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FRED ARMISEN INTERVIEW: ‘COMEDY FOR MUSICIANS BUT EVERYONE IS WELCOME’ OZ TOUR

Pic courtesy of Netflix


Australian Musician editor Greg Phillips spoke to acclaimed actor and musician Fred Armisen ahead of his ‘Comedy For Musicians But Everyone Is Welcome’ Australian tour

He’s a multi-award winning comedian, comedy writer, famous cast member of Saturday Night Live, co-creator of hit series Portlandia, and has featured in many major studio films such as Anchorman and EuroTrip. However, despite all of his small and big screen success, Fred Armisen’s real passion is music. Fred knows music. He has played music for a long time too, drumming with Chicago punk rock outfit Trenchmouth in the late 80s, recording with Mathew Sweet in 2011 and when his busy schedule allows, he is the bandleader for TV show Late Night with Seth Myers’ house band. Music is littered throughout Armisen’s comedy too, whether it be the Pet Sounds-obsessed amateur recording engineer in Portlandia, the punk rock band reunion at a wedding sketch on SNL, or his Documentary Now series with the episode featuring mythical 70s West Coast rock band The Blue Jean Committee. Armisen is well qualified to spotlight the foibles of musicians and he does so hilariously in his new stand up comedy show Comedy For Musicians But Everyone Is Welcome, which he is bringing to Australia later this month. It’s a natural extension of his recent popular Netflix special, Standup for Drummers.

As Armisen is aware, musicians can be some of the most precious and sensitive people in the world. Are they really going to want to have their narcissistic tendencies lampooned so mercilessly among the non-musician folk in his audiences and will there be a degree of nervous laughter in the room as well?
“There might be a little bit of that but I try to also do jokes and tell stories that unify musicians, stuff that we all have to deal with and a few things that make it more like a bonding experience,” he explains. “I do make fun of certain types of chord structures and stuff but it is also friendly for non-musicians as well. I don’t make it so focused that anyone is really left out.”

His musician friends have taken to the concept in good spirits too, eager to contribute to the material rather than hide from it. “Somebody brought up something about drum equipment that I hadn’t noticed before,” he said. “I feel like, if anything, they want to be a part of it.”

This will be Fred’s first trip to Australia but for someone who has never been, he seems to know a great deal about our music.
“Well Rob Hirst, the drummer from Midnight Oil is one of my favourite drummers ever. There are great musicians there, just great and that solo in the Midnight Oil song, Power and Passion is my favourite drum solo, it’s incredible.”

Mid sentence, Armisen suddenly excuses himself and tells me he’ll be back in a minute. Michelle, the girl from Fred’s media team who is monitoring the call seems surprised and concerned. In the meantime, we chat about her desire to come to Australia too and her unhealthy obsession with Australia since 4th grade when she learned way too many weird facts about our country and used to listen to didgeridoo music incessantly. If all else fails, I’m learning much about the type of people Fred surrounds himself with … quirky but fun. As quickly as he vanished, Fred reappears explaining that he’s having work done on his LA home and the contractor who had been there all day, picked this moment to inform him that he was leaving for the day and Fred merely needed to touch base on proceedings!

Pic courtesy of Netflix

“So … what I was saying about Australian music,” he continues. “This whole tour was something which is a real labour of love, meaning I have wanted to go to Australia my whole life. Growing up with punk music and stuff … I saw the Hoodoo Gurus ages ago and it is just a place that I … more and more I had friends that were moving there and doing tours there and stuff and then I became friendly with Courtney Barnett over the years. I was like, I wanna go so bad that I just made it happen, gotta do a tour, must do a tour there.”

Reading any interview with Armisen it becomes apparent pretty quickly that he’s a music fan eager to chat about his influences but I wondered what that first spark was that lit his musical flame?
“That’s a really good question,” he tells me as he pauses to think. “Just in general I would say … let’s say that when I was a teenager, I started to get into punk. I would say the first thing that I ever saw that really moved me was Devo on a TV show doing a song called Girl You Want. It was really robotic and even though I was into all kinds of punk, there’s something about that TV appearance that made me love the visual aspects of bands too. That seemed to be something that was just as important and then as I would see bands like Talking Heads and Kraftwerk and stuff I just fell in love with that aspect. Somewhere in Girl You Want it was like, woah … it really changed everything. But also The Clash and bands like that but I am sort of like leaving The Beatles aside because I feel like that is just a given with any human being. We all discovered The Beatles at some point.”

