illuminati hotties is the project of Sarah Tudzin, a recording engineer turned punk rocker. Her debut album Kiss Yr Frenemies, combines clever, emotional lyrics with distorted guitars and impeccable production. Rare Candy got the chance to talk Sarah about lyric writing, performance, and the perfect burrito.
By Tim Vallancourt
Rare Candy: You often call your music “tenderpunk.” What does tenderpunk mean to you?
Sarah Tudzin: Tenderpunk is the perfect fusion of punk rock ethos and sentimentality. It came from me writing a lot of sadgirl shit for a really long time and then finding a voice in the punk and rock background that I had. I was fusing the two and suddenly music was coming out in this sweet tongue-in-cheek, surfy, punky, wild way.
RC: Is writing a cathartic thing for you or is it something you do because you have to?
ST: I’m just always doing it. I always collect little ideas and lyrical moments. I’ve always been pretty observational and I love to see the little details that are happening and I’m always writing them down. Then eventually, kicked off by some sort of cathartic thing, I smash them all together in a song. It feels cathartic at times but it’s just something I think I do anyway. Some of the songs that have come together quickly are more cathartic and deal with emotions that I'm microscopically looking at.
RC: Like “boi”?
ST: Yeah, something like that is just a blip. You get the feeling and you have the hour to make something happen.
RC: Do you tend to write lyrics first? Or melody?
ST: Lyrics, but they kinda come up at the same time – lyrics and melody. Melody writing is something I actively try to be better at, while lyrics come more naturally to me. The melody usually involves an edit after the fact, but lyrics generally come in a rhythm.
RC: All of your lyrics are so personal and so specific, but I think you have a lot people who really connect to them. Were you surprised to see people connecting to your private experiences?
ST: A little yes and no. I think, when you write music, the stuff that touches people the most deeply is when you take a very specific thing that can be applied to a more universal truth. If you write a chorus that says "love rules!" – that's a universal sentiment but it doesn't connect with anybody. You have to give people the very specific things that give them that feeling. If you give them a tiny keyhole into somebody's room to peak through: they see the half-finished glass of whiskey next to the book upside down, and the lamp on, and somebody's asleep. If you look into that tiny keyhole, that detailed observation is what makes something feel much more universal in the long run. Maybe they've never been in that situation, but the overarching theme can be latched onto.
RC: Are there any lyrics that you don't connect to anymore? Do you feel weird singing those lyrics live?
ST: I think I've been able to spin them in a way that still connects. There are definitely feelings I don't feel anymore that were felt very strongly when I was writing. But now I've spun them to make more sense with whatever's happening in my life at the moment or found a way to make them performatively feel good to everyone.
Photos by Samantha Walla
RC: You recorded your album in a piecemeal way. It was never a live band in the studio, so how did you turn that into a live act?
ST: I'm still working on it! I think there are things I can improve. It doesn't sound exactly like the record, but that's part of going to see a live show. You could just listen to the record at home, but there's not as much participation involved. It was definitely a challenge to orchestrate it for a live band and figure out what pieces can go where. We're still finessing the details of how to make that work.
RC: Before this, you were working as a producer and recording engineer. How did that influence your work on this album?
ST: It started as a calling card for my production. I've been writing my whole life but I’ve been shy about sharing it anywhere or performing it. This summer, I was very productive on the writing front. Everything was sounding like it could be a part of a similar project, and so I thought I should throw this more cohesive collection together and make something that flexes my production chops. Then, I could have something to show, and create something for people to latch onto if they were interested in me recording their band.
RC: Did you always think you would start a band or did you think you would stick with production?
ST: I was just doing it for fun. As it started coming together more and more, I was hoping to try to figure out a way to put out the album that was more than just like dropping it on Bandcamp or showing it to my friends. A lot of my friends were encouraging me to play out more and so I got over that fear of performing those feelings in front of people and figured out how to make it a show.
RC: How was the process of transitioning from being someone working behind the scenes in a studio to being the frontwoman of a band?
ST: It was wild! It's confusing sometimes because I'm so used to letting someone else be the artist, which is fun. I love creatively guiding an artist, but in this case I can just do my thing. I think having those production and engineering skills made the record turn out a certain way. As I started playing and getting more comfortable playing it out more, I definitely thought, “Maybe I could do this”. It's really fun and I love it just as much as being in the studio now.
RC: Was there anything specific you learned from working on a certain project or album that influenced a choice you made on Kiss Yr Frenemies?
ST: Probably? I think having experience in the studio and learning how other people work was big: picking up recording tricks and production tricks, listening to a lot of records, and stockpiling that vocabulary that you can use in the studio. I’m always referencing other music and other art. Some artists create in a vacuum and they don't want to hear anything else, but I am always drawing from everywhere. Listening back after having time away from the record, I can totally pick out these moments where I know exactly what record I was thinking about. I can see where the influences come together. Part of being an artist is collaging that stuff together and then making it your own thing.
RC: What have you been listening to recently?
ST: I always return to Motown: that music is so perfectly crafted. They knew how to write hits, they wrote hits every single day, and they recorded them all in a day. My record took a lot of pieces and a lot of tweaking and I had the computer as a crutch. For Motown, they had a couple mics up, the band would play the song twice, and then they had a record at the end, which was a magical and cool way to make music. What else? Lucy Dacus, still on repeat. Courtney Barnett, always on repeat.
RC: What's playing in the tour van?
