Sarah Tudzin of Illuminati Hotties
Photo by Josh Beavers
Illuminati Hotties Reclaim Themselves
On July 1, a mysterious Soundcloud link and Twitter account circulated the web. "Occult Classic" was its name; they were a band, a secretive one, making ridiculously interesting, explosive music. It sent Twitter users amok, with indie rock lovers begging for answers, even though "Occult Classic" spell out their real name in one of the songs: Illuminati Hotties.
A few days prior, I had spoken with Sarah Tudzin, the frontwoman of that L.A. crew responsible for 2018's warm Kiss Yr Frenemies. She's gotten a little unhinged—which is why very few people can recognize who Occult Classic is—but to her core she still contains the heartfelt energy of that first record. "There's a tenderness I have not been able to shake," she tells me with a small laugh over the phone the month before the release of the idiosyncratic tornado Free IH: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For.
That tenderness has carried on over into quarantine, prompting her to build a garden and finally get a dog. "Her name is Maeby. Like "Arrested Development" and like maybe I’ll get a dog, which I've been saying for the last five years."
Free IH was not some kind of impulsive quarantine project, as one might've guessed. It was whipped up in a short timespan—three weeks of writing in February, two full days in the studio (A.K.A. drummer Tim Kmet’s rehearsal space). This is only because Tudzin had worked on a complete record for the last year and a half, just to have it put in a weird position when the record label that represents Hotties—Tiny Engines—got exposed for mistreating artists. Hudson Valley's lo-fi indie act Adult Mom was the first to come out, claiming a breach of contract. This sparked others to speak up as well. Tudzin is the next.
Intended to be viewed as a separate project, this new Hotties record has experimentation at the forefront. It plays with samba, post-punk, noise, pop—it even features a mock-radio bit on tenth track "K - HOT AM 818." It is less of an album and more of a mixtape, embodying a collage rather than a cohesive line of thought.
Ahead of the release of Free IH: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For (July 17), Tudzin spoke with GRAMMY.com about fighting Tiny Engines, being inspired by Cardi B and needing L.A. punk.
What’s the mugshot from and why did you make it the album cover?
It’s from being young and stupid pretty much. That was taken about five years ago now. It just kind of struck me as being a fitting cover because a lot of the record came together very fast and a lot of it was me feeling emotionally targeted by stuff that was going on with my label. And being claustrophobic in the new space I was in and kind of having no mode of expression. You get a real strong flash of that when you’re staring at the camera of highway patrol. It fit hand and hand. The visual was great when it all came together. Corey Purvis made all the album art surrounding the photo. That being said, I was really lucky when I was booked and there are people who are far less lucky in the incarceration system. I walked away pretty scratch-free. Definitely the feeling of the situation I was in in that moment felt a lot like the quick and dirty feeling when I was making the record.
What was your experience with your label Tiny Engines?
When it got messy was when we were trying to leave. What happened was they got roasted on the Internet, and they immediately shut their doors. To this day they haven’t made any statement or any sort of acknowledgement. They haven't let [out] any information about how they’re going to proceed. We were forced into this position where we were like, Hey, we were really excited for record two. We can’t reasonably promote it if you’re not going to bring any integrity back to the label. There’s no way I could've morally promoted an album with their label's name on it. We were forced into this six-month-long legal back-and-forth about how we were gonna leave the label.
So, Free IH is coming out self-released. But that’s not without stipulations and payout and stuff that I had to do to exit the two record deal that I had standing with Tiny Engines.
I noticed that they never put out a statement, and if you look at their Twitter they haven’t tweeted since 2019. I was wondering if they've paid the rest of the artists and if they have even been communicating with them.
As far as we go, we've been really on it and we've been going out of our way to communicate with them frequently and make sure that we're squared away on all of the royalties that we're owed. Also, we were in this conversation about how we could legally leave. I don't know; we were stuck in this weird place where days before everything hit the Internet about what happened with them we were talking about putting out a record that I had been working on for the last year and a half. They were really excited about it, and I was getting really excited about it too.
That record essentially I put away because I was afraid about self-releasing it once this exit agreement was formed. When I realized what was happening and how long it was about to take, I whipped [Free IH] up real quick… I wasn’t really ready to let go of the record that I had really felt masterful about over the last year and a half.
I think what was so crushing about Tiny Engines was that they were an indie label, and people have faith in indie labels to be in it solely for the passion and the community. Do you think there will be distrust from now on?
I think there’s always been distrust in labels. The Tiny Engines situation is one of millions of stories that have happened with artists smaller than me and bigger than me. Across the board, there’s stories of artists being excited about something and not reading the fine print or not understanding what is standard for a contract like that. I gotta say, to Tiny Engines' credit, all of the struggles I've had with them haven't been financial. We've asked for statements from them, and they've given us accurate statements. We got paid out when we needed to get paid out.
But the distrust of labels I think has always been around. Especially if you're a new band, you haven't done this before, and you aren’t really sure of how your music is gonna go. If thousands of people are gonna hear it, or millions, or billions, or whatever. You're faced with this person or group of people that have more power than you and that have—in some cases—money and in the case of Tiny Engines there was no serious advance. But they have access to resources and they have press and whatever. You're sort of validated in all of this hard work you've been doing in your art and you're like, This is my only chance. And they're saying, This is just how we do it. If you’re young and have no clue what’s going on, you have no choice but to say, Alright, that sounds good! I’m glad that somebody’s gonna listen to my music and somebody likes it.
