Fred Armisen on Meeting Prince, Drum Solos and Mock Rock Docs

'Documentary Now' comedian on spoofing 'Stop Making Sense' and why his 50th birthday plans involve J. Mascis and a graveyard

Comedian Fred Armisen talks meeting Prince, spoofing Talking Heads, drum solos and why his 50th birthday plans involve J. Mascis and a graveyard. Credit: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/Getty

Long before he was making people laugh for a living, Fred Armisen played drums with the Blue Man Group, and also manned the kit for Trenchmouth, a Chicago punk band that released five albums in the Nineties. Armisen's love for music shines through in the new season of Documentary Now!, where he and fellow Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader parody a series of famous docs – including the classic Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense. Right now, Armisen is shooting the seventh season of his other TV show, Portlandia, which debuts in January. He's also plotting a comedy tour on which he'll perform music by fake bands he's debuted on TV, and trying to brainstorm another television series, this one entirely in Spanish. "I never take days off," he says. "I love working. I just want to do it in a relentless way, just smash it. Kill it. Burn it, burn it, burn it."

You're a huge Talking Heads fan. Did that make it easier or harder to spoof Stop Making Sense?
I can only parody stuff I love. Being a fan really helped because I didn't have to research what the songs would sound like or what the stage setup would look like. Talking Heads were a big influence on my comedy. For David Byrne, every album had to be different. With Portlandia, every season has to be different. You gotta reinvent the look, all of it.

Did you consider parodying other music documentaries?
Music documentaries are tricky because of Spinal Tap. That movie has stood the test of time. We literally sit in the writers' room and go, "Well, Spinal Tap did that, so we can't do a thing about a ridiculous musician with some affectation."

Is there any part of you that wishes you had made it as a drummer?
No, because I have the best life in the whole world. And it all came together in the most harmonious and crazy way. I still get to play music, but in the way that I feel was meant to be.

You used to impersonate Prince on SNL. Did you ever meet him?
I often tell the story of how he was eating macaroni and cheese [at an SNL afterparty] and I tried to compliment him, and he just complimented the macaroni and cheese. But I leave out this other part of the story, which is that I met him at SNL. I came up and said, "Hey, I hope it's OK about me doing this impression of you." He stepped back and opened his eyes and then rubbed my arm in a friendly way and said, "Oh, it's cool." I was very struck by his posture. He was very male. He was a real guy.

What other heroes have you met that left you awestruck?
I was most awed meeting Paul McCartney. He made it easy to talk to him so I didn't feel like an idiot. At the same time, Mick Jones from the Clash was maybe the most for me. The amount I've listened to the Clash is just neverending.

You recently shot a movie with Billie Joe Armstrong, Ordinary World. What did you learn from that experience?
We have the same roots – we played in the same circles in the early Nineties. He really is the most positive person. He loves punk rock and loves his family, and he approached doing a movie in a way that was like, "Yeah!"

What's your position on drum solos?
Everyone knows deep in their hearts that the drums are the coolest instrument, and that a band is only as good as its drummer. So I'm all for drum solos. I'm all for drummers hamming it up. I'm all for drummers standing up and kicking over the kit.

What's your favorite drum solo?
The drumbeat to "Dreaming," by Blondie. It's not the kind of solo where everyone else stops playing; it's like a solo all the way through. I also like the drum solos in "Going Mobile," by the Who. If you listen to Keith Moon, it's always a solo all the way through.

You've been criticized for your behavior in relationships. Does it bother you to Google yourself and see all these articles about how you're the worst boyfriend in the world?
First of all, I don't Google myself. Secondly, that's all in the past. I'm not in denial. But I'm not dead, so all those negative things just help my recovery. Every day's a new day where I can say to myself, "I can become a better person. I'm not perfect. I can be more considerate and less selfish."

You're turning 50 in December. How does that feel?
I'm psyched. For some reason, the person I've focused on for turning 50 is Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. He's still himself and still an innovator. He's turned the Flaming Lips into an art platform. Turning 50 is great. I'm gonna celebrate in a graveyard.

Seriously?
Oh, yes. I'll have a bunch of my friends come together. It's not a public event, but we'll be at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. We'll have some chocolate. J Mascis is gonna play. He just turned 50 too. We'll play music and celebrate being alive.