Fred Armisen brings punk rock comedy to Cain’s Ballroom
Fred Armisen performs during his 2018 Netflix special, “Standup for Drummers.”
Courtesy of Netflix
Before Fred Armisen became a household name in the world of comedy, his aspirations were musical. He played drums for the punk band Trenchmouth, which formed in 1988, and he stayed involved in the scene through the 1990s. While other bands broke during the punk resurgence of that decade, Armisen’s band was on the less-than-glamourous grind until finally calling it quits in 1996.
Armisen eventually found success as a musician through a different route, as the leader of the 8G Band on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” But it’s comedy that put Armisen on the map. He brought his quirky, off-beat humor to “Saturday Night Live” in 2002, before co-creating and co-starring in the award-winning IFC sketch show “Portlandia,” alongside Carrie Brownstein of the critically-acclaimed punk band Sleater-Kinney. (Brownstein said in a 2012 Vulture interview that a Season 3 Portlandia sketch was inspired by a visit to DoubleShot Coffee on a Tulsa tour stop.)
I caught up with Armisen a few days before he hit the road on his new endeavor. It’s a comedy tour with a name that says it all: Comedy For Musicians But Everybody Is Welcome. Armisen comes to Cains Ballroom on Feb. 21.
Ty Clark: Have you ever been to Tulsa?
Fred Armisen: Yeah. In the 90s my band played there. I can’t remember the venue, but it wasn’t Cain’s—and I remember because I took a picture of our lead singer Damon in front of, like, a dome building. I can’t remember. That was the last time I was there. I went to Oklahoma [another time] but it wasn’t Tulsa. The Flaming Lips shot a short film called “Christmas on Mars,” so I went there for that.
You know, I’m sure everyone you talk to who goes through [Cain’s] has the same thing to say, but I am really really looking forward to being in the same place that the Sex Pistols were. It really is a part of Sex Pistols’ history and I can’t wait for that.
Clark: Cain’s Ballroom is everything you hope it will be.
Armisen: Oh, great! I’m very excited to do it. It’s happening!
Clark: Are there any Oklahoma bands you are particularly fond of?
Armisen: Well, I am always going to consider The Flaming Lips an Oklahoma band. I really love Flaming Lips so much. I really admire them as people and I actually really like their approach to making things, and it’s like exactly what I want to do. So, I really admire them. They’re just one of my favorites.
Clark: What can we expect from a Fred Armisen comedy show?
Armisen: So, the show is called Comedy For Musicians But Everybody Is Welcome. A lot of my references and jokes are specifically for people who play music, and a lot of it is about music, but it’s not so specific that people can’t get into it anyway. It’s for everybody, but the focus is music and talking about music.
Clark: So, guitarists are welcome? Do they need an escort?
Armisen: [Laughs] Guitarists are welcome, but they have to bring a bass player.
Clark: Is touring something you may do more of?
Armisen: I think it’s like 19 shows, but I’m gonna do more later. It was just sort of my thought [that] it’d be great to do a tour and, little by little, more shows got added. So, I think I’m gonna do more a couple months after.
Clark: Jerry Seinfeld talked about not knowing real pain until a comedian bombs on stage. Do you have any insights about the struggles of an upcoming musician or comedian relating to that?
Armisen: Yeah, I have plenty to say about that. That’s a very good question. I do standup and am a comedian because I played so many music shows to nobody. I was in a band and we’d go on tour and, you know, three shows in a row there’d be literally five people there—or zero. I had a great time. I’m glad I travelled, and glad I got to play the drums, but that is soul sucking because when you have a dream you’re like “I’m gonna be a famous musician. I wanna be as big as Jesus Lizard or Fugazi.” You’re just like, “We gotta do it! We’re gonna make it!” It’s soul sucking because when you see an empty hall it’s very like, “Oh it’s supposed to be filled with people.”
Now because of that I just stopped. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was getting older, and this was not gonna get any better, so I switched to comedy … It’s a different thing when I “bomb” onstage [now] because, as a comedian, I feel better about what I do. What I did is every time I was met with silence, I used that to my advantage. That awkwardness is sort of what I lean in on. So, if it’s weird, it’ll still work for me.
That’s what ended up getting me on “Saturday Night Live” because the fact [that] these characters don’t necessarily have a punch line or a [specific] joke to them … so it worked out. It doesn’t bother me as much. Also, if I bomb … it’s less like, “Oh no—my dream!” It’s more like, “What can I do to be entertaining in this moment?” If its not working, it’s not working, then [there is] another day after that. But it’s worked out, I think, pretty good.
Clark: Would you agree being the band leader on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Myers” is a sign of successful musician?
Armisen: Thank you. Yeah. I go there either every month or every other couple [of] months and I’ll do a week of shows. I love it!
Clark: Do you write to entertain yourself or others, or both?
Armisen: It’s more specifically towards certain people. It’s the same way people do podcasts. It’s more specified. I’m sure there’s people, music nerds out there who grew up on punk rock and have the same experience of going to shows and buying records and maybe play an instrument. The work that I do, I like that it’s for a specific group of people. I think once you do that, I think people in general come around to it. It just has some focus to it. Just in the same way I like listening to podcasts about things I don’t really know about. Like, I would love to listen to a comedy show just for tennis players—just to kind of hear what their world is like.
Clark: Drummer to drummer, can I throw a couple one-off-drummer questions at you before we wrap up?
Armisen: Sure! No problem, at all.
Clark: Do you prefer vintage or new drums?
Armisen: Oooooo … I am so sorry to be uncool, but I gotta say new. Cause vintage ones, I know they look great and everything, but you start trying to work them and they’re so pointy and antiquated and it’s just like they hadn’t perfected it yet.
Clark: Bonham or Ringo?
Armisen: Ringo. Because there’s two reasons. Beatles’ music moves me to this very day. I mean Led Zeppelin are great, but Beatles’ music moves me, and he’s part of that music. His fills are artistic: they have a signature; they’re musical; they’re weird and cool and punk and artsy and sparse. I love his sound. So that’s the first reason. The second reason is Bonham has so many fans. It’s just like with anything—I don’t wanna get in line. I just don’t want to be the millionth person saying it.
Clark: Well, we’ll be in line for Fred Armisen, and we’ll see you when you get here!
Armisen: Great! I can’t wait! Thanks, Ty.