20 Questions With Illenium: The Producer Discusses His Success, Sadboi Status & New Album 'Ascend'

Illenium
Alexandra Gavillet

Illenium

Illenium is a phenomenon, a huge electronic music star in the sense of both his massive productions and the numbers this music generates: two billions streams across his discography, 15 million monthly Spotify listeners, 70 million streams of his May track "Good Things Fall Apart" with Jon Bellion and 250,000 tickets sold for his Ascend tour, including a date at Madison Square Garden next month and three sold-out shows at Red Rocks in October. 

Born Nick Miller, the 28-year-old artist at the heart of this giant operation possesses a quiet depth and intensity that seems to serve as the origin for his emotionally (and, if you're standing close enough to the speakers, also physically) powerful music. Illenium's third album, Ascend, is out tomorrow through Astralwerks, and is composed of 17 tracks that extend the depth and grandeur of the Illenium sound.

The LP features the previously released Bellion collaboration, along with "Takeaway," his smash with The Chainsmokers and Lennon Stella, and "Take You Down," on which the artist explores the struggle with heroin addiction he experienced earlier in his life. (Miller also posted a candid Instagram post about the song and its inspiration last summer.) He says the emotional connection his fans have to such personal music is, for him, the definition of success. Meanwhile, the Ascend tour extends across North America through December. 

On the eve of Ascend's release, we tracked down Illenium for a round of 20 questions in which he reveals his "sadboi" status, his first album and what all those giant numbers mean to him. 

1. What's the first album/piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?
The album Fallen by Evanescence on CD.

2. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do they think of what you do for a living now?
My mom stayed at home to help raise the family, and my dad worked really hard in finance to provide for us all. They have been so supportive of my choice to pursue music. Even when I was just starting out and hadn't seen any success they encouraged me to keep going. My family has been by my side through my darkest times and I wouldn't be where I am today without them.

3. Tell us about the very first song you ever made.
My high school friends and I made a beat and we all rapped over it. I remember it not being very good, but it was fun to create.

4. If you had to recommend one album for someone looking to get into dance music, what would you give them?
Probably In Return by Odesza, because the album is accessible on so many levels and super palatable for someone just getting into the genre.

5. What was the last flight you were on, and how did you pass the time while on it?
The last flight I was on was from Vienna to Denver after playing a few shows in Europe. Usually on long flights I try to sleep or I'll watch a lot of movies.

6. What's the first thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as a DJ?
The first big purchase I made was new monitors for my studio.

7. What's the last song you listened to?
I've been spending a ton of time working on my new set for the upcoming Ascend Tour, so I think it was actually one of my own songs.

8. What's the first thing you do when you go back to your hotel room after a show?
Definitely take a shower and then chilling for a bit.

9. What's distinctive about where you grew up, and how did this place shape you?
I grew up in a lot of different places. I was born in Chicago, then lived in Seattle for a while and also lived in France before my family finally settled in San Francisco. I think being exposed to different cultures and cities helped give me an open mind and made me more willing to try new experiences.

10. What's the craziest thing you've ever seen happening in the crowd during one of your sets?
At one show we had a girl break her nose on the rail because she was going so hard. Ended up giving her free tickets to come back the next night!

11. What are you typically thinking about while playing a show?
I'm usually thinking about the crowd and gauging what people are reacting to and how they are responding to new songs. I'm very focused and in-the-moment when I DJ. It's almost like meditation for me.

12. List all the places where you worked on Ascend.
The new album was primarily recorded in three locations: my home studio in Denver, Rock Mafia's studio in Los Angeles, and the studio at the Capitol Records building in L.A.

13. What's one way you pushed yourself creatively on this project?
I was a lot more hands-on with the writing on this album -- actually working on a song from start to finish with everyone in the room instead of bouncing ideas across the country with people over email. I also experimented with making Ascend more than just a future bass electronic album. It has a lot of influences from rock and other genres. I like to strike a balance between not always making the same music and staying true to my roots.

14. Your visual aesthetic has a sort of apocalyptic beauty. Describe the look you're trying to achieve, and what you hope to represent with it.
I'd say the overall theme is finding beauty in dark places or experiences. My outlook on life was shaped a lot by my earlier struggles and seeing the good that can come from things we initially view as "bad." I work with this amazing artist Stu, and his artwork reflects the cinematic feel and mood of the music in such a complementary way. The apocalyptic beauty fits so well thematically and captures the epic-ness I'm trying to convey.

15. You recently dropped a "Sadboi Anthemz" playlist. Are you yourself a sadboi, and what does this term mean to you?
Yes, 100 percent. I listen to that type of music more than anything else, and it's where I draw a lot of influence. Sadboi feels like the community we've built up -- a little bit emo, but really electronic, and I feel like it's a perfect fit for everyone who are fans of ILLENIUM, Said The Sky, Dabin, the whole squad. When I started writing music I wasn't intentionally trying to be emo, it's just what came out, and fans kind of expanded on it and created the community from there.

16. What's the most meaningful interaction you've ever had with a fan?
The most meaningful has probably been some of the first fans that came to me and related how much the music helped them through dark times. There's been so many instances of people reaching out and telling me their stories. It's awesome to see people connect to the music like that. I've had so many impactful interactions that it's hard to choose just one.

17. You're doing a three-night run at Red Rocks this October. What's special to you about that venue?
Red Rocks is such an iconic venue, not just in Colorado but the whole world.  The natural beauty of the amphitheatre is incredible. I got inspired to produce electronic music after seeing a Bassnectar show there so it's kind of where my journey began and to go back as a performer is quite the experience.

18. In the grand landscape of dance music, what role do you play?
I'm not sure, to be honest. I try to do my own thing and make music that I love and that my fans connect with. That's what's important to me at the end of the day.

19. You're putting major numbers up in terms of streams and ticket sales. Is this something you think about on a day-to-day basis? What do these numbers mean to you?
It's definitely something I regularly think about. Ticket sales and numbers mean a lot because it shows that people are interested in the music. It's validating in a way, and makes me strive to always do better. Fans are spending their hard-earned money and I want to give them the best experience I can.

20. What does success for Ascend look like for you?
Everyone has expectations for the album and different definitions of what success looks like. The biggest thing for me is that people can relate to the album and connect to it on an emotional level. I think some of the singles that have been released have already accomplished that. "Take You Down" helped share my story and struggles with drug abuse, and after that song I saw so many people sharing their own personal stories. "Good Things Fall Apart" was received really well and I loved working with Jon on that one. It's a song I think a lot of people can identify with. I'm really excited to see how people feel about the album as a whole.

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