Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Portlandia’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein tell us their favorite high school albums

Screenshot: Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia's "The Storytellers"
Screenshot: Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen in Portlandia's "The Storytellers"

At the recent Television Critics Association press tour, the jaded crowd actually groaned when IFC announced that Portlandia’s eighth season next year would be its last. Since 2011, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein have been poking fun at hipster culture as they offer up a variety of (often gender-switched) characters, from Women And Women First bookstore owners Toni and Candace to ultimate goth couple Vince and Jacqueline. The show’s seventh season is currently in full swing on IFC, having kicked off with the rousing men’s anthem “What About Men?” The season also includes the first episodes directed by Brownstein: “The Storytellers” and “Fred’s Cell Phone Company.”

The A.V. Club and Fred Armisen have been in an ongoing dialogue about music, which began after he emailed us with a defense of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” after we (rightfully) slagged it in 2015. We continued this conversation at the TCAs last August. So for this latest TCA go-round with Armisen, we decided to ask him the then-trending Facebook query about favorite high school albums. Lucky for us, Carrie Brownstein had some time before her next interview, so she sat in for a few minutes as well.


The A.V. Club: Wow, the end of Portlandia. Did it just seem like time to wrap it up?

Fred Armisen: Well, Carrie put it really well—it’s like putting it into a container that we have some control over. But then we were bringing up, too, nothing ever really comes to an end. Like Mr. Show, they finished, but then they came back and did a few more. So, that’s the official word in a way, but it’s also, who knows.


AVC: Good to hear! So, right now on Facebook, there’s this big thing about listing your influential high school albums. For you two, music is obviously such a huge part of your lives and on the show. What were some high school albums that you would consider “defining”?

FA: For me, Sandinista!, The Clash. My ultimate high school album. I remember when it came out, I remember my friend’s older brother played it for us, and I just remember that as being the real high school album for me. It’s a triple album with tons of dumb experimental stuff. It was a real lesson, too, in how to make things that challenge these Clash band members, who are teenagers. What a way to make a record. That red album cover. The whole thing just made you go to them.


Carrie Brownstein: Triple album!

AVC: Such moxie. Especially back then, when albums were only, like, eight songs.

FA: Because of that, it’s always stayed with me as a good way to make things.

CB: There was this label out of Olympia called Kill Rock Stars that [Sleater-Kinney] would eventually be on, and they put out a compilation. And it just introduced me to a whole swath of bands that would prove very influential. Huggy Bear. Bikini Kill. Unwound. The Melvins were on there. I couldn’t get inside that album enough. Everything—just trying to sort of dissect it and listen to all the different vocals and expressions of ennui or anger. That was really exciting for me. And plus it gave me this focal point of where I wanted to end up physically. I was just like, “Where’s this place?” The capitol building was screen-printed on the album.


And then B-52’s, Cosmic Thing, which was one of my best concert experiences, and it also started the pattern of, an album would come out and then you realized this band has existed. For B-52’s, that was like their comeback album, all of a sudden I realized. Their first two albums ended up just changing my life and forming how I played guitar.

FA: So you went Cosmic Thing and then went backwards?

CB: Yeah, they were never huge, and I was too young. So Cosmic Thing, that was such a huge record. It was like “Roam” and “Love Shack.” And someone was like, “This had been a band since like ’79.” And when I heard those first two records, self-titled and then Wild Planet, I’d never heard anything like that. Fun and sexy and surfy and punk. Two singers that totally influenced a lot of the things I did. [Brownstein leaves for her next interview.]

AVC: Music plays such a big part on your show. For something like “What About Men?” do you guys write that together?


FA: Yeah, we all did. We were in the writers’ room and it was myself and Carrie and [show co-creator] Jon Krisel. It was just something we were noticing, that there were so many specialty groups that, wouldn’t it be funny if men were just like, “What about our group?” Seeing themselves as the minority. That’s just what it came out of. We had someone write the song.

AVC: Your IFC show with Bill Hader, Documentary Now!, has featured parodies of bands like the Eagles and Talking Heads. Are there other bands you remember from growing up that obviously affected you a lot?


FA: Still do. All those bands still affect me, and I’m still affected by Kraftwerk and Devo and Bad Brains. They all still have an impact on my decision-making. So that’s where it comes in. When we do the artwork for the season, we think, “What would whatever band have done?” We approach it like that. And then even [as with] band careers, we try to avoid things that wouldn’t be beneficial to us.

