Nick Lutsko is a young musician of unbridled creativity. He’s someone who truly knows how to build a world, from the constituent elements of its puppet inhabitants to an endlessly engaging approach to his audience and marketing. Through his songwriting, recording and performances, he’s amassed no small amount of success and respect as one of Chattanooga’s foremost local musicians. His commercial work for such outlets as Super Deluxe has only given his considerable talent a wider exposure. The sky being the only apparent limit for Lutsko’s potential, he appears to be at the beginnings of a profoundly influential and fulfilling career.
Put in touch with Secret Cave through our last podcast guest, Dominick Nero, Lutsko provides some of the most useful advice I’ve ever heard. To add to that, his insights on the use of the internet in building an audience are as inspiring as they are interesting. Talking us vividly through his career, and some of the key creative decisions he’s made, we hear an honest and fascinating account of life as a professional musician. I appreciate anybody who agrees to make an appearance on our podcast, but it’s all the more enjoyable when they bring a deep passion to the table with them. Fortunately, Lutsko has no problem in that department; like each of our guests so far.
I hope that some people, who may not have heard Lutsko’s music, discover his catalogue through our paltry podcast. His album Etc. has quickly become a favourite of mine. It’s not through a favour to his appearance that By & By, one of that record’s singles, will be appearing on April’s upcoming Office Chart. With new material just a few months away, I personally can’t wait to see what the future has in store for Lutsko’s releases. Until then, here’s the recording of our chat in full:
See below for transcripts, and to watch all mentioned videos.
On Emo Trump, real Trump and politics in his songwriting:
The third Emo Trump video for Super Deluxe is literally about to drop. I’m sure it’s going to blow up view-wise?
The thing is, that I’ve learned, you can never tell. I’ve had things that I thought were gonna do insanely well that barely made a peep. This last Emo Trump, actually I wasn’t super confident… I was really impressed with how well the first one did. That one got, I think, around two-million views in the course of a few weeks. There was something about the second one I did; I didn’t think it was as catchy or accessible as the earlier one. But I was wrong! So, like I said, there’s really no way to predict how something will do.
There was always that good timing thing, that everybody’s got their eye on Trump right now.
For sure, and that’s one thing that i’m hopeful of. With all of the whole catastrophe with healthcare, Trump’s in kind of a vulnerable state right now, which I think might work to our advantage as far as timing goes. But we’ll see; time will tell.
As a British citizen i’m woefully ignorant on the true effects of the healthcare problems.
Basically, it fell apart. They were trying to repeal Obamacare and replace it with their own new bill. They were going to vote on it, I think, Friday. It didn’t even get that far because no-one was into it. So, it’s a big embarrassment for Trump because it’s one of the biggest promises he had on the campaign trail (that he was gonna do immediately when he got in office). In a nutshell, I think that’s what’s going on.
As I also asked Dominick Nero, how much do you believe a political agenda is key to your work for Super Deluxe?
Up until I started working with Super Deluxe, I think i’m a pretty apolitical person publicly.
I don’t like getting preachy about things, or acting like my way is the right way, but I feel that Trump exists in a world outside of politics.
When i’m parodying Trump I don’t feel like i’m making a big statement about the Republican party in general.
Is it more about being a reflection of society, and the insanity of it all, for you?
For me, totally. Trump is just the kinda guy… It’s just weird to look around and see how anyone can buy into him as a legitimate candidate for President of a country. It just kinda makes you want to scream! There’s people that it’s impossible to have a rational conversation with. They bring you down because it gets to the point where your voice is shaking and you’re getting mad over something you shouldn’t just because people aren’t being rational. That’s how I feel turning on the radio or the TV every day, listening to what Trump is up to. I was in disbelief until he won! When he entered the race it was laughable and then when he became the nominee it was like, “Okay this is comical but there’s no way he could ever actually…”. Each day, the more real the possibility became, the more maddening it was (and continues to be).
It’s shocking to me how much sense Trump’s speeches make as an Emo song. Surely no other President could fit that bill?
It just ties into everything we were just saying, where it really just shines a light on the absurdity. It doesn’t even need a light shone on it! It’s on Twitter! It doesn’t need to be put in the context of an Emo song to realise how ridiculous it is, but it’s somewhat therapeutic, I think, to listen to it from that point of view.
On working for Super Deluxe and his theme for their election specials:
Nero and I discussed how these parody videos are almost like a release valve.
I think Dom is right. Vic Berger is what introduced me to Super Deluxe. Obviously I was following Tim Heidecker, who was plugging Vic’s stuff a lot. Early on in the election I was really drawn in to what Vic was doing. Just watching his stuff is, like you said, like a release valve. Just knowing that someone else can see the absurdity in what’s going on…
In terms of how I went from being a fan of Vic’s work, and Super Deluxe’s work, to actually working for Super Deluxe, is really surreal. I’ve never pursued comedy in any capacity really at all. I’ve always obviously had a deep appreciation for it, and loved it, but I’ve been a full-time musician since 2013. I don’t know if you saw, Tim and Vic did coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions [embedded above] last summer…
And you did the theme tunes!
