Published May 09, 2018Blending equal parts pop punk, indie and surf rock with witty lyrics about the highs and lows of early adulthood, it's easy to see how Illuminati Hotties quickly built buzz for their debut, Kiss Yr Frenemies. Critical love for singles "Cuff" and "(You're Better) Than Ever," praised performances at South-by-Southwest — all the excitement is a far cry from the extremely limited scope mastermind Sarah Tudzin originally had in mind.
Illuminati Hotties was conceived as a "calling card" for Tudzin's production work, something she could point to when bands were considering hiring her. After studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, she returned home to Los Angeles, and was working as a studio engineer for bands like Slowdive and Porches — she even did some sound design on the Hamilton soundtrack.
But after a bout of mid-20s malaise, she caught "the artist bug" and the project morphed from a commercial endeavour to one imbued with all the anxieties that come when trying to "figuring out my place in the real world after college."
"I went through this big explosion of inspiration in the months leading up to making the record," Tudzin tells Exclaim! "It started to come together as a cohesive artistry project, rather than a producerly thing."
Tudzin is somewhat dismissive of the ennui that triggered this leap. "I don't feel like it was necessarily anything especially exciting," she says although she acknowledges that, as clichéd as it might be, the joy and heartbreak were real. "It definitely was something that felt powerful when I was feeling it. That's where a lot of the record came from."
It's that yin-yang — dismissive quips that mask an underlying emotional turbulence — that lies at the heart of Illuminati Hotties' world, capturing "everything that's happy and sad and confusing about being in your early 20s." Even the band name, simultaneously goofy yet oddly empowering, shares this quality.
Buoyed by Tudzin's deft production and aided by her friend from college Collin Pastore (best known for his work with Lucy Dacus), Kiss Yr Frenemies pulls you in with its pop hooks. At first blush, it feels like a fleeting sugar rush, but repeated listens reveal deep sonic and emotional layers.
"Making this album in a very producerly way" — songs were assembled one performance at a time, rather than having a bunch of musicians together in a room playing — "means that you can play with a lot more sounds and you can really design every moment."
Still, Kiss Yr Frenemies could have languished in the streaming void were it not for Tudzin's friend Jacob Whitener. He convinced her to shop the record around before simply dumping it on Bandcamp. "I wasn't sure that it would reach the people I wanted it to reach if I did that," she admits.
But a more formal release seemed beyond the pale. "I just assumed that that was another echelon of music that I didn't know how to reach." Nevertheless Tiny Engines liked what they heard and agreed to put it out. "It seemed to be a good fit and I love a lot of their music that they do put out."
Illuminati Hotties didn't play their first gig until midway through recording, and Tudzin's since enlisted a lineup of backing musicians for her upcoming tour. All the attention doesn't mean she's about to give up her day job though. In fact, in a roundabout way, Kiss Yr Frenemies has fulfilled her original vision: she's meeting bands through playing shows and getting gigs recording bands. "Maybe that's an idealist way of thinking about it, but so far they've been really complementary."
Kiss Yr Frenemies comes out May 11 on Tiny Engines.