Prince: The Story of 1999 bonus feature: Fred Armisen, 'I could talk about Prince endlessly'

Fred Armisen on 'Late Night with Seth Meyers'
Drummer Fred Armisen performing with The 8G Band on 'Late Night with Seth Meyers' on NBC on November 28, 2019. (Lloyd Bishop/NBC)
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Fred Armisen: 'I could talk about Prince endlessly'
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While making our documentary series Prince: The Story of 1999, we reached out to some contemporary artists to talk about the ongoing legacy of this album and the influence that Prince has had on so many people's lives. I was so excited when Fred Armisen agreed to be interviewed for this project; he's a comedian, he's an actor, he's a musician himself — a drummer in fact. He came up in the punk world before going into acting and comedy, and he was the star of "The Prince Show" sketch on Saturday Night Live.

You can listen to our complete conversation using the audio player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

ANDREA SWENSSON: I am so excited to talk to you about 1999 because I feel like you have such a perfect story of coming out of the kind of punk background and then falling in love with Prince, and that is so much about what the story of 1999 is about — this major crossover moment for him, and winning over this whole new world of fans. So I would love for you to start by, if you could just tell me a little bit about pre-Prince Fred. Like what was going on in your life at that time before you had heard him?

FRED ARMISEN: Like a lot of people, equals, like also listening to the Beatles, and The Who and stuff like that, but then right around the early '80s, I got very — it's almost like being part of an army or something. You just like really adhere to the rules of punk rock, so for me it was like The Clash and The Dead Kennedys and bands like that, where you become like staunch — or I became staunch. And with your friends there's like a sort of list of bands who are just the cool ones and it's all — it's like a lot of British bands peppered with some of the American bands. So it's like The Jam and The Clash and the Sex Pistols and bands like that. The Damned — and it was like the color scheme was very like black and white, and also camouflage. Camouflage, for some reason, was like — that was always like the ultimate — I almost want to say that's the flag, was like camouflage, where anything — any kind of dark colors was the way to go. So that's kind of like where I was at at the time. I mean, I could list a million more bands, but I feel like you get the idea.

Yeah, for sure. So tell me about seeing — you said it was a video, right, that you saw the first time that you really discovered Prince?

Well, actually yes. That's the first thing I saw, and it was the "1999" video, and it wasn't — it wasn't "Little Red Corvette." It was like — it was the song "1999," and, you know, like I said, I was — I was so staunch in like what was cool: "This is punk. Nothing will ever change. This is the ultimate in cool."

And then when I saw this "1999" video, it was on MTV, and it really turned my idea upside down of what cool is, because I just remember it was so vivid — all those like sort of red, purple — maybe there was some pink in there too, but just sort of bright colors. And that song! And like everything about it just really threw back at me what I though was cool. And to me, the message was, "Oh, you just think you know what's cool and what's great? How about this?"

And it just — you know — the other thing was I was alone. You know, like when you that age, I think a lot of TV is watched of late at night. You know, your parents are in bed. I was in the basement. And so it's a different kind of — it's a different version of being impressionable, because it's not when you're with your friends, like "Hey, is this cool or not?" — it's very confrontational. It's just the image, and saying you're going to have to rethink what your record collection is going to look like.

And even the name, you know — it's the first I'd — I think I'd seen his name at the record store, but it's the first time that I saw him like that, just like, "What is this?" as opposed to whatever band I was listening to. There was something about it also, that it wasn't metal, it wasn't — it was like this really — which is what he, you know, went on to become for me — was this — that was also so mysterious. Prince. You think everything about it — and also the mystery of that song too, because to call a title the name of a year that it isn't that year is also pretty crazy.

Right.

You know, like, um, the song wasn't called "Let's All Dance" or "Look at these flashing lights" or look at this. It was just this other — "What is this year he's talking about?" — even though it was about partying.

It actually to me is very similar to punk rock lyrics, because it's about the apocalypse. Something in there also is a little bit like — that's kind of what — there were a few bands who were doing that kind of thing. What was this sort of Africa John Bonham song, that was kind of thematic, but yeah, it was just those colors, and in the video it was sort of this stage show. I was like, "What is this stage show?" So I remember, for that tour, I missed it, but he played Radio City Music Hall, so he was already become huge — like not obviously that arena-size huge, but he was on that level, which is such a sweet spot for bands, where they're not doing arenas yet, but they are clearly getting bigger — oh, that's very exciting, you know, like, "Here it comes," you know.

Yeah. Have you heard the backstory of the "1999" song?

No.

OK, so I got a chance to interview Prince's drummer, Bobby Z. I've interviewed a bunch of people for this, and it's been so illuminating, but he said that they were on tour — it must have been the end of the Dirty Mind tour, and they were at a hotel that had HBO, and they had this documentary that was airing on HBO called The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, which was about Nostradamus and all of these like futuristic predictions, and one of his predictions that hadn't come true yet was that the world was going to end in 1999, and all of the bandmates were freaking out, and like Bobby Z described it as a normal person would just talk amongst yourselves and say like, "Isn't that crazy?" And Prince went back to his hotel room and wrote that song.