I had no communication with either of them. I just was following their updates on Facebook Live and Snapchat; Twitter and all that. I remember laying on my bed, playing bass, and I just got the… Whatever that riff was! [sings Vic and Tim at the Republican Convention] I was like, “Man, I could stay up all night and record this, and tweet it out to them. Maybe they’ll like it…”. I had that back and forth of “Alright man, you’re going to waste your whole night…”. It’s just one of those things [where] I went back and forth between “[it’s] a really good idea” and then “actually, this is probably really dumb because [they] probably won’t even listen to it”. I stayed up all night working on that, and tweeted it at Tim and Vic both the next morning. Tim retweeted it within seconds and was like, “I love this!”. That was the week they were at the RNC and I was leaving to go to the beach the next morning and I was like, “Okay great, i’ll get to work on the DNC!”. He never said anything back and I did the DNC song that afternoon (and tweeted [it] at them). I didn’t hear anything back on that one and I was feeling pretty disheartened about it.
In the middle of the night I got an alert on my phone; a message from one of the producers at Abso Lutely, asking if they could use those songs as the official theme songs for the conventions. I totally didn’t expect that. I thought that was really cool. I’ve been a huge fan of Tim’s since high-school so it’s still pretty surreal!
The Super Deluxe guys were also using the songs for promotion, to hype up the actual specials being released. That’s what got me in touch with those guys, and I let them know, “Hey, i’m a full-time musician. Any time you guys want any kind of work like this i’d love to see what I could muster up”. That kinda just started an ongoing conversation with my producer Jason over there. This all took place probably at the end of July . I think my first piece for Super Deluxe was released in mid-August. So there were a couple of weeks of figuring out how I could be utilised or what we could do.
It was actually Jason’s idea to do the first Emo Trump. He reached out and he was like, “Hey, Trump’s tweets have been really Emo today. Is there any way you could turn this into an early-2000’s pop-punk Emo song?”. That first one was pooled from a six-hour span of the same day.
I obviously had a lot to prove with that first one, so I got straight to work as soon as he reached out. I think I sent them back a finished product within twelve hours. They got that released later that week and it did really well. Since then, I think this newest Emo Trump would probably be the tenth thing I’ve done with them.
On utilising different genres and styles:
It’s interesting to hear the different ways your music has been used by Super Deluxe, such as in your Office Life or Monster Bash videos. Super Deluxe seem to be one huge melting pot of talent.
That’s one of the things that I told Jason when we were trying to figure out how I could fit in. I told him, [and] this goes for my original stuff I write and what I ended up doing for Super Deluxe, “I strive to be a musical chameleon and be able to adapt”. I like working outside of my comfort zone and trying new things; being able to play different styles of music without it sounding like, “Oh, this is a punk-rock dude trying to do a blues song”. I try to be able to authentically camouflage myself into these different [styles]. I think a big part of that comes from so many of my favourite bands.
I mean, you look at the majority of The Beatles‘ records – they sound like a cohesive unit. It sounds like The Beatles but, if you’re just listening to The White Album for instance, one song is pop, the next one’s rock, the next one’s blues, the next one’s avant-garde, the next one’s… You know what I mean? I try to live in that same space where i’m keeping people on their toes and trying to take [them] on more of a journey, rather than give them eleven variations of the same kinda song.
On his hometown musical origins and early successes:
In a feature I saw on you for Greater Chattanooga, you mentioned how you reached a point of wanting to move away from “traditional folk”.
The way that started out was really just to give a run down of my musical origin, I guess. I started playing when I was really young; like elementary school age-ish. I started playing in bands around middle-school and by the time I got to high-school, which I think is usually when kids actually start messing around with the guitar, i’d gotten quite good for my age (which kinda gave me an edge over a lot of the other kids who were getting into music). I was [also] playing with two other insanely talented guys.
We had a lot of really cool opportunities out the gate, like playing some pretty big festivals in our hometown and getting some press. That being my first dance with music in a professional way, it was like, “Woah, this thing’s really easy! You just write music, play some shows and then people show up, and pay you money, and buy your CDs, and write stories about you…”. It took years, moving forward, to be able to look back and realise that it was actually more of a novelty of, “Hey, here’s a bunch of fifteen-year-olds on stage and they sound more like college age kids!”.
Each year went by and we were getting better but people were paying less attention because that novelty was wearing off. I went to MTSU and studied commercial songwriting, and that was three and a half years of me just kind of sitting around and just being like, “Okay, i’m super talented! When is someone gonna scoop me up and sign me and make me famous?” you know? I just had this warped sense of how it was supposed to happen and didn’t realise you have to work really hard if you want to be successful at it. It took me all that time, until I graduated and realised, “I don’t have any real prospects of anything that I wanna do, and doing it well. I gotta start hustling with music”.
To tie back in to what you mentioned about the folk record that I did, while I was in college it was like, “Man, i’ve got these songs and I want to record an album… But I don’t have the money to pay someone”. Then I get my own recording software – “Oh okay, well I have the sofware but my microphone isn’t good enough”. Then I get a microphone – “Okay, my microphone’s here but now I don’t have…”. You know what I mean? Four years later I don’t have anything to show for what I want to be doing. So it’s like, “I’m going to take all the resources I have right now. I’m going to make the best thing i’m capable of making and it’ll reflect where i’m at”.
