‘Portlandia’ Star Fred Armisen on His Keith Moon Dreams and Gene Simmons Reality
The double-duty 'SNL' star shares his life in music and asks "What would Hüsker Dü?"
Deep into his tenth year as a Saturday Night Live castmember — and beginning his third season on IFC’s Portlandia, which premieres January 4 — Fred Armisen is firmly established in the TV comedy firmament. But the former Trenchmouth drummer’s first love is music. Armisen, 46, spoke with SPIN about using the Clash as a guide and asking “What would Hüsker Dü?”
What was the last thing you listened to before you went to sleep?
Last night, a friend of mine played me this really early Pink Floyd record. It was post-Syd Barrett but still 1969, and it sounded like it was performed live. I think it was a compilation of early Pink Floyd stuff. And it was great, really noisy and experimental.
What was the first thing you listened to when you woke up?
When I got in my car, the first thing I listened to was [the Damned guitarist] Captain Sensible’s “Happy Talk.” I just felt like it! I was thinking about Captain Sensible, and I really like that song, so sometimes I’ll put it on. I didn’t think about these questions before you asked me, so these are honest answers.
You’ve impersonated a bunch of different celebrities on SNL. But if you were to play a musician in a biopic, who would you want to play?
There are people I’d want to play and people who I probably look like. As far as casting goes, I should have some humility about whom I could actually do. In my dreams, I wish I could play Keith Moon. Realistically, with the way I look, it would be Gene Simmons. I don’t say that begrudgingly, though.
Which of your castmates has the best taste in music?
I like talking about music the most with [Saturday Night Live’s] Bill Hader. He turns me onto new music and vice versa. And by new, there’s almost no such thing as new, because something I got into last year is Harry Nilsson. It kind of makes me happy to be alive, because there will always be something you’ve never heard of that jumps out at you and you go, “Where has this been?”
What was the first concert you ever attended?
The first concert I ever attended was Devo at Radio City Music Hall on Halloween of 1981. I was in junior high school. That’s when I started going to shows. I saw the Clash that same year, too. The Clash and Devo are influences in the way that they still inform what I do. I actually think, “What would Devo do?” and “What would the Clash do?”
You should make bumper stickers or bracelets with that slogan.
What I should do is make a bumper sticker that says, “What would Hüsker Dü do?” Then it could just be “What would Hüsker Dü?”
What was the last decision you made that was influenced by the Clash?
When we take photos for Portlandia, [co-star] Carrie [Brownstein] and I both think, “We don’t want it to look goofy. We want it to look cool.” Even though some people say that cool is the opposite of comedy, we don’t care. We still want that album or DVD cover to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s in that decision-making that we think, “Okay, we want this to look as great as Give ‘Em Enough Rope or London Calling.”
Whose playing inspired you to be a drummer?
Keith Moon, Paul Cook, Dave Barbarossa, Ringo Starr, Alan Myers. Later on, Janet Weiss, Tito Puente, Stewart Copeland. George Hurley, definitely. I copied them as much as I could. I stole their styles. I even stole the way that they looked when they played. I was so into them.
If you were to curate the lineup of a music festival that also had a comedy tent, who would you put on the bill?
If I had billions of dollars to do it, I’d mix people who are considered mainstream and people who are considered unknown, which is I guess what they do anyway. I’d want Paul McCartney with Kraftwerk, John Maus, maybe Prince, Hugh Cornwell, and then Real Estate and Beach House and the War on Drugs. Dirty Projectors, Yoko Ono. Comedy would be Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Garfunkel and Oates. John Mulaney would be fun. David Cross, Todd Barry.
Portlandia started out with the idea that the dream of the ’90s is alive and well in Portland. So which ’90s band do you wish would reunite?
Blur. I feel like Blur made their own genre of music in the ’90s. You can’t fit them into anything. They really have such a redefinition of music, and they were so good. The music was very beautiful, progressive and experimental without being alienating. They had great songs. I would love to see Blur again.
What do you listen to on set?
On SNL, I listen to El Perro del Mar because she’s calming. Sometimes I like a little bit of calm because it’s a very frenetic atmosphere there, so in my dressing room I’ll put it on. I don’t know what my castmates listen to. We all have our dressing rooms and I don’t know what goes on there. But they’re all music fans. I mean, who isn’t a music fan?