Interview: Nick Lutsko is Injecting Absurdity

Earlier this year, US model and television personality Chrissy Teigan was at the centre of a unique Twitter scandal. Nick Lutsko, a singer/songwriter from Tennessee, realised his celebrity idol had unfollowed him on Twitter. In a desperate bid to win her back, Nick released an incredibly catchy two-minute musical plea. Profusely apologising for his chaotic experimental tweets, Nick promised that he had changed and would do better.

This wasn’t Nick’s first or last foray into musical comedy. Most famously, he’s the artist behind Alex Jones Rants as an Indie Folk Song and Kanye West as a Tame Impala Song. His recent songs satirising the Republican National Convention, The Gremlins, and President Trump have also received millions of views on Twitter. 

However, being a comedian was not Lutsko’s original intention. A graduate from Middle Tennessee State University with a degree in commercial songwriting, Nick has released three albums: Heart of Mold (2013), Etc. (2015) and Swords (2019). These albums are less comedic and more psychedelic, indie rock affairs. His songs switch between reflections on his own life, character studies of failing rockers, and refreshing musical experiments. Nick’s early forays into Youtube included a cover of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love, where a much younger Nick played his newly acquired Banjo. The clip is a touching artefact of a bygone Youtube era, wherecovers could explode overnight.  Before the pandemic, Nick would tour his music around the United States with his band, The Gimmix, a group of life-sized creatures that look like they could have emerged from Jim Henson’s workshop. Together, they shape truly original performances, walking the fine line between insanity and absurdity.

As a side hustle between gigs, Nick began writing comedy songs for the likes of Netflix, CollegeHumor, and Super Deluxe. However, it was only recently that he began to release them under his own name. In the run-up to the US Election, I reached out to Nick asking if he was available to have a chat over Zoom. The following is our conversation we had late one Monday night (or early morning for him). We discussed his process of satirising the current political environment, his experiences with Alex Jones, and how it’s been a long while since he’s written a love song.

Our discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What got you involved in creating political parody?

A: It’s a very long story, I’ve been doing music forever. I started playing the guitar and writing music in elementary school and started cutting my first album with my first band in high school. I went to MTSU for college, they had a recording industry department, and I was able to major in commercial songwriting.

When I graduated college I was just trying to make a living with music by any means possible. I spent five years making records, touring, and doing shows. I was establishing a fanbase but any money I was making I had to invest back into building a brand and turning it into something sustainable. I wasn’t making a profit doing it. 

So I’m doing all that, then in 2016 during the election – do you know Vic Berger and Tim Heidecker?

Q: Are they Comedians? 

A: Yeah! Super Deluxe hired Vic to do an election special in 2016. So Tim and Vic went to the RNC and DNC and made little 30 minute documentaries about each convention. I was big fans of theirs, so I wrote them a silly little 15-second jingle. It started while I was watching their Snapchat and Facebook live while playing bass on my bed. I had this idea and decided to just record it. I remember staying up all night, working on this song. Just thinking “man my girlfriend, now my wife, is going to be mad I’m wasting my time working on this for free.” But I tweeted it the next morning, being like, “hey I don’t know if you guys need a theme song but I went ahead and wrote one”.

They ended up loving it and using it as their official theme song for the convention. The producers at Super Deluxe then reached out and said ‘Hey we need your permission to use this in the video’ and I was just like “I’m doing music for a living, I write songs, I produce, if you ever need anything quickly, I can do it.” It was a couple of months before we did something but I stayed in contact. Then one day the Producer, Jason, was like “Trump’s tweets have been especially emo today, do you think you can turn them into an early 2000s pop-punk song?” 

I felt like I had a lot to prove, so I just stopped what I was doing. I loved that kind of music in elementary school, my first guitar was a Tom DeLonge Blink 182 Fender Stratocaster. I dusted that thing off and recorded this song overnight and sent them the track in eight hours. It did well and that was just the beginning of everything. Later on, we had the idea of incorporating the videos of Trump’s speeches. After a while though, we were like, ok what if we move away from Trump? Then we created the Alex Jones song, which was probably the most successful thing we did at Super Deluxe. 

It just took off from there, we established a formula and, by the end, I had a contract where I was doing two videos a month for them. However, all that finished up in October 2018. I have always had this hesitation of calling myself a comedian because I never really pursued comedy, it just fell into my lap. I was always a musician first and foremost. The songs I originally did for Super Deluxe I just kind of looked at it as a job, my face wasn’t attached to it.

Then like in July, I created the Chrissy Teigen song. It wasn’t political and it was the first thing that had my face on it. However, it went well and I sat down and said to my wife, “I think I’m ready to finally come out as a Comedian.” For a long time, I had a lot of hesitation around it, but work was slow due to the pandemic, so I decided to make a song once a week for Twitter.

