Music Helped Saved Illenium’s Life — And Now He’s Doing the Same For Others

On June 29, 2012, Nick Miller regained consciousness in a Boulder, Colo., hospital room. The day before, he’d overdosed on heroin, the final act of a 10-day drug binge. Coming to, he saw his mother and the sadness in her eyes. He was 21 years old and had been sober for 15 months after time in rehab and years of opiate addiction. He’d been doing so well.

But his mom had known something was off after her son had gone quiet over text and phone. She called a friend of his, insisting they go check on him while she packed a bag and booked the next flight to Denver. The friend found Miller unresponsive, thrust naloxone — the opioid overdose reversal medication — up his nose and dialed 911. If not for his mom’s sense that something was wrong, it’s unlikely that I’d be here in Miller’s house on this chilly February afternoon in Los Angeles to talk with him about his incredible success as electronic producer Illenium. It’s unlikely he’d be here at all.

Sitting in the cave-like home studio within his large and otherwise light-filled house, Miller, 33, dotes on his dogs — the regal Belgian Malinois Grace and a small but fierce blonde dachshund whose dedicated Instagram account has 23,000 followers and for whom the house’s Wi-Fi network, “Palace du Peanut,” is named — holding them in arms covered in sacred geometry and Eye of Sauron tattoos. He makes jokes and direct eye contact, speaks in ski-bum parlance (“fire,” “sick,” “chillin’ ”), endearingly giggles and generally comes off as a person worth rooting for.

I ask Miller what he’d say to that hospital room version of himself, given everything that has happened since. His answer is immediate: “There’s no way I would have even believed the possibilities.”

Illenium plays Billboard Presents THE STAGE at SXSW on March 16. Get your tickets here.


As Illenium, Miller is one of the most successful electronic acts of the last half-decade, a dance music star in the fireworks and confetti tradition, but with a harder and more rock-­oriented sound and sensibility than straightforward main-stage EDM. In a genre known more for talent-heavy festival bills than solo-show hard ticket sales, he’s one of only a handful of artists, like ODESZA and Kaskade, playing venues as massive as stadiums and arenas.

Still, it’s possible you’ve never heard of him. Illenium hasn’t yet had a solo crossover hit (“Takeaway,” his 2019 collaboration with The Chainsmokers and Lennon Stella, hit No. 69 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remains his highest-ranking single on the chart), and unlike some world-famous DJs, he doesn’t frequent fashion shows, post shirtless selfies or chase fame.

He calls himself “very much a homebody,” one who most enjoys staying in and working on music, playing video games and hanging out with his dogs and his wife, Lara. The two met at a festival and married last September in Aspen, Colo., not too far from their primary residence, a 23,000-square-foot estate in the Denver suburb of Cherry Hills. Miller says he only bought the L.A. house in 2021 because “I was spending so much money on hotels and studio spaces here that it made more financial sense.” He has left twice in the last six days, once for a meeting and the other time to play the second of his back-to-back headlining shows at SoFi Stadium.

Illenium Billboard SXSW Cover Shoot
Louis Vuitton shirt and Askyurself sweater.

These Trilogy performances — so named because they feature three separate Illenium sets over five hours — are the current crown jewel of the Illenium empire. Prior to the Feb. 2 and 3 shows in L.A. (where his team says fans bought $2 million in merchandise alone), last June’s Trilogy concert at Denver’s Mile High stadium grossed $3.9 million and sold 47,000 tickets. It happened amid a 26-date North American tour that sold 191,000 tickets and grossed $15.7 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. His fourth studio album, 2021’s Fallen Embers, earned a Grammy Award nomination for best dance/electronic album, an accomplishment that came months after the debut Trilogy show at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium helped break the pandemic’s pause on live music.

With nearly 33,000 attendees, the July 3, 2021, performance, according to Boxscore, broke the record for the biggest dance music event for a single headliner in U.S. history. At the end of it, Miller told the roaring crowd that for him Trilogy represents “my transition from a f–king sh–ty life. That was my past. So it’s just f–king crazy, this. What the f–k? This is a f–king football stadium.”

Performing from a cryo-spitting tower of LEDs on the 50-yard line was not on Miller’s radar when he started releasing music in 2014. His work helped form the then-emerging future bass subgenre, which, like the bass music that influenced it, is huge and often heavy but also simultaneously soft — like getting hit in the head with a two-by-four wrapped in velvet. Future bass also incorporates more traditional verse/chorus song structures than much of the wilder bass made by Illenium’s influences and peers — Zeds Dead, Excision, SLANDER, Dabin, Said the Sky, Space Laces — and his work also heavily integrates rock, metal, indie and pop sounds. The Illenium oeuvre, developed over his five studio albums, is cinematic, anthemic, often heavy and typically lyrically personal music that mulls deeper themes — love, heartbreak, rage — than standard dance refrains about putting your f–king hands up.

“I’m sensitive,” Miller says, and “for sure” an emotional person. For him, writing music is a form of escape, release and healing, and he thinks listeners can feel the depths he’s pulling from: “A fan who’s going through something — when they listen to something personal, it just bonds in a different way.”

