Ben McKee of Las Vegas rockers Imagine Dragons is a bassist in a hugely enviable position. With his band selling out arenas across the planet, and their songs breaking records in an era when the music industry is in its death throes, McKee and his comrades are defeating the paradigm with ease. Joel McIver asks the questions.
Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the American rock band Imagine Dragons: like me, you’re probably over 40 and lacking the time or energy to dig too deeply into new music. But it’s definitely about time you paid attention to the frankly amazing music of this Nevada-based quartet.
Why? Firstly, and most importantly, because they’ve done the clever thing that so many highly trained musicians usually forget to do: dump the advanced musicology and write songs that speak to people. Secondly, because they’ve won dozens of Grammy, Billboard and other awards for their songwriting, and thus have some useful lessons for the writers among us. Thirdly, they have a killer bass player in Ben McKee, an affable 30-year-old cove who has learned pretty much everything there is to know about bass theory and techniques, but who understands how unimportant that stuff is in comparison to the shared communion of a rock chorus.
When BGM meets McKee backstage at the Barclaycard Arena (the Birmingham NEC in old money), he’s getting ready to hit the stage in front of 13,000 shrieking fans. The Imagine Dragons fanbase is an interesting demographic, comprising middle-aged couples, teenagers, gaggles of female 20-somethings and the usual balding geezers. There’s a reason for this: their songs – some of which, like their massive 2012 hit ‘Radioactive’, you’ve heard even if you think you haven’t – focus strongly on build, release and big-venue dynamics. Those giant choruses get everyone jumping around, anchored by massive bass from McKee, who also delivers a bit of sampler tweakage and drums as part of the show.
No wonder the guy is in a good mood when we line him up for a shoot (“My first cover!” he exults) a few hours before stage time…
How are you holding up, Ben? Imagine Dragons have been on the road pretty much constantly since you broke out five years ago.
We’re doing great, thanks! The audiences on this tour seem really happy to see us, and the venues are amazing. Our new album, Smoke + Mirrors, has done really well too, so it’s all looking pretty great.
Which basses are you currently using?
I’ve been using Sadowskys almost exclusively on this tour. I have a couple of Mike Lulls that I like to play too, but for consistency I only really need two basses on stage for the show, and so I use the Sadowskys. Roger Sadowsky’s a great guy too. I got into them when we were recording a song called ‘Battle Cry’ in 2014 for Transformers: Age Of Extinction, featuring [the composers] Steve Jablonsky and Hans Zimmer. I had played passive basses before that, but this time I wanted to have a modern active bass tone, so I called up the Sadowsky shop and Roger answered the phone. I told him what was going on and who I was, and that we were going to be doing this project. He asked me a couple of questions about how I liked my basses – and two days later there was one in the studio when we needed it. That’s the bass I have right here: I’ve been using it ever since. The new album was recorded with the Sadowsky and some of the Lulls.
You’re using pretty hefty strings there.
Yes, it’s tuned B, E, A, D. I go down below E sometimes, and I don’t like to play a five-string bass because I have small hands. For the new album and that Transformers song, we really went with a darker, heavier sound – and that low B has really contributed to that. The previous album, Night Visions, was recorded in standard tuning, but when we were playing live, I used a bass tuned down half a step. That half step gave me the range that I needed. When we started working for Transformers, we went with a darker, almost orchestral metal sound: it almost reminds me of S&M, the Metallica album they recorded with a symphony orchestra. Having that lower range really let us get to those darker, more intense moments on Smoke + Mirrors.
Do you use amps and effects live?
I do – I have a Matchless Thunderman: I got them to start making bass amps again! That goes into a Bergantino NV412 cab, which I love. For effects, I’ve used Sansamps in the past, and I sometimes use a Malekko B:Assmaster distortion, but I mostly just go straight through. I do use an EHX Bass Microsynth for the intro to ‘Radioactive’.
Which basses were you playing before the Sadowsky and the Lulls?
There’s a guy called Chris Stambaugh in New Hampshire who’s been building amazing basses for me for a while. The first bass he built for me was when I was still in college at Berklee. My commitment to music surpassed the equipment I was playing at the time, so my teacher drove me up to New Hampshire to meet this guy who built basses in his basement, just a one-man operation. I picked out all the pieces of wood for my bass – mahogany for the neck, rose myrtle for the top, and so on. It was one of those coffee-table basses. Chris built me a couple of Tele basses and a really interesting semi-acoustic hollowbody that I used for our Grammys performance with [hip-hop artist] Kendrick Lamar last year. They’re amazing.
How did you get into bass?
