Illuminati Hotties Are "Sneaking the Vegetables in with Dessert"
Sarah Tudzin on exploring the "extremes" of her music, taking control of her own destiny and her love of Said the Whale
Published Sep 29, 2021According to Sarah Tudzin, making music as Illuminati Hotties is akin to "sneaking the vegetables in with dessert." Her songs are stuffed with sugary pop confectionary: cute chorus hooks, giddy group shouts, and a winking sense of humour that shines through her playful lyrics. But the project also has a dark side, with explosions of noise that gesture towards towards aggressive punk.
The project's twee tendencies have sometimes led to Tudzin being unfairly dismissed. Speaking with Exclaim! during a Zoom call from her home in Los Angeles, she recalls an early show when some industry reps showed up at one of her concerts: "I talked to a friend who's colleagues with them, who was like, 'I brought you up and they didn't really get it and they didn't want the cute, glittery, poppy thing.' Which is, I think, dismissive of what the project really is. That [cuteness] exists, but underneath it are so many other layers."
The project's salty side was impossible to miss on the 2020 mixtape FREE I.H: This Is Not the One You've Been Waiting For. Written and recorded in just three weeks as a way to get out of a bad record deal with the struggling Tiny Engines, Tudzin spiked the project's pop tunes with even more aggressive crescendos and freaky genre-hopping.
"It seemed like it perked up the ears of some people who were not fans or what weren't really into the first record [2018's Kiss Yr Frenemies] because it wasn't their vibe," she remembers. "And, obviously, FREE I.H was a completely different vibe than the first record. Especially if you hadn't seen us live before — I feel like, live, we are a little heavier or a little more performative than maybe the first record sounds on its own. So I was really happy with the reception [to FREE I.H] and definitely nervous to put out another record after that, because it is, again, completely different than FREE I.H in a lot of ways."
That follow-up is Let Me Do One More — an album largely written before FREE I.H and finished during the pandemic. Power-pop bangers "Pool Hopping" and "Cheap Shoes" tap into the self-described "tenderpunk" that Illuminati Hotties have long been known for, while downtempo numbers like "The Sway" and all-acoustic closer "Growth" highlight atmosphere over adrenaline. Tudzin's background as a producer and audio engineer shines during these quiet moments: "Threatening Each Other re: Capitalism" has an undercurrent of grimy fuzz that perfectly contrasts the dejected melancholy of lines like, "The corner store is selling spit / Bottled up for profit / I can't believe I'm buying it / Isn't that genius?"
There are also tracks where Tudzin cuts loose with frenzied energy: the cowpunk-tinged "Joni: LA's No. 1 Health Goth" barrels along with all the restraint of a runaway train, and "MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA" is a pop-punk freakout, shot through with shards of wonky guitar and snarky, sneering yells.
Tudzin explains, "I really went to my extremes, vocally, on FREE I.H, in a way that informed some of the stuff that ended up on Let Me Do One More. I feel like I sort of came into my own a little bit more and was a little more confident in going the full mile, vocally."
She took her art to the opposite extreme with a recent cross-border collaboration: a remix of Vancouver band Said the Whale's recent power-pop single "Honey Lungs." Unlike the crunchy rock guitars of the original (which could have been a natural fit for Tudzin's punk sensibilities), she stripped it way, way down with Super Mario-esque synths and bloopy arpeggiators that totally change the song's chord structure.
"I've been a longtime fan of theirs," she says of Said the Whale. "When I was in high school, or maybe college, I would trade hard drives with my friends and just get iTunes libraries of stuff. I think they were a band that was in my friend's hard drive of music, and I loved it. It scratches that classic indie rock itch."
Tudzin is free to explore all of her wildest musical whims, from sonically diverse full-lengths to quirky remixes, now that she's her own label boss. Following the acrimonious fallout with Tiny Engines, Tudzin started her own label, Snack Shack Tracks (in partnership with Hopeless Records), giving her the freedom to completely control her own career — and maybe even help out a few other artists along the way.
"Having the imprint has allowed me to direct my own destiny, as far as putting out music goes, in a way that I hadn't been afforded previously," she says. "So right now, I'm focusing on getting my record off the ground, and hopefully I'll be able to turn it around soon and start getting bands under my wing. Either just as a way to put out their music or maybe work with them and put out their music, in a production sense and a label sense. I just want to get to the point where I can help bands that I love."