At that time I had a really cheap version of ProTools, which had a twelve-track limit. [That] rules out being able to use any kind of drums or anything like that. Doing the folk record was more out of necessity. I mean, some of my favourite artists are Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Paul Simon so it wasn’t, “Okay, i’m gonna do this style of music i’m not crazy about”. But, in an ideal world, having a full backing band is where I feel i’m most comfortable. I did that record and, after I produced [it], I planned a two-month tour where I went down towards the Gulf, over to Texas, up to Chicago, back down towards Florida, up to D.C and then back to my house. I was able to make enough money, and that was just me with an acoustic guitar.
I’d heard all these horror stories about how you’re lucky just to break-even on tour, so I was being super-frugal and sleeping at rest-stops. Pretty much my only expense was, like, breakfast and gas! [I] ended up making enough money to get home and update my recording software. That’s when I produced my second record [Etc.], which is the most recent record I’ve released.
On Etc., a band’s effect on songwriting and Greezy Rick:
That kinda forced me to put a band together, because I just didn’t have any way to play those songs the way they were intended to be played by myself.
As I assume you were the principle songwriter for Etc., how did you feel the presence of your new band effected your songwriting?
Up until basically now, honestly, every song we’ve ever done has been something that I have created and played all the parts; then sent to them and been like, “you guys learn this!”. Then, for the live show obviously, they can add their own extra flair to it. We’re in a cool place right now, in that i’m working on this next record and we all (we’re a three right piece now), my bassist and drummer, have the same recording software. So, it’s really fun in that I can record the song to the best of my ability and then send them both the project file, then they can play with it and add their take on the drums and their take on the bass, [or] any type of production. It’s a much more collaborative thing we’re doing right now, which is really exciting. It’s actually the first time I’ve done it.
It seems, at least from social media and what I’ve seen, that you have a fantastic relationship with your bass player, Greezy Rick.
Yeah, Greezy Rick! If anyone [reading] isn’t aware, he wears a puppet costume. He’s a puppet man.
We’ll come to the puppets, don’t you worry!
On home-producing, being an inspiration and the benefits of Spotify:
If you’re writing all of the parts individually on Etc. then that’s very impressive stuff.
It’s the best thing that I think I’ve ever done. I’m doing it a whole lot more now, but i’m always hesitant to call myself a producer, just because i’m the least knowledgeable person when it comes to telling you what i’m doing. If I tell someone that I produced my record and they’re like, “Oh awesome, how’d you do the…”, y’know, start talking about the EQ or whatever else, i’m totally oblivious. The greatest benefit of being able to produce my own stuff is having an unlimited amount of time. I know how I want it to sound and, if I have enough time, I can press every button until it sounds the way I want it to!
That’s kind of downplaying my ability. Like, I do have confidence in making something sound good, I just cannot get into the technical aspect of what exactly i’m doing.
It’s strange to hear you say that, considering how strong the production on the album is.
I think it’s just more credit to my ear, and I guess my discipline… And Google, if it’s like, “I want something to sound this way, what do I need to do?”. For a long time I guess I was kinda self-conscious about the record; I wasn’t super excited to [hear] how other producers listened to it. It wasn’t until I had a couple of producers be like, “Dude, who did your record? It sounds really good!” until I got more confident in my abilities. The thing that’s really cool now is, my drummer is a really great sound engineer, and super knowledgeable! It’s really cool in that I can get it sounding to the best of my ability and send it to him, and we can have conversations about what I should be doing differently or what could be done differently.
I wish you could see my set-up because there’s a local private school around here, called McCallie… I guess they were doing a class on music technology. The guy sends me an e-mail and was like, “Hey, i’m taking my kids to Muscle Shoals, and we’re taking them to a couple of studios in Nashville, and we also want to give them a tour of a few, like, hometown studios. Is there any way I can bring my class to come check out your studio?”. It’s just hysterical because I don’t even have studio monitors! I wear a pair of headphones. My fiance and I just bought a house [which has] an awesome basement [and] studio space now, which is really cool, but I recorded Etc. in my bedroom at my parents house. It was like the least glamorous kinda set-up!
Which often works!
That’s what I told them! I was like, “Honestly man, my set-up is extremely limited. Like, some of your kids might know more about music technology than I do but, if you wanted to have a conversation with them about what you’re capable of creating on a budget and [with] a creative mind, i’d love to talk to them and show them my process”. It actually ended up being a really cool conversation.
Personally, when first learning music, i’d have found your set-up inspiring.
That was a big part of it in school. Since I was majoring in songwriting, they had “Intro to Protools” which was basically “Protools for Dummies”. You learn how to navigate it and suddenly it’s not this big scary thing. It’s like, “Okay, maybe I can play with this and do something”. But, it’s been one of the biggest benefits of what I do just because, even though the whole music industry has totally gone down the toilet, musicians are making more money off their own music than, like, the whole of musicians. Obviously not famous musicians, [who] used to be making a lot more money, but the average musician can affordably record their own record, put it online and then market it through Facebook or whatever else; then there’s no middle-men taking up the majority of the profits.
As an artist whose work is available on Spotify, how helpful of a platform have you found it to be?
A ton of people check my stuff out on Spotify, and then they’ll come to a show and buy a t-shirt. I’m all for Spotify, but I get, [for] the artists who came up when the music industry was thriving, how frustrating it can be. “Okay, I used to sell this amount of records and now no-one’s buying them!”. For me, who’s someone whose first record was released on Spotify, it’s been a big asset. It depends on where you’re at in your career and I can totally understand why people are jaded but, if i’m at a show and you don’t have enough money to buy a CD, we’ll make it work. At the end of the day I want you to have the record and I want you to like it, and I want you to come to shows!
