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?
BOTTLEROCK NAPA VALLEY
Biggest-selling band du jour: Imagine Dragons
Most likely to lose the mic crowd-surfing: Cage the Elephant
If only it was 1988, they’d start a Wine Country riot: Public Enemy
Son of Ziggy, grandson of Bob: Daniel “Bambaata” Marley
Biggest blast from the past: Robert Plant
So what if they’re not all related: The Avett Brothers
The only band to pull their name from Variety’s “Slanguage Dictionary”: Passion Pit
Best local nod: Brothers Comatose
Best hair day: No Doubt
Most in need of subtitles: Gipsy Kings
Most likely to say his name is Snoop Lion: Snoop Dogg
Just named as an opener for The Rolling Stones: AWOLNATION