The EDM movement is perceived as being about flash, partying and hedonism. But the rising future bass DJ/producer Illenium (aka Nicholas “Nick” Miller) shows another side to the music – and himself – with his ambitious new album, Ascend. It’s already reached #1 on Billboard’s Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart.
Born in Chicago, Miller mostly grew up in San Francisco. However, it was in Denver, Colorado, where, in 2013, he launched his career after watching Bassnectar headline the famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Miller developed a melodic and emotional mode of dubstep, his music alternating between the banging and the aerial. In 2016, Miller – endorsed by Skrillex – offered his debut album, Ashes for free, following with the critically-rated Awake. He’d release a credible remix of Flume’s ‘Say It’, featuring Tove Lo. Ahead of the release of Ascend, Miller signed to the fabled electronica label Astralwerks, under Universal.
Much has been made of Miller’s huge streaming figures and his popular presence on the live circuit. Yet, he makes a point of connecting with fans on a personal plane. There’s an active Illenium subreddit. Latterly, DJs and producers have become more vocal about wellbeing and mental health. In 2018, Miller disclosed on Instagram that, when younger, he struggled with opiate addiction, culminating in a heroin overdose in 2012. This experience inspired the glitch ballad ‘Take You Down’, Ascend‘s first single.
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Ascend is like a blockbuster soundtrack, with electronic, alternative and symphonic elements. Miller uses dialogue from the movies The Breakfast Club and Good Will Hunting. The album houses several singles like the pounding ‘Blood’, with Northern Irish singer/songwriter Foy Vance. Miller has also collaborated with The Chainsmokers (the breezy hit ‘Takeaway’, featuring Canadian vocalist Lennon Stella) and the Lizzo-affiliated rockers X Ambassadors. Still, the emo bass anthem ‘Good Things Fall Apart’, with Jon Bellion, could be his biggest track, even attracting rock airplay.
Music Feeds finds Miller chilling at midnight on a Thursday as he prepares for his epic North American Ascend Tour. The self-proclaimed “sadboi” is upbeat. “I’m actually at home playing some video games,” Miller says bashfully. “I’m in the video game tournament tomorrow. It’s like this Twitch Rivals thing come around. But my internet just shit the bed, so not anymore!”
Miller has rocked Australia before, last joining Ultra Australia in February, noting that “it feels familiar and the crowds there have been amazing, too.”
Music Feeds: You’ve just released the album ASCEND, completing a trilogy. I like that you’re so committed to the album format as a lot of particularly electronic artists are now switching to singles and EPs. What is the advantage?
Illenium: For me, the advantage, I feel like production and songwriting-wise, is really being able to kinda dig deeper into the sound and find more of a story and experimenting more with stuff that you don’t feel comfortable trying to make [in] a big single. You wanna be able to do whatever you want. A whole album, I feel like you’re really able to tell a story and dive into peaks and valleys. So it’s been an amazing experience for me to be able to do three.
MF: The funny thing is that the average dance music artist bio is full of stats and yet, listening to Ascend, I do hear that narrative arc. What is the story behind this record?
I: I mean, for me, this record is a lot more personal. A big majority of the songs started in a room with the piano and a songwriter and myself just kinda trying to tell a story and piecing like a background story throughout the album. It’s not super-upfront, but there are some connections throughout the songs. It just started really organically and then I was able to already be inspired and take something and create the whole soundscape to make that song even more impactful. I feel like, with my past albums, I’ve tried to do that but, with this one, I really was able to get more of a unique [concept]. What I’m really influenced by shined, with some pop-punk stuff and [sounds from] all over the board.
MF: ‘Good Things Fall Apart’ might come on the radio, or a playlist and anyone could enjoy that song. It doesn’t sound like an ‘EDM track’. So I imagine you’re getting some new fans from all kinds of scenes if they even exist anymore. Was that a conscious thing, to experiment with different genres?
I: Yeah, I started out producing melodic dubstep… It ranged from heavy stuff to melodic stuff. I kinda took a break from a lot of the heavier stuff. I feel like, this album, it still tells the story, but it does so with some more dark vibe stuff, but also some really like almost early 2000s pop-rock, punk stuff – but just more ‘now’. It feels more ‘now’ to me, with more electronic elements and stuff like that. So it’s just me putting my sound into what I’ve always grew up loving.
MF: In terms of curation, you’re at a stage in your career where you could go to big pop names and have them on tracks. But you have worked with lesser-known people who you maybe have a connection with. How did you find the right vocalists for this record? What was the philosophy?
I: There were some songs – like ‘Good Things Fall Apart’ with Jon Bellion, I’m a huge fan of his. He’s an amazing artist – and that was the one that I was so excited about. There’s some songs where I really wanna work with a totally amazing artist who has their own career, and then there’s a lot of times where I just feel like sitting in a session with a songwriter that has an amazing voice and I kinda connect with personally – that for me holds just as much of weight. I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s just like, “Let’s get a feature for streams.” It benefits some artists. But I feel like it’s more important to tell the story and to just connect with the person I’m working with the most.
