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Indie rock is the midst of an extended dour period. Each new phenom tends to be drawn to the same subject matter: anxiety, depression, romantic failure, existential doom. And then there’s Sarah Tudzin, mastermind of the lyrically irreverent and musically eclectic Illuminati Hotties. Yes, Tudzin is also concerned with matters of anxiety, depression, romantic failure, and existential doom. But she attacks these topics with plenty of absurdist humor and bubblegum pop hooks.
You can see it right away while reviewing the tracklist for the third I.H. album, Let Me Do One More, due out Oct. 1. Tudzin has a thing for a long, bizarre song titles. One of my favorites is “Joni: LA’s No. 1 Health Goth,” a delectably snotty pop-punk song about “a person who, especially in L.A. and probably just in the music scene in general, we’ve all run into in our lives,” Tudzin explained over Zoom earlier this week. She has a notes file on her phone loaded with titles like “Joni: LA’s No. 1 Health Goth” that are just waiting for a song to adorn.
Over the course of three albums, which also include her winning 2018 debut Kiss Yr. Frenemies and last year’s Free I.H.: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For, Tudzin has honed a polymath style that pushes her music into all kinds of genres, from hooky punk to introspective bedroom pop to assaultive noise. The through-line is Tudzin’s unique sensibility informed by her background as a Berklee College Of Music-trained recording engineer. As her own producer, she gives her records a slick sheen well above the normal pay grade for an indie act. And then there’s her perverse streak, which extends to inviting Big Thief’s Buck Meek — an in-demand guitarist who recently collaborated with Bob Dylan — to appear on the twangy throwback desert rocker “u v v p.” Not to play guitar, mind you, but to perform a spoken-word piece over someone else’s guitar part. (“Kind of like the biggest misuse of talent I could have possibly had,” she laughed.)
Tudzin worked on Let Me Do One More throughout 2019, and then put it on hold to knock out the quickie release Free I.H. to satisfy a contractual obligation before being allowed to exit her prior label, the beleaguered Carolinas-based indie Tiny Engines. The result is her finest work yet, refining the eccentric pop of Kiss Yr. Frenemies with the brashness of Free I.H., which for all of the weirdness of its origin was surprisingly well-received by critics and fans, garnering the best reviews of Tudzin’s career. She’s even become a reference point for the highest echelon of pop stars: When Olivia Rodrigo put out her own bratty pop-punk record, Sour, earlier this year, some cited the similarity to Illuminati Hotties and Pom Pom Squad, whose 2021 debut Death Of A Cheerleader was co-produced by Tudzin.
Tudzin talked about her recent albums, her favorite examples of indie-rock production, Olivia Rodrigo, and how she’s influenced by The Muppets in the following interview.
Given that the circumstances of the album were so strange and fraught, do you have mixed feelings in retrospect about Free I.H.?
A little. More than anything else, I was surprised at the reception and excited that people were into it. Because it was put together so chaotically, I didn’t really have time to sit back and be like, “Okay, I feel good about this project.” It wasn’t until the album had already been out in the world that I got a chance to really sit and re-listen and analyze it and I ended up being pretty proud of the work that came out. I think there’s a couple songs I would’ve loved to take further and turn into real, fully produced versions. But I think they are serving the purpose and the intent that I set out to execute them with.
In a way, do you wish Free I.H. was less good, since it was made to satisfy a contractual obligation? In a sense you did your former label a favor by giving them this acclaimed album.
[Laughs.] If people are into it, that’s awesome. That’s really the main way to keep being able to do this. I didn’t want to totally sink the ship by just releasing a pure noise record or something like that.
Did that experience with Tiny Engines in any way sour you on the industry?
You know, I think I always have been skeptical of how the industry runs. I’ve heard more horror stories at major-label levels where people get somebody really interested in them, everything crumbles, and they’re left with the remnants of whatever that is, trying to put back together their career. More than anything, I guess I was just disappointed that it could still happen at a smaller scale.
When I interviewed you in 2018, it seemed like you were still making a transition from being a person who is behind the scenes as a recording engineer and producer to the person who is out front. Do you feel like you’ve fully come to terms with that?
I feel a lot more confident on stage. I learned a lot by touring through pretty much straight from the end of 2018 through the end of 2019. I had very little time off the road. It’s something that I very much enjoy and it’s become pretty much half of my entire livelihood. But I think at my core I feel like a little nerd who likes to make sounds and be in the studio and help bring songs to their potential.
When you’re not on the road, do you work on records every day?
Yeah. Pretty much my days are split right now where I’ll either be mixing someone’s record, working on my own stuff, or producing another band’s record, which usually is a little more of an isolated thing. So I am in front of Pro Tools, I would say, 89 percent of my time off the road, which is fun. Then also I try and get out of the computer zone a little bit and write, go outside, read, kind of do stuff to further my own creative writing, non-virtual world skills.
Your records are always all over the place stylistically. I get the sense that you probably record all of these songs, and then piece them together into albums later on, rather than writing ahead of time with a specific album in mind. Is that correct?
