Ben McKee and Imagine Dragons Embark on 2023 World Tour (Interview)

We sat down with bassist Ben McKee to talk about his playing in one of the biggest arena bands

Ben McKee and Imagine Dragons Embark on 2023 World Tour (Interview)

We sat down with bassist Ben McKee to talk about his playing in one of the biggest arena bands

Imagine Dragons was formed in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2008, and consists of lead singer Dan Reynolds, guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Ben McKee and drummer Daniel Platzman. The band released their debut studio album, Night Visions, in 2012. The album’s second single, Radioactive, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Alternative Songs, Billboard Rock Songs, and sold more than 14 million singles in the United States, entering the top 3 of the most selling songs digitally ever.

The band’s second studio album, Smoke + Mirrors, was released in 2015, and reached number one in the US, Canada and the UK. This was followed by their third studio album, Evolve, released in 2017, which resulted in three chart-topping singles, Believer, Thunder, and Whatever It Takes.

Their fourth studio album, Origins, released in 2018, featured the single Natural, which became their fifth song to top the Hot Rock Songs chart. The band released their fifth studio album, Mercury – Act 1, on September 3, 2021, and its follow-up, Mercury – Act 2, on July 1, 2022.    

Imagine Dragons won three American Music Awards, nine Billboard Music Awards, one Grammy Award, one MTV Video Music Award, and one World Music Award. To date, the band sold more than 75 million records worldwide, making them one of the world’s best-selling music artists.

Bassist Ben McKee and his bandmates are gearing up for their 2023 world tour, so we sat down with him to talk gear and what it’s like performing on the biggest stages around the globe.

You’ve been playing Sadowsky basses for a long time. What is it that you love about Roger’s instruments?

I LOVE that man, Roger is amazing. He makes the best basses in the world. If someone else made better basses I’d play them (laughs). Anything I can do for Sadowsky, I’m there. Every time I call the Sadowsky number to talk to somebody, I hear “Hey It’s Roger” and I’m like you’re answering the phone?

What gear will you be using on this upcoming tour?

A while ago, all the tours sort of ran into each other a little bit, and two or three tours ago we decided to really clean up the look on the stage. Before we had speaker cabinets and everything onstage behind us, but we decided to sort of streamline that. Right now we don’t have any speakers, cabinets, or amps onstage. Our guitarist and I both use Kemper rigs for our live stage sound. They’re easy to transport and they’re reliable and a lot of the built-in effects that are in there are great for live sound. When I’m in the studio, I love to pull out all the analog gear and my old 1967 B-15 and all the pedals in the world in front of me. Besides that, I’ll have my Sadowsky basses onstage, the two that I play most. I have a Sadowsky Jazz bass that’s tuned B-E-A-D, it’s the four lowest strings on a 5-string. I have smaller hands and there’s never a time that I really need the 5th string unless I’m playing Jazz-Fusion stuff with chords. That’s when I used a 5-string, when I was at Berklee. Now I really like the feel of a 4-string, anything I can do to keep the weight down. I had a custom paint job done on that is a trans-flag and when I flip it upside down it has a heart. I just wanted something to make sure than anyone in the LGBTQIA+ community at our concerts can see that they are fully supported and fully included. Even if they don’t see someone from the community onstage, they get to see a symbol of themselves on that stage and know that they’re represented up there. I love that bass. The other bass I play the most is a 4-string Sadowsky P-Bass Standard tuning. I use Elixir strings, and my picks are actually the thing I’m most particular about. I use Dunlop Ultex picks, which I don’t think they make anymore.

Where does the sound of Imagine Dragons come from stylistically?

It really comes from our diverse backgrounds, but also being on a live stage is where we really cut our teeth. We had five days of rehearsal before we started gigging. We started gigging 5 to 6 nights a week every week when we were there [Vegas]. People were not coming to see us. These were gigs where we were playing on a stage in the corner of a casino behind slot machines and we were trying desperately to get people to pay more attention to us and all of the bells and whistles, sirens, and showgirls is a sensory overload in those casinos. In order to reach those people, we had to become larger than life when we were on the smallest stages. We had big drums and were moving as much as we could. Dan [Reynolds] was always getting out into the audience and working with them. I think the way we really developed our sound was just from experimenting and finding out what was successful in a live environment, what people connected to, what would turn that head in the back of the room. Someone that’s been sitting there on a slot machine for 3 hours. I think that we tapped into everything we had learned at Berklee with me, Dan Platzman, and Wayne [Sermon], as we had alot of World Music influence. We all have a good sense of rhythm so we were all able to play drums and stuff and I think rhythm is sort of the most core element of music and if you can make that relevant and really prominent and bash people over the head with it sometimes. Since then, we’ve been touring and don’t do the same things anymore, we don’t have to fight for fans every time. Now we’re in these arenas and as we’re composing music, we’re thinking about the way this music is going to perform in this space where it’s going to be kind of writing music for arenas. We we’re always writing music for venues bigger than could contain us. Now we’ve finally arrived at the venues we’ve been writing for.

What is it like working with Rick Rubin in the studio?

Whatever kind of music you listen to, Rick Rubin has produced one of the most influential albums in that genre – everything from Country to Hip-Hop. I grew up being a huge fan of a lot of Rick Rubin albums. When we got to meet him and work with him, it was a different experience than we had with other producers that we worked with before. He was more present. He’s not a musician and doesn’t play instruments, but he is a professional, expert level music consumer and listener. He listens to music in a global way. Musicians that have been training themselves from a young age to listen to music, you reinforce all of these different neural connections and pathways that cause you to go into analytic listening mode when listening to music. Rick has developed and strengthened what the connections the non-musician listener listens to. He can hear the quality of the sound. He can hear a song and tell whether or not it’s going to be received as an honest and genuine performance by the general. He represents the ears of everybody in a way that I don’t think anybody else can. He knows music, songs, and records so well that if he’s trying to push us in a direction, he can pull out a record by an artist you’ve never heard of, something 300 people in the world have ever heard, but it is the exact reference you need to get a song from 90% to 110%. It’s hard to put into words what he does, but if you meet him and talk to him about music, it’s apparent where his genius is. 

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Alex Kluft   By: Alex Kluft