Everyone knows (and loves) funnyman Fred Armisen from Portlandia and SNL but few know how he got there. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, kid. How do you get to Portlandia? Trenchmouth. MAGNET goes to 30 Rock to walk a mile in the wing tips of The Nicest Man In Show Business and untangle his punk rock roots
By Jonathan Valania
“Do you have Questlove’s cellphone number?” Beyonce’s drummer asks nobody in particular. She twists around from her perch in the front seat of a black Escalade that NBC has sent to ferry us from a downtown Manhattan rehearsal studio to the storied Art Deco tower of power that is 30 Rock, and looks around to her bandmates in The 8G Band seated in the rows behind her — keyboardist Eli Janney, formerly of indie heartthrobs Girls Vs Boys; bassist Syd Butler and guitarist Seth Jabour, both formerly of indie iconoclasts Les Savy Fav; guitarist/bandleader Fred Armisen, formerly of Trenchmouth and SNL and currently Portlandia.
Everyone but Fred Armisen gives her that ‘How the fuck would I have Questlove’s phone number?’ look. You know that look. You probably give that look a hundred times a day without even thinking about it. We all do. But not Fred Armisen. Fred Armisen actually has Questlove’s phone number. Fred Armisen, as I will learn over the course of the coming weeks, has EVERYONE’s number. He shoots her a look that is half sheepish, half inquisitive and then asks her the question he already knows the answer to: “Yeah, do you want it?”
“Uh, yeah,” says Beyonce’s drummer (real name: Kimberly Thompson), who is, just to be clear, also The G8 Band’s drummer. “He just Instagrammed me and told me to call him.” Fred pulls out his iPhone and texts her the Roots’ drummers digits and..the elite circle of show biz connectivity remains unbroken and, as it must, the show goes on.
When we get to 30 Rock, the band rides the elevator up to the 8th floor, disembarks at Studio 8G, and after an hour in hair, make-up and wardrobe, takes up their positions on the bandstand of the set of Late Night With Seth Meyers. By now it’s 5 PM on the first Thursday of April and dress rehearsal for tonight’s taping has just gotten under way. They work through the songs that will score the arrival and departure of tonight’s sundry guests: a clear-eyed Bob Costas who will, upon his departure, walk over to Fred and do that prayer-handed Buddhist bow that signifies respect and due deference in show biz; a delightfully dastardly Steve Coogan, who will roll a disturbingly funny clip from the Alan Partridge film he has come to plug in which, long story short, he winds up naked with his junk tucked between his legs like Buffalo Bill in Silence Of The Lambs; and the exotic animal wrangling Kratt Brothers who have come bearing a Burmese python, a kangaroo and a lemur, all of which will slither, jump, strangle, crawl and possibly defecate all over Seth, as is the tradition established a long time ago in a basic cable galaxy far, far away by Johnny Carson, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of American Talk Shows. When rehearsal wraps, the studio audience is ushered to their seats and after the standard off-camera warm-up/pep talk from a stand-up comedian, the taping of the 27th episode of the first, but hopefully not last, season of Late Night With Seth Meyers begins.
Fred and The 8G Band launch into the show’s opening nouveau New Wave-esque theme song over a jittery montage of Manhattan twinkling after dark — taxi cabs! neon signs! people on sidewalks! — as the announcer blurts out tonight’s guests in that stereotypical stentorian talk show announcer cadence before introducing the man of the hour, smart aleck-y fallen preppie, looks-like-the-guy-who-took-your-sister-to-the-prom Seth Meyers who makes his entrance to the deafening cheers of APPLAUSE-sign-triggered Midwestern tourist adulation.
The first thing you notice about Seth Meyers — in person and stripped of SNL’s Weekend Update desk and dressed as he is tonight in a fitted, slim-cut, two-button, two-piece charcoal suit — is that he has thicker thighs than you would expect from a man so petite from the waist up. Dude has quads the size of Easter hams, an anatomical fact that will surely serve him well in a job that is all about standing up and sitting down and standing up again. All day, every day. As per the unshakeable dictates of talk show orthodoxy, he monologues, somewhat mirthlessly it should be noted, on the newsmakers of the nano-moment: Putin, Blackberry, Beyonce. Then he tosses it over to Fred and The 8G Band who launch into one of those strummy, cymbals-sizzling interstitial rave-ups that mark every transition in the stations of the talk show cross as Meyers takes a seat behind the desk.
