There’s a trajectory that a lot of the best bands playing SXSW tend to follow, in that the first year they’re here barely anyone sees them play and then the next time they come back, they’re the talk of the town. In a good and just world, Illuminati Hotties are on that path, and in 2019 they’ll be running around Austin, exhausted from squeezing four shows into one day and hoping that they never have to come back to this festival ever again.
This year, though, the Los Angeles-based band performed for, like, 20 very enthusiastic people when I saw them in a parking lot that doubles as the patio for the microbrewery Hops And Grain. They were here for a handful of shows as part of a longer tour, and yesterday they played the opening afternoon slot at the unofficial showcase for Tiny Engines, the North Carolina label that scooped them up after hearing their excellent debut album, Kiss Yr Frenemies, which comes out in May.
The band name might be a lot to swallow for some, but honestly … all band names are bad, and at least you’ll probably remember this one. Sarah Tudzin is the project’s mastermind, and she has a charismatic stage presence that more than justifies the goofy name. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that they’ve got songs, and Tudzin played their best ones during the set, supported by a very tight band that she collected for the live show. She has a malleable writing style that feels ripe with potential, and she seems comfortable doing just about anything. The album’s lead single, “(You’re Better) Than Ever,” is a surf-pop shredder by way of Courtney Barnett, but its follow-up “Cuff” is a masterful blend of heavy-soft dynamics that shows off the many sides to this project.
Tudzin’s songs vacillate between humorous and cutting with ferocity. There’s a lot of variety in the dozen or so Illuminati Hotties songs that exist in the world already, and a lot of different avenues that she can explore. What’s waiting in the pipelines seems just as good. She played a brand-new one during the set that doesn’t appear on her forthcoming debut, which she said she wrote “about somebody I met on Tinder whose dog was cuter than him,” and its chorus goes something like, “You’re alright but I wanna keep your dog.”
She also played a lot of songs from her debut, including one of my favorites, “Shape Of My Hands.” It’s an amped-up jammer about a drunken hookup that turned into something more and then turned into something less. At the very end, it takes a dive into sticky sentimentality, with a coda where it’s just Tudzin and a quiet guitar. “You remind me of something I scratched on a napkin,” she sings. “‘It doesn’t matter how many people love you, all that matters is how one person loves you.'” The song translates especially well live, and that coda ended up being the set’s defining moment, as Tudzin’s voice choked up and got real quiet and you had to lean in to listen to every word and it was totally worth it. Next year, hopefully Illuminati Hotties will get to share that sort of moment with a much larger audience.