It’s a necessity. There’s so much noise on the internet, you’ve got to be everywhere at once.
I’ve found that Spotify is just a discovery platform for people, who then usually make the decision to spend money on the things they like.
That’s been the cool thing about working with Super Deluxe; i’m able to wear these different hats and there’s somewhat of a synergy. I’ve had some guys who have discovered my stuff through Super Deluxe and have been converted into fans of my actual stuff.
On upcoming material, giant fish and filming videos:
I’ve seen the upcoming video for Grinning Like a Barracuda. Both the video and song are awesome.
One of my good friends, Justin Cipriani, works at a company called Loch and Key. They’re a production company [who] cover music festivals and shoot commercials. We went to high-school together and we’ve always collaborated on dumb videos and stuff. His abilities have just kinda skyrocketed, and he has access to all this incredible equipment because he does it for a living. He shot [the] Predator video, and he just shot the new Grinning Like a Barracuda video, but the way that we did it was like, “Hey man, I wanna do a video!” and he [replied], “Okay, i’m basically busy for the rest of the year. I can shoot it, like, next weekend. What do you wanna do?”. So we had three days to plan that whole shoot!
It was totally absurd, because you’ll see everyone in the video is wearing those puppet headband kinda things. Greezy Rick, my bassist, made all of those in like two days! He had some complications. We were supposed to start shooting at noon and I don’t think he ended up getting there, with the masks, until, like four. So, that was stressful.
Another thing that’s kind of a bummer [is that] we had commissioned this dude to build a twelve-foot puppet barracuda for our most recent show. We were hoping to have that ready to feature in the video but, unfortunately, that didn’t come together.
Tony Mraz is an incredible local artist from Chattanooga and we commissioned him to build that. What’s funny about it is, originally he was like, “Oh it’ll take me a few hours”. [I replied], “Okay cool, we’re doing a music video this week and can you have it ready?” and he [said], “Sure!”. I’m so glad that we did that because it ended up taking him like four or five weeks! We got it, like, two days before that big show. We debuted it on stage, so it ended up being right there at the sweet spot. If we hadn’t done that he might have waited to start working on it til the week of, and it might not have got done.
The thing is massive. It’s impossible to get around. It’s taking up my entire basement right now. I’m kind of worried that I shot myself in the foot; the majority of the stages here, it won’t even fit on! I don’t know how much we could utilise it, unless we’re doing big festival-size gigs. Hopefully more will come with it but we’ll see.
Despite not making it to the shoot, the Grinning Like a Barracuda video comes off very well anyway!
We were hoping to release it last week, to promote that big show we were doing where we were debuting the barracuda, but this last month has just been so insane. I’m getting married this Friday!
Thanks man, we’re both really excited about that. Obviously, that’s been a lot of work. I just started a full-time job at VaynerMedia and, on top of that, i’m doing stuff for Super Deluxe, and i’m recording another local band’s record, and i’m trying to get my own record ready. I just didn’t realise how much work the combination of all those things [was] gonna be. I just haven’t had a free moment, in probably the last two months, to really dedicate to writing and producing my own stuff. I was hoping that my newest record would be a lot further along by the time the video was ready to be released. We’re gonna hold on! I’m shooting for an album release in the Fall and want to release Grinning Like a Barracuda, like, a month or so ahead of that to help build it up. It just feels weird releasing it right now, then being like, “Here’s Grinning Like a Barracuda, coming from our new record that comes out… Hopefully later this year?”. We’re wanting to make that a priority; we have five or six songs ready to go.
On the importance of live performance and puppets:
I was just excited to hear about the potential of some new material!
We have this kinda mentality for our live show, obviously with the puppet costumes and whatnot, where we’re trying to give kind of a theatrical angle. It’s the same thing with what we were talking about online. With live music, you’ve gotta cut through the noise.
Theatrics are often an incredibly potent way to enhance a live show. It reminds me of my experience seeing Rush, when they had rotisserie chickens and vending machines on stage.
This is kind of a subconscious thing. I just remembered this the other day. I used to do some busking, like street performing stuff, and I was never really successful; I’d make a few bucks, y’know – nothing great. I remember, one weekend, my buddy and I put on these gorilla masks and these weird suits and did it. We’d get crowds, like dozens of people, gathered around. We made like a hundred bucks in a few hours and it was just like, “Oh my god! You put on a mask and suddenly people pay attention to what you’re doing!”.
It’s interesting in that it wasn’t a real conscious decision, like with the puppets on stage with the band. But, I think it’s a big reason of why we’ve stuck with it and kept it. It kinda unleashes something in people where they’re more vulnerable and like, “Okay, these guys aren’t taking themselves super seriously, so maybe I can let loose, enjoy myself and get weird for the next hour or so”.
I’ve seen Greezy Rick discuss how much the puppet outfit can effect him. He says he’s a far more reserved person without it.
It’s unreal. It’s such a cool thing to see him to do that too. He literally becomes Greezy Rick! His name’s Eric; Eric Parham. He puts on that costume before we start playing and he won’t take it off until the last person’s left. He really owns it and he’s really taken that thing to a whole other level.
The place that the puppets on stage even came from… Had you seen the music video for my song, Predator?
