It’s just over a minute into Nick Lutsko’s latest music video, and he’s already singing about the goblin people under Grandma’s home.
That’s when the song “#1 Hit on Country Radio” — already a bit askew — gets even weirder. Lutsko, performing in what appears to be a wood-paneled closet, sings, “I’m gonna wake up the men in the tunnels under Grandma’s house.” These “men,” as he’s explained in an earlier song, resemble former NRA TV hack and MAGA chud Dan Bongino.
Lutsko then lays out his plan to lure one of his enemies — Grandma’s new boyfriend, Mel — down there to find his missing exotic birds. The plan’s final stage involves a truckful of cement Lutsko’s able to afford thanks to his country music success. “And if I never see Mel again, well then that’s country music money well spent,” Lutsko sings. He is wearing a white cowboy hat and is extremely sweaty.
Lutsko is much drier when I catch up with him on Zoom. “Right now, it’s just been so fun doing things and having this immediate reaction and interaction with people that enjoy it,” he says. “Before, it was like, you spend years of your life and tons of money on a project, and you put it out having no idea who, or if, anyone is listening.”
It’s important to note that there exist two Nick Lutskos right now. There is Sane Nick: a very nice, 30-year-old Tennessean freelance commercial songwriter and father-to-be who patiently waited in a Zoom chat room for half an hour after I mixed up our interview time. That’s the Nick explaining his newfound viral fame to me.
Sane Nick writes his own songs, too, and before the pandemic, he frequently performed highly theatrical live shows. In 2019, he released his second album, Swords, a bouncy psych-pop rumination on the Trump era featuring lots of background horn sections. It’s really good and you should check it out, especially the live videos including a full puppet-people backing band. Lutsko’s 2020 goal was to land a booking agent and take his band’s intricate, spectacle-driven live shows on the road. Of course, these plans were foiled by the pandemic.
Then, for lack of a better term, there’s Basement Nick: a Trump-obsessed, Gremlins fanfic writer scheming to defeat his archnemesis, Jeff Bezos, while living in his maybe-missing grandmother’s subterranean storage room that he decorated with $100,000 worth of Spirit Halloween purchases. He writes very catchy songs, too, although the subject matter is more worrisome. “All I want for Christmas is a pardon from the president,” he sings on a seasonal plea to then-President Trump last December. “I didn’t do anything wrong, but the police are asking questions, and Grandma’s gone.”
As obsessed as Basement Nick is with presidential pardons, the men beneath Grandma’s house, rivalries with Bezos and Mel, and hawking his Gremlins 3 pitch (whose mock trailer centers on Desmond, the lovechild of Gizmo and Jennifer Aniston), I’ve been similarly obsessed with Lutsko’s work for the past few months. Seriously. It’s gotten so bad that my girlfriend forbade me from singing any of his songs aloud, particularly the ones involving Dan Bongino. Her attempt failed, mostly because she ultimately was unable to stop singing them herself.
Between the song hooks, Lutsko has found a way to address nearly everything awful in modern American life using a form of comedy most of us considered long obsolete. Apart from parody emeritus “Weird Al” Yankovic, no one really gets their music-based humor taken seriously these days. Either it’s got too earnest of an angle, the songs just aren’t good, or the whole thing is just plain hokey.
But, somehow, it works for Lutsko. A large portion of this recent viral success is owed to the songs themselves being so catchy that they border on torturous, a testament to the commercial songwriting program he majored in at Middle Tennessee State University.
“My biggest takeaway, from a songwriting aspect, was just learning everything that I didn’t want to do,” he says with a laugh. “How many seconds does it need to be before you get to the hook? What the ideal beats per minute would be if you’re making sure people driving to work at 7 a.m. aren’t changing the station.”
The songs themselves are so catchy that they border on torturous.
While Lutsko swears his college years’ consumerist musical theory doesn’t factor into his odes to MAGA boat parades or his public shaming of his cats for repeatedly pissing on his mattress, it certainly feels like some of those surgically sharpened melodies are still there.
What’s more, Basement Nick’s evolving tale is one of the most compelling, hilarious, and terrifying experimental storytelling projects found among the “extremely online” crowd, garnering attention and praise from comedians like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, along with the real, honest-to-God Spirit Halloween marketing team, which went so far as to commission Lutsko to write an official follow-up to an earlier Spirit Halloween–themed jingle.
