Benjamin Arthur McKee is an American musician, songwriter, and record producer. He is humble, funny, calm, cool, and also just happens to be the bassist for the rock band Imagine Dragons. The Bergantino Audio Family had the opportunity to meet Ben and ask him a few questions before his concert at the TD Garden in Boston. McKee and his superstar Grammy Award Winning band mates are a brigade force to be reckoned with as they sing and dance across the universe on their worldwide whirlwind Evolve tour. Ben arrived to the interview with a huge smile and relaxed demeanor. One would never know that he would be performing in front of 20,000 fans in a matter of a few hours.
How are you doing Ben, and how is the tour going?
The tour has been amazing! We had a little bit of a rough start due to a couple of production issues at the beginning, so it took us a little bit longer to get our natural stride. But now that we are in the heat of it, everything is running smoothly every night. We are feeling good about the songs, and the stage is one of the best we’ve had. There is more space than we're used to having and we're making use of it and connecting with the audience on a broader level.
Your FB and Instagram fans are watching you play and eat incredible food as you work your way across the country—especially that brown sugar maple thing you tried in Canada!
Oh yes, we eat our way through wherever we go. It’s a great way to experience the culture because we don’t have the time to go out and see all of the sites we’d like to. Also, we don’t have the energy to do all that. There is always a period of time during the day we set aside for nourishment and we try and make that special.
What makes the bass so special to you particularly, and how did you gravitate to it?
Bass is an instrument that was really sort of forced on me more than anything else when I was a kid. I took piano lessons and my dad’s guitar was always sitting around my house so I would pick it up and play it. In elementary school as a second or third grader you would get to choose an instrument to play, and I chose the clarinet. My parents promptly banned me from playing it because I quickly learned how to make that awful squeaking sound the first day I got it. So I switched to the next most irritating instrument–the violin, and I picked that up pretty quickly. Our bass player (in the orchestra) was graduating from elementary school soon and because I picked up the violin so quickly the instructor switched me over to bass. Then when my friends starting to form bands, they wanted me to play bass guitar. Twenty years earlier, my dad traded a lawn mower engine for a bass guitar, which sat in a shack in our yard. I learned how to play “Stand By Me” for the ‘50s dance in the fourth grade and have basically been a working bassist ever since. I actually played “Stand by Me” again for a Ben E. King (the writer of the song) tribute and got to jam with Paul Shaffer. It’s just crazy, it was an instrument of opportunity.
Has playing the piano, keyboards, and drums helped you with your bass playing?
The more broadly you can educate yourself in music the more you can be useful as a musician on any instrument. Just knowing the way other instruments function and interact with each other and knowing how bass interacts with those instruments heightens your awareness–especially as an arranger. Bass is an instrument that you really have to be conscious of in the arrangement of the whole musical piece. It’s not something that you play all of the time. You have to make choices. You know, sometimes if you want growth in a song you have to sit out the entire introduction, first chorus, first verse and then you come in after and that is a choice that you make. It’s a powerful choice to not play. So you really have to think of yourself as a curator of the moment.
How did your experience at Berklee help you get started and how does it influence your career now?
When I went to Berklee I was intending to be a jazz virtuoso and it quickly made me realize that it was not something that I wanted or was worth working for...or something that I think should even exist. The jazz part of Berklee was a very competitive environment where everyone was trying to prove they are better than everybody else. When you were watching a jazz concert in that environment at that time you felt that people were thinking, "I am better than you." It wasn’t something that made me fall in love with music like when I was a kid, which is finding somebody that creates a melody that everyone can relate to and sing along with and everyone is having a good time. I wanted to make music that nonmusicians could connect to and it took going to Berklee to realize that. And when I did realize that, I stopped studying jazz. I started taking The Beatles Ensemble, The Joni Mitchell Ensemble, Country Music Ensemble, a class on the History of Black Music in America, the history of Pop Song Writing, and those things all gave me a depth of knowledge of music that I really connected with as a child, and that helped me fall back in love with the music when I sort of became a little jaded out there.
