STOP MAKING SENSE: A Q&A With Fred Armisen

Fred Armisen by Gene Smirnov copy

BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR VICE Last night, comedian Fred Armisen (ex-SNL cast member, star of Portlandia and Documentary Now!, sidekick/leader of the Late Night With Seth Meyers house band) kicked off an East coast run of live comedy dates that mix the glib wackiness of his stand-up with sneak previews of the forthcoming seventh season of Portlandia and live renditions of the music of his various faux-bands (the cluelessly pro-authority punk of Ian Rubbish & The Bizarros, the ersatz Laurel Canyon soft-rock of The Blue Jean Committee, the artsy-fartsy New Wave nonsense-making of Test Pattern, etc.). We took this opportunity to get Fred on the phone to talk about the live show and discuss future of Portlandia and Documentary Now! and get the low-down on his zillions of zany walk-ons/cameos/bit parts in a vast array of current films and television shows. (For a deep dive into Fred’s back story check out my 2014 MAGNET profile HERE.)   DISCUSSED: Claire Danes, David Byrne, J. Mascis, Green Day, Ian Rubbish, Ana Fabrega, The Maysles Brothers, The Blue Jean Committee, John C. Reilly, Zoe Lister-Jones, Kyle Maclachlan, Test Pattern, Johnny Ramone, Steve Buscemi, Carrie Brownstein, the end of Portlandia and why he can’t wait to turn 50 in December.

VICE:  What is the nature of these live performances?

FRED ARMISEN: I have a band with me and I’m going to play some songs by some of the different fake bands that I’ve had, like Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros, and The Blue Jean Committee, and Test Pattern. So songs from those that I enjoy playing, they have a life of their own when I play them live. It’s one thing to do them for the show, but playing them live I get to see what it’s like in front of an audience and I love doing it that way. Another thing I’m going to do is talk about music, show some videos, just some stuff that I’ve been working on, and I’m also going to have this comedian, Ana Fabrega, who I’m trying to develop a TV show for who’s really funny, and I just like the idea of having a comedian on the show, it seems like there’s more variety and it’s not just me the whole time. She’s going to go in the middle so it doesn’t feel like she’s opening the show or anything like that.

VICE:  What can you tell us about the TV show you are developing with Ana Fabrega?

FRED ARMISEN: We’re trying to figure something out for her to do, at least to make a pilot or something. I’m just really trying to do things for my future where it’s not so much about me all the time. I feel so good about how shows I’ve done have gone that whenever that happens it’s a good reason to go into a different way of doing something where the focus isn’t me.

VICE:  In movie related news, you have a new film out called Ordinary Life with Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day can you tell me a little bit about that?

FRED ARMISEN: That’s something we did a little while ago and I loved doing it. It’s one of those weird things where I’ve been getting asked to play a drummer in stuff, and it’s the easiest thing in the world because it’s just me but playing drums. I’m all for it and it’s really cool because he played this guy who used to have a band but then became a dad and didn’t get to play music much anymore, so it’s him getting back into it, and I’m a bad influence in his life. What’s cool is I always wished that I could have been in Green Day or one of those popular bands, I will forever be like “why didn’t I get to do all of that in the ‘90s?” I didn’t show him but inside I was totally freaking out, I was like “oh my god I’m totally playing with Billie!” He was great. He’s a very deeply, optimistic person. You know when you talk to someone privately you see the more negative side? This dude, down to his core, enjoys being alive and being an optimist.

VICE:  Did I read somewhere that Trenchmouth, the Chicago-based art-punk band you played drums for back in the 90s, and Green Day shared a bill back in the day?

FRED ARMISEN: We did, in Beloit, Wisconsin. Someone sent me a flyer from it and everything. I’ll never forget it.

VICE:  Was this when you were in your resentful stage? ‘Why isn’t Trenchmouth as famous as Green Day?’

