Interview: illuminati hottie's Sarah Tudzin on sound engineering for 'Hamilton,' Barbra Streisand and 'Kiss Yr Frenemies
Video by Mark Lammerding, for Tiny Engines

While the Grammys have a long way to go before more female producers and engineers come through in any critical mass and are recognized for their works, it is heartening to see young women producers such as LA-born Sarah Tudzin gradually rising the ranks. Not only has Tudzin worked behind the boards on big projects like the musical Hamilton, and recent records of Lady Gaga and Barbra Streisand, but also in doing demos to use as a calling card for her studio chops, she found the confidence to release her excellent debut - Kiss Yr Frenemies - under her memorable moniker, illuminati hotties.

Currently on tour with Los Campesinos, Tudzin spoke to AXS about the inspiration for her lower-case band name and her on-trend album title. She also discussed what it’s like being in the studio with divas like Lady Gaga and Streisand, and what she learned seeing a project like Hamilton come to fruition from a handful of raw demos to award-winning musical. 

AXS: Ok let’s start with the title of your album – Kiss Yr Frenemies what was your thinking behind it?

Sarah Tudzin: There’s that album the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are on called Kill Your Idols that was floating around in my head. And there was a sort of ‘keep your friends close and enemies closer’ sort of vibe. I was doing this early twenties thing where I had a lot of people in my life that I love dearly but also was in weird competition for jobs. Leaving college and trying to make something of ourselves in the real world. It’s all friendly, there’s no bad blood or anything but you see other people doing their thing, or making cooler-looking things and you feel like ‘oh my god,’ there’s this like sibling rivalry. Even though there's no real competition when it comes to art and love.

AXS: As a lover of books how can you lowercase your band’s moniker. Are you a fan of e.e. cummings?

ST: (laughs)I am a fan of e.e. cummings! I think that capitalization is a little bit elitist. Obviously, when I’m writing something professional I stick to the grammar but capitalization is an emphasis in a certain way and there’s a certain secret society that does capitalize their names. Maybe we don’t want to be that closely related by name, keep it lower case. Anyway, now that everything's on the internet, you can see the name and I like how it looks kind of stylized.

AXS: I love “Pressed To Death.” It’s so imaginative what you do with the sound. It's punk but you’re playing with onomatopoeia, a literary device in song, and then for the bridge, you move into the old Motown girl-group vibe. How did you put that song together?

ST: (Laughs) I think that one, was more constructed from a production standpoint. In songwriting, there’s the term prosody where you’re doing something in a song but the music reflects or is the antithesis of what you’re singing. We were playing with that a little bit. This song almost didn’t make the record – I played it for my friend Colin who mixed it and was in the studio with me; hitting record and hanging out. And he said ‘yeah I don’t know.’ And I was like let’s just get it on the computer and just play with it. And it ended up being one of the most fun ones to make. We were able to play with the most sounds. I think he was afraid we would spend all this time dialing it back but the more we threw things at it, the greater it became.

AXS: On the intro to "Cuff" you sound like you’re in a submarine – the production values are amazing. What’s going on there?

ST: That one seemed like the most natural to make. Whereas “Pressed To Death” was tailored and toiled over, for “Cuff” the way the song was written just lent itself to that vibe. The only sort of change was made was that Postal Service-y instrumental – when I wrote that, it was a big moment, more in line with a chorus. That’s how we play it live, But on the recording, we thought it would be better to dial it back and suck everything out for those moments. The verses are quiet, like in a submarine, I like that, I hadn’t thought about it like that - a lot of that song is playing with the intimate and the expansive.

AXS: “For Cheeze (My friend, Not The Food)" – I like how you have all that noise and distortion, then through it you hear that solitary trumpet. It fits the theme of the song perfectly which is about having a friend when things get tough. 

ST: That's right.

AXS: Was that a horn or trumpet?

ST: It is a trumpet, my friend Jason playing the trumpet.

AXS: The album's production values are very accomplished, largely because you’re a female sound engineer. You’re like the rainbow unicorn, rare and mythical. Tell me how you started on that path?

ST: It’s definitely getting less mythical as we speak. There’s been female engineers and mixers since the history of recording started for sure. Some of the engineers I admire the most happen to be female engineers that have been doing it for a long time. But just like in STEM fields, there’s an intimidation factor of guys dude-ing their way into the studio. (laughs) I started as a performer, I’ve been playing piano and drums pretty much my whole life now. I went to music school to play drums and I realized that I didn’t want to spend six hours a day practicing alone. But I was super into hours and hours a day, of hanging in the music studio. The engineering stuff is secondary to the music-making for me, I loved doing it and ended up being pretty ok at it but definitely, production is more the goal. Having that creative vision - and because I know all the engineering stuff - it informs my production and songwriting more. It just kind of seemed like a fun hang, something to nerd out about and get deeply involved with.