ST: Mitski has played more than once for sure. We were also listening to this podcast. When we started listening to it, I thought it was really lame, but then I was getting into it. It’s so awesome. It's these guys playing Dungeons & Dragons and narrating it. I don't know anything about Dungeons & Dragons, but they're funny so we were listening to a bunch of that. We listen to a lot of friends' records. I've been listening to a lot of people in LA who have not yet put out their music. I really love it and I'm hoping they will come out very soon. It's always fun when people send over demos or mixes and I just can’t wait for everyone else to hear them. I’m so excited to have it and I'm so bummed that I haven't been able to share it
RC: How has touring been so far?
ST: I didn't know what was gonna happen. We did one tour that was hella DIY. We never knew what we were showing up for and we were always expecting the worst. I planned really ambitious drives where we were just driving eight hours every day, no matter what. It was horrible. But this tour is great. The most fun part is that every day is different for better or for worse.
RC: Do you pick the music that goes on in venues before you play?
ST: I don't have a playlist for these shows, but I'm going to make one because we've had some terrible house music. We’ve also had some great music. On the run we just did with Diet Cig, they had a playlist so right before they went on it was just their Spotify going. I have a walk-on song and only two people have played it this whole tour! Mostly because they don't want to play it.
RC: What is it?
ST: KISS’s “Lick It Up!"” I would love for “Lick It Up” to be on full-blast before I go on stage tonight. I think for the next tour I want to curate the vibe a little better. It can be such a bummer. One venue we played had this indie rock playlist playing and two of our songs played, just before we played!
RC: The video for “Cuff” is amazing. How did you come up with the idea for the video?
ST: I wanted to make another video and my friend Sam Lane is a fantastic animator. I saw her final project for school which was a short animated film. It was so flawlessly done and really beautiful. Something about animation is really sentimental and special in this childlike way. A lot of animation now plays with adults who grew up watching cartoons, latching onto something. I just sent her the album and told her to pick whatever song she wanted and to pitch me a story. It was the most hands-off I’ve ever been with anything illuminati hotties. She had this idea of the fish with the dream to fly and she loved Cuff, so it worked. I loved it immediately. It was amazing to work with her. She's just so talented.
RC: It’s October, so do you know what you are going to be for Halloween?
ST: We were talking about this because we're going to be doing a tour with Los Campesinos! down the West Coast and then across the bottom of the US with Vundabar. I think we're going to be in Seattle on Halloween. We won’t have started the tour yet; we're just stopping there on our way to Vancouver, and hanging out with some friends and some bands out there. I don't know if we're going to do a group costume.
RC: I feel like you should!
ST: I want to! There have been a couple ideas. I have a Spider-Man onesie that I wore last year. It’s just easy and comfortable, so there was talk of all of us being Spider-Man, but I don't know. The guys will wear whatever they want to wear.
RC: So you’re from LA. Do you have strong feelings about breakfast burritos? What makes a good burrito?
ST: Proportions? Crucial. Distribution? Really important. I love guacamole but it sucks when you get a bite that's just cold guacamole in the middle of a hot burrito. That's weird! You gotta spread it out. The way you roll it is really important. The ingredients are really important. There are a lot of amazing burritos. I love breakfast burritos, but I especially love when they use hashbrowns instead of the chunky potatoes. Spiciness! Good spice is also very important.
RC: Do you skateboard a lot? I know you do in the “(You’re Better) Than Ever” video.
ST: Yeah! I've never been able to do tricks; I just cruise around and keep my longboard in the trunk of my car, because LA parking is a shitshow. I park wherever and skate. I think my friends hate when I show up with the skateboard at the bar, but it's so much easier to find a good spot and then skate half of a mile rather than pay twelve dollars or something for parking.
RC: Were you ever in a skate crew?
ST: I don't think so. I wasn’t very cool in middle school and high school. I do it for convenience's sake now and cruise around. If I have twenty minutes to kill, I’ll just go back and forth on a flat street for a while. I’d like to be able to learn tricks or have a skate crew at the park.
RC: It's never too late!
ST: It's never too late! But I am more afraid of breaking my bones than I was when I was younger.
RC: You’ve had a lot of west coast time and a lot of east coast time. Do you consider yourself bicoastal?
ST: You know, coast doesn't matter in 2018! However, I would consider myself West Coast for sure. I grew up out there. I spent some time in school on the East Coast and I do love the East Coast a lot, but I think it's pretty hard to shake the California out of me.
RC: Do you have any advice for people who are graduating soon or for people in their twenties?
ST: Just make sure you're doing something you love. Don't be afraid to learn how to bite it for a while and learn from somebody better than you. Put your pride away and cut your teeth. Everything takes time. There’s this weird flash phenomenon of being twenty-three or twenty-four and seeing somebody have a startup and now they're a billionaire. They’re only twenty-five and they live in a highrise and you're trying to figure out what you’re doing wrong. But that’s the loudest and smallest percentage of people in their twenties. If you work really hard and you just do something as hard as you possibly can, it pays off eventually. The slow burns end up being the longest lasting careers. As far anybody I've ever seen whose done it longer than me at least. With the Internet, it seems like everything’s happening really fast. With this band, people think it happened so fast, but it didn't! It took me two years to get from point A to point B of putting the record out. That's not even that long of a time, but it still is solid work. It wasn't like I just woke up with the record and I put it out and everybody heard it. We’re still working hard to get people to hear it.
RC: What's next for you?
ST: The tour in November with Los Campesinos! and Vunderbar. And then the holidays happen. I’m going to hibernate and start working on the next record. I’ll be working with a couple other bands in LA and outside of LA on mixing and production projects. Just trying to get into the studio when we’re off the road. I don’t know… dig up some other trouble I guess! Sit on the beach maybe for a day! Hopefully!