A weird thing happened when the four members of the alt-rock band Imagine Dragons sat down to listen to their new album all the way through. They actually liked it.
"This was the first record that I think after we created it and we listened to it, we all went, for the first time, 'Yes. This is Imagine Dragons and we're proud of this,''' said lead singer Dan Reynolds. "That doesn't happen very often in this band, to be honest with you.''
The Las Vegas-based quartet, which likes to blend rock and hip-hop, has always been its toughest critic, but on "Evolve,'' band members had to learn to let go. They relied on producers for the first time — Swedish duo Mattman & Robin, who won a Grammy for Taylor Swift's "1989,'' and Joel Little, who produced Lorde's "Pure Heroine'' — to shepherd the album all the way through.
"We knew as a band one of our biggest flaws was overproducing ourselves. We've known it since the beginning and we've had so many conversations as a band saying, 'How do we peel back?' And we just couldn't do it until finally somebody walked into the room and slapped our head,'' Reynolds said.
The new approach reflects a lot of changes behind the scenes at Imagine Dragons, now re-entering the spotlight after more than a year away as a happier — maybe even sunnier — band. The first single, "Believer,'' is already a hit.
The group ground away in obscurity for years — even for sharing a bill with mimes — until being signed by producer Alex da Kid and seeing massive success with the 2012 release of the hit "Radioactive.'' Their second album, "Smoke + Mirrors,'' went gold but didn't reach the sales height of their debut, "Night Visions.'' They spent seven years touring, a grueling schedule that took its toll.
"I think it kind of snuck up on us a little bit, to be honest. The change happened pretty fast. We were this tiny little band that struggled and struggled for so long and played any show we could — I mean, we opened for mimes, for heaven's sake. And that was by far not our worst gig,'' said guitarist Wayne Sermon.
By the time they blew up — with a Grammy Award and arena tours — band members feared the success would stop if they stopped.
"It was sort of unhealthy for us, so this year-break was amazing,'' said Sermon. "I think it reflects in the music. I think the music is brighter. I think it's cleaner. I think more vibrant.''
The break was most appreciated by Reynolds, who has always been frank about his battles with depression. He was desperate to get home and reconnect with his 4-year-old daughter, his wife and friends.
"I was in a really just scattered, depressed headspace, and I think it just came from a sense of losing my sense of self almost to a degree and all the abrupt changes. I had dealt with depression when I was young, but it really took on a whole new level and it was kind of a full year,'' he said.
"I did a lot of self-work, read a lot of books, met with a lot of people who helped me find a healthier headspace and got to a really wonderful, colorful, good headspace, which has been just great.''
To make "Evolve,'' the band leaned on Alex da Kid and new collaborators like Joel Little and Mattman & Robin. Imagine Dragons turned to the duo for several songs chiefly because they were very opinionated and very minimalistic.
Reynolds and Sermon recall working in the studio for hours, trying all kinds of song approaches, until one of the Swedish producers smiled or just nodded.
"They helped us see the weakness of what we'd done and the strengths and try to make a more evolved version of what Imagine Dragons was sonically while also retaining the elements that made the band who they were,'' Reynolds said.
Reynolds, whose wife recently gave birth to twins, also was freed up to push himself lyrically, turning for the first time to address love on songs like "Walking the Wire'' and "I'll Make It Up to You.''
"Since I was in a healthy headspace for the first time in a long time, love was exciting to me and it wasn't cliched or corny. It was beautiful and interesting. So I found myself writing about love.''
After spending much of the summer on tour in Europe, the band returns for a fall swing through the United States. Life on the road may be a grind but they say the reward is the ultimate high of playing live.
"Cliff jumping isn't as exciting to me as the idea of going onstage and playing for people who got a babysitter, fought traffic, paid extra for parking and showed up,'' said Sermon.