Makin' things with Sarah Tudzin (Illuminati Hotties)
Turns out we don't know how to do anything else
Next up in my interview series with creative folks is musical powerhouse Sarah Tudzin, who fronts the band Illuminati Hotties, and who is also an accomplished engineer and producer. The first time I saw Sarah perform was at a backyard show with Great Grandpa. I didn’t know anyone and felt like a creeper. But after her set, including an unexpectedly heartbreaking cover of Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”, the night of awkward non-socializing felt totally worth it.
We were able to meet up a couple weeks ago and get coffee, where we talked about the creative hustle, learning via collaboration, and the not-so-terrible problems that you totally sign up for when your livelihood involves making music. Someone kept using a big machine to make orange juice, so I had to transcribe it into the following long-read, rather than having it exist as a pseudo-podcast. I tried.
Last week paid subscribers were sent a link to David aka Spoonboy covering Sabotage with Good Luck and Jeff Rosenstock, and this week I might send out my phone video of Sarah’s backyard cover, or I might play a cover of my own? We’ll see!
Thanks for reading!
When you wake up in the morning, when you’re going to start working on something, what motivates you? Do you have a ‘why’ to what you’re making?
I have so many thoughts on this. I think about this stuff all the time. I think coffee is a big motivator, but I also think that I haven’t had any other option, in a way. I’ve never had a Plan B, I’ve never had a fallback option. I went to school to do music. My folks were really supportive when I was a kid, and when I was interested in music, and that was really lucky. It’s so engrained in me now that it’s hard to answer that question. I wake up and I’m never like “hm, maybe I should X”, you know. I don’t have to clock in for what I do so there’s no person watching to see if I do it or not, which is crazy.
I was talking with somebody I was working with yesterday where we were talking about advocating for ourselves and getting paid. The truth is I think all of us would do this shit for free because we all love it and it makes us feel some type of way. When you finish a project or you’re excited to show it to people, or you feel really proud, or you feel like you’ve accomplished something, it’s funny to be like “I can ask somebody with money to pay me for it because I’m good at it and people want me to do it.” It’s a really weird thing where there’s not, I mean, I want to pay my rent so in some capacity there’s a financial motivator and I made a choice to make art my career so there’s certain things that I do have to do. I have to mix songs that come across my desk that maybe I wouldn’t love to listen to that record as a fun thing, but I also get to work with a lot of people who I really love and admire and want their music to succeed and I feel like I have personal stake in it and enjoy participating in it.
When music became your livelihood, did that change your relationship to it a lot?
I think in some capacity it did. I think that there’s just as many magical moments in creation when it’s your job. You realize that the magical moments that happen when it’s not your job, happen like every time you touch the art. Then when it is your job, and you’re doing it every single day, that moment happens just as many times, but there’s also 60% of the days where you’re just moving the faders and you’re plugging stuff in and saying “Can you sing that one more time?” and just making the wheels turn because you have to turn them, because you have to make the record at the end of the day. So, yeah I think it just changed my relationship in that there are moments that it feels like a job, and that’s not always fun, and sometimes you just gotta pay your bills or get groceries. When I get in the slog, there’s always a day when I wake up and think “Oh my god, what do I have to complain about, I get to make music. Yes, I worked for 14 hours yesterday but I was listening to music for all 14 of them. I was making music, I was figuring out creative ways to draw inspiration together and pull the puzzle pieces together in a weird way.”
As in, even if it’s not your favorite project at the end of the day, the task that you had to do today is completely ridiculous to complain about. They’re not really problems, or they’re good problems to have if that’s what you want to be doing.
Exactly, I rarely have anything to complain about. I did a project where the tracking process went way over time and the producer I was working with had to start moving to the mix mode and the band still wanted to do overdubs, so it became this thing where I was showing up and working for the producer from 1pm to 6pm and then driving to another studio and recording the band all night long. So at three in the morning when someone is singing the same verse over and over again and feeling like they didn’t get it, you’re kind of like “Holy shit, what am I doing with my life?” But then at the same time I’m like “Oh my god this is so much fun and I would totally do this for the story!” It’s just fun to be a part of it and see music happen. If at 3am it sucks, maybe at 4am they do hit a stride and it becomes the turning point of the album. You never know.
Every once in a while you have to step back and say “No, this is completely what I signed up for.” Even those bad parts are valuable.
And in the end it ends up being fun. Any time I’ve had a chaotic experience on a project, a month later I’m thinking back about it like “Oh my god, that’s so funny and so fun and I learned so much stuff and now I have this crazy story.” I really love it so much and I can’t stop doing it. I’m super addicted, workaholic-style about it.
A lot of people I know in that mode are self-described workaholics, myself included. There has to be a happy medium to that. When you say that you’re a workaholic you’re really just doing what you love all the time and you’d rather be doing that than a certain social activity or your errands. You just have different creative priorities.
