Chattanooga’s Nick Lutsko is one of those rare performers whose vision refuses to be held captive by the limits of a single genre, nor even a single artistic medium. His live shows include a remarkably diverse yet also remarkably seamless mixture of folk, rock, prog, classic pop, electronica, psychedelia, and puppetry.
Puppetry??? That’s right. When Lutsko takes the stage, he’s surrounded by three bandmates — they’re still working out a proper band name, he says, though “Nick Lutsko and the Figure Heads” is the early favorite — dressed in what can best be described as elaborate homemade Muppet costumes, the three of them coming off like Oscar and Elmo’s weird, acid-dropping boho cousins.
Needless to say, it’s kind of a long story. A big Jim Henson fan from early childhood, Lutsko tells that he began playing with puppetry during his college years, studying as a commercial songwriting major at Middle Tennessee State University. So when it came time to make a video for “Predator,” a single off Lutsko’s second self-released solo project Etc., he decided to mix mediums, creating an array of goofy puppet critters to provide appropriate visual accompaniment for the song.
“I like to call it ‘punk-rock puppetry’,” Lutsko says of his crude but effective puppet methodologies. “I just mess around with a hot glue gun until it looks good.”
Lutsko’s 2014 debut Heart of Mold was a relatively spare recording, a more traditional singer-songwriter affair rooted in folk and Americana. Last year’s Etc., though, was an entirely more complicated beast, a crazy quilt of rock and pop styles further colored by Lutsko’s pleasantly goofy worldview.
Lutsko had played all the instruments on both his records, and handled production chores as well. But to play the music on Etc. in a live setting, he knew he would need a full band onstage, and maybe something more.
“I’d gotten my band together, and I started joking around at a rehearsal,” he says. “I said, wouldn’t it be funny if we could capture the feel of the ‘Predator’ video onstage, and that the best way to do that would be with puppet costumes. And my drummer said, ‘If you make me a puppet costume, I will wear it.'”
Lutsko admits it’s a gimmick, and it would be easy to dismiss the band as a mere novelty act. That is, until you’ve witnessed one of Lutsko’s entertainingly loopy live shows, or else given a good hard listen to the music of Etc.
“It’s hard to put one label on it,” Lutsko says. “One journalist described it as ‘Pee-wee Herman hosting the Beatles at his Playhouse.’ We like to call it ‘progressive pop,’ because you can still get the songs the songs stuck in your head, even though there are psychedelic and experimental undertones.
“With the puppets, people know right out of the gates they’re seeing something different,” he says. “That it’s not going to be the usual musical experience. Then they hear music that shifts from blues to funk to electronic. We like to keep it fun by keeping people on their toes.”
Nick Lutsko will play Funny Ears Fringe Festival April 1 and 2 at Scruffy City Hall.