Our Top Discovery at 2019 South By Southwest: Illuminati Hotties

No lists. No countdowns. No patience necessary. Here’s the best band we saw at South by Southwest 2019, Illuminati Hotties.

With more than 2000 official acts this year, it helps to have a name that catches the eye of someone quickly scrolling through the list of mostly unknowns and up-and-comers. While South by Southwest will deliver a familiar name or two across all genres, it’s mostly a festival of discovery. No matter how much wannabe-music-snobs want to say it’s “soooo commercial” and “just isn’t the same,” or entitled music industry drones want to complain about how “ugh…it’s just part of the job” or “it’s just not worth it,” for music die-hard music FANS, there’s no bigger or better celebration of music in the country. There’s no festival or event that gives indie artists more opportunity or exposure to people who simply appreciate music. That’s why I’ve gone to the last 10 in a row.

This year was different in a few ways. There weren’t as many big names. But that’s never been what SXSW is about. There weren’t as many people. But I’ve always said that if I could pick my own heaven, it would be South by Southwest without all the people. So I’m not complaining about that. And just like every other year, thanks to some good planning before the fest, I left Austin, TX after five days of music with a lot of new favorite bands that are getting regular rotation in my playlists.

At the top of that list is Illuminati Hotties––Sarah Tudzin’s misleadingly pluralized indie rock act that musically has a punk edge sometimes, and lyrically has one all the time, as Sarah sings hard truths hidden in soft-sung melodies. Just make it to the end of this video and listen to her song “Shape of my Hands” as she rocks out with “are you still thinking about me? I know you are but I still wonder,” only to lead into the final lines sung practically in a whisper: “You remind me of somethin’; I scratched on a napkin “It doesn’t matter how many people love you All that matters is how one person loves you” Kissed me on the temple when you thought I was sleeping And said, “You are so…” I never quite caught the last word But I’m sure it’s the sweetest thing that I’ve ever not heard”

Somehow, the perfect description of Tudzin’s lyrics does just as well to describe her voice––mid-20s disappointment but with a strength that holds on to hope and optimism no matter what tries to tear it away. The two are constantly at war with each other, but more like a friendly rivalry, in which the fun would end if one were to ever win. So neither does. And that tug-of-war is what makes her music everything music should be: relatable, entertaining, and just as cathartically soothing as aggressively (and appropriately) angsty.

But this isn’t teen angst. We have enough of that shit, don’t we? We need more acts like Illuminati Hotties assisting us with early-adulthood apprehension. “It’s not to say that I’m unfortunate,” Sarah sings in “(You’re Better) Than Ever,” the first single of her debut album, lat year’s Kiss Yr Frenemies. “It’s not to say that I’m unfortunate, or that I haven’t been succeeding. But I’m a hushed and quiet resonance, when I wanted to be screaming.” Ain’t that all-too-often the goddamn truth of adulthood.

I saw Illuminati Hotties on my second-to-last night at South by Southwest, at their ninth show
out of ten. It felt like a punk show. And not just because it was in a gritty east Austin bar called Dozen Street. And not just because the “stage” was on the floor (maybe 2-3 inches off, if any). But because the at-capacity crowd was pushed right up the floor monitors, giving the band only-enough room to play their songs shoulder-to-shoulder. Yet they didn’t let that stop them from using that space like a mainstage at a festival (where I predict they’ll be next year). The dance melodic indie/punk rock feels like a Teenage Fanclub for a new generation. Their live show reminded me of another South by Southwest favorite from 2017, Diet Cig––power chord rock-and-roll with the positive energy that’s needed to keep a smile on your face as you sing lyrics that should do the opposite.

You don’t get on 10 shows at Southby just because you want to bust your ass. You gotta be good. Check out the video for our interview with Sarah, and to see some footage from Southby. Then go get your new favorite album, Kiss Yr Frenemies, and catch Illuminati Hotties on tour with American Football this May.

About Mike Henneberger

Mike Henneberger is a video producer/director and music journalist with more than a decade of experience. He’s put his live music addiction to good use by contributing to Billboard Magazine, SPIN, and Rolling Stone. You can follow his adventures and misadventures at @mikeyleerock and @abergerjoint on Instagram.

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