Imagine Dragons' singer and KAABOO headliner Dan Reynolds talks music, religion, gay rights and launching his own festival

Saturday’s headlining slot by Imagine Dragons at this weekend’s fourth annual KAABOO Del Mar festival puts the arena-rocking band in a prime position between Foo Fighters — which tops the lineup on Friday — and Sunday’s closing performances by Robert Plant and Katy Perry.

Yet, while Imagine Dragons’ singer Dan Reynolds is excited about his group’s prime KAABOO billing, in 2019 he hopes to be staging his own festival, the two-year-old LoveLoud, in as many cities as possible.

It’s a labor-of-love quest for Reynolds, whose band this summer became the first to occupy the top four spots on the national Billboard Hot Rock Songs Chart — thanks to its hits “Natural, “Thunder” “Believer” and “Whatever It Takes.”

“We’re already making phone calls trying to find headliners for next year,” said Reynolds, who launched the nonprofit LoveLoud last year in Salt Lake City.

The homegrown festival’s second edition took place July 28. Like the first, it was headlined by Imagine Dragons. But the growth between LoveLoud’s first and second years has been dramatic.

Where the festival’s 2017 debut was a seat-of-the-pants event, designed to raise consciousness about the challenges faced by Mormon LGBTQ teens and young adults, this year’s edition raised more than just awareness. The 2018 LoveLoud earned $1 million for an array of LGBTQ charities.

Bridging and embracing the differences between people is a cause near and dear to Reynolds’ heart.

He has become increasingly alarmed by the high suicide rates of young Mormons, who wrestle with their sexuality in a religion that has long considered homosexuality a sin. The singer’s devotion to fostering acceptance of LGBTQ youth among the larger Mormon community is earnestly chronicled in “Believer,” the 2018 film documentary that culminates at last year’s first LoveLoud festival.

Reynolds first became aware of the plight of young gay Mormons as a teenager. As an adult, he was dismayed when two of his wife’s best friends — a gay couple — were not allowed to attend his 2011 wedding to Nico Vega band front woman Aja Volkman. (Reynolds and Volkman, who have three young daughters, separated in April.)

Raised in Las Vegas in a conservative Mormon family with one sister and six brothers, Reynolds had issues with the strictures of his faith early on. But he didn’t know how to address them as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I am the seventh son, so I really had a pathway laid out ahead of me that had already been paved in stone by my six brothers, who all served Mormon missions, got married in the Mormon temple, were Eagle Scouts, were overachievers, and followed a very narrow path,” Reynolds said.

“That was really intimidating for me — and very overwhelming — especially when I was questioning my faith and didn’t even feel like I had room to do that. Because I didn’t want to let down my parents, or tarnish my brothers’ perfect track record. So I was feeling very conflicted about it and feeling I had to choose between family and freedom.”

The 31-year-old singer and Las Vegas native paused for thought.

“Mormonism is more than a religion,” he said a moment later. “It’s your culture, your entire existence. Every single day, you’re talking about it, you’re going to Mormon class seminary at 5 a.m. It’s such an overwhelming part of my life that to be doubtful about it was crazy.”

At the time of this interview, Reynolds was speaking by phone from one of Imagine Dragons’ tour buses. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: The LoveLoud festival is a prime example of taking action and using stardom to try to achieve a greater good. With that in mind, does music mean something more or different to you now than it did 10 years ago, or even one year ago?

A: Yeah, I think it’s constantly evolving, as to what it means to me and what it stands for. When I was a kid, music was my place of refuge from middle school and a connecting force for me when I felt lost in a conservative kind of bubble and needed to hear voices that felt more relatable to me. As I got older, it (became) the most uniting medium that exists. I know it brings people together and conquers so many things that divide us. So I think music is a great uniting force, as clichéd as it sounds.

Q: Can you give some examples of how music helped you in middle school?

A: Sure. In middle school, I was really dealing with a faith crisis, being raised Mormon and having a hard time bridging the gaps in religion. On top of that, I was a loner. I had a microphone at home and did mainly a cappella singing, with stacked vocals, about how I felt and it was very therapeutic for me. Then I sneaked records and listened to music I don’t think my parents wanted me to hear.

Q: Such as?

A: Rage Against The Machine, Nine Inch Nails, Tupac, Biggie Smalls and Nirvana. I found a lot of solace in the spirit of rebellion that existed in their music, especially politically — and kind of a voice of angst — as I was looking for freedom, whether from racism or from cultural or political differences.

Q: What has surprised you most about doing two LoveLoud festivals in a span of barely 12 months?

A: It’s nothing short of a miracle, especially with such a tiny team of compassionate people working really hard and believing in a cause. To double the number of attendees, and maybe triple or quadruple the amount of money raised, I think the sky’s the limit now. We have a strong desire to bringing this festival to places other than Salt Lake City. Because this isn’t just about Mormonism. This is about all orthodox religions. And there are many other places, not just in the United States, that desperately need this and to face the realities of religious guilt, high suicide rates and depression, and how they’re directly related to religious faith.

Q: Do you feel you can accomplish more by remaining a Mormon, than if you were to leave the faith, like your friends Tyler Glenn (who is gay) and Chris Allen of the band Neon Trees have?

A: It’s hard to say. Because watching Tyler go through what he did after he came out inspired me, in a great way, to step up and speak out. So I don’t know. I think everybody has their own role to play and only they know how much they can handle, spiritually, physically or emotionally. So I know my place, at least as of today; I may change tomorrow. But, today, I know I need to remain inside and speak and plead with the leaders of the church, and work with both sides as much as I can to try to bring people together.

Q: Some maintain musicians should entertain, not speak out on social or political issues. Others say musicians and all artists have a responsibility to speak out. What do you say to people who tell you to “just shut up and sing?”

A: I think the whole reason for art, for music, for a voice, is to speak to the truth and to fight for what you believe. Whether it’s injustices being done or just a simple song about love and what your beliefs on love are, I think every artist, if they’re not speaking their truth and not standing up for what they believe in — not just in (song), but in interviews — they aren’t deserving of that platform and it should be given to someone else who will make use of it. I think I spent far too much of my career hiding my thoughts and living fearfully. And I regret that. I found it was incredibly stifling to me, and a contributing factor to the depression in my life, until I had a therapist who encouraged me to speak my truth. So, selfishly, not only do I think artists should their truth, but that artists are humans like everyone else. I’m just like someone who takes to Facebook and wants to write their thoughts and opinions on life, politics and philosophy. So the “shut up and sing” notion is so silly to me, because it’s the antithesis of everything that is art and music. The death of music would be to “shut up and sing.” What a boring medium this would be, if that was the rule.

KAABOO Del Mar

When: 1:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday; noon to 12:30 a.m. Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Where: Del Mar Racetrack and Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar

Tickets: $149 Friday single-day pass. All other single- and multi-day passes are sold out, except Katy Perry Cares Passes, which are valid Sunday evening at 6 p.m. only, which cost $89 each (a portion of the proceeds from the Perry passes will benefit the nonprofit MusiCares).

Phone: (855) 798-5995

Online: kaaboodelmar.com

george.varga@sduniontribune.com

Twitter @georgevarga

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