Fred Armisen

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Before Fred Armisen became a breakout star on Saturday Night Live, he was playing drums for the Chicago based industrial-funk band Trenchmouth. This coming October, Drag City Records will release Fred Armisen Presents: Jens Hannemann Complicated Drumming Technique, an instructional DVD for the aspiring drummer as told via a mixture of absurd percussion experts that Armisen recently became obsessed with. IMPOSE recently got a few minutes to catch up with Fred while in Los Angeles, to find out just what inspired him to release a thirty-minute instructional drumming DVD, and how exactly he went from being a drummer in an independent rock band to one of the hottest names in comedy.

So what are you doing in LA?

Fred Armisen: I always come out [to LA] for my breaks. I always go back to LA. I come out here because this is where my agents are and all that stuff, and also I just kind of like it here. I just love LA.

Are you going to do any stand up while in LA this week?

This week I won’t be, I’m doing a stand up [set] in Chicago on Monday, with Paul F. Tompkins, we’re doing a show out there.

Is that at the Hide Out?

Yeah, yeah.

Oh, the Drag City comedy show?


Your stand up sets are usually pretty brief in comparison to a lot of other comics out there. Why is that?

Usually I’ve got to dress up in an outfit or something, because I do different characters and stuff, so for me it’s like, I don’t want to let it sit up there for too long. You know what I mean? I just want it to be like a song, like a band playing one song and then leaving.

Which came first for you, music or comedy? I was familiar with Trenchmouth before you became a regular on SNL.

No way!

I’m sure you get that a lot?

Well, no not really. I mean sometimes, it’s really nice. Like sometimes people will say that they were at a certain show, and I’m like, “Ah! I can remember the show.” And that was really cool, but no it’s really nice when it happens. It’s a good thing. It’s a surprise, I’m like, “gosh damn,” ya know? But um, what was your question again?

Which came first for you, music or comedy?

Music. I was just purely playing in bands. For awhile that was all I wanted to do, and then comedy came later.

So when did music and comedy finally intersect in your life? Can you remember the exact instant you realized you should be doing comedy?

I actually do. I do remember the exact instant. I was playing music and I had made this videotape interviewing different musicians during SxSW. So I just did it for fun. Really, really, seriously just for my friends and stuff. Then someone edited it, and we decided to show at this club called Lounge Axe, in Chicago. We showed it as a videotape on a screen, and there was such a good turn out; like all these people showed up and I got all this press from it. To me it was more of a turnout then we got for Trenchmouth. So I’m like, “This seems to get more attention then me playing in Trenchmouth.” So it was a very literal thing; I got paid at the end of the night, I was like “Oh, wow!” I didn’t have to load in my drums, I didn’t have to split this with anyone; it was just me. So I’m like, “Maybe this is the way I’m supposed to go?” And I know that sounds greedy, but what I’m meaning to say is that was the doorway to: “Oh, this is another way my life could go.”

So at this point had you already tried live comedy, or were you focused on videos?

No, I’d never done stand up. But from there, very quickly, I started doing videos and stuff for HBO and different companies and stuff, and I very, very quickly was making- that was my life. And then somewhere in there someone asked me to do something for some variety show. And I was like, “Oh, I could do something.” And then I did this self-defense guy, this character that I do. Then that was that, I was like, “Oh, I guess I could do this as well. This is a version of stand up.”

So how did this lead to Saturday Night Live? Did Lorne see one of your videos, or did somebody from SNL scout you?

Yes and no. From those tapes, from me doing stand up as different characters, and I moved to LA at this point from Chicago; I became friendly with Bob Odenkirk. He signed me on to do a sketch show of his for FOX show called NEXT. We became friends, he was very supportive and from there; the [sketch] show never made it, it was only a pilot. But then I had all these tapes that they sent to SNL, and then Lorne saw it and asked me to audition.

Have you ever considered starting another band?

FA: I still love playing, and if someone asks me to I always do it because it’s so much fun. But only in a stealthy way, like only without anyone knowing about it. Because I don’t want make it seem like, “Hey this comedian is going to break out into music!” That’s the worst. No one wants to see a comedian playing music. It’s more that, that if Les Savy Fav, which they did, ask me to play drums on their record, that’s like totally, “Oh yeah! I’ll come down and I’ll do it!” But I try not to make a big deal about it, that’s like a separate thing. But me making serious music, that’s the one trade off I had to make. It's like, “Okay, it’s great that I’m enjoying doing comedy, but I can no longer want to put out a solo record.” Which is fine by me, I love playing on other peoples' records. To be honest with you it feels really, really good. The Les Savy Fav record.

