INTERVIEW: Fred Armisen on his journey from music to comedy and back

The new Late Night bandleader talks the inspirations behind Hometown Heroes and his favourite current bands.

- Feb 12, 2014

"Better than ever."

A week later, those words, spoken by Fred Armisen during the awkward pre-interview chatter, have taken on a whole new meaning. I called the Portlandia star to talk music, but he neglected to mention his biggest piece of music news: that, in a few days, he'd be announced as the band leader and curator for the upcoming Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Instead, our conversation focused on his upcoming Hometown Heroes seven-inch series for illustrious indie label Drag City. Each single brings a pair of fictional bands from Armisen's Saturday Night Live days, presented as obscure one-hit wonders from local scenes of the past. Recorded with an all-star list of collaborators - Fugazi's Brandan Canty, Helium/Wild Flag's Mary Timony... Bryan Cranston - the series is one of many hints that Seth Meyers made a genius choice.

Fred Armisen's Guide to Music and SXSW 1998

He may be known primarily as a comedian, but Fred Armisen has music cred that reaches much farther than his comedy partnership with Carrie Brownstein. He actually began in music first, as a drummer in the post-hardcore band Trenchmouth. His comedy career began almost as an accident, via a set of comedy sketches at SXSW in the '90s. So it's no surprise that a conversation with Armisen is like a dive through a verbal record bin, unearthing references to bands from all over music history. Just as it's hard to imagine Jimmy Fallon without The Roots, it wouldn't be a shock to see Armisen and his 8G band (with members of Les Savy Fav and Girls Against Boys) become a late night institution.

Read our sprawling three-part interview with Fred Armisen below: a general talk about music, comedy and local scenes followed by a guide to the bands that inspired the first two Hometown Heroes (The first installment, with The Blue Jean Committee and The Fingerlings, is out on February 18), and finally a list of five of his favourite current bands. Don't be shocked to see some of them pop up on your TV screen at 1:25am in the coming months.


It's interesting that you took a back door route from music to comedy, and now you're taking a back door route from comedy back into music.

I know! And it goes to show that you never know. I try to plan things and I try to make my life a certain way and things have a life of their own. But that’s a nice thing.

What is it about obscure local bands that appeal to you?

Trenchmouth "i Friction!" live @ Emo's 1992

Trenchmouth, my former band,  toured all over Canada. The audiences there were so great to us. And I noticed that when we played some place like Regina or Calgary or Saskatoon, there were these local bands that just had total support. They were totally original and totally great, but I maybe wouldn't have known them otherwise. You roll into some bar you’ve never been to, and then there’s the band that everybody loves opening up. I’m a fan of things that seem supportive. There's something nice about people really liking and championing their hometown bands.

Hometown Heroes had its genesis in scattered sketches from your time at Saturday Night Live. Did you always envision it as a series, or did they just all happen to share that common DNA?

I think a little of both. I like the idea in sketches of artists or bands who are in either a foreign environment or a perfectly suited environment, without so much of a punchline, without much of a joke. It’s more like texture. For me that’s just always worked and SNL was kind enough to let me do it. It’s a little risky because there's no catch phrase or anything like that.

I can imagine that's easier to pitch to Drag City than SNL.

It says a lot about Lorne Michaels that he trusts it enough to put it on the air. You can’t campaign too get something on SNL. You’ve got the audience to answer to, so it’s sort of uncool to say "Hey, I’m going to convince you to put this on." It doesn’t really work that way. All I could do was write the song, perform it, hope that the costumes are good, that the sound is good, and then hope for the best. That said, something like "Massachusetts Afternoon" is very strongly influenced by music that was on Saturday Night Live in the ‘70s. I never talked to Lorne about this, but I assume that he knew what this was all about. He knew what this was supposed to be.

And then I always knew that somewhere down the line I’d get to do more of it. It’s a whole world. Because the bands aren’t just the bands, it’s everything around them.

