Interview: Fred Armisen discusses his start in music and the end of an era with ‘Portlandia’

Everybody has a favorite Fred Armisen. Maybe it’s his time on “SNL” and the way he played Barack Obama that first won you over. For some, it’s been watching him keep the beat as leader of the house band on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” That being said, the Fred Armisen-Questlove Drumoff from “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” is truly a must-see for any fan.

Decades ago, Armisen started off as a drummer in the punk rock band Trenchmouth. It would later be his wild idea of posing as a music journalist and creating “Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and South by Southwest” in 1998 that would catapult him into stardom. He and comedy partner Carrie Brownstein (from the group Sleater-Kinney) have been playing around mixing music and comedy since first teaming up as Thunderant, which is what made “Portlandia” seem like a natural transition for the duo.

Eight seasons later, creators Armisen, Brownstein and Jonathan Krisel, along regular players like Kyle MacLachlan, and a number of actors and musical guests, successfully ushered in a new age of sketch comedy on IFC; one which ranks up there with the likes of “Monty Python,” “The Kids in the Hall” and other greats that came before.

“It was joyful and it was challenging,” Kyle MacLachlan tells AXS of his time on the show. “It was all improv, so the brain is just kind of working on overdrive,” he explained during the May 15 IFC Emmy event in Los Angeles. MacLachlan’s character actually had some resolution on the show, which gave the series finale somewhat of a magically poetic ending. The actor tells AXS while he wasn’t sure how things would play out, he thought the whole thing was perfect.    

“Fred is excellent at moving the story forward. Most actors tend to sort of sit and sink in the moment. And Fred forced us to move forward. So, it’s something that I tried to learn. I can’t say that I was successful at it but I tried to pay attention.”

Fred Armisen then stepped in and reflected back to the beginning – all the way back to SXSW.

AXS: I want to talk to you about your time at South by Southwest. What you did, that was amazing. What did you learn from that whole experience?

Fred Armisen: [Laughs] A lot. I was in a band for a long time, and we didn’t become like a famous, important band. We played and played. Then I went to South by Southwest. They have seminars and stuff; how to make a video, how to get your song played on the radio. I was like - they can’t dictate how you’re going to make it. I went there with this attitude, made this video, and the irony is by going to South by Southwest, that’s how I made it into show business. I made fun of it, but South by Southwest was what you obviously needed to be anything. So, that’s when I started to do comedy and my life was all comedy right from then on.

AXS: You balance the two together so well.

FA: They’re both important to me. I think other people have done it, too. It’s nice. As corny as it is, I’m really lucky to get to do both.

AXS: You’ve had some awesome musical guests on the show…

FA: My heroes.

AXS: Who was your favorite musical guest?

FA: Glenn Danzig. To even meet him is rare, you don’t get to see him anywhere, and there he was. He showed up, woke up early, we did a scene on the beach; he never goes to the beach. He was a real hero. I’ve stayed friends with him.

AXS: If you could form a supergroup, who would be in it?

FA: Bob Mould, Mark Mothersbaugh, Susanna Hoffs, Clem Burke and Mick Jones from The Clash.

AXS: I want to see that happen.

FA: Might be a mishmosh but who knows.

AXS: What’s one of your fondest memories of working on ‘Portlandia?’

FA: I have a really weird memory. We did a scene once where we were in a skate park, but we were cops so they put us in a real cop car, like a Portland one, and me and Carrie were in there. We just looked at each other and thought this is crazy that Portland just allows us to be in a cop car with all the devices. That memory just comes out of this moment that was like the perfect moment.

AXS: After eight seasons on the air, what do you really hope viewers take away from the show?

FA: I want it to have the kind of shelf life that something like ‘Spinal Tap’ has. Something that ages in a way that you can still look at it and it stills works for people. That’s my hope. I love sketch shows from all different times, so I hope to be one of those.