Fred Armisen is best known for his comedic roles as a cast member of “Saturday Night Live” and the co-star of “Portlandia,” the comedy he co-created with Carrie Brownstein of the band Sleater-Kinney.
But before he became a well-known comedian, Armisen was a musician, including a 10-year stint as a drummer with the Chicago band Trenchmouth.
Saturday night, Armisen will speak at the Folly Theater as part of the Ideas forum for Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest. Here are some facts and trivia about Armisen and his rise to stardom via the world of music.
His birth name is Fereydun Robert Armisen. He was born in Hattiesburg, Miss., in December 1966. His mother is Venezuelan. His father is half-German and half-Japanese. They met while attending the University of Southern Mississippi.
Armisen grew up in Valley Stream, N.Y., where one of his boyhood friends was the younger brother of actor Steve Buscemi and where he played drums in a high school band.
Armisen moved to Chicago in 1988, following a friend who’d moved to attend the School of the Art Institute. They would start Trenchmouth, a post-hardcore/art-punk band. Armisen was the drummer. They would sign with Skene Records, Green Day’s first label.
A writer for Magnet magazine described the band’s early sound as “a cross between the funky angularity of Gang of Four, fearless-sometimes-foolish genre-splicing of the Minutemen and the aggro roar of Fugazi.”
Music producer Steve Albini befriended Armisen in Chicago but was not a fan of the band. When asked why he didn’t like Trenchmouth, Albini told Magnet, “Because they were awful and they toiled in Chicago and D.C., two places overrun with much more interesting bands at the time. If they had been in Decatur or Ottumwa, I’m sure they would have been local legends and widely regarded as a lost treasure.”
Trenchmouth lasted 10 years and four albums. In 2003, Thick Records released “More Motion: A Collection,” a Trenchmouth retrospective.
Armisen worked at the night club the Lounge Ax in Chicago, where his boss was Sue Miller, now the wife of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. In the early 2000s, Armisen opened as a comedian on a Tweedy solo tour. He makes a brief appearance in the Wilco documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
One of the bookers at the Lounge Ax at the time was Mark Greenberg, a member of the Coctails, a band comprising students from the Kansas City Art Institute.
In a Chicago Tribune article from January 2012, Miller recalled Armisen developing his comedy chops while working at the Lounge Ax.
“When Fred was around I never got anything done. I think he started honing his characters on our phone. He would lie to everybody. He would tell people that Mark was working as a mime at Great America, or when bands called he would tell them send us a tape and draw a monkey on the envelope, so I would get all these envelopes with monkeys. Fred was such a horrible person! But I also love him so much.”
For about two years in the late 1990s, Armisen was a drummer for the Chicago production of Blue Man Group.
In 1998, he married Sally Timms of the British rock band the Mekons. They divorced in 2004.
In 1998, at the South by Southwest Music Festival, Armisen and Timms made a video of Armisen pretending to be a man-in-the-street reporter. He interviewed unsuspecting musicians and entertainers, including Janeane Garofalo, crashed a few panels and pulled off other pranks and shenanigans.
Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times described the video: “Armisen pretended to be blind, deaf, German, and clueless as he threw bizarre questions at music-industry executives, stuffed-shirt critics and bewildered fellow musicians.”
HBO eventually got a copy of the 20-minute video, which he called “Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and SXSW,” and was impressed enough to ask him to contribute to a music-interview show called “Reverb.”
Armisen told the Chicago Tribune in 2012, “Those videos led to me doing pieces for HBO, which led to ‘SNL.’ I’m still amazed how it worked.”
He joined “SNL” in 2002. Of all the cast members, he is the fourth-longest tenured, behind Darrell Hammond, Seth Meyers and Kenan Thompson. He is No. 2 on the list of most sketches (856), behind Thompson. He has done the third-most impressions (99), behind Thompson and Hammond. Among them: President Obama, Prince, Steve Jobs, Liberace, Mick Jagger, Saddam Hussein and Lawrence Welk.
During an interview in October with Marc Maron on Maron’s podcast “WTF,” Albini said of Armisen “Seeing him go from being just, like, Fred from Lounge Ax to being this, like, international star, television star, that’s one of the most amazing things that I’ve ever witnessed up close. He’s the first person that I’ve ever known that wanted to become famous and then, like, through strength of will and being funny, made himself famous.”
In February 2003, shortly after he’d started on “SNL,” Armisen talked to DeRogatis about who inspired the subversive, punk edge of his comedy: “To me, what the Clash did and what Devo did, that’s what I want to do. And Andy Kaufman, definitely, I look up to him as someone I would like to be like. Or Peter Sellers, to an extent. (There’s) something black about those two people that I aspire to.”
In 2014, Armisen was named bandleader for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” His bandmates include members of the New York band Les Savy Fav. Armisen performed on the band’s “Let’s Stay Friends” album, released in 2007.
Fred Armisen will speak from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. as part of the Ideas forum for Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest. Tickets are $35 and $65 through MiddleOfTheMapFest.com.