My Twitter following suddenly tripled and shows in New York reached out to me for an audition tape. I’ve had all these strides in the last month since I admitted to myself “This is something I can seriously do.” I had a really weird two-year gap where I was like, Am I worthy? Or is this just something I am paid to do?

Q: Did you feel you needed to create a separation between your serious and comedic music?

A: That was definitely a consideration. For sure, it is really confusing for people who hear one of my serious songs on Spotify and then see all these meme-y type songs or like, people hear my Alex Jones songs and then check out my Spotify and there is none of that there. For the first time last week, I uploaded my first five twitter songs to Bandcamp. I saw a ton of people who had bought my original work engaging with it and being excited, which really gave me hope. I’m still trying to work out how those two identities can coexist in the same world. They are very different and I haven’t found out the right way to market both under the same umbrella of my name.

Q: How do you feel about the way the internet was able to reshape your career trajectory?

A: It’s just odd. It was never intentional, I was on that traditional music path until Super Deluxe deleted everything. I didn’t want that couple of years of work to disappear, so I uploaded the original comedy videos to my channel. There are definitely camps, the people who really like the original stuff, who really love the comedy stuff, and the people who get both. I feel like the people who love both have a bigger appreciation in a sense, as they get and understand both aspects. 

I think my career is a product of the Internet. I would never have dipped my toes into political comedy or musical satire without the Internet. I would never have written that fifteen-second song for that election special, which snowballed into all these other career opportunities. 

Q: Did you get much response from the people you were satirising?

A: I got a lot of responses from Alex Jones. The video was going viral incredibly fast and at the time, my name was obscured down in the video description. Alex Jones did an emergency broadcast saying “It’s a new emerging art form, something that has never been done before.” He was acting like it was a great accomplishment and it wasn’t making fun of him. Pretending that the video was made by an Infowars fan and their sources had said I had infiltrated Super Deluxe. It could not have been any less true. I really got trolled hard by a lot of his fans and I don’t know, still to this day, if it was legitimate or not. I got so many passive-aggressive messages that were like “Thank you for joining the movement, we appreciate your service.” I couldn’t tell if they thought I was embracing them or not.

Jones held a singing competition, offering $20,000 in prizes to the best covers on his website. It was massive, he even followed me on Twitter and started liking all my stuff. I still get messages to this day which say he plays my songs on his show.

Chrissy Teigen did respond, she said “I never realised I followed you in the first place, I swear I didn’t unfollow you.” She didn’t explicitly comment or like the song. So that’s my only interaction with her.

Q: Was it hard to see people being offered $20,000 to cover your song?

A: I think it was part of his passive aggression. It was Alex Jones’ way of being like, “You tried to hurt me but I love it. I will pay someone more money than you’ve ever seen to do a cover of it.” It was all entertainment to me, I don’t know if he actually paid whoever won the competition.

Q: Do you bring much of your politics into it, or just try riff off the moment?

A: It’s definitely a combination of both. I wasn’t that political of a person before 2016. Say, Super Deluxe was never in the picture, I feel I would still be bewildered by the political environment. I feel like working forced me to put the world under a microscope, trying to find something to mine for content. You can watch a few of my videos and it isn’t hard to find where I am coming from politically. But also, for the RNC song, I woke up one morning and wanted to write about something. I saw on Twitter that the RNC was starting and began writing. There’s nothing really political about the song, it’s about this crazy guy who loves Dan Bongino and lives in his grandma’s basement. It’s not really about the RNC, the RNC just pushes it into today. I wasn’t making a grand political statement, it was just “ is a weird picture I’m going to paint and use the vehicle of the RNC.”

Q: Did people perceive it that way, or do you still get backlash?

A: Not particularly, I still get hate messages. I do see people in the comments be like “this is a perfect parody of the current state of the GOP because of x,y,z” and reflecting on it, they are accurate but that wasn’t my intention making it. I definitely have trolls who send me crazy stuff but it’s probably 1% of the feedback I receive. The Alex Jones fans who follow me on YouTube definitely get confused when they see videos like the RNC one.

Q: Before comedy, where did you want to be as an artist?

A: It’s funny because the further back you go the bigger the ambitions are. Like I wanted to be Bruce Springsteen and tour, with massive audiences who love and connect to my music. It started as that baseline stereotype of making it. Big records, big shows, money, and fame. That was early middle school and high school. The older I get though, the more I realise the songs I write will probably never get on the radio. Not far from college, It shifted from I want to be a rock star, to I want to make a living, doing what I enjoy, and what I’m good at. I don’t think there are many rock stars anymore.