Berklee was also an incredible environment to meet musicians and learn how to interact with people. Music is not something that exists in a vacuum. You can’t develop this skill set and then expect everybody would want to work with you because you are good at these things. You have to interact with people. You are going to be on the road and living in a bus. You have to be somebody that can be really counted on; somebody that is always there on time, someone with good hygiene and that you can have a conversation with, someone who is pleasant and you can sit down and have lunch with. All of these things will get you gigs over musicians that possess skill sets beyond what you have, because you live in the real world and you have to function in that world. Berklee was more of microcosmic world of just musicians, and I think that allowed me to see a little more.
What advice do you give people about becoming a pro bass player?
Say YES to everything! Always be on time, always be humble, and drive whatever distance it takes to play the gig. If you want to be successful, you want to be more driven, more ambitious, and more punctual than everyone else. You have to want it more than anyone else and go the extra mile. When someone asks you if you are available for that Afro Cuban gig in three days, say yes, even though you have never played an Afro Cuban song in your life, and you stay up two days before that learning the repertoire. It’s about taking every opportunity you get because it’s 100% effort and 100% luck.
How did you find out about the Bergantino NV412, and what is it that you like about our products in terms of sound and tone?
I found Bergantino at Bass SanDiego in Southern California. There was a Bergantino cab there and I absolutely just loved it. I was not into as much as the super modern sound which a lot of the bass cabs have been doing. I am into the sealed NV412. I always wanted a speaker to sound this way. The focus of the mid highs is where my attack with Imagine Dragons lives. It sounds more like me than any other speaker cab that I have played. Bergantino is the only gear that I have owned that I never had any issues with and we took everywhere. That thing has been dropped and beaten up and I just love it. I got the B|AMP days before I was leaving for tour, and construction was beginning at my house. At the time I was thinking to myself “I have it, it works!” and now, I need to put into storage until I have time to play with it after the tour.
Which bass and strings are you currently using?
I use my Sadowsky basses on stage. I was never a jazz bass guy. I was always a P bass guy. When I am at home I have my '64 Precision, which is what I play. I needed a modern sounding bass when we were working on the score for “Transformers” with Hans Zimmer and I needed a really modern in-your-face bass tone for scoring Robots, so I went with my Sadowsky. 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 (Sadowsky) answered the phone. I told him what was going on and who I was, and that we were going to be doing this project for Hans Zimmer. Roger 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 Mike Lull Basses. That was the bass I knew and he sent me out to use, and it’s just the most rock solid instrument I have ever played, and it sort of destroyed all other basses for me and now I only play Sadowsky on stage– not because I couldn’t have anything else, just because I don’t need anything else. I don’t even use the active pre-amp, I have it completely dialed back. I just use the passive tone all the way opened up, volume all the way on, just the neck pick up all the way open all the time. The sound person tunes it to the room but that’s it. It’s just such a great sound and playable instrument.
How has your playing evolved over the years and have you made changes from your start until now?
When I was in school, I was playing scales and technical exercises for nine to twelve hours a day. Outside of school, I was completely OCD about being focused and as precise as I could …. and just playing as fast and as accurately as I possibly could. I was also only playing finger style, but when I got into this band, I started to play a lot more rock and pop and even country music. It’s more about moving on stage and getting into the music and I started playing a lot more forcefully and I am not nearly as technically proficient as a bassist now as I was in college. I could play 16th notes at 250 all day long, just crazy Mozart pieces. Now, it’s about just really feeling each note and digging in and playing everything confidently and bigly and just digging in with a pick. I use a pick for every song now. My playing is completely different than it was eight years ago. I focus on having fun performing the music for the crowd and being in that moment. It’s not like I’m going to impress everyone with this fast passage coming up. No, I’m going to enjoy the song and sing along with the people and enjoy everything. It’s not just playing bass, it’s also performing.
What is your writing process like as a band and how collaborative is it?
We don’t do it one single way and we write 150 songs for every album–150 songs for every 10 songs that we release. It’s all about taking these little demos that are just a couple of computer instruments with a couple of melody ideas and finding the ones that are the strongest foundation for what a song could be and then we bring it into the studio. We just go through and try everything we can think of to get it to a point where we all agree that its serving the music as best as it could. The last album, Evolve, is the first time that we really had producers for every song and it was really helpful to be able to get to a point where they would say stop, you're not adding anything to the song here. The song is where it needs to be. We just need to change this one thing and it will be served.