Illenium Billboard SXSW Cover Shoot
Des Pierrot vest, Jack John Jr. pants, Louis Vuitton shoes.

This bond is a key reason why fans not only love Illenium’s music, but often have devotional relationships with it. The audiences at his shows party and headbang — but there’s also a lot more crying at an Illenium concert than at most electronic sets.

His fusion of bass with traditional song structures has also fueled his broad appeal. UTA’s Guy Oldaker, his longtime agent, came up in the bass scene of Colorado — the genre’s spiritual U.S. home and a huge dance hub, with Denver effectively tied with Miami as the United States’ highest-indexing major market for electronic music streaming, according to Luminate. But Oldaker hadn’t figured out how to cross these artists over into major festivals and Las Vegas residencies, where he says crowds usually want “easily accessible pop music.”

When a promoter sent Oldaker demos by a local producer named Illenium in 2014, “I went, ‘Holy crap, this is exactly what I think will work with this audience in Vegas,’ ” Oldaker recalls. “I know very well how to build an artist in the scene where I’ve built everything else. I knew if I could connect the dots, we’d have a winner.”

Now, after the pandemic deflated his team’s plans for international expansion, Illenium is poised for the kind of global ubiquity Oldaker has long believed he could achieve — that is, if that’s even what he wants. “I go back-and-forth on if I’d rather be a famous world star DJ,” Miller says bluntly, “or just like, kind of be chillin’.”

When Oldaker first met him, Miller was sober — and also deep in the bass scene. He handed out show flyers as an intern for local promoter Global Dance, wrote for electronic music blogs, frequented Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison and Aspen’s Belly Up Tavern and fell in love with the music and community he had found. He’d returned to rehab following his overdose and, afterward, started teaching himself music: playing piano, watching YouTube tutorials on music theory and making “like, ‘Wonderwall’ remixes and random crap, just to figure it out.”

Soon, the music blog voted one of his tracks the No. 1 song of the moment. “I was like, ‘Let’s f–king go,’ ” he recalls. He’d also started performing around Denver and in 2015 signed with Oldaker (then at Madison House Presents), who sent Illenium (his name references Star Wars’ Millenium Falcon) on the road as a support act for artists like Big Gigantic and Minnesota. After a show at the 500-capacity George’s Majestic Lounge in Fayetteville, Ark., attendees bought out the venue for a second night so Illenium could play again. “And that sold out,” Oldaker says. “These were small-market shows by someone no one had ever heard of who was getting 250 bucks to open for another artist, and all of a sudden he’s blowing out some room in Arkansas.”

Miller and his team — which by this time included manager Ha Hau (also the founder of Global Dance) and touring manager Sean Flynn, whom he’d met in recovery — started putting up headline shows at smaller clubs. They decided he needed a signature “thing” and that it would be, Oldaker says, “putting so much production into these rooms that people walked out like, ‘I don’t know what I just saw.’ ”

For a 2015 set at Denver’s 650-capacity Bluebird Theater, Miller spent $10,000 on a custom metal phoenix, a symbol of his rise from addiction that has also appeared on his album covers and on the Illenium jerseys that are the de facto fan uniform at his shows. “On most of my tours, I’ve gone as far as I could with production by breaking even, or just slightly above,” he says. Flynn declines to give an exact price tag for Trilogy’s production, but says the shows are “really expensive.” They weren’t sure if they’d even turn a profit with the SoFi sets, but then “the second show crushed,” Miller says. “So we were chillin’.”

Illenium Billboard SXSW Cover Shoot

Streams, ticket sales and festival billings grew steadily as his profile rose, and his second album, 2017’s Awake, reached No. 106 on the Billboard 200. But Miller felt a disconnect. Fans didn’t know about the personal experiences making his songs so emotionally intense, a chasm that felt especially wide when they told him his music had helped them through hard times, like dealing with addiction.

“I’ve been wanting to share something super personal with you for a while,” Miller wrote in a letter posted to X (then Twitter) in August 2018, revealing his struggles with opiates and his overdose. “I was trapped in it, had no passion, no direction and truly hated myself… I’m just sharing my story and relating because music saved my life too.” The news came in tandem with the release of “Take You Down,” a huge, hypnotic song he wrote about his mother. “I couldn’t see that when I went to hell,” vocalist Tim James sings, “I was taking you with me.”

“Watching that relationship get torn by the sh-t you keep doing — at first, it’s like, ‘Why are you on me so much, I’m not even that bad,’ ” Miller reflects now. “Then it goes into ‘OK, I can’t stop’ and then it goes into, like, “F–k everyone. I can’t live without it.’ And then you’re just breaking down.”

Making this information public initially made him nervous “because I didn’t want to come off preachy. I love rave culture and people enjoying themselves and don’t want to be the person that’s like” — he shifts to a nerdy tone — “ ‘You guys are really f–king your lives up.’ ” But six years later, he thinks his fans appreciate knowing, “given all the music that has come out of it and that I did all of this sober.”

Illenium Billboard SXSW Cover Shoot
LEMAIRE jacket and Louis Vuitton shirt, pants and shoes.