The catalyst for Fred’s career taking off was a 1998 mockumentary, filmed at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. In the short film, Armisen satarises the world of music journalism by conducting interviews with artists and punters while taking on the persona of many different characters, such as a European reporter, a deaf journalist, a blind journalist, a mentally retarded character and more. While some of it may not be politically correct enough to survive today’s litmus test, I have to admit that it’s an effort to watch it without breaking out in a cackle. I wondered if Fred’s old punk band Trenchmouth had ever applied to play SXSW and whether he thought it was a realistic pathway to success for bands.
“No we just weren’t successful enough,” he said without hesitation. “I think part of my want to do something like that was that my band was not getting as far as I wanted it to. All of these bands were passing us by, so I think I went into that with the thought that … hey, there is really no way to know how you can make it in the music business but the irony is that because of SXSW I got a full career into comedy. So I turned out to be wrong, turned out that the moral of the story was that yes, I did have to go to SXSW to get anywhere in entertainment!”

While Armisen’s SXSW expose on music journalism was brutally funny, it also reminds us how utterly cringe-worthy artist interviews can be sometimes. Is music journalism something that Fred respects? Does he believe music is something that should be analysed in writing and is there a future for music journalism?
“It’s really tough because there are so many examples of things going both ways,” he tells me. “I read something today about David Berman (Silver Jews singer songwriter who recently committed suicide) that was so beautifully written, it was in Pitchfork. I thought, this is beautiful, this is why there is music journalism. Sometimes someone is able to sum up someone’s career in a really great way. On the other hand, I have seen bad reviews of Prince albums and now he is dead and I am like, was it worth putting that kind of negativity into the world? Prince is a genius. Any music that he puts out … you’ve go to … If it’s not your thing, leave it alone. That’s where it could be just something that brings negativity into the world … I really do believe that even if you think an album is terrible, it means something to somebody somewhere, so you never know. I know it is just opinion but then, especially during sensitive moments, there are some people who write great things.”

“I don’t think music journalism should change or that there should be any new version of it, I like interviews. Interviews are great, especially on artists I don’t hear from very often. Just like the movie business has been going on for so long, I think it’s pretty much going to stay the same and I’m fine with that. I will always read about music. I enjoy it.”

For the record, Fred suggests that Kate Teague and the band Real Estate are two acts that he’s really into and that we should have a listen to

Having successfully mocked and conquered SXSW, I asked Fred if he had ever considered applying a similar treatment to a Winter NAMM Show, the biggest trade fair for musical instruments in the world?
“Oh yes! I went last year and in fact I did some of the comedy for musicians there in a Ludwig booth. It is really incredible. I love seeing any new invention. I’m like, ok that’s a good idea for a bass… that’s a good idea for something that is portable. Then what I also like is when there is a bad idea! I don’t mind that either. The thing that is weird is that toward the end of the day, there is a noise level where everyone is trying out these new instruments and you start to notice. The sound of everyone kind of trying to try out a new instrument. Luckily it is not as bad a being in a small instrument store with amps going but it is pretty funny when there is this kind of rumbling. But I love it.”

Pic courtesy of Netflix

While Armisen was the drummer in the Chicago punk band Trenchmouth and he did base an entire Netflix show on drummer jokes, he can also be seen donning guitars as part of the Seth Myers house band including one gorgeous cherry red Gibson SG that I spied in an episode. Is he also a guitar collector?
“I don’t have many … I have a good amount,” he says. “I’m not a collector, collector! One is a Fano, this guy Dennis Fano makes guitars. He’s not with the company anymore but he made this guitar that I really really love. I have a Telecaster that I really like and something called an (Fender) Acoustasonic, a Telecaster that is kind of an acoustic, it’s thin and it’s great. The idea of putting a pick up in an acoustic, some of those designs are just too big but this is really compact.”

Over the course of Fred Armisen’s career, he has often made a living out of using musician characters to elicit laughs, as you will see when he brings his new show Comedy For Musicians But Everyone Is Welcome to our shores. It’s not a stretch to surmise that in reality, Fred couldn’t release a serious music album even if he wanted to, such would be the level of scrutiny.
“Yeah” he says in resignation of his situation. “I can’t do that now! People have succeeded at it though. Tim Heidecker (Tim & Eric) did a really good one. Maybe that’s just something I accept about my life anyway. My musical output has always been parody, it’s where I seem to have found a way to do something and it’s great with me. There are plenty of people who make such great music, so I’m great with it.”

FRED ARMISEN AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES

MELBOURNE  ATHENAEUM THEATRE   THURSDAY 29 AUGUST
Book at Ticketek 132 849 www.ticketek.com.au

PERTH    ASTOR THEATRE SUNDAY 1 SEPTEMBER
Book at Ticketek 132 849 www.ticketek.com.au

BRISBANE  THE TIVOLI  TUESDAY 3 SEPTEMBER
Book at Ticketmaster 136 100 www.ticketmaster.com.au

SYDNEY ENMORE THEATRE – JUST FOR LAUGHS  WEDNESDAY 4 SEPTEMBER
Book at Ticketek 132 849 www.ticketek.com.au or Enmore Theatre Box Office 9550 3666

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