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.
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.
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.
You can read the full interview in Bass Guitar Magazine issue 125, available at ye olde newsagents or online at www.virtualnewsagent.com.