AXS: I heard you didn’t plan to be a performer when you went to music school?

ST: I don’t think I ever thought that I was going to be a performer, definitely not a frontperson! Maybe a band member? When I started falling in love with production, I had been writing my whole life, but with the production thing, I thought ‘ oh my gosh now I can creatively have my hand on other people’s songs and help them take their vision into the real world; steer their creative ship. For some reason, it took me years before I thought, “Oh my god, I can do it on my own songs.”  I think I was always scared about having to show up and play onstage, that was like really scary when hotties started to play live. But I got over that. Now I really love being on stage just as much as being in the studio.

AXS: I’m curious, do you ever feel invisible in a studio because it is such a man's world?

ST: There’s a lot more women doing it now but not that many at that award-winning recognition level. Or maybe they are doing it and not getting the shouts. Engineering is a customer service job you have to be invisible whether you’re a guy or a girl and get the session happening without the artist having to interrupt their flow. It’s a super different mindset as an engineer. As a producer and engineer, you can play in the world of the artist. But when I was doing the straight engineering, that job is just making the artist sound good. Every once in a while, they’ll turn to you and say: “What do you think?” You have to either be diplomatic and if you do have a rapport with them, you have the opportunity to be real and say what you’re thinking. If I’m on a gig as an engineer, I just want to make it go fast and get it done without the artist even knowing I’m there.

AXS: What's it like being in a session with Lady Gaga or Barbra Streisand?

ST: It’s wild. I was an assistant on those projects. They have their go-to engineer that are with them in every studio. It’s about being the least in the way. Just aware of everything they need before they know, they need it. They work at a level that’s so far beyond 90 percent of my clients I work with, not in a skills way, but that they have so much at stake. Time is worth so much more money than it’s even conceivable to most of us. The goal is to get them to be able to sing or write what they need to, and then get out of there.

AXS: What was your exact role on Hamilton and what was that experience like because a musical, I imagine, is quite different from an indie band or indeed a diva?

ST: Luckily, the case with all genres of music is you want to get to the end of it and feel like it can affect people’s life, and make them engage in it. There is an underlying level in making art – all we want is to make people feel something – no matter if you’re an indie band or diva. But Hamilton was a weird and awesome thing. I was engineering with this producer Will Wells at the time. He is a great fan and mentor of mine now, he does amazing stuff and had worked with Alex Lacamoire - who did the music direction for Hamilton - on a different thing. Alex hit Will up and said ‘hey we’re making this Hamilton thing into a musical. Can we send you these demos? We need better samples and everything organized.' There was a lot of hip-hop, drum sampling and electronic elements that happens in that show, that an orchestra couldn't play, so our job was to create those sounds. To take it from a garage band sample to making it engaging on stage. The musical was already written, they had these little sketches, they wanted it to sound commercial, in-the-vibe I guess of modern hip-hip or '90ship-hop, whatever they were referencing at the time. We just created a couple of really cool drum sounds, and keyboards sounds, and sound effects and sent it all off. I had no idea (laughs) when we were working on it, what the deal was.

AXS: Wow.

ST: I didn’t know anything about the musical theater world, (laughs) a musical, about presidential history, and the demos  were so demo-y and far from what everybody now knows of the music. It was just wild to have these demos on my computer and be like “I made this beat about George Washington” and it was wild. Then it progressed to where it got to.  I had no idea what we were doing so it’s interesting being involved on a level that was so far removed from what I knew – maybe if I knew musical theatre I would have known what was going on.

AXS: Did you learn something from that experience that you took away for your own debut?

ST: Not having any expectation was a big thing I learn. Again, I just heard those demos, and thought I can’t believe this? What’s going to happen to this? Are people going to be into this? Is this going to be a school thing? Who is going to go to these shows? It turns out  ‘everybody!’ Sort of cool to see the very beginning of something and see it leap so much further than its building blocks.

AXS: Are you still interested in collaborating and producing other artists now that you have your own burgeoning career as a touring band? 

ST: Yeah, absolutely. That was the goal of making this thing before I realized that I could go further with it with my own music – it was like ‘this is what I can do and if you like it, let me record your band.’  That part of the equation ended up playing out. People have reached out to me about helping make their records. That’s like the dream. I kind of can’t believe it. I hope to eventually be able to balance my time between touring and making records when I’m off the road.

illuminati hotties play August Hall in San Francisco tonight, Nov 5. For further tour details, please click here