Lutsko’s knack for genuine earworms and ridiculous humor has been an internet culture fixture for a few years now, even if most of us were unaware of his existence. Back in 2017, he composed an indie-folk ballad pastiche for the now-defunct online multimedia comedy outlet Super Deluxe. Doing his best Bon Iver impersonation, Lutsko performed an entire song with lyrics taken directly from Alex Jones, the unhinged conspiracy-theorizing InfoWars host.
Its accompanying music video immediately went viral among anyone familiar with the InfoWars universe — including Alex Jones himself, who later claimed Lutsko was an InfoWars plant all along (he wasn’t) and held a song cover contest on his show featuring $20,000 in prizes. “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,” Lutsko said in an interview late last year.
Lutsko wrote a number of other, similarly pitch-perfect genre and artist knockoffs using lines culled from similarly unwell major media personalities. Check out Kanye West as a Tame Impala song and President Trump gone emo. The entire time, however, Lutsko was behind the scenes.
Then in August 2020, Lutsko uploaded a goofy plea to superstar Chrissy Teigen, begging her to refollow him on Twitter after discovering she had dropped him from her chosen few. Once again, Lutsko’s surrealist subject matter, layered atop genuinely great music, went viral. According to Lutsko, Teigen eventually reached out claiming she wasn’t even aware she followed him in the first place. She unfortunately did not offer her opinion on the song itself. Eventually, though, she did refollow him.
In any case, unlike past instances with Super Deluxe, Lutsko was front and center in the video. Despite the pathetic groveling, he looks… pretty normal. Definitely not the sweaty mess he would devolve into for future videos.
A couple weeks after the Teigen tune, Lutkso wrote a song explaining away why Donald Trump “looks like shit” — it’s because, unlike celebrity “Satanic pedo scum,” he doesn’t “put baby blood against his lips.” Obviously. It also blew up on social media, and things simply spiraled from there. As of writing this, Lutsko is pushing 50,000 followers on Twitter, his primary outlet for distributing the new, surrealist storyline-in-song. A casual decision to make his new songs available on vinyl via Bandcamp raised nearly $15,000 in 24 hours; it's currently sitting at over $30,000 after its first week of fundraising.
“I love dumb humor, but I also am very frustrated by the state of things.”
This author’s unnecessarily close read of the Basement Nick oeuvre argues in favor of taking it all as a complex meta-story deconstructing QAnon-inspired lunacy, the hollowness of corporate songwriting, and the mind-deteriorating effects of social media. Lutsko, however, says he hasn’t given it much thought.
“I love dumb humor, but I also am very frustrated by the state of things,” he says. “I have been very intentionally making things up as I go. I feel like if I were to sit down and try to plan everything out, it just wouldn’t work. With this new collection of songs, I’ve given myself [time] limitations. There’s no opportunity to stop and think, ‘Is this melody too derivative?’ It’s really, in a lot of ways, just been the antithesis to what I’ve done before."
Knowing that, perhaps his ongoing Songs from the Computer series is not a critique of Hollywood's meticulously planned IP storylines and marketing strategies and the Disneyfication of pop culture? “I’m just going for the first idea, both lyrically and music-wise,” he says. “The minute I’m done editing a video, I export and upload to Twitter. There’s no buffer.” For example, in the span of 12 hours, Lutsko wrote and recorded his “official” RNC theme song and shot the video. He estimates the maximum time a new video has taken him was two days.
Lutsko now faces a problem: Where the hell does he go from here? After all, he’s been making and performing his own, personal music for years. Eventually, COVID-19’s social restraints will ease. He’ll land that booking agent and the accompanying tours. Can he reconcile his more sincere artistic aspirations with the spontaneous, stream-of-conscious viral fame?
“I have a ton to figure out,” he says. “I don’t know how any of that will go. It’s in a tricky place. Most people going to see me will probably know me from all these crazy videos on the internet. It’s going to have to be, like, a comedy show in addition to what we’ve been doing for the last however-many-years I’ve been performing with this band.”
Of course, this isn’t a horrible place to find yourself as an artist. In an era of very real Basement Nicks storming the U.S. Capitol and economic nihilists waging class war against hedge funders for the lulz, Lutsko's new project is resonating in strange, poignant ways. However unlikely or unplanned, these are the generational anthems we deserve — songs of mental instability, manic patriotism, celebrity worship, and the secrets still hiding in Donald Trump’s ass.