At this point in the show Seth and Fred do a recurring sketch called Fred Talks, their take on the obligatory talk show host/band leader banter — you know, Johnny to Doc, Dave to Paul, Jimmy to Questlove — which invariably involves and incredulous Seth calling bullshit on some ludicrous claim that he’s allegedly overheard Fred making backstage. Seth informs Fred that he’s done some asking around and some Googling and it turns out the following things that Fred has told him all week during this segment are patently false: Fred did NOT open a theme park in Arizona called Clayland, nor did he invent a ‘hot new dessert’ called Water Indulgence, i.e. a bowl of water, nor did he open a new spa that is basically a miniaturized version of the suburbs of Chicago, which is somehow ‘very calming’ and restorative. Fred just smiles serenely, untroubled by this intrusion of fact-based, objective reality — as if to say he’s used to it, he gets this all the time — because, after all, he is the hard-earned beneficiary of the New Normal in show biz, which is this: When all good 40something indie-rockers die, they go to Late Night Talk Show Band heaven.
Plus, he’s got tickets to see Kraftwerk tonight.
We meet again a few days later in the hot, dark, cramped, confines of his newly-leased one-bedroom apartment on the fifth floor of a luxury high-rise in Chelsea. This is one of three Chez Armisens spanning the left and right coasts of flyover country, along with a recently purchased home in Los Angeles (a $763,000 three-bedroom, two-bathroom hillside perch in Silver Lake) and an apartment in Portland. None of which are, sad to say, his dream house, which would be more like the Addams Family abode. “My fantasy is to have a house where the backyard is a graveyard,” says Fred. “I just love Dracula, and bats, and graves, and stuff. Love it — I love it! It makes me feel really good. I love all that stuff.”
He only moved in to his new New York digs a few days ago so there is no furniture, just the sprawling clutter of unpacked boxes. Any and all freestanding space is currently occupied by his publicist, two photo assistants and the photographer who is shooting Fred for this story. The weirdness factor is upped to David Lynchian heights by the fact that the photographer is insisting on shooting Fred seated on a chair in total darkness, illuminated intermittently by the flashbulb’s stuttering, blinding white slo-mo strobing effect. Again, Fred just smiles serenely. Like he’s just pulling another shift in the dream factory. Sure beats working for a living.
An hour or so later we decamp to the apartment building’s stylish retro-moderne lobby for a proper conversation and begin the begin with a thorough deconstruction of his unusual pedigree. Fred Armisen was born Fereydun Robert Armisen on December 4th, 1966 in, of all places, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It was there that his mother, who is Venezuelan, met his father who is half German and half Japanese while they were both attending the University of Southern Mississippi. In 1941, Fred’s paternal grandmother, a German national named Gabriela, conceived Fred’s father out of wedlock with a famous itinerant Japanese choreographer named Masami Kuni, who was, to hear Fred tell it, impregnating his way across war-torn Europe. At the time, Gabriela was married to a man named Armisen. Hence the surname. By the time Fred’s father was born, Masami Kuni was gone and Gabriela was dating an Iranian who insisted on naming her child Fereydun, and then Fred took his father’s name. When Fred was 10, both he and his father legally changed their first name to Fred because everyone called them that anyway.
Upon graduation, Fred’s father got a job with IBM and moved the family to New York — first Manhattan, then Bayside Queens and, by the time Fred entered kindergarten, Valley Stream, Long Island. Valley Stream’s other soon-to-be-famous son is Steve Buscemi, who is 10 years older than Fred. Although Fred was friendly with Buscemi’s younger brother, Steve and Fred would not become friends until they were both well-established in the entertainment business. However, Fred did make one important friendship his first year of school, with a boy named Wayne Montana. Years later Fred and Wayne would form a band called Trenchmouth, but that’s getting ahead of the game.
First came Rio. “When I was in first grade, my father got transferred to Brazil so we moved to Rio de Janeiro,” says Armisen. “That where I first got exposed to the Beatles and stuff like that. My mom introduced me to that music. There was also a lot of Brazilian music around. I was very blown away by samba music, and the drummers, because there were these parades of drummers. Then when we came back to New York when I was in fourth grade, I took drum lessons.”