We shot the Predator video before I had a band. I already had the hand puppets, just as a weird hobby. It was around the time The Muppets reboot came out and it was super nostalgic, and it was like, “I wanna build some puppets!”. Just, like, a random thing. We wanted to shoot this music video to push the record and I didn’t have the band, so we decided to just use the puppets. Then, when I got the band and showed them the video, somewhere along the way the idea came. I was trying to figure out a way to actually get hand-puppets on stage with me to play. I was considering just playing solo, with backing tracks and hand-puppets. But then I was thinking, “Man, if i’m going to be paying puppeteers to come up there and work puppets, I might as well be paying people to play the actual songs!”. That’s [how] the puppet costume thing came to be.
I know i’m kind of all over the place, but I think what I was originally trying to get to – where I had to do some backtracking to cover all those bases – is, every show we do, we’re wanting to one up the one before it; to keep people looking forward to the next show or not get burnt out on what we’re doing. We want to do everything a little bit different and introduce new things. It’s really to our chagrin in a lot of ways. It gets harder and harder, you know what I mean?
We did this big, massive parade last year and had a drum-line come up on stage, and had fire-dancers and circus performers. I love it! It’s so much fun trying to figure out how to make a spectacle out of every show. I think what got me on that train is, a couple of halloweens ago we did the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack. That really took it from a place of a band, in puppet costumes, playing on stage to a full-blown production with characters and props.
I think that was kind of a turning point for what we’re doing, and it influenced our shows. I also, on top of performing the record live, produced my own version of it (it’s on Soundcloud). It really influenced my approach to songwriting and I think people will see a big influence on the new record from, like, the insane mind of Danny Elfman and his approach to writing songs. I think that’s kinda carried over, with a little bit more of maybe an orchestral, symphonic, vibe. I was more worried about creating something that was easier to replicate on stage. The guys that I’ve been playing with have incredible minds, and Greezy has MIDI foot pedals that can trigger anything. Adam, my drummer, has loop pedals so anything that we can create on the record, we can probably get on stage with us. It’s really opened a lot of doors to get creative. Some of my favourite dudes are, like, Brian Wilson – Pet Sounds and Smile are two of my favourite records. It’s like a playground, man.
On the recording process vs. playing live:
One of the ways that was well expressed on Etc. is in the variety and sense of the percussion throughout.
Really that was another thing, for me, that was a big hurdle early on – I hated the sound of MIDI drums. I have a really cheap interface that can only have two inputs so, even if I had drums, and even if I knew how to play drums, I don’t have the means to actually record them. [For] Etc., all the drums on there are MIDI drums that I’ve mapped out myself . I really painstakingly spent a lot of time trying to make them sound as organic as possible. It’s been a lot of note-for-note toying with the velocity.
The really funny thing is, Mike, the drummer i’m playing with for this new record, is actually re-tracking all of the drums on an electronic drum kit. It’s funny how i’m slowly evolving from machine into like… We’re gonna get there but eventually we’re going to be able to just have a studio and record these songs live, but it’s a fun process. It’s almost like backwards…
Like Radiohead goes from this organic band to almost completely machine driven music. We’re kinda working our way backwards.
It sounds like, a lot of the time, you were having to play with necessity as an element of the process?
I was trying to mask a lot of that. I like when people are surprised that they were MIDI drums. I played the bass and guitar, and obviously did all the vocals, but I think everything else you hear on that – the drums and keys – [are MIDI]. I really enjoy manipulating sounds. There’s one track, Thanks to Uncle Stacy, where, other than the guitar, I think almost everything you hear on there was a sound made with my mouth and then covered up with effects. It’s fun to play live too because now we have all those sounds sampled. It’s fun being on-stage and playing along to basically a backing track of all my mouth sounds!
As a musician, what interests you the most – the process of recording or live performance of that material?
That’s a really good question, because it’s really a trifecta to me, man. I enjoy writing, y’know; the creative process of actually getting the idea and figuring out what it’s gonna be, and then implementing it in the studio, and experimenting, and then performing! I don’t mean to sound cliche but it’s almost like picking your favourite kid, I guess. I love the three of them equally.
I’ll do like, money-gigs where I do covers and I don’t enjoy that nearly as much as playing my own stuff. I’ve produced some songs for some artists that I wasn’t super crazy about. There wasn’t love in that. Going to school for commercial songwriting, I was kinda forced to write some stuff that wasn’t my favourite stuff. Obviously, it’s not like all three are the best thing to do ever; you can find ways to not enjoy those three things. Whenever i’m doing what I wanna do and writing the music I wanna write, it’s really hard to put one above the other. [With] you being a musician as well, I don’t know if you get this – anyone that ever asks:
“Hey man, what do you do for a living?”, it’s like, “Oh, i’m a musician…”. They’re like, “Oh cool, when are you gonna do American Idol?”. “Nah. Nah, I don’t really think that’s my thing. I don’t think i’d do very well”. “Oh, come on!”.
It’s the same thing with guitarists, like “Who’s your favourite guitarist?”. I never listen in the way of, “Man, this guy has the best voice,” or, “This guy is the most incredible guitarist”. It’s all about the feeling, the song, the presentation and the attitude. It goes both ways in how I enjoy listening to music and how I enjoy creating and presenting. Y’know, I think I have a fine voice, and I think that i’m a fine guitarist, but I think my biggest asset is being able to have a strong sense of a good song and being able to present it well, and being capable in all the other areas.
