Nine Songs: Fred Armisen
Fred Armisen is positively giddy when he tells me about his joy at being in the United Kingdom.
The prolific comedian, actor and musician is coming to the end of a two-month stretch over here, filming the new season of Documentary Now!, the show he created with fellow Saturday Night Live alumni Bill Hader and Seth Meyers, and producer Rhys Thomas. Armisen was also here for a few months last year working on Judd Apatow’s Netflix movie The Bubble. After exploring Manchester, Wales and the Cotswolds, he’s now in Blackpool: “ I have never seen a place like this before!” he tells me. “And I just walked up and down the shoreline and it's amazing – there’s all these little roller coasters and stuff!”
Armisen heads south, to London, later this week for a one-off UK performance of his standup show Comedy for Musicians But Everyone is Welcome, the follow-up to his Netflix special Standup for Drummers. “I did a little version of that show at a drum shop in London, in 2018,” he explains. “I like performing in music stores or drum shops but this is like the first time I'm doing it in the UK. This version of it and in an actual venue.”
The Long Island-raised Armisen established his music credentials far before he found his comedic chops: at 22, he dropped out of NYC's School of Visual Arts, moved to Chicago and formed Trenchmouth with former classmate Damon Locks. The post-hardcore band delivered four albums before breaking up in 1996, with Armisen moving onto a two-year gig as drummer for Blue Man Group.
An early foray into comedy saw the 32-year-old Armisen deliver a guide to the 1998 edition of SXSW. Interviewing the likes of Janeane Garofalo, there's hints of the dynamic he would bring to his early SNL work a few years later. One of his early breakout characters on that show would end up being Venezuelan drummer Fericito and a trademark of Armisen's time as a featured player would be astute impressions of some of music's greats alongside originals such as the Maggie Thatcher-loving punk Ian Rubbish.
“I still can't believe that I got to be on that show,” Armisen tells me. “That I got to do comedy and play parody music, and do weird sketches with bands. You know, if my dreams came true, this is what it would be. I literally wrote this down as a kid because I used to watch SNL all the time – that's where I saw a lot of those bands. The Specials – the first time I saw them was on SNL. I saw the Clash on SNL. Just to be in that studio was just a dream!"
His exit from SNL saw a final outing for Ian Rubbish, accompanied by the likes of Aimee Mann, J Mascis, Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones, and Carrie Brownstein - who would go on to create Portlandia with Armisen. That show dug deeper into leftfield pop culture, racking up eight seasons and confirming Armisen as comedy royalty. He kept his hand in on music, drumming on a 2007 Les Savy Fav album, and his character Jens Hannemann - a drummer with a very complicated approach to time signatures - even ended up playing support to Joanna Newsom back in 2010.
A self-confessed Anglophile at heart, Armisen decided to approach his choice of songs that matter for our feature with a very British ringfence – to pay tribute to the nation that's meant to so much to him over the years.
Fred Armisen: Well first of all you have to subtract the idea of The Beatles because The Beatles is such a big part of everybody's life. It's like they're almost bigger than just England! So skipping over that, I would say, when I was 14, or 15. I was getting into to British punk – even though I was late to it – on Long Island, New York where I grew up.
For some reason me and my friends just hooked onto The Clash, and The Jam and Sex Pistols. When you guys got it – let's say it's 1977 – I was only 10 or 11 or something. So for us, we got this other wave of it, and to us it was brand new. We loved anything that came through and we didn't separate: New Wave, Ska, it was all punk to us. So Bow Wow Wow, for example, I'm sure they didn't think of themselves as a punk band, but to us, they were. I know that Gary Numan is considered New Wave too, but all those records went together for us. I was in a suburb and we were going to record stores in the city. There were some radio stations that were starting to play New Wave music, and they would throw a lot of this stuff in and it really shaped me hearing British music.
Any interview with The Clash, we just memorised it, we knew everything that all those guys said, the Sex Pistols, just everybody! When MTV started, there would be videos too. We’d watch Madness videos and you’d see the look of London… those sort of yellow bricks, and the way that they were dressing up, and we’d be like, “Whoa! That's England! That's London!”
