The sixth season of IFC's
Portlandia has episodes where the main characters don't feel like attending a music festival in person; someone can't keep up with his much younger girlfriend, and another character wakes up with grey hair and enters into a wormhole to feel younger again. Even hipsters grow up eventually.
Fred Armisen already felt like a punk elder statesman when he joined Saturday Night Live (he played drums with the Chicago band Trenchmouth before transitioning into comedy), though the specter of time passing has been looming large lately in his work. In the standout episode of the parody series Documentary Now!, he and co-star Bill Hader played members of the Blue Jean Committee, a mellow gold folk-pop band with a dysfunctional working relationship; the two-part episode is filled with an unexpected level of pathos, as Armisen and Hader explore the cost of fame, ego and wine coolers. That same slightly melancholy feel is on display in the new season of Portlandia, the hipster spoof he co-created with Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein, which remains as funny and odd as ever.
PAPER had coffee with Armisen in early January, a few days after he paid tribute to David Bowie on Saturday Night Live and the day after the Eagles' Glenn Frey died, to talk about balancing three different television shows (he leads the house band on Late Night With Seth Meyers), why he's not interested in dramatic roles and how one call tell when they've truly become old.
How are you doing today?
I'm doing really well!
I saw you twice with Sleater-Kinney in December.
At their shows?
Yeah. You did "Rock Lobster" with them. How long have you had the Fred Schneider impression in your back pocket?
I would say that a Fred Schneider impression is something that lives inside of all of us. You know what I mean? We've heard the music from B-52's so much that, without even realizing it, if I called upon someone to do Fred Schneider it would just happen.
So how many impressions of obscure musicians that would never make it on Saturday Night Live or Late Night With Seth Meyers do you have in your back pocket?
Quite a few that I've tried to bring to the table, and it was met with, "We don't know who you're talking about."
Who's the most obscure?
I would say that I've got a pretty good Bob Mould impression.
I would also say that I've got a pretty good Jello Biafra impression.
I could see that.
Yeah. But I did Jello Biafra a little bit on Portlandia. There was one sketch we did where I kind of did him, but Bob Mould — I have yet to break him out on TV.
One of these days, right? Does anyone on Portlandia say, "That's too obscure"?
No! In fact, maybe that's one place where it could live on.
So for Portlandia you've changed it up yet again. What were you kind of going for?
It's usually (director) Jonathan Krisel, Carrie, and all the other writers who push me to do stuff that's different. I always come up with ideas that are always kind of like a continuation of last year, but they are very good at saying, "No, we've done that already. Now let's try this.". It's very much a sense of like, "Okay, let's do an episode that's a little bit longer and is less about sketches" or, "Let's do one that is mixing characters." You know how Game of Thrones kind of does it? It's kind of like that this year.
Interesting analogy. At least from what I saw, it seems less and less like an episode with four or five different skits and more like it's telling one longer story.
Yeah, and we'll go back and forth from doing different types of things. There are one or two episodes that are a little bit more sketch-based this year, but I think at the moment, we like writing long-form pieces.
And it even seems like there are parts that aren't intentionally funny, but instead kind of sad.
At least in the episodes I saw, it has to do with getting older and aging. But it's weird because Portland is kind of like these places like Brooklyn where you kind of don't have to be an adult for as long as possible. But still, time doesn't really care about your feelings anyway. Has aging been on your mind a lot recently?
I don't know if sadness is really the thing around it, but it's more of a new awareness, I would call it. For some reason, I kind of like getting older because there are people around me who are going through the same thing, so it's like a new connection that I'm having with people. That episode is less about "getting older" point-blank, but it's more about where we keep our memories. It's all about hard drives. I have all these hard drives with different moments of my life, but I never access them. Whereas you would used to have photo albums, now it's just a bunch of hard drives sitting in your closet, which is even less accessible.
Then there's the episode where you get the younger girlfriend and she wants to go out every single night, and your character is not up for that.
Yeah. It's 100% about that.
Especially these days, do you ever feel more and more like, "Oh, I don't feel like going to this punk show. I just want to stay home and watch Netflix"?
