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At any point during 2018 or 2019, do you remember thinking, man, it doesn’t get any better than this? “It feels weird to be nostalgic for anything that happened post-2016,” Sarah Tudzin jokes, but even if every year is indeed “the worst one ever, until the next one,” at least the slow-burn success of Illuminati Hotties was giving her something to look forward to.

Arriving to modest acclaim and jokes about the band name, Illuminati Hotties’ debut Kiss Yr Frenemies became one of 2018’s sleeper critical favorites, establishing the Berklee-trained engineer/producer/mixer as a legitimate songwriting auteur and inventor of “tenderpunk,” equally adept at spiky power-pop, majestic balladry, and songs with fart noises. Increasingly plum support gigs with PUP and American Football gave Tudzin the confidence and security to quit her full-time job as an engineer with indie super-producer Chris Coady, which loaded up her C.V. with credits ranging from Amen Dunes to Macklemore to Weyes Blood to the Hamilton soundtrack. As the fall of 2019 rolled around, she was in the process of strategizing the release of her second LP with Tiny Engines, the Carolinas-based imprint whose founders were likely anticipating another round of “label of the year” tributes after a signing streak that bumped their impossibly stacked roster to 32 artists. “We were gearing up to have another year like that,” Tudzin sighs.

Of course, no one was going to have a year like that in 2020. Tudzin just found out earlier than most. In November, Adult Mom’s Stevie Knipe put Tiny Engines on blast with a Twitter thread that detailed years worth of inconsistent accounting, withheld royalties, and an irresponsible lack of communication that amounted to breach of contract. As to be expected in a public beef that pits Artist Vs. Label, most onlookers reacted with outrage towards Tiny Engines before the conversation became more complicated: Were Tiny Engines crooks or just another revered indie label that had gotten in over their heads once money started coming in? Was the practice of diverting money from top earners to sign baby bands a scam or just a standard business practice that looked far shadier when it was finally exposed to the light? Were the terms of their record contracts exploitative or fair recompense for Tiny Engines taking on the risk of signing unproven bands and financing in-house PR, worldwide distribution, recording advances and vinyl production? Regardless of where anyone stood, Tiny Engines had accrued far more goodwill than money over the past decade and wouldn’t be able to withstand the complete public liquidation of their rep.

But that didn’t mean Tiny Engines would cease to exist.

Co-founder Chuck Daley says over email that he would have liked the label to continue with a reduced release schedule, but he told Tiny Engines bands that they were free to explore other options. However, there were still contracts to fulfill and incoming revenue that needed to go towards prior manufacturing and promotion costs, not to mention the bands who were owed royalties — take a look at the Illuminati Hotties’ Twitter and find a Tiny Engines link still in the bio. Some acts like Empty Country and It Looks Sad. were able to publicly divest themselves from the label, and Long Neck bought back their masters with a successful Indiegogo campaign. But Tudzin says that when she finally got Daley to talk frankly about the status of her band, “He made it very clear that Hotties LP2 would’ve been an important record for him.”

Eventually, the two parties came up with an exit agreement that allowed Tudzin to buy out her Tiny Engines contract with a cash settlement and a payment of royalties on a future project. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s much, much less than what we would have made if we had released the new record,” Daley says. “But we respect Sarah’s need to move on.” Tudzin sees paying her way out of her record deal as, “the most tail-between-my-legs thing I’ve ever done.”

Yet this arrangement inspired one of 2020’s most brash, defiant, and flat-out righteous projects. It’s just not Illuminati Hotties’ second album: Described as a “mixtape,” Free I.H.: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For — out a week from now — is essentially Tudzin spitting in Tiny Engines’ hand before she puts money back into it. The project’s core is in the spirit of today’s spiteful lead single “will i get cancelled if i write a song called, ‘if you were a man, you’d probably be cancelled’,” the title of which Tudzin salvaged from a text conversation with Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz and Sad13. “She was like, ‘You should make this whole text the title of the song, not just the part in quotes,’” Tudzin recalls. “It mostly felt pretty fun to me, but the whole record revolves around feeling trapped by the forces surrounding me and the emotions I was feeling and it metaphorically adds up to the same sort of things that the rest of the songs are about.”