Fast forward to age 14, Fred meets one Kenny Young, who turns him onto punk which would prove to be a completely transformational experience. In short order he bought: Strawberries by The Damned; The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle by the Sex Pistols; End Of The Century by The Ramones; Sandinista by The Clash; Eat To The Beat by Blondie. Then came Devo, and Kraftwerk and the Dead Kennedys. Fred Armisen had found his tribe. Soon he had mohawk and looks, in pictures from that time, like a young Pat Smear. For a short time, Kenny and Fred had a hardcore band called KGB. “Kenny introducing me to punk made me who I am,” says Fred. “To me punk isn’t just a little affectation — it informs everything I do today. I don’t mean to make this such a serious interview, but punk will always be part of what I do in every aspect of my life, and I don’t mean it like I’ll always wear like black clothing, but in my heart, it will always live on in me, and Kenny was the one that got me into it. So, he’ll always be a part of it.”
FRED ARMISEN: So, [showing me a picture on his phone] this is him and me when we were 14. [showing me another picture] This is us a year ago, when we met up again.
MAGNET: Oh, that’s cool. What is he up to these days?
FRED ARMISEN: Well, yesterday I had to go to the coroner’s office of New York to go identify his body. He had addiction problems for years, and even though he meant a lot to me, he drifted in and out of my life and I had a lot of affection for him but I was in no place to tell him what to do or how to do it. He struggled with it, he would get sober for a while, and all his old friends were cautiously supportive but then he would disappear sometimes. On Thursday after we taped the show you came to, I found out they found his body. He had no family. Kenny was always worried he was going to end up in Potter’s Field. So, [me and his other friends] said ‘We can’t let that happen.’ So, we’re still in the middle of it, but we’re going to make sure he gets a proper burial. Sorry, I didn’t mean to make this story sad, but it is sad. It’s strange that we’re here talking about it, but that is what I did yesterday.
When Fred was 20 years old he enrolled in The School Of Visual Arts with the express purpose of finding people to form a band with. It was there that he met future Trenchmouth singer Damon Locks, an illustration major who’d cut his teeth in the DC punk scene. “I remember Fred telling me ‘I saw this guy my Art History class who’s got red dreadlocks and he had a leather jacket that has [The Damned’s] Machine Gun Etiquette painted on the back’ — like one of our all time favorite punk records,” says Wayne Montana. “So I was like ‘Oh man lets get him,’ and Fred was like ‘I’ll just ask him.’ And he said ‘yeah,’ and that was the beginning of us making music.”
There was a bit of a culture clash at first, but all parties soon embraced their differences. “D.C had this super tight music scene with Dischord Records — Ignition, 9353, Government Issued, that’s what I was listening to back then,” says Locks. “I would go up to Long Island with [Fred and Wayne], and everyone was super into the Who, Led Zeppelin, and then British Punk. I would eat at Taco Bell with those guys and be like ‘Yeah I am not familiar with classic rock.’ So it was a fun time period of getting to know a whole different thing. Fred was very heavily into Devo and Prince and I had no Devo background.”
Although Fred went to art school to score band members, it’s not that he was without talent. “He majored in film but he could draw caricatures of people within only a few lines,” says Locks. “He had this amazing ability to do a caricature of a person with just like ‘here’s a big nose and a couple eyebrows.’ And you are like ‘That totally looks like that person!’ I was fascinated that he could catch the essence of what someone looked like without a whole lot of drawing talent.” This innate talent that would come in handy in a few years.
One day Locks announced that he was transferring to the Art Institute of Chicago, it was nothing personal, he just wasn’t feeling the curriculum. And then he was gone. “One night Fred and I were hanging out, and he was like ‘Theres not much going on in New York for either of us, we should move to Chicago’,” says Montana. “I was like, ‘I can’t move to Chicago.’ And he was like ‘Why not?’ And I sat there for a minute or two and I was like ‘Yeah, why not?’ A couple weeks later, we rented a U-haul, packed a bunch of junk and drove across country. And the funny thing was we had never been to Chicago when we moved here. All we had were a few conversations with Damon when he was like ‘Yeah it’s cool here.’ And that’s what we based that huge life change on.”
After settling into Chicago they started getting serious about the band, gigging around town and running through a couple guitarists in as many years before the line up solidified with the addition of Chris DeZutter on guitar. At this point, the band’s sound was a cross between the funky angularity of Gang Of Four, fearless-sometimes-foolish genre-splicing of the The Minutemen and the aggro roar of Fugazi. Now all they needed was a name. And it was at this point that the band made two strategic errors for any band that wants to be popular and have it’s punk cred, too:
1) They declared war on the obvious, and in the process would render themselves too hip for any room. This might sound like a good thing but it’s not if you want to get paid, like, anything. Gas. Tolls. A fucking gas station corndog. If you want your all your sweat and toil to at least pay off in corn dogs, avoid oblique strategies.
