Dragons Still Imagining Through Lockdown
Imagine Dragons’ songwriter & guitarist Wayne Sermon on Writing 'Mercury - Act I' in Lockdown and the Power of Effortless Songwriting
Producer/guitarist Wayne Sermon and his bandmates in Imagine Dragons entered the studio with Rick Rubin to record their latest album after months separated by the COVID19 lockdowns. Although the in-person sessions were cathartic for the group, they also demonstrated how productive they had been in their separation when they arrived with dozens of completed songs that they considered among their best. The ability to work remotely and draw upon the feelings of isolation and longing gave the group a fresh, creative energy, and has resulted in Mercury – Act 1. As one of the driving creative forces in the group, Sermon relied on his well-stocked home studio and his Amphion Two18 and BaseTwo25 bass extension system during this process.
Chasing artistic simplicity
Although the band typically prefers to write in the room as a group, the challenge of writing remotely presented them with some new opportunities. For Sermon this was a way to put his evolving concepts of production and songwriting to the test, focusing on providing Imagine Dragons singer Dan Reynolds with the bare bones of a track that would summon up strong emotions in his performance. “I think when you are working on a track at home the temptation is there to really go big on the production — make it seem larger than it may require,” he explained. “What I’ve found though is that vocalists respond best to simple ideas that leave them room to really work. Some of my favourite songs of ours have started from places like this.”
Sermon says that his first love was always pop music, despite being a Berklee-educated musician with a grounding in jazz and ‘shred’ guitar playing. As the group has evolved, he has pushed himself to explore a sort of artistic minimalism —prioritised memorable melodies and relatable emotions in songwriting above all else. These concepts came to the fore when generating ideas for Mercury – Act 1, resulting in some of the most direct songwriting of the band’s career to date. “When we wrote ‘One Day’, the last track on the record, it really was just one of those songs that came out effortlessly in ten minutes,” he said. “It’s incredibly difficult to write a truly good, simple song, so when they do come out you have to learn to trust yourself and appreciate what’s happened because it’s so rare.”
“At the end of the day, my song-craft is really focused on providing the proper environment for the vocalist,” he continued. “I still love to shred and respect people who can do it well, but good melodies and lyrics are what connect you to the audience. Making sure that everything is in support of that in my writing and production is incredibly important, and that’s driven my approach to what I use to put these tracks together.
Clarity and inspiration
Many Imagine Dragons tracks start in Sermon’s well-stocked home studio. Working in Ableton, he uses a plethora of VSTs and plugins in addition to some of his favourite analog gear including the Roland Jupiter, Juno 106, and Yamaha CS60 synthesisers. To make the most out of his favourite mix of digital and analog gear, Sermon utilises an Amphion monitoring setup consisting of a pair of Two18s powered by a matching Amphion amplifier. “Amphion work so well because they have the right mindset for how frequencies should be presented,” he explained. “500 to 2-3k are the ‘money’ frequencies in most music — you can hear those no matter what device you’re listening on — so to get them with such clarity and balance has been a real game-changer. Once you can get those frequencies tuned in, they sound great everywhere.”
In addition to his Two18s, Sermon also uses the Amphion BaseTwo25 for a three-way full-range system. Although not traditionally a fan of subwoofers, Sermon has found this to be an effective way of controlling the lower octave while still feeling like a natural extension of his existing monitoring setup. “Subs have a way of not integrating very well and muddying up the imaging in a lot of monitor setups,” he said. “What’s great about BaseTwo25 is that the imaging is just as clear and allows you to be extra confident when mixing 80hz and down — super important when thinking about how mixes will sound on a car stereo.”
Although he still prefers working face-to-face with his bandmates in the studio, Sermon says that the effectiveness of his home setup has proven to be artistically inspiring. Being able to work quickly and efficiently has been a boon to the band’s songwriting, and ultimately helped Mercury: Act 1 achieve liftoff. “It’s been interesting how this process has influenced the art we’re making now — it’s really something that couldn’t be done twenty years ago,” he said.