MF: I was really curious that you had the late Robin Williams’ lines from Good Will Hunting in there (‘Angel – Lonely Prelude’). Did you have to jump through hoops to clear that?
I: Yeah, a lot of hoops. We pretty much had a publishing pay-out to I think it’s a fund or something like that… But it’s for the Robin Williams, family-owned [Windfall Foundation]. I was so attached to it. I created that song in a moment in time and I just felt like it needed it. So I was just down to do whatever!
MF: You were remarkably open about your history with dependency and addiction some years ago – and you’ve referenced that in the song ‘Take You Down’. What kind of response have you got from within the industry? Fans really welcome that candour, but is the industry becoming more comfortable with artists sharing these experiences?
I: Yeah, I’m glad I waited to this point to be really open about it because I feel like it reached more people this way. On a fan level, it’s just been amazing to see the connection that it creates – especially with the type of music that I make. The reason I really make music is it’s kinda in healing from all of that and to try to feel like a normal person. So, on a fan level, it’s been just overwhelmingly amazing.
You know, it’s always kinda scary, when I was first thinking about it, because the music industry is very ‘party atmosphere’ and I stay away from that. I think, for a lot of artists, and my peers that are artists, it made sense because now they actually get why I just live in my house and live making music and live my career.
But, overall, I do think the industry is so accepting of people. I think, in today’s age, everyone is just very accepting and understands that people go through their struggles and do whatever they can to figure it out. Everyone is overwhelmingly supportive of that, overall.
MF: It comes up in almost every interview I do, even with artists you wouldn’t expect – they allude to the pressures of the industry and anxiety… After Avicii’s passing, there was a lot of discussion about how we need to listen to artists’ concerns. But I don’t see that there are actually support structures.
I: I think there are… In my case, I am surrounded by an amazing community and people that I work with that are 100 per cent supportive – like my health comes first. But I think there is, in some cases, still that Avicii-type structure where it’s just, pressure, pressure, pressure… It’s getting more not just welcomed and not OK. People are understanding that, as an artist, you don’t sign up for that. So that’s where it needs to be and keep going.
MF: There’s obviously a lot of volatility in the world, which is adding to collective anxiety. Dance music is often seen as apolitical, existing as an escape. How do you feel about the argument that dance needs to be more political – whether it’s on something like the environment or government upheaval such as Brexit in the UK? What do you see as the role of an artist?
I: I think there is a lot of really great [discussion]. You have a format and, if you truly believe and educate yourself in that, in whatever issue that you wanna share – as long as people are doing that. I don’t think that it’s always being done, though. A lot of people just speak… There’s both sides. There’s a lotta people that will just speak what they think is right without knowing all the facts and get defensive. But there’s a lotta people that really do know and are spreading a good voice. It’s tough. I think Twitter’s kinda the home for [political arguments]. It might be too much, in my opinion. I stick to the stuff that I’ve been through – and that’s just a personal preference. That’s why I can talk and relate to people going through struggles like mental illness or addiction or anything like that. I will totally be a voice against the opioid epidemic and anything political with that stuff. But, beyond that, if I’m not super-educated on it, I wouldn’t want to try to have my supporters feel a certain way. Plus you’re exiling a bunch of people, too. I think it just should be done with respect, you know?
MF: I’m interested that you base yourself in Denver, because it’s not somewhere associated with dance music – but that’s probably the appeal of it; that you can live there and play video games in peace and quiet!
I: Yeah, I love it!
MF: What do you love about it?
I: It’s very good for my career and easy to get everywhere… Denver actually has an amazing music scene. Red Rocks is here, which is ranked as one of the best venues in the world [Miller has three sold-out shows there in October]. It’s so beautiful. Pretty much every year, every main-stage calibre artist has their own show there and it kinda turns a really big music scene here – especially live. It’s not LA in terms of the label hubs and stuff like that, but I feel like Denver’s an amazing hub for live music. And so I love that. I love the outdoors and the weather and just the people here are really amazing. It’s a very nice pace.
MF: You’ve got this mammoth North American tour coming up. On Twitter you described a really elaborate live show. Is that your focus for the rest of the year?
I: That stuff is the main focus. I’m spending so much time every day trying to perfect this new live show. I love doing a live show where I have a tonne of edits of stuff and so people hear new music that’s just there for the live performance and kinda like a remixed version; new drops… I love doing that. A lot of the live aspects are gonna be really, really cool and sound really good. I feel like my past live shows, I’ve been learning each time. [But] this time I really have the sound of it down, where it sounds live, but it also still has the punch that an electronic music show should have. So, yeah, I’m excited.
MF: You’ve been to Australia last summer. Is there talk of returning here in 2020?
I: Yes, so we’re trying to work out some stuff right now. But I definitely wanna come back out. I wanna do something big in 2020, for sure… I hope I can bring the live show to Australia next year. That’s my goal.
New record ‘Ascend’ is out now.