There have been a lot of wringing think pieces lately about the death of local scenes, because a band that may have lived and died with a single obscure seven-inch can now post it online and see it posted on a bunch of blogs the next day. It's not as self-contained. Do you think that no longer exists?

with some friends

I think some of it will always exist. It always has existed. Whenever these scenes die out, which they do, I don’t see it as a bad thing. Everything has its own lifecycle and then something pops up somewhere else. So I don’t romanticize it in that I wish it all stayed alive. It’s kind of nice that it happens to exist everywhere, and in tiny microcosms. If the fact that bands nowadays can get lifted on Stereogum that means these local bands can go out into the world? Ah, I love it. What a cool thing. It’s like going from the Pony Express to the highway. I think that’ll just get better and better.

We don't get Hulu in Canada, so the original SNL sketches can be hard to find here. In a way, these records will actually be how the songs are preserved.

Oh, that’s great, great news. My hope is that someone will find these records in a couple of years and mistake them for the real thing. Without any context. They'll think "who are these bands?" I want it to seem real. I want it to seem authentic, like it’s the real thing.

Do you have any plans of touring these?

In my fantasies, yes. I wish there was a way to just do one show of each band. So I can do a Blue Jean Committee show, say, in Northampton, or The Fingerlings in England. Might be nice to do little one-offs here and there.


The inspirations behind Fred Armisen's Hometown Heroes

The Blue Jean Committee, “Massachusetts Afternoon” 

A friend of mine brought me to this jazz charity show in New York City. This guy played this song on the piano and it was really romantic. It was a song called "Louisiana Afternoon." I don’t know why I thought this, but I thought "what’s the opposite?" A word that doesn’t flow as easily as Louisiana. I thought Massachusetts sounded right, and there’s something about Northampton. I like the idea of a city in a state that isn’t the one that everybody knows.

The style is inspired by Rickie Lee Jones. She has this way of sort of singing these lyrics that don’t necessarily rhyme, there’s a lot of talking, and a lot of words in a measure or a line. I was like, wow, that’s something that people don’t do very often anymore. What is that? That’s where that came from. Songs like "Reelin' in the Years" by Steely Dan and "The Boys Are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy.

I don’t hear it very much nowadays. There’s one artist, actually, who I hear it a little bit and that’s Eleanor Friedberger. I feel like Parquet Courts do a bit of it too, but it’s more New York style - not as many words. They’re a little more fuel efficient.

The Fingerlings, "Embrace Me"

When you look back at the ‘80s, I feel like they always give you all the cold synth bands, all the stuff that was sort of robotic. But Soft Cell and Marc Almond were actually very emotional, very dramatic. I wanted to look into that. Not the robot stuff we all know, but those almost torch singer, really dramatic singers with synthesizers backing them up.

With the costumes, too, I didn’t want to do like the regular New Wave thing (not that I designed it - I give all credit to the costume department). There was something that was happening in the early ‘80s where bands like Ultravox wore these long trench coats. For some reason they were into film noir. So this single and that sketch are sort of retro to the early ‘80s, but the early ‘80s are sort of retro to the ‘40s. Like they’re spies from World War II or something.

The Bjelland Brothers, "Sparkling Apple Juice"

This one was actually inspired by Bill Callahan. There’s a way that he repeats lyrics that I just love, so just to take it further for SNL I wanted to do a song that only has one lyric that repeats. It’s like Bill Callahan times ten.

And then I like the idea of two singers with two microphones, no instruments. You don’t see a lot of that. They had it a bit in music history, or in pop music history there’s been a couple. But the singer who doesn’t play and instrument, he just holds the microphone. There’s something so weird about that. Like, what is that? So it's a couple of brothers, and that's what they do. They don’t play, they just sing.

A Taste of New York

I wanted to capture - I can’t believe I’m using the word capture, I’m so pretentious - the wrong band at a venue. So it's a tourist at a hotel in New York City, but the band that they see is from the Lower East Side and they’re junkies. I like that New York thing where they sing about street people and hustlers and dealers. You know, broken glass and concrete. Lou Reed did it a lot. The Velvet Underground, that kind of thing.


Fred Armisen's Favourite Current Bands

Frankie Rose:

Frankie Rose - Night Swim (Official Music Video)

Au Revoir Simone:

Au Revoir Simone - Somebody Who (Official Music Video)

Parquet Courts:

Parquet Courts - Stoned and Starving

Real Estate:

Real Estate - Talking Backwards (Official Video)

HAIM:

HAIM - The Wire

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