Interview: Illuminati Hotties’ Sarah Tudzin

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Photo by Kristy Benjamin

Illuminati Hotties is the Los Angeles based indie-pop project of Sarah Tudzin. Recently releasing their debut album, Kiss Yr Frenemies, last month through Tiny Engines, Tudzin took time to discuss the album process at greater lengths.

As an audio engineer and frontwoman, Tudzin leads an interesting life within the music industry. Working alongside acclaimed acts in the studio such as Macklemore, Coldplay, and Lady GaGa, her story is a whirlwind of inspiration.

You studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then moved back to LA. What was your major? How long ago did you graduate/move back to LA?

Sarah Tudzin: I studied Music Production & Engineering at Berklee. It was such a formative time for me to shed in the studio and make mistakes before I got into the real world. Admittedly, when I was in high school I was hardly aware of what went into record production, I just figured there were the musician/artist type people and the business/management type people. Toward the end of high school I caught a whiff that there were all these people that made technical and creative decisions behind the scenes, in the studio, and I felt that I could be incredibly expressive with those skills. I grew up in Los Angeles, with very little connection to the music industry other than school band, and in college when I learned that so many studios and sessions were happening out here it was a no brainer to move back, which was right around the Fall of 2014.

What made you want to go out there for school?

Tudzin: When I was leaving high school I thought that I wanted to be a professional drummer in the studio or in a band or show or something. Berklee seemed like the way to do that at the time, and then I started learning about all these other majors in various music fields that they offered (right around the same time that I was discovering I didn’t want to spend hours and hours a day alone with a drum set in a practice room…for some reason spending hours and hours on end in a studio alone never felt like a chore in that way though). Aside from all that, I wanted a change of scenery big time…and Boston was pretty much the biggest change of scenery I could get without leaving the continental US. I feel very fortunate that I was able to attend with the help of Berklee.

How did the East Coast shape you?

On the east coast I was totally engulfed by music in a way I had never been before. It was happening everywhere, all the time, uninhibitedly. Or perhaps it was just easier to stumble upon due to Boston being an amazing city to experience as a pedestrian. It made me a lot more world-wary – as a kid in LA you don’t often make use of public transit or walk much further than to school (if you live close enough…I was so jealous of the kids who could ride their bikes straight to class!) or a friends house. Out in Boston, that was the main mode of transport – I lived a mile from school and would usually walk to and from regardless of weather. Oh yeah, I learned what it meant to be actually cold there too. So mostly that – I noticed a lot more things around me, and I was really cold but didn’t die. Also the East Coast is so much OLDER than the West Coast. The streets of Boston are all criss-crossed and wavy because they are paved-over horse trails that existed back when people got around on HORSE. The weight of history in inescapable. The apartment I lived in had tilted floors and disintegrating bricks and didn’t turn on the radiators until after the new year. People have a special hometown pride and sense of community out there – LA locals generally seem far less precious about where we’re from. It was super eye-opening to live at an East Coast tempo for a few years.

You moved back here and got a job as an assistant studio engineer, and you’ve worked alongside major acts, is this a dream job for you or how would you describe it?

The work that I’ve done has certainly felt like a dream…I’m positive that 12-year-old me would hardly believe it. That being said, I would consider this Steps Toward The Dream – treacherous, incredible, uphill, crumbly, wild, enlightening steps. I want to be clear that I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities that have been presented in my life so far, while at the same time mentioning I rarely feel satisfied. Whether that’s the by-product of manic artistry or public education, I don’t know. I’m not sure that even the GOATs have ever felt like they’ve “made it,” and the idea that there’s an endpoint feels uncomfy and counter-productive to me. Working as Chris Coady’s engineer for the last few years has taught me so much about making records, and ultimately I hope to be able to find myself in a position similar to his.  I’ve got way too much to say about goal setting and dream accomplishing – aside from music it’s something that I think about extensively but…maybe that’s for another interview.

I recently graduated and had the same feeling of dread and anxiety over the “now what” thought. I think that’s what makes this album so unique and relatable. Did you start writing songs as an outlet for that?

Congratulations!!! Ah yes, the “now what”. Everyone has that moment at some point, maybe more than once, like Wile E. Coyote, where we’re running and running and all of a sudden the cliffside drops out from under us and the sign we hold up as we realize we’re at a several thousand foot drop above an empty canyon says “now what”. The songs are not directly an outlet for that feeling, although I think you touched on something really important about art. Even though they’re not specifically related to “now what” anxiety, I tried to write them in a way that zooms in so viscerally that it becomes applicable to a buttload of other feelings and messages. Broad, universal statements are ambiguous and boring. Background music in Macy’s. I want people to be able to run their fingers along the surface of my record, and then put their arm all the way in to touch the rocks and dirt at the bottom when the temperature feels right or when they stop caring about getting their sleeves a little wet. That’s a long way of saying these songs are earnest little snapshots of what I’ve experienced or stories that have intrigued me and that so much of early adulthood is floundering through each day, which shows up in a lot of this music and in my brainmush.

