Illuminati Hotties' Sarah Tudzin on Studio Wizardry, Creativity, and Having a Sense of Humor

Illuminati Hotties' Sarah Tudzin on Studio Wizardry, Creativity, and Having a Sense of Humor
Sarah Tudzin courtesy of Mariah Russek

Fun fact: That pooch in the pic with Sarah Tudzin—singer, songwriter, musician, engineer, and the mastermind behind adventurous emo-leaning outfit Illuminati Hotties—made a few appearances during our phone conversation for this interview next month. Good pooch! I’ve loved Tudzin’s music as IH ever since Kiss Yr Frenemies (which I reviewed for Pitchfork). She’s since released a new single with more seemingly on the way, but I actually did this interview waaaay before the new single was announced, so we don’t really talk about new music in here. The conversation is great though! Sarah is awesome. Read all about it.

Tell me about your earliest experiences with music in general.

I have a very vivid childhood memory that I ended up writing a college essay about. When I was four or five, my grandparents took me to see the L.A. Philharmonic play “Peter and the Wolf” for a kids’ day. Obviously, that’s classic kids music, but there were members of the Philharmonic that had their instruments in the lobby and were showing kids how to play, too. You got to move the trombone slide or play the violin a little. It was so cool and fascinating to watch the performance. I was totally hypnotized.

I started bothering my parents to do piano lessons, which I started when I was seven. The only teacher she knew wouldn’t take kids under a certain age, because she didn’t just want to be babysitting. When I was in middle school, I got really interested in drums. For a long time, I just really wanted to play music, and it wasn’t until college that I realized there was a different process when it came to recording music.

Music’s been a part of my life for a really long time. At first, I was totally appalled by the music my parents loved, and then I really liked it, and then I was appalled by it again [Laughs]. I was surrounded by music on road trips or on the radio on the way to school. I was obsessed, all the time.

Tell me more about falling in love with the mechanics of recording.

The storytelling of it all was really exciting. When you first start learning music and the basic structures—the major chord is happy, the minor chord is dark—that was really interesting for me. Because I started on piano, I came at it from an academic perspective at first. A lot of musicians I love play off of pure soul, and that’s more how I feel about guitar because I know less about it.

But for a while, I loved to read music and play down pieces by sight. For whatever reason, it was a really natural way for me to engage with music—to learn about theory and the notes on the page, to get faster through muscle memory, to figure out the puzzle of accomplishing what’s written in front of you. Which I’ve fallen so far from [Laughs]. I haven’t practiced any instrument in so long. It’s a natural process for me now.

What put you on the path to working as an engineer?

Before college, I thought you could only be a performer or a manager. [Laughs] In my mind, I was like, “You’re either in the band, or you manage the band.” I didn’t think about how there’s all these people in the creative side that aren’t actually playing the parts. In college, they had this production and engineering program, and all of the sudden I was like, “Oh! I can be a producer!” The studio aspect started being really exciting to me, and at the same time I was less interested in being alone in a practice room with a drum set and more interested in being alone in a studio learning all the weird gear in there.

Tell me about the convivial vibe of working in studios.

It’s definitely a weird balance between the work and the creativity. It’s really fun, and every day is different in working with bands, which is exciting for me. You want to keep it light, but you want to make sure the grounds are set for a band to be creative and have a magical moment. I think a lot of bands don’t realize that it’s a lot of work. Half of the time, you’re having a great time, but most of the time you’re really just playing the parts and trying to get a take that’s as close to the right feeling as possible. Sometimes that means playing the same guitar line 18 times in a row, and that’s not really fun for a lot of people.

It’s happened a lot with younger bands I’ve worked with over the last year, where they’ve been like, “Studio time! It’s gonna be like the Rolling Stones! We’re gonna create, drink, smoke weed, and have a good time.” Actually, you have to perform in a way where you’re stoked about hearing it four thousand times in a row, starting today. Sometimes people get in a real crisis about that. But it’s one of the most fun jobs ever, and there’s a lot of room for a band to catch a creative vibe and make something that they might not have been able to make in their rehearsal space.

Also, I will say that as a producer and engineer, my one job is to make sure everything’s working. So if they’re jamming in the room and suddenly they’re like, “This is a hit!,” I have to catch that. If I was drinking a beer just waiting for them to get their shit together while they’re jamming on this amazing new thing because it came naturally, I want to make sure all the drum mics are on, you know?

Recording studios are a controlled space, even when it’s not a pandemic. But how have the rules changed during the pandemic?

