Sarah Tudzin wants to be making music as much as possible. When the Los Angeles–based multi-hyphenate musician’s years of work as an engineer and producer wasn’t enough of a creative outlet, she started her band, Illuminati Hotties, in 2017; now, between writing and touring her own music, she still makes time to work on other artists’ records. (She has recently logged studio time with Sadie Dupuis’s Sad13 and Pom Pom Squad.) So when her label, the once-lauded indie outfit Tiny Engines, began to implode from allegations of mismanagement in late 2019, Tudzin had an instinctual way out: make more music. She was still under contract for a second Hotties album at the label, after the 2018 breakout Kiss Yr Frenemies, but didn’t want Tiny Engines to have her follow-up or be forced to self-release all that work. Instead, Tudzin recorded a whole new album, released in July 2020 as a “mixtape,” called Free I.H: This Is Not the One You’ve Been Waiting For. Somehow, the resulting project was even better than Kiss Yr Frenemies, introducing a more cheeky, audacious, and altogether captivating Illuminati Hotties — while pulling a few necessary punches too. (“While the world burns, how could you care about a fucking record?” Tudzin asks on one standout.)
Now, just over a year later, the sophomore album we have been waiting for is here. The well-titled Let Me Do One More, released on Tudzin’s new Hopeless Records imprint, Snack Shack Tracks, makes apparent why Tudzin would go through such lengths to preserve its integrity. It’s a bold collection of rock music in which anything goes — the singles alone span the in-your-face pop-punk anthem “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA,” the laid-back country rambler “u v v p,” and the offbeat love song “Threatening Each Other re: Capitalism” (the latter being a perfect encapsulation of her self-described genre of “tenderpunk”). “I try and make playlists of themes or sounds or even just song forms that I want to shoot for when I’m making a record,” Tudzin explains over the phone. “I’ve always been sort of a crate digger in that way, of gathering as many sounds as possible that feel cool to me.” As riotously fun as Let Me Do One More can be, it also makes the argument that Tudzin is serious about Illuminati Hotties — and makes seriously good Hotties music. She spoke to Vulture about the influences behind her freewheeling album, from the Free I.H ordeal to Sufjan Stevens.
Making Free I.H
I had started making Let Me Do One More in between a lot of touring that happened over the course of 2019. I basically went into the studio with two big, poster-size pieces of paper with about 25 or 30 song ideas and all of the things that needed to happen for those song ideas in the studio that I could start checking off. Then, at the end of 2019, things started to go haywire with the label that we used to be on. As we exited that label, there was an exit agreement that stipulated some percentage of revenue from whatever the next record would be, and that percentage increased if it came out with a bigger label with some budget. I’d been working so hard on Let Me Do One More, and I was like, Man, I don’t want to self-release this record I’ve been putting so much love into. I thought I would have a little more support for record two. As it became increasingly clear that it wasn’t going to happen, I whipped up Free I.H real quick and put that out to fulfill my exit agreement and to move forward with Let Me Do One More in a way that I thought suited the tunes. You know, I wanted them to be bigger than the last record.
I’d been working on my presentation [as a performer] over the course of getting everything together for Let Me Do One More and then let it loose with no rules and no ceiling on Free I.H. And then when I went back to Let Me Do One More to finish up the bells and whistles, do any remaining writing that needed to happen or any additional production layers that needed to happen, one of the last things I tracked was vocals. So I think I came back to it with a much better understanding of my vocal ability and character and presentation.
Performing live after Kiss Yr Frenemies
The first real tour I had been on [for Illuminati Hotties in 2018], I booked myself, and we basically gave ourselves like ten or 12 days to roll through South by Southwest and hit Nashville and come back, and it was the worst planning of all time. [Laughs.] But then we had this slow momentum, and the scope of the tours kept getting bigger and bigger, and we would tack on a little bit of headliners surrounding the support tours that we were booking.