Was this your first time being in a “band”/creating music for yourself?

I’ve created quite a bit of music for myself previously, and I’ve been a sideman in several bands over the years. This is the first project I’ve worked on though where I have a band to rely on regularly for live performance. There’s other little musical adventures of mine out there somewhere, and quite a few records on which I’ve managed to dribble here and there…

Do you prefer working behind the scenes or out in front (i.e. being in the band)?

My initial reaction is to say that I MUCH prefer working behind the scenes! Since I’ve gotten into the practice of performing as a frontwoman though I’ve really grown to love it. Being able to do both regularly has been a good way to stay grounded.

Everything seems like it fell into place, and word about you spread fast. However, that may be my own personal bias. When did you actually start the process?

It seems like all the pieces are coming together little by little…although with the way the internet works it’s sometimes hard to tell how much impact this project has had in the scheme of the content whirlwind flying at us. I’ve always been writing songs for myself and for other small projects, but the bulk of this record started around 2016. While the rollout of the singles happened quickly (except for the video for “(You’re Better) Than Ever” which came out unofficially last summer), the record has been burning in me and on my hard drive for a while. A huge wave of relief came over me when Tiny Engines ultimately set a release date for me. In the time between the creation of little song seeds to a final mastered product, I’d say making Kiss Yr Frenemies took about a year and a half, with most of the tracking taking place in a little under three weeks, spread out over the course of many months spent tweaking and adding and chopping and staring blankly at a computer screen.

What made you gravitate towards Tiny Engines?

Tiny Engines is a wonderful little label with a family of diverse, incredible artists, and it’s run by equally amazing folks. Mostly, I think that Will & Chuck at TE have golden ears, and have helped foster the growth of so many bands whose talents deserve to be heard. It’s totally mind boggling to me how they get it all done, and in the face of an often dishearteningly “pay-to-play” sort of industry they have managed to draw a whole bunch of outside, organic attention toward records that Matter to them and to a burgeoning community of fans. Tiny Engines cares about artistry, detail, and finding ways to help their artists thrive despite our Very indie-size budgets. I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve helped me accomplish this year.

What’s your favorite piece of the album?

Agh this is such a tough question. It’s like choosing a favorite child or Mariah Carey single; I care about them all so much. I spent the least amount of time on “boi” so I’m gonna go with that. Also I just found the lyrics to that song crumpled up at the bottom of my backpack yesterday. I like performing “Pressed 2 Death” live the best because the whole band plays it like a victory lap and it’s so fun to be up there while they’re rip’n.

Who are some of your influences?

In no particular order: Wes Anderson, Sufjan Stevens, Susan Rogers, Bright Eyes, Tina Fey, Sylvia Plath, Mom & Dad, Justin Vernon, Motown Records, turning my phone off and taking walks, driving in traffic, friends who stick around to see the last band, short stories.

The album is fun but also has moments that are very serious and reflective. Do you ever feel like you are boiled down to just some quirky band?

Often I’ll get put into the “quirky internet band” category because of my band name, or maybe because of someone’s initial impression of a single. Anyone who’s really listened seems to drop that pretense though. I’m hoping that people will really take a moment to play this stuff back at least twice because even on some of the zaniest tracks on this album there’s substance I’ve hidden. Every musical moment was meticulously crafted, no word is filler or senseless – that’s not to say that I’ve removed the “happy accident” factor of making art though, which is very much a part of this record as well. Leaving mistakes or surprising discoveries in there was quite intentional.

Quirky seems like a bad word in our post-500 Days of Summer universe. There’s an odd fascination with microscopic particulars in a lot of initially kitschy seeming things that can prove to be very beautiful though. I’ve not yet made anything just for cuteness-sake so…if you’re reading this and you think I’m full of shit, try me one more time.

Do you have any plans to tour soon?

Yes!! I’m so excited! We will be touring the West Coast for the first half of July with Forth Wanderers, whose new record I’ve enjoyed thoroughly, so I can’t wait to hear their live set every night for a couple weeks!!! We’ve got a few other shows local to the LA area in the works, and are scheming on some Fall noise too!

What does the future look like for you right now?

The future holds a bunch more tour plans, simmering on the next record, hopping in the studio with a couple other bands I’m producing, and a pile of breakfast burritos.

Lastly, as an illuminati, what’s your favorite conspiracy theory?

Tupac is alive. Illuminati is everywhere. KatBing Art was left on Earth by The Grays.

Follow Illuminati Hotties on social media:
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Emily Kitchin | @deathnap4cutie

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