Whaddya mean you've never heard of....Fred Armisen?
At end of August whilst trawling through the sometimes seedy, sometimes brain-damaging world that is MySpace I noticed that Fred Armisen, one of my favourite (and so I thought, obscure) comics was on somebodies 'Top 8' and y'know, added him because if it was really him, I could find out what he's up to and y'know, 'e-stalk' him or something. When I got a reply back, thanking me for adding him I was amused to say the least (good job he's a comedian) and responded as such. We ended up corresponding and since I was headed to New York en route to Chicago for the Touch&Go 25th year anniversary block party and, since he was headed back to New York from Chicago, we decided we should definitely meet up and say a real world 'hello'.
The reason I mention Touch & Go is that he was asked by Steve Albini to emcee at the Shellac-curated All Tomorrows Party festival in the Spring of 2002 which is where I first saw him. One of the acts I remember him doing was Niles Covington, a pompous musicologist lording it up over us shamefully inadequate indie kids (this character also appears on the Les Savy Fav dvd, Inches and during the Thrill Jockey documentary) and...okay, I'll be honest, like most attendees, I am unable to recall such quiet parts of the festival but what really stuck with me, and what I've played to all of my friends to this very day are the pre-recorded pieces on the 3 cd's we all got with our tickets. My favourites have to be Fred, from the Minneapolis Police, teaching self-defence by way of always carrying a pencil to use against a gun-weilding assailant and Father Fred Armisen who just happens to be addicted to Heroin " it's like, a drug! " So, I'll bring you up to date.
It is down to his relationship with indie rock, having been the drummer for the now defunct, Chicago based band Trenchmouth (think Fugazi meets Bad Brains) and more importantly, Steve Albini that I thought he might have been at the block party but I found out a big enough reason why..SNL.
Until last summer while staying with a mutual friend I'd not heard any more from Armisen. Then I was shown some of the hidden camera pieces he'd started doing in the late 90's at SXSW when he interviewed a bunch of people, notably Siouxsie Sioux whilst pretending to be deaf, blind, retarded etc...and his mockery of the world of auditions called 'Attention All Tappers' where he answered an ad, turned up in self made tap shoes and made quite an impression before being thrown out. Truly great, inspired, sublime and irreverent material from the guy who was before all this, the drummer in a band.
After these videos were edited and screened across America, he garnered some memorable Andy Kaufman-esque appearances on the Conan O'Brien Show and contributed characters to the brilliant Crank Yankers and Adult-Swim programmes. It was down to this guerilla tv work that he was offered a prestigious cast member role on Saturday Night Live; the show that launched the careers of Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, James Belushi and more recently Will Ferrell and Tina Fey. Pretty large company considering he's never auditioned for anything he didn't get. He's been a cast member now for 4 years managing to coin the catch phrase "I'm just keeeeding!!" from his Latino creation Ferecito who would interview guests like Colin Farrell on the show asking them serious, hard hitting questions whilst playing timbales before yelling the over-the-top refrain. He's appeared as Tino in Anchorman and this summer completed filming a movie called Quebec alongside the great John C Reilly and Jenna Fischer who plays the receptionist in the US version of The Office.
A charming fellow and not in character like I feared he might be I got a tiny glimpse of what I was now dealing with when two guys stared yelling "Fred! Fred!" and ran up to ask for his autograph and a photo, which I had to take...twice. I was kind of bowled over I mean in my head, he's still Fred who drums in a cool band and makes funny videos to stave off boredom. I am so very wrong...
He's one rock and roll comedian, counts Jeff Tweedy and Steve Albini as his friends as well as a ton of cool bands; rarely doing regular stand-up, he prefers to completely allow his creations to consume him. Steve Albini once likened him to "...a bloodless vampire. He assumes character identities so completely that you can't believe he's pulling your leg - nobody could be that cold blooded. He's a vampire I tell you, and he has ice-water for blood. He has no fear and no shame".
He is one of a number of comics like David Cross, Todd Barry and Brian Posehn, preferring to perform at rock shows and taking part in the Comedians of Comedy tour as well as a songwriting contest between him and The Shins (he lost). Being a champion of things I like and wanting to share what I like with others, I asked him if I could interview him via 'the internets' seeing as he works 5 days a week...in New York. It took a while but here's what we got.
I guess you're pretty much an unknown over here unless you went to All Tomorrows Parties in the Spring of 2002 that Shellac curated. I know that narrows it down a hell of a lot! Did you enjoy the reactions of the unsuspecting crowds? Comedy and rock and roll is a fairly new thing here, in fact I can only recall it happening at that festival with you, David Cross and Neil Hamburger.
I did enjoy it. The reaction was no different to when I performed in the U.S. Kind of a general silence that says "what is this?"
Why did you do it? Are you a Shellac fanboy or did you see an opportunity to make moves on the UK comedy circuit in some way?
Steve Albini asked me to be part of ATP and it was something I had wanted to do for years. I heard so much about how cool and fun it was from some of the people who performed there. And a free trip to the U.K.? How about HELL YES!
Forgive me but I've read in your bios on various websites that you've appeared on British TV. What shows?