2) They decided to call the band Trenchmouth. That’s like calling your band Gonorrhea — it doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re doomed. No band called Gonorrhea will ever be anyone’s favorite band. And to be popular you have to be somebody’s favorite band. A shit ton of somebodies, to be exact.
“We all spent time throwing names out at band practice and I think Trenchmouth was the only name everybody didn’t hate,” says Locks. “That’s how I remembered it like nobody had a good reason not to be named Trenchmouth.” A band name is like a tattoo, you only get one shot at it. ‘I hate it the least’ is a terrible criteria for choosing a tattoo. “We didn’t even know it was a disease at the time,” says Montana. “It was well after the fact that somebody bothered to look it up.”
According to the Mayo Clinic:
Trench mouth is a severe form of gingivitis that causes painful, infected, bleeding gums and ulcerations. Trench mouth, also known as necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis (NUG), earned its nickname because of its prevalence among soldiers who were stuck in the trenches during World War I without the means to properly take care of their teeth. Trench mouth is not contagious.
Unfortunately for for all involved, neither was the Trenchmouth. From 1991 to 1994 there were four albums that generated a lot of faint praise and modest sales. Very modest. “We were very dissonant, admittedly we were very difficult for an audience to pick up on and find out the beat,” says Fred. “But suddenly all of these other bands started to become bigger around us — faster than us. At first, they were poppy, right? Smashing Pumpkins, Veruca Salt, Liz Phair. Okay. We make dissonant punk music — I get it. Then, Jesus Lizard — they’re pretty dissonant. Meanwhile we were not playing to too many people, and I thought ‘This is becoming a little tiresome that all these other bands are getting big audiences, and going out to Europe.’ The final straw was the Tortoise became huge. Remember Tortoise?”
Vaunted Chicago muso (Big Black, Shellac) and recordist (Nirvana, Jesus Lizard) Steve Albini, who was, for a time anyway, the pope of Midwest punk and a pitiless arbiter of indie cred, was not a fan. When asked why he thinks Trenchmouth never broke out of the Chicago scene he said this:
“Because they were awful and they toiled in Chicago and DC, two places overrun with much more interesting bands at the time. If they had been in Decatur or Ottumwa I’m sure they would have been local legends and widely regarded as a lost treasure.”
And Steve Albini is Fred Armisen’s friend.
All that being said, from the Trenchmouth years comes three of the best Fred Armisen stories you will ever hear. Everyone I spoke with agree that Fred’s on-camera persona as the nicest man in show business is only a slightly exaggerated version of the off-camera Fred Armisen. He’s just like what you see on TV except he swears occasionally. The beauty of the following stories is that they are rare public instances of Fred Armisen losing his temper, but here’s the thing, every time it’s for a righteous cause. Like The Standells always said: Sometimes good guys don’t wear white.
- The West Coast Tour Hoax Wallet Toss Payback Manuever
“There was this one time where we were leaving for a tour in Canada and on the way up there we met this guy in Minneapolis who booking us some U.S. West Coast dates after the Canadian leg,” says Locks. “He got in the van for a while and he had all these printouts and itineraries about the tour dates. When we were in Canada we found his wallet in the van, it must have fallen out of his pocket. So the plan was we would mail it back to him when crossed the border back to the U.S. But when we got out to the West Coast it turned out that all the dates had fallen through and everybody hated this guy. He had not gotten back to all these people blah blah blah. We were like ‘Fuck, we were counting on that money to get us home why would he fuck us like this?’ So we were in the middle of nowhere — somewhere between Vancouver to Seattle — when we found out. Fred said ‘Let me see the wallet’ and he took the fucking wallet and threw it out the window.”
- You Can’t Treat Trenchmouth Fans Like This And Get Away With It
“Trenchmouth was playing a show at the Metro in Chicago, and this kid who came to the show came up to us afterwards and was like ‘You guys are great, is there anyway you could give me a ride somewhere?’” says Locks. “We were like ‘Sure, whats up?’ and he said ‘I drove my mom’s car here and it got towed.’ So we got in the van with this kid and drove up to the tow lot and Fred went in with him to find this kid’s car. When they got there they saw that the tow truck driver had totally fucked up his mom’s car with a big scratch on one side. And the tow truck guy was like ‘Tough shit, what are you gonna do about it?’ So they’re walking back to the van and the kid was so bummed out that Fred took his key and keyed the entire side of the tow truck. And then they jumped in the van and Fred was like ‘Go, go, go!’ Which I also thought was awesome.”
