One of the last great things that Fred Armisen gave the world as a cast member on Saturday Night Live (he left the show in May) was Ian Rubbish, a fictional punk rocker and lead singer of the Bizarros, who hates cops and the Queen almost as much as he loves Margaret Thatcher. The character has had a surprisingly active life beyond late-night TV. Rubbish opened for Vampire Weekend at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, and released his own four-track EP, The Best of Ian Rubbish, as a free download.
But today, he made history, going where no satirical rock icon has gone before. Ian Rubbish, aka Fred Armisen, in an exclusive video for Funny or Die, interviewed two of the surviving members of the Clash. He sat down with Paul Simonon and Mick Jones in the Electric Lady Studios, the same New York City studio where they recorded classic albums like Sandinista! (1980) and Combat Rock (1982). And then they accompanied Rubbish on the Bizarros original “Hey Policeman.” I can’t stress just what a gigantic comedy milestone this is. It’d be like Eric Idle doing Rutles songs with the surviving Beatles, or Christopher Guest jamming with Led Zeppelin.
I called Armisen to talk about his watershed rock moment. He was, as he should’ve been, giddy as a teenager who’d just performed with the fucking Clash!
Watching this video, the teenage Clash fan in me was losing his mind. My inner monologue was just a constant loop of “Holy shit. Is this seriously happening?” Is that pretty similar to what was going on in your own head when you were shooting it?
Yes. Take that feeling, that exact inner monologue you were thinking, and multiply it by 50,000. I picked a number that’s real, not something like “a gazillion,” because I don’t want to exaggerate my emotions.
“Holy shit” times 50,000 is still pretty impressive.
The whole time in my head, I was just like, “Keep it together. Just remember the lyrics, remember the chords, don’t fuck up.” After they left, after the session was done, I had to sit in silence for a minute.
Like you’re in church.
It was like church. We shot the whole thing at the Electric Lady Studios. When I was growing up in Long Island, my friends and I would go into the city and just look at the building. That’s how into the Clash we were. Me and Kenny Young, we’d go shopping for records. We’d save up what seemed like a lot of money for us, which was only maybe $30, and buy all the records we could. And then we’d go to Electric Lady and just stand outside and look at it.
Is it that fascinating from the outside?
Not at all. It’s basically a door. It’s a door that we would look at.
And that impressed you?
Oh yeah. We’d be like, “Woooow. That’s where they did Sandinista!”
When you came up with the idea to have Ian Rubbish interview the Clash, how much did you ask for? Was it enough just to get Paul Simonon and Mick Jones in the studio?
We wanted to make it as easy on them as possible. A shoot can be a long, drawn-out thing, but I didn’t want to infringe too much on their time. So we tried to keep it simple. Also, I wanted to mix it up a little, so it wasn’t just a joke. You know what I mean?
You didn’t want them to think you were making fun of them?
Well, no, not exactly. I didn’t want it to be the Ian Rubbish comedy show. They were there to promote their box set, their retrospective. So in respect to them and to Sony, I thought, well, let’s make some of it real. I don’t like watching things where it’s all one thing. Like it’s all jokes and comedy, or it’s all serious. I want to hear the Clash talk about the Clash. I wanted to make it about them without making them walk too much down memory lane.
Does that get boring for them?
I’m sure it does. I could’ve easily been myself, a guy who’s obsessed with the band, and the whole interview would’ve been “Remember when this happened?” They’ve done enough interviews like that, so they probably would’ve gone through the motions and just given the same answers they’ve given a million times. Or I could’ve taken it in an even more annoying direction, and gotten geeky and technical and nerdy with them.
I would’ve loved to see that. You saying things like “Oh, ‘Capital Radio One’ is my favorite Clash song.” Or trashing people who only know “Train in Vain.”
I came close. One of the questions I asked them, which we edited out, was about the studio. There are three different rooms in Electric Lady, and I asked them which one they recorded Sandinista! in. They were both like, “I have no idea.”
Well sure. It’s been almost 35 years.
That was me being a nerd, and them being normal. That was the most interesting thing for me, how normal they were.
You were surprised?
Well, no. But when you meet your idols, it can go wrong. I’m not by nature a cynical person. But sometimes your expectations are different from reality. It’s not that they’re worse than you imagined, they’re just…
Different, right. But with Paul and Mick, they were better than my expectations.
And they were funny!
That was so amazing.
Paul made a joke. At least I think it was a joke.
About the Clash putting out a record without a hole in the middle.
No, that was definitely a joke. It was him being really funny and amazing. He was playing along with the premise.
Did you have any idea going into this that they could hold their own in an improv situation?
