X on Stage: Illenium returns to Aspen for two-night X Games weekend run
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday. Jan. 21 & Saturday, Jan. 22
How much: $180-$375/Friday; Sold out Saturday
Tickets: Belly Up box office; bellyupaspen.com
When the DJ and EDM producer Illenium started to get serious about making music and putting in his time on the Denver club scene, his modest hope was to be able to play music full-time and grow a community around his shows.
As he has risen into the stratosphere of pop superstardom, the 31-year-old born Nicholas Miller has breezed past that goal and most any he could have set for himself. Crossing over in genre from pop to punk to hip-hop and in-between, Miller has filled Red Rocks Amphitheater many times, sold out Madison Square Garden, worked with his boyhood heroes like Blink-182’s Tom Delonge and topped the dance charts with his 2019 album “Ascend,” collaborating on ubiquitous hits like “Takeaway” (with the Chainsmokers) and “Good Things Fall Apart” (with Jon Bellion), seeing his tracks streamed by the billions and getting nominated recently for his first Grammy.
“A lot of the bucket list items that I had two or three years ago, I have checked off,” Miller said this week in a video interview from his home in Denver, “which is insane.”
This X Games weekend Miller returns to Aspen, where he worked in the service industry about a decade ago while living in Carbondale and getting his feet under him in Colorado. He’ll headline two nights at Belly Up Aspen, which is serving as the concert hub for this year’s games, as X Games is not hosting its big outdoor music festival at Buttermilk Ski Area (Illenium headlined one of those in January 2020).
In July, Illenium headlined the first concert at the new Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. The rare thrill of playing a stadium show — for Illenium an epic four-hour, three-part set with a sold-out crowd of some 65,000 — made him want to do more of that kind of show (“I’ve been wanting to chase that ever since,” he said) but the pandemic has hampered those ambitions.
“I definitely shifted my gear to make it as massive as possible while being authentic to myself and my music,” he said. “That’s pretty much where it’s going to stay.”
His goal may not have been mainstream, big-tent success that he’s found, but now that Miller is there he wants his creative ambitions to match his audience.
“The mass success from the past few years is amazing and I always strive just to do things that other people haven’t done,” he explained. “To see how far we can take it and see how much we can push. When we started to succeed, we saw, like, ‘Wow, there’s actually something really special here.’”
Miller moved to Colorado in 2013, immersing himself in Denver’s blossoming EDM scene, learning everything he could from his peers and in music classes at the University of Colorado Denver. He recalled breakthrough shows like his first successful gigs at Cervantes and his first time headlining the Bluebird.
He noted that the Denver scene was centered around community and live experiences. There was little music business talk or worry about making hits spoiling the fun or the purity of it.
“The community that I got to share that music was so open-minded,” he said. “And it was generally in the live space, too, revolving around creating a show.”
It was in that supportive scene that Miller started injecting his pop-punk and emo sensibility into hooky EDM productions, landing in a creative space that refused the niches and micro-genres that have boxed in many electronic artists of his generation. On stage, he might collaborate with a live band or step away from his DJ set-up to play guitar and electric drums.
“I was just trying to start small, and start real organic and have people that are truly interested in this to share those experiences with me,” he recalled.
Amid the whirlwind of the 2017 breakout album “Awake” and 2019’s “Ascend” and the global fame they brought on, coming home to play Colorado remained a priority. One of his last major shows before the pandemic hit was here at the 2020 X Games, playing a 90-minute set to a rapturous sell-out crowd of about 5,000 in the snow at Buttermilk, remixing older hits, “Ascend” era material and music from a then-unreleased “Feel Something.”
“Pretty much all my Colorado shows are special, because it’s home and it’s really just not stressful, it’s very uncomfortable for me now,” Miller said.
So, even though he’s on an extended tour break, Miller couldn’t pass up the chance to play X Games weekend in Aspen.
“It’s like home to me,” he said of the ski town. “I love coming up there for anything.”
The X Games weekend concerts, in fact, were born out of a ski vacation Miller had already planned with his girlfriend — he was already going to be here this weekend when Belly Up came calling a few months back.
He’s been a regular on the stage at Belly Up through his rise to the top of EDM and still visits regularly to see local friends and to ski (he’s partial to skiing Snowmass, he said, though he plans to spend some days on Ajax during this trip).
His latest full-length, “Fallen Embers,” released in July and now nominated for the Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album, is a pandemic project.
“I had so much time to work on stuff that I don’t normally have,” Miller said. “It was really fun to kind of just zone out and do something. I wasn’t surrounded by people all the time, so it was a very different environment.”
Locked down at home in Denver at the beginning of the pandemic, and then sidelined from touring for more than a year, he settled into a creative mode unlike any he’d experienced before, Miller explained, working with the aim of calming listeners rather than amping them up, writing mostly in solitude rather than amid the buzz of studio producers, engineers and collaborators.
“When the pandemic hit, I was, pretty drained from that,” Miller said. “And I wanted to make music that I could escape to and chill to.”
Coming from that place, the intensity of a bass-drop driven dance track was a lot less interesting than crafting melodies and telling stories.
Sonically, the new songs also continued the Illenium trajectory that’s gotten less technical and less sonically complex over the years, more aimed at the human side of the art.
“When I first started getting into production, I would really try to push myself push myself and try to do the most complex technical stuff, which is really fun and very time-consuming. … I think what I’ve evolved toward is the importance of telling a story and trying to make a timeless piece,” he said. “Especially with crossover stuff, I think it’s important to try to find just what’s right and not overdo it.”
For live Illenium shows, he always brings a fresh quiver of edits and, depending on the night, he might take the “Fallen Embers” material in a darker or more aggressive direction, always working an “epic moment.” Reading an audience’s energy has always dictated the directions he takes his sets. During the long year without concerts, and without crowds to collaborate with, Miller felt creatively unmoored.
“It was really hard not to have that outlet, not to see the engagement, not to see the excitement from kids and how much they get out of it,” he said. “I’m definitely grateful to be where we’re at now.”
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