Photo courtesy of IFC

Throughout his career, Fred Armisen has invented a near endless parade of memorable characters. Now, after taking his final bow on Saturday Night Live, he’s about to reinvent himself. On the threshold of his next stage, and a new season of Portlandia, Armisen takes us through the changes of his early career and shares insights into his creative process. “Art means everything to me,” he tells Jonah Bayer.

Photo courtesy of IFC

To call Fred Armisen “creative” is an understatement. Most of us were first introduced to him through Saturday Night Live, where, for eleven seasons, he impersonated everyone from Ice-T to Joy Behar to Barack Obama and developed characters like the Margaret Thatcher-loving punk rocker Ian Rubbish. But before Armisen became a household name, he spent much of the ’90s playing drums in the Chicago-based post-hardcore outfit Trenchmouth. While he never lost his love of percussion, at a certain point he realized the band wasn’t working out in the way he’d envisioned and he gradually reinvented himself as the character-driven comic-actor we know today.

Armisen remained in touch with the underground music scene, however, and in 2005 he and Carrie Brownstein—singer/guitarist for one of his favorite bands, Sleater-Kinney (currently of Wild Flag)—started to create comedy sketches under the name Thunderant. That collaboration eventually evolved into the highly successful IFC series Portlandia. The show was recently renewed for seasons four and five, which should keep Armisen busy through 2015. And, as you’ll discover, that’s just the way he likes it.

Like his inspiration David Bowie, Armisen is obsessed with the idea of constant change, a trait that has helped him transcend the underground and become a household name without sacrificing credibility. If anything, it’s only enhanced his career and allowed him to pull his peers into the spotlight beside him, as he did when he brought Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, and the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones onstage for a goodbye jam on SNL with Ian Rubbish.

We caught up with Armisen in Portland, fresh from taking that final bow, to discuss his creative process and to learn why collaboration and creative reinvention are so integral to his art. Even the biggest cynic could find inspiration in Armisen’s unwavering passion for his work, which is so palpable it’s contagious.
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You started out playing drums in Trenchmouth before transitioning into comedy. At some point did you sit down and think, “Maybe this band thing isn’t working out, I need to find a new medium”?
Yes. But it was a less thought-out transition. It was all instinct. At the time there was a lot of sadness and trauma with it, too. When Trenchmouth was happening I had a great time playing those shows and I was with my best friends. That’s the good part. We put out music, we played some really good punk venues and I got to play a lot of drums.

But I really wanted to be in a famous band. I really wanted to be successful with music and seeing that not happen and seeing bands whiz by us broke things down and it felt very much like things were toppling over. Even though I’m an optimistic person, it was difficult. We played gigs where there was nobody. Nobody. I remember one show, we opened for Down By Law in Las Vegas, and we had an African-American singer, and all these Neo-Nazis showed up and were Sieg Heiling, even skinhead girls. It was just really weird.

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Post-hardcore, pre-comedy: Fred (second from right) shares a laugh with his bandmates in Trenchmouth. Photo courtesy of Michael Hay.

I used to attribute [our limited success] to the fact that Trenchmouth played atonal, angular post-punk, and I thought, “Well, maybe that makes sense, we’re not going to be a popular band because of the type of music we play.” And then all of a sudden all these other bands who were atonal and post-punk were doing great—like the Jesus Lizard. The final straw for me was Tortoise; they didn’t even have a singer and they were doing great.

In a way, stripping all the band stuff away gave me some focus as to what I really wanted. And little by little, it was less about a band and more about me wanting to do my own thing. Whenever I did something with comedy or video, immediately someone would write something or ask me about it; there was more curiosity about it and it kind of took over in a way that had nothing to do with me. All of a sudden I was doing comedy for this company, then another company, then another show, and before I knew it, it was what I was doing without having to push very hard.

