To get a window into Fred Armisen’s ability to multitask, consider how the famously busy comedian and musician wraps up his interview with the Georgia Straight.
To say he’s been enthusiastically engaged during the chat is understating things: the 52-year-old starts out gushing about legendary West Coast punk antiheroes NoMeansNo and then holds forth on topics ranging from the ever-shifting sands of youth culture to how comedy changed everything for him at a time when he felt lost.
At the outset of the call, it’s made clear he’s on a tight schedule. Projects Armisen has on the go include the hit Amazon Prime TV series Forever, his Spanish-language HBO series Los Espookys, and of course his time-permitting gig as the house-band drummer on Late Night With Seth Meyers. More immediately, there’s the last-minute tweaking of his upcoming Comedy for Musicians but Everyone Is Welcome tour, which is heading to Vancouver for the JFL NorthWest comedy festival.
But despite all he’s juggling, Armisen isn’t totally done when the interview is over. “One more thing, really quick,” he says on the line from his hometown of Los Angeles. “Um, are you from Vancouver?”
When the answer is yes, Armisen continues with “Okay, I’m just trying to hear your accent, so if I do an accent on-stage, I’m doing it correctly.”
When asked if he needs the Straight to continue talking, perhaps rattling off an on-the-fly list of the greatest drummers of all time, Armisen says that won’t be necessary. Even as he’s been answering all questions, he’s been busy working.
“No, I’m good now,” he responds. “There’s one key to your accent, and I’ve just put it in my head.”
The accent-gathering is a sign that Comedy for Musicians but Everyone Is Welcome will draw on bits from Armisen’s Netflix hit Standup for Drummers. The one-hour special has him, brilliantly, doing the accents of folks in every state in America. Other highlights include segments where he claims to be completely baffled by jazz and zydeco, and a demonstration of how timekeeping has changed over the decades, from the big-band ’30s to the synth-fixated ’80s. Along the way, there are detours into the sadness of 18th-century leech-wielding doctors, decomposing foxes, and having to be Burger King in a world ruled by McDonald’s.
A gifted drummer, Armisen also slides behind the kit to do eerily accurate impersonations of legends like Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, and Meg White.
What’s different about Comedy for Musicians is that it’s aimed at more than amateur Topper Headons and Grant Harts. “I’m going to do some more guitar-based comedy,” Armisen says. “There will be observations on types of guitar players, chord structures, types of guitar effects. I’m still doing drummer stuff, but adding more of a guitar element. My hope is someday I can add a bass element, because that's another whole world.”
It was Armisen’s affection for music, specifically punk (starting with Hüsker Dü, Big Black, the Clash, and the Damned), that launched him on a roundabout path to comedy. Before landing on Saturday Night Live for an 11-season run, he spent years toiling in the American underground as the drummer for Chicago alternative agitators Trenchmouth.
His affection for punk is obvious right from when he begins the interview by singing the praises of Vancouver and the old Hungry Eye, which he played numerous times, dating back to when it was known as the Cruel Elephant.
“One of my favourite bands ever is NoMeansNo—we played with them one time in Houston,” he recalls. “Is there a better beginning to a song than ‘It’s Catching Up?’ It’s so good, it’s paralyzing.”
Back in the day, punk was something kids turned to because they hated the government, teachers, parents, and soccer coaches. That wasn’t the case for Armisen.
“I liked the pleasantness of it,” he says with zero irony. “The version of punk that I saw was very colourful and positive. All the melodies were happy. Even with hardcore bands I saw, like Hüsker Dü, they still had a poppy element. The reason I hung on to punk wasn’t because of anger. My revolution wasn’t against my parents. It was against the kids in my high school who were so into cliché rock. They were into every cliché of rock ’n’ roll that you saw on TV—the long hair, blue jean jackets, and lyrics about castles. I thought that we were supposed to be changing things, to go for an aesthetic that was cooler. As soon as I saw Devo and Talking Heads, I was like, ‘This is the opposite of what’s around me—why aren’t we all doing this?’ ”
To do his part in changing the cultural landscape, he got into the punk-rock trenches as a drummer. Armisen travelled North America and made records with Trenchmouth for eight years, from 1988 to the postgrunge mid-’90s. During that time he watched fellow Chicagoans like Smashing Pumpkins become superstars, and Windy City renegades like the Jesus Lizard land major-label deals. Eventually, it started to seem like everyone was doing better than Trenchmouth.
“When the Smashing Pumpkins got big I was fine with it,” he says. “It was like, ‘That’s not the kind of music we make, so this is how it should be.’ Then Jesus Lizard and even Tortoise—which wasn’t on a major label—was bigger than us. I remember going, ‘This band [Trenchmouth] is not working.’ And that’s what changed it all for me.”
Rather than begrudge those acts, which he loves, Armisen reflects that he wasn’t serious enough about the craft of making music.
After spinning his wheels as a drummer with the Blue Man Group, and getting little joy from a Second City improv class, he decided to take a DIY approach to comedy. In 1998 he shot a man-on-the-street-style guide to Austin’s fabled South by Southwest music festival. Fred Armisen's Guide to Music and SXSW 1998 had him interviewing Siouxsie and the Banshees while dressed as a nightmarishly mute bucktooth rabbit, asking insane questions at sparsely attended “How to Make It” seminars, and doing what many thought was impossible: making famously misanthropic alternative-record producer Steve Albini (Nirvana’s In Utero) crack up.
The tape led to work on HBO, followed by the call from Saturday Night Live, where he made his name with such oddballs as Venezuelan nightclub comic Fericito and Valley Girl–accented Stuart from The Californians. Eventually, he created the wildly successful DIY sketch show Portlandia with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein; there, he forever etched on people’s brains such warped caricatures as the customer-hostile women’s-bookstore owner Candace Devereaux.
If he took a life lesson from his time in Trenchmouth, it was that being anything less than meticulous in his comedy work wasn’t an option. Which brings him to where he is today, as one of the busiest people in the game, with a schedule that shows no signs of slowing down. Luckily, Armisen is proof once again that no one minds working double time—including during interviews—when they love what they do.
“I’m not, like, an overly mystical or spiritual person, but you need to look around you at the signs in life,” Armisen says. “It was like, ‘This band with your friends is not working out, but whenever I do comedy, a million things work out.’ So I took the clues of life, and figured ‘This is the direction you go.’ It was as simple as ‘Let me try a little standup, let me try some characters.’ And then, boom, everything changed.”
Fred Armisen brings Comedy for Musicians but Everyone Is Welcome to the Vogue Theatre on Saturday (February 16), as part of the JFL NorthWest comedy festival.