In a realm not known for temperance, Miller says that Kaskade — one of the few sober dance artists — has been a role model who has shown him “you can do this and not be a party animal, because it’s hard. You see how insane people go and wonder if you’ll be accepted if you’re not partaking.”

But Miller is also uniquely suited to talk to fans about drugs. Last year, he partnered with L.A.-based nonprofit End Overdose, which distributes free naloxone and fentanyl test strips, provides training on how to respond to overdoses and is a partner of major dance music promoter Insomniac Events. He raised $50,000 for the organization through a fan donation matching campaign, became a certified End Overdose trainer, gave tutorials on administering naloxone on Instagram Live, provided trainings at stops on his last tour and gave contest winners an in-person demonstration at the Denver Trilogy show. Over 2,000 doses of naloxone have been distributed across these events; last September, one was used to resuscitate someone at a concert (not Illenium’s) in Kansas City, Mo. “We’ve literally saved lives together,” End Overdose communications officer Mike Giegerich says. “It’s beyond meaningful.”

Meanwhile, Miller has rather cleverly figured out a healthy (and productive) way to satisfy his own addictive impulses. “To have five hours to shape the night and do it all?” he says of the Trilogy shows. “That’s like, my psycho drug addictness. That sounds very fulfilling and, like, a sweet high for me.”

The five-hour Trilogy shows have also given Miller time to explore the direction he’ll pursue next. After his rock- and metal-focused 2023-self-titled album, which featured artists like Travis Barker and Avril Lavigne, the Trilogy sets inspired him to return to his electronic roots, and he’s working on “a lot” of new music. Collaborations with Tiësto (a Colorado neighbor Miller calls “the f–king man”), REZZ, Seven Lions, Mike Shinoda and others he’s not yet ready to name are forthcoming — not as an album, but as singles to be released throughout 2024.

Outside of scattered festival dates, he’s not touring this year, but Oldaker says, “World domination is where I think we go from here.” Flynn says the team “had a lot of steam” in Europe and Asia before the pandemic, and it’s now positioned to rebuild that momentum. American-style bass music has historically “had a hard time getting good traction” in Europe, Oldaker says, but he fervently believes Illenium could be the one to break it.

Miller’s own feelings are more mixed. He points out that his seven-date European tour last summer hit 2,000- to 3,000-capacity rooms and turned out “fire” crowds in cities like Brussels and Barcelona. He also acknowledges that the more minimal, less headbang-y European scene is “just so different,” Miller continues, “and I never bought into it. I’m not a partier. I like being home, and I don’t play that game of ‘meet this promoter so you can play their festival or club.’ I’m so not that person, and I think that has hurt me a bit in Europe.”

Still, he’d love to bring the full show abroad. He has growing fan bases in Asia (he did his first headlining show in India in February) and Australia, and his team is also eyeing expansion into Africa and Central and South America.

Meanwhile, North American demand hasn’t abated for the artist Oldaker calls “the underground monster you’ve never heard of who all of a sudden blows your mind.” Several stadiums have reached out about hosting a Trilogy show, and fans can see Illenium through September at his residency at the 2,100-capacity Zouk in Las Vegas, a club the team chose for its production capabilities. Having played Vegas since his days as an opener, Miller has learned “the game” of these shows: “taking yourself less seriously, just having fun and not trying to have a musical therapy session in a f–king Vegas club.”

Illenium Billboard SXSW Cover Shoot

While there are many goals still to reach — a crossover hit (his official remix of Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero” toed the line), major mainstream festival headlining slots, movie scores and, Oldaker says, “expanding what he’s doing so people understand he isn’t just a bass producer and can do all these other things” — the imminent strategy is simple: keep building “core events,” Oldaker says, like Trilogy and Illenium’s Ember Shores destination festival in Mexico, which held its second edition in December. “Yes, we want to headline all the major festivals, but we have a great thing going with Trilogy where we can create these incredible experiences for fans to come be a part of,” Oldaker explains. “We’ll continue building it and hope these bigger festivals see the value we’re creating.”

“There is no ceiling to cap the success that he is capable of,” adds Tom Corson, co-chairman/COO of Warner Records, which released Illenium. “Nick is a career artist who can be as big as he wants to be both within dance music and outside of the genre.”

While now in a period of relative downtime, the guy whose lexicon heavily favors “chillin’ ” doesn’t, actually, want to be entirely chill. His Colorado rhythm is to drink coffee, run the dogs, tend to Illenium business — a straightforward model of “merch and music and shows,” he says — then hit his home studio. He’s also remodeling a Denver warehouse into a recording space for himself and other artists, some of whom will likely appear on the label he’s putting together. When he’s really not working, he golfs, snowmobiles or hangs with his parents, sisters, nieces and nephews who, Oldaker says, “are always around him.”

“They’re so happy, full of joy,” Miller says of his family’s take on his achievements. “We have a beautiful life now.”

That family isn’t just his direct relations anymore, but the tens of thousands of screaming fans who love him — not only as an artist, but as a survivor: the kid in the hospital bed who was about to get up and make it all happen.

Illenium Billboard SXSW Cover Shoot

This story originally appeared in the March 9, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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