With 12 songs clocking in at 23 minutes, Free I.H. condenses the hooks and hilarity of Kiss Yr Frenemies into 90-second blasts honoring the legacy of SoCal pop-punk miniaturists ranging from the Descendents to Joyce Manor. Elsewhere, Tudzin takes advantage of the format to attempt previously inconceivable experiments in Death Grips-styled noise, an homage to Trio’s “Da Da Da,” and the label-baiting venom of Clipse circa We Got It 4 Cheap — “First I made Frenemies/ Made a whole lotta frenemies/ Now I owe ‘em seven stacks/ And won’t even get the circle-p,” she snarls a la Drake’s “Energy” on “Superiority Complex (Big Noise).” But its closest precedent might actually be Marvin Gaye’s infamous Here, My Dear: A 1977 divorce settlement granted Gaye’s ex-wife half the royalties from his next album, which he subsequently used to publicly air out the entire bitter affair over his least commercial music to date.

Free I.H. was inserted into the mix when I got emotionally fired up and realized I had to do something fast if the exit agreement I was signing gave royalties to a label that had nothing to do with this record,” Tudzin says with a deep exhale, and the claustrophobic nature of the music is equally suited to [gestures broadly] all of this going on right now, even if it was written in February and completed before the quarantine. “While the world burns, why would you care about a fucking record?” she asks on “Free Dumb,” describing her career as “non-essential,” a term that had yet to enter the public consciousness.

An actual “mixtape,” as opposed to a DJ-Kicks-style playlist or demo collection, is virtually unprecedented for rock bands, but the format suits Tudzin. After all, Kiss Yr Frenemies itself was a power move frequently seen in hip-hop, where a producer, beatmaker, or songwriter working behind the scenes decides to take on the frontperson role. While Tudzin is inspired by others in this lane experimenting with unconventional release strategies, she still sees herself as a “caveman” in 2020 for her album-focused artistry — “I’m awful at content creation for the purpose of content creation.”

Days after our conversation, peers such as Lucy Dacus, PUP, Oceanator, and Dupuis tweeted out a SoundCloud link attributed to “Occult Classic”; a handful of writers variously compared it to the Dismemberment Plan and the Ting Tings. Just about anyone treating it as a “mystery project” was almost certainly in on the joke — get to “Content // Bedtime,” and “www.illuminatihotties” is an actual lyric. “My project was leaked!?! WHAT!” Tudzin responded in an email a day later, after the SoundCloud had been taken down. “I swear… I will find the marauders that burned me even if it’s the last thing I ever do.” She’s joking, but I don’t think she’s playing — after hearing Free I.H., I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of someone who burned Sarah Tudzin.

STEREOGUM: When I found out this was a “mixtape,” I was hoping to hear more DJ drops.

SARAH TUDZIN: I wish I thought of that! When we first started envisioning everything, I did want to include more skits and spoken stuff and have it be a mixture of songs — noise and vocalizations that weren’t singing. As it came together, I tried more spoken word things and it didn’t feel natural in the end, so those got dropped. But those are such a fun way to create a universe on a record.

STEREOGUM: Releasing an actual mixtape between proper albums is such a rare occurrence for rock bands. I can’t really remember the last one that did it. What do you think prevents them from embracing this format?

TUDZIN: Honestly, bands are generally typecast with the first record or the first two records they make, and the public expects a certain sound from them. But when you’re a rapper or producer or DJ, there are no rules and you can put whatever you want into a collection of works or drop unfinished songs onto a mixtape. And that’s fine, their fans are into that. With rock bands, I don’t know why, but they’re expected to present a fully realized masterwork. Rappers are too, but they just make so much more stuff, and when you’re in the pop world, every single day you’re doing one or more sessions to write more material. And you end up with things that are not a full-blown track that could end up on an LP, but are pretty cool and you want to show to people.

STEREOGUM: Did you have any specific models in mind for Free I.H. as a mixtape?

TUDZIN: The Earl mixtape is a good example, the Free Weezy Album when Lil Wayne was trying to wrap up his record deal. And obviously the king of mixtapes is Dilla, he’s the master at showing people all corners of his artistry and stretching, making tracks that can exist in different contexts.

STEREOGUM: I would guess that indie rock bands and their teams prefer albums because they’re the thing around which touring and press are centered; labels and PR people have expressed their concern that even EPs don’t get taken as seriously for coverage. But in our current situation, do you envision artists being more open to non-traditional releases?

TUDZIN: I haven’t seen too much in the indie rock world, they still sorta feel chained to this album cycle of single, two weeks later, single, two weeks later, single with a music video, two weeks later, album pre-stream and then it drops the next day. It’s not really how the music world works. I think there are some very internet-y bands that have sorta cracked into the pop formula where all they care about is singles and eventually, they’ll put all the singles into one place. I go back and forth about that stuff. As a music fan, I prefer a full record to dive into and I almost don’t ever care when even bands that I really love are just doing the “single/press release” part of the album cycle. I usually wait to hear the record. I also don’t really feel like I can dive into EPs very much, even when bands are like, “here are all the singles at once, here’s the EP.” I know that, just because of budgets and how touring was working, bands were interested in getting out on the road faster and creating content for people to bite into faster. And that’s the more budget friendly way to do that — make shorter pieces.