On how not to write a song:
I’ve seen you talk about learning how not to write a song in college. Can you explain that in your words?
It’s funny because I didn’t mean that to sound like I was being a dick! The thing about that program in general, and I’ve heard it’s much different now but, when I first started school, my freshman year was the first year they implemented the songwriting program. We were very much guinea pigs. They hadn’t really figured things out yet. The people choosing songwriting, this was like my core classes to get the degree, were taking it as an electorate. [Half] of the people didn’t play an instrument, didn’t sing… It was just an easy class that they wanted to take. We were all being graded on the same scale so there was no real urgency. It just didn’t seem like it was being treated very seriously.
The gist of what they would teach you is like, “Hey, you wanna make money writing songs. Turn on the radio and repeat” – almost exactly. “Here is all the things that’ll get you in trouble. Don’t do any of these things. Here’s what they’re talking about. Write about those things, in that manner, with those beats-per-minute”.
Right now, I can’t think of any real examples of music on the radio that I really am into. Not only did I not enjoy it, I just realised I wasn’t good at it. I was trying to write within that realm and I just kept writing bad songs. Even though that’s not my favourite style of music, I can understand when a song is well-written. I wasn’t even doing that well. I was doing a bad job at bad music!
When it’s something that i’m compelled by, there’s a much better chance of it coming out well. I think it’s like that with most things. If there’s not a part of you invested into what you’re doing, it’s not going to come out the best. I learned that really quickly.
I know I tend to just start rambling when I talk about this stuff but I hope it’s making a little sense!
On building a career in music:
The most important aspect of making good music is really about feeling. Fortunately, that’s everywhere in your music.
I’ve been insanely lucky, man. I’ve been extremely lucky in that, when I graduated, I moved back home with my parents for two to three years and literally focused on building, for lack of a better word, a brand; figuring out how to market myself and just literally making music my full-time job. I’m super fortunate, a lot of people don’t have that luxury. Every dime that I made, for the first two or three years out of college, was going back into promoting my record or building crazy costumes.
Was being a musician the only career path you ever had in mind?
After I graduated, I worked in New York City for a few months; for a music PR company. I just started realising, music isn’t only my favourite thing to do, it’s also what i’m best at, y’know? I’m not really great at a lot of things and I just have a really deep passion for creating music. At some point I was like, “It’s what I gotta do, and if it’s what I gotta do then I’ve got to treat it as seriously as possible and make it work”. I can’t just cross my arms and be like, “Okay well… This is just not working out”. You gotta treat it as a business and hustle.
Since this has kind of become “Advice for a Budding Musician”, do you feel too many young players are only asking the question of how they can be famous?
I think for a long time it was like, “I wanna be Radiohead. I wanna headline festivals. I want people to want my autograph,” and, somewhere along the way, it just turned more into [wanting] to be able to make a comfortable living. I just want to be able to pay the bills doing what I love, which is sitting in my basement and creating weird music, and then performing it for people that want to hear it.
It’s funny you should say that your music just pays the bills, since that’s usually reserved for jobs like depping on cruise ships and in restaurants.
That’s what I’ve meant, I want to be paying the bills doing what I love. That’s the ultimate end goal. Paying the bills playing cruise ships, playing restaurants, y’know, it’d still be pretty sweet. Right now it’s so great in that I have my hands in so many different pots. I have a couple of restaurant gigs a week; they pay pretty well. Then i’ve got the stuff for Super Deluxe, which I do bi-monthly pretty much. A lot of people, they don’t have the time or the capabilities to really put into writing, producing and everything else. I’m very fortunate in being able to pool income doing music from other places, and still being able to focus on my own creative expression.
It’s always seemed to me that searching out “hooks” and questioning purely how to make money from music (with no creativity at all) is a noxious mindset.
I did a local panel; we have a really cool non-profit in my city called SoundCorps. They’ll do these things called “TakeNotes” where they’ll bring in people, from the music industry, and give local musicians advice on how they can make a living doing music. Obviously i’m still figuring things out in so many ways, but a big piece of advice that I think I have to offer is: always take the chance. Always be working out of your comfort zone. If you have this idea and someone’s like, “I dunno man, that’s really weird,” that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea and you shouldn’t do it. That doesn’t mean every idea’s a great idea but i’m just very fortunate in that, with that Tim and Vic song, if I had a second thought and was like, “Eh this is a waste of time,” I would’ve never done anything for Super Deluxe. My life might be totally different right now.
For that one thing that had this huge result, there are a hundred things that had no fruit whatsoever. The trick is not getting discouraged. It’s just kind of what it takes, in this day; trying new things, trying weird things that’ll catch people’s attention. Y’know, like, tweeting at your favourite celebrity. You’ve just gotta put yourself out there and be diligent. It’s worked for me; a little bit! Hopefully [it] will continue too, we’ll see.
On off-the-cuff creativity and the internet:
Do you feel you’ve got a chance of getting the Six Bag Cinemas jingle?
Dude, they did the voting and I didn’t even qualify! Last week was, like, the busiest week. I was finishing up Emo Trump, I think it was the day before I sent them the final draft, and then Tim tweeted that thing, “I need a jingle now!”. I was like, “I do not have time for this but it’s so tempting!”. I sat down with my guitar for, like, two seconds, and the thing that I had just came to me in an instant. I was like, “Okay, i’ve gotta do something with this”. I probably spent about two hours [on it]. It was fun; he retweeted it and it got a lot of likes so that’s cool.
