The making of Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive"
(The Making Of GRAMMY-Winning Recordings … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of music's biggest recordings. The series' current installments present in-depth insight and details about recordings that won 56th GRAMMY Awards.)
(As told to Alan di Perna)
"Radioactive" was written over two and a half years ago. It really came out of us getting together as a band and working with Alex Da Kid, who was our producer on that song. He comes from a very urban, hip-hop background. This was perfect for us because we were already into that — rock with an urban rhythmic side to it. So we started to work out some music. I really wanted the song to drop hard and sound different than anything else.
I started writing the vocal melodies and lyrics as the band was fleshing out the instrumentation and vibing off Alex. The song references the apocalypse and things like that, but it's not so literal. It's really more metaphorical — a song about rising up and becoming self-empowered, and also about my own personal struggle with depression and anxiety.
All of our demos start off really basic, mainly just chord progressions and melodies. We've always felt that you have to get that right first. Production is really secondary to that. If you don't have a good song melodically, you don't have a good song, no matter what you do to it.
We recorded "Radioactive" at Westlake Audio in Los Angeles, which was really cool. It's a great studio. Michael Jackson worked there a lot. He had his own little room built there for his pet monkey, Bubbles, so that Bubbles could watch [him] while he was recording. It was really cool to be in the same room where Michael Jackson worked. We put our bass player Ben [McKee] in the Bubbles room. We felt that was the best setting for him. He can be a bit of a monkey at times — very playful.
We play a lot of our songs live in the studio and then build upon that, because we want to get that initial feel and groove from a live performance and then fine-tune it after that. It's got to have that organic swing to it; that human feel.
The lead vocal for "Radioactive" came together pretty quickly. It's a mood thing for me. I have to be in the right headspace to really feel the message of the song. If you're just singing words that you wrote down on a piece of paper, it ends up sounding kind of bland. But on "Radioactive," I was really feeling what I was singing. It was a confusing time in my life. And I think a genuine sense of my frustration really came through in the song. I sang it very percussively, slamming the words down. I grew up playing drums before I was a singer, and I think that influences how I sing. We wanted the instrumentation to really mimic that drop — that percussive feel in the vocal.
And I definitely remember amping myself up to get the chorus to feel right. It's really high in my vocal register. I'm a baritone, and that's a very high part for a baritone. "Radioactive" definitely tears into my vocal chords every time I do it. But I feel like that's where the real emotion lies.
(At the 56th GRAMMY Awards, Imagine Dragons — vocalist Dan Reynolds, guitarist Wayne Sermon, drummer Daniel Platzman, and bassist Ben McKee — won Best Rock Performance for "Radioactive," marking the first win of the group's career. Imagine Dragons will be among the acts performing at the iTunes Festival taking place March 11–15 during South by Southwest.)
(Veteran music journalist Alan di Perna is a contributing editor for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado. His liner notes credits include Santana Live At The Fillmore East, the deluxe reissue of AC/DC's The Razor's Edge and Rhino Records' Heavy Metal Hits Of The '80s [Vols. 1 and 3].)