BEN McKEE TAKES IN THE DRY DESERT air as he steps outside the Las Vegas home that his band has converted into a recording studio. Just moments before, he and the rest of Imagine Dragons had finished the final vocal tracks for their sophomore album, Smoke + Mirrors, capping off a two-and-a-half-year process that took place primarily on tour buses and led to them narrowing 150 demos down to 13 songs, while trying to follow up the tremendous success of 2012’s debut, Night Visions. The relief is audible in McKee’s voice.
Instead of sticking with what worked before, McKee took a new approach for Smoke + Mirrors, adding tinges of world music, experimenting with tones and synth arrangements, and shifting to active Sadowsky basses. It can be risky to change a successful formula, but risks are nothing new to someone who dropped out of his final semester at Berklee to move to Las Vegas and start a band with his ex-classmates.
The move paid off more than he could ever imagine. On the strength of their platinum-selling debut, McKee and his alternative four-piece toured the world twice and were recruited by Hans Zimmer and Steve Jablonsky to score Transformers: Age of Extinction. Not bad for a former jazz bassist who got his start in high school by emulating the styles of Pino Palladino, Paul McCartney, and Ray Brown while picking up every gig he could find. But although his musical voice has changed greatly in the past six years, McKee’s arrangement-based, “band-first” mentality is as strong as ever. For him, the sum is always greater than the parts.
On Smoke + Mirrors, the 28-year-old California native tastefully finds his place among the many layers of screeching guitars, droning synths, marching drumbeats, triggers, overdubs, and samples. Knowing that choosing his spaces to shine creates tension within the music, McKee hones a tightly muted approach for many of the subdued parts, while springing into his aggressive picking for peaks and crescendos. Bass-heavy songs like “Gold,” “It Comes Back to You,” and “Hopeless Opus” allow him to display his prowess for grooving, but McKee is as modest as he is patient in his playing. And after nearly three years of flexing patience, he can finally rest knowing that the wait is over.
How do you find your space in the busy Imagine Dragons sonic spectrum?
It definitely can be tricky. That’s one of the biggest challenges of going into the studio with this band: I have to sit down and listen to the construction and the form of each song, and be mindful when big moments are going to happen. I have to decide how I’m going to fill them and how I’ll create space around them.
Bass is all about dynamics. It’s such a powerful and raw instrument, and it changes the whole output of the moment. As soon as you add bass to a track, it’s huge. As soon as you take it away, it’s sparse and thin. You also have to take into account which octave you’re playing in. Playing a part an octave up is a big difference from being an octave lower, and that greatly impacts the song. Playing throughout the range of the instrument is very important.
How was the studio process different this time around?
For the last album, we would go in and record one instrument at a time, and that was just the way it worked most efficiently for us. But for this album, we converted a house into a full-production recording studio that had all the gear we could ever hope for and a big live room that had such amazing sound. So with all that, we would go record everything together and work through each song instead of each instrument individually. It gave us a little more flexibility and a little more rope to hang ourselves with. I feel that this album is a stronger collection of music than Night Visions was. We had the opportunity to explore new sides of ourselves from the writing standpoint, and it feels like a deeper album to me.
What was your mentality for bass going into these sessions?
When you’re dealing with music that has a foundation in electronic composition, you have to sit back and think of yourself as an arranger before you think of yourself as a bass player. You have to thoughtfully pick out the moments that you’ll make impactful. There are parts and spaces in songs where perhaps the best option is to play nothing so that on the next part when you come in, it has impact and you’ll create a dynamic shift. I try to look for those moments before I start playing anything, and then it’s all about experimenting and supporting melodic content without getting in the way. It’s really easy to push everything else into a pit of mud with the wrong bass tone or the wrong note choice.
How has your playing and composing evolved?
There are more moments that feature the bass on this record, so I tried to be as creative as possible. When we took our first material on the road, a lot of the songs changed quite a bit after playing them five nights a week for two years. Within that, a lot of world music came into the grooves, and I ended up tapping into some Bakithi Kumalo influence from Paul Simon’s Graceland, which has stuck with me.