Aw, man. I think I remember that documentary too.

I actually just watched it again because I had to see. It's so bad. It's awful. Orson Wells is the narrator, and he looks like he just would rather be anywhere else.

I wish I had a cooler answer, because like the right answer is to say, "Yeah, and that's when I ran out and got the album." And I didn't. I don't know why I didn't. I loved it, and I remember then "Little Red Corvette" was like a hit; loved it, and it was on the radio, and somehow I didn't just — I wish I had a cooler answer, but I just didn't get around to buying it. It wasn't until Purple Rain that I was like — I'm a Prince fanatic. But that was like — Purple Rain was like the first album of his that I bought. Darn it. I wish I was cooler.

That's OK. You got there.

Yeah.

I would love to hear a little bit more about how Prince has inspired you or influenced your work over the years.

Prince really became my favorite artist, and I really stuck with him like for just I mean, like I really, I really just became a fanatic. It was kind of like a lonely experience because I don't think any of my friends really got any of his records, so it was just me buying album after album, and the first time I saw him was on the Parade tour. I saw him on that one, I missed the Purple Rain tour, but I really soaked up every lyric, every little drumbeat, everything about him.

Fred Armisen performing as Prince on Saturday Night Live
Fred Armisen performing as Prince during a sketch on Saturday Night Live in 2004. Armisen's impression of Prince clearly came from a place of deep knowledge of and love for Prince. (Saturday Night Live/YouTube)

To describe what it's like to listen to him, you know, I'm going to sound like a media journalist — so I'm trying to like share my experience like in the best way I know how. And for me, it's that drum sound that first got me into him. So it's the drum sound on 1999, and then on Parade, you hear it like it's sort of sparse and sort of electronic sounding, and somewhere in there is where he really had my number. I really felt like, "This guy knows exactly what I wanna hear." And I heard it as very artsy and experimental. On Around The World In A Day, you know the song "Paisley Park"?

Yeah.

That, to me, is so — to me it was all like art music like Talking Heads and what ended up doing and so to me, so for me, I just experienced it as these experiments that were — he was also so prolific, and the artwork was so abstract and mysterious, and I loved that there was religion in it — I felt like this is kind of an uncool thing to do also, you know, like I mean that as a compliment, like a little bold to go into religion and everything. So it eclipsed everything else I was listening to. I really — until Sleater-Kinney came along, it was like all I was listening to.

Aw.

I was really, really obsessed. I just couldn't get enough, and I liked the things that I didn't understand. There was some songs I just didn't understand what they were about, and I really enjoyed that.

God, his voice — I loved that — also that he drummed on everything on the live stuff, and then, Sign O' The Times remains one of my favorite albums of all time to this day. What an album. Sign O' The Times really affected me. Lovesexy really affected me, and then going into the '90s I just kept buying his records. I kept like — it's almost like we had an agreement. Wherever you want to go, I will go with you.

Aw. That's sweet.

I really, I was drawn to Minneapolis because of him. You know, there was all the other Minneapolis bands that I loved, like Hüsker Dü and The Replacements and stuff, but there was something about him. I'm guessing I probably told you this story, but, when my band went to Minneapolis to get play — this was in the '90s — I made someone go drive me out to his studio — to Paisley Park — just to look at it. I had no appointment. I was like let me kind of look at the building. And that's what I did.

Wow.

I think we might've been able to drive onto the parking lot. I don't know if that's correct, but I remember there was like little pebbles in the parking lot that were purple. I was such a Prince freak that I — you know, I think when anyone is a fan of anything, they want to be an elitist about it, like actually I went to — he had a retail store on Hennepin Avenue, and I went into — I just bought whatever I could afford. I just bought anything that was on paper. That was like sort of easiest, you know — tour books and stuff like that. And, I remember like the thing that I would brag about, the thing that I thought was like — I was a little bit like, you know — "Purple isn't his favorite color, I think it's peach" — like Sign O' The Times is peach and black I was trying to be like "I like you more than just Purple Rain." I had a suspicion that everybody does that, like I'm actually really a fan — that kind of thing.

Right.

And I remember also like when he changed his name to that symbol, also really trying to like draw it. And I was already in my 20s, and I was like high school student trying to draw that thing. I just loved him all the way through, and his music still affects me, and now, now that I get to do stuff on TV, I even — I respect all his moves even more. I'm like that is so — such a smart thing to do — to change his name, and also, you know, to have these like — the things that he didn't agree to do, I understand so much more now.

Yeah.

You know — just from like — and no disrespect to any company I've ever worked for, but a lot of times when you have a product where a company wants you to do something, and you're a little bit like, "I don't know if that's exactly what we wanna do." And now I understand like why Prince was like, "No, absolutely not. That's not what I am."

He's sort of a single Beatle, you know, like the way the Beatles stopped touring and stopped being what they used to be. I love that Prince also was not a nostalgia act. You know, that he also kept going forward, forward, forward.

