Illenium, the 29 year old DJ hailing from Chicago rose through the darkness of substance abuse that almost took his life. The Reddit superstar and Billboard chart-topper has since demonstrated an innate ability to connect emotionally with his fans after pushing through the pain and numbness enshrouding him 10 years ago.
Born as Nicholas Miller to supportive parents and siblings who followed a conventional path, his razor sharp focus on constantly producing new tracks is deeply inspiring, but it certainly was not a walk in the park. Starting off by playing tunes in a random bar in Colorado and supporting himself by doing random odd-jobs such as delivering sushi, to his current state of playing massive shows in Vegas and China — one thing that strikes us is his sense of serenity and ability to surrender to the process. It will be his first club show at Marquee after a rapturous show at Ultra Singapore 2018.
“You never know. I don’t know if it’s going to be all fans or a whole lot of bottle service. But it doesn’t matter.”
Illenium’s main priorities are music, family and friends, which keep him motivated through the constant travelling and shoots. Even “Takeaway” shot at The Vessel at Hudson Yards was a purely opportunistic find and something his team had to forsake sleep for as they were only given 8 hours amidst a crazy travelling schedule to capture all the material they needed. They did it anyway. The video was unique at the point of launch, since the initial design was shrouded in secrecy and for the first few months of opening, also fraught with controversy as users didn’t get control over the use of their photos that were taken in and out of The Vessel.
Popspoken: What do you remember about your first gig?
Illenium: The first show I ever played was four hours long, at a bar in the middle of nowhere in Colorado. It was weird. It wasn’t very fun. However, it taught me to learn how to play to a crowd. I didn’t really get into playing for clubs right from the start, though since I started playing in Vegas, now it’s been a lot of fun. I just mess around and try new stuff.
Popspoken: Aside from your closed community, can you share with us daily rituals that keep you focused on the growth path now that you’re out of the darkness?
Illenium: I wish it were super easy. My ritual when I’m at home is different, ultimately, the best way I decompress is with music.
Popspoken: The ASCEND Tour has seen success with major shows at Red Rocks, with great support from acts like Blanke. Talk us through the ups and downs of touring, what goes behind the live production and what it is like to meet your favourite artists on tour.
Illenium: That tour was a huge endeavor. We started making visuals 18 months before the tour started, following which I started making edits and creating the actual audio tracks 6 months before the show. There is just an insane amount of work that goes into it. It is really exhausting, yet extremely rewarding when you get on tour and finally get to actually show all this hard work you have done. As the tour goes on, you’re just grinding and grinding. At the same time, I was constantly experimenting and trying new stuff, but it was great that I had all my best friends there as I repeated the motion.
Popspoken: ASCEND features a refreshing new sound that pushes beyond what future bass is colloquially understood as, with a lot of cross genre influences that are evident with songs like “Crashing” or “Blood”, and even “throwback feels” to the early 2000s with songs like “Good Things Fall Apart”. How much do artist collaborations with folks like Bipolar Sunshine or The Chainsmokers help influence this?
Illenium: My personal relationships with friends really helps, as well as hanging out with people I look up to or doing dope stuff really inspires me. Blanke has been consistently producing sick tunes for the past few years. I’ve been a huge fan. Played some of it after becoming friends from touring and since then the collaboration became super easy. With The Chainsmokers, we started working on something like “Takeaway” around 2017, but it just didn’t progress and we wanted to take a break from it. When it came back recently, we decided that we love it and wanted to do something.
Sometimes it happens in a day or two. Sometimes it takes two years. It just happens. It started with me making edits and not putting them out. Now I’ve started to become comfortable just putting them out.
Popspoken: Share with us more about “Takeaway” with the Chainsmokers. Who chose the building in the video, what goes behind stringing it together, and finding the right fit?
Illenium: It was just an opportunity that came up. When I saw the pictures, I thought it was a visual experience on its own. We had to stay up all night when we got our flight over there, and got in at 6am. Then, we shot in full clothing in the heat, running up and down for eight full hours. I remember being so tired for that shoot, but it was extremely worthwhile.
Popspoken: When was the last time you laughed till you had stitches on the side?
Illenium: Oh my god. In Hawaii. Definitely when I’m with my friends. They know how frustrating I can be sometimes. I definitely just say what’s on my mind.
Popspoken: In recent years, China has seen a huge boom of electronic music. How has your experience been playing at festivals there, and what do you do differently to connect with a Chinese speaking audience vs an English speaking one?
Illenium: The festivals there are amazing. I feel like the more well known I get, the more fun it is. The crowd gets so excited and I’m thrilled that they know my music. The language barriers are not even there when I’m playing a set. They still manage to sing the words and when we do a meet-and-greet, that’s where I feel the passion and love they have for my music, all I wish is that I could communicate a little more with them. I just love how people are emotionally getting into it.
Popspoken: How do you amuse yourself when you’re on the road / travelling between gigs?
Illenium: I’m not a huge reader. One thing I really enjoy watching is video games and Twitch. I have not been to any eSports conferences yet, would love to. I really dig the stuff they do at Comic Con.
Popspoken: Name 3 acts audience shouldn’t be sleeping on for 2020.
Popspoken: There is a lot of honesty and vulnerability from your first album to ASCEND. How do you keep your sound fresh, whilst balancing the need for emotional vulnerability (i.e. Sad Boi music)?
Illenium: There is no fixed template to music. When you are being personal, it starts with song writing at an early stage where you sit down with a guitar and you’re just writing lyrics with someone. I hate signing, so I like to work with someone who actually sounds good and has the same creative vision that I do. It starts by first having a story that’s your own, so others can put their own story in and find their own cadence – that way, it’s very healing to anyone who’s listening to it. It can’t be too specific, or else it would be cheesy.
There’s moments when I start creating something I hear. Whether it’s a specific sound or specific notes, it just starts inspiring me. There are times I sit down and make crap for a couple hours. I just don’t get inspired and I don’t force it. I really think you can’t force it. You just let the song build itself. I’m basically there to put the pieces together.
Popspoken: Is there a process to sound design?
Illenium: I like recording natural instruments. Like Omnisphere, which is sample-based and gives me a more organic feel. It is very important to make a space for the song at the very beginning, so it’s not completely filled with synths. That way, you can have a different atmosphere and put in different tricks to make it have a home. Perhaps even having a small noise in the background that’s just like calming.
Popspoken: What are your hopes for the EDM scene in Asia?
Illenium: My only hope is that it grows for the right reason. Not just to be a massive party. I hope that agents are booking artists whose fan bases are genuine, and are growing because they love the music. A communal sort of vibe. Not just growing for a commercial paycheck.
Featured Image Credit: Agrim Singh, Music & Whisky Lover