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Taste Profile: Nick Lutsko
The songwriter and comedian talks about ‘The Dark Crystal,’ Primus' 'Pork Soda,' and his most formative pop culture in a new interview series on No Expectations.
Welcome to a bonus edition of the No Expectations newsletter. It’s a new Q&A series called Taste Profile that serves as a way for me to interview interesting folks about the formative albums, books, movies, and more that inspired them then and the things that inspire them now. The hope is that this can be a twice-monthly franchise for the blog and a low-stakes way for artists, writers, and other creatives to do a casual interview outside of the traditional press cycle. First up is Tennessee comedian and songwriter Nick Lutsko, who’s going on tour next week including an April 7 date at Chicago’s Park West. Buy tickets here.
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Nick Lutsko’s Taste Profile
Nick Lutsko is a musician from Chattanooga, Tennessee who makes unhinged comedy songs with hooks so infectious and anthemic they’ll stick in your brain for months. While Lutsko has been making music for years both in traditional songwriting like his 2019 album Swords and writing parody tunes for places like Super Deluxe, I interviewed him in 2021 for VICE about the music that would make up his album Songs on the Computer. That LP is a collection of joke songs he posted first as Twitter videos from 2019 to 2021 including unsolicited theme songs for Spirit Halloween, Netflix’s The Irishman, and increasingly dark takes on the Republican National Convention, Trump Jr., and Dan Bongino. His videos are bonkers, combining jokes with horror and occasionally outlandish puppets. It’s better experienced than explained on paper. Few people captured the absurdity of that era better than Lutsko.
In the last couple of years, his life has changed pretty drastically. His music is a full-time gig, he’s moved to a new spot with his family complete with a home studio and film set up for his videos and live streams. Plus, he’s been enjoying fatherhood as the dad of a two-year-old girl and recently wrote a reflective song about it in “Obituary.” Now, Lutsko is headed back on the road (he sold out two nights at Lincoln Hall in 2022) and will be hitting up Park West on April 7 (Tix here). I’m happy Lutsko worked out to be the first guest on Taste Profile, a new series on No Expectations, because I knew he’d pick things I’d never guess or have checked out myself. Plus, he’s just a great person to interview. Below, read our conversation which ranges from the spooky stuff kids love to a recent appreciation of latter-day Peter Gabriel tunes.
Formative Movie: The Dark Crystal, directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz (1982)
Tell me about the first time you saw The Dark Crystal. With what I know about the film despite not having seen it, I can imagine how it would have influenced you and your work.
There's no way I could pinpoint the first time I saw The Dark Crystal. The main memory that I have attached to Dark Crystal and it's a little bit confounding to me because I remember going to Blockbuster very young, maybe four or five years old, and renting either this or what I almost picked instead, Ernest Scared Stupid. The reason it makes no sense to me is that every single time I went to Blockbuster, I’d rent the same film and it just makes me wonder why wouldn't my parents just buy me the VHS? The amount of money they probably spent at Blockbuster renting the same two movies over and over again for years is mind-boggling to me.
What made you keep coming back to it?
There's kind of a common thread between all these formative picks in that what I loved about Dark Crystal being a really young kid is that I didn't know if I should be watching it or be allowed to watch it that young. There are some parts that are just so horrific and scary but it's in this package of a kid's movie. It's the same thing with Ernest Scared Stupid, which is obviously, way sillier. But that had some pretty intense moments. I'd heard on that film that they had repurposed all of the costumes from Killer Clowns From Outer Space to make all the trolls.
I won’t go too into the details of the plot of Dark Crystal because it probably sounds so ludicrous to someone who’s never seen it but there are these giant bird puppet creatures that terrified me called Skeksis. I had vivid nightmares about them coming into my house and coming into my room.
In that world, everything looks like it could exist. There’s just a lot of horrific imagery. I keep saying it's a kid's film but I think it was just following Star Wars and just trying to become the next big fantasy epic. I think it was just too weird for general audiences.
I was an easily frightened kid after seeing the TV miniseries of It way too young.
