An Emmy nomination for Fred Armisen is nothing new — thanks to Portandia, the SNL alum has been up for writing and acting nods in recent years. But if all goes well in the coming weeks, he might end up nominated for something he’s been doing far longer than TV — music.
As the 8G Band leader on Late Night With Seth Meyers, Armisen recently gave network late-night its first-ever punk theme song — and NBC is hoping his contributions to Meyers will net him an “outstanding musical direction” Emmy nod.
But what does Fred want? Just before he boarded a Rome-bound plane to film scenes for Zoolander 2, we got Armisen on the phone to discuss everything from his feelings on the Emmys to the challenge of creating a faux music documentary without stepping on the toes of Spinal Tap. Here’s what’s going on in the mind of Armisen.
So Emmy nomination period just started and it looks like you might get a nod in the outstanding musical direction category for your work on Late Night With Seth Meyers. This wouldn’t be your first nomination, though, since Portlandia nabbed you a few. By the way, it’s crazy you didn’t win for at least one of —
No, no, no. Not crazy. That’s totally okay. That kind of thing, I promise you, is not how I feel about things. To be invited and to go is a huge thing for me. I’d never been nominated before in that category [for outstanding supporting actor in 2014] and it was all a fun time. There isn’t even a little part of me that thinks there is anything rotten — it’s just a total honor. I swear. I’ve heard people say “it’s an honor” before, but now that it’s happened to me, I totally get it.
If you did win for Seth Meyers, might you feel differently?
Honestly, I just like being in the arena, being part of everything in entertainment. There are a lot of artists out there, there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of shows. It’s a literal party. You get to go and see everybody, and there are people you know, friends of yours, and you hang out with everybody.
One of your first comedy projects was a video where you basically trolled SXSW in the late ’90s. At the time, in the back of your mind, did you hope or expect to get to where you are now?
It was definitely an ambition. The fact that I was filming it was my own way of saying, “I want to be part of TV.” I love TV. I’ve always loved TV, I’ve always watched comedy, and my knowledge of music and music education is watching bands on TV. Devo, the Clash, seeing them on Saturday Night Live and Fridays… all of those shows informed me. To walk into it all is a dream. It’s a cool, lucky thing that I get to walk into what I used to watch.
Now that your SNL stint is over, you’re back at NBC with the 8G Band on Seth Meyers. How do those compare in terms of time commitment?
I would say SNL is kind of a 24-hour job. From Monday to Saturday, it’s all you think about. All of your emotion and mind is in it, and I’m glad it’s that way. Late Night With Seth Meyers is pretty much from noon to 8 o’clock at night. You go in at noon, write a song, rehearse, and play the show at 5:30, and go from there. It’s a different kind of work. SNL, your goal is, “How can I make a sketch work and show off what I do? How do I present this impression or serve the other writers?” But with Late Night With Seth Meyers, it’s, “How do we embellish what’s going on already?” We’re not the focal point. And because of that, the task is to create a musical atmosphere, a sonic atmosphere. You want to draw attention, but not too much attention. We’re still working on it. How do you present yourself as an interesting band, but you want Seth Meyers to be the focus. And because it’s mostly instrumental, that’s the part that makes band practice fun.
I heard you pulled the band together not too long before the first test pilot was shot. Since then, you’ve had indie stars like Eleanor Friedberger guest, and now Marnie Stern is a part of the 8G Band. When you first reached out, were they receptive, or reticent?
Not only were they receptive, but they contributed such a great thing to it because of the way they write songs and the way they play. Marnie Stern has her own guitar style, and what’s better than that? Now she’s a permanent member, and she’s just great. Also, for what it’s worth, she’s very happy on screen, and I think that’s important. Someone who seems like they enjoy playing. The band is all friends and fans of Marnie Stern.
I also wanted to talk about Documentary Now, which seems like a perfect project for you — an IFC show where you spoof different documentaries in each episode. One of them is a take on the Bouvier family documentary Grey Gardens. That seems difficult. The original is already so strange — how do you out-weird that?
We went into it amazed at the format and amazed at the luck of capturing people at that point in their lives. We tried to keep it natural and also make sure we’re not making fun of it. It’s sort of like a reflection of it. I know that’s a pretentious word, “reflection,” but it’s like how the Rutles wasn’t making fun of the Beatles — it was an absurd image of it.
Did you do a version of Big Edie’s “Tea for Two” or Little Edie’s American flag dance?
I’m not sure, because I don’t know what will end up in the final edit. But as far as music goes, we did one that was like an Eagles-esque documentary episode, a ’70s soft rock band, and that’s all performing.
So you have fake songs, Spinal Tap-esque, but in the soft rock style.
It’s something I’ve done for a while anyway on SNL with Ian Rubbish and stuff. We actually, because Spinal Tap is so powerful and has lasted the test of time, we had to purposely make sure we didn’t step on any of that. We’re still editing and we’ll see how that goes, but we have to make sure that joke isn’t in it. For me, I’ve been listening to so much soft rock ’70s radio and I’m just amazed at the songs. The drumming is so soft — there’s something really daring and bold about those light, light drums. That’s my obsession at the moment.
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That sound is having a renaissance at the moment with Haim, the new Florence, even Destroyer moved his sound into that area.
Yeah, even Sufjan Stevens in a way. And it’s not as simple as the ingredients of, oh, this is light rock — it’s a bunch of things at the same time. A lot of harmonies, attention to craftsmanship, and all that.
Anything else you’ve been listening to?
Right now I’ve been listening to a lot of Jamie xx. My favorite way to find music is by mistake. Even though it’s being promoted [Jamie’s album], I happened to be listening to Coachella live, the streaming of it, in my car. And I don’t know that much about Jamie xx. I know the xx, but I just left it on. And I was like, “Okay, this is like electronic music, and I’ll just drive for a while.” And song after song I kept thinking, “What is this? This is great! This is in front of a crowd?” There was so much about it that I loved and I couldn’t wait to buy it. It’s always fun to be excited to buy an album. It’s kind of like, at the risk of sounding dramatic, it’s what makes life worth living. I can look forward to being any age as long as people are making new music that’s great. I look forward to it all. And it never, never stops.
And you’re starting production on Zoolander 2 tomorrow. Can you talk about your scenes or role?
I’m actually leaving in a half an hour to the airport. That’s how close it’s happening. I have no idea what I’m allowed to say about it, but I’ll say it’s a role that has lots of special effect. And that’s a new thing for me. And it’s such a cool… everyone there has been so great. I’ve shot some scenes already and it’s really cool.
You’re a fan of the original?
The David Duchovny cameo still makes me laugh, even thinking about it.
That was like a nice gift to the audience. Like, oh, thank you! Thank you for this present.
Before you head to the airport, is there anything you want to add about Seth Meyers and the possibility of a musical Emmy?
It’s all my dreams come true. I wanted to do the first post-punk late-night band. And had a dream like, what if rock, alternative, post-punk bands — what if that’s the sound of future TV? Wouldn’t that be a happy, cool thing? And putting the band together, it became that. I’m really proud and happy that punk musicians are on TV — it’s such a cool thing for me. It’s a goal and it happened. So the sound you hear, that’s what it’s all about. The inspiration of Stereolab and Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. and Fugazi, that’s what it’s a tribute to. It’s definitely a reason to celebrate.