There are rock stars who moonlight as comics (John Mayer, Justin Timberlake) and comics who moonlight as rock stars (John Belushi, Jimmy Fallon). And then there’s Fred Armisen, whose pop culture identity isn’t so clearly defined. Is he a comic who occasionally plays music, or a musician who makes his living in comedy? Long before Saturday Night Live — a gig he’s had since 2002 — he was the drummer for Chicago hardcore band Trenchmouth. But he’s hardly given up on his music career to do Obama impressions. In the last few months alone, he’s played drums with Wilco in Chicago, and sang unironic covers of Hüsker Dü and Devo at Brooklyn’s Union Hall. He also released a single on 7-inch, a song called “Fist Fight” by a nonexistent hardcore band called Crisis of Conformity, based on a Saturday Night Live sketch about a wedding reception. The song perfectly demonstrates a recurring theme in Armisen’s best work: Is he kidding? Listening to Armisen sing lyrics like “When Ronald Reagan comes around / He brings the fascists to your town,” it’s almost impossible to tell if it’s meant with a smirk or a snarl.
I called Armisen to talk about Portlandia, his IFC sketch series with Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein. The show — which returns for its second season on Friday, January 6th at 10pm ET — is another one of those Armisen projects that isn’t entirely what it appears. Read any review of Portlandia and the writer is bound to mention how the show gives hipsters the satirical beat-down they deserve. “It’s about life in hipster enclaves,” Margaret Talbot explained in the New Yorker recently, “and the self-consciousness that makes hipsters desperately disavow the label.” After talking to Armisen, it turns out that’s not really true at all.
When comedians make fun of public figures, there’s always a risk that they’ll run into that person out in the real world and it’ll be awkward and uncomfortable. But you’re making fun of an entire city.
That’s true, yeah.
Has Portland seen Portlandia yet? And if so, do they think it’s funny?
I think they do. They’ve been very supportive. All the way up to the mayor. Because they know we do it with love.
Have you been confronted by anybody, either in Portland or otherwise, who thinks one of the characters in Portlandia is based on them?
Oh yeah, all the time. But that’s because many of the character names are taken from people we know. But we don’t base their personalities on them. Still, they hear their names on the show and they’re like, “Heeeey!”
One of my favorite scenes in the upcoming season is about a guy with an Eddie Vedder tattoo. Please tell me you know somebody with an Eddie Vedder tattoo.
I wish I did. It’s funny, when Carrie and I were writing that scene, we looked online to see what kinds of weird tattoos people got of their favorite musicians. There is literally nobody who hasn’t been immortalized with a tattoo. Every band, every solo act, anybody who’s ever had a record, there’s somebody somewhere with a tattoo of their face or name. It’s crazy.
Do you have any tattoos?
It just never happened for me. I’ve never been interested. I’m also scared of needles.
But if you were going to get a tattoo, what person or word or image would you want to have burned onto your flesh?
Oh wow. That’s a good question. [Long pause.] See, even in a hypothetical scenario, I can’t make a decision. Because even if I can think of something I love enough to get tattooed on my body, will it hold up ten years down the line? There are consequences for these things, you know.
If you don’t think about the long term, you’re the guy with the Limp Bizkit tattoo in 2012.
Exactly! And I’m thinking, well, what if I got a drum? But in the future, maybe drums become obsolete. What if nobody uses drums anymore?
Like some sort of electronic drum machine? Oh come on, that’s so futuristic and implausible, Fred.
You never know. What if I got a tattoo of a cup of coffee? And then a decade from now coffee is replaced by something even better. We’re all getting our breakfast caffeine in pill form. So now people look at my tattoo and they’re like, “What the hell is that?”
You may be overthinking this.
You know what I’m going to do? I’ll get a tattoo when I’m 88 years old. That way I know it’ll never be embarrassing in the future. Unless they invent medicine, which they very well might, that lets you live to 120. Oh forget it, I don’t know. This hypothetical tattoo is getting way too complicated.
Portlandia has been called “hipster-skewering” by more than a few critics. Are hipsters a legitimate problem? Do they really need to be skewered?
I think both of those words are nonexistent.
Which ones? “Hipster” and “skewering”?
Yeah. We do not skewer anybody. The characters on Portlandia are very much like us, right down to the way they talk. They pretty much sound just like we do. And their personality traits are very much like us. If we’re skewering anyone, it’s ourselves. And the word “hipster,” I can’t get a grasp on what that really means.
I’ve always thought it was a just a derogatory term created by people with low self-esteem.
Totally! Totally! I couldn’t agree more. It’s like politically correct. Politically correct is something you call somebody you don’t like or agree with, it’s not something that anybody actually is. It’s not a real philosophy. And it’s the same with hipster. No one says, “Hey, I’m a hipster now.” Because that doesn’t mean anything. In most cases, if you’re calling somebody a hipster, it’s less a reflection on them than it is your own anxieties and insecurities.
Whenever I hear people complaining about hipsters, I want to tell them, “It’s okay if you don’t like Arcade Fire.”
