Sarah Tudzin (Illuminati Hotties) Is Always Free for GUPPY

The producer catches up with frontperson J Lebow about recording their "off-the-wall" new album.

Sarah Tudzin is the LA-based musician behind Illuminati Hotties, as well as a producer and engineer who’s worked with artists like Sad13 and Pom Pom Squad; J Lebow is the frontperson of the LA-based garage pop band GUPPY, whose latest album, Big Man Says Slappydo, just came out last week on Lauren Records. Sarah produced the record, so to celebrate its release, the two hopped on the phone to catch up about making it.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Sarah Tudzin: How are you doing? 

J Lebow: I’m good! How are you? 

Sarah: I’m good, I’m in Bismarck, North Dakota.

J: OK. What’s up with Bismarck, North Dakota?

Sarah: We played in Minnesota last night, and then the next show is in two days in Tacoma, Washington, and there’s nothing in between. So we’re just rolling on through, grabbing a meal. 

J: That’s beautiful, to see the American Plains. 

Sarah: Oh, yeah.

J: That’s awesome. How’s tour?

Sarah: It’s been really fun. It’s definitely weird to be back out, and it’s also just fun playing shows again and seeing people all over the country that are into the record, I guess. It’s been awesome.

J: Yeah, I feel you. I’m itching to connect with people again.

Sarah: Yes, the GUPPY tour come-up is happening.

J: I know I’m excited. I gotta get to the people! They need it! 

Sarah: The people need GUPPY. 

J: They do. How do you feel about like the album coming out?

Sarah: I am so excited for y’all. This album has already been in the can for a long time, as you know, and all it needs is to get to people’s ears. I think it’s really going to resonate with a lot of people. And then of course, once you guys get to play it live, it just goes bonkers from there.

J: True. It takes on a whole new life. Honestly, it’s so weird how the music making process… It’s like, we made this a little over a year ago at this point, and then the songs were written even the past year before that. I was in a totally different emotional place then, but it’s now [the songs] just take on new meaning as time goes on. And then you give them to other people, and then they just have their own totally new meaning. So it’s kind of like having a kid and sending him off to college and being like, “You’re your own person now.”

Sarah: Oh, yeah. Moment of truth for Slappydo. Are you excited?

J: I’m really excited. Like I said, I’m just ready to connect with other people. I feel like I’ve been in a big hibernation bubble the past month, which has been what I needed mentally. But it has also brought me to a place of growth that can only be completed by connecting with others. And I think this album is the perfect way to do that.

Sarah: That’s so awesome.

J: Yeah, it’s been a crazy, ride. Just to be sitting on songs — I listen to them when I’m in the car all the time, which is maybe narcissistic, but I’m honestly just like, it feels like a little secret that I get, you know?

Sarah: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s one of the most exciting and challenging parts of making music for me, or hearing my friends’ records that aren’t out yet. It’s like, Oh, man, I cannot wait til people know what’s up. It’s just such a fun, weird thing to be hanging on to.

J: I feel that. OK, I don’t really have prepared questions, so I guess I’ll ask you, what was your favorite song to produce on the album? 

Sarah: Ooh. Well, let’s walk it back and just kind of go through this whole process. I got like demos, basically, like some voice notes and rehearsal recordings from y’all. And then I came to rehearsal one day and we started running stuff through one by one and talking about form, talking about what production.

J: We were so nervous. When you came into our rehearsal, we were just like, “Oh, my gosh, we’ve been playing these songs just for ourselves all quarantine. Sarah’s coming, we better do good.” And then when you left, we were like, “We bombed. We did not do good.”

Sarah: Oh, no! Oh my god, no. I mean, the purpose for me is, it doesn’t have to be performance-ready, it’s just to kind of see what’s even happening sonically and where it could possibly go. So I went to the rehearsal — I had a great time, so fun as usual. And then I started mentally making a list of single-worthy stuff, and stuff that I wanted to focus on. I think at the end of the day, I feel like “Aliens” was definitely a highlight. It so deeply shows all the sides of GUPPY, because it has this sort of esoteric, train-running-off-the-tracks kind of surf punk thing, and it also has this Southwestern edge. And it’s got, you know, just off-the-wall lyrics. 