There was this thing called Freak Out or Freak show or something. It was on Rapido TV if I remember correctly. It was a show about anything having to do with handicapped people. This guy would interview people who did extraordinary things with whatever abnormality they had. It was all very positive. They brought me over and interviewed me because I had done some videos where I interviewed people and acted like I was deaf. And sometimes like I was blind. It was another free flight to England. Yaaay!
On your SXSW videos where you're pretending to be a deaf music journalist, were you targetting people in the industry who were perhaps a little self important or were you just having a bit of good old lampooning fun?! Does it piss you off that the guys from Chunklet copied your idea in making SXSW videos?!!
I think I just wanted to play around when I did the SXSW thing. No bad intentions. And I love Chunklet! I didn't invent doing that kind of video. My inspiration as a matter of fact was this guy from England. Dennis Pennis.
Being a drummer and going on to end up on national TV every week, do you think you always had an attention complex? I mean did you? I'm not saying I think you do, but in my experiences with some drummers they're often rather fidgety, almost fractured personalities, quite interesting people. Sometimes I think they forget that they're the loudest member of the band, the one holding it all together. What do you think?
I need a lot of attention.
What is it that excites you about England? Did you ever tour here with Trenchmouth?
We never toured there unfortunately. Wish we did. I love that place and someday I will have a home there. You are so lucky to live there. I love every inch of England.
Do you have a superiority complex? Do you ever think, "I wish all these idiots would fuck off and stop taking up room in cafes, taxis etc.." Are you disdainful in any way, about humanity? You seem to be absurdly happy. Someone like me would find it worrying but then, I like to listen to George Carlin thinking of reasons why people should be punished for their inherent stupidity..
George Carlin is still pretty amazing. Um, I don't like waiting in line.
You grew up in Long Island what was it like? What did your parents do? Did they influence you at all?
The part of Long Island I grew up on was very Italian American. What you are picturing is what it was like. My dad worked for IBM, my mom a teacher. They influenced me a lot. They are not American so I learned a bunch about languages from them.
I know you're not Jewish or Italian but I do picture you growing up like Alvey Singer or Rupert Pupkin and I don't in any way intend that to be offensive, it's just my romantic view of comics growing up in New York...how inaccurate am I ?!
You are very accurate.
How old were you when you started doing impressions, accents etc..? Did it begin when you were a child or surface when you were touring?
I was really little when that started. I used to do an impression of a mentally challenged person who lived down the street for my dad. It wasn't supposed to be mean, I just did it. he laughed really hard but my mother hated it.
What 'normal' jobs have you had or have you had a pretty charmed life, landing decent gigs?
Waiter, record store employee, doorman at a bar, caterer, I've worked in a million cafes.
Do you miss playing music? Trenchmouth was a great band, I've never heard anyone say anything negative about them. What is the link between music and comedy?
Sometimes I miss it. Music and comedy are very much the same to me.
What bands would you love to open for? Who has been your favorite? I read frustrated reviews of your stint opening for Les Savy Fav which makes me happy because maybe the bill is created to satisfy you and the band and then, maybe he audience will like it?
Prince would be amazing to open up for. Beck would be fun. My favorite has been Yo La Tengo. Their audiences are great. Sleater Kinney was really cool because I had always wanted to. Wilco was fun. Les Savy Fav? I had a great time!
Have you met Prince yet? You're famed for impersonating him, silently...what's the deal with that?
I did and he was very nice to me. The impression is because he says very little.
What are your favorite impersonations to do?
Steve Jobs who is Apple Computers and Prince.
The Saddam Hussein spoof is brilliant, how the hell did you come up with that, why give him a London accent and how did Carrie from Sleater Kinney become involved?
Thank you! I have been obsessed with him these past few years. He looks so great now and he carries himself like an ageing rock star. Every picture I see of him he reminds me of Pete Townshend or John Lydon. Go look at a picture of him! It looks like he's being interviewed for Rolling Stone! Me and Carrie were just having fun and wanted to make some videos so we did. She is really funny.
Since you're now a national fixture on SNL, do you feel famous enough? Do people bother you in the street? Could you get away with doing something like 'Attention All Tappers' or the SXSW tapes again?
People say very nice things to me. I think I could still do another one of those tapes.
New York City Stories was hilarious by the way. Who came up with that?
That was Amy Poehler's idea! In these digital shorts, he and Poehler paired up to perform highly ridiculous but accurate portrayals of Rosie Perez And Martin Scorsese, Yoko Ono And Fran Liebowitz and Lou Reed And Patti Smith all with their own takes on what the City used to be like; for better or worse.
You're working, writing sketches 5 days a week right? are you worried that writing sketches will become run of the mill if it's a job?
Writing sketches is pretty hard work but it changes so much every week. That's what makes it not a run of the mill job.
What projects are you working on right now?
Now, you people gotta stay aware! Go to his myspace page at www.myspace.com/farmisen and you can watch him being Saddam, a tapdancing hopeful and and annoying guy at a computer games conference. Also, type his name into YouTube and you'll come across a few more gems like Book Group. In the meantime, kick yourself hard for not seeing him when he was over here. I know I do and I was 'there', just like those hippies from the 60's. Yeah right.