Get to know Fred Armisen as a musician before 'Late Night'
It’s no joke: Comedian Fred Armisen really has joined Seth Meyers’ Late Night as bandleader-slash-music-“curator.” He’ll be helming the talk show’s house band — a talented group that also includes guitarist Seth Jabour of Les Savy Fav, bassist Syd Butler of Les Savy Fav, keyboardist Eli Janney of Girls Against Boys, and drummer Kim Thompson of Beyoncé’s touring band — even when he’s busy with other projects, like IFC’s Portlandia.
For those who know Armisen only as “that weird guy from SNL,” this news may seem more than a little random. But Armisen’s actually got plenty of music industry bona fides — his showbiz career began with a gig as a punk rock drummer, he made his first steady paycheck as a drummer for the Blue Man Group in Chicago, and he’s frequently showed off his multi-instrumental skills on both SNL and Portlandia. So before Armisen picks up his Late Show guitar — he’ll be both strumming and singing for Meyers’ 8G Band — let’s take a look back at his second, slightly more obscure career… which frequently bleeds over into his comedy.
Armisen dropped out of New York City’s School of Visual Arts in order to join this Chicago-based post-hardcore band, which formed in 1990 and dissolved in 1996. Altogether, the group released four genre-busting LPs and performed countless concerts, like this 1992 show in Houston. BYO “rock on” hand gestures.
2. Blue Man Group
When Trenchmouth was on the brink of dissolution, Armisen found a regular new gig: drumming for Chicago’s edition of the Blue Man Group. Getting the job was “as simple as an audition,” Armisen told former SNL cast member (and his old high school classmate) Jim Breuer in a Sirius XM interview. “That’s what I did for like, two years. I thought I made it. I was like, ‘This is it.'” Since there’s no video of Armisen performing with the group in the ’90s, we’ll just have to content ourselves with watching him describe it to Goat Boy. In 2008, Armisen — by then an SNL standout — and the Blue Men had a reunion of sorts when the comedian contributed a few segments to the Blue dudes’ How to Be a Megastar Live! DVD.
Armisen first dipped his toe into the comedy world with this faux video guide to 1998’s South by Southwest festival, which he attended as a musical performer. In it, you’ll see the infancy of several future SNL characters and accents — as well as the indie music/comedy aesthetic that would later become Armisen’s signature.
Appropriately enough, Armisen’s first breakout SNL character, Fericito, was a drummer — as well as a complicated comedy meta-joke. Ayyy, dios mio! (P.S. Armisen also played the character while opening for Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy in the early ’00s; you can get a glimpse of him in action in the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.)
Later Armisen sketches leaned even more heavily on music, often featuring fake bands like The Bjelland Brothers…
…The Blue Jean Committee…
… and, of course, Ian Rubbish and the Bizarros, who came complete with their own elaborate punk rock backstory. Armisen loves Rubbish so much that he chose to play the made-up rocker in his last-ever SNL sketch as a cast member; he’s also released a four-song Best of Ian Rubbish EP and brought the character back for a 2013 Funny or Die video featuring The Clash. Fun fact: Rubbish’s EP acknowledgments include a shoutout to “Seth ‘Stopper’ Meyers.”
5. Les Savy Fav
While still on SNL in 2007, Armisen took a brief break from comedy and music/comedy to do some straight-up music — namely, playing drums for a few tracks on Let’s Stay Friends, the fourth full-length album by indie rock band Les Savy Fav. (No wonder two of the band’s members are joining Armisen on Late Night.) Armisen also had a chance to play a few gigs with the group, as in this concert on Randall’s Island.
6. Complicated Drumming Technique with Jens Hannemann
Another Armisen musician character: German-accented Jens Hanneman, really complicated drummer and star of his very own instructional DVD spoof. Armisen brought the character back for a brief run with indie chanteuse Joanna Newsom’s 2010 tour; perhaps uncoincidentally, Newsom was dating SNL star Andy Samberg at the time. (The two are now married.)
Given Armisen’s history and the background of his Portlandia co-creator Carrie Brownstein — late of rock band Sleater-Kinney — it’s no surprise that their IFC series focuses so heavily on music. One of the duo’s better tuneful sketches: Season 3’s “Battle of the Gentle Bands,” which shows off a softer side of musical Armisen.
8. Late Night drum-off
Armisen has already proven once that he can hold his own when playing music on Late Night. After a January 2013 appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show, Armisen and Roots frontman Questlove had a friendly drum-off. Both showed off some impressive skills — but Armisen got the last word. Er, beat.
9. Kings of Leon
Last summer, Armisen teamed up with Kings of Leon for a series of AmEx-sponsored promos that included the following clip — in which Armisen skewers Kings drummer Nathan Followill at Followill’s very own drum set. Sorta seems like a potential Late Night sketch,doesn’t it?