Imagine Dragons On “Zero,” Arcade Games & ‘Origins’: Interview
Soundtracks for animated movies are usually littered with power ballads and kid-friendly bops. Which makes Walt Disney Studios’ decision to work with Imagine Dragons on Ralph Breaks The Internet something of an exception. The chart-topping rockers rose to the occasion with “Zero,” delivering an upbeat pop/rock anthem for underdogs and outsiders. The song also features on the band’s 4th LP, Origins — a bookend to their mega-selling Evolve, which finds the hitmakers at their most experimental.
I recently had a chat with Imagine Dragons’ bassist Ben McKee about “Zero” and his love of vintage arcade games. Instead of a flirtation with ’80s-referencing pop/rock, he considers the song a throwback to the band’s early, pre-Night Visions material. The rocker also spoke about working with producers John Hill, Mattman & Robin and Alex Da Kid on Origins and opened up about the challenge of returning to everyday life after touring. Ralph Breaks The Internet is available on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow (February 26). Read our Q&A below.
“Zero” sounds a lot more pop than your recent material. Was it hard to switch genres?
Not really. Actually, a lot of our early EPs sounded similar. I feel like there’s that retro feel to it and it’s almost flavors of a retro Imagine Dragons, I suppose you could say. But with current themes. It was easy for us to tap into the whole vibe.
What did [producer] John Hill bring to the sound?
John Hill is incredible to work with. He is really good at encouraging us to explore things and capturing the vibe with us, but then he was able to add a polish to it. He just sort of cleaned it up, added a little bit of shine at the end that was exactly what it needed. He really captured the energy that we were tapping in to, going back to our origins when we were really writing songs together in a little room. Back to when we wrote songs that we would have a great time playing for a group of people in a small bar, that would have that driving energy.
I think John was really good at taking that energy that we were creating and sort of putting it through a lens and giving it a laser focus to give the clean, refined product that we ended up putting out there.
I have to ask about the Pac-Man-themed video. It looked like a lot of fun to make.
I loved making that video. I think it’s the most fun I had making a video to date. The whole aesthetic of it, with the vintage arcade and sort of not the coolest of kids hanging out, doing the coolest of things. It was relatable, I think for all of us.
Were you a big gamer when you were younger?
When I was younger, I used to love to play the classic video games. After there were more than six buttons on the controller, I sort of stepped back. My go-to game is Donkey Kong. I love the original Donkey Kong, the 1979 arcade. I hold the high score at a couple of machines in arcades in Denver right now. We had some time off there this last time and I ended up at arcades and I just posted up at the Donkey Kong machines with a cup full of quarters and didn’t talk to anybody and just tried to get that high score.
We talked about John Hill, but there are quite a few big-name producers on Origins. Was the goal to work with new people and deliver an eclectic sound?
I think we have always been eclectic with our albums. We don’t try to limit ourselves, and I think that through the years we’ve gotten to know more creatives, more people that we really wanted to work with on the production side of things. I think we also became more confident about who we are and our own abilities, and not worrying about anybody thinking that we needed somebody in order to write a song or produce something. At that point, we just wanted to experiment and work with anybody we could think of that we felt would serve the music. Fortunately for us, a lot of those people have started saying yes to us more than they might have earlier on in our career.
How did you connect with Alex Da Kid and Mattman & Robin?
With Alex Da Kid, the way we connected was one of his assistants came out to one of our shows, bought our EP and had it on in his car when he picked up Alex. He heard one of those early EPs and he was excited about it, and he reached out to us. One day we just got an email like from Alex Da Kid, “Hey, would love to work with you. Your music sounded dope,” or something like that. It was like a two sentence, probably one and a half sentence email. We went out to LA, got in the studio, and just took off running. Everything clicked.
Mattman & Robin, I don’t even remember how we connected with them. I feel like I’ve just known them forever now. Those guys are the most inspirational people to be in the studio with. They just know the way sound works in a recording environment. They hear a track and they know what is too much and they know what is missing, and they know how to get that sound. It’s incredible. It removes all of the mystery from the studio. The flow just goes so much easier.
Songs from Evolve were still on the radio when Origins dropped. Will you continue being this prolific?
I think that Evolve into Origins was a unique process and period of time for us. We were writing for Evolve and at the end of that album, we had so much more stuff that we wanted to be working on, so many more ideas and so much momentum carrying over. It was almost like we couldn’t stop these songs from being created. The way we are, we always are creating songs, so knowing ourselves, we knew if we didn’t find a way to release these songs immediately, that they would be replaced with the songs that have yet to be written, and we don’t like the idea of something as strong as Origins slipping away into oblivion. We are really proud of that music and we wanted to share it with the world.
How long will we have to wait for Imagine Dragons’ next album?
I wouldn’t dare try to predict what we will do because we have very little self control and every time we try to take a break, try to step back, we just find ourselves inspired and writing music again. So I don’t know. We’re trying to take a break, we’ll see how that goes.
What do you do in your down time?
I think that’s a question that we are all asking ourselves right now. It’s been so long since we had had any kind of real down time. I mean, before this last break, I’d say the thing we do in our down time is laundry and repack for the next tour. It’s been awhile since we’ve had an opportunity to sit back and relax and go grocery shopping and cook for yourself for a week.
Is it hard to go back to your everyday life?
The first time you have a month at home, it’s like you don’t know what to do with yourself. It’s really hard to get out of the mentality of you wake up and you have a day sheet with a list of everything you’re going to do, you have an itinerary, and at the end of the day, you put on this crazy huge party for 20,000, 40,000, 50,000 people and get rewarded for it and then go to bed and do the same thing the next day. It’s hard once that has become routine for you, it’s hard to go back to waking up and trying to figure out what to do with your day and how to just do the basic things you need to to take care of the household and not be underwhelmed by not having this huge dose of serotonin.
Hopefully you adjust. Thanks for your time!