Rock Sound presents The Album Story, a new digital cover series delving deep into the process behind making a record, from lyric writing to sound development, choosing the artwork, collaboration and more.
Illenium guides us through his new self-titled album, exploring aspects of pop punk, emo and metalcore with special guests including Spiritbox's Courtney LaPlante, Avril Lavigne, Travis Barker and Motionless In White's Chris Motionless.
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Sweaty crowds, heavy breakdowns and plenty of pyro – on a surface level, the worlds of EDM and rock share more DNA than you might think. But what if we took the very core of those two distinct sounds and managed to blend them together into something new? Something cohesive and authentic that celebrates both equally?
As genre lines in 2023 continue to blur, Illenium, aka Nicholas Miller, delivers his self-titled album, exploring emo, pop punk and metalcore on a record that he describes as the most authentic version of his art to date. Nick joins us to talk working with the likes of Spiritbox, Motionless In White, Avril Lavigne and Travis Barker as well as building a world for his music to live in and bringing his own personal journey into his songs.
Although the rock scene is not entirely new territory for Illenium (he has previously collaborated with I Prevail on ‘Feel Something’ and Tom DeLonge on ‘Paper Thin’ to name a few), this latest album is his most in-depth exploration of it to date. So, why did now feel like the right moment to lean further in?
“As I started producing electronic music, I feel like that’s the stuff maybe five to eight years ago that hit me hard emotionally. Then you naturally evolve and for some reason today, for the past two to three years, it’s the more rock and heavy emotional vibes and the ups and downs of a really good metalcore song. That has so much emotion in it. You get amped up one second and then it has so much feeling. It’s like a rollercoaster ride. Honestly I’ve always had that vibe when I put my sets on, but in terms of the music I listen to and what really emotionally hits me, I feel like that’s the stuff. I really wanted to take on that sound and try to see what kind of opportunities there were.”
But the biggest challenge when crafting the sound of the record was avoiding the obvious, clumsy pitfalls that can come from pushing two clashing styles together. Taking the time to ensure a seamlessly executed vision that can be authentic across both genres was at the very top of his priority list.
“I think it can go wrong very easily. If it’s too stock in either direction. The good songs in both of those worlds have real feeling, it happens organically. It just feels totally natural.”
“It has to have that core that is very true to both sounds…I knew I wanted to lean into this sound and I was really excited about blending electronic and rock music. I felt like I’d found this niche in the whole sound where it felt really natural to me.”
“I’m such a fan of all of these bands I worked with so I just found a way to reach out them from the start. We’d meet up and I’d record a little ten second intro guitar loop the night before, at least to present something. Then we’d vibe on it, we’d write on it all together. Then we’d create the basis of a rock song. I think that’s the important part. I wanted to start in their world. With that, I could take it back and put more of my influence into it from the production standpoint. It was so fun every time.”
‘Shivering’, recorded with Spiritbox, is a great example of this successful working process, alongside vocalist Courtney LaPlante.
“They are the best” adds Nick. “I didn’t have any of the verse production or the builds or the drops or any of that stuff so I have never been so excited to go home and work on a song. I would just listen to that 45 second intro and the chorus, that’s what we wrote that first day, and we were all stoked on it. I just knew it was gonna be such a fricking banger.”
Motionless In White meanwhile appear on the record’s penultimate track ‘Nothing Ever After’, complete with a gothic pop edge that could almost see it act as a sister song to MIW’s own ‘Werewolf’.
“I really like that song because there’s a subtle symphonic element” says Nick. “Chris is the fricking man too, his voice is insane. Live, I was literally sitting there, eyes closed, goosebumps everywhere hearing him. He just nailed that whole chorus. So good.”
“It’s probably my favourite song to go back and listen to right now.”
Avril Lavigne and Travis Barker join the party on ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, a pop punk banger that forgoes the subtle nods to Illenium’s danceable past heard elsewhere on the record and instead fully embraces a throwback sound of the early 2000s.
“She absolutely killed this song. I didn’t wanna mess with it. I would think ‘do I need some of my old sound in this?’ And I would try and it would kind of work but this is meant to be a pop punk song. I loved just getting in there and jamming with Travis.”
“I’m gonna let that song just live in that world entirely, I’m not gonna try and bring it too much into mine.”
In fact, the influence of Barker can be heard elsewhere as a newer artist like JXDN, who has long been mentored by the Blink-182 legend, also has the opportunity to explore some new musical ideas.
“One constant with a lot of these songs was being able to produce them with Travis and that brought so many opportunities for me. The first time we did a session, we did the JXDN tune, ‘Lifeline’. We had the chorus and we had the bridge, we didn’t have any verses written.”