I think a big part of it is that it just feels so much the fabric of my being. Even if it wasn’t my job I’d be filling out all of my free hours with it. So when I was someone else’s engineer, when I got home I was opening up my own projects. And when the freelance stuff started to outweigh the work that I was doing for this producer, or I just didn’t have enough physical time or energy to do it all, I was able to flip over. But I think that I just haven’t been able to stop!
When you get to that point of your work life being organized in a certain way, whether that’s between the band and producing, mixing, engineering, was there anyone who was a big influence on that? Not even necessarily with their actual output, but the way they do what they do?
Yeah, I worked for a guy named Will Wells for six months close to when I graduated college and he is a few years older than me. He was producing stuff and he also tours with a few bands as a hired gun musician and music directs some stuff. He was really inspirational in terms of being somebody who really does it all and who has learned to push his boundaries of what the stopping point is. I was really inspired by how much he turned the whole thing into his full day-long hustle. He was waking up at 7am and doing the business parts of his day, then he was producing all day long in the studio and then would go play a show. He had structured his whole life to revolve around all the different parts of his musical life. He was doing so many different things that I thought “Ok, it’s possible to be an engineer and an artist and run your business and run your game in a way that works for you.” He also, as much as it seemed, was in control of the thing at all times. Sometimes when you’re doing a bunch of different things it feels like all that stuff dictates your whole day, where he was like “I’m gonna do this at this time, this other thing at this time,” and he made it so he was really at the center of the spinning wheel and not just trying to balance all this crazy stuff.
After that I worked for Chris Coady, who’s an engineer and there’s just no other option in his mind than being in the studio all the time. He loves so many different things, as a hobbyist, but he just can’t stop making music and making other people’s music. That was really cool and inspiring too, to see somebody work so hard at stuff and get to a certain point with their career and honestly still be in the same boat as me. If some band is like “Hey, we really need to do this, we have no money,” he would say, “Ok, whatever, let’s hop in after-hours.”
I really appreciate that about everyone I’ve worked with in that capacity. Trying to collaborate with people who you pay to work with, but realizing that no matter where you are in your career, if you love doing something or you believe in a certain project, you’ll find a way to make it happen. That doesn’t mean sacrificing your standards or what you need to do to live but that you’ll find a way.
It’s great, and I think often the projects that don’t have the financial weight end up being the more fun and exciting ones. One of the records I worked on last year totally for free just as a friend thing is one of the things I’m more proud of. Then there’s stuff that had a big budget and I was seeing more money as a producer than I had ever seen before, and it was mostly pushing the buttons. I was a little more wary, if I had a suggestion of how to produce something and they were like “Nah!” then ok, because they were paying my rent.
That felt more customer service-y, whereas the records that I do on the cheap or for free for friends, now it feels like we’re in a co-relationship where they’re coming to me because they want some sort of vision executed.
I really like the moment when you zoom out on an artists’ practice and see the bigger picture, or the world that they create for themselves with their work, which as a listener you might not even realize going moment to moment. Do you ever think about that with the things that you make, being a part of a bigger thing?
Yeah, definitely. I think that especially with Hotties stuff I’ve worked really hard to create a specific universe that invites people into what’s going on in my brain. That project in particular is really angled from a specific direction. I really wanted every moment of every sound that came out of us to be coming from the same focal point. And I think the more that I do this stuff and the more that I become my own producer and stop trying to copy other producers that I love, the more I’m hearing myself on other records and on other people’s stuff that I work on. I don’t even realize I’m doing it sometimes. I work with this band Iress that’s local around here and they’re so fully the opposite of Hotties stuff. They’re doomy, slow, all wear black, the lead singer has this incredible powerhouse voice, the lead guitarist has their hair in their face all the time, very doom-grunge-shoegaze…
Definitely not what you’d think you’d produce…
And then we listen back to the finish product after it’s all mastered and there’s marks of me that have happened even on this band that is so different than the stuff that I would normally be working on. There’s just these undeniable moments of “Oh, that’s the same trick.” Maybe people don’t pick up on it but the more projects that I do surrounding indie-rock or surrounding LA, I feel like the universe starts spinning in this weird way where you’re hearing this creative mark happen. Bands are listening to each other and I’m listening to them. For a while, after I would spend 2 weeks in the studio with a band and try to write a song, I would listen back a week later and be like “Oh my god it sounds like I spent a week in the studio with that band, this is so melodically their thing.” So I guess being a chameleon and fitting into anyone’s sound has been helpful for my creative process but also, once I’m in I feel like I draw it back to my shit and it starts to percolate. It’s really weird.
That’s a cool scenario to be in when you’re also simultaneously in the process of finding your own voice. Not everyone has the opportunity to go in and work with a lot of people across certain genres and styles to be immersed in it enough to really influence them necessarily. I’ve always thought that when I’ve done a Halloween cover band or something it has always changed or improved the way I write or play or perform. I always learn so much from it when you have to be in it for that amount of time.
