Interview: Fred Armisen On Inspirations For His Saturday Night Live Bands

He's not just a comic and resident of Portlandia, he's also a kick-butt musician

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Courtesy of Drag City

Album covers courtesy of Drag City

On Feb. 18, Chicago indie label Drag City will release a split 7″ record featuring two real songs by two fake bands. Why would a reputable label do that? Because Fred Armisen asked them to.

The former SNL cast member and current star of Portlandia is releasing a collection of 7″ singles featuring songs originated by some of his fictional Saturday Night Live bands, however, in typical Armisen dead-pan fashion, the label is presenting the songs as if they are vinyl obscurities from long-defunct real-life bands. The series, titled Hometown Heroes, is ostensibly compiled from songs selected “from Fred’s extensive record collection” and “dedicated to the regional music stars of decades past and local one-hit wonders”, according to the tongue-in-cheek press release. In reality they are songs that Armisen, an accomplished musician, played during his long tenure on SNL.

When TIME caught up with Armisen to talk about the project, he pointed out that this was not an unprecedented move for either label or artist. “I had done it once before with a sketch and Drag City,” said Armisen. “It was Crisis of Conformity’s ‘Fist Fight’.” The sketch, which aired in early 2010, featured Armisen, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana), Ashton Kutcher and Bill Hader as middle-aged men doing a reunion set for their 1980′s hardcore band, Crisis of Conformity. The song in the sketch, “Fist Fight in the Parking Lot,” was recorded by Armisen and released on Drag City in 2011.

When Armisen left SNL last year, he brought the lovable Thatcher-loving British punk rocker Ian Rubbish with him, self-releasing a best of Ian Rubbish EP. Now Armisen is back with Drag City for the Hometown Heroes series. “I thought it would be fun to make singles of [the songs],” Armisen said. “I recorded some of the tracks while I was still at SNL, it just took a while to get all the different bands done, and we (Drag City and I) wanted it all to be ready at once.”

The project’s debut single will feature Blue Jean Committee’s “Massachusetts Afternoon” and the Fingerlings’ “Embrace Me.” According to Armisen, the release will be followed by “Can We Stay With You?” by A Taste of New York, featuring additional vocals by Kristen Wiig, and the catchy “Bottle of Sparkling Apple Juice” by the Bjelland Brothers, with vocals provided by Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, who sang the tune when he hosted SNL in October 2010.

The A-side of the forthcoming single is Blue Jean Committee’s “Massachusetts Afternoon,” which stemmed from a sketch that originally aired on a 2011 episode of SNL, hosted by Jason Segel:

According to the press release, Blue Jean Committee, is the proud products of the late 70′s Northampton, Massachusetts music scene and is “comprised of some of the most sought after local session musicians, the group was most defined by Richie Cornish’s busy talk-singing lyrical style.” Armisen gave us the backstory on their unique talk-sing style: “I was listening to these songs from the late 70s that had this thing …this way of singing that is like fast talking. No rhyming lines. Just descriptions and names. People’s names. Rickie Lee Jones —the album Pirates —it has a lot of that. Thin Lizzy ‘The Boys Are Back in Town‘. Steely Dan ‘Reelin’ in the Years’. I got a little obsessed with that and just wanted to do it. It inspired the band and that style of singing.”

As for the song title, that was inspired by a jazz artist: “I was at this show where different jazz bands were playing on different floors in this building in NYC, a fundraiser I think, and this guy played this song, a jazz artist” Armisen said. “It was a romantic song called ‘Louisiana Afternoon’ and I thought, what word would sound way less romantic than Louisiana? Nothing against the state of Massachusetts at all. The word is just less ornate.”

The Fingerlings’ “Embrace Me” was originally featured in a 2011 sketch starring Armisen, host Dana Carvey, Bill Hader, and Paul Brittain. According to the press release, “Typically, a group such as this would have been formed at an art college, and The Fingerlings were no different.” To that evocative description, Armisen added, “That’s pretty much just Soft Cell. ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye.’ I liked the idea of that kind of a singer. At a time when synth bands had an all around coldness to them, Marc Almond sang with so much drama and emotion.”

While Dana Carvey was in the original sketch, he unfortunately wasn’t able to make an appearance on the actual track. “I didn’t have time to arrange that, and I wanted to finish it so it could be ready,” Armisen said of the track he recorded with Brendan Canty in Washington, D.C.. “On a related note, I did the song live with Mike Myers, with a fake band we did called the Modern Weepers.”

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