- The Great Polish Train Ride Clock-Kicking Fiasco
“I would have to say our most infamous Trenchmouth moment was on our last tour when we were playing a squat in East Berlin,” says Locks. “It was an all night show that was really weird and kind of creepy, nobody spoke English, the place stunk of kerosene because they used torches to light the place and we wound up not going on until three in the morning. There were all these firespinners and firebreathers — mind you this was in a small cramped basement — and the crowd would part and these guys would blow this long plume of fire at the stage while we were playing. The flames were so close you could actually feel the heat on your face. Fred was like, ‘This is what monsters do when nobody is watching.’ So then we had to sleep in an abandoned building with no heat and it was freezing cold. The next day, because it was the end of the tour, we had to get on a train to Poland to fly home. When we got on the train with all our gear and there were all these people in our car that were shoving all these boxes filled with these cheap-ass-looking granfather clocks into every available compartment and seat and, again nobody speaks English, so we didn’t know what the fuck was going on. And when we pulled into the station we asked them if this was Warsaw and they lied to us and said ‘No’ but we figured out it actually was Warsaw and we were trying to leave and these people pulled down all the boxes off the shelves and overhead compartments and so all of the aisles were filled with these boxes and so we couldn’t get off the train. And if we missed this stop then we would miss our flight because the next stop was like three hours away. When we were trying to get out with all our equipment and we asked them to move the boxes and they just pretended like they didn’t hear us. So we’re getting a little desperate and Fred just started kicking their boxes out of the way. And we got off the train and caught our flight. I remember coming home with literally four dollars in my pocket.”
In 1995, Trenchmouth released the dub-inflected The Broadcasting System, which was both the best album they ever made and the last. “The Broadcasting System is a huge departure from all of our other records, stylistically, and it was something that was like really important to me and Damon,” says Montana. “During the writing process both Chris and Fred were less involved and when it came time to do the recording session you know there was a couple times when those guys didn’t even show up. But when that record came out and blew a lot of people away, people really loved it, and it’s a beautiful sounding record.” Still, for all intents and purposes, Trenchmouth was a dead band walking. The final straw was a disastrous and dispiriting West Coast tour. “We were playing these shows and I got really sick of all of these kids with leather jackets that said Green Day and Rancid on the back walking out of our shows,” says Locks. “Suddenly what we were doing did not fit within the narrow parameters of what was being represented as punk on MTV That was a discouraging thing to see people who looked like punk rockers were walking out of our shows and we were like ‘Trenchmouth is not considered a punk band anymore. The general population has an idea of what punk is and it’s not what we were doing.’ I remember the last show there was literally only one kid left, he was dressed in black and he had long greasy blonde hair and pimples — so we just gave him a bunch of free merchandise and loaded up the van. That was a moment when we were like ‘This isn’t working.’”
Back in Chicago a band meeting was called to decide how or even if to proceed. “I think Fred kind of set the ball rolling, he said he wasn’t sure if the music was special enough and he felt like we weren’t getting enough recognition and he was like ‘I want to be famous, I want to have this thing propel us further’,” says Montana.
“I said ‘Well you might want to do something else because obviously this is as far as this collection of people are going to get’,” says Locks. And so he did. Locks and Montana went on to form The Eternals, which picked up where The Broadcast System left off, exploring a wider palette of sounds, tones and tempos, and released five albums from 2000 to 2011. They are still operational. DeStutter went back to school and became a brain scientist.
Fred took a job as the house drummer for the Chicago production of Blue Man Group. This gave him a window onto a different world — a world where the performers actually try to please the audience and the audience likes it that way. He’d always been a cut-up and cracked jokes from behind the drum kit during Trenchmouth shows and would have his bandmates in stitches with non-PC impressions of the mentally disabled and clueless German ex-pats during the endless van rides between shows. Now he began honing his changeling act — one part Jerry Lewis, one part Peter Sellers, and, eventually, one part Mr. Rogers — slowly mapping out the twilight zone between impersonation and caricature, between finding the moment and being there. After Trenchmouth he started working for Sue Miller, who co-owned and operated Chicago’s Lounge Ax, which was, during its ‘90s heydey, arguably the premiere indie-rock in the nation, beloved by touring bands and Chicagoans alike. (Miller would go on to marry Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy). It was there that Fred would strike up his friendship with Albini, a Lounge Ax habitue.
