How four unassuming young guys from Las Vegas made the songs you're hearing everywhere — and stealthily became one of the biggest rock bands right now.

By Kyle Anderson
Updated March 29, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

A little over a year ago, Imagine Dragons, an unknown Las Vegas quartet, released their first single: a yearning, foot-stomping anthem called ”It’s Time.” They weren’t part of the booming folk revival or any other kind of trendy-circa-2012 scene; they didn’t wear fedoras or play mandolins. They were just four guys who knew how to craft hugely hooky rock songs.

Within months, ”It’s Time” was soundtracking the trailer for The Perks of Being a Wallflower and being covered on Glee, and it went on to become the longest-running top 10 hit of the year on the alternative charts. Now the song has sold 2 million downloads, and its chart-topping follow-up, ”Radioactive,” has already gone gold, as has the band’s debut full-length, Night Visions. This spring and summer, they’re slated to play scores of already sold-out concert dates, plus major gigs at festivals across the U.S. and Europe.

Frontman Dan Reynolds, 25, checked in with us from the road to talk about the life of a newly minted rock star — writing hits, meeting his heroes, and (we’ll explain this later, promise) hanging out with monkey butlers.

The desert life

The success of Night Visions is the result of years of sweat — literally. ”We rented a house together in Vegas with no air-conditioning, and all we did every day was practice,” Reynolds says. ”These are guys who went to school for music. [Bandmates Ben McKee, 25, Wayne Sermon, 28, and Dan Platzman, 26, met at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music.] None of us were popular kids in high school or anything, nobody had a great social life. So this was it — we weren’t out partying, we were writing and playing cover gigs on stages in casinos five days a week.”

A hit is a hit

”It’s Time” was the last song Reynolds thought would ever become a smash. ”It was a complete surprise,” he says. ”That song was written late one night, and I was in a rougher period of my life. I was really just writing songs for myself, and I went into my kitchen and stomped my feet and clapped my hands and started singing. When I showed it to the band, there was no thought that it would play on the radio. It was a song I was making for myself, so it’s been baffling to see where it’s gone. It’s strange, because lyrically it’s about self-empowerment and staying true to your roots, so it really comes across as a positive song. But it’s really about struggling with depression and anxiety and trying to start new.” Mostly, he says, ”I’m just grateful there are more bands being played on the radio, and I’m glad to be a part of that movement. Real instrumentation with no Auto-Tune and with flaws? That’s awesome. I love it.”

Hero Worship

While they were developing their sound, Imagine Dragons kept the names of their 10 most influential artists written on a whiteboard in their Las Vegas house. ”It was, like, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Muse, Led Zeppelin, Phoenix, Arcade Fire, Paul Simon,” Reynolds recalls. ”A mix of old stuff and new.” Since then they’ve actually gotten to meet some of their idols, though Reynolds recommends proceeding with caution. ”I have definitely made the mistake a few times of going up to musicians I’m a fan of and saying, ‘Hey! I grew up listening to you!’ And that isn’t their favorite thing to hear because it makes them feel old. I’ve literally done that three or four times, and every single time it’s like, ‘Aww, man!’ I’m a child of the ’90s. I was born in ’87, so I listened to a lot of ’90s music and a lot of hip-hop. But I loved Nirvana and Third Eye Blind. The first song I learned to play on guitar was Third Eye Blind’s ”Jumper,” when I was, like, 11. We did a festival with them recently, and Stephan [”Jenkins”], the singer, came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I really enjoyed your set. Would you like to come on stage with me and sing something? Maybe ”Jumper”?’ That was a very surreal moment. He had no idea that was the first song I learned on guitar.”

Shine bright like a diamond

Jenkins isn’t there only unexpected admirer. Yep, that’s Mr. La Bamba himself in the band’s ”Radioactive” video. ”It was so crazy,” Reynolds recalls. ”He just reached out to us and said, ‘I’m a fan, I’d like to be in your video.’ And we were like, ‘Lou Diamond Phillips wants to be in a video? One hundred percent yes! Where do I sign?”’

Monkey Business

With success inevitable come new perks: The guys recently got to retire their old airport shuttle (dubbed the Dragon Wagon) in favor of a proper tour bus, and they’ve also gotten some upgrades on their show rider — a.k.a. the performance contract that lets artists request everything from white orchids in their dressing room to only brown M&M’s in their candy bowls — that were, well, unexpected: ”We thought it would be funny to put on our rider that we wanted a butler monkey, just to see if people were reading it,” Reynolds admits. ”So we’re in this venue, and they brought out this old dude dressed in a monkey outfit. We got a kick out of that. Then the next night, at the next venue, they brought in a live monkey dressed up like a butler. So we all took pictures with it, except for Wayne, who is deathly afraid of monkeys. Now we’ve changed it to a penguin. We’ve had a few stuffed penguins. We have yet to see a live penguin.”