Obviously playing in bands and writing and performing sketch comedy are both highly collaborative situations. Do you enjoy involving other people in the creative process?
Oh yeah, it’s absolutely necessary. I talk about all these things from the point of view that it’s me, but I couldn’t have made it without other people. And by “made it” I don’t mean make it big and successful, I mean I couldn’t have made these projects or pieces without other people. I couldn’t have. Portlandia is really the three of us [including co-creators Jonathan Krisel and Carrie Brownstein]; Thunderant was so much me and Carrie; and SNL, forget it, it’s those writers and producers, the way they shape and filter everything. I’m so lucky I get to work with funny, brilliant people. It’s a miracle.

Do you feel like you control the creative process or does it control you?
It absolutely controls me because even though I feel like I can be a catalyst for an idea or something strikes me as funny or cool or interesting, I still have to give it up to the powers that be. I’m an atheist but I still feel like there’s something that makes it come my way. I kind of don’t have control over it. Sometimes it’s someone I bump into, sometimes it’s an article I read or something I catch on TV. It’s just a lot of weird little mistakes that come my way and make me think, “Maybe there’s a way around this.”

The one thing that’s important is not throwing it in the garbage. I always write things into my phone. I’ll share an idea with Carrie or someone at work and say, “What do you think of this?” Hearing yourself say something out loud is when you go, “Oh, this might be an idea.”

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Do you rely on certain techniques or is it completely random?
There are methods I try to be open to, and at the same time, an idea can just come out of nowhere. Sometimes I’ll just walk and listen to music—music is always a huge inspiration—and I’ll hear a song and I don’t know who the artist is and I’ll try to imagine who the artist is and an idea springs up. Sometimes it can just be something I read online that inspires me; stories about inventions on Gizmodo seem to stir things. Then sometimes I’m sitting in a restaurant and all of a sudden there’s some kind of reality that hits me about the day and I think, “That actually could be an idea for something.”

There’s no formula of “Okay, here comes a great idea.” Sometimes there’s nothing and I have to respect that. I have to respect when I can’t think of anything, because when I do, I’m so grateful and I’m like, “Okay, this is the process.” Either something is there or it’s not there and I can’t expect it, I can’t take it for granted, I can’t force it. I just have to cross my fingers and hope something good comes.

 You’re also constantly seeking out new artists, whether it’s bands like Deafheaven and Death Grips or countless young comedians. What keeps you from becoming cynical when it’s so easy to believe everything has been done before?
Well, number one is that I love it. I just love anything good and I feel like there’s always a great new comedian or a great new show or a great new band. I’m so happy I’m alive at this time when amazing things are going on and new bands pop up with a new take on something.

The idea that something has been done before I don’t see as a negative thing. That’s been going on forever and I think it’s cool that something has existed before. You could look at any band and go “Actually, that’s just a version of this,” and that probably goes back to caveman times, it’s just a version of something else. And that’s great. It’s how it should be. It’s passing things along through the ages, and what’s better than that?

The Beatles were inspired by somebody. And Bill Haley and Chuck Berry were inspired by somebody. It just goes back and back through decades of music. I think it’s a person or a band’s personal take on something that changes it as it goes along, and that’s what I like to do. Everything I’ve ever done was inspired by something else and that’s the fun of it.


When it comes to your work on SNL, what would you say was the purest creative expression of you as a person?
I want to pick four things because… I don’t know why… four. [Laughs.] I’m going to say [scattered political pundit] Nicholas Fehn, because that was a very natural representation of the stuff I like to do. I feel like Ian Rubbish is just absolutely everything I love and the same goes for Crisis Of Conformity, the hardcore band [that reunites at a wedding]. And then there’s a piece called Danielle, it’s sort of a soft-core European sort of ‘70s short film we did this year. There were these Emmanuelle movies [’70s-era French and Italian erotica] that were dubbed in English. I think they were speaking English but they dubbed their voices anyway, and there’s something about it where it’s just my favorite thing.