I would argue with myself that I've always been that way. I've never been a drinker or anything, and I've never really liked going to crowded places. I've been to my fair share of shows to see a band, but I'm not a "going out" person.
But I think the key to not feeling old is to not stop seeking out new experiences.
I agree. I also think that the moment where you're lecturing others about what is a better way to be is a bad sign of getting older. You know, "This is how it should be" is trouble. You cannot tell people how things should be. Here's a tricky example of someone getting older, in a bad way: talking about new buildings going up. If someone in whatever city is like, "These buildings are so ugly" or, "I miss this old type of building; there was a tea shop." That is an example of someone getting older. You don't realize that is not what young people want. People want this new building; they want to live in it. You can't attack it like that.
Your David Bowie thing last weekend was great.
Thanks for saying that!
Where were you when you heard the news?
I was home. I just got home, and Natasha [Lyonne] told me. It was really terrible, because he just put out that record. To me, a new record means things are okay. But even not thinking about that, there were so many great parts of his musical output — chapters and chapters. And I loved it all.
Did you ever meet him?
I'm sorry, too!
Are you going to do anything about Glenn Frey?
I seem to be the go-to. ( Shakes head). I think there was something about Bowie's appearance on SNL that was very special, and obviously not just for me. Also, when you're a kid, I think that things make a much different impression on you. It's not so much a commentary. You're just a kid going, "What is the world like? How do people make music?" I'm not the only one who feels this way, but I just continue to think it. Part of it is also seeing him do it so effortlessly, too. He had a sense of humor, and it seemed very loose. The "Ashes to Ashes" video is one of my favorite videos ever, and there's something kind of chaotic about it.
I was thinking about Glenn Frey yesterday because wasn't the Documentary Now! episode about the Blue Jean Committee based on that three hour documentary about the Eagles?
Isn't it based on a four-hour documentary?
I hadn't watched it because I don't like the Eagles, but people told me to watch it anyway because it's amazing.
It's incredible. It's a very honest documentary, because they talk about how ambitious they were. I'm never against any band or any kind of music because I feel like whatever it took to get us all here is all part of the fabric. For what it's worth, they really did have good singing; Joe Walsh is amazing. They did have hit songs, and you can't have stuff like punk and new wave without that. It just has to coexist. They sang about California, and I'm all up for that. The more I listen to music the more I realize that it all works out.
For someone who was brought up on punk, you seem very anti-elitist and not very snobby.
Well, that's very kind of you.
Have you always been that way?
Maybe that's comes out more when I'm doing an interview, but I'm sure that if I was in a car with a bunch of people and something came on that I didn't like, it would be different. I'm just showing you my best side right now. I will fully judge people if they weren't brought up on the Damned or the Stranglers. It will always be a thing in my head where, first and foremost to people, I'm like, "You have to know X amount of bands." I will judge people based on that, but it's more of a private thing.
So far throughout your career you've never really shown much interest in dramatic acting, but in the last few scenes of the Blue Jean Committee episode, you were very quiet and poignant and not saying much but expressing a lot. I was surprised, because I didn't think you had any interest in doing that sort of performing whatsoever.
I just want the show to be good. I just want to do what I can.
Do you any interest in taking more dramatic roles?
No. I have to be a comedian. I've made my life really nice doing comedy, so I don't take it for granted. I don't think of comedy as a stepping-stone to something else. I feel very fortunate.
It's interesting because a lot of your SNL contemporaries are starting to go that way. Bill [Hader] was great in The Skeleton Twins, and again, I didn't think he had that interest in him, but he killed it. So did Kristen Wiig.
They were so great in that. Somehow, because of how much I love their work, I do see the comedic side of them in it — not that any of it was supposed to be funny. But there's something in the skill of it that's so precise that I think resonated with me. It was great. Seeing them together was great.
You have no interest in following their paths?
I feel like my life has been best if everything else dictates which direction I go. I feel like I fell into comedy, and I'll just keep going until something starts to pull me in another direction.
I assume Portlandia has wrapped, so are you working on Documentary Now?
We're starting to write this season.