I started playing music when I was a kid. My parents made me take piano lessons when I was in first grade, and then I started playing my dad’s acoustic guitar around the house after that. When I got old enough to be in the string orchestra at school, I started playing violin. There was a string bass player there, but he graduated and they knew they were going to need another bassist, so because I had learned violin pretty quickly the teacher said, ‘Ben, we need you to learn this instrument now. You’re a bassist!’ So I started learning string bass: I still play it now, there’s string bass on the new album.
When did your first band come along?
When I was playing string bass my friends started forming a rock band, playing 50s stuff like ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock’. I was the closest thing to a bass guitarist around, and it turned out my dad had a bass guitar somewhere that he had traded a lawnmower engine for back in the 70s. It was a real no-name piece of crap and the bridge was totally broken, so you had to shove quarters underneath the saddles to keep the strings off the fretboard. Then you had to use another quarter to tune one of the strings, because the top part of one of the tuners had snapped off, leaving just a slot. The action was really high, of course, but I’d been playing a really crappy, California public school string bass so I was used to that. So I started playing bass out of necessity because I was the only bass player in the county. As soon as I knew how to operate a bass guitar and a string bass, I had a job. That was in fifth grade, when I was about nine years old.
When did you graduate to a better bass guitar?
My first proper bass was a Squier that I got for Christmas one year. I loved it: it was my only bass for the first seven years of my professional experience. It was great – it did everything I needed it to do. I totally abused it, though, because I was a little punk kid. At one point I needed the bass, but it was across the room, so I grabbed the cable and pulled it towards me, and of course a bunch of the body broke and the grounding severed. I put it back together with duct tape and used a metal coathanger to connect the input to the bridge in order to ground it – and that actually got rid of some of the buzz that the bass had before. It played better than it ever had.
Who were your influences?
Some of the first bass players that I admired were Ray Brown and Paul Chambers. Ray Brown is the definition of solid time. I used to listen to him with the Oscar Peterson Trio all the time: for about 12 years all I listened to was instrumental jazz from before 1975. I was a big, big nerd. I got into the fusion stuff for a while too – the Yellowjackets and Shakti and all that amazing stuff. Victor Wooten was another idol of mine: I spent a long time working out his double thumbing technique. Mike Dirnt was a big influence too, and James Jamerson, and Pino Palladino was huge for me. I went through my Jaco phase, as everybody does. But Paul McCartney, James Jamerson and Pino are the three bass guitarists that I try to channel stylistically when I’m playing.
You studied at Berklee. What was your goal at that point?
I went to Berklee planning to be a jazz virtuoso. It was really what I wanted to do: take crazy solos and play chords on the bass. But there was an attitude there, a competitive vibe that everybody had, where it seemed like people weren’t really making music to entertain people, they were doing it to show off their skills and prove that they were better than the other people at that school. It kind of turned me off jazz, so I started taking classes on the music of Joni Mitchell, and the music of the Beatles, and the music of Laurel Canyon – all those amazing composers like Warren Zevon and Stravinsky. I really got connected to songwriting, and learning about music that people who aren’t necessarily musicians can relate to.
You met some of the other members of Imagine Dragons at Berklee, correct?
Yes. Our guitarist, Wayne Sermon, and our drummer Daniel Platzman, were both at Berklee with me: we played in a fusion ensemble together called the Eclectic Electrics. It was five electric guitarists, bass and drums, and we would do Bill Evans piano solos arranged for guitars, or horn tracks from Miles Davis’s Birth Of The Cool. We did that for three years at school: it wasn’t something that we needed for credits, it was just a treat that we gave ourselves.
What does it cost to study at Berklee?
Berklee is an expensive school. I don’t know what it costs now, but back then I think a semester cost between $30,000 and $40,000, if you didn’t get any scholarships. It was a lot, and you can be there for four years. I was there for three and a half: fortunately, there were a lot of opportunities for scholarships there [www.berklee.edu says that the 2015-16 academic year comes in at around $65k – Ed].
Was it worth it?
I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for that school, although I didn’t actually finish there. I was one semester away from graduating, and our guitarist Wayne had graduated the semester before and called me to say that he had met our singer, Dan Reynolds, and that they’d started making music with some promise. They were going to head out to Las Vegas and dig in and try and make it a career, and I was at a point where I was working hard to get this degree that wasn’t going to help me get the career that I wanted. I didn’t want to teach music.
Or write jingles for TV commercials.
That would be way more optimistic than I was thinking at the time. Anyway, I really respected Wayne and his musicianship and style, so when he told me that he was going to devote everything to this, I thought ‘Why not?’ and dropped out of school. He told me that I needed to be in Vegas in two weeks. I didn’t even tell the school I was dropping out, I just packed all my stuff up and left my apartment! I still haven’t gone in and checked my grades for my last semester. We actually have a great relationship with them now: we’ve talked to the president, Roger Brown, a lot, and our fifth touring member Will Wells is a connection that we made through Roger’s recommendation.