FRED ARMISEN: No this is so early that Green Day didn’t have that hit yet. In fact, it was opposite because that’s when I just wanted to be part of the national punk scene and Green Day was totally part of that whole scene that in my eyes was influenced by the Descendants and all that stuff so I was totally not in that place with Green Day. I actually always really liked Green Day. I always loved them. When I was in Trenchmouth, I resented how these popular bands were passing themselves off as punk but was were really more metal. I was in full support of Green Day, Offspring, Rancid, because to me they were real punk bands, and the other bands I was like “No, why them? That’s not the right kind of music!”

VICE:  I’m looking at IMDB and it says there’s a movie called Band Aid that’s in pre-production, could you tell me a little about that?

FRED ARMISEN: Band Aid is almost identical to this other movie I shot, it was this movie I shot maybe in the spring, where I played the neighbor, who’s a drummer, and the couple forms a band because they’re arguing. It’s the best. People barely have to ask me because I’m like “oh my god, I get to play the drums and be myself? Sure!”

VICE:  Who plays the couple?

FRED ARMISEN: I’m only remembering their characters names so we’ll skip over that part.

VICE:  Is there a scheduled released date for that yet?

FRED ARMISEN: I have no idea. [Googling] Oh I got it, I got it. Zoe Lister-Jones, who directed it, and Adam Pally.

VICE:  You have a role in a film called The Little Hours slated for release in 2017?

FRED ARMISEN: The Little Hours is this movie I shot in Italy, in Tuscany, with John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon. It was great. It was like one of those things where you fantasize about what it would be like to be in movies and stuff, and you get to go to Italy, this was that experience. I played a bishop, or something, a visiting bishop. I like it when my role isn’t too big. I like medium to small. Just go in, be a distraction for a minute, and that’s it, it’s perfect. And that’s what this was. They rented me a car and I got to drive around Italy and I loved it.

VICE:  Lastly, you’re listed as a cast member in something called Take The 10, this must be a spin-off of [the recurring SNL sketch] The Californians?

FRED ARMISEN: This I don’t know of. I’ve never heard of it.

VICE:  Oh no? Well isn’t there a movie in the works based on The Californians SNL sketch?

FRED ARMISEN: Not at all. This is the first I’ve ever heard of it even in a sentence like that. I talk to Bill Hader all the time, and most people who are part of that cast, and never has it even come up jokingly.

VICE:  I’m on IMDB there’s listed a movie called Take The 10 that is completed and you a play a driver, it says.

FRED ARMISEN: I play a driver?

VICE:  Directed by Chester Tam, Andy Samberg’s in this it looks like.

FRED ARMISEN: Ahhhh, yes. First off, I don’t think it had a title when I joined up with that, but that’s Chester Tam’s movie with the Lonely Island guys. It has nothing to do with the Californians, even though we shot it in California. It’s a good thing you asked.

VICE:  Let’s talk about Portlandia. You’ve announced that the 8th season will be the final season, correct?

FRED ARMISEN: Yes, which is not the one we just shot, we just did the 7th. We still have another one after that.

VICE:  Can you tell me a little bit about the seventh? Are you guys still continuing with the episode-length sketches?

FRED ARMISEN: No, we didn’t do any of those. We did more of shorter sketches, Carrie Brownstein directed a couple of them, I directed one, and Steve Buscemi directed one. This was a very fun and easy year. I feel like people have been so kind about that show, that there’s no feeling of trying to prove ourselves and just had full enjoyment putting this together.

VICE:  Are there guest stars that you can hint at that will be appearing in this coming season? A name or two you could throw out there?

FRED ARMISEN: Let’s see. The B52s, they did a really cool appearance, Linda Ramone, who is the widow of Johnny Ramone, who is such a fully realized character all together, Steve Buscemi, of course, and Kyle MacLachlan.? Claire Danes is a guest and that was really good. We didn’t overdo it, and then we had the right amount. Abbi Jacobson from Broad City.

VICE:  Nice, you are returning the favor after appearing as a creepy diaper-wearing baby-man in the first season of Broad City. I’m picturing that you have a huge Venn diagram on your wall that’s your whole life and all of the things that you’re involved in and you have to refer to it all the time because there’s so many things that you’re involved in that you couldn’t even keep it in your mind.