I was a total amateur as a front person when we first started touring. I knew how to win over a local crowd because it was L.A., and your friends are all there, and you’re already winning in the eyes of the audience. Being in front of complete strangers that had never heard the music, or who maybe had heard a song or two online, was definitely a challenge. I feel like I was able to grow into a front person in a way that I never thought I would be, to be totally honest. I always saw myself in the back of the band, or obviously on the other side of the glass in a studio or in a writing session, but I really worked on how to make shows feels like shows. There’s something about a live experience that could be so special, and I wanted to create that environment for the audience that was fully engaged, high-octane when it was loud and fast, and really emotional and intimate in the softer and more emo moments.
Bridging old punk and pop classics
I think a lot about old punk records that I loved as a kid, like Minor Threat and Black Flag and Descendents, Operation Ivy — all these punks that are just giving it their all and putting so much character into their vocals and not giving a fuck what it sounds like at the end of the day, as long as it has personality and intent and is executing their message.
I also was reaching back into, like, the Shangri-Las and Freda Payne and the Ronettes — older, dustier textures, stuff from the ’50s and ’60s that was just pure, wonderful songwriting. Making the hyperbolic version of that has always been really interesting to me. Harry Nilsson, I was listening to a lot of that at the time, as a picture-perfect songwriter and arranger.
I love to make noise and make true art, in quotes [laughs], as much as the next person. I love to fool around and make something crazy, but I also get a lot of joy from making songs that you want to listen to and that get stuck in your head. You know, I do enjoy marketable music, and I do enjoy the craft of songwriting as much as I enjoy the art of it. It’s like, you can make a sculpture out of wood that’s beautiful and completely nonfunctional, or you can make a table that you eat dinner at every single day and that you love and have your friends sit at because it’s also beautiful in a different way. I guess what I’m trying to say is I can’t really take it out of me — as much as I’ve tried to write stuff that’s off the beaten path, at the end of the day, I still want to have a chorus, even on that stuff.
Sufjan Stevens is a master record-builder, in my mind. He has the [ideal] career, to me. He kind of makes whatever he wants, and it’s all awesome and people love it, and he gets to tour on it. Then he gets to go back into his cave and just work on music, and when he reemerges, it’s either a massive solo record that everyone loves or it’s, like, the soundtrack for the New York City Ballet or something. And that’s so cool: to make your life completely about the art that you are feeling and that you’re loving.
‘Kokomo,’ by the Beach Boys
What happened with [“u v v p”] is I really wanted to make a classic girl-group sound, like we were talking about, and then I put all these guitars on it, and suddenly it became “Kokomo.” And I was like, Oh my God, “Kokomo,” by the Beach Boys — I fucking love this song! This is what “u v v p” is. I got in this whole world of doing a deep dive of the surf and country crossover that happens with Jimmy Buffett or Dick Dale. You see a lot of the same sonic textures and songwriting techniques that happen in ’50s country and ’60s country that you do in ’60s surf rock and pop, and I don’t know why that crossover exists. I’d love to do more research on, like, “Sleep Walk” [by Santo & Johnny], with that big pedal-steel solo happening. Why does that sound like a surf song and a country song? So I really started chasing that.
Then I didn’t know how to end that song, and I was like, Oh my God, it needs narration! That is what makes it a country song. Can I get somebody to just narrate some weird story that’s tangential to the song? When it all came together, it just worked so well. I love hearing Buck [Meek, of Big Thief] sing — or, I guess, talk — that part. [Laughs.] I’m glad he was down to do it.
Living in America, capitalism is completely unignorable, and it’s this game that we’re all forced to play into in some way if we want to, like, live in an apartment. It’s obviously this insidious, horrific force that’s run our country for pretty much the entire time that America has existed, and I think no matter where you are in the class spectrum, you’re tied to capitalism in some way. It’s this sort of thing that buzzes around in the back of my mind because art, in essence, is so anti-capitalist. I feel like I’m constantly walking this line as a musician where I want to be making art; I want to not participate in the world in the way it’s laid out for me and make songs and make weird sounds and just assume that I can subsist and survive in this world, but that’s not a reality. Obviously, I would love for the force of capitalism to disappear — I don’t think it’s going to disappear during our lifetime — and I would love to be making small changes to fix that along the way. But in the meantime, it’s something that has my hands tied. Everybody’s just scrambling to survive, and the older you get, the more you either play into that or not.
