Saturday Night Live and Portlandia’s Fred Armisen, on why the '90s dream of artistic utopia is still alive today
Fred Armisen is probably best known for his long tenure on the television sketch-comedy program, Saturday Night Live — where, in addition to dozens of original characters, he famously impersonated celebrities from President Barack Obama to NPR host Ira Glass. Last year, Armisen left SNL amid the success of Portlandia, an IFC comedy he created with Carrie Brownstein that mercilessly satirizes today’s hipster culture, from artisanal pickle-making to conceptual art.
(Read the Christie’s interview with Carrie Brownstein, here.)
But Armisen’s creative impulses date back much further: Like Brownstein, who played guitar and sang in the band Sleater-Kinney, Armisen cut his creative teeth amid the experimental post-punk scene of the 1990s as a drummer for the band, Trenchmouth. He’s kept abreast of creative trends since then, as a budding art collector, and through his various collaborations. (He and Brownstein recently tapped photographer Alex Prager for a project promoting season four of Portlandia, based on Prager’s new series, Face in the Crowd.) Ahead of our “90s to Now” online-only sale, Christie’s senior editor, Austin Considine, spoke with Armisen about the comic’s roots in the 1990s underground, his formative years in art school, and the artist he’d most like to impersonate.
Q: You went to the School of Visual Arts, in New York, for a few years in the late 1980s — before you dropped out to form a band in Chicago. Did you aspire to be a visual artist then?
A: No, I wish I could say something like that. It’s such a cool thing to be able to say that you’re a visual artist. But I actually went only because I wanted to be in a band. It’s almost an understood fact of life that if you want to be in a cool band, you just go to a visual art school. SVA is where I met Damon Locks, the singer from Trenchmouth, so that’s where it came to fruition. But I will say that I learned a lot about art because of the School of Visual Arts. That’s how I ended up seeing [video artist] Bill Viola's stuff. The school exposed me to a lot. So as a school it did its job.
Q: Were there artistic movements or classes you took at that time that influenced your direction?
A: Just introducing me to [video art] as a medium — even the idea of being exposed to an editing bay was huge for me. I took film classes as well; they introduced us to experimental film, and even [to] the concept [that] commercial movies have an element of being experimental. I was inspired to go to that school to take some classes because of [independent filmmaker] John Waters.
That was early on, and throughout the rest of my life I’ve just always tried to follow [whatever artists] I could. And only recently — I’d say in the last 10 years — I’ve sort of expanded or developed my interest in paintings and other art.
Q: Any artists you’re really into right now? Anyone you’re collecting?
A: Joe Coleman is someone I’ve followed for a while. Over the last couple years, I’ve acquired some of his work. Another is [painter] Mike Davis. He’s great. Then a couple weeks ago I went to a show by Shepard Fairey, and he has these incredible paintings of Sid Vicious that were really great. That was something meaningful to me.
Q: Speaking of punk rock, I first started seeing Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” image during the mid-90s in cut-and-paste fanzines sold at all-ages punk shows. It seems like the 90s punk / indie scene was really fertile ground for creative people. How did being a part of that scene in the ‘90s shape what you did later?
A: At the time — and I’m sure it’s still true now — people embraced the city that they were from. You were part of either the Chicago scene, or the Seattle scene, or the Washington, D.C., scene. And I feel like, circling around that, there were whole communities. And there was a scene of recording studios. There’s something about that that makes one not depend or lean on something that’s national or international. I’m going to steer clear of using the letters “D.I.Y.” But there’s something in the middle, which is not D.I.Y., but is sort of the local scene — that sort of, “hey, all we need to do is this and we can get going.” Portlandia was a little bit like that. We didn’t rely on anything greater right away. It was just Carrie and me and eventually Jon Krisel. I think there’s something about the aesthetic of every city music scene that is a sort of green light — a sort of permission to do these things.
Q: You and Carrie famously poked fun at the “dream of the '90s” in Portlandia, but it’s also pretty clear that was a unique time for you. Is the ‘90s, utopian subculture dream really alive, or has it been fundamentally altered?
A: No, I actually think that things don’t change that much. The thing [in Portlandia] about “the dream of the ‘90s is alive” — I think the key word is “alive.” Meaning, I think there are things from the ‘50s that haven’t changed. All you have to do is search for evidence of it, and every trend, every forward-thinking idea has existed forever. But that’s kind of a nice thing. That search in the ‘90s for utopia and even all the tribal imagery, it bubbles up all the time. It existed in the ‘60s. But it’s great.
Q: We just interviewed Massimiliano Gioni, who curated the New Museum’s big show, “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.” He argues that 1993 was around the time we saw the distinction between underground and mainstream culture start collapsing.
A: I actually agree, and I can see what [Gioni] means. Yeah, ‘93 sounds about right. Even in simple terms of aesthetic, that definitely was a turning point. Take Sonic Youth, for example: [Their aesthetic] existed before, but then you saw it in print — you saw big versions of it around that time. Also, I don’t know when Lollapalooza started, but that was a weird marker of that aesthetic — even the name. And Sonic Youth headlined one of those years. Somewhere in there is when you see bands literally going from small stages to arenas.
Q: Have you ever impersonated an artist on television? I bet you could do a good Andy Warhol.
A: Ah, man, I don’t think I have! I’m sorry. I’m actually apologizing to you. That is something I owe you an apology for. I mean, Joe Coleman would have been great. It’s not too late. We’ve got the fourth season of Portlandia coming up. I’d like to do an impression of Cindy Sherman. Part of my goal when I first started going into comedy was I definitely aspired to be somebody like Cindy Sherman.
Q: So what would your impression look like?
A: I would do a very, very colorful photo, where it just looks like a third person — where it looks like neither her nor me. And I’d say, “Hey, this is me doing Cindy Sherman.”
Christie’s spoke with Mr. Armisen ahead of its 90s to Now online-only auction, accepting bids Feb. 6 through 20.
Main Image:Before Saturday Night Live and Portlandia brought him to
mainstream audiences, Fred Armisen was the drummer in the 1990s for the influential post-hardcore band, Trenchmouth. Image courtesy IFC