Neither Miller nor Albini were surprised to see him transition into comedy, in fact both encouraged it. “I basically spent every minute that I was with Fred at Lounge Ax telling him that he NEEDED to get into comedy,” says Miller. “All those guys in Trenchmouth were funny, but Fred was really, really funny. When he worked for me he would pull these hilarious pranks on touring bands. When bands would call to inquire about getting booked into Lounge Ax, he would tell them what to include in the package. He would then tell them that they needed to draw a picture of a monkey on the envelope ‘So we would know it was in regards to booking!’ I would yell at him every day for telling bands that and then I would be so happy/sad when the packages would come with sincere drawings of monkeys on the envelopes. I still have a bunch of them. Another thing he would do is when the band would arrive at the back door to load in, Fred would open the door to let them in. He would introduce himself as Fred The Soundman. Just to be clear, he was NOT the soundman. He would then ask them if they wanted to soundcheck now or after the show. They bands would, of course, be confused but would eventually say ‘Um, now? He would then say ‘OK, I’m going to go get the microphones — which he always pronounced BEGIN ITALICS mick-ro-fones END ITALICS . He would also mess with every person that called about show times and every person paying the cover at the door.”
“Fred’s life is essentially the downtime between moments of performance, and the more performance he can incorporate into his daily life, the more complete he is,” says Albini. “He inhabits a character instead of just mimicking it. For the duration of the bit, he is able to suppress his actual personality and assume the identity of the character in the manner of a schizophrenic. He’s actually that person, and just as proud or delusional or uncomfortable as that person would be. People respond to that because he’s not faking anything, he’s just being that person for a while. It’s fake, but not to him. I’m being honest when I describe it like a psychiatric condition. There’s a real possibility that this skill is an expression of a pathology, and it might only take a nudge to turn him into a Madoff-level criminal. For the moment he’s got it under control.”
Fred started hanging our with beloved Brit ex-pat punks The Mekons, and for a time he was their drummer. He wound up marrying the singer, Sally Timms, who also encouraged his comedic exploits. “We got along, and we fell in love, and got married, but I’m not very good at relationships, so it fell apart,” he says of the marriage. “But nonetheless, she actually really helped me making the South by Southwest video.”
Ah yes, the infamous SXSW video. Together they ventured to SXSW in 1998 where Fred, still stinging from the music biz’s rejection of his years and years of dues-paying, planned to be the proverbial fly in the ointment. “I got a hold of the festival guide and there were all these panels like ‘How to make it in the music biz’ and ‘How to get your band played on the radio’,” says Fred. “And I remember thinking ‘What?!’ Trenchmouth had broken up and I felt like there’s no such thing as making it in the music business.” With Timms filming the whole time, Fred blindsided unsuspecting SXSW performers with outrageous, in-persona man-on-the street interviews (he pretended to be deaf while interviewing Pavement’s Bob Nastonovich, he interviewed a suspicious Janeane Garofolo in his clueless German persona, he interviewed a probably-in-on-the-joke Albini pretending to be — sorry, there’s no other word for it — mentally retarded), he sewed chaos at panels (during the audience Q&A segment of Rolling Stone writer David Fricke’s interview with major label honcho Gary Gersh, the man who signed Nirvana, Fred suggested they kiss and make-out), he pretended to be an employee of Soundscan (which tracks album sales figures the way Nielsen tracks TV show audience shares) and staged a completely unauthorized pseudo-seminar on “Charting Success” in an unused conference room, telling the three hapless festival goers who showed up that “We don’t actually look at numbers we just go to shopping malls and check out T-shirts and see what kids are wearing and talking about.” A friend boiled down the hours of footage to a taught, schathingly hilarious 20 minutes and titled it FRED ARMISENS’S GUIDE TO MUSIC AND SXSW 1998. VHS copies were traded — “This was the pre-Internet Pony Express days,” says Fred — and word of mouth spread quickly, screenings at Lounge Ax drew big crowds and the Chicago Reader even wrote about it. “They put me on the cover of the A&E section — which was something that Trenchmout always wanted but never got,” he says. Suddenly his comedy was opening doors that his music never could. Soon he was getting requests from indie-rock clubs around the country to screen the video. A club tour was soon arranged and embarked upon. Somebody at HBO got a copy and asked him to do bits for a music interview show they were putting together called Reverb. “That tape really was the gateway to my success,” says Fred.