STEREOGUM: Obviously, many indie rock bands have been devastated by the end of touring, since that was one of the few known sources of significant income. But others have privately expressed relief, that there’s less pressure to be a “full time” band barely making ends meet on the road. Where do you stand now?

TUDZIN: It’s so much work, but at the tail end — the last six months we were on tour — I felt touring was financially sustainable and growing the project in a way that I don’t know how to do just from the internet. It felt like it was paying off, and I couldn’t wait to put something else out and do the big Hotties full US headline [tour], which we’d never really done. We did support acts all over the place and tacked on headliners to the beginning or end of every support tour. The way that Kiss Yr Frenemies came out, I was catching up with that album cycle the whole time and I didn’t realize that there would be a touring market for it. I didn’t have anyone on my team except for my band. This time around, I was looking forward to being gone for a long time and seeing what the Hotties audience would look like, the people who were coming to see us.

STEREOGUM: I’m always curious about what moves the needle for bands, as far as building a fanbase, whether it’s press or touring or song placement — what do you think worked for Illuminati Hotties throughout the past year?

TUDZIN: I think the support touring was huge and we ended up supporting artists that were really great and allowed us to play in front of people that ended up sticking around as fans. Hitting the road in general was the most effective way of spreading the word about your band to other places because then you have flyers in places people visit and you’re just kinda around and making more noise. Also, TikTok… bands having one song that goes off on TikTok and then it’s game over. That didn’t happen to us, but it did with Beach Bunny.

STEREOGUM: The lyrics on “Free Dumb” address the difficulty or even the futility of trying to make art when there are so many other fucked up things doing on in the world. Was there any specific event that inspired that song?

TUDZIN: The weird thing about this project is that I wrote and recorded all of it in three weeks in February — it all happened over the span of a few weeks, and I sent it to my friend Simon [Katz] to mix it at the top of March. As everything shut down, it weirdly became more and more appropriate subject-wise. Shit was hitting the fan big time before we were all trapped inside and forced to face it. That was just a reaction to shit having been bad and been scary, and now that we are forced to deal with bigger things face-to-face, it’s become especially pertinent. There’s a lot of politics back and forth about whether you should be promoting your stuff or how to ethically promote it. How do you keep having a job as an artist, if that is your job, or even if it’s just your hobby? How do you ethically and morally be a part of the world and promote something that, to a lot of people, seems like a luxury item? If you have $20 and you need to buy food, you’re gonna buy that, not a vinyl. There’s a lot of folks who make art for a living and have made art for a living, and it’s not fair to tell those people to just stop. Because they need jobs too, just like people who work blue collar jobs or are accountants.

STEREOGUM: Have you gotten into discussions with other artists about how to proceed with putting out music in this environment? A few weeks ago, there were very heated arguments over whether artists like Phoebe Bridgers or Owen or even Bob Dylan should be releasing new albums on Juneteenth.

TUDZIN: I feel like all the discussions have taken place within myself. When I was making [Free I.H.] and sending it to get mixed, maybe the COVID stuff was barely just starting, but all the in-your-face things that we are reckoning with right now as a society weren’t bubbling as close to the surface. When I was putting this all together, I was planning a basement tour and “We’re gonna do all these DIY venues and cram as many people as I can into small rooms all over the place” and really live in the griminess of this record. But things have since changed big-time, and where I sorta landed with everything is that all this stuff we’re facing right now is extremely important and I don’t want things to go back to the way they were. This is the new normal. I don’t think we should be trying to reach back to what we thought was normal, we should function in this new space.

The stuff that’s been happening is more powerful than ever and has been making changes for the better, and I hope it continues to be that loud, and I hope we can continue to be activists and speak up for people who haven’t been spoken up for or support those folks who are speaking up for themselves and give them space to do so. And I’d like to still be able to do my job during this and make music and hope that people can connect to art. I don’t want to be distasteful in putting out music while there’s more important stuff happening, but there’s always gonna be more important stuff happening than the songs that I have thrown my ego into. I think both can exist. We can promote ourselves and promote our work and bring happiness to fans that want to hear it and we can still be activists and vocal about the things that bother us and continue to shake things up so people in power can hear it.