And once I finally got to go to England, it actually did look like that too. So whenever I get to come to England, I associate so much of it with that music. I assume that every British person I meet knows the entire history of punk, even if they're the wrong age. I just want to be like, “Hey, you're from the place that Captain Sensible is from? You must know that right? Like, even though you go on and you do your work every day, you must know, every day, that this is the land of Captain Sensible!”
I know that isn't really the case, I know it's irrational, but that's how I see England. Even when I land at Heathrow and I’m going through customs, I think, you know, this the land of the Stranglers, the land of The Slits!
We – and I – loved The Damned so much. They are really the greatest - the phases they went through, and their love for that spooky sound, but also that punk sound and the psychedelic sound. They were so honest about how psychedelic music influenced them. And I feel that Captain Sensible is probably the best musician out of anyone in any of those scenes. When we played, they were the songs we’d play; we learned “Wait for the Blackout”. Strawberries is definitely my favourite album of theirs and there’s a song on there called “Life Goes On” where Captain Sensible sings. It’s just one of my favourite songs ever – a song about feeling good about being alive – and from that I got into his solo albums. He had a sort of Greatest Hits package of his singles in the States and we would listen to the hell out of that album. What I liked about him and about punk is that it can be melodic and happy and fun.
Something about it really reminds me of England. There's these lyrics in it about being an animal in a yellow plastic bin with geraniums on the front and it seems so British to me. It’s my fantasy of what England is. And then he sort of jams out on it… he builds this track that’s not a simple pop song and he just jams out on it!
I believe in Captain Sensible and I think he’s a British national treasure. As soon as I see a picture of him or a video, of him in concert, it just makes me really happy. I'm happy with the existence of Captain Sensible! How you don't have a statue to him here yet, I'll never know. But that should be the first thing you see at the airport!
I just always loved Altered Images. They’re a band that makes me happy every time they appear on my iPod.
When music like this was coming out, I just liked that bands were choosing such catchy guitar riffs… these little hooks that were pure pop and catchy but still had that edge to it. And I love these lyrics because they’re so simple; the song’s about escaping and how we all like to escape into thinking about being on vacation or something. I think – from what I've read – they kind of came from the same scene as Siouxsie and the Banshees. And you can hear it in the drums – they sort of had this heavy tom use...
It would be stuff like Talking Heads, stuff like Devo. The American post-punk or new wave scene, you know. Some Ramones too… I was also a little late for all of that, but I was still getting into it.
I've seen Big Audio Dynamite a bunch of times, and I've always loved them. It's such a great song and I love it when a musician from a famous band goes out on their own. I like it when people sort of rebuild, you know – here’s something I did and now I'm going to do this other thing.
“E = MC2” is a haunting, beautiful song. I like how long it is. The length is very confident. I'm always lost in the song and in Mick Jones's voice, I could listen to him forever. It's sort of synthy but still guitary too and I like Mick Jones's guitar style. It's such a perfect tempo. It’s not meant to rile you up and get you going – it’s somewhere right in the middle of that. But that tempo right there, it’s just great!
To look at music reviews from the past is just the best, because everyone was so wrong about everything. For me as a record buyer, I never listened to reviews. I never read them and thought I'm not going to buy that record! But, you know, these reviews that would come out about Prince are like… on what planet would you think to give Prince a bad review? All of us on Earth, our job is just to write good reviews of Prince, now that he’s gone. So these people just wasted their time…. There were mixed reviews about Sandinista. It’s the greatest album ever! Sandinista is a masterpiece!
What are busy doing that you need every record to be so short!? Guess what? You can always just go back to it if it’s taking up that much of your time!
Yes, and this is like a similar thing to Big Audio Dynamite, where I liked the next band too. I like that they were still friends, and I liked the idea that they were friends with another band too. I like it when bands are friends with other bands, and they put them on their records. It helps me picture the scene better. I imagine that they’re all hanging out with each other making records.
Hearing this rhythm and everything at the time was pretty shocking, because it's not a regular rock beat or anything. It’s so heavily percussive and I always love to hear percussive music. And this had a little bit of a sense of humour and wisdom. It's always great to hear it, it so represents a time for me, and I just like picturing both those bands hanging out, you know!