When I read the liner notes in Sandinista!, I kinda knew they had a better sense of humor than they were given credit for. And for this, I didn’t have to explain anything to them. They immediately got the joke and were able to play along with it. They weren’t like, “Hey, our lyrics were serious. Let’s not make fun of our legacy.”
Would you want to do this as a continuing series? Like Zach Galifianakis does with Between Two Ferns?
I don’t know. I don’t think so.
You’re on the fence?
It’s a tough thing. I don’t want to be too precious about it, but at the same time, I don’t want to just blow it out and do interviews with everybody. ‘Cause then it runs the risk of me trying to be funny. With the Clash thing, I have real reverence for them. So I sort of chilled out and didn’t make a joke out of everything.
How’d the interview evolve into a jam session? Did they know going in that they were going to play?
I didn’t ask. But we created an environment where that was possible.
How do you mean?
We were shooting in a studio, so it seemed natural to just have some guitars and drums set up. Maybe Ian Rubbish would play one of his songs for them, or maybe nothing would happen. But whatever, let’s just have it set up.
Better to be prepared?
Right. So then we have all the instruments, and I’m like, “Let’s make sure the guitars are in tune.” And then “Let’s make sure there are vocal mics.”
You were hopeful?
Oh absolutely. I didn’t expect anything, but I wanted to be ready for it. It turned out they were into it.
And they wanted to play one of your songs?
That was insane. Just getting to play with them was one thing, but then they’re requesting to play Ian Rubbish songs. They were asking. It was not me forcing my comedy thing on them. I started to go into a Clash song on guitar. I did a little bit of “Police on My Back,” which I thought maybe they’d be cool about because it’s a cover. But I read the room and I could tell they were not into it.
You just got a vibe?
It was a feeling. Also, I kind of got the message by their not following my lead and playing the song. [Laughs] That made it pretty obvious.
You had to teach them the chords to “Hey Policeman,” I assume?
Yeah. And they were really into it. They rehearsed it, and they really wanted to get it right. There was never a moment where it felt like they were doing me a favor. I tried to play it cool and be like, “Okay sure, this should work.” But inside I was like, “What the fuck is happening?”
You’ve been a Clash fan since you were a kid, right?
Since 1982. So I was… 14, 15 years old. I was actually late to the punk movement because I was too young. The bands that were big in ’77, like the Clash and the Sex Pistols and Talking Heads, I got into them in the early 80s. And it changed my life. It got into my DNA. I will always consider myself a punk because of those experiences in high school. It will always be a part of me.
Did you ever see the Clash in concert?
Oh yeah, in 1982. This was my first year of going to concerts. I saw them at Pier 84. They did three nights, and the night we saw them it was packed. It’s not like they were an underground thing or something. They were very popular. They could have played Madison Square Garden. I remember waiting outside the theater gates after the show, and it was raining. And then [Clash manager] Kosmo Vinyl came out and let everybody in.
All of us. And it wasn’t like we knew anybody. We weren’t dropping any names to get inside. Who would we know? We were from Long Island. Kosmo just opened the doors and said, “Come on in.” I got to talk to Paul and Joe Strummer. The way Joe acted around me, I still remember it. I still think about it every time I talk to strangers. He was very considerate. He didn’t seem distracted or in a rush to talk to somebody else. He stood and listened intently to this kid, to this 14-year-old kid who had nothing to say. Paul Simonon was the same way. It really stuck with me, their love for their fans.
You also saw them perform on Saturday Night Live?
At a dress rehearsal. This was also in ’82. A friend’s dad worked for SNL as a cameraman and she knew that I loved the Clash, and she said, “I can get you tickets to the dress rehearsal.” So I went to that, and then I watched the live show at home. We had a VCR, which was like a brand new thing at the time, and I recorded them playing, and I watched it over and over.
That’s weirdly fortuitous. Did you have any idea sitting in the SNL audience, watching the Clash, that you were glimpsing your future?
Sometimes I wish I could go back and talk to my 14-, 15-year-old self. I would be like, “Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t worry about it. You will not believe how great it turns out. I don’t want to tell you too much because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but trust me, keep going.”
I’d have to say something! “So listen, the Clash, those dudes on stage that you think are gods, you’re going to end up playing with them.”
You can’t tell the 14-year-old you that. It’s cruel!
No, he needs to hear this. “You’re going to play with them, not even as a sideman or on one of their solo projects. I mean, you’re going to sing lead vocals with the Clash, doing a song that you co-wrote. And wait, no, there’s more. The SNL stage, which seems like another world to you right now. You’re going to be in the cast. Not for a little bit but for 11 years!”
Your prepubescent self will think you’re full of shit.
I still sometimes think I’m full of shit. I can’t believe what’s happened to me. It’s fucking crazy.
You played with the Clash, man.
I played with the goddamn Clash! How the hell did that happen?
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)