Fred Armisen is best known for his work on Saturday Night Live and shows like Documentary Now!, Portlandia and Forever, but music is his first love. He’s been drumming since his teenage years and even though he’s usually balancing three or four comedy projects at once, he always makes time for music. He played drums with Devo at a festival gig last year and his most recent Netflix Special Standup For Drummers was centered almost entirely around jokes aimed at his peers in the drumming world. When we spoke to Armisen about it a couple of months ago, he also shared his five favorite drum songs of all time.
Bow Wow Wow, “Golly Golly Go Buddy”
This was the first time I ever heard timbales used as a main part of a drum part and not just as fills. It’s a constant rolling of timbales all the way through. It’s relentless drumming. The way the drumming is with the bass playing, which is also insane — such incredible bass playing. If someone was playing bass like that you’d think [drummer] Dave Barbarossa would just lay back and let the tempo and beat just sit there, but instead he just attacks it, so it’s like this double attack. It’s not a math-rock song; it’s not complicated. It’s still danceable and celebratory and even a catchy pop song. That’s what I used to really like about punk and New Wave. There was no definition as to what it was supposed to be. The ultimate punk thing is to re-invent what you are supposed to be. I’m sure Bow Wow Wow said they weren’t punk, but to me I still put them in that category.
Sleater-Kinney, “Get Up”
This is a very emotional song, but Janet Weiss plays this weird disco beat that just builds and builds. It’s kind of an emotional beat, which is kind of a hard thing to do. It’s hard to express yourself with just drums. The song is uptempo; it’s also melancholy. It’s this melancholy, driving beat that builds all the way through to the end. It doesn’t just use the snare drum, it uses the floor tom on the four, which I really love. It’s kind of a challenge to be in a band when you’re not the singer and still try to put your own signature on a song. Janet Weiss does that here.
Devo, “Swelling Itchy Brain”
This is one of my favorites. If that songs appears on my iPod or whatever, I still focus on that tom-tom pattern. If you wrote it out, it looks like a sentence that gets busier and busier. It’s really balanced and symmetrical. It starts off pretty sparsely, and then in verse two he adds another tom tom. And then another one in verse three. I don’t know what Alan Myers was thinking. I don’t know why he approached it that way. That’s what I like about it. I don’t know why he did that. Jerry [Casale] told me that on “Jocko Homo” he wanted Alan to sound like a robot with one arm. On this song, I don’t know if there was some sort of plan, a blueprint or a design to make it sound like something. An army of robots?
Midnight Oil, ”Power and the Passion”
My favorite drum solo. It’s a great song. I feel like it came at a weird time at music. New Wave was just finishing out and we weren’t in the mid-to-late Eighties yet. It’s this crazy drum solo. Someone breaks a bottle in it and there’s this mixture of regular drums and electronic pads. It’s this electronic sound, but [the drums] don’t disappear on it. It’s nice they weren’t like, “We’ll use pads and this is the future.” It’s this weird mix of sound effects and weird drums. The lyrics are political, which makes it even cooler. I think the idea of a drum solo on an album is risky and I like that they took that risk. He doesn’t say, “OK, now a drum solo.” All of a sudden you’re hearing this crazy break. There’s a little bit of a Devo element, but it’s a little more chaotic. It’s a chaotic drum solo.
Nomeansno, “It’s Catching Up”
They’re an incredible Canadian punk band from the early Nineties. The drums are really heavy on this song. I see it as one of the heaviest songs I’ve ever heard. I feel like it’s a song I am unable to play. That beat just knocks you out. It’s so, so good. Every time I hear it, I imagine myself playing the beat, but then it’s like putting on a superhero costume. That’s a beat I cannot play. I prefer it to speed metal since it’s uncharted territory of drumming. There’s no guidebook to drumming like that. It’s a crazy, great song.