J: Absolutely.

Sarah: So that was definitely one of my favorites to produce. And I remember we were making all those little alien noises with our voices and with the theremin. 

J: Yeah, that was good. 

Sarah: Yeah, we just kind of got to go crazy on that one. Seeing it beginning to end was really satisfying, I think, on that song.

J: I feel that. I think that was maybe one of the first songs that came together, and it feels like a really good way to set the tone. I mean, it makes sense it’s the first song on the album, because, like you said, it’s a little bit of everything, and we love to overindulge.

Sarah: Throw it all in there. What was your favorite song to make?

J: I think maybe “Smooth Jazz,” or “A Voicemail To the Mayor.” Mostly because both of those required some wacky audio moments, or wacky speaking moments. I remember for “A Voicemail To the Mayor,” you pitched Marc [Babcock, GUPPY’s bassist]’s voice really low at the end and added that sort of Marvin Gaye, “Ooh, yeah, baby.” I loved that. 

Sarah: [Laughs.] Totally. 

J: And “Smooth Jazz” just has this chaotic part that I didn’t know how it would translate, because it just felt totally different in the room. And when we recorded it, something about it really came together. Like, it wasn’t actually a full song until we put it together in the studio, I felt like, and then I just really enjoyed the format.

Sarah: Hell yeah. Yeah, that’s kind of an interesting piece of making a record: You could have a perfect plan of how you’re going to record everything, and then there’s always an element of surprise, or a question mark around everything that just kind of comes together when you have an accident happen, or when you’re trying to do something and it really ends up being something else. There’s always just sort of a gray area that you have to jump through when you’re taking a song from band demo to a finished product.

J: Yeah, it’s a leap of faith. It’s also a collaboration in that, having you added on to this project just took it to a new level — because, first of all, you know about more about production than any of us, and know how to do technical things that we do not know how to do. But also you have just an ear for music, so you were like, “What if you add a little of this here? A little of that,” and it just made the song richer in a way that I was super stoked on.

Sarah: Hell yeah, me too. I think that making that record was one of my favorite projects of 2021, because there were no rules and it was just sort of like, how far can our imagination take us? And the way you write songs has such a penchant for the surreal and absurd, and I think that was a really fun sandbox for me to play in — and one that I often like to dance around, it’s just about the artist being ready to go there with me.

J:  Yeah, I felt like I really trusted you right off the bat to get what I was going for, because your music already is in that realm. I think you and I both like to be absurd, or silly or funny or stupid, but have heart at the center of it.

Sarah: Oh, totally.

J: It’s a really delicate balance to strike, and I just trusted you inherently to kind of get that balancing act. 

Sarah: Well, thank you. That means a lot to me. 

J: Yeah, thank you. You were talking about the form that the songs take in the studio, and usually with songs that we’ve recorded in the past, we’re a very live band — like we, pre-pandemic, would just take pretty much any show offered to us because we were just like, “Yeah, why not? We like to play music.” And so most of our songs were pretty much finished if we had written them before we ever got in the studio, because we played them live so many times and just became enamored with the version that we played. But because of the pandemic, maybe only “Aliens” we got to play live, really, so it also just opened for so much more possibility. It’s kind of a perfect timing thing, having us link up with you, because live shows are what connected us with you, so I’m glad that happened before that all went down. But we were able to hold that connection and build something that just didn’t have as much shape, because it wasn’t out in the world at all.

Sarah: Totally. That is definitely an exciting part of studio stuff in general — not often do bands have the opportunity all the time to be practicing it in a live setting. And again, that gives us a little more wiggle room with how we want to go about producing it, because it doesn’t necessarily need to be a band in a room. Nor is that necessarily the the best way to do stuff for any band. I think some bands, you just want to get the best sounds and track the band as is, and some bands, you have a little more production space to kind of suspend disbelief of what actually can be all happening at the same time on a musical recording. 

We’ve played some shows together before and after making this record, and y’all were a band I had followed in my long list of bands that I love, so I was very stoked to get the message when you were thinking about working with me on something. It makes my job so easy to have a group of creative, nice people that believe in each other and that believe in the music. And GUPPY is definitely going the extra mile to make it happen.