That makes sense. It is funny because Dark Crystal isn't like remotely a horror project at all. That it wasn't made the scenes that were scary to me even more uncomfortable because a second ago it was light-hearted—they have these things called Podlings which are basically cute little muppets. Gremlins is another great example. That was before they created the PG-13 rating and I remember watching that as a kid and definitely feeling like I shouldn't be allowed to watch this.
Some things that weren’t supposed to be scary, like those Fooglies in Spy Kids, terrified me.
Exactly. With Dark Crystal, I have that very early connection to it, and I was just totally fascinated by it and obsessed with it and kind of scared of it. But I forgot about it for a decade and then it became this movie that I just put on to show my friends who had never seen it. I loved watching their reactions. It was just so weird. Labyrinth is also very weird, but at least has some human characters. But Dark Crystal is just full-on. It's genuinely funny in unintentional ways. It’s surreal and outlandish. It's incredible that this thing got made and honestly, I think it looks so good. Even the Netflix series of it that got made a few years ago doesn’t look as good.
Formative Book: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz (1981)
Speaking of beloved ‘80s pop culture that got a recent remake, let’s move on to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
In elementary school, we would get 30 minutes out of the week to just find a spot in the library and read a book. I would grab this book every single time. I was maybe in the second grade and I remember every time feeling that I was gonna get in trouble if someone caught me reading this. I felt like I somehow found this book and no one else knows even exists that isn't supposed to be there.
I saw that book in a school library too but I put it back and didn’t want to investigate further: the pictures were too spooky for me.
The artwork is just so grotesque. It's kind of the same stuff with Dark Crystal but this is just way more explicit. I remember the art more than I remember any of the stories. I'm not sure how formative it was but I can see some of that come into my songs. Even with these YouTube streams I'm doing, they always end up in some very dark and depraved and sinister place. A lot of the Songs on the Computer stuff that I did, and even my original non-comedy stuff, the music videos usually kind of gravitate towards that area. It's funny because my little brother is a horror filmmaker. While Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is explicitly horror, my songs never are. I feel like in my work, there are horror elements, but it's never just horror. It's usually something else and then the horror kind of maybe surprises you a little bit.
Sometimes it feels like you are using it to prove a point: the comedy songs about Dan Bongino and Trump Jr. and the character you play get to some pretty dark places, which really captures how grotesque some of these subjects are.
That’s definitely part of it but just aesthetically it’s a really fun medium to play with.
Formative Album: Primus, Pork Soda (1993)
I was pretty familiar with Primus in high school but I’m sorry to say I did not get it and actually hated that band around that time. I have grown to respect this album though.
I get it, man. I really do.
What were your first experiences with that band?
Like probably everybody, the first I ever heard of Primus was the South Park theme song. My cousin found a binder of CDs on the street and thought it was the holy grail. Someone must've thrown it out the window of their car or something. There were maybe 100 CDs in there and there was a Primus record called Sailing the Seas of Cheese. I was in elementary school and South Park was the coolest thing just because it was the one thing that I couldn't watch under any circumstances according to my parents. We put it on and I remember just skipping through every song trying to get to the South Park theme. Every song was just so weird to the point of where I couldn't believe that someone bought this. I was not able to really comprehend it or why this exists. Whatever. I was young.
A couple of years later in seventh grade, I was at the mall at FYE. They had a dollar bin and Pork Soda was in there. I was with a group of friends and I bought it mainly to be like, "you guys are going to want to listen to this." I was going to put it on for them as a thing we could laugh at or have it be something that would freak them out. Listening to it, I realized that this is a really scary record. It's very dark and I genuinely remember listening to it and feeling like it was evil and that I shouldn't be listening to it. I was hiding it from my parents and worrying that they'd find it. There's nothing really inappropriate and a lot of songs are just silly and cartoony Les Claypool stuff.
There’s nothing as crude as “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” on there.
“My Name is Mud” is about murdering somebody but it's not as bad as some of the other stuff that was coming out around that time. It felt wrong listening but the more I got into it, the more it grew into actual and legitimate appreciation for the songs. I was very into stuff like Blink-182 and Good Charlotte at the time and this felt just like a polar opposite thing from what I was into. Les Claypool is such a virtuosic bassist. You could put on a Bela Fleck album and listen to Victor Wooten but everything Claypool does is just so strange. I've seen Les Claypool probably more than any other artist.
