Comedian, actor and musician Fred Armisen is rarely seen out of character. Whether he is suited up as President Obama on Saturday Night Live or goofing around as one of a dozen eccentric residents of Portlandia, he disappears into each of his disguises.
However, last Sunday evening, Armisen appeared as himself, standing on a red-lit stage at Union Pool bar in Brooklyn. His “Fred Armisen’s Playlist Live!” weekly residency, a one-man musical show inspired by Woody Allen’s longtime jazz gigs in New York, finds him performing multiple instruments and singing covers of the Clash, the Damned, Tito Puente, Altered Images and other favorite artists. It’s a natural progression for the multi-talented Armisen; he played drums for the punk band Trenchmouth in the mid-1980s and has performed with the Blue Man Group and Les Savy Fav.
Even though some might conclude that Armisen isn’t a typical fashion trendsetter, nor does he often discuss his style, his comedic depictions of society definitely make strong visual statements. Rolling Stone spoke to Armisen after his latest two-hour set at Union Pool – which he dedicated to the recently passed Beastie Boy Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch – to discuss his onstage fashion sense and the musical evolution that has guided his style throughout the years.
Let‘s discuss your onstage wardrobe.
I always seem to wear black t-shirts and black pants. I have a million changes of them. And these [pointing to shoes]…they’re almost canvas-y. I got them at this shoe store on 72nd Street. They are very utilitarian so I can press all the pedals, so it’s this black rubber – wait, why am I explaining rubber to you?
These are black Levi’s, a black t-shirt, and this green… well, it’s not an army jacket, but I got it from Barney’s. It’s fancy but it looks like I got it at a thrift store. I wear it a lot because it’s very thin and very light and still looks like a jacket. I like to dress up a little bit. It’s sort of a good uniform.
And your signature glasses?
I have different ones, but these are by Masunaga.
What artists would you say visually inspired you?
The band that affected me the most visually was Devo. The way that they connected their career to their look – I thought, “That’s the way to do it.” Each album was a different uniform. David Bowie did that as well. The Beatles, to a certain extent, did it. The Clash I emulated, but I think you have to be the Clash to sort of dress like that. They’re British, so it’s not just the clothes they wear, it’s their faces and their skulls look so cool, and they’re skinny and white. I can’t emulate that; I mean, it’s just too cool for me.
What was your style when you were a drummer with your old band, Trenchmouth?
Like hardcore punk, and we were really into Minor Threat and Fugazi and Bad Brains. We were always in uniform similar to each other. All in white suits [and] shoes or all in black. We did try to maintain that. It was very dense music so there wasn’t much time to have a personality onstage.
What about as a kid?
When I was a kid, I mostly wanted to dress like Frankenstein. Like, he wore all black and a blazer, but he still looked kinda cool with it. This [looks at own clothes] kind of looks like Frankenstein.
Out of all the characters you play, which one resembles your personal style?
It would have say Nicholas Fehn [on Saturday Night Live].
You and Carrie Brownstein (of Portlandia) were recently at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner looking very dapper. What was that like for you?
It’s nice and it’s fun. You know, when Carrie and I went, we took a lot of pictures of ourselves. And I thought, you know, that’s really nice. It’s like the nice part of life.
That was quite a suit.
It was by Joseph Abboud. They asked me, “Do you want to wear our tuxedo?” and I said, “Hell yeah!” They actually did it for me two times in a row. They were so nice to me. They were great.
So you‘ll wear anything that is offered?
No, it has to be things I like. I like things simple. I like it utilitarian and not, like, slick and fitted. Simple but not distracting.