No matter its level of success, that kind of off-the-cuff creativity is always useful, and great for leading people back to your wider catalogue.
I guess that would be an example of one of the things that didn’t necessarily work out. You enjoyed it! It was one of those things, I saw that he was doing that and I was like, “Man, I at least wanna have something out there and, if I don’t make it, it’ll be totally fine”. Also, there’s a ton of guys doing that; there’s a lot of really cool jingles in there. I’ve had my shot, like I was on the election specials. It’s cool to share the wealth!
If people hear these things, and enjoy them, they’re still worth doing! The internet can create a community that’s not as hateful as some may think.
And it links to your other stuff. I think, when you share stuff on Soundcloud, it queues up whatever your song is next; and it should! It’s pretty much where we all live these days. It’s where this conversation will exist on. It’s a weird thing! It’s everywhere.
On the process of making a Super Deluxe video:
How exactly do your videos for Super Deluxe come about? Are you involved in their video editing at all?
Basically Jason, my producer, and I have a really cool relationship in that it usually, almost every video we’ve done, has sparked from an idea that he’s had. So, for the Office Life one, he’s like, “I think it could be pretty cool to use stock footage, and write a song specifically to the stock footage of people working in an office, and having it be like a really upbeat, fun, pop song but sarcastic and brutal about how horrible it can be”. Then it’s like “Okay, awesome! I’ll get it back to you as soon as I can”. Then I go through, check out all the footage and pick out my favourite bits.
That was one where I actually had to edit the video because it was corresponding exactly with the song. That’s also what happened with the newest Emo Trump. That one was definitely the most difficult thing I’ve done for Super Deluxe, just because syncing it up exactly with his words was something I’ve never done. It’s something that’s not really easy to do. Also, I use iMovie, man! It’s the most primitive, awful, way to unintuitively… I had some media concepts and film production classes in high-school and it’s like, “Oh this is just another class”. Then you get to college and you meet these videographers and you realise pretty soon it’s like, and not to be arrogant or anything but, “This is what you’re saying you’re doing, and you don’t even have a lot of the basic knowledge that me and all these other kids that went to high-school [do]”.
It’s just a weird thing to grow up and then realise, “I guess I have these skills that I didn’t realise could be utilised in any kind of way, other than doing these stupid assignments”. That’s how my buddy Cip, I mentioned earlier, went on to do all this great videography work. We had a really strong foundation, in high school. It set me up to be able to use iMovie, whenever I need it for the stuff I do for Super Deluxe. Sorry, that’s just a long-winded way to bash iMovie. I’ve actually worked in, like, Adobe, where you can actually move the footage around!
Usually you can, say you had a different audio track, snap some footage where it sticks to the grid, and that specific frame; where it’s locked in on the shot that you want it to be. On iMovie, any time you insert a new piece of footage, it moves the next one. It’s like putting together a puzzle. Every time you add a new piece, you have to shave off enough of the next one, to where it will still line up with the audio. Basically, lining up the vocals with the audio on the track just made it a total unintuitive nightmare. It would have been so much easier with decent video editing software, which is something i’m going to end up investing in.
After all that awkward and difficult work, at least you were able to push through.
That’s a big part of it, man. I end up taking the long way, even with music stuff, just because I don’t know the ins and outs. I end up getting there most of the time which is, I guess, what counts.
On building a world, On Cinema and viral marketing:
It seems, in many ways, that limitations being used to their full advantage is a thread throughout your work.
Yeah, that goes into the live show as well I think. It’s been cool that, now we’ve got this barracuda, at first we had these big, giant cut-out heads of me and Greezy. Then we have these fire-dancers come up and choreograph a few songs. Y’know, we do these little things for each show and this last show that I did was the first time I realised, “Wow, we’ve acquired an entire show worth of these big-picture, weird ideas that really turn into an awesome experience”. We’ve really just acquired them over time.
For the first time seeing the show, it’s like, “Wow, man! How much work would have went into this?”. It’s just accumulative of what we had to work with over two years now. That’s something i’m trying to figure out now… I think seeing it all come together for that last show we did, because, like most things that I do, it was really thrown together, was like, “We’ll see how this actually plays out in real time, because we never had a chance to actually rehearse the actual music with all the production of the staging antics”.
Seeing it unfold, in real time, really sparked a plug in me to get some good footage of those shows and try to market that and, I dunno, maybe get some festival gigs; try to market the show aspect of it on top of the music itself.
World-building is important to a fan-base. A long-time fan of yours would probably be very rewarded to see a big Greezy Rick head still on stage in ten years time!
It’s a great point. As you’re talking about it the first thing that pops into my head is, as far as someone who’s really utilised that, the On Cinema backstory; y’know, with, like, Doctor San and the film archive? Just so many little things that have spanned… Are they on the eighth or ninth season now? It really builds the fan-base.
As a relatively new fan of On Cinema, the way they’ve constructed that world has been a large reason for its effectiveness with me. What I see in On Cinema is all throughout your work too.
That’s what’s really cool about On Cinema. I don’t know many people who even watch it but the people that do are so invested and so into [it]. You can see it on Twitter, how deeply people are invested in it. That has influenced my approach to marketing and whatnot. Last year we did this battle-of-the-bands locally. This is so ridiculous; if you went on my Facebook you could follow this whole rabbit trail! Obviously it’s exclusive to Chattanoogans, ‘cause it happened in our hometown.
