Music Interviews
12:41 pm
Sat February 22, 2014

Fred Armisen's Fake Bands (And Their Real Songs)

Originally published on Tue March 18, 2014 9:57 am

A lot of obscure bands want to reach a national audience, and they send their records to NPR. Unfortunately, there's a lot of forgettable stuff in the mix, and recently the staff of All Things Considered received the kind of CD it would usually toss.

It's got a pair of singles by two bands — The Blue Jean Committee, which came out of the 1970s Massachusetts folk scene; and The Fingerlings, a British post-disco/synth band of art-school graduates. Both sound desperately tiresome.

But before chucking the disc, the show's producers noticed a familiar name on it: Fred Armisen.

An alum of Saturday Night Live, co-star of IFC's Portlandia, and, starting this Monday, bandleader on Late Night with Seth Meyers, is a musical chameleon of sorts. The bands on this release are fictional, but the songs are real: written by Armisen for sketches on SNL and now available as a series of 7" vinyl singles from the indie label Drag City.

The Fingerlings first appeared on SNL in 2011: Fred Armisen, Dana Carvey and their band, complete with new-wave wigs and trench coats, take the stage at a bar full of increasingly impatient Packers fans as the Super Bowl kicks off on the TV behind them. The skit is funny, but not necessarily because of the song, which is missing the arch punchlines common to song parodists like "Weird Al" Yankovic and Flight of the Conchords. Instead, the comedy emerges from the weird, uncomfortable tension that comes from the band being totally earnest.

"At the risk of sounding like I have fake humility, I'm just not good at putting jokes in songs," Armisen says. "There are people who are really good that. For me, it's just been more about the texture of it all."

On the new singles, that texture has to stand on its own: These are studio versions, with no angry football fans or awkward audience reactions to give them context. And Armisen's gone the whole distance, with serious-sounding press releases and legit-looking cover art (the latter of which was created by artist Damon Locks, with whom Armisen was in a real band in the 1990s, the post-hardcore outfit Trenchmouth).

Armisen's name does appear on the records for the purposes of songwriting credit. He says, however that he wishes there was a way to make their origins even more covert.

"I just like the idea of local music heroes: Those bands that were on the cusp of becoming nationally famous, but just stayed sort of regional," he says. "So in a way, it would make sense that the person buying the record has never heard of them — because only people in their town have heard of them."

The first single, featuring the Blue Jean Committee and The Fingerlings, is out now, with another due in March.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

A lot of obscure bands want to reach a national audience, and they send their records to NPR. Unfortunately, most of them aren't great. This CD, for instance, is the type of thing we'd usually just toss.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: It's got a pair of singles, each from a different band: one by The Blue Jean Committee, who came out of the 1970s Massachusetts folk scene, and this one you're hearing now, it's the Fingerlings. They're a post-disco synth band from Bath, England, who formed in art college. Sounds just dreadful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMBRACE ME")

THE FINGERLINGS: (Singing) Standing in the motel room looking out at the neon lights...

RATH: But before chucking it out, we noticed the name Fred Armisen on there. For those of you who haven't seen him on "Saturday Night Live" or "Portlandia," Fred is a musical chameleon and a hilarious one. See, these bands don't actually exist. They're fictional. The back stories: fake. But the songs, well, you're hearing them now. They're real.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMBRACE ME")

FINGERLINGS: (Singing) All I can say is embrace me...

RATH: The Fingerlings first appeared in an "SNL" skit. Fred Armisen and Dana Carvey and their band, complete with new-wave wigs and trench coats, take the stage at a rapidly emptying bar full of Packers fans as the Super Bowl kicks off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMBRACE ME")

FINGERLINGS: (Singing) Your fingers touch my lips as we drove through the memory's night. Weeping in the pouring rain with blue mascara running down my face.

RATH: It's great. You can hear the crowd laughing. It's not because Fred's songs are parodies or crammed full of jokes, like Weird Al Yankovic or Flight of the Conchords. The comedy emerges from the weird, uncomfortable tension that comes from the bands being totally serious.

FRED ARMISEN: At the risk of sounding like I have, like, fake humility, like, I just, I'm not good at putting jokes in songs. You know what I mean? There are people who are really good at that, and they've got like a punch line or something. But for me, it's just more being about just like a texture of it all.

RATH: Case in point: "Sparkling Apple Juice" by The Bjelland Brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPARKLING APPLE JUICE")

THE BJELLAND BROTHERS: (Singing) Two, three, I sent a bottle sparkling apple juice to your house. Did you get it? Oh, remember that song? I sent a bottle of...