J: Oh, yeah. We definitely were like, “Whatever it takes, we will get this music out into the world!” Very much breathing through the contractions, if you will. 

Sarah: [Laughs.] Yes, the contractions, of course.

J: You squeezed our hand and led us through the breathing techniques.

Sarah: That’s the least I can do, really. How do you imagine all this stuff happening live? I mean, we did everything in the studio — we were all pedals plugged in and firing off, we had stomping high heels, you were burping. Anything you could have put a microphone in front of, I feel like ended up on this record. So how do we bring that to reality now that you have tour dates and stuff?

J: Great question. [Laughs.] Yeah, we’ve had to kind of just like look at it and be like, “OK, what is possible?” I mean, obviously we’re not going to bring someone on tour with us just to do the burping part — unless…

Sarah: [Laughs.] Unless…

J: But at least for our album release, we want to try to make it as close to how it sounds sonically on the album. I think we want to have someone come in and play pedal steel for a few songs. I also think it will bring life to the songs, too — like there are things that we do live that maybe aren’t on the record. Like “If I Wanted To,” we’re about to release with the music video, and the music video features this guy Chad who’s an amazing clown, basically, in the LA area dancing. And we are going to have him, hopefully, if he’s available, dance at our album release during our song. 

Sarah: Amazing.

J: So it’s a multifaceted show. Some of it will come to life. I would say the recorded album is like the source material, and then we’re like, “Let’s just take it to outer space and back.”

Sarah: Totally. I mean, that is for sure what really makes you and GUPPY, I think, stand out as a band. There’s a lot of showmanship in the music and in the live performance. There’s this sort of vaudevillian element of it — it’s a full-blown circus in a great way. That’s so, so important, especially in my experience as far as the longevity of a touring band. I feel like that’s what people come to see. And there’s a lot of bands that are, I think, afraid to be performative and be theatrical on stage. You know, people are paying to see you put on a show, so why not?

J: I definitely feel a similar pressure of like, OK, well, people paid, I gotta give them a real show. And also, where the lyrics are coming from, where the heart of the songs is coming from, is that absurd and sentimental place. And I feel like the only way to really hit both of those notes at the same time is to be earnestly stupid and sort of flap your little hands and put your whole heart into it. 

Sarah: [Laughs.] A hundred percent.

J: So that’s the whole goal right there.

Sarah: Can I ask what’s next for GUPPY?

J: Well, right now, it’s just about getting this album to as many people live, and the record itself. We’re already writing new music, and our newest member, Kabir Kumar, who joined this past year, has brought a whole new vibe to the band, too. So that has kind of reinvigorated us for writing. I’ve been writing stuff too, just on my own — which is normally how the songwriting process would work, I write a song and bring it to everyone. But I think we’re all taking a little bit more initiative now, so the sound is really expanding. 

Sarah: That’s awesome!

J: We’re hoping to have some new stuff that we could maybe get in the studio with you once you have a free moment.

Sarah: Oh, yeah! Yes. I am free for GUPPY whenever duty calls.

J: Hell yeah. You’re, like, in the middle of being on stage, but a giant red telephone in the corner rings and you’re like, “I gotta go, guys.”

Sarah: The GUPPY signal. [Laughs.] That’s so exciting. Expanding the horizons of collaboration is something I’ve always envied in other bands. I, too, as you know, do a lot of the writing for my own stuff on my own, and adding new voices to the group is so exciting. 

J: Yes, me too. Kabir, as well as Mark and Ian [Cohen, GUPPY’s drummer] — we all have such different sensibilities, so adding a new person is going to kind of bring out a new shade of all of our sensibilities. I’m super excited for the possibilities.

GUPPY is an LA-based sound recognizable for its driving rhythms, catchy melodies, and playful lyrics sure to leave you thinking “GUPPY IS MY FRIEND.” The four-piece rock band captures the essence of versatility from their first basement show in Boston, MA to some of the most popular punk rock venues in Los Angeles.

(Photo Credit: Yasmina Hilal)