I had no idea either until this moment!
Alright! So let me amend my answer: yeah, well, I mean, I heard the original 39 version was when I was doing music research. And I found it on a 78…. [laughs]
Yeah, I loved The Style Council so much. To be in the States, there’s this image of what we have about what British music is. And when Style Council records started coming out, there was this element of France all of a sudden? You know, they're going to cafes and stuff!
For me buying a record is a lot about the cover but what is happening here? So the shock of the fact that it's not, you know, a Rickenbacker guitar just really drew me in. And then I really became a Style Council fan.
I could have picked “My Ever Changing Moods” or something but “Shout to the Top” is so openly disco. And now it's easy to kind of say this is a disco song. But back then I don't think it was as easy a touchstone. It’s just a great disco song and I love the sentiment of it. And similar to Big Audio Dynamite, it was the ‘next band’ and I really liked that. I’m just a huge fan.
It’s probably not fair to compare them, you know. It's just two different bands. But I will just say that The Style Council arrived at a time in my life where I liked the idea of expanding your musical vocabulary, and instrumentation. So the drummer wasn't just thumping away – this drummer was sort of a jazz drummer, and it really worked. The use of keyboards that weren't synths… the sound of the organ felt very new to me, and retro, at the same time.
Me and my friends were always huge Stranglers fan and “Duchess” is so dense. There’s this dense keyboard thing happening and the guitar is strumming away and the bass is going the whole time. It’s so dense that it just envelopes me. And it's lyrics that I know nothing about – so it really I was like, oh, I guess this is what they sing about in England? Hugh Cornwell is another genius and wow, what a beautiful melody!
I could have picked “Golden Brown” but “Duchess” just has this melody that is just purely beautiful. And in the video, they're dressed up as altar boys – but they have five o'clock shadows, they look kind of tough. So they're just very strange and it was very mysterious to me.
I have a weird memory about them. We had this new wave radio station in New York, on Long Island. It was pretty big; along with MTV, it really helped make bands like Duran Duran, arena bands like The Police and U2. And I remember “Try” as being a hit song on the station – they played it all of time, even though we think of it as such an underground, post-punk song or whatever.
So hearing it again and again, I remember I bought the single, but it was an import so had the little hole in it. And I've kept the single since then and it still sounds new. It still sounds ahead of its time – what a great beat, and what great vocals.
I guess a side note would be that one of their other songs “Mind your own business” was on a TV commercial last year - it was on an Apple commercial...
Yeah, I also wanted to take this list to a little bit of a different decade, you know? As much the '80s shaped what I listened to, I was clearly listening to music in the '90s too! And when I was in a band, we would listen to this in the van. And we didn't know what to expect.
It was a cassette and this is the first song off that album Mars Audiac Quintet. And it really shut us up – meaning… sometimes when we hear something new, we talk over it and critique it. And this I remember this just shut us up – we were so transfixed.
I wasn't exposed to Can and all those bands that happened later. So, to me, it was like: where does this beat come from? It's not aggressive, but it's really steady, it’s emphatic and the melodies are great. My band became friends with them and I got to know them a little bit because they used to go to Chicago a lot and I always loved Stereolab. I think they took everything into the '90s in a really amazing way. They were so cool. What a cool band!
It’s fantastic, the guitar playing is really beautiful too. I've always loved this album and I remember when it came out. It’s just a masterpiece from beginning to end. And this song – just the timing of it, it’s in sort of 3/4 or 6/8 or something and it's just absolutely beautiful. What a great song! This was at a time when everyone was buying CDs and I was just in Manchester and someone gave me a gift of a reissue of this on vinyl. So I didn’t put this on the list from memory, I was actually just listening to it. Beautiful though: the guitar, the singing everything. Drums.
He's great. He's really great. I remember he played in LA and the way he came out on stage – this is not a fascinating story – but he had one of those tourist-bought plastic Academy Awards. You know, you could just buy them in any memento shop and I thought it was a good move. He just came out holding it.