At first, it was really sketchy. Like many other jobs, things just completely halted for a while. I was doing a lot more remote work, producing people from afar, working on tracks on my own time, sending stems back and forth. I went into a lot of mix work too, which can be pretty self-sufficient. There are mix sessions where the band attends, which is fun, but there are also mix sessions where you get sent a file, you mix it, and you get notes. That’s a pretty regular way of working. So I was pretty lucky that even though I had to pivot, there wasn’t much of a slowdown.

That being said, once testing became available, sessions seemed a lot more possible, and it was a matter of making sure the lead time was comfortable with everyone. If I had a band coming in, I was just like, “Hey, if everybody wants to take it easy and close up your social circles, I’ll do the same, and we’ll be in each others’ bubble for these two weeks.” In some ways, it was helpful with timelines, because I could say, “These are your two weeks to work on this record,” and we had to adhere to it for safety’s sake. We couldn’t trickle work into the end of the month, because at that point I’ll have to be in somebody else’s space, and they might not be comfortable with me seeing four other random band members too.

It definitely got easier when testing became available, and also a lot of the studios I worked in since the pandemic started are really careful. Everybody has masks, the assistants don’t hang in the room unless they have to be there. That sort of stuff makes it a lot more comfortable. But obviously, it’s a little more planned out. You can’t just have people drop by and vibe.

Have there been any instances where you don’t see eye-to-eye with artists about safety?

Mostly, everyone’s been pretty cool. I want to keep myself safe and be able to visit my dad and stuff, so I just lay it out and am like, “If you wanna roll up, make sure you can get a test and keep your other stuff low-key.” I did a record last month where one of the members was more nervous than the rest of them, so he planned days where he did his parts and the rest of the band showed up on other days, and that worked out great too. I just want to make sure I’m comfortable and take cues from the band about how they’ve been comfortable working with each other. But I haven’t met any opposition for the most part. More often than not, the bands are just trying to stay careful.

Your music as Illuminati Hotties is very vibrant and hard to pin down sometimes. Where do your artistic impulses come from?

I try and listen to as much as humanly possible. It’s sort of my job as a producer and musician to know what’s out there, and whether I want to borrow from that or not. A lot of it is just in the sauce—in my brain soup [Laughs]. I’ll be stumbling around trying to find a guitar tone and tweaking it to make it fit my song. It’s in the same way that writing stuff just comes out of the stew.

Are there any specific artists or feelings that you take inspiration from when it comes to creation?

On Free IH, there was a lot of older punk DNA in there. I read this article about how they made the first Black Flag record, and how the guitar tone was just turning the amp all the way to 10 until it distorts. I thought, “What a great opportunity to try that out on this crazy record.” That ended up being the guitar tone for most of the album.

I like to think about how authors or filmmakers work, where there’s a zoomed-out bigger picture instead of one song at a time. The way you become an auteur of the process is really exciting for me. “Here’s all of the chess pieces, and I’m gonna move them this way.” Then I see whatever feedback I can get from people that are working with me, and I readjust my strategy. At the end of the day, what matters most to me is how I’m executing stuff on record best exemplifies the intent of the song. If the intention is not being executed, it’s a failure to me.

One thing that’s drawn me to your music since the beginning is your sense of humor. It’s harder to be funny in songwriting than people think.

Humor is such a weird line to walk in music, and I feel like I don’t like funny music. I’m not seeking parody music, or music of guys who are trying to make a punchline on every song. It’s just my natural personality coming out—of seeing everything in a humorous way, the way life can sometimes be. If it’s not natural, it never works. We’ve all heard those songs where it seems like someone is trying to be funny, versus songs that aren’t “funny” songs but the way the world is being interpreted has some lightness to it.

All great emo acts are saying borderline cringe-y stuff, and when it works you can tell it’s because the person is seeing it from a wider perspective, too. “I’m gonna say this awful thing about how I hate myself, but I also understand that it’s kind of hilarious to be that gratuitous about it.” I don’t try and have punchlines, but I also understand that it’s just the way I see things. I cannot believe that these ridiculous things are a normal part of life!

As a songwriter and an engineer, how does expressing personality as Illuminati Hotties collide with your technical impulses?

It’s all about intent and execution. If both things are firing off at the same time, it works really well. A lot of bands that don’t necessarily have the technical know-how know in their minds what they want it to sound like, and for me I can put sounds to the feelings because I know how to do so. Knowing what “angry” sounds like to me is a little less of a leap, whereas others might not know how to convey that through sonic texture. I put in the homework about what all the dials mean, so when I’m doing artistic galaxy-brain “This shit should sound orange” stuff, I’ve already figured out what that means to me. That part is often frustrating to people who don’t spend as much time in the studio.

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Jamie Larson