FRED ARMISEN: Yeah, but it’s good though. I like it that way.

VICE:  Lastly, on the Portlandia front, can you tell me a thing about The Feminist Bookstore kerfuffle that’s emerged?

FRED ARMISEN: No, no, I’m not commenting on it.

VICE:  You’ve launched this Latino humorist website that’s called Más Mejor, what can you tell me about that?

FRED ARMISEN: It’s something that came from Broadway Video and Above Average, and they just had this idea to do a Latino version of it, and I’ve always wanted to do something completely in Spanish, and they asked me to be a part of it and it’s just a perfect coincidence, where I was like “Oh, my god, I would love to do this.” Ana Fabrega, that comedian I told you about, she was part of that, she came from that.

VICE:  Documentary Now! has wrapped the second season, which was fantastic, I just watched Final Transmission, the Stop Making Sense spoof,  and I’m wondering did you get any feedback on that from anybody involved in the original film, Jonathan Demme or anybody in the Talking Heads or anybody like this?

FRED ARMISEN: Yeah, there’s this promotional thing they did where Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth are watching it and it was really funny, it was really cool. Not only did I go to those original shows, from that tour, but I went to see Talking Heads on the tour before that one. I’ve been into them forever.

VICE:  Have you ever met David Byrne?


VICE:  And how did that go?

FRED ARMISEN: Great, he is an idol of mine and he is as pleasant and as artistic as I hoped he would be.

VICE:  The Globesman one was my favorites of the second season, I thought you guys just nailed that one. It’s a spoof of Salesman, the 1969 Maysles Brothers’ documentary about sad sack hard-luck door-to-door Bible salesmen, which is fascinating and heartbreaking and you guys channel many of the same emotions with your version. Can you speak to that a little bit?

FRED ARMISEN: The original is just so close to our version, and it’s hard to translate it into a comedy, but we just felt like doing it. We thought we could do it and tackle it in a way that’s still true to the original but have its own spin.

VICE:  Do you guys watch the original documentaries a bunch of times, or do you intentionally not over-watch it so there’s creative space for you guys to come up with your own Bizzaro Universe version of it?

FRED ARMISEN: It varies from writer to writer. If it’s John Mulaney and Bill [Hader] I think they watch things pretty thoroughly. I’m from a little further away, where I get sort of a glimpse of things and try to come up with a version.

VICE:  You are going to be turning 50 in December, congratulations, I was reading somewhere that you already have your party planned out, it’s going to be at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and it involves J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. Is that true?

FRED ARMISEN: Yeah, although it’s a private event. I just wanted to have a little something with my friends, and I love the way that J Mascis celebrated his 50th, so yeah it’s going to be a haunted, scary event.

VICE:  What was the way that J Mascis celebrated his 50th?

FRED ARMISEN: He did a show, kind of, where he had some people perform. He is very good about celebrating his birthdays, and he does it in a way that has total joy to it, so I wanted to follow that.

VICE: Any thoughts on turning 50?

FRED ARMISEN: I love it. I love it because I love my life, I love all the things around me, all the people around me. I’ve met so many of my heroes and got to play music with them, and travel to places I always wanted to go. I like my face, I like how I look now, I want to go grey — and I’m already greying on the sides — but I’m looking forward to my whole head being white. I just think it’s cool. I saw a video of Mick Jones from The Clash at a bookstore playing some songs and he just looks great, he looks his age. There’s a way to do it where you can do it gracefully and he’s a prime example.

VICE:  Final question, looking back at 50 years of Fred Armisen, if you could do thing differently after all that time, what would it be?

FRED ARMISEN: When I was in my twenties, I thought that if I didn’t eat meat and just ate bread, I was like that’s the healthy way to go, out of ignorance. Stay away from burgers and stuff and just eat a bunch of bread and cheese and that’s the healthy thing to do. That is not the way to go. Only now, looking back I wish I ate a little differently. Only a little.