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The Comical, Sincere Tenderpunk of Illuminati Hotties

Sarah Tudzin on her new album, ‘Let Me Do One More,’ which finds a way to be earnest without ever being cringe

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

How was your summer?

Did it start off with so much promise and then crumble apart like dried-out dog shit? Was it filled with long stretches of disappointment, punctured only by some of the greatest moments of your never-ending, short, dumb life? Cool. Illuminati Hotties has just the record for you.

Illuminati Hotties is the project of Sarah Tudzin. Her latest album, Let Me Do One More, feels like a cannonball off of the roof and into the deep end of her mind. She calls it “tenderpunk,” which works too. At times she sounds unhinged and at others it’s like she’s confessing her secrets to you in the one quiet corner of the party. She can create a satirical tribute to her imagined “Joni: LA’s No. 1 Health Goth,” but will also achingly describe the difficulties of building a relationship amid the insidious effects of late-stage capitalism. Let Me Do One More is at its best when Tudzin rides the line between the comical and the sincere—two traits that can go horribly wrong when it comes to music.

“We’ve all seen people try to be funny, and that’s hard to watch in any capacity,” says Tudzin. “We’ve also seen people be earnest to the point of, like, cringe. In order to be that earnest without being cringey, you have to infuse your reality, which for me is a little bit of humor and a little bit of, like, shoulder shrugging at the whole thing.”

Tudzin, 29, explains this approach while sitting at a picnic table on top of what used to be a parking space on a busy street in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Taking advantage of L.A.’s currently lax open container policy, she drinks from a tall can of beer in the late afternoon sun. On her T-shirt are illustrations of desert flowers, in her left nostril is a small hoop, and on her feet are a pair of dusty pink Crocs.

As for Tudzin’s own summer, it was pretty chill. Some swimming, a trip to a family friend’s lake house for a little vacation. “In studio world, summer is kind of the same as all seasons,” she admits. “I’m just, like, in the air conditioning, luckily.”

She’s endured the pandemic by embracing coping mechanisms like wearing Crocs, gardening, and devoting herself to Maeby, the dog she adopted and named after Alia Shawkat’s character on Arrested Development. (“She’s beagle size, but thicc,” says Tudzin after pulling up a photo of the mutt on her phone.) She also set up a new home studio.

Before Tudzin began releasing songs as Illuminati Hotties, she established herself as a producer, engineer, and mixer. Once she put out her own music, she continued working with other artists, including Pom Pom Squad and Weyes Blood. With Let Me Do One More, she combined her own distinct creative perspective with all the technical know-how she developed over the years.

Tudzin grew up in Woodland Hills, California, in the far western reaches of the San Fernando Valley, not far from Calabasas and Topanga Canyon. As a teenager she played drums in the school orchestra and after-school jazz ensembles. She was a part of a few bands, but none that were built around her vision. In middle school, she started a Green Day cover act, but they only learned “Holiday.” She’d go to shows at the Cobalt Cafe, a now-shuttered venue in nearby Canoga Park, and she was one of her few classmates who would cross over the 405 to go to the Smell, the all-ages punk institution in downtown L.A.

In 2011, she left Southern California for Boston to study the drums at Berklee College of Music. Almost immediately, she got sick of practicing her instrument six hours a day, so she applied to the school’s music production and engineering program. “For some reason, sitting alone in the studio for hours and hours was way more exciting than sitting alone hitting drums,” Tudzin says.

After graduation, she returned to L.A. and her school helped get her a gig at one of the city’s bigger recording studios as a runner—an entry-level position that involves mostly menial tasks, often for no money or a minimal under-the-table amount. She soon realized this wasn’t the path for her. One night at 3 a.m., she was cleaning a toilet and started talking to the guy cleaning the stall next to her. He told her he’d been at the studio for three years, but seemed excited they were finally letting him participate in recording sessions. “There’s gotta be some other way to cut my teeth in the game and pay my dues, but not do janitorial work for three years,” Tudzin remembers thinking. “If I wanted to do that, I would just get paid better as a janitor.”

She began calling up companies that managed producers and chatting up to the people who answered the phones, since they were usually around her age. She’d ask if they knew if any of the clients were hiring. Eventually she heard from the representative for Chris Coady, a respected indie rock producer, who asked if she was still looking for a job.

Tudzin spent more than three years as Coady’s engineer, taking part in albums like Amen Dunes’s Freedom and Porches’s Pool. “We were really in the trenches together,” says Coady. “We’d fly to London and be working with strangers, and sometimes it would get tense, especially if there were conflicts of vision. She always maintained a certain even-keel. If I had a meltdown, she would be the one who wasn’t having one.”

Coady always tells his engineers that once he’s done at the studio, they can use the space to record whatever they want and charge for sessions as a side hustle. Tudzin remains the only person who ever took him up on the offer. “Sometimes I’d be going out to the parking lot at Sunset Sound to go home for the night and there would be a whole crew of people out there waiting to come in,” he says.

Tudzin also used this opportunity to record her own music for what eventually became Illuminati Hotties. She’d been writing songs her whole life, but became more serious about it as she finished high school and started college. As she got older, she would sometimes play at a backyard gig or an open mic night. First it was just strumming on an acoustic guitar, but it eventually grew into a whole band, with her as the central (and only permanent) member.

