Illuminati Hotties’ Sarah Tudzin Is Ready to Get Loud (and Soft, Too)

Sarah Tudzin was pissed. With her second album as Illuminati Hotties nearly finished and poised to serve as her breakthrough, she was stuck watching as the small label she called home imploded amid accusations of late royalty payments and inconsistent communication.

So Tudzin, who’d spent years patiently building a dual career as an engineer-producer and a firecracker talent in her own right, did what she knows best and hit the studio. Across three “lightning-speed” weeks in February 2020, she wrote and recorded a set of 12 fantastically catchy, pointedly sarcastic pop-punk tracks that vented her frustrations. “I wrote it without a lot of deliberation,” says Tudzin, 29. “Once a song was done, it was done. That was freeing, in a way. … I tracked it as fast as possible, and got it out of my hard drive so I didn’t have to think about it.”

Released in July 2020 as an album-length mixtape with the snappy title FREE I.H.: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For, the project served its intended purpose of helping Tudzin get out of her contract. More importantly, it introduced many new listeners to the wildly creative world of Illuminati Hotties, starring a singer with so much uncontainable energy it felt like she might be about to jump out of your streaming service and directly into your face with every hopping mad, shout-along hook. In a summer when most of the world was starved for the drama of IRL music, FREE I.H. was a 24-minute blast of what many of us were missing.

Now, nearly a year later, Tudzin is finally ready to share the album she was preparing for release before that 2020 stopgap. Let Me Do One More — due out October 1st on the SoCal label Hopeless Records and her own new imprint, Snack Shack Tracks — confirms her as one of indie rock’s most exciting rising stars. Its songs are bursting with feeling and personality, ranging from laugh-out-loud funny to heartbreakingly sweet, and they’re so catchy that all you can do is hang on for dear life as she keeps reinventing herself. 

“That’s the most fun thing,” Tudzin says. “I feel like I can kind of do whatever I want.”

For a long time, Tudzin had little intention of becoming a performing artist at all. After studying production and engineering at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, she’d moved back to her hometown of Los Angeles and started cold-calling potential employers. “I would call these management companies, and somebody my age who worked at the desk would usually pick up the phone,” she recalls. “I’d be like, ‘Do you guys ever, like, hire assistants for the producers you represent? How’s it going, my name’s Sarah, can I send you my résumé?’”

By 2017, she was a year into a steady gig as an assistant to Chris Coady, one of indie rock’s top producers and mixing engineers. She’d also found time to help out on records by the likes of Coldplay, Lady Gaga, Macklemore, and the cast of Hamilton, and she was rapidly winning the admiration of her twentysomething peers. As her friend Lucy Dacus puts it, “If Sarah has a reputation, it’s that she is kind, creative, and underrated.”

But Tudzin was still missing something essential for the studio career that was her dream. “When I was trying to convince bands to let me produce their record, and they were like, ‘What have you worked on?’ I was like, ‘Well, I was an assistant on this …,’” she says. “I didn’t really have a production that I could point to. A calling card, so to speak. ”

She recorded the songs that became Illuminati Hotties’ 2018 debut, Kiss Yr Frenemies, at the studio where she worked with Coady, making good use of late nights or dates when her boss was out of town. “I was getting into the studio every time Chris wasn’t there,” she says. “I would play some drums, play guitar, do vocals on the nice mics. Just kind of sneak around to get in all the pieces.”

Tudzin chose her band name as a lark (“Everybody has a note in their phone full of stupid band names, and this one seemed less stupid,” she has explained), and began playing her songs privately for friends. Still, it wasn’t until she traveled to Nashville to connect with guitarist Jacob Blizard and producer Collin Pastore, both of whom work closely with Dacus, that Tudzin got the push she needed to take Illuminati Hotties out of the studio and into the real world.

“I showed Lucy the music, just because she was around, and she was like, ‘You gotta put this out with somebody. You can’t just drop it on Bandcamp for fun,’” Tudzin says. “She was the first person who said out loud that I should believe in myself as an artist, and not just a producer.”

“I remember being on a walk around [the] neighborhood trying to peer-pressure her into giving her own music the space it deserves,” Dacus confirms. “She had been making rad things behind the scenes for so long; it was time for her to take some of the shine for herself.” Dacus had only one note, which she’s since regretted: “I was one of the visionless dolts who advised Sarah to change the name [Illuminati Hotties],” she adds. “I thought the music was so good, and I worried that people wouldn’t take it seriously, but it turns out the music is good and also taking something too seriously can ruin the fun.”

Kiss Yr Frenemies won warm reviews after its release in the spring of 2018 on Tiny Engines, a two-person operation in the Carolinas whose roster also included Mannequin Pussy, the Hotelier, and Adult Mom. Critics responded enthusiastically to Tudzin’s emotionally upfront songwriting and dynamic indie-pop sound, in a style she dubbed “tenderpunk.”

Looking back three years later, Tudzin sees Kiss Yr Frenemies as very much a first step toward finding her own voice, with echoes of artists like Courtney Barnett and Alvvays. “I had a completely different perspective on who I wanted to be as an artist, and that vision was a lot softer,” she says. “It feels very reserved. I can kind of tell that I’m trying to be cooler than I was.”

