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Songs to Kill Society’s Giant Slugs

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By David Courter

he van sputtered along the 101, carrying its four tired, touring musicians, who were all ready to be home. A trash bag, overflowing with the spoils of the tour, sat in the middle of the van next to Nik Bartunek, whose bluish green eyes dart-

ed over the van, plotting. side of Nik, he always takes Suddenly the idea oc- things to the extreme.” (Ryan curs to Nik. “Hey Brian, I’m Blair, personal interview) gonna throw this trash bag out the window.” Brian, the band’s Nik Bartunek plays for keyboardist, responded de- a local band Picture Atlanfinitively with a firm, “no, you tic as a guitarist, vocalist, and won’t.” Met with this new dare, songwriter. Nik begins to write Nik grabbed songs with a fresh the trash bag approach every That’s one and chucked time. Whether he it out the winstarts with music, thing about dow, bringing Nik, he always lyrics, or melody, much delight to he writes a song takes things all of his bandwith a subject and to the exmates, excluda meaning that altreme. ing Brian. Ryan ways comes from Blair, the band’s what he is dwellbassist, recalls ing on in his mind. looking over his shoulder Although the beginnings of his and seeing trash rain upon ideas may be seemingly elerows of parked cop cars. “I mentary, such as “waking up in thought I would just be hit- the morning,” they can develop ting the side of a brick build- into concepts as complicated as ing,” Nik defended, “and lit- racism and sexual immorality. tering is bad,” he added. (Nik Through Picture Atlantic, Nik Bartunek, personal interview) uses his lyrics to encourage his “He got away with it,” Ryan young adult audience to think said, containing a chuck- about the way they themselves le, “But I guess that’s one view major social issues. “[I


want] some sort of.. feeling like I’m more expressive in my songs,” Nik says, leaning over to examine the copy of the show Arrested Development which was sitting among the rows of thick reference books and novels on his bookshelf. When Nik was growing up, many of the people around him didn’t think he would pursue music. While in elementary school Nik took up the violin, but, according to his mother, “didn’t seem to express a particular interest in it.” The most interest he ever displayed was jamming along to the songs that were being played on the radio. (Helen Bartunek, personal interview) One day, an 11-year-old Nik suddenly told his mother he wanted to play guitar. His mother, Helen, had the reaction that most mothers would have: “Gosh everybody plays the guitar do something different.” (Helen Bartunek,

personal interview) Nonetheless, Nik knew what he wanted, and in spite of having no money to pay for guitar lessons, taught himself how to play with the help of friends. Two years later, Nik stood in the locker-room of brookstone middle school, firing off Simpsons jokes to a crowd of laughing 8th graders. Among the crowd was Ryan Blair, who, throughout the year, became closer to Nik and bonded over a mutual desire to pursue music. The two of them formed a middle school band in which Nik was briefly the singer. ”At the time he wasn’t very good at singing to put it lightly, so we kicked him out of that band so I could sing, which is weird-- how things turned out.” (Ryan Blair, personal interview) But the two of them remained c l o s e friends, and in t h e i r sophomore year of h i g h school, N i k showed Ryan a d e m o of one of his

songs. “I was blown away by it,” Ryan recalls, “because I didn’t know that he had developed such a good voice, and the songwriting was good.” From there, Ryan and Nik spent a few years recording rough demos of songs using Ryan’s computer’s internal microphone. Soon after Nik and Ryan fostered a friendship in their music, his talent was recognized by Avery Burk, the lead singer of the band Corpus Collosum. Nik was playing open mic nights at barefoot coffee roasters, and after one of his performances, Avery, who ran the open mic, approached Nik and told him that he was really good, and began to compliment him from


there on out. “If there was one person that guided me in any way it probably was him,” Nik says, “because a lot of times I was just playing shows on my own and had to learn things from scratch.” (Nik Bartunek, personal interview) In 2009, Ryan Blair and two other guys formed the band Picture Atlantic, and brought Nik on as the vocalist. Since then, Nik has been given the opportunity to write his own songs, starting with their first full length album Kleos, and sing the way he wants to sing. When Nik writes his songs, he’ll sometimes play them for his mother, Helen:

“Sometimes she’d say ‘eh it’s not really my thing,’ which was really good actually, cause in a very soft, careful way it sort of got me ready for criticism, heavy criticism, which was really helpful.” For Nik, this heavy criticism came in 2012, after t h e release of Digital Tension. “Spec i f ically, there was one song on the album called Regina, which deals with the concept of racism and how racism is very, very, very much alive in this country, ” Nik tells me definitively, “[which] people are afraid to talk about because they say, oh, Martin Luther King came and everything is fixed.” (Nik Bartunek, personal interview) A few months after writing this song, Nik leaned forward in his chair, his fingers fluttering around the spacebar and arrow keys, the clicks of the mouse being heard from the nearby living room. Somewhat reluctantly, Nik turned away from his online gaming to open up the bands facebook page, checking for messages from fans or perhaps a person looking to book a show. Instead he found the angry words of a listener ex-

claiming that Picture Atlantic, and Nik, were racists, and they were accusing their fans of being racist too. Nik froze, a pit forming in his stomach, paralyzed by a shock that he could have elicited such a response from someone with his music. “I’ve always lived this very safe life, someone may have called me a jerk but no one ever attacked my character,” Nik admits, “and that just felt bad. Being called a racist felt terrible… I hate racism, I am not a racist.” (Nik Bartunek, personal interview) Minutes passed, and Nik still sat, looking at the comment, until his eyes were drawn to the onslaught of Picture Atlantic fans defending his song. The sink-


ing feeling ceased, and, content with the loyalty of his fans, Nik rolled his eyes at the hate mail, turned back to his game, and destroyed more giant slugs. Nik stopped his guitar, his hand muting his strings, he leaned toward his Mic, and smiled as he looked towards Ryan playing a smooth bassline. “Ryan Blair on bass, everyone!” Nik proudly tells the crowd, shifts his body to gesture his open hand towards Daniel, whose arms flurried between the snare and tom drums, and leg stomped rhythmically on the bassdrum pedal. “Daniel Hernandez on drums!” Brian stood stoic, calmly moving his hands to the next key, his face revealing no emotion. “Brian Graves on keys!” Nik almost passes over himself, quickly muttering “My name is Nik, and we are Picture Atlantic.” In any case, Nik’s lyrics will continue to inspire his devoted fans; he will undoubtedly continue to write songs about the immorality of wild sex and the problems of racism, but no matter the subject, the song may begin with Nik waking up saying “Hey, it would be really cool to write a song about drinking a cup of hot chocolate.”

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