon. “We argue about this a lot,” Dan laughed.
“I’m an atheist,” Wayne told Howard. “It’s not a claim there’s no God. It’s just a rejection of a claim. Just that there’s no reason to believe there’s a God.”
Howard was fascinated. “Think about how rock bands have changed,” he mused. “You guys are discussing whether there’s a god and Led Zeppelin was out on the road I think fucking people with an octopus.”
Considering how many chart-topping songs Reynolds had released over the years, Howard wondered why he didn’t have a side hustle ghostwriting hits for other artists. As it turned out, he once did.
“I started as a songwriter—as a ghostwriter, in fact. Before the band happened, I was doing ghostwriting for pop stars,” Reynolds said. “But I don’t love doing it.”
“Did you have any hits?” Howard wondered.
“Define hits. I’ve had some songs – one of which that I’m a ghostwriter on and I can’t say – that did well. “It’s a really complex situation,” Reynolds said, later adding, “I did not put my name on it because I did not want to be a part of it. That’s the short of it.”
“Does that drive you crazy?” Howard asked. “That’s your baby.”
“No, that’s more just like making money for the family,” Dan concluded. “They were like, ‘Write a song about this.’ So, it’s not for me. … I wouldn’t give a song away if I felt like it was [for me].”
Learning From the Best
While talking songwriting, Howard brought up past Stern Show guest Billy Joel’s take on the process. Reynolds – who confessed he’d been listening to “Only the Good Die Young” on repeat – perked right up.
“Billy is one of my all-time favorites … There’s so much genius there,” he said of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who, along with Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, and Harry Nilsson, was an influence growing up. “I would die to see Billy Joel live … He’s one of the best of all time … I feel like nobody does what Billy does.”
While Billy told Howard of the challenges of songwriting, Reynolds spoke of the joy it brings him. “All I know is, still I love it,” he remarked. “I love it every day, I try to write every day. It’s very healthy for me, it’s very cathartic.”
Meeting President Zelensky
Imagine Dragons have long been hailed for their activism and philanthropy, whether they’re co-founding a charity to help young people battle cancer, participating in a documentary examining the tenuous relationship between the Mormon Church and the LGBTQ+ community, or performing at an Amnesty International concert. In July, they took their humanitarianism to international heights by meeting with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, whose country has been besieged by Russia since February.
“How does that happen?” co-host Robin Quivers wondered.
“The band is really big in Ukraine. It’s like one of our biggest territories. It’s like Harry Potter and Imagine Dragons,” Reynolds said, explaining President Zelensky had also caught wind of the band’s pro-Ukraine sentiment and invited them to meet up on Zoom.
“It was amazing,” Reynolds continued. “The main thing [President Zelensky] asked is that, when you’re on stage, tell the people of America to not forget about us. I thought it was important also because we’re in this day and age where people [think] words mean nothing … but he was like, ‘Words matter. If enough people talk about it on Twitter, and it’s trending, then it gets in a headline and politicians get more pressure.’”
“It must’ve been unbelievable to talk to Zelensky,” Howard said.
“He’s really one of the most inspiring people,” bassist Ben McKee agreed. “You got a sense of the way people are suffering and the way he has this willingness and strength and resolve to fight back, and determination. He’s not laying down and he’s in it until the end.”
Dan Talks Separation From Wife Aja Volkman
After more than ten years, Dan recently announced the separation between he and his wife, Nico Vega frontwoman Aja Volkman. Opening up to Howard, the singer admitted that the revelation alone was difficult. “People invest in it … all your friends invest in it, your family invests in it and the notion of having to be public about something sucks,” he said. “Like, why do you have to, but [you] kind of do in this position … you sign up for it.”
While Howard wondered if the break from touring due to the COVID-19 pandemic and more time at home had anything to do with the breakup, Dan said otherwise. “I actually think COVID for us was a great time because I got to spend a bunch of time with my kids at home,” he recalled. “We really enjoyed that time and felt very grounded. I got to walk the dog every day and make breakfast and, like, be Dad, and that was wonderful.”
Despite the split, Reynolds only had glowing things to say about his former partner. “I love her, she is my best friend, and an incredible mother, and we are going to be great parents to our kids,” the frontman said of Volkman, keeping an honest but hopeful perspective. “Relationships are so complex … Here we are … at the close of a chapter and it feels hard, it feels like mourning for me … But it also feels like I’m just on the path I’m supposed to be on in life … it just is.”
Imagine Dragons’ compilation album “Mercury – Acts 1 & 2” is available now.