How did you feel the morning you woke up and saw the Tiny Engines meltdown online?
I mean, it super sucks. It’s so heartbreaking for me and any of the other bands that still owed them a record. We were all hit with this wave of disbelief. Also, I think when you’re working with a label, everything feels comfy. Especially if you maybe don't know what you should be owed by your label; you mostly just go about your life feeling pretty good and feeling excited that you have the cosign. So, seeing that stuff on the Internet was shocking, and then immediately you're sort of like: What does this mean for the record I still owed them? And I know I’m not the only band that felt that. I know a lot of folks who were in this position of, Well what the hell do we do with anything that we still owe them as a part of our contract and what the hell do we do with all this stuff that they still own that we gave them on our first record and EP? There were just a lot of loose ends floating around.
Why is this release so secretive?
I just really am sick of the press cycle and it never really strikes me even as a fan to go through the singles, single and a music video, single, full record stream the day before, full record comes out the next day. It all seems pretty robotic and I don’t want to say that I’m never gonna do that again because that’s just sometimes a part of how you hype up a record. But it’s really not interesting to me and there’s so many ways to do this. Especially with how fast everything travels on the Internet. I feel like you don’t really need to do all of that necessarily. Some of the greatest record releases we’ve seen have been really quick turn arounds like Frank Ocean or Beyoncé. Obviously those drops were far more dramatic [Laughs]. I think just putting out the record is hype enough. As a fan, I also feel pretty uninspired by just hearing the singles and I usually just wait until the full thing drops.
The opening track "will i get cancelled if i write a song called, 'if you were a man, you’d probably be cancelled,'" is an insane way to start the record—even just with the first line: "Let’s smash to a podcast." What was the process like writing this song?
[Laughs.] I was doing a lot of work with Sadie [Dupuis] from Speedy Ortiz at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. She's just constantly sending me and constantly making amazing, palatable music that’s in crazy key signatures. I was like, I gotta do something this fun and unhinged in this very unmathematical way. Then, a lot of it was honestly just that I had verses that didn’t really fit properly into a regular old song. A lot of writing the riff is writing it to words that didn't fit rhythmically into a normal sounding song [Laughs].
This record has moments that remind me of L.A. punk bands like The Paranoyds or Girl Friday. Does the scene there inform your music?
Of course! L.A. punk is really built into my bloodstream. If you grow up in the Valley and you just like skating around and it’s hot as shit outside, the only thing you can listen to is punk rock. Black Flag's from out here and so many bands that have been a part of the lore for so long. Girl Friday's so sick. There's a lot of pretty great D.I.Y. venues that are still happening out here. And the way Illuminati Hotties has gone, admittedly, has moved more into the nationwide scene, I guess. We've toured around, played some very not punk venues in the last two years [Laughs]. But there is so much good punk out here and there has been so many spaces for that kind of music since I’ve been a kid even with The Smell being around for the last however many one or two decades. With the new stuff that keeps popping up, it’s so cool to see that people still want to make noise and it’s a really nice break from what people think about L.A. music. When people hear that word, it seems very Hollywood. There’s still a lot of great kids making loud music.
The press release says that the sort of sensory overload aspect of the album is inspired by mixtape culture. Could you expand on that?
I think there's two aspects to that. One is that several times in the last 10 or 15 years of music it's super common for hip-hop artists and rappers to put out mixtapes to fulfill contract obligations and collect bits and pieces and collage together a project to fulfill the requirements they need to do to either move onto the next label or the next record or they just feel like putting something out in some capacity. That’s just a part of it; it’s just that mixtapes move fast. And I guess the other part of it is that they’re not necessarily connected stylistically, like songs stop in the middle. It’s beat sketches and verse sketches. And mixtape culture is super fascinating to me because you’re putting out the all-you-can-eat buffet for everyone to come and take a look at [Laughs].
You've said that your influences for this record range from Cardi B to Death Grips. I have to know more.
[Laughs.] Well, I think Death Grips makes the most interesting music of all time. And also just performatively are such interesting people, in terms of how they live their whole lives and how they’ve presented their music to their fans over and over again. How they refuse to engage with normal music industry culture I think is so cool. There was a version of this record that only one track made it onto what you’re hearing which is this fully instrumental noise moment on there, and there’s a lot more tracks like that which are just me making a bunch of noise. I wanted to put a completely noise record and the songwriter and producer in me refused to acknowledge that initial instinct. But Death Grips lives so loudly and so purely themselves that it was hard to ignore that influence and hard to not steal from the sounds that they create which are so cool and unabashed.
And then Cardi B, she also lives like that. In a totally different lens. She's so in the eyes of the public in a fully wild way and she came up through such an insane lifestyle that I have no concept of how it felt to live that life. Cardi B is so interesting to me because she is now a rapper, but I don’t think it’s because she wanted to be a rap star. I think it’s because it’s part of her brand and that is so fascinating to me. In order to be the fully personality Cardi B, she needs the fashion and she needs the cars and she needs the music. Now she's also a movie star. Also, the way she delivers the verses that she has is so her and so cool. That definitely informed a lot of rhythmic choices that I made.