A conversation with Fred Armisen by Damon Locks
Now a comedian/actor, for many years music was your creative outlet. I know that bands like The Clash, Bowwowwow, XTC, The Stranglers, Devo, The Who and many, many others inspired your young mind to look past the borders of Valley Stream, Long Island. I can say that The Damned had a hand in helping us meet. Had I not painted The Damned’s Machine Gun Etiquette logo on the back of my jacket, you may not have approached me in art history class at the School Of Visual Arts in the mid 80’s to join your NY band (Shovel). We moved to Chicago and formed Trenchmouth in 1988. In the years that followed we shared the stage with bands like, Fugazi, Nation Of Ulysses, Dog Faced Hermans, Jonestown, Babes In Toyland, Jawbox, Girls Against Boys, Circus Lupus, Living Color and even The Smashing Pumpkins (to name but a few). The Trenchmouth van’s stereo was also a constant source of musical inspiration. Prince, Fishbone, Augustus Pablo, Tito Puente, Duke Ellington, Stereolab, The Beastie Boys, Bjork and Lee Scratch Perry all did their part in entertaining and intriguing us on the road. Humor was a part of every Trenchmouth trip. The hours upon hours of hanging out together called for humor to break up the long drives and space between sound check and performance. We developed our own comic timing on the road and had long running jokes that seemed to come to life when we all got together. Each of us would play supporting roles in the development of our band/tour characters from Frondie to Officer Twittybird. The Trenchmouth humor was a joy to some and a conundrum to many. For us music and comedy often interacted but more often than not shared different spotlights (Trenchmouth shows were never very funny, but before and after the show…hilarious). As your comedic persona is now dominant, musical expression has taken a back seat (it does make cameos though!), let’s look at the musical building blocks that created the comedian.
Damon, your intro is accurate (all those bands, our van playlist, all of that). Here is a musical timeline, I am going to concentrate on my favorites as there are too many bands I liked to list them all here.
Elementary school years:
The Beatles – My mom introduced them to me. They were before my time and had already broken up, but I loved it all and their music still remains a part of me. At the time I would ask my mom to buy me their albums for my birthday and holidays. Their solo stuff too. McCartney’s “RAM” is my favorite album still.
Brazilian samba music – My family lived in Brazil for a few years when I was growing up. Samba was played everywhere. These huge samba “schools” (kind of like a frantic percussion marching band) would play in the streets around Carnival time. Whenever I hear this music it still affects me and my sister was telling me recently that she felt the same.
Devo, Talking Heads, Blondie, and the Ramones – I couldn’t identify with all the regular rock bands that everyone liked at the time (aside from the Who). All the lyrics about fantasy and mysticism just seemed embarrassing to me. I saw Devo on TV and right away knew that there were others out there that thought like I did. David Byrne was a hero of mine, and I remember wanting to play drums like Clem Burke from Blondie.
The Clash – They meant the world to me and really defined my adolescence. They were also a little before my time but I did get to see them at The Pier in NYC on one of their last tours. Mick Jones (another hero) was out of the band soon after. Sandinista is one of my most favorite albums ever. The Clash were an obsession, I truly loved them.
Kraftwerk – I read about them in a magazine and was transfixed with their pictures. Their band photos were robots playing instruments. I bought computer world and wanted to disappear into every song. They sang about computers and numbers which to me was a direct revolt against what everyone else in high school was listening to.
The Specials – I can’t remember when I started buying their records, but I really liked them too. There was a time when I was buying everything on that Two Tone label. I saw them on TV and loved the way they jumped around in their nice suits.
High School into college:
The Damned/ The Stranglers – I was so into the Damned. The Black Album and Strawberries, such amazing records! Captain Sensible’s solo stuff was great too. I listened to The Stranglers a lot as well.
Husker Du – …another obsession. They were my favorites for a while. I couldn’t get into American hardcore as much as I pretended to. Husker Du were such a real punk band. They looked like real people who were unaffected by fashion. Grant Hart singing while he played the drums was so cool to me. I got to see them too, on their last tour.
Prince – Prince, I remember seeing a video of his on MTV and all my punk rules went out the window. Every album, every song he put out paralyzed me. I was like “What is this? What is happening?” It seemed like music from another planet. I was instantly a loyal fan. To this day I buy his newest release as soon as it comes out. I was doing an impression of him from the first time I saw him on TV.
Regular Life (you know, after college. Playing in a band and working different jobs and having roommates and all that.)
Stereolab – Stereolab’s music followed me everywhere. The other Trenchmouths liked them a lot too.
Bjork – Do I need to explain what was so great about Bjork?
Fugazi – Fugazi of course too was a huge inspiration.
Post music making days:
Sleater-Kinney – They had a similar affect on me that The Clash and Husker Du had. I was kind of obsessed with them too. I listened to Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock all the way through on my iPod CONSTANTLY. I mentioned Sleater Kinney to a friend of mine recently and she said “Oh my god are you still talking about them?”