What are you thinking you're going to have for this season?
We had about six or seven ideas, but they're too hard to describe. I think we're going to do one based in the early '60s, but anything I describe is going to sound like a knock-off. I'll just say that we're very inspired by documentaries that already exist.
The documentary format is gaining more interest these days with Making a Murder and The Jinx.
It's really wild. I feel like everyone is well versed in documentaries, but I like getting entertained by watching people get more sophisticated — watching a six-part or ten-part series with everyone. We all talk about it.
Did you decide while making Documentary Now that doing The Decline of Western Civilization was too on brand for you and too much what people would expect?
We all love that series, but that might be too difficult since there are so many bands. To do a scene about it with only me and Bill might be too crazy.
So you don't have the budget for fifty bands?
I wish. And the budget is not just the money; it also includes the time it takes for the directors to make it look authentic.
Going back to Portlandia, how much longer do you see it running?
Two more seasons. We'll probably go up to seven or eight seasons.
Is it tough to keep reinventing and making it fresh and interesting?
Yes. It's tough, but tough is good. Things should take work, and I like the idea of it not being easy. Easy is really overrated.
It seems tough because the definition of the "hipster" or whatever it is you're spoofing kind of changes every couple of years. But at the same time, it seems like a lot of your characters are aging hipsters that kind of latch on to whatever they like and stick with that.
As we keep going with subjects like that, we have started doing less external stuff and more internal stuff, but who knows. We also want to try to keep it funny and engaging.
Are there any guests you want to get on the show before it ends?
We got Danzig this year, and I can't believe our luck. I'm pretty psyched about that. But I've been saying for seasons and seasons, if we had Yoko Ono, that would really make my day.
Do you live in Portland half the year or do you just go there to make the show?
I live there for part of the year.
How do you like it?
I love it. It's too good and too nice. It's so comfortable, and the quality of everything is so good. I just love the city, the weather, everything.
We were talking earlier about getting older, but what current younger musicians are you into these days?
Tame Impala. I can't believe how young (Kevin Parker) is and sounds like that. Then again, that makes sense because the Eagles were in their twenties. Grimes continues to make great music. I'm obsessed with Kurt Vile.
Have you ever thought about making a full album and touring as Ian Rubbish?
Yeah, I wanted to do one that was sort of a copy of a Clash album. When I have time to do it, I'd love to do it. I've done some live shows as him, and it was as satisfying as can be. He's my favorite.
Would you ever do an album just as yourself, or would it have to be as a character?
As a character. There are plenty of people doing music as themselves. I get that the music I write has come across as comedy, and I'm very happy with that.
So you have three shows on the air at the moment. How do you balance that, and do you ever think that maybe two is enough?
I love doing it. I feel very lucky, and I love working. I just want to attack it and spend my days working, working, working.
So you don't like vacations?
No. I want it to just burn me up, you know what I mean? I just love working. I love over-working. I love working too hard, being exhausted from working.
You like that?
Love it. I love a busy schedule. I want it to be a blur of work.
Wow. So you don't need to relax?
I don't like relaxing! I get very nervous when I'm relaxed. I guess there's a time in the morning when I'm having coffee and getting ready for my day, but even that is sort of work.
Do you meditate or anything at all like that?
My morning coffee is sort of just my moment to launch into the day, but I find being busy its own meditative thing. And I'm not saying that this is the healthiest thing. I know I have an addictive personality, but [work] just brings me so much happiness.
But you say you don't drink.
I don't drink.
Do you maybe kind of channel that?
Yeah, I would say. It's kind of a channel for that buzz. But work for me is doing comedy and coming up with jokes. It's not labor.
Do you think when Portlandia ends you'll try to get another show as soon as you can?
Oh, yeah. I want to maybe do something that I'm not in. Amy Poehler does Broad City, and there's something about that — I don't know what it is — but it's a really good ethic. It's like David Bowie. There are people he supported, and I feel like there's a way to do that that just keeps you going. So, I absolutely want to keep doing this stuff. I want to do some things in Spanish, some stuff that's not in the English language. I just love doing it.