The evolution of live performances in the electronic music world has been nothing short of a phenomenon. Artists across the board, from house to bass, have continually sought to broaden the bounds in which fans can experience their favorite music. Dating back to just the past couple of years, these efforts have ranged across an entire spectrum of legendary acts that have reached the apex of their respective fields, from Odesza’s ‘A Moment Apart’ tour, to Porter Robinson and Madeon’s collaborative ‘Shelter’ tour, to The Glitch Mob’s mind-numbing ‘Blade 2.0’ technology. These artists have found new ways to push the envelope and erase the unfortunate stigma in today’s society that DJs appear on stage with minimal effort and zero live elements or performance aspects. Now, as the calendar moves into the homestretch of 2018, the next phase of this industry-redefining movement has been unveiled at the hands of none other than Illenium.
Following an upward trajectory that has propelled him into headlining status over the past few years, Illenium has consistently topped the billing of some of the planet’s most renowned festivals to become a scorching topic of conversation. He’s cemented his all-star status with the release of two critically-acclaimed LPs in Ashes and Awake, plus a handful of chart-topping originals and an evolving live experience. The latter of the two albums marked a significant moment for Illenium, who introduced his audiences to the ‘Awake’ live show concept amid his widely sold-out US tour. In calling upon the help of his two close personal friends in Dabin and Said the Sky, the eclectic trio granted those in attendance an unparalleled experience that set the bar high for what could be expected going forward in the realm of DJ performances. They transitioned away from the common use of solely CDJs during sets to the incorporation of an array of live instrumentation that gave the spectacle a much more authentic and emotional atmosphere.
The Denver resident began to tease a refreshed approach to his ‘Awake’ tour at the end of July after taking the past summer reinvigorate what he sought to offer on stage. After months of careful planning and what he labeled some of his most intricate work to date, Illenium officially announced his inaugural ‘Awake 2.0’ appearance with a home state event at the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The August event marked a historical moment in Illenium’s burgeoning career, serving as his first-ever headlining event at the venue — a feat in which only some of electronic music’s most colossal titans have been able to add to their list of accolades.
While it wasn’t explicitly disclosed what to expect for the ‘Awake 2.0’ environment, Illenium noted that he would be creating more of his darker and heavier live edits along with new music and some potential surprises as well. This turned out to be more than fans could have ever dreamed of , as Illenium followed through tenfold on his promise by debuting an outright band setup with the help once more from Dabin and Said the Sky. The group rightfully took the next step in their artistic progression by utilizing everything at their disposal from a full drum kit to electric guitars to a grand piano.
As if this wasn’t enough excitement for his faithful and self-dubbed ‘Illenials’ community to savor, the artist brought along a special unreleased production during the show that was something his fans had yet to see from the limitless 27-year-old. “God Damnit” wasted little to no time seeing the light of day as Illenium takes a leap of faith into unconquered territory for him to provide something refreshing that dance music devotees had yet be exposed to. Boasting an introspective hook toppled with infectious rap bars from rising lyricist Call Me Karizma, Illenium plasters his trademark drums and haunting melodies for a crisp, intimate production that is primed to send chills throughout the human spine. In talking with us on why he decided to go a more hip-hop inspired route, he made it known that he was fully aware of the reception it may receive, but the story behind the song and the connection he felt with it erased all sentiments of doubt in pushing forward with its release.
Illenium is poised to take his ‘Awake 2.0’ experience to three of the biggest cities in the United States to wrap up 2018 with sold out shows in San Francisco, Chicago and New York City as a continuation of his newly-defined live concept. Having already taken the original ‘Awake’ tour to the city that never sleeps in December of last year, the blossoming talent will be returning for a monumental three-night-stand that will surely be one fans will remember. In preparation of his multi-night journey back to the East Coast, DA met up with one of the biggest names in dance music to talk about expectations for his rejuvenated show concept, his newest release “God Damnit” and potentially working on something with his idol Porter Robinson.
The Awake 2.0 tour has really seen your full transition from a DJ to complete live performer. I can’t really think of any DJ who has done a full band setup before so can you talk a little about what inspired you to go this path? Did it make it easier to put together while working with close friends like Dabin and Said the Sky?
With the first Awake show, we definitely transitioned it to really be a live performance. It was so special and I was able to work with Trevor, who’s an insane musician, Dabin, who’s an insane guitarist and David also, who’s Trevor’s tour manager and does the drums. It was kind of this exciting thing to be surrounded by all these amazing musicians like that and I’m not that crazy of a live musician. Beyond the actual show, it’s really cool to have people that are opening the show to be a part of the main show where it’s like this special thing. For Awake 2.0, we kind of just put all of that on steroids. We have a full live drum kit and we have another guitarist come in so it’s just become an evolution of the Awake show especially because the music I choose to play so I don’t want it to be a rock show.