When the Ian Rubbish sketch aired I was like, “Wow, this is so obviously Fred’s sensibility. There is no way anyone else could have created this and gotten it onto national television.”
Yeah, but it took Seth Meyers to shape it, because even if it’s the stuff I love, it doesn’t mean it necessarily has relevance on Saturday Night Live. You need to connect it to something, and when Margaret Thatcher died, Seth is the one who said, “Hey, what if there’s a ’70s punk band who actually really liked Margaret Thatcher?” That’s a perfect example of why you need writers and people with ideas around.

And sometimes things don’t work initially but come together later.
Right. Or sometimes you think something doesn’t work and then it actually does work [in another context]. I tried doing this version of Saddam Hussein as a British rock star in the middle 2000s for SNL, but it didn’t work during the table read, and then I tried it with Carrie for Thunderant and it worked great. Sometimes things don’t work and you have to be in a different venue and all of the sudden it makes sense

When you’re developing a new character, how can you tell if your vision for it is working or not?
That all depends on people’s reaction to it. I never go into it with full confidence thinking it’s going to work; it’s like a big question mark to the people around me. So there’s a scenario like, “There’s going to be this blank kind of store,” I go, “Should I do this? Is this is a person? Is this something you’ve seen before?” Then someone will go “Oh yeah, do that, that’s great” or “No, do it more like this.” I just look for reactions and if it resonates with anyone I go “Oh, okay, this is a thing.”

Is it hard to admit when something isn’t working the way you thought it would?
No, it’s not hard. That’s okay. You know there’s tons of stuff that’s like, well, that’s fine, I’m glad I looked into it, but it doesn’t work. And that’s good that there’s always that risk. It’s part of it.

Armisen with Portlandia co-star and co-creator Carrie Brownstein. Photo courtesy of IFC.

And I imagine you sometimes have ideas you love that don’t translate for other people. Is it ever strange to have to filter your art through someone else’s brain to validate it?
It’s more like a sounding board. To put it in more literal terms, if you’re a chef and you have this idea—”I’m going to put this ingredient in with this, like salmon with apple butter”—it’s a question mark [as to whether it will work]. But most of the time your instinct is right and whoever tries it is like, “Oh, that’s great,” and all of the sudden you go, “That’s great. I made this apple-butter salmon dish and that’s something I make now.” [Laughs.]

That answer made me so hungry.
Yeah, I’m starving.

Instead of going on vacation during downtime you seem to like to throw yourself into other projects. Where does that drive come from?
I have no idea, it’s just there. I look at other people and they inspire me because they make me think, “That’s a good example of what I want to be.” I look at Wayne Coyne [the wildly prolific singer from the Flaming Lips] and I go, “That’s the way to live, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” I’ll look at Paul McCartney or Tina Fey and other people who keep making things and it’s because they like doing it. And as uncool as it sounds, I love it. It’s so gratifying and I just love it. It’s the best.

You give a lot of yourself to the process, as well. Do you ever feel like your mental or physical health suffers for the greater artistic endeavor?
Yeah, that’s a side effect of it, but I don’t know any other way. And I’m not saying I go through any intense hardship and I’m off drinking vodka on a corner, crying. I don’t mean it like that. It’s just a matter of not having as much energy for other things. But I do feel like I have a pretty happy life, so whatever I go through to make stuff, at the worst it’s a lack of sleep or an inability to go on vacation or really do anything social that doesn’t involve work. I always make sure every trip is work-related.

It seems like you get the same gratification out of your work that someone might get from, say, a trip to Hawaii.
Oh, totally. Even more than that, it’s incredibly gratifying.

You’ve reinvented yourself a number of times throughout your career. Is it exciting to be embarking on a new season of Portlandia and the next phase of your creative journey?
Oh yeah, it’s all of my dreams come true because it’s everything I loved about David Bowie and Devo and The Clash. I love people who changed bands: Mick Jones went on to Big Audio Dynamite and Paul McCartney did Wings. I love when people reinvent themselves. It reminds me of Blur’s Damon Albarn, I love how he keeps making new bands and new things. That’s what life is about. For me, personally, that’s how you’re supposed to do it. Keep reinventing yourself, that’s the most exciting thing.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.