Last Saturday, fans packed into Vampire Weekend's sold-out show directed by Steve Buscemi at New York City's Roseland Ballroom to see the band make their triumphant return. What the fans didn't know was that Vampire Weekend had an opening act: Ian Rubbish, a.k.a. Fred Armisen's fictional punk singer, who jumped off the Saturday Night Live stage to play a set of songs in real life.
Armisen had introduced the character a few weeks earlier via an SNL sketch titled "The History of Punk." The sketch starred Armisen as a Johnny Rotten-esque frontman of a punk band called Ian Rubbish and the Bizarros, who took on the police and the queen, but had a surprising soft spot for Margaret Thatcher. According to fabricated punk history, Rubbish started writing heartfelt odes to Thatcher and defending her in the media, which lead to his eventual termination from the band. The sketch, which also featured a cameo from the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones, not only showed off Armisen's comedic acting talents but his music skills as well.
"I've been rehearsing for that sketch since I was 15," Armisen tells Rolling Stone, laughing. "I'm such a fan of that era of music. I'm such a fan of all those bands – the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Stranglers, the Damned. I'm just really into them."
Armisen is quick to note, however, that he didn't come up with the idea. "The piece came from Seth Meyers. He texted me and said, 'Hey, what about a punk band that are fans of Margaret Thatcher?' Seth came up with a lot of those lyrics and the sketch itself. We've been working together a long time, and we just had a good time working on it.
"For the sketch, we needed to hear some version of the song and we had very limited time. So the day we shot it, I had to run to a recording studio and put down different parts of a bunch of songs," Armisen explains. A week after the sketch went live, one of the directors, Rhys Thomas, had the idea that Armisen should release the Ian Rubbish and the Bizarros songs, an idea that Armisen jumped on. "I had to make complete versions of the songs, though. So I went back to the studio and I filled them in a little bit and made them more complete songs."
While Armisen is best known for his roles on SNL and Portlandia, he's also an accomplished musician. Back in the Nineties he played drums in the Chicago post-punk outfit Trenchmouth; more recently he toured with Les Savy Fav. And anyone who's seen his drum-off against Questlove or his Complicated Drumming series knows he's no slouch in the studio.
"It was pretty quick work, because it's very basic instrumentation. I did the drums first, then guitar, then bass, then vocals," he says. While Armisen hadn't planned on making the recording as a one-man band, the time crunch got to him: "It was the fastest way to do it."
Not that he worked entirely alone. His old Trenchmouth bandmate Damon Locks happened to be in town, and Armisen invited him to the studio to help produce the songs. The result of their labors is a four-track EP, The Best of Ian Rubbish, which is now available for free download. The songs – "Maggie Thatcher," "Sweet Iron Lady," "Living in the Gutter" and "Hey Policeman!" – were all performed entirely by Armisen as Ian Rubbish and his fictional bandmates, Derek Gash and Keith Grimshaw.
When Vampire Weekend approached Armisen to open for them – Armisen has also opened for Wilco on many occasions – making Ian Rubbish a reality seemed like a good fit, even though he had never considered making an SNL character a real life act before. "I put out a single of Crisis of Conformity, the American hardcore band [the fictional band also featured Dave Grohl, Ashton Kutcher and Bill Hader], but I never thought about playing live with them. But this seemed fun. Other people had done it before, and I wanted to emulate them."
Taking inspiration from acts like Spinal Tap and Tenacious D, who took fictional bands on tour, and British comedian Matt Berry, who incorporates music into his sets, Armisen went for it. And he'd like to do it again."I want to do some more live stuff. If there's an opportunity to open for a band or to play a gig as Ian Rubbish, I definitely want to do it." If you want to book Ian Rubbish, SNL's season finale airs on May 18th.