The next thing you know he was living in Los Angeles and doing stand-up at Largo, where he befriended Bob Odenkirk, Marc Maron and Patton Oswalt. Odenkirk cast him in the pilot for a comedy variety show called Next, and even though it didn’t get picked up, it did lead to a spot on Andy Kaufmanequse appearance on Conan. Saturday Night Live producer Marcie Klein (who would go on to executive produce 30 Rock) liked what she saw. “He immediately stood out, majorly, I was like ‘Oh my god, this guy’s so hilarious I have to have Lorne [Michaels] see him right away,” she says. In 2002, Klein flew him out to New York where he auditioned for Lorne and Tina Fey with, among others, Jack McBrayer, who would later go on to fame as Kenneth The Intern on 30 Rock. “The reason I know it went well is that I don’t remember it,” he says. “It went by so fast, it was a blur, which is great. I wasn’t sweating and like paralyzed, which was great — that means my brain was in a good place.” Afterwards all the auditioners went out to dinner. That’s when Fred’s cellphone rang and a New York number came up. He went outside and took the call. It was Klein. He was in.
“I saved that call and marked it BEST CALL EVER! — I still have it,” he says, handing me his phone. After he hung up with Klein he re-joined the other auditioners but never said a word. No on else got the call.
The rest is, as they say, history — well-documented, if not overrepresented, in re-runs and on YouTube and in the gossip pages and the hipper A&E sections of daily newspapers across the land. So let’s use what’s left of my word count to learn something you don’t know already know. Literally. Everyone I spoke with for this story was asked this question: Tell me something about Fred Armisen that nobody knows or would be surprised to learn? Here’s what they had to say:
“SNL is a very intimidating place to start working. Everyone there is already so close and when you’re new, you have this feeling you’ve walked into someone’s living room. Fred was unbelievably welcoming and immediately collaborative. We instantly became friends.” — Kristen Wiig, movie star, SNL cast member (2005-2012)
“He would do this thing where — in the beginning I was always very nervous performing on the show, and he would do this thing — and I don’t know if he did it to everybody or just did it to me — but we would be on our marks and they would call ‘10 seconds’ until we’re back back from a commercial — ‘five seconds’ — ‘four’ — and then Fred would go ‘I’m leaving.’ He would just turn around and walk away and everyone would be like — ‘What’s going on?!?’ Then it would be ‘Three!’ and he would be walking out the stage door. Then ‘Two!,’ and he would run back and get on his mark before the cameras just as they were rolling. Always timed it perfect — just to make everyone go ‘What?! What are you doing?’ He’d wake everyone up — not that we needed waking up, because everyone is so nervous during the show and so on edge. But that little stunt would defuse the tension on the set.” — Bill Hader, SNL cast member (2005-2013)
“He has impeccable taste in music, musicians and people.” — Seth Jabour, guitarist, The 8G Band/Les Savy Fav
“I did NOT sleep with him.” — Marcie Klein, producer, SNL (1989-2012
“When Fred starred in our video for ‘Rabbit Habits,’ I remember he flew to [LA] from New York on a Saturday morning, nailed his parts and then got back on a plane and flew back home. Twelve hours of flying in one day just to work with us for free. That’s the kind of guy he is.” — Honus Honus, singer/songwriter, Man Man
“Before we started doing Ian Rubbish & The Bisarros, I had never even picked up a bass. Fred was always like ‘Let’s go play bass,’ and he would work with me. I mean my bass parts were insanely simple, but I was always very nervous, and Fred was always patient, he’d come into my dressing room — ‘Hey, how you feeling? You want to go over it again?’ And then years and years later, my very last day on the show, it was our last show, he said ‘Hey, I have a present for you,’ and he got me a Fender bass.” — Bill Hader, SNL cast member (2005-2013)
“He is extremely generous, probably more than anyone I’ve known.” — Eli Janney, keyboard player, The 8G Band/Girls vs. Boys
“He is really good at gifts — he gave Lorne Michaels a rowboat for his house on Montauk. He’s really thoughtful.” — Jonathan Krisel, director of Portlandia
“Over the years, I really felt very close to Lorne Michaels. I felt like he protected me. He’s not just like a figurehead of that show — he really knows it, and he knows what is great about every cast member. So, at times when I walked in thinking I was a genius, and he would sort of be like ‘Wait. Just wait.’ He’s very good at protecting people from themselves. — Fred Armisen, SNL cast member (2002-2013)