RATH: I mean, that's pretty much the song. Armisen, along with Bryan Cranston, both bewigged, singing on a giant stage in front of a very sparse crowd. The skit gets its laughs from jokes sprinkled into the script, not the song itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPARKLING APPLE JUICE")

BROTHERS: Can we all - can you all see this, people in the back? Is that - can we - turn the house lights up a little. We want to see the crowd. Huh. Look at that. There are not that many people here tonight. No.

ARMISEN: You know, sometimes with a sketch is you need some kind of opposing factor just to make the comedy of it. Oh, my God. I can't believe I'm saying - talking about comedy like it's a serious thing. I'm so sorry. Anyway, for some of those sketches, you need an opposing thing just to make it, you know, give it a point.

RATH: But on these new singles, there's no opposing thing - no angry football fans or awkward audience reactions. These are studio versions. What's weird is that songs like "Embrace Me" are even funnier when they're standing there naked.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMBRACE ME")

FINGERLINGS: (Singing) Dancing with my trousers off in a disco in Berlin. All I can say is embrace me, embrace me.

RATH: And Fred's gone the whole distance with cover art and the serious-sounding press release.

ARMISEN: I wanted it to appear real. I didn't want it to seem too jokey. I wanted the records to be mistaken for the real thing.

RATH: Fred Armisen's name is on there for songwriting purposes, but he says he wishes there was a way to make it even more covert.

ARMISEN: I just like the idea of local music heroes, you know, those bands that were on the cusp of becoming nationally famous but they just stayed sort of regional but they were still famous where they're from. So in a way, like, it would make sense that the person buying the record has never heard of them because only the people in their town have heard of them.

RATH: That thinking inspired the other band in the new release, The Blue Jean Committee.

THE BLUE JEAN COMMITTEE: We come from a little place called Northampton, Massachusetts. You guys heard of it? I think you have. Yeah?

RATH: In this skit from 2011, The Blue Jean Committee steps onto the stage at a small bar - clearly in Northampton. Guest host Jason Segal is on keyboards, Fred Armisen on guitar and vocals - both sporting wigs and awful all-denim outfits.

COMMITTEE: Let me ask you a question: do you ever have one of those afternoons that you wish would never end? What I'd like to do right now is paint you a little picture of what that's like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASSACHUSETTS AFTERNOON")

THE BLUE JEANS COMMITTEE: (Singing) Massachusetts afternoon, hanging out on the porch, drinking cinnamon here with you.

RATH: Armisen says "Massachusetts Afternoon" was an easy pick for the first single. He actually loves the song like that just on its own. He got the idea when he saw a jazz band perform a song called "Louisiana Afternoon." He was struck by the beauty of the song and the way the word Louisiana just flowed with the music.

ARMISEN: And I thought, what's the opposite of this? What's a state in the United States where it would sound more clinical, where it doesn't sound very good? No disrespect to the state of Massachusetts. It just doesn't lend itself to that kind of romantic notion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASSACHUSETTS AFTERNOON")

COMMITTEE: (Singing) Massachusetts afternoon, staying at my cousin's place, I write love letters to you.

RATH: I asked Fred if he's managed to fool anyone into thinking these were real bands.

ARMISEN: Unfortunately, not yet. It is a real wish of mine that someone will mistake it for the real thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASSACHUSETTS AFTERNOON")

COMMITTEE: (Singing) Yeah, if you want to find me and the guys, we'll be at the Empty Glass Inn playing pool with Old Man Jones. And beautiful Lucia with those long Northampton legs dancing to the jukebox all night long.

RATH: Sorry to spoil the surprise for all of you listening. The first single is out now with The Blue Jean Committee and The Fingerlings. The second, with The Bjelland Brothers and Taste of New York, will come out in March. Fred is no longer on "SNL" but that doesn't mean he's done with songs like this.

Armisen will continue the jokes as the bandleader at the new "Late Night with Seth Meyers," which premieres this Monday. He says it'll be just straight stuff at first, but Meyers has hinted that we'll be seeing more of Armisen characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASSACHUSETTS AFTERNOON")

COMMITTEE: (Singing) I write love letters to you. Massachusetts afternoon, hanging out on the porch, drinking cinnamon beer with you...

RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Here's something to think about for tomorrow: legal marijuana is now on store shelves in Colorado.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Gram's at $20, tax included, or we have a joint.

RATH: So we're taking a look at a different kind of DUI.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: There are so many things we don't know about the effect of marijuana on crash risk.

RATH: Sorting out the science on driving and marijuana. That story tomorrow. I'm Arun Rath. Thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.