It’s been said by many a musician that “you’ve got your whole life to write your first album, and two years to write your second.” Illenium only needed a year and a half.
“I was really surprised at how well [my first] album was received,” he says. “I had zero clue what was going to happen, and I think that really inspired me. Being able to travel the world really helped.”
It’s been a wild ride for Illenium, born Nick Miller. In 2016, his debut album, Ashes, took him from up-and-comer to festival headliner. Since then, he’s launched his own label, Kasaya Records, and played to about 150 crowds, each growing bigger and more devoted than the last. You’d think his music would be get louder to thrill those swaying hoards, but on Awake, Illenium takes a more intimate approach.
His sophomore release is 13 tracks of rising action and resolve. It’s the part of the movie where the main character finally becomes a hero. It’s the cascading fireworks at the end of the show, interspersed with the quiet calm that comes with knowing you got through the hardest times, and clear skies are up ahead.
The phoenix is Illenium’s mascot, and Awake is the emergent moment of that story. It’s wide open and clear, full of whispered vocals and a running theme of letting go.
“Naturally, what I write is that kind of feels-y, emotional stuff,” he says, “but when I’m making a whole album, it’s an emotional process for sure. [I went] through a lot of ups and downs in that year and half process. You have good days, you have bad days, and whatever comes out of that is totally different musical inspiration. I try to harness that as much as I possibly can, not just because of the product, but because it makes me feel better after I do it.”
For Miller, music is involuntary. It’s release, an escape from the road, the trials and the boredom of every day existence. He’s got an overactive heart, this one, and music is a means to expel his bubbling emotions. Every day, no matter where he is or what is going on, he creates something, and a few of the tracks on Awake were made almost entirely on the road. It was a first for the young producer, a twist on his creative process, and the result was strangely intimate.
Those three songs are all stand-outs. “Let You Go,” “No Time Like Now” and “Taking Me Higher,” are the simplest and most reserved on the album. At times, the compositions are so sparse, there’s no more than three active instrumental layers at a time. They also represent the most organic compositions of his career, built around instrumental guitar riffs he’d recorded during a particularly inspired period.
“I was just in this zone where I was listening to a bunch of old rock music,” he remembers. “I love Blink 182. I think their music is awesome. I was watching this interview of Tom DeLonge [talking about their sound], a bunch of sad rock that’s lullaby-esque. I love the whole vibe, and it was fun to bring that.”
You won’t find any bold, brash bass songs here. He turned down the electronic glitches, textured trappings and bone-rattling drops. You can really hear that Blink influence on the opening riffs of “No Time Like Now” and “Sound of Walking Away.” There’s also a lot of Porter Robinson throughout, especially on “Where’d You Go.” It’s quite grand and uplifting, and where Miller would rather leave parts of Ashes in the past, Awake is a work he finds pride in from beginning to end, which is good, because soon, he’ll be heading out on the road for his most ambitious tour to date.
Another reason Awake features a stripped-down sound was to ease his transition from DJ to live performer. The road saw him bit by the band bug, so he’s chucking his CDJs, cueing up the Ableton and enlisting a couple friends to take his music to dynamic new heights.
“I love DJing and playing a bunch of other people’s music, but I think that’s not the representation I wanna do when I play my own shit. It just seems like it’s falling short of it,” he says. “When I was making this album, I probably didn’t do much sound design at all. I was just trying to write the best songs. If you’re playing a show and you have two people with you playing huge tycho drums, you want that to be the focal.”
The Awake tour will feature brand-new custom visuals created by a host of varying artists and compiled by Miller in a way as to best bring his music to life. Gone are the CDJs. In their place are a new custom booth rigged for an interactive Ableton performance and two band members. He’ll be joined on stage by his friends and close collaborators Trevor, aka Said the Sky, and Dabin. And he was serious about those Japanese taiko drums, the ones you practically have to jump just to play.
“They’re so huge,” he says with a laugh. “I knew they were gonna be big, but they’re like ‘Holy crap, these are insane.’”
He and his homies will be set up with full ensemble gear. They’ll have keys, guitars, hi hats, snares, mixers and everything they’ll need to create a fully-live Illenium show, a mix of old and new productions, each specially written, mixed and edited for the stage.
“It’s definitely nerve-wracking, because I am a control freak, and giving that control and trust to other people to rememer their own stuff is like ‘Oh my god,’” he says. “After I do [it] once or two times, I’ll be totally fine. It is exciting, it’s really exciting. I’ve played with Trevor before, and Davin, just not to this extent, but I know I do really love it when people are up there with me. I feel like I can connect with the music a bit more … especially with Trevor, we make a ton of music together, we are around each other all the time. It’s an instant comfort zone.”
He’s gonna take all this intimate music and go big with it. He’s got brand-new edits and mixes of all his tunes, both from Ashes and the latest release. Some of it will get dark and heavy. He’s not completely turned his back on his old sound. In fact, he’s already got some serious bass music in the pipeline, among them a forthcoming collaboration with grimy-bass bastion Kill the Noise.
“He’s the man,” he says. “I had this vocal from MAKO maybe four months ago that I sent him. It’s really dark and really beautiful, but it’s calling for both elements. I immediately hit up Jake [KtN] and was like ‘You wanna work on something?’ People will be like ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Kill the Noise jumped at the bit, ideas started swapping, and the result is one Miller can’t wait to unleash.
“When I play it out, it’s my favorite part of my set,” he says. “It’s really heavy at first, and then it has this middle breakdown section that’s pure strings and horns. It’s really beautiful, epic shit, and then it goes into melodic dubstep, which are my roots. That’s what I started producing, and I really love it. I just wanted to get back into what I did a long time ago, just for fun. I’m not gonna stay there. I just wanna be able to move around all the time.”
If his experience has taught Miller anything so far, it’s that his musical freedom must remain secure. He’s still growing, still finding the best ways to blend the two ends of his emotional pendulum swing. He has both a bass-loving monster and a cinematic romantic living in his brain. Awake is the response to creation’s more elegant calls, and it showcases that the farther from his comfort zone he goes, the more compelling his music becomes. No doubt he’ll learn even more on the road to come.
Tickets for the Awake tour are on sale now. The album is out everywhere on Kasaya Records. Listen to it in full below.