We have a tendency to want to add and experiment and you really need to be reined in sometime. It’s like the art teacher saying that’s the last stroke and don’t add anything else to the pallet, you finished your painting. You can’t just keep adding and make it better. And then we do the whole process over again when we take it to the stage. We don’t just do a transcription of our album in a performance … we get up there and we figure out how to extend sections, how to change instrumentations to make it work better on the stage. There are some parts in the album that are covered by a synth that really had the vibe that we needed. But on stage I’m playing it on bass instead because it connects better in a live environment and adds more energy on stage than it would with just a keyboard part there.
In the past year globally we have seen and felt heartache, given disastrous things that have taken place including opioid addition, cyber bullying, terrorism, hurricanes, fires, refugee crisis, shootings, the list goes on and on. The music from the Evolve tour resonates with so many people in such a positive way. Do you and the band see how powerful you are as young influencers?
We are starting to have a little more of that feeling. We have always been big on giving back to the community. The Tyler Robinson Foundation is an example of giving back to causes that are meaningful to us. But more and more people are reaching out to share how the music has affected them, and been a positive influence on their lives. And that’s just the best thing to hear, and it’s amazing to see the response. It gives you more incentive to go out there and be creative. We are a product of our environment, and the music we create is the response we have to the world we are in.
There are people who may not be aware of all the good charitable organizations that the band is a part of. Imagine Dragons has done tremendous work for awareness and fund raising for a plethora of organizations which I want to bring up to thank you and share with the readers as they are all so important. The Imagine Dragons charity is called The Tyler Robinson Foundation. Can you tell us how this came to fruition?
We started the Tyler Robinson Foundation in memory of our fan and friend Tyler who was taken away by cancer when the band was getting its start. TRF focuses on providing help for families with children suffering from cancer. There are government programs and other charities that can help with paying for treatments, but the Tyler Robinson Foundation is different because we help with the unforeseen costs not covered by those programs. We can help pay the mortgage and transportation costs when a parent has to quit their job in order to support their child. We can help pay for groceries when a child is out on an expensive and restrictive diet. We can even send the family to Disneyland for a weekend when things have been at their darkest and a family needs some light to help press on. It’s amazing to see the impact it has had.
What is the one thing you don’t leave home without on a tour?
After you have been on the road for a while you learn not to rely on things that you need because everything can be taken in a moment’s notice. The thing I cling to is a positive attitude. Being able to wake up and no matter where you are and what your mood is to be able to find something positive to look forward to everyday and just a moment where you can do something nice for yourself.
We heard you were a great cook, what is your favorite dish to make?
My favorite thing to cook at home is a roasted chicken. It can turn into a million different things like chicken and vegetables, chicken taco night, chicken Pho etc. It’s been a long time learning how to properly roast a whole chicken and I take pride in my ability to evenly cook a whole truss chicken on a charcoal barbeque and have the whole thing come out well cooked and still juicy and flavorful.
How do you mentally prepare for a show? Do you still get the pre-show jitters or butterflies?
I have never had a problem getting up on stage in front of people. I get much more nervous performing for a group of ten children in the hospital than I do getting out in front of 20,000 people. There is so much energy and it’s all focused at us—you just go with it and believe their cheers and that they feel I really am that good and I am the person that deserves this! Where as in the hospital playing for the kids I feel like I hope they are going to be entertained and I hope they like this.
What would your fans find surprising to know about you that they have not read about yet?
I love to shop. I love loud clothing and the color red. I really like Bodegas near Berklee. They have a Snapple machine with a panel on the floor that you slide open and it’s filled with high end designer sneakers.
The Imagine Dragons single “Believer” personifies how the Bergantino family felt after an incredibly entertaining, honest, and heartfelt concert. Looking around at the 20,000 plus fans throughout the event showed nothing but happiness and togetherness. The bio sent to us has a quote by the lead singer Dan Reynolds: “Our hope is that the album helps people focus on the beauty of each moment, and really see all the brilliance and color of life.” No truer words could better state the ambiance of the night.
Thank you, Ben, for taking the time to meet with Bergantino Audio Systems and sharing your story with us.