Super Deluxe was great, it challenged me as an artist but also gave me enough money to pursue my music as an artist. For a while I was like, if I can make fun music projects, make money and have time to make my projects, that’s a dream for me. Since leaving Super Deluxe, I’ve done bits for Netflix and CollegeHumor but the lifestyle ebbs and flows. For months it can be busy, as you enter a four-month rush. Then there’s nothing for a while again. It can be emotionally taxing but at the same time, I had time over the last few months to work on these Twitter songs, which has led to all these new fans. It’s an interesting lifestyle for sure. 

Q: Do you wish there was the possibility just to be a musician?

A: It’s kind of the opposite lately. I released this album Swords last year, which I began in early-2016. The whole thing was a reflection of the last four years and when I started to write it, I never had any real “I want to write an album that is a reflection of our times.” There was no intention of there being a big concept tying everything together, it wasn’t until the end looking back I realised I was emotionally really affected by the world. It was all pretty dark. 

We just released another single called ‘Spineless’ and it was also very brooding and pessimistic. Things are going to hell and there’s not a lot you can do about it. I told myself I want to write happier stuff again but it is really hard. Anytime I sit down to write a song where comedy isn’t involved, it’s easier to go towards the brooding. Writing these comedy songs have been a way to package this melancholy into a prettier package. A lighter package, if that makes sense?

Q: What did you feel was the difference between your first album and second album?

A: My actual first album isn’t on Spotify. The first album, Heart of Mould, I wrote straight out of college. I had a very cheap version of pro tools, which had a twelve-track limit, so it was very stripped back by necessity. Throughout college, I was like, “Oh I don’t have recording software”, “Oh I don’t have a microphone”, I kept finding excuses, so I graduated and I had nothing to show. So I decided, this is what I have and what I make will be a reflection of that.  

Lyrically, there’s a lot of folkier Americana aspects of things. There are a lot of early Bob Dylan, surreal storytelling songs. I think it was my last album with a love song.

Then I toured on it, travelling in my car with my guitar, going to cafes and bars. I went everywhere that would have me. Then I had enough money to slowly upgrade my gear and create the second album ETC. It was a hodgepodge of experiments, I was stepping outside of myself trying to create characters. Like All Shook Up is from the perspective of someone who has been beaten down by the stereotypical sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle. Everything seemed like lower stakes, I wasn’t trying to create a big statement.

Q: Do you think it’s the introduction of politics to your life that created the emotional shift into Swords, or is it more a product of getting older?

A: I think getting older is a big factor, so was having politics under a microscope at Super Deluxe. However, everything with Trump is so over the top, I think he is inescapable. I heard this joke from John Mulaney recently, about Trump being like a horse in the hospital. No one is sure how he got there but he is definitely making a ruckus. There’s this constant feeling of bafflement that never goes away, it gets worse every day. Maybe I am too invested in it? I don’t know?

Q: How did you introduce puppets into all of this?

A: I loved the Muppets growing up! Not in any grand way, I just liked the movies and the show. It wasn’t until I was in college and saw the rebooted movie and decided to make some puppets with my college roommates. By the time I recorded ETC. I didn’t have a band, so I decided to use these puppets as a backing band for a music video. 

Then someone was like, how about you get a band in puppet costumes? Then it was this instant ice breaker. You get on stage and people aren’t like, oh it’s just another five white dudes. They look up and then realise the music is pretty good too. Everything we were doing was pretty surreal back then, so I just kept leaning into it.

We’ve been moving away from the Muppets though, they are more just creatures now. A hybrid of puppet or human. There is no deep theme to it, we are just trying to highlight the absurdism of everything. It’s very fun to build live shows and music videos.

Q: How does your band react to being in costumes?

A: They’re all incredible sports but my bass player Eric especially loves it. He really becomes this character, Greezy Rick. He’s in character and mingling with the crowd from doors open until the last person leaves.  My little brother Jacob plays xylophone in the band and he’s been doing Twitch streams as his character, Brother Cobb. I worry sometimes that the costumes tread too much into novelty act territory, but I love the look and the feeling of the show and that it’s a full creative experience. And I love the world building that we’ve been able to play with on social media.

Q: Have you ever heard anything from the Jim Henson Company?

A: No, that would be incredible though. However, I got a retweet from the Centre for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, that’s the extent of the communications with the puppetry community. I consider myself a punk rock puppeteer. Building the puppets is so much fun though, the Sideshow music video had half a dozen people working on the creative process and costume building. It was an amazing experience.

Q: How do you hope 2020 ends?

A: I hope this election has a peaceful resolution. I hope Trump goes away forever but I’m not holding my breath. You have to hope for the best. I hope we get a coronavirus vaccine. I hope that everything starts getting better.