STEREOGUM: Despite the public perception of Tiny Engines being effectively cancelled, my understanding of this mixtape’s title is that Illuminati Hotties and perhaps some other bands are still under contract. Tiny Engines still exists, right?

TUDZIN: In theory, it exists. In practice… anybody can look at their Twitter. There was a lot of info that was laid on the table for baby bands and bands that are trying to get signed — at any level of the game, whether it’s a small record label that’s gonna give you a $1,200 advance or Universal that could give you $200,000, you have to be careful and protective of your art. It gets dicey when you’re looking at a contract and you’re inexperienced, which I was at the time. You never know what could happen to your art, and you want to be able to advocate for yourself, not just sign because someone who you think is cool thinks that you’re cool too. That info was really important to dispel to the public, but on the other hand, myself as well as a whole bunch of other bands were still stuck under contract with a label that had nothing to say about all this crazy stuff that went down on the internet and was being really unresponsive to myself and other folks that owed Tiny Engines some kind of product or was owed by Tiny Engines.

STEREOGUM: After all the drama that played out online, was there ever any hesitation about addressing the Tiny Engines situation directly on Free I.H.?

TUDZIN: At the time that all this stuff [with Tiny Engines] was happening, I decided to finally write this thing instead of moving forward with the record that I’ve poured my heart into for the year before that; I was just so emotionally oppressed. I was trying so hard to figure out a way to legally and appropriately exit from Tiny Engines when it became apparent that they had no infrastructure for putting out what I thought was gonna be Record 2. I did everything in my power to do the right thing, and it took months and so much back and forth and bothering everyone. We were pretty aggressive trying to free ourselves from that contract in a way that made sense and was ethical in a business context. It felt heartbreaking to pick up a guitar and work on anything when it was like…“Can I ever put this out? Will this ever come out? Is it gonna be me or Tiny Engines? Is it gonna be someone else?” Not to say that I only ever make music to [publicly] go out but I obviously love that part of making music. It was awful, I felt so claustrophobic and trapped and emotionally exhausted trying to deal with all of that stuff when all I really wanted to do was work on the songs.

STEREOGUM: At least from what I saw on Twitter, this whole thing pitted bands against other bands, labels against other labels, even Chuck as the “money guy” at Tiny Engines vs. Will Miller, who was seen more as the A&R side. Did you have to compartmentalize your feelings towards some of these people as both a participant and an observer?

TUDZIN: There is a lot of compartmentalization because I did want to support the bands who felt they were being taken advantage of and, in some cases, were being taken advantage of. And on the other side of the coin…we all signed that contract. Part of it is just business and unfortunately, the contract that I signed was a little exploitative of a band that had no idea what was going to happen. On the other hand, I didn’t have to sign it. I wasn’t presented with some crazy advance that was gonna make or break my life. In fact, I don’t think I even took the advance because I didn’t want to owe them anything and my record was done. I made it in my boss’ studio, it was a pretty expense-less record and I was just excited for someone to print vinyl.

STEREOGUM: What’s the status of Hotties’ LP2 at the moment?

TUDZIN: There is a record that I spent the year I was out on tour writing. And then, over the summer, before we did that last month with PUP, I tracked all the drums and bass and guitars for 20-something songs and I’ve whittled it down to the 10 that will actually make a good record. I still have bells and whistles to put on them. Most of the tracks are done, there’s some housekeeping I have to do. I’d like to put it out at a time that will allow me to tour behind it. I do want to chase that goal as a band, bringing it to the people live and upgrading our live show to be able to play the new songs. I’m hoping we’ll reach a point where we can safely tour and have people in a venue together and obviously, we’ll have to re-strategize if it seems like it won’t be for the next half a decade. I don’t want to wait too long because the songs already feel so old to me. I do want to give it a fair shake as far as a traditional album cycle.

STEREOGUM: Has the process of making some of the more unconventional songs on here — “Content // Bedtime,” the interludes — changed the possibilities you see for Illuminati Hotties?

TUDZIN: I think what I will hopefully learn from the reaction is that I feel really lucky to position Illuminati Hotties in a way where we can sorta do anything. I don’t think we’ve been boxed into one particular style of music and, especially after this comes out, there’s just so many options, which is fun. I don’t always want to make guitar music and I don’t always want to make indie guitar music. This has allowed me to stretch in so many ways and if it still feels authentic and genuine to everybody who listens to it, then it’ll open up more doors for what we can do musically. But I’ve never felt boxed into a style, I don’t think about music like that when it’s stuff that I’m making.

Free I.H.: This Is Not The One You’ve Been Waiting For is out 7/17.

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