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Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen Talk ‘Portlandia,’ Sleater-Kinney, and ‘Late Night’

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein

On the new season of Portlandia, one of Carrie Brownstein’s characters is dating a tax attorney; when he takes up the electric bass, she enlists St. Vincent and Duff McKagan to dissuade him. Stay the W4-lovin’ square you are, they insist — the world doesn’t need more rock’n’roll wannabes. And as goofy as that premise is, there’s a ring of truth to it, a sincerity you can find at the core of even the beloved IFC sketch show’s most absurd moments.

Season four debuts tonight at 10 p.m. EST, the first of ten episodes set to feature guests ranging from Kirsten Dunst to k.d. lang. SPIN caught up with Brownstein and her fellow Portlandia co-creator/co-star Fred Armisen to discuss the show’s future as Armisen starts his Late Night With Seth Meyers band-leading gig this week, comedy trends, the Monkees, and their current cultural inspirations. Oh, and Fred’s plan to reform Sleater-Kinney as an all-male band.

The season-four episodes I’ve seen focus more on building story arcs than one-off sketches. Why move in that direction?
Carrie Brownstein: Part of it is the longevity of the show and keeping people engaged with the material in a way that isn’t just about the immediate takeaway. If we could delve further into the lives of these characters — especially the ones we love and have started to get to know — then the material seemed bottomless. If we’re just looking at it from the perspective of satire or current events, then that starts to feel flimsier. We tried to marry the two. There’s still a lot of absurdity and silliness and trenchant observations about culture, but it’s seen through the eyes of people whose lives we’re just beginning to understand. That made it easier to write, and also more rewarding.

There’s more sketch comedy in primetime cable lineups now than there was when Portlandia came out, from Key & Peele to Kroll Show. Do you feel connected to that scene?
Fred Armisen:
That kind of thing comes in waves in television with all kinds of shows. There was a movement where stand-up comedians had their own sitcoms. There’s no way to know when or why it’s coming. I will say, it’s really fun to bump into your friends, and they’ve got a sketch show, too. It’s a very exciting time. I like that Broad City exists, and I love being around at the same time as Key & Peele. I love those guys — I just, I love their faces.

Season four has even more guest stars than past seasons. Did any of the musicians who guested surprise you with their acting or comedy chops?
Certainly Mike Nesmith. He really is an intellectual, who brings a gravitas to the scene and has a wonderful, wry sense of humor. Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age is very kind and a true goofball. Jeff Tweedy was really funny, too.
FA: One person who was interesting was Jello Biafra, who was — of all things — very professional! Out of anyone we’ve every worked with, he really, really wanted to get it right. He showed up a day early to talk about the role. We improvise so much of Portlandia, but he would run lines that only existed on the page. We’d be like, “Oh no, you don’t have to say that, just make up whatever you want.” And he was like, “No no no, I wanna do the lines, I wanna do it right.”

Did he ask to be on the show? Was this something he was dying to do?
Jonathan [Krisel, Portlandia co-creator/director] thought of it, but we were going to try it with me doing a Jello Biafra voice. We decided we should try to get him instead.

So your Jello Biafra impersonation isn’t too good, huh?
[In a Jello Biafra voice] Well, he’s got this sarcastic way of talking and presenting the facts. He’s got a very “I am giving you in-for-mation, mem-or-ize it” way of talking. He obviously does it a lot better than I do.

How did you get Mike Nesmith, who can be a bit of a recluse, back on TV?
Our director has a friend who has worked with him before, someone who has actually helped us write Portlandia. As soon as we found out this guy was friends with Mike, we thought, “We have to have him on the show.” Over this last year, I’ve gotten to know him a little bit, and he’s a really fascinating person who still continues to create things. He just did a recent tour with the Monkees where he was playing some of his songs, these really beautiful country-ish songs that remind me of California. As a kid, The Monkees was such a cool show. I had such a thrill saying, “OMG, I was in a sketch with one of the Monkees.”

What’s his role on Portlandia?
He plays the mayor’s dad. Sometimes in Portland I’m like, “Who is funding this city?!” It’s doing great, there’s all these new shops, there’s a synthesizer store. Where is this coming from? So we came up with a storyline that shows that there’s a source of how it’s all being funded, which involves the mayor’s dad.

Portlandia has already been renewed for a fifth season. Fred, are you anticipating any scheduling conflicts with your new role as the band leader on Late Night With Seth Meyers?
No, not at all. Portlandia is my priority, and as soon as we’re ready to start writing in May, I’ll go off and do that. I can’t believe I’m about to use this word: This gig, as it were, is about curating a band and getting it going. I’ll come back and guest a little bit, play here and there, but once we start on season five this summer, I’m in Portland. They [Late Night] understand that, and we discussed it before I even started. I think with a lot of shows — and this is similar to SNL — they think more in terms of this month, this week, right now.

Carrie, you’ve been working on a memoir for a couple years. When can we expect it?
It’ll be out sometime next year. Basically, it keeps being sent with more edits and things to change, which is fine. I feel like I’m in the final stretch, which is a relief. It’s definitely been interesting, because so many of my creative endeavors have been collaborative. Writing is really the only thing I’ve done on my own, and it’s a different process.

Speaking of your collaborative creative endeavors, Carrie, have you given any more thought to reuniting Sleater-Kinney? The rumors flared up late last year after your reunion at the Pearl Jam’s show in Portland.
Well I think… oh sorry…
CB: Fred’s thought about it a lot, actually. He’s ready to reunite a different version of the band…
FA: …Which is technically legal because I own the rights to the band name. Because of Portlandia, I’m technically allowed to. And I’ll exercise that right.
CB: It’ll be Fred and two other guys, probably. We want it to be an all-male version of Sleater-Kinney. Watch for it, 2072.
FA: I’m changing the last vowel to make it more masculine so it’s Sleater-Kinneo.
CB: Or put a Mr. in front of it.
FA: Mr. Sleater-Kinney, yes.
CB: But in all seriousness, we’ve talked about it more. We’ll see what happens.