“In the past with albums I’ve done, when you write a demo it’s a piano and drums, a very simple chorus. But when I get to write a demo with JXDN and Travis its a full-on rock song. So fun and so different. That was the first song I did for this album and it really gave me an idea of how to get that really anthemic rock vibe that has a lot of my influences in there but also really still fits my sound. I was really excited by that. That got me so inspired for this whole thing.”
Motionless In White’s Chris Motionless: “I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with some really gifted artists in my career, but none of those experiences were as organic and exciting as working with Illenium on ‘Nothing Ever After’. It felt like everyone in the room was sharing the exact same energy and the song just kept falling into place piece by piece. It has definitely become my favorite collab, and I think it’s such a rad thing to see so many huge names in the EDM world bringing in rock artists to create something fresh and new for fans to sink their teeth into. I was already a big fan of Illenium before working together, and now after getting to see how he works his magic, I have such a deeper connection to the music and genre as a whole. Can’t wait for everyone to hear this track!”
Spiritbox’s Courtney LaPlante: “It was so amazing working with Nick, he is a living music/band encyclopedia and is such a natural at collaboration. It was our first time working on a song from scratch and he made it positive and fun! It blows my mind when I think of what a humble and relatable artist he is, in the studio, and then I see him playing for 100,000 screaming fans and then hop on the jet to next show.”
“With this album, for the large majority I was in the room from the start, writing with everybody.”
“Not only does that help me direct where the song goes lyrically – I’m not amazing with specific words but I really like directing the theme because that’s important for who I am and what I want to say and what the music stands for. It also gets me so attached to these songs from the start. I have so much more invested.”
In a post-pandemic environment, that human connection in the studio, with sessions largely taking place in Los Angeles, was so important in the record’s development. And when it came to the lyrics, Nick once again cites Chris Motionless as a particularly key figure in the writing process.
“My favourite lyrics are ‘Nothing Ever After’ overall. We wrote it together but Chris just had some really cool twists on stuff and I feel like, overall, it’s just such an emotional song from the instrumental to the lyrics. It hits me so goddam hard.”
“The phoenix logo for me has always represented the ability to reform yourself and have a rebirth. To come from darkness and go through, as a human, trials and struggles, and be able to learn from that and take important life lessons, becoming a better person. This community that I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of in the electronic sphere really embraces that and really takes that to a whole other level. It is a healing community. I’m so lucky to have that.”
“This album, artistically, there’s a whole world that goes with it. We’re putting out a mini movie, we have a graphic novel. There is crazy character development. I love making everything grander feeling if I can.”
Illenium’s previous albums have been set loosely within a particular timeline but never has Nick explored that world in such detail as he plans to do with this album. He talks of a fantasy-esque storyline developing, the phoenix symbol at the very centre of it, exploring themes of substance abuse. Further to this, he will be partnering with the non-profit organisation End.Overdose to provide education facilities on his upcoming tour.
On personifying these issues through characters, Nick says “I’ve never gone this in depth with it, I feel like that is what is exciting about this album.”
“I like to have the art feel bigger than anything and really magical and lives in a world that seems interesting to visit and escape to while listening to the music.”
No matter the artist or the time, a self-titled album is always going to make a statement. So, why does this release feel like the correct one to attach his name to in this way?
“Producing music for me, ever since I’ve started, I was always inspired by something – generally you have some sort of reference. I want music to feel like this ‘thing’. I feel like as I’ve progressed, I was chasing things. Whereas this album, I wanted it to sound just like me. I love all of these things. This is the music that I would put on all of the time. It’s not trying to emulate anything, it is trying to bring everything all together. I feel like I’m not chasing anything for it, I’m just being naturally myself.”
Having already played legendary venues like Red Rocks and Madison Square Garden, the transition from EDM raves to rock show should be relatively straightforward in some ways. But Illenium’s ambitions for his next tour stretch far beyond the spectacular sets he is already known for, with a full live band now on board and some new musical skills at Nick’s disposal.
“I’m so invested in the show. And I’m trying to get fairly decent at guitar – which is not fairly decent, if you are an actual guitarist, I am not that good. But I’m just trying to focus and really enjoy this album.”
But beyond the run of shows, where does Illenium go from here?
“In terms of sound I think there is a lot more that you can explore in that rock and electronic mix. Music, as an industry, is in an interesting spot right now in terms of what pops off or becomes a hit. Being in the business of chasing huge songs is terrifying right now. So investing in yourself and trying to create real fans and albums and tell a story is much more beneficial.”
Although this latest guest list will take some beating, Nick lists Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, Bring Me The Horizon and Bad Omens as artists he would love to collaborate with next time around. And, of course, he still has one more favour he wants to ask of Mr Barker.
“Doing a full Blink song would be such a blast. I would be so down. I might try to go to the Denver show, maybe I’ll hound them and see what’s up.”