I’ve been listening to their new album, which track are you on?

I forgot the name of that, I think there’s two? I forgot? You’ll just have to look at it. Do they not say?

It has all the song titles on the CD sleeve but I’m just going by the numbers.

Yeah, I forgot. Syd emailed me which ones they were and then I forgot the titles.

So what can you tell me about your upcoming Drag City DVD? From what I’ve gathered so far, this is not a comedy DVD as much as it is an actual instructional program for aspiring drummers?

Yeah. It’s meant to be sold with other instructional DVDs at music stores.

Like Guitar Center?

Yeah, like there’s a whole world of these DVD’s of people doing drum solos and then explaining what they’re doing on the solo. And I’ve been obsessed with them, I’m like, “What is this? Who buys this? Do you people really learn from these?” I think; my suspicion is, it’s drum DVD’s made for other drummers. They’re just fascinating. He’ll just do a solo and break it down; rhythm by rhythm and beat by beat, and I’m like, “Oh my God.” It’s so. . .what’s the word? It’s just so like. . .detailed. It’s like micromanaging. They just break everything down. I was like, “I gotta make one of these.” So I did.

And the character on the DVD, Jens Hanneman, where did you come up with him?

He’s based on a mix of different drummers I saw on these DVDs. So he’s a mix of a guy named Marco Minnemann and Terry Bozzio. I kind of put those two together. I don’t know if it’s a parody or what? It’s just me; I sorta became obsessed with those two.

How long did it take you to put this together, from the actual conception of the idea to the actual post production?

About a year. Post production seems to take the longest. I just came up with it, and I hired a video crew and I was like, “Lets go down and do this.” And then I did it, then by the time we get to editing and we want to get it right, we wanted to get the sound right and all that stuff, but that’s okay, I mean its all part of the process. It’s worth it.

Was Drag City the only label you had in mind for releasing this DVD?

Yeah. I knew, because it came to me; I was walking down the street in New York and I just picked up my cell phone and called Dan. Like I was thinking, “What can I do? What can I Do?” And as soon as I put it together, I just called him. I didn’t even think it would ever be anyone else. I figured Dan would get it. I mean I guess anyone would get it? I’ve been talking to him recently, had his number on my cell phone so I called him.

Do you think that your fans would appreciate a straight comedy album one of these days?

You know SNL takes a lot of my time, and a lot of energy and then I’ll go do a movie or something. This was the first thing that really inspired me, that was bigger than wanting to do a comedy album. Comedy albums like, okay, that to me is like, I would sit down and try to come up with something. But the drum DVD was more; it just inspired me. I was like, “I gotta do it, I gotta do it.” That’s just my version of a comedy album.

Do you think you’ll ever release straight comedy album in the years to come?

Yeah, I’d like to. I gotta figure out a way to do it. I don’t even know if could figure out a way to do it? Yeah, I’d love to. As soon as I can.

When you want to throw down for fun, do you have kit set up in your apartment or do you got to a friends practice space and jam?

I have timbales at my house, and then at work at SNL I’ll sit behind the kit and just kind of go through stuff.

What sort of gear do you personally prefer playing on?

I like Latin percussion, timbales. When I was in Trenchmouth I didn’t use toms I just used timbales instead. I just liked how melodic and shrill they were, and cutting. Other than that, I like Drum Workshop hardware, for some reason I’ve always ended up with Pearl stuff? I don’t even know if it’s the best? But I’ve been like, “Oh, I ended up with a Pearl kick drum, or a Pearl snare drum.” I don’t know why that is? It just happened upon me. Everyone else seems to have nicer kits though? Everyone has these great old kits.

Yeah I always here Slingerland, that’s always the first thing that comes out of their mouths. Did you use any of those long skinny echo drums that most metal drummer always had but never used from those gigantic cage kits in the 80’s?

I don’t think I had access to one?

I don’t remember those drummers ever using those?

I think they just sat there?

So what do you have planned as far as promotions for the DVD?

I want to try and do something where I maybe play; do like clinics. Drummers do clinics at different music stores, so maybe I’ll just do a bunch of those somewhere? That’d be cool.

So what’s up for the rest of the summer? You going on a vacation soon or are you working?

No I’m always working. I make every day a work day. That’s my mantra.

When do you start taping SNL again?

I think the end of September?