Continuing to work as a producer
I’m really lucky that I’ve gotten to the point where the artist life feeds the production life and vice versa. I just want to make as many records as possible. Any time I can fit in sessions in between touring, it’s been so wonderful, and I’m lucky that the combination of both has been able to keep me afloat. Definitely in the last year, with touring not really happening, I was able to approach mixing and production in a completely new way, from a remote setup and from sort of getting in the cave with a band. The Pom Pom Squad record that I worked on [Death of a Cheerleader], that was made right at the end of 2020, and there was nothing else going on, so I really had an opportunity to live in her universe in a way that I might not necessarily have gotten to [before]. There was truly no exit to that world, which was such a cool way to make a record in New York City, a place that usually has so many other things to do. I love to keep cycling through those roles, and to be able to do both is the dream. I feel lucky every single day that I wake up and work on music.
“MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA” was such an outrageous song that I knew that I wanted to do an outrageous, and probably disgusting, music video. Every time I think about “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA,” the colors around it are very ’90s Nickelodeon: zany, zigzaggy, bright, and bold stuff. I was watching old Nickelodeon game-show stuff and then something clicked and I was like, I have to be getting slime dumped on me. Then somewhere along the way, I was like, Oh my God, the D’Angelo video [“Untitled (How Does It Feel)”] is so powerful and so sensual and so masculine, and I can flip that on its head in a really cool way. Katie Neuhof came on and directed that along with Dennis Noack [as director of photography], and they were just the dream team to work with. It was really comfortable, and, obviously, being in a pretty exposed, vulnerable, disgusting situation, it was good to have those people around me. I never wanna do that again. [Laughs.] I definitely asked for it, I guess, so I can only blame myself on that one, but I think that once was enough for that.
Having a label imprint
I’m so thrilled to be working with Hopeless on this. They basically have given me the resources and then the reins to the carriage. They gave me this little subsidiary imprint so I could call the shots and make my own creative decisions and hopefully be able to pay that co-sign forward to bands in the future. That’s sort of the next thing once this record gets off the ground, is to start figuring out how to sign bands and curate an imprint that has a sound and has impact, hopefully. But [at Hopeless], it’s working at a level that I’ve never been afforded an opportunity to work at. They’ve let me run with my ideas, as you know from the slime-dump video [laughs], and they’ve been total cheerleaders the whole way.
It’s still taking shape in my mind, [but] I’d love for my production world [to] be in tandem with the imprint. I would like to sign bands that are and are not produced by me. I’d love to just cast a net toward music I like, whether or not I’ve worked on it, but I think one thing does inherently feed the other. I hope that, in any context, I can be a creative as well as administrative shoulder for people to lean on.
Her mother, to whom Let Me Do One More is dedicated
Obviously, this record is not about [my mother’s death] because it was written far before, but it’s sort of the unavoidable truth of my reality right now and my life. Especially at the time when I was putting together the liner notes, it felt very trite to me to not acknowledge that, even though I haven’t really acknowledged that yet in my own songwriting. Free I.H came out in a whirlwind — you know, it came out the day after my mom passed away, and I just, for weeks, didn’t interact with what was happening behind it online. I gave the keys over to the managers, and I was like, “Do what has to be done. I don’t care anymore.” I [felt], for obvious reasons, blocked. So it was really hard for me to wrap my brain around putting out music again. In a lot of ways, I think the magic of the world has faded in the wake of that, and I’m trying now to sort of put my life back together, and — I don’t know. Every day I wake up feeling differently about it, but that was what felt real and what felt important for me to say, as far as the timeline of these crazy two releases.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.