Oh definitely, I think that’s the most exciting thing. Every band is so different. How they work interpersonally and also musically. When you’re producing, you sort of have to be a guidance counselor and a musical spearhead. It really is interesting from band to band to see how everybody works. It’s never, ever, once been the same. For any band I’ve ever worked on, everybody has a different personal relationship. Some bands have a really clear leader, some bands are really collaborative, and everybody is making decisions, and I feel like I learn so much about making my own stuff and leading my own band from seeing how other bands do it.
That’s one thing I wish I knew when I first started playing in bands, that the way that one of my bandmates might have structured things or wanted the collaborative process to go was not the only way that people do it.
Somewhat unrelated, but going back to the original question, especially with Illuminati Hotties, is there a part of that universe that you feel like you haven’t made yet?
Yeah. On record two, the stuff that I’m working on right now, I’m trying to push how far I can go. In one way I think I back myself into a corner with it being this punky, surfy, whatever, with sensitive stuff, which is cool, but I feel like I’ve grown so much as a maker in the last two years since I made that record. Now I’m trying to see how far I can take it. The punk stuff got more angular and weirder, but also the sensitive stuff got more songwriterly and more aware, or a little less inwardly focused and a little more commenting on society, or on how other people interact. I’m trying to figure out a way within Hotties to meld those two things, or seeing if they’re starting to become totally separate things…
That sounds like a great feeling.
It’s really cool. The live show helped it a lot. Being a frontperson is so specific, especially the way we do it, a lot of the momentum of the show leans on my shoulders. The band is doing so much, obviously, but I’m the only one that talks between songs. So that stuff has also pushed me into what I can do in the recording realm, because ok “This is going to play really well on stage. THIS isn’t going to play well on stage, so maybe that’s a record only thing.”
Watching those things come together and being able to think about whatever you’re making next, knowing that it’s not just the same old thing, that sounds really exciting.
It was really fun. I feel like there wasn’t much of a formula the first time around. I wish there was because I think I’d have a little more direction. Since the first time around was just me having written some songs and saying “Let’s produce it out and see what happens,” there wasn’t really a clear vision for it as something necessarily and I was constantly catching up with the record on tour and seeing as it made its way into the world, I was like, “Oh shit, I gotta be the person who people are hearing on the album a little bit.” So now it’s figuring out how far I can push everybody into listening to the next time around.
There’s that pressure to it but you can have more intentionality now that you know how people respond to it.
On both sides of the coin I think there is pressure because of how people respond to it. Even when we just tossed out a single on the internet, it’s interesting to see the response without any press or label support or anything. So in one sense there is external pressure but I try to remind myself that you can really only compete with yourself. So I just want to do something that shows that I’ve grown as a writer or a producer or a performer, as long as it feels like a step above record one, that’s a win for me.
I’m a big believer in whatever your most recent record is, that should be your favorite thing. Even if it sounds different than what you were making before in some way, if a point of concern is how people are going to respond to it, you can’t just put out the exact same thing you did last time. That’s not fun either.
No, I mean there’s the trope of indie band gets a keyboard and then you get a synth pop record, which is not what’s gonna happen this time around. But maybe one day! This one also, I’m in a weird place with it because a lot of it was written over the course of the last year of touring or when I was home in between, but I didn’t get a chance to record at all until this summer, and then the fall for a myriad of insane reasons became this weird black hole of emotion and time and I lost a lot of months trying to pick up and put my life back in functioning order for a lot of weird reasons. Some of the stuff feels like I’ve moved so far beyond it at this point. I’m trying to just finish it because you can’t really tell what the quality is until it’s done. But in a way it’s weird to cut vocals for some of this crazy silly stuff that I was writing when I was feeling really crazy and silly and had some crash and burn after the last tour. It’s hard to move backwards but I also want to see it through because I think at one point I thought those songs were really good, so that’s also where I have to meld all that stuff together.
I think time is a very unique element about making music. Even if you’re really psyched about a record, as soon you’re done with it, most of the time it doesn’t come out for six months or something, and that will change your personal opinion of it. THEN you have to share it with everyone. To be able to go back to songs and incorporate how you’re feeling now is a cool benefit of time.
It’s really weird. But, it’s cool! I don’t think it’s worth giving up on the other stuff. There was definitely a moment of thinking if I should re-write this album and put out something completely different. But I was like “No, that stuff is still fun to play!” It’s like if you get a tattoo from a really specific time in your life, but then in three years you don’t really feel like this anymore, you still have it and it still reminds you of something. If I can muster the performance behind it then it will be worth it.
If you missed it last week, I started a series of queer TV-character trading cards and opened my art commissions for February (email me!).