What was the experience like of bringing that Awake 2.0 experience to the iconic Red Rocks for your own headlining show?
It was really breathtaking honestly. It’s a really sentimental venue for me and I had my whole family there. Just to get the whole Awake 2.0 show ready, with everything from timecoding to rehearsals, it was the hardest work I think I’ve ever done live wise. Shows at this caliber will have lighting choreographers and stage choreographers, and we didn’t have anything so I was micromanaging everyone. It was really cool though because it was like my baby but I definitely learned a lot and think there’s ways we can perfect it even more. I felt like it was a perfect description of when things aren’t too perfect because sometimes you’ll see a show and it’s just too choreographed. The Red Rocks show felt like it had the perfect amount of imperfection.
You premiered a brand new ID during that set as well, which is definitely unlike anything you’ve done before but still has that classic Illenium touch. Can you tell us a little more about that single & how that came about?
I love that song. This past year, I felt like I’ve been listening to a lot more variety of stuff. It’s emotional and I feel like it’s a really cool story, where it’s pretty heartfelt and raw. It honestly just feels like it’s a more raw version of my other music and I’m sure it’ll get ‘mixed reviews’. I think it’ll 100% be some of my fans’ favorite songs but the people that loved “Gold” and the Kill the Noise remix are going to be like “well, what the f*ck is this sad boy rap?”
Before you released your last single, “Take You Down” you spoke about how it was created from personal struggles that you’ve faced in your past. Did you find it difficult to open up like that or did you find relief in being able to share that with your dedicated fanbase?
100%. I feel like it’s a community now where it’s all about helping people out. I think a lot of fanbases or cultish communities get a bad rap because they love an artist so much that it turns some people off, which isn’t really a fair assessment because people are helping each other in this community. It’s a very personal thing that I was able to put out but that’s where I think I’m really headed with my music where all the stuff I’m working on now is a lot more personal and storytelling.
Through the release of both Ashes and Awake and of course all of the music since, it’s safe to say that you’ve fully mastered your trademark sound. Why do you think that your music has resonated with fans in such a personal way?
I think a lot of comes from the way I create music. I see music as this healing thing where I go in by myself and it’s like this serene area where I don’t feel any pressure and it’s emotional healing so naturally, that creates emotional music. I think that’s just how it works where people connect to that. There’s instances where I’m writing stuff and I just don’t feel it and I’m like “ok, I’m just gonna scrap it” but there’s also moments when I’m making something and I’m like “oh, this is tight”.
You’ve said in the past that your dream collaboration would be with Porter Robinson but is there also anyone else on your bucket list of people to work with?
I would love if Porter did some more Porter. He does his own thing and he fully sent it into the Virtual Self stuff, which is sick because it’s so innovative. He’s more innovative than I am; I think I write music for that healing process that I talked about and sometimes that just means writing songs and it’s as simple as that. I think some people write it where it has to be new, it has to be something they haven’t totally stepped on before. I would love to work with Porter though and I would love to work with Skrillex too.
We know that while your sets feature a lot of tracks that put you in your feels, you also include a lot of hard-hitting songs. Do you enjoy playing more emotional sets or do you prefer when you’re able to throw down a lot of trap and dubstep cuts?
I think too much of anything and I get sick of it. If I was to only play feels-y, vibe-y sets then I would be bored. If I was to only play headbanging sets, I’d be like “oh, I’m gonna die too”. I go back and forth between being able to play an Awake show and then play an afterparty where I have no plans and can just wing it. It’s nice to be in both worlds and I think collabing with the artists I have this past year has helped out with that.
Now looking at the other side of it, was producing harder style tracks always something you sought out to do? Do you think playing them live help to inspire you to collaborate with producers like Zeds Dead, Excision and Kill the Noise?
Those were my original influences like Bassnectar and Zeds Dead. I started out making more bass-heavy music and then when Porter released ‘Worlds’ and Odesza was releasing their music, I really fell in love with that sound so it all combined. I make so many heavy edits of my own music too.
It’s been a little over a year since you released Awake and we know you have your upcoming single “God Damnit” dropping very soon but are there any current plans for a third album in the near future?
Yes there is but I can’t really give much info but it’s definitely happening. I don’t really stop [laughs].
It’s safe to say we’re unbelievably excited that you’re coming back to NYC for 3 sold out shows in December. For fans that haven’t been able to experience Awake 2.0 yet, what would you tell them to expect?
It’s a new experience. If you saw the first Awake show it’s so different than that because I pretty much remixed the entire album and edited it. It’s really just what I for-see electronic music going to where it’s becoming not band-ish, but more than just a DJ. Nothing against DJing but I’m able to do things like showcasing friends too.
Photo Credit: Alexandra Gavillet