Exactly, yeah. Nobody’s judging you. It’s okay. Like what you like.
I think there’s this irrational fear that people in skinny jeans and thick-rim glasses are secretly making fun of everybody else.
And that’s just not true. We’re all insecure and uncertain about our level of coolness. And here’s what’s really insane about the whole hipster label. As cool as we all think we are, there’s some underground movement happening right now, I don’t even know what it is, that’s way cooler than anyone can imagine. I get glimpses of it online. Someone sent me a link to a video of some DJ. I didn’t know who he was, and he was playing some huge venue that was completely sold out. We think we’re on top of what music is? We have no idea. There’s stuff that’s so ahead of us, there isn’t even a name for it yet. Those are the real hipsters.
So what you’re saying, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that if you’re hip enough to know who the real hipsters are, you’re way too hip to be using empty buzzwords like “hipster”?
Yes. Absolutely. I believe that’s one hundred percent true.
We really should talk about Crisis of Conformity.
The band, which is entirely fictional, released “Fist Fight” on 7-inch with almost no publicity. How’s it doing? Are people finding it and buying it?
They are, yeah, surprisingly enough. We released it with Drag City, this label that I really love in Chicago. When I wrote the song for an SNL sketch, it was kind of a love letter to a very specific genre of music. I grew up listening to Black Flag and Hüsker Dü and Bad Brains, and hearing those songs always makes me sentimental and happy. So we did the sketch and it was great, but I didn’t want to leave it as just that. I wanted to do something else with it, without being grandiose. I went to D.C. and recorded it at Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty’s studio. He was a big part of that scene back in the 80s. We recorded it in about thirty seconds.
You played all the instruments on the track. I’m surprised you didn’t get Dave Grohl to reprise his role as Crisis of Conformity’s drummer.
Yeah, that would’ve been great, but it all happened so fast. He’s on the cover though. The sleeve for the 7-inch, in the upper corner there’s a little picture of Dave Grohl as a teenager at some D.C. club. He really was a part of that scene.
The format itself seems like a joke. But maybe joke isn’t the right word.
No, no, it’s a joke. But yeah, I see what you mean.
It’s a joke in that you’re trying to sell a 7-inch vinyl record in a world of mp3s. But it’s not a joke because … well, help me out here.
It’s not a joke because there aren’t any punchlines. I’ve always been a fan of comedy without punchlines. I put out this DVD a few years ago.
Right, right. I tried to make it real, or at least real enough to be confusing. So there are very few real jokes in it. My wish was that people would buy it and then return it. I imagined them screaming at the store clerks, “This is bullshit! I thought this thing would help teach my kid how to drums. It doesn’t make any sense! You can’t sell this!”
Ah, I get you. You’re hoping somebody buys the “Fist Fight” 7-inch thinking it’s real.
Exactly. When I was thinking about making the record, my only question was, “What would Crisis of Conformity do?” Well of course they’d put out a 7-inch. Their whole existence was 7-inches. They’re from another era, they don’t care about mp3s.
Most people don’t have any way of listening to a 7-inch record. That technology isn’t commonplace anymore.
But I don’t think that matters. It’s cool just as something to look at.
Yeah. You could put it on a shelf or a coffee table. It’s just a piece of decorative art. Something to make you go, “Oh yeah, remember 7-inches?”
There’s something about Crisis of Conformity that makes me weepy and nostalgic.
Did you grow up in D.C.?
No, I was in Chicago.
The Chicago scene was just as great. It had its own sound, its own scene. There was Pegboy and, you know…
Yeah, yeah. The Effigies, Big Black.
Jesus Lizard, Screeching Weasel.
Oh my god, Screeching Weasel. I missed it all because I was in New York.
You at least got a taste of it. You moved to Chicago when? 1987, 88?
1988. I caught the tail end of it. Chicago was so great. The hardcore scene was just amazingly individual and special.
And yet as much as I claim to love it, I can’t tell you the last time I listened to a Screeching Weasel album.
I’m the same way. It’s funny, people look back fondly on New Wave and they dress up in the clothes and listen to the music. But hardcore didn’t age as well. You don’t see a lot of iTunes collections like “Best 80s Hardcore.” Because it’s really kind of difficult to listen to sometimes.
It hurts my old man ears.
That’s what I love about it. It really makes music its own little island. I love how so many hardcore songs in the 80s name-dropped politicians. If some 20-something kid listened to one of those songs today, they’d be like, “Who the hell is Alexander Haig?”
What’s all this about invading Granada?
Exactly, yeah, yeah. I love that. This drummer once said to me, and I agree with him completely, music should be like a newspaper. You pick it up, take it all in, and then move on to the next thing. I really believe that’s how music should function.
I think I treat music more like my grandfather, who didn’t throw anything away and had a garage filled with old LIFE magazines.
Oh totally, I’m right there with you. In my head, music should be immediate and of-the-moment, but my heart wants to fill the house with old 7-inches.