In the months that followed, she turned Illuminati Hotties into a touring band with help from a few friends and found that being onstage helped her break out of that shell. “I grew into being a frontperson,” she says. “I became a little more wild and interactive, and I leaned into the punkier, edgier things that played well in front of an audience.” Tudzin started asking her bandmates to wear red short-shorts to match her stage outfit, and sharpened her between-song banter: “Anything I could do to make it feel like we thought about the show and bring the energy that people who go out on a weeknight to see a random band deserve.”

Everything was going swimmingly until Tiny Engines’ late-2019 meltdown, which began with Adult Mom’s Stevie Knipe publicly blasting the label for alleged financial failings that amounted to “an abuse of power” and “a diseased label.” As others seconded those concerns, several artists fled the label, whose co-founders acknowledged lapses in payments and accounting statements.

For Tudzin, leaving Tiny Engines became a priority. “I was really frustrated with the lack of response on the end of the label in the midst of this crumbling universe that they had built, and the lack of accountability and support,” she says. “It seemed like the bare minimum that a label like that could do. They had built a reputation as a home to bands that were great but maybe didn’t have the outreach yet to find a home that was bigger. And then they dropped the ball when it came time to be that label and be supportive and be a hero to these bands who don’t have money. They just ghosted everyone, and it was upsetting.”

(“Like most independent [labels], Tiny Engines at times overextended itself and allowed its passion for underground music to take priority over the business side of things,” Tiny Engines co-founder Chuck Daley writes in an email to Rolling Stone. “We went from being a modest-but-well-regarded DIY label releasing a handful of records each year to being a full-time operation; we were unprepared for that transition, which is where issues with accounting came into play.” He adds: “The persisting goal was for the artists to succeed, and Tiny Engines was happy to scrape by in the meantime. … Ultimately, I think we did an amazing job with Kiss Yr Frenemies, but I respect Sarah’s decision to move on and wish her the best of luck.”)

FREE I.H. let Tudzin fulfill her contractual requirements while also providing a fruitful outlet for her anger. She points out that her targets on songs like “Will I Get Cancelled If I Write a Song Called, ‘If You Were a Man You’d Be So Cancelled’” and “Free Dumb” (“While the world burns/How could you care about a fucking record?”) went far beyond one DIY label.

“There’s a lot in there that’s me being frustrated with the way the indie-rock industry has failed. There’s also just so much crazy stuff happening in the world that we’re forced to reckon with every day. I was able to pour that into FREE I.H. — the most global perspective, as well as the most personal, needlepoint-sized perspective.” She laughs. “What’s more punk rock than that?”

When she got back to work on Let Me Do One More, Tudzin had a bumper crop of songs that showcased the new confidence she’d learned since her debut. Lead single “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” begins with a snarl (“You think I’m interesting, don’t you?/Think I’m fascinating?”) and spirals from there to a memorably absurd tirade (“Love me, fight me, choke me, bite me/The DNC is playing dirty/Text me, touch me, call me daddy/I’m so sad I can’t do laundry!”). Tudzin says she wrote the song inspired by an early career disappointment: “I played this show in front of some music industry folks who were potentially interested in the band, and I heard much later that they bailed because it was too glittery and too cute,” she says. “I felt kinda robbed. Like, ‘You think we’re too cute? How about this?’”

“Pool Hopping,” the song that opens the new album, is another uptempo highlight driven by an irrepressibly tuneful guitar riff and lyrics about single life. “I was in between relationships at the time,” she says, “and I was goofing around and being reckless in a fun way. It felt very light-hearted and not heartache-y for the first time ever.”

The flip side of Let Me Do One More comes with songs like “The Sway,” a sincere ballad about falling in love and feeling “optimistically cautious,” in Tudzin’s words. Capturing a song that leans so close to the “tender” half of “tenderpunk” posed some unique challenges: “For some reason, every time we played it live, it felt like a Dave Matthews Band song,” she says. “I was like, ‘I can’t get that out of my brain. How am I gonna record this song? I don’t want it to sound like some weird cut off of Under the Table and Dreaming that no one’s heard.’” She laughs again. “Finally I just made it small, and all of a sudden it felt much better. Taking it as an intimate puzzle piece, instead of an effusive gesture of love, really changed that song for me.”

That contrast in tones might be hard for some artists to pull off convincingly; it’s rare for a band to be this good at launching loud, bratty punk blasts while also serving up legitimately moving love songs. (The gently crooned “Threatening Each Other Re: Capitalism” is another shining example in the latter category.) For Tudzin, though, that range comes naturally.

“That exists in me, as an artist and writer,” she says. “I have an undying poptimism — I want to write a hook, and I want the song to feel really good when it’s on full volume in the car.” (She mentions Olivia Rodrigo as a recent Top 40 favorite: “I wish I’d had a pop star like that when I was a kid.”) “And there’s also a forever emo girl inside of me that’s in my high-school bedroom, listening to Bright Eyes and writing in a diary.”

As Tudzin gets ready to release Let Me Do One More and tour again, including a pair of dates this fall opening for Death Cab for Cutie, she’s excited to keep her studio career going in tandem; recent projects include mixing Sad13’s 2020 album Haunted Painting and producing Pom Pom Squad’s upcoming Death of a Cheerleader. “Putting the two versions of myself next to each other on one record … so far, I feel like people have followed me,” Tudzin adds. “I feel good about it too.”