That was definitely the case with this album. I had 25 or 30 song ideas in various forms. We’d been performing some of them live, like “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA.” Some was just a verse and a chorus, and they stayed like that even after trying to track them and flesh them out. I was trying to whittle down little by little and decide which was the best out of that collection of songs. I feel like some still could exist in the world, but just didn’t make this album.
I’ve always admired the musicians that can make a conceptual album in the way that people make a movie, or write a long novel. But I just make songs and then service them to the best of my abilities and then create the through-line around them after that.
By the way, how do you pronounce MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”?
I’ve been calling it “MMMOOO.”
Many of your song titles are long and bizarre. My favorite from Let Me Do One More is “Joni: LA’s No. 1 Health Goth.” Explain to me your song titling strategy.
I think the titles of Bright Eyes and Sufjan and just a former era of pop punk have informed my titling strategy subconsciously. Also, it’s just another method of expression. Sometimes you want to just name the song so people can type in the word they remember and find it. And sometimes you’re given an opportunity to tell a second side of the story, or frame the song in a way that you might not be able to have frame using just the music and lyrics. That’s the catchiest part before the music even starts. So, I love to have a title that’s just fun, and eye-catching, and that’s half the battle of gaining someone’s interest when your music is floating around the internet.
Certain producers have distinct flourishes that you can instantly recognize no matter who they work with. What are your distinct flourishes?
I really favor a detailed and powerful drum sound, as well as a very upfront intelligible vocal. With guitars, I lean on some arrangement tricks that happen in a few different types of music I’ve worked on, as well as just stacking it up in a certain way. So when all the guitars are firing off, it feels clean and powerful, like it’s serving the message of the song. I try and do that on pretty much every album I’ve worked on.
Is there an album or song that you consider a gold standard, production-wise?
Man, so many. It changes I think from project to project, for sure. I love the Bon Iver self-titled record. I think that’s some incredible production, incredible arrangements. They work with real instruments in a way that sounds surreal, which I love. But I don’t think that that’s a fair reference for all of the projects I’ve worked on. Big highlights for me lately was the Fiona Apple record [Fetch The Bolt Cutters]. I think that was pretty immaculately produced and it felt so comfortable and it did a great job of placing you in the room with her. And I would say that’s the goal with a lot of songwriter-y records, to feel like they’re right there with you.
There’s also the Low record [HEY WHAT] that recently came out, which has such crazy production. I don’t think that they want you to feel like you’re in any room.
Let’s say you have the chance to play Rick Rubin and work with a veteran artist or band as a producer for a career revitalizaiton. What would be your dream project?
I would love to make a 2021 Bikini Kill record. I think their work was so special the way it was, and it would be so cool to re-contextualize that.
Lyrically, your sense of humor really distinguishes Illuminati Hotties. It’s a little absurdist, and it can also veer into a kind of gallows humor. What influences you in that regard?
I think it’s sort of my natural voice to approach things with a sense of humor. I try to avoid cynicism, I think that there is an edge and there is sort of like a “poking holes in the plotline” element to the humor. But I do try not to be too negative. That’s just the lens through which I process a lot of stuff. When everything’s going absolutely crazy and you’re having an emotional reaction to it, it’s much more comfortable for me to take a step outside of myself and view it from a sort of cinematic, narrative, hilarious perspective, as opposed to being vulnerable and really living in those feelings. If you say stuff that’s too emo in earnest, I think it sort of pulls the rug out from what the emotion actually is.
Your music videos often have a Tim & Eric sense of comic surrealism.
That’s awesome. I love those guys. I feel like Courtney Barnett does a really good tongue-in-cheek kind of thing that when I was first starting out, I really admired, and still do. In a way some Bright Eyes and some Conor Oberst stuff kind of gets at that deep emotional content with sort of a sneer at the end of it. As well as The Muppets, I feel like are just so real and so raw and at the same time just goofing around the whole time. I feel that definitely informed my childhood. And Steve Martin. My dad loves Steve Martin, and his sense of humor is so quirky and off-kilter.
When Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour dropped earlier this year, some noted the stylistic similarities to Illuminati Hotties and Pom Pom Squad, whose debut album you co-produced. A few people even called it a rip-off. Are you aware of that discourse, and if so, what’s your opinion about it?
Well, I’ll preface this by saying I love the Olivia Rodrigo record. I wish I had a pop star like that when I was 13 or 14. Pop was so high fem if it was a female artist, and that level of pop seemed intangible to me. I feel like Olivia is your friend who’s into really cool music. And I wish that I had that when I was a kid, because that’s the people I wanted to hang around with.
I’m aware of this conversation, and also I am aware of the collective consciousness that comes with being in a creative field. I think we all pulled from a similar pool to make our records, and that’s how it came about. I feel like some of it could be complete coincidence, and some of it could be directly influenced. I know Olivia’s producer came from indie rock world, and if he’s listening to my records, I’m stoked. I would love for my music to be at a platform that is on that level and reaching that amount of people. So I’m not upset about it.
Let Me Do One More is out Oct. 1 on Hopeless Records. Get it here.