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Fred Armisen: This Guy's A Joke

Do you want to learn how to better integrate your paradiddleoddleloodles with your paradiddlellograms? How strong is your 9/21 groove? Do you know what to do with all 17 of your tom toms? Are you looking for elaborate new ways to dominate a jam session? You’ll find all the information you’ll need in the breakthrough new instructional DVD, Jens Hannemann Complicated Drumming Technique — 28 minutes of never-before-heard-of drumming tips and performances guaranteed to leave you scratching your head in confusion.

If this sounds like the makings of a Saturday Night Live skit, you’re not far off. Jens Hannemann is the creation of SNL cast member Fred Armisen, the guy best known on the show for spot-on impressions of Prince, the president of Iran, and that heavily Long Island-accented guy selling marble columns next to Scarlett Johansson, as well as appearing in any skit that calls for a competent musician. You might even have seen him doing sketch comedy videos with former Sleater-Kinney frontwoman Carrie Brownstein, an old friend from his previous life as a punk drummer. Before joining the cast of SNL in 2004, Armisen spent eight years as the drummer in the Chicago punk band Trenchmouth and two as a drummer in the Chicago production of Blue Man Group.

“Originally, that’s all I wanted to do was I just wanted to be a drummer in a band,” Armisen says. “But then I just started to make these videos of interviewing bands and stuff as different characters. And it kind of took off. Within the space of about a year, I completely went from being a musician to being a comedian. And I had no control over it. I’ll probably never understand how it happened, but before I knew it, that’s what I was doing full time.”

But his past has served him well. During the television writers’ strike (possibly still dragging along as of this printing), which has put the rest of the cast of SNL on anxious hiatus, Armisen has kept busy hawking his DVD. “It relieves a lot of the pressure off of me,” he says. “It’s not for a huge, everybody audience where I have to worry about punch lines and jokes and everything. It’s for drummers, definitely, and they’ll get it … hopefully. The intent is to put it only in music stores, but that might take some time. But that’s starting to happen. It’s my dream someday for it to end up in the hands of someone who doesn’t know who I am, and be angry about it. I want someone to look at it and go, ’This is all wrong. I want my money back.’ And when that happens, I’ll know I did my job.”

The idea for the video was born of Armisen’s long-time fascination with the sub-genre of drum instructional videos. “I just kept buying them — I just became obsessed,” he says. “And they all had the same style. They had the same style of shooting. They had their own language. And it just seems like this kind of entertainment that’s separate from the music business, and separate from live shows — it’s just like a very specific world. It was one of those things where I thought, ’I just have to make one of these.’ And I didn’t want it to be a joke. I wanted it to look real. I wanted it to be one of them. But the difference being, it’s just completely useless information.”

That information comes via Jens Hannemann, aka Armisen posing as a mullet-sporting, vaguely Germanic pseudo-prog “expert” who is an amalgam of every instructional-video personality on the shelves, with an obvious emphasis on the genre’s three main stars: Marco Minnemann, Terry Bozzio, and Thomas Lang. “I wanted to make him a guy who doesn’t think he has an accent,” says Armisen. “He’s from California and he thinks like a Californian, but we all know he has an accent.”

For the requisite monstrosity that is Hannemann’s drum set, Armisen asked the tech guys at the Blue Man Group’s rehearsal studio in New York, where he shot most of the video, to gather every drum lying around and throw them all together into an elaborate web of hardware that would make Mike Portnoy jealous — suspended bass drums, pedal-operated djembes, a set of 22" rides used as hi-hats. “We’d find stuff in every little corner of the room, and I was just like, ’Add it on. Add it on. Even if it’s impossible to play, just add it.’”

The real treat comes in the form of full-band performances of original songs with names like “Fluid Engine” and “Polynesian Nightmare.” “I just told everyone, ’Just play as busy as you can. And the most important thing is, smile and laugh.’ Because I noticed a lot of those jam sessions, people are laughing and stuff, and I just thought, ’Why are they smiling?’ It’s just such a weird thing to enjoy yourself so much when you’re playing.”

But despite the performances’ obvious emphasis on the absurd, Armisen’s skills on the kit still shine through, and the drummer he used to be can’t help but poke through the comedic veil, something with which he’s grown quite familiar. “The first thing I ever did [on SNL] I was playing timbales. I hate to say it, but it’s kind of a crutch. It’s something I know how to do and I can use it to distract a little bit.” He’s even stumbled on a psychological correlation between the two sides of his personality.

“I got into playing drums more than anything because I just needed a lot of attention,” he says. “To me, the drums were the loudest instrument and the biggest spectacle. I always liked how Keith Moon tried to draw attention to himself. So I think that comedians are by nature very insecure people and they need a lot of attention as well, and reassurance — I think it’s just part of the personality. You know, you don’t see a lot of comedian bass players. I think Peter Sellers was a drummer. I think Johnny Carson was a drummer. There’s a whole little subsection.”

And though sketch comedy has become his new love, Armisen will always consider himself a punk drummer at heart. “Even when I do SNL there’s a little part of me that thinks that way — that uses that expression. It’s also a good way for me to appreciate what I have. When I walk down the hallways at NBC they have all these framed pictures of all these cast members — so Phil Hartman’s up there, and John Belushi, and Dan Akroyd, and I go, ’I can’t believe there’s a punk drummer up there too.’ I just feel really lucky. How’d that happen?”

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