“He’s been really good to Carrie, too. [Television] is a whole new world for her. He’s been on Saturday Night Live for 12 years. He’s like a grad student and she’s a freshman. So he bends over backwards to make sure that she’s OK. He’s really supportive of her.” — Jonathan Krisel, director of Portlandia
“He’s not good at sports or driving, which I find very charming. He is very good at lot of things. But he’s a very crazy driver, and he’s not great with athletics. It reminds me in the sweetest way that he is kind of an art nerd. I just love that about him. We shot with the Portland Trail Blazers this year, so we were in their practice facility. I was dressed in the feminist bookstore garb: long dress, Birkenstocks, long hair. And I was like, ‘We’re on the Blazers’ court, we should get out a ball and play. Fred had no interest. And I just like that about him. He doesn’t want to do something he’s not good at. There was another script this year where Fred had to pick up a baseball bat and smash a lamp. [Jonathan Krisel] looked at the script and Fred was all ready to do it, and Jonathan just said, “‘You know what, let’s just have Carrie do this because then we’ll only have to do one take.’ To me, it’s very endearing. Although I really wish we could play catch more often, or that we could play a little basketball. But we can’t. I have to do all the physical stuff on Portlandia. Whenever he drives, he overly polite, to the point where it can be dangerous. I just want him to put his foot on the gas pedal a little bit more. Whenever he says he’s gonna drive, I think ‘Umm.. I’ll just meet you there’ Whenver he says he’s gonna come pick me up, I always say, ‘I’ll meet you there.’” — Carrie Brownstein, co-star, Portlandia, guitarist/singer, Sleater-Kinney
“He owes me a vagillion dollars for literally promising me on video before he got famous that if he ever made money from comedy he would give me 15 percent of everything he makes and then went on to promise me two more times on video after he got famous and he considers the video a legal document…Jeff [Tweedy] just reminded me of something and insisted I tell you about it because it’s even more insane and funny. Fred in his video legal document did not offer me 15% of any future earnings in comedy, he offered me FIFTY PERCENT!! Pay up, Fred.” — Sue Miller, Co-Owner/Booking Agent, Lounge Ax
“He makes fun of musicians in ways that only other musicians will recognize. There’s a lot of inside baseball in every bit he does involving musicians, and I can’t think of anybody else who’s done that so specifically. Even Spinal Tap played off the public perception of musicians. Fred is playing off the actual experience of being a musician.” — Steve Albini, musician & recording engineer
“When I see [Trenchmouth] pictures I’m like ‘How could anyone help but think we were some fucking joke band playing three-chord crappy punk?’ But we were a functioning, great band, and I don’t think people know that. It would be nice for them to know we were a complete band, not just a footnote in a famous comedian’s career.” — Wayne Montana, bassist, Trenchmouth
“I talk to Fred regularly, we still have a really strong allegiance to the work that we did then. So occasionally me and Fred will be like ‘Trenchmouth was mentioned in the Washington Post’ or he would call me after talking to some band that played on SNL and he would be like ‘One of the guys they told me that they used to love Trenchmouth.’ So its interesting that 20 years later we are thinking of the work that we did and we are so proud of that work. And I’m glad that the work that we put it in still paying off, like, you are interviewing me and Wayne for this piece about Fred, asking us about Trenchmouth. So regardless that the band didn’t become the thing we wanted it to become, its cool that 20 years later it part of conversation. And we still have die hard fans, people began to talk about us more after we broke up. And it’s the 2000s so occasionally people asked if we would reunite, especially when Fred got on the Seth Meyers thing, people hit me up from all over the place and asked ‘Will you guys play on Seth Meyers and reunite?’ Clubs have even contacted me and asked if we reunite if we could play their club. I think it is weird that everybody in the world knows who he is, like Whoopie Goldberg from The View and even Obama knows who he is — that’s strange to me. But Fred as a person, despite the fact that he has a ton of different experiences that I am not familiar with, whenever I get together with him he is still Fred.” — Damon Locks, lead singer, Trenchmouth
“We’re doing okay on time. I’ll even eat in front of you to save time. But I don’t like when I read an an article ‘And then he took a bite out of his bagel.’ So, if you don’t mind, please leave that part out. What is your take on how I am doing with this interview? Are you okay with all of this? You ask really good questions, by the way. I’m really enjoying this.” — Fred Armisen, The Jimmy Stewart Of Indie-Rock