Published Nov 27, 2007Arguably the funniest, most talented comic actor currently on Saturday Night Live, Fred Armisen's surreal characters like Nooney and Fericito and impressions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Prince and Tony Danza are often the highlight of any given episode. He is also one-half of the odd comedy duo, Thunderant, which also features Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein. Before becoming a comedian, Armisen played drums in a Chicago punk band called Trenchmouth and later handled background percussion in the Blue Man Group. He's contributed to Pitchfork and was featured in the Wilco documentary, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. Though he's often incorporated music into his acting roles, it's safe to suggest that Jens Hannemann is his most inside and preposterous musical character. Drag City Records has recently released a DVD entitled Jens Hannemann Complicated Drumming Technique, which is a 30-minute instructional music video, where horrible songs are played and then broken down for explanations by Hannemann, which make no sense but that's kind of the point really. Armisen explains it all during a strike-induced break from SNL.
Jens Hannemann seems like a composite of many characters I've run into at stores selling musical instruments. Where does Jens come from?
Well he's just a combination of different people I've seen doing drum instruction DVDs. I kind of mixed up a little bit of Terry Bozzio, maybe Marco Minnemann, and a bunch of other ones. I just was fascinated by all of these instructional DVDs and this type of music that you don't hear anywhere else but on these productions. It's like 'What kind of music is this? Why are they explaining all of these solos so much?' So I just got fascinated and was like, 'I wanna do one. I wanna make one that looks real and could be in the bin with all of these other DVDs,' and I just came up with this character just to have an excuse to do one.
I'm a drummer myself but the names you mentioned, I'm not familiar with them…
If you go to the DVD section of any music store, you'll find them. You'll see all those people.
It seems like there are multiple layers to the satire here; like are you jabbing at certain forms of music here as much as you are music theory in general?
Yeah and also maybe the idea of learning because I don't know if you can really learn things from watching a video. You know what I mean? The idea of someone saying, "Okay, I'm gonna teach you how to do something," and someone else saying "Okay, I'm gonna learn it"—I dunno if I trust that process, y'know? But that's just me. I'm also not making fun of these people; they're just trying to make a living and I'm sure they make people happy and they seem like cool people so, I'm not making fun of them all. Just to get that out there. It's more about, when you're first playing an instrument you pick it up, hope for the best, and try and enjoy it. But what do I know?
Who's your target here? Who do you think will relate to this?
I want drummers and musicians because that's who it's for specifically.
Yeah, it's not a general audience thing.
And song titles like "Polynesian Nightmare" and "Fluid Engine" — where did these come from?
I tried to think of the names that made me most sick. I said, "That's disgusting. That sounds like a terrible song."
Who are these other guys in the band?
One of them's a writer friend of mine, one's a session guy I know, and the other one is a guitar player for Blue Man Group.
Is it jam bands or new age — I can't even figure out what kind of music this is.
Ohhh…we're gonna invent a new kind of music.
It's really ridiculous.
Yeah, it is horrible. Well, you started out in music and then began exploring comedy. With touring nightclubs and perfecting sets of material, it seems like these two worlds are connected but what exactly triggered the transition for you, from music to comedy?
Luck and who knows what? I can't remember how it happened; it's just all of a sudden…You know, I go to where people ask me to do things and then, the next thing I know, I'm doing more comedy videos and comedy projects. It just kind of happened on its own; I dunno how. It was like driving around and then I just took a turn somewhere and then I was in this other city.
What is your connection to Drag City?
I've known [label managers] Dan Koretzky and Rian [Murphy] for a while. When I had this idea, I just called them and said, "Hey, would you do this thing for me?" It was just as simple as that. I knew they would get it and understand and it worked out great.
I don't believe Jens Hannemann has ever appeared on Saturday Night Live. Was this a character that you proposed for the show?
No, it was specifically for this project. I didn't want it to be known as anything else. I really do want people to find it and buy it. I want there to be someone in the world who finds it and says, "What the hell is this? It's nonsense."
It really is nonsense but it's great nonsense. How would your describe your experience on Saturday Night Live in general?
It's a dream come true. It's a dream, just a dream. I can't believe I'm there; every day I'm thankful and can't believe this. It's an incredible experience. To have the opportunity to come up with crazy characters and for the producers and Lorne Michaels to go, "Okay, we'll put that on TV," even though a lot of the characters don't make sense — it's a pretty arty world. It's like a perfect art world. It's bizarro stuff and, like it or not, they let me do crazy stuff and I'm like, "Wow."
As cast members you each bring your own ideas in for the show, right?
We have to come up with our own ideas but some times people give us ideas and it's an exchange, y'know?
Is this something you see yourself doing for a while?
A couple more years. Maybe three? Maybe because of the strike, it'll be elongated hopefully. I don't want to be there forever; I don't think that's good for anybody. But yeah, I got a couple of years left.
Okay good. You're my favourite member of the cast right now.
Awwwww. You're my favourite interviewer!
[Laughs] That's very nice of you to say. This writer strike must have been just devastating for you and the cast; what's your take on what's happened here?
Well, I have to be supportive of the writers because they are what make me talk. It's literal, it's a real thing. I've come to writers going, "I have this idea for the character" and they write it up. Then I get on TV and the internet and people tell me nice things because of the words of these writers. No matter what, I have to—have to, have to—be grateful and respectful of whatever they want. "Whatever it is that will make you happy, then great," because I'm telling you, I guarantee you I would not be in the same place without them.
Do you see a resolution in sight for this strike?
Yes, it has to happen. It has to end. I hope soon but I dunno. But yeah, something has to happen.
Finally Fred, it does seem like quite a prolific period for you right now, outside of SNL and some of the mainstream films you've been in. You've got Jens Hannemann obviously. Will the character die with the DVD?
I want to do more and maybe try coming up with someone else to do a different instrument.
We talked a lot about Jens but there's also another fellow on this DVD.
Right. This character doesn't seem to know anything about drums.
Yeah, he just reminds me a lot of Long Island people in music stores that I've met.
Just a know-nothing know-it-all.
Yeah! That's a perfect name! A know-nothing know-it-all.
Okay. That's mine by the way; I've trademarked that.
Okay. I will pay royalties.
Okay good. Then there's the comic duo Thunderant, which seems like a promising project; what's next for you, what are you focused on?
Oh, we're gonna shoot some more. We've got another one we're editing and it's the project I love most. Me and Carrie are having a great time and we go up to Portland and shoot stuff. It's just great, it's just great.
This is Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney. How did this union come about?
I've been friends with her for a while. We just get along y'know? It just happened, it was like, "Let's just start taping some pieces" and it just worked. I find her really funny.
She is very funny. I got to see Sleater-Kinney a couple of times and I recall the odd bit of banter but nothing crazy. Now she's got this whole other personality.
Yeah, yeah. She's great.
Say, do you come up to Canada much?
Yeah, I've been to Canada a lot. Trenchmouth used to just do tours of Canada some times. I absolutely love Canada because everyone seems smart.
Kind of educated, or like smarty-pants, and a good sense of humour. Good coffee everywhere and most importantly, good chocolate everywhere. Even in the crappiest gas station, you'll find a good Aero bar.
Yeah, or like Dairy Milk or something, that's true. These are things we take for granted as Canadians; I never thought of that.
Appreciate it you guys, appreciate it.