AVC: Can you give an example?

FA: Replacing the lead singer. Whenever bands do that, sometimes they just go on, and they’re like, “It doesn’t matter. We’ve replaced our singer.” And that always is a shock to the fans. So that’s something we know. That this chemistry—what we have, this is what it is—is irreplaceable.


AVC: That’s so true. Journey. Van Hagar.

FA: People always are dismayed by it, and they show up to the show and all they talk about is, “This singer isn’t as good as the other one.”


Although, I will say, Van Halen—I think there were enough fans of Sammy Hagar that it could have worked out. But I mean, other ones, where you’ve just never heard of the singer and they still call themselves whatever. And I understand. I’m not in their shoes. I’m sure they needed the money or whatever. But the chemistry of a band is the biggest thing.

AVC: Now with all the bands we grew up with, I went to a Foreigner concert on Chicago’s Northerly Island last summer, and there was, like, one guy that’s still from Foreigner.


FA: And the Motown bands used to do that, too. [With] ’70s bands, there would be one original or zero original guys.

AVC: Right. Styx without Dennis DeYoung.

FA: I can’t really put these people down because I don’t know what their situation is, so I mean, no disrespect to them at all. But I offer as an idea—it might also be a good idea to present yourself as “members of whatever band.” “So and so from this band, we’re playing tonight.” I always feel like, shouldn’t that be good enough?


AVC: Or like your lawyer in this season that’s like, “If you ever wrote a riff, I can get you money!”

FA: Yeah, I’ve just been seeing that so much. Maybe that’s the only way to make money. A lot of lawsuits over melodies and stuff. It just seems like the opposite of music. So that’s what that came from. Also the idea of this rock ’n’ roll lawyer just seemed entertaining to us.


AVC: So you’re going to shoot another season of Portlandia, and then what? Do you have other things you’re thinking about? Are you going to get some rest?

FA: No, never rest! There’s this other show. I’ve got a bunch of other projects. We all do. Carrie’s got projects. Jon’s got projects. But this is a ways away. We haven’t even written this season. We have a long way to go before I really have to think about it.


AVC: Do we know if there is a season three of Documentary Now! yet?

FA: I think we’re sort of taking a break because Bill Hader is doing a show. So he’s doing that. I’ll do Portlandia. We’ll see after that. But we love each other and we love doing that. Portlandia. All of that. We’re all friends. We all want to do stuff together.

AVC: Any other album you want to mention from high school?

FA: I remember Speaking In Tongues, Talking Heads. That really was huge for me. And Kraftwerk, Computer World was—oh man, the artwork on it, everything about it was perfection, and it still sounds great. It still looks great. What about you, by the way?

AVC: I just did my list on Facebook, and it’s hilarious because if you could put up a new-wave playlist, that would be my list. It was like Simple Minds, New Order, Yaz’s Upstairs At Eric’s album…


FA: What city did you grow up in?

AVC: Chicago.

FA: So what was the radio station that was playing all of this?

AVC: WXRT, probably.

FA: So WXRT kind of went new wave a little bit.

AVC: And nobody else would. Everything else was just throwing all the MTV hits at you all the time.


FA: We had the same thing.

AVC: Like Men At Work.

FA: Yeah, well, you picked some good records.

AVC: I remember I went to a Clash show, which I still can’t believe, in 1982. It was at the Aragon, and my mom just dropped me off. It was for Combat Rock. I was so freaked out. I was way too young to appreciate it. I was just terrified of all the mohawks and stuff.


FA: Holy moly. But now you can embellish that story. You can change that story. And you can read it more like, “Yeah, it was really important for me to go to that Clash show at the Aragon. I went and my mom didn’t want me to go, but I did and I really identified with all the mohawks and stuff.” But I’m very jealous. That’s really cool. What was your first show?

AVC: Journey. Bryan Adams opening. Which is probably why I went, to be honest.

FA: Don’t be embarrassed. If you read Steve Jones’ new book, he talks about how everyone actually loved everything. Journey. And it’s true. I was a huge Beatles fan. My first show was from Adam And The Ants from Kings Of The Wild Frontier. That tour. I saw them at The Pier in New York.


AVC: Now that is a great first show! Adam Ant is coming to Chicago this month. And I know it’s nostalgia. I know it’s not the same. But I feel like I have to go.

FA: There’s nothing to be shy about. Everybody does it. It’s okay.

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