Illuminati Hotties’ 2018 debut Kiss Yr Frenemies was a well-received, if fairly under-the-radar release, but it did find its fans. Sadie Dupuis first heard it while on tour with her band Speedy Ortiz. As Dupuis prepared to record the album Haunted Painting for her Sad13 solo project, she realized that though she’d worked in recording studios since she was in her early teens, she rarely hired other women. She vowed to have only female collaborators behind the boards on Haunted Painting and reached out to Tudzin to be a part of it.

Originally they were going to do only two songs together, but Tudzin ended up mixing the entire album. “We have a lot of the same musical touchpoints,” says Dupuis. “When I’m working with someone on a mix or on tracking, if they’re already making the choices that I would be micromanaging, it’s such a relief and such a wonderful feeling. That’s definitely how it felt working with Sarah.”

In November 2019, as Tudzin prepared her follow-up to Kiss Yr Frenemies, her record label situation blew up. In a Twitter thread, Stevie Knipe of the band Adult Mom said that the owners of Tiny Engines, the Carolinas-based indie that Illuminati Hotties was also on, hadn’t paid them their royalties in a timely manner, hadn’t been financially transparent, and had acted unprofessionally when confronted about giving them the money Adult Mom was owed. In response, other acts that had history with the label gave similar accounts or made statements supporting Knipe. Tudzin still owed Tiny Engines another album, so she quickly recorded and released the quasi-mixtape Free I.H.: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For to help satisfy her exit agreement.

Though Tudzin’s intention was to mirror Lil Wayne’s maneuvers to get off Cash Money Records before the release of Tha Carter V, the result of Free I.H. was more like Clipse’s We Got It for Cheap series. It brought more attention to her music than she’d previously enjoyed, but it also tied her narrative to label drama. In the profiles of Illuminati Hotties that followed, the situation with Tiny Engines was always the lead.

Free I.H. is a gloriously ridiculous album. Tudzin snarls the opening lyrics, “Let’s smash to a podcast / Tomorrow mornin’ we’re cryin’ into a Denny’s Grand Slam,” and it only gets wilder from there before culminating in “reasons 2 live,” an openhearted ballad in which she names the important people in her life and explains why she loves each of them. “I think she thought it would just be out there and people would think it was funny,” Dupuis says of Free I.H. “I don’t think she knew how much it would catch on, but listening to it, I was like, ‘What the fuck? This is one of the best things that anyone I know has made.’”

Though Tudzin has gotten tired of talking about what happened with Tiny Engines, she understands why people remain interested in the story. “With an indie label, there’s more of a moral expectation to be upheld,” she says. “Especially in the cases of these smaller tastemaker-y labels where they’re like, ‘We have all these bands, they’re all really cool, they’re all on tour, they’re all doing fun stuff and we ride or die for these bands.’ It’s a little more heartbreaking when that sort of thing falls apart, whereas if you hear a story about, you know, Universal screwing over an artist, nobody bats an eye really.”

Tudzin was also mourning her mother, who died from cancer the day before Free I.H.’s release. Amid these changes, she had to decide what to do with all the nearly completed songs she had recorded for Let Me Do One More. “I had this crisis of like, ‘Oh my god, am I taking a step backwards by putting this record out?’” says Tudzin. “It took me a second to recontextualize and reckon with the songs as they were, and I was pretty proud of the work I had done on it.”

Tudzin finished the record without any major overhauling and signed a deal with Hopeless Records, an indie with nearly 20 years of experience. She joined a roster that includes pop-punk luminaries like New Found Glory and Sum 41, who have come to the label in recent years after their own travails. Hopeless also agreed to give Tudzin her own subsidiary, Snack Shack Tracks. She’s currently unsure if the label will be a way to put out artists she produces, or she’ll just keep it open to any new act she likes.

In June, Tudzin released “Pool Hopping” as a single to welcome the summer months. The lyrics promise “All rip’rs / No more skip’rs,” and the video is full of chlorinated fantasies and pounded Tecates. It’s a blast to watch, but the more emotionally reflective clip may be the one she put out for “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” a couple months earlier.

The video pays tribute to both D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” and Nickelodeon’s Slime Time Live, two cultural touchstones destined to cross-wire the brain of a viewer who was once a channel-flipping kid during the turn of the century. Since it was just a single shot, Tudzin knew she had limited opportunities to get it right. The slime they made wasn’t as fun as the bright green goo that Nickelodeon uses. It smelled weird and felt gross. Tudzin says that when it was dumped on her head the first time, “It was more upsetting than I thought it would be.” Then she took a step and slipped in the kiddie pool she was standing in, ruining the take.

She washed herself off in the gnarly shower at the warehouse they were filming in, dried her hair, and redid her makeup as fast as she could. “I really had to talk myself up into doing it again,” she says. “It just set off a lot of feelings that I didn’t expect to feel.”

The second time the slime hit she kept her balance and her focus, even though it was just as disgusting. Watching the video, there’s a wildness in Tudzin’s eyes, but she also looks powerful. She looks like she’s in control.

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.