Do you think if SNL was taping when Lindsay Lohan got busted again, that the writers would’ve incorporated her misfortune into a sketch?

Yeah, umm? My suspicion was, I don’t think we would’ve made fun of that anyway. That’s my guess?

Is it that tragic, where the writers for Saturday Night Live no longer find anything funny about it?

Yeah, I feel that even in the streets. For some reason with her, my opinion is that if people do feel kind of bad for her, like, I don’t know what it is. Or, if people, because of talk shows or something, know more about addiction and stuff; but it was one thing with Paris Hilton; people were kind of like, for some reason bullied her and stuff, and they didn’t have that much sympathy. But for some reason with Lindsay Lohan, I really want to talk to people and I’ll go, “Yeah man, that’s a drag.” I’m not saying it in a way that like; everyone’s hearts go out to her. But I feel like everyone is becoming more aware of what drug addiction is. And not treating it is like, “Aw man that’s just fucked up!” That’s rough. I mean am I wrong? I dunno?

It just seems that when she was posing in a bikini with that ankle bracelet on, I mean it was kinda hot but at the same time it was like, “What the fuck?” From her appearances on SNL, she seemed like a cool chick that most people would like to bro-down with. Then for her to repeatedly fuck up under the scrutiny of the public eye so often it’s just kinda sad.

Yeah, who knows what it’s about? I agree with you, like she’s done the show three times, and I gotta say; she’s a perfectly cool, funny, nice person. I felt like I was totally talking to somebody I could talk to and she was up for doing stuff, She had a good sense of humor. I guess that’s the deal with addiction, it’s just another side of your personality.

There are thousands of kids in America, going through the exact same thing she is; privileged teens, young adults from middle America, they all have similar stories, some a hell of a lot worse than Lindsay’s, but the public will never hear about it because these kids just aren’t famous.

You almost build a relationship with that too. Like you start thinking about, what are people saying about you and stuff. That almost becomes an addiction unto itself, good or bad. It starts to define you or something? I dunno? It’s hard for me to know, because I’m not her, and I don’t know how people spin things or whatever? But yeah, it’s fucking real. I know for sure it happens to people of all ages all over the place.

Luckily, this right here is going to be straight Q & A, so there’s no way for me to spin anything. So do you have any plans to work out today? I’m going for a jog after we’re done here.

I try to do some running. When I’m in New York I have a trainer, who I don’t go to often enough, like I go twice a week but that’s just to barely maintain. So I try to do that, I bought running shoes here and shorts and I go down to Echo Park and run around the lake. But I do what I can, and still I fucking have to stop for sweets. I want chocolate all the time.

That’s bad sugar, Fred.

I know. I want it all the time. Every meal I’m like, “I would like to finish this meal off with some chocolate, but I unfortunately cannot.”

What do you prefer, the fancy sweets or basic…

Yeah, fancy dark chocolate. If I could eat it every minute of the day I would. But I can’t.

Are you a big fan of the Toblerone?

Yeah. I’m a very big fan of Toblerone.

To my knowledge, there’s only one other comedian who has played drums in a band before, and that’s Todd Barry.

Yeah, yeah that’s right.

How do his chops hold up to yours?

Aww. I dunno? I’ve never seen him play a full kit. I think he’s pretty great, I can’t remember if someone told me, or if I’ve seen him kind of play on a dinner table or something. My vote's for Todd though, I will never toot my own horn.

He used to be in some bands down in Florida, and he’s played drums with Yo La Tengo before. Speaking of which, have you ever been invited to perform at the Hanukkah shows at Maxwells?

Yeah I did. I did a couple of them. I think I did two at different years, it was really fun. I played guitar, we did… a couple of prank songs. I can’t remember what we did. Those shows are so great, especially the hang out time before the show. Hanging out with Yo La Tengo, what a great, incredible bunch of people. They’re like crazy record collectors; they make me feel really un-cool because they know everything. They’re so cool, they’re great.

Does Fred Armisen have a message for the children?

Yes, I do. When driving, the gas pedal is on the right, brakes are on the left. There’s park, drive, reverse and neutral. Turn the steering to the left if you want to go to the left, turn the steering wheel to the right if you wan to go right. There’s a rear view mirror, there are mirrors on the side. Umm, obey all traffic laws. Stop at stop signs and go when the light is green. Just so you know this message was passed on from my father, going all they way back to my great-great-great-great grandfather.

Fred Armisen’s Complicated Drumming Technique DVD will be released through Drag City Records in October 2007.