Did you use any new basses in the studio?
I tracked the entire album on a couple of Sadowsky basses, which were totally new to me. I contacted Roger before we began scoring Transformers: Age of Extinction. I’ve always been a fan of passive basses and classic rock tone, so that’s all that’s ever been in my arsenal. But when we went to score this movie, I knew I wanted an active Jazz Bass sound, and Sadowsky is the only person to talk to for that super hot-rodded, active bass tone. So he sent me a bass, and it was a life-changing experience. This album has a darker tone, so I had him make me a 4-string I could tune BEAD. I’ve never been a fan of 5-strings because I feel like people have a preconceived notion about players with 5’s. Also, I’m a smaller guy, so I want something compact and lightweight.
What did you learn from this studio process?
I’ve learned to try to approach everything with an open mind so I can be able to accept other people’s perspectives. You can step into a room with an idea that a certain bass with particular settings through a specific amp during this part will sound perfect, and then you get in there and you get some feedback that something’s not right or someone isn’t feeling it. Instead of getting upset, it’s best to take off the headphones and just sit there and listen back to the part and the tone so you can figure out what isn’t sitting right. You can always benefit from that, and you’ll end up in a better place listening to everyone’s collective input.
How did you dial in your tone this time around?
I like to have a tone with its foundation in the lower mids to give my notes a deeper definition. Besides that, I focus on having the attack present. When I was first touring, I was using an Ampeg B-15 that had two channels you could bridge with a patch cable. I would have one channel where the switches were flipped to a dark sound where the notes had a lot of low body. Then I dialed in the other channel so you could really hear my attack—it was harsh and cutting. I used the volumes to blend them and serve the room that I was playing. That’s the process that I go to when I’m dialing in my tone now.
Did you try any new techniques?
There was a moment where we were trying to get a muted plucking sound, so I tried left-handed muting while I was playing with my thumb. I ended up taking a bit of sponge and shoving it under the bridge of the bass, and that worked well for some songs. I also ended up using a lot of palm-muting with a pick to get more of a world-music tone. Generally, though, I just dig in hard with a big, Doritos-shaped pick and rock out.
In the past, you played mostly with your fingers.
At Berklee, I would practice nine to 12 hours a day playing technical exercises and every pattern I could think of in the circle of 4ths. I was a far more technically proficient player back then, but I am a more musical player now. I play fewer notes, and I just dig in like a madman with a pick.
What made you decide to drop out of Berklee?
[Imagine Dragons frontman] Daniel Reynolds called me on a gloomy winter day in Boston when I was just months away from getting my degree, and asked if I wanted to join a band in Vegas with him. I was realizing that I hadn’t accomplished what I wanted to at Berklee, and I was feeling disillusioned by music in general. I was disappointed with the competitive attitude prevalent amongst the jazz players there—I found myself playing jazz in a room of musicians where everyone was trying to break down their peers and prove they were better than each other. I knew Daniel wasn’t a guy to make frivolous decisions. So when he called, based on his word, I immediately took off for Vegas.
You have a lot of roles during your live shows playing synths, drums, and other instruments. Is that hard to juggle?
You always have to look at yourself not as a bass player, but as a musician and a performer. Whatever needs to be happening to serve the song at that moment, you have to be willing to step up and play it. I’ll play some synth bass, a massive drum, an acoustic guitar, or anything else needed. As a bass player, I have to be able to fill in those gaps.
The world of electronic music has changed the world of the bass player. Bass is not something that every band has all the time anymore. I don’t think you can function just playing bass nowadays. You have to be able to branch out to fill other components that need to be filled—and do it well.
Imagine Dragons, Smoke + Mirrors [2015, Interscope], Night Vision [2012, Interscope]
Bass Sadowsky Vintage J, Sadowsky Vintage 4 (P/J), Mike Lull P4
Amp Matchless Thunderman head, Bergantino NV412 4x12
Pedals Malekko Heavy Industry B:Assmaster, Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro Synth, Brimstone Audio Crossover Distortion XD-2
Strings Medium-gauge Elixirs