Yeah. I love that too. I'm so glad you got to meet him.

Oh yeah. Can you believe it? I mean, now that he's gone — by the way, I still can't believe he's gone.

I know.

I'll see a picture of him, and been some years now, but whenever I see a picture of him, and I have to — you know, then I remember that, "Oh yeah, he's not here anymore." It's really — that part is very sad to me.

Yeah.

And, you know — sometimes in interviews I've talked about meeting him, and there's this macaroni and cheese story, and as I look back on it, I sort of turned it more into a story than being able to really appreciate the experience of it, you know. Because I think — I think he was just trying to goof around with me, and also when I met him at the studio at SNL, he really was nice. You know, he really was present, and I said this before, but like also like very — very male — like his voice was so low. And also like his physique — he had the presence of a musician, of a famous musician. Even if he had never become a famous musician, he just was a famous musician. But something about his look was like "Oh, he could be nothing else."

Right. Well, and I think that started very early on, from what all of his friends and musicians have told me. He was acting like a rock star even when he was like 14.

Oh, really? Yeah, I could see it, like I think some people are just, you know, genetically built to be a rock star.

Totally. Yeah, it's — again, Bobby Z told me that — they go way back. Bobby started basically as Prince's assistant before he was even his drummer. He was driving him around to appointments and things, and he said they went into a Burger King once, and he went up to order, and Prince told him what he wanted — "I'll have a cheeseburger" — and then made Bobby tell the person. And he wasn't famous yet. He wasn't even famous in Minneapolis, like no one would've known who he was, but he already had that whatever that is about Prince, where he needed to have that little air of mystique around him. It was already there.

Aw, man — of course! Of course.

I understand what you're saying about your memory gets a little warped when you tell a story over and over again, because my Prince story is — if I tell the whole thing it would take a long time, but there's like a punch line to it, you know, because he always left people with that little moment.

Yeah.

And I've definitely — especially after he passed away, I've just revisited that whole experience, and it was really — I just feel so thankful that I got to spend time with him and see him as like a normal person, and just kind of like hang out, which is so weird to say, like, "I hung out with Prince." But it's true, like he was just so down to earth, and just like so eager to have a friend over and like talk, and just like play me music, and — I don't know. I was just — I treasure that so much. So I go back there [to Paisley Park], and it's like it's when I'm there that all these little moments will come back, like I remember walking into studio B with him, and the lights were on really bright, and he just kind of winced, and he was like, "Augh, set a mood!" And I don't even know who he was saying that to, but all of a sudden the lights like dimmed, and then someone lit a candle. And I totally forgot that until I was there just a few weeks ago. It was like, "Oh my god, that was so funny!"

Wow. Aw, man, that's so cool that you're doing that. I took the tour when I was there.

Oh, good.

Oh yeah, and I went like crazy at the gift shop.

I think it's pretty great. You know, growing up and listening to Prince, like the idea of Minneapolis is just like — it's such a new city or something. I don't know what it is, but like you would expect like maybe Chicago or something, you know, or Los Angeles and New York, and what — like the concept of Minneapolis to me — like it became — because of him and all those bands, it became like an emerald city, you know what I mean?

Yeah, totally.

Like because it's all in lyrics and stuff, and in his photos, and, "What is this place?" you know.

Fred Armisen performing with Bob Mould
Fred Armisen performing with Bob Mould. (courtesy Fred Armisen)

Yeah.

And none of the stories — it's not like Liverpool, like, well, "It's a working-class place and it's just like these docks." It's like, "What is this like little, mini-Utopia that everyone's singing about," you know?

Yeah. I love the stories of that time period, where I think in like historical images, like it used to feel like it's very separate, like there was the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, and then there was Prince, and like those are two different worlds. But there's all these stories of like Prince just hanging out backstage at the 7th St. Entry and watching Babes in Toyland, you know, or just the overlap of those worlds, and the way that they inspired each other it seems like it's just being uncovered now — that that kind of crossover was happening.

Yeah. Yeah. I think Paul Westerberg has mentioned it a couple times too, like, you know, also because of the studio. Even if it was a little later it still — it still happened, you know.

Yeah. Yeah, Michael Bland told me a story, actually, about he was, you know, in the MPG, and they were doing some kind of photo shoot at Paisley Park, and Paul Westerberg was recording, and he basically like snuck into the studio, which if you know Michael Bland at all, like, the idea of him like tiptoeing in a room is kind of comical.

Yes.

And he talked his way onto the record, and ended up drumming on Paul Westerberg's solo record, and I didn't realize that that — like that's literally how it happened. He just was like, "I love you. Can I be on your album?" So sweet--

Wow. Oh, I love that. Michael Bland was a real — he was a powerhouse.

Oh, yeah. He's — I mean, he's still drumming to this day. He plays every Monday night at — they have this band called Dr. Mambo's Combo that's like basically a super group of all these Minneapolis Sound guys that still gig all the time, and Sonny