Yeah, I went through a big phase in college where I saw him any time I could. I don’t find myself listening to them as much as I used to. There are bands where I went through a huge phase back then like Phish where now I’m kind of like, “how could I have ever enjoyed that?” The same goes for the pop-punk stuff. Even though Primus was one of those very important influences for me, they put out an album about goblins and I saw them live and I was like, “I think I need a little bit of a break.”
I’ve warmed up to them a bit more. I was just an asshole about bands in high school and now that I write about music, I’ve softened on a lot of bands I once hated.
I also went through a Frank Zappa phase which is another act where it's hard to find common ground with the version of me that really enjoyed that. But these bands that are weirdo rock, I feel like I have always kind of strived to write very strong songs that are catchy accessible music almost first and foremost, but then sneak the weirder elements in. That's the big influence with Primus. I still love components of what those guys do but I don't necessarily want to listen to five to 10 minutes of only that.
Recent TV: Paul T. Goldman (miniseries streaming on Peacock)
This show seems like a real head trip in the same way that The Rehearsal was.
Oh, totally man. The main reason I put this on is because of this guy Eric Notarnicola. He’s a writer on both The Rehearsal and Nathan For You and he directs a lot of On Cinema. I follow his work pretty closely and I saw him raving about Paul T. Goldman, which he also produced. It's very entertaining. It was kind of a blend of a lot of my favorite things: obviously Nathan Fielder but there are also some parallels with On Cinema which is one of my favorite shows. In On Cinema, Tim Heidecker is playing a fictionalized version of himself, a very oblivious, unaware person that sees themselves as an action hero. It's similar to what this guy, Paul Goldman, was doing in real life with these stories that he was writing, which kind of had an anchor in truth, and then he just totally went off into this crazy fan fiction direction. The other element of it that I really loved was that it reminded me of Windy City Heat. That's one of the funniest things to me ever. I love it so much. I think the similarities between this and Windy City Heat are almost more obvious than The Rehearsal. I loved the ending and it was very emotional: this is just a weird guy who wanted love and respect and attention. I’m sorry about speaking of it so vaguely and I’m sorry for picking so many things you’ve never seen before.
Don’t apologize: this is the ideal interview because I’m actually going to check out this stuff based on your recommendations. Watching the trailer, I have no idea what I’m getting into but it seems like a Secret Life of Walter Mitty-type dude in real life who gets in over his head.
You think you're walking into a true crime documentary that's getting to the bottom of this person who is defrauded by this other person but the deeper it goes, you realize this guy is way more interesting than this alleged crime that gets you hooked in the first place.
Recent Book: Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon (2012)
I’ve read this guy’s Substack before but never checked out this book. It seemed like it was everywhere for a while.
I honestly kind of had a hard time deciding whether I should stick it in formative or recent, because my dad got it for me at an airport about seven years ago. It's very short and bite-sized but it's just great advice. You can read it in an hour. It became my Bible a little bit as I was writing my first few records and putting together my first band and promoting shows. I still go back to it. Anytime I feel like I have writer's block, or am in a creative lull, I always go back to it. The overall premise is essentially that everything under the sun has been done and originality comes from you finding the confidence to say things in your voice.
How did you use it in your songwriting?
Talking about approaching a project, imagine you're gonna get all of your favorite creators in a room. You're creating the project with you leading the pack. I have very specific songs on my album Swords where I remember I used that exercise. I was like, "okay, I'm gonna sit down with Tom Waits, and Kurt Cobain and David Byrne and I'm gonna write a song." You can almost listen to it and hear it a little too much. You take these things that don't belong together, and you mash them together. It's a very cool outlook on the creative process. I lost my copy my dad got me on tour earlier last year, and I was really bummed about it but it's just one of those things where I highlighted almost every line in that copy.
There’s definitely a balance between becoming an amalgamation of your influences and also just straight ripping someone off but it is probably freeing to not feel like you have to have this divine contextless moment of inspiration.
