Imagine Dragons bass player’s road from Forestville to BottleRock
Imagine Dragons bass player Ben McKee still remembers his second-grade assignment at Forestville Elementary School. His teacher, “Mrs. C,” asked the class to “write a letter to our adult selves about what we would be doing with our lives when we were all grown up.”
But that wasn’t the end of it, he said. More than a decade later, “She came to our high school graduation and gave the letter to us. Mine said that ‘I was going to be a musician traveling the world.’?”
Another decade later, and he wasn’t that far off. Just look at the first four months of 2015: After releasing the No. 1 album on the Billboard Top 200 charts in February, Imagine Dragons has played Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Puerto Rico.
“Although I thought I was going to be a classical pianist,” he said. “So I wasn’t 100 percent spot on.”
These days McKee, 30, lives in Oakland. He’s gearing up for the Imagine Dragons North American tour that kicks off with a performance at the BottleRock Napa Valley festival on May 29, opening night. Since the band formed in Las Vegas in 2008, they’ve won a Grammy and Rolling Stone magazine named the single “Radioactive” the biggest rock hit of 2013.
So whatever happened to Mrs. C? Well, these days he knows her as Sue Christiansen. She’s retired and living in Healdsburg and “she’s already confirmed she’s coming to the show at BottleRock,” McKee said.
Before Imagine Dragons kicks off the festival on Friday, McKee took a break to talk about learning to play bass from KRSH radio, the Santa Rosa Junior College music program and his secret Brazilian wife.
Q: Take me back to some of your earliest musical memories growing up in Forestville.
A: I remember my dad playing Beatles and Grateful Dead albums. KRSH was the radio station that was always on and I remember going to the KRSH Backyard Concerts there. I spent a lot of time just sitting around listening to the radio. That’s kind of how I learned to play popular music, just sitting there listening to songs repeated on the radio and trying to learn the bass lines.
Q: Were you in band as a kid?
A: Oh yeah. At Forestville Elementary I played violin in the school orchestra, and when the then-bassist graduated, they asked me if I could switch over and I started playing string bass. At El Molino, I played in the jazz band every year. I was also in the Santa Rosa Junior College band (enrolling every summer since he was a freshman in high school), playing with Bennett Friedman and Mark Anderman. We have an incredibly vibrant music education system going on there in Sonoma County.
Q: I don’t think people realize how lucky they are to have local music programs like that.
A: I didn’t realize it until I went to the Berklee College of Music (in Boston) and I found out that the SRJC program was really a concentrated version of the best parts of Berklee. I got there and I tested out of all of their basic-level classes. I tested as high as they could place me because I’d had such a strong foundation studying with the teachers in the SRJC program.
Q: How did you wind up in Las Vegas to form Imagine Dragons?
A: When I was at Berklee, I started playing in this weird ensemble. It was five guitar players and myself and Daniel Platzman on drums - Daniel is our drummer now. One of the guitarists was Wayne Sermon, our guitar player. After he graduated, he met (singer) Dan Reynolds and they started doing some songwriting and were starting a band. They asked me if I wanted to drop out of school and move to Vegas. I was just about to graduate from Berklee, but I realized there wasn’t anything I wanted to do professionally that involved a degree, so I did it.
Q: What was your parents’ advice when you told them you wanted to drop out?
A: They were definitely not discouraging. My parents have always encouraged me to follow whatever I thought was right, in the hope that I would end up where I needed to be. I’m very fortunate that they took that approach, because I’ve had an unconventional path to get where I am.
Q: I have to ask, is that really your wife in that Instagram photo, wearing the “BEN” shirt in the front row at the show in Sao Paolo? She’s tagged as “Ben McKee’s Wife.”
A: No! No! No! No!
Q: I had to ask.
A: That’s her Twitter handle. She’s a very passionate and devoted fan who I have to recognize. We’ve only been to Brazil a couple of times, but every time - there she is, front and center, directly in front of me, with very specific messages directed at me. It’s impossible for me not to recognize her.
Q: Are you picturing a massive Ben McKee fan club caravan making its way from Sonoma County to BottleRock?
A: My guest list was maxed out a long, long time ago. There should be some raucous people there. The last show we played in Oakland, at the Live 105 Christmas festival, when I looked out into the audience, I could see this vast pool of people, everybody’s having a good time. And then there’s this one section of people just going completely crazy, some of them not wearing shirts, falling all over each other - that is my section. The only people that got kicked out of the concert or weren’t let in because they were being too inappropriate, were people that were on my guest list.
Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014 or firstname.lastname@example.org.