I was getting into On Cinema and I was trying to figure out ways I could utilise that same type of comedy to… In talking about treating yourself like a business, I know that means you need to be constantly engaging on social media. The biggest thing I don’t want to do is be that guy spamming people like, “Hey guys, i’m working on another new song! Be sure to buy my record!”. I want to give people a reason to wanna watch what i’m doing. So it was like, “Okay, I’ve got puppets in my band. People have compared our shows to a weird version of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. I’m gonna be live-tweeting [Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday] at midnight tonight, on Netflix”.
I made this big announcement on Facebook and then, at midnight, they didn’t release it. It turned out to be they were releasing it on Pacific Time, like Los Angeles, which is three hours behind my time. But then I [took] it upon myself like, “What’s going on? Pee-Wee’s supposed to come out at midnight and it’s not here! Netflix, you’re humiliating yourselves! You’re infuriating Herman-Heads everywhere”. Then I started tweeting [things like], “Boycott Netflix”, and just got really stupid with it.
Of course, the next morning i’d wake up and Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is on Netflix, so i’m taking all the credit like, “We really scared Netflix into releasing the movie! Thank God we did our part. It was a huge honour leading this thing”. Somewhere along the way I tweeted at David Crosby, “Hey man, are you gonna be staying up to watch Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday?”. David Crosby ignored me, then the next day I saw he tweeted something about how he ignores stupid questions on Twitter. I tweeted at him like, “Hey, this really hurts”. Then he tweeted back at me and he said, “Poor baby”. So then I took it upon myself to start a whole campaign to boycott [Crosby], because i’m not a baby.
All this silliness that, on Facebook, people started getting invested in because i’m playing it all off with a straight face and acting like i’m really upset about it. That somehow got tied into this competition, where this other guy, another great local musician named Preston Paris, was doing response videos where he was like, “Nick treats his bandmates horribly. He says that they’re puppets but they really have this condition called puppetitis”. Then I was like, “Oh, he’s working for [Crosby]”. It ended up being this giant thing. I think It ended up getting thousands of shares [and] selling out this event. It was just really so much fun.
It was just funny how anyone following along saw this thing turn from live-tweeting Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday to “Boycott Netflix” to “Boycott [Crosby]” to “Boycott Preston Paris”. It was so crazy how out of control it got because, then, other people in the community [and] the media got involved, like our local talk radio. News publications were doing stories on it! Then I started talking about how David Crosby infiltrated our media. People were making, like, Anonymous group videos of how David Crosby infiltrated the media and was trying to besmirch my character. It was just so hilarious how this stupid thing kinda went viral in our hometown; as viral as you can get in Chattanooga!
Was there an element of it being taken seriously at all?
That was the funniest thing. One of the videos I made was like, “And to everyone saying this is some kind of a publicity stunt, do you realise how ridiculous that sounds? Do you realise how ridiculous it sounds to think that David Crosby, from Crosby, Stills and Nash, has infiltrated our media?”. I just said it all out loud, to point out “Of course this is a publicity stunt”. But it was really funny how many texts I was getting like, “Dude, who the hell is this Preston Paris guy?” or “Dude, what’s going on?!” That Anonymous video was shared, like, hundreds of times! “What’s going on in our hometown?!”
Strange that you should put it as a “publicity stunt”. Were you not just responding to opportunities presented to you?
Obviously, at that time, it was to serve the means of building up hype for the show; that’s the reason we kept it ongoing, but that’s definitely not how it started. Like you said, it was kind of an opportunity that presented itself. People were so engaged. It’s something that i’d like to become ongoing with… I dunno, i’m trying to figure out a way to utilise that kind of aspect of promotion and engagement. It does get old, just constantly only ever talking about the product you’re trying to push. It’s good to keep people engaged, I think, and Tim does an incredible job, and Vic; all those guys. Dominick too, man! I’m so bad.
I get on Twitter, like, once a day and tweet something when I feel like I have something to tweet. I really respect the dudes that are at it every couple of hours with relevant stuff. That’s how you stay in people’s minds, just constantly getting [at] it.
Personally, i’m very new to Twitter and still don’t quite understand its applications.
I’ve been on it a few years and I still feel the exact same way! The Super Deluxe stuff has kinda pushed me out into being more active on it.
On collaborating with Dominick Nero:
You’ve worked with Nero on a couple of collaborations. How did the two of you get in touch?
I think, right after the election specials dropped, he dropped me a direct message on Twitter and he had watched some of my other stuff and was like, “Dude, you need to get in touch with Super Deluxe”. We’ve stayed in touch since then, pretty much.
Talking with Nero was great and he’s really someone who understands what we were saying about the opportunities of the internet.
He’s a really good dude. We talk pretty consistently! I’ll ask advice and he’ll shoot me cuts of what he’s working on; he’s always got some hilarious thing in the works.
[SOON AFTER THIS, LUTSKO’S THIRD EMO TRUMP DROPPED, MEANING HE HAD TO RUSH OFF]
Thank you so much for a wonderful conversation. It’s been really insightful for me, but I hope it hasn’t been too dull or anything for you!
No, man, I’ve been totally engaged! This is the longest I’ve talked to anyone about this kind of thing; on record. I’ve enjoyed it!