Are you keen on slap bass?
I used to slap, but I haven’t done it in a long time. I was never quite the master of the double thumb, but I definitely got into the slap, pop and tap. Larry Graham and Flea were my two biggest idols as far as that style went.
Are you strictly a four-string player?
When I was in college I had a five-string built with a high C, because I was playing a lot of higher stuff. But I don’t really like five-strings for some reason: I think I had some sort of stigma in my mind about five-string players when I was growing up. I was half purist and half punk. I liked it when you could take a bass straight off the wall and play it: five-strings were kind of a boutique thing when I was growing up.
Have you studied techniques a lot?
When I was in college I was incredibly anti-social: there was a long period of time when I would just lock myself in my room. I was practising bass for no less than nine hours a day: not working on particularly interesting music, just on techniques. I used to play different patterns around a metronome, and work on classical études. There was a lot of three-fingered technique when I was practising. It’s useful for jazz solos, so I really worked hard on that.
Do you recommend that kind of rigorous study to BGM readers?
Not as intensely as I did. You have to keep some kind of balance. It’s worked out for me in the long run, but I was deeply unhappy and I was having mental breakdowns and I wasn’t socialising at all. If I sat down for 10 minutes, there would be a nagging voice in my head saying, ‘Somebody else is practising and they’re getting better than you. You’d better go start practising, or you’re never gonna have a future’. On one level that’s healthy, but if you let that run your life, it can get out of control.
Presumably Imagine Dragons would still have become successful without advanced bass chops on your part?
Exactly! Although if you look at some of our early, early stuff, there were some jam-out, extended solo bass and keyboard moments. This was well before anyone was remotely interested in putting our music up on Youtube, so I think that stuff is pretty impossible to find at this point.
Is the secret of your band’s success largely down to the memorable songs you write?
That has a lot to do with it. We do a lot of songwriting. For every song that makes it to an album, there are many more that are thrown out of the door. We all write: a song will start as a demo on somebody’s computer, and we’ll work it to a point where we have a rough version. When we go into the studio we go through 150 to 200 of those versions, and make lists of our favourites and figure out the top 25 that everybody likes. From that, we figure out what sort of album we want and what these songs say, and then we create that vision and the songs come from there.
We’ve definitely grown and evolved a lot as a band: the place where we all thrive is when we come together and focus on creating songs that people can get behind and sing and rock out to. The albums are really about an experience that you can sing along with, like the albums that we grew up with.
How do you decide on the correct bass parts for the songs?
It varies, but I like to have a rough idea of the orchestration, which we’ll do a rough MIDI version of for the demo in order to test the parts. I like to have that done before I go in and record bass, because I like to know what’s going to be happening on top of the bass. The bass really needs to lay that harmonic foundation, and it’s nice to keep some melodic interest in there too. But Imagine Dragons’ songs are fairly dense, so you have to be really mindful of where you’re going to put the notes. In order to create the right dynamic range, we start off with no bass at all – and then add two notes here and there, or bass for a single section of the song, for example. It’s all about going on the journey to get to that point. Pino Palladino is somebody that I really admire in terms of the way he constructs songs: sometimes he’ll play three notes in a whole song, but where those notes are is perfect, as well as the way he develops themes, like in Paul Young’s ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat’. The contour of that song is amazing: I really took that song apart and studied it.
What advice would you give our readers about becoming a professional bass player?
Know the history of the music that you want to play, and diversify. If you want to play music, you can’t plan on just being able to play one kind of music. Try to broaden your palette, and you’ll find that you’ll fall in love with different kinds of music through that process, even if it’s something that you didn’t know you would like. I never thought I would be listening to George Jones and Hank Williams, but I love their music. I never thought I’d be listening to Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane, but I love that stuff too. There’s so much music out there, and it can be a great source of knowledge, so educate yourself. Also, make sure that you know how to play keyboards. As a bass player nowadays, being able to double on synth is really invaluable if you want to play gigs. Understand samplers too: that’s a good thing for bass players to get into. On some songs I play a sampler, or a keyboard, or a guitar: it’s really about being as diverse as possible and saying yes to opportunities, because you never know where they will lead you.
You’ve spent literally years on the road at this point. Any tips on retaining sanity while touring?
Focus on health and wellbeing. It’s challenging to maintain connections while you’re on the road, so be prepared to lose some relationships, which won’t be easy to deal with. Find balance, which will help you to find energy when you’re at your darkest and most depressed and you need to get off the tourbus and play. Go into town: walk about a bit, it’ll brighten your mood. There are lots of experiences to have on the road… it’s all about what you make of them!
Imagine Dragons will be touring the world in 2016. Smoke + Mirrors is out now on Interscope. Info: www.imaginedragonsmusic.com.