Totally. If I was working on an album, I'm sitting down and these lyrics just pour out of me but then all of a sudden, I don't know where to go. Whatever just went through me has now left and I just gotta wait for it to come back. Sometimes that takes two, or three years. I literally have songs that have a four-year lifespan where I'm just waiting to be revisited by the muse. What this book talks about is that you’ve just got to do the work. The action of doing it is where it’ll come. You can't just sit around and hope that it's gonna fall into your lap perfectly formed. Songs on the Computer was me putting that into the practice of not second guessing myself, just making the thing, and putting it out as quickly as possible.
After reading some pieces about this book, I can imagine it probably pushed you to carve out your own niche writing comedy songs on the internet as well as pursuing more traditional songwriting.
I'm really glad you brought that up because I wouldn't have even thought about this. There's a specific chapter all about productive procrastination. I remember the whole reason I even ever worked at Super Deluxe was because of this unsolicited theme song I did for Vic Berger's Election Special with Tim Heidecker. I remember working on that unsolicited theme song that I stayed up all night doing and just feeling like an idiot. I was thinking, “I should be applying for jobs. I should be doing anything else right now. This is so stupid. My girlfriend would be so irritated that this is how I spent my time.” But it literally changed my life and gave me a career that I never dreamed I would have had. Talking about productive procrastination and whenever you feel like you hit a total block, and you just cannot work on the thing that you're working on any longer, rather than playing Skyrim for eight hours, which is something I used to do channel like it into something else that's creative. Make a puppet. Write a joke. Go work on another song. Then those things begin feeding each other those different avenues and outlets of creativity.
Recent Song: Peter Gabriel, “Playing For Time" (2023)
Not that this isn’t a great song but out of all your picks, this is the one that I found most surprising.
I'm kind of shocked as well that that's what I put. This is really the sad reality of it: I'm the dad of a two-year-old and all I listen to is The Wiggles and Elmo and Encanto. But Peter Gabriel has been one of my top guys for a really long time. He hasn't released an album of original songs since 2002. It's been a really long time. I was excited when he started releasing new music and I liked the first single. It took me a few times. I liked the second one as well. But with this third one, on first listen I thought it'd be a skip for me. But I was working on something and needed something to be playing in the background and I let it play over and over for a while. There's a very nostalgic feeling to it: some of the chord choices almost sound like a song I would have heard in church in the 90s which is funny because that's not something that's going to make me think "oh yes." But it had this eerie familiarity to it that it almost became a code I needed to crack as a song.
When did it click?
I did the dishes and it wasn't until maybe the 10th listen, I started weeping as I was listening to it. There's some context that I should add is my dad's dad is currently in hospice care. My dad has been spending a lot of time the last few weeks helping out with his dad who basically is suffering from kidney failure and cancer and dementia. He's just in a horrible state. As my dad is down there dealing with that, my mom's dad just died suddenly—just out of nowhere. I don't even know what from. My mom has been having major health issues and my dad helps out with my mom, and he's had to be down helping with his dad. My parents are having these issues, my grandparents were having these issues, and my wife and I, are really struggling with childcare. We're not sleeping well. It's an incredibly stressful time to get everything going.
That night before I did the dishes, I remember putting my daughter to bed. I remember feeling very stressed going through the motions reading her four or five books before I put her to bed. I'm reading the Sesame Street book that I read her every night and there's this page with the Honkers, the characters that honk their noses. As I’m about to turn the page, my daughter grabs my hand and pushes it to her nose. Subconsciously every night when I read that page, I'm like "Honk Honk" and I grab her nose. She's two and she was like, “wait a second, Dad, you're supposed to do this here." That feeling of like she's only ever going to be this age once. The song "Playing for Time” is just all about that to me. He said his point of view writing the song was coming at memory in the sense that everyone's mind is its own galaxy and it's about mortality and what you did with your time. It's a very complex, deeply philosophical song as I just had this moment with my daughter, and my dad is having these issues with his dad, and it really hit me in a really big way. I think the song I just released "Obituary" is very much about a lot of the same stuff. I hate to pretend like I'm on the same wavelength as Peter Gabriel but it just felt like he said a lot of what I was trying to get at from a very different approach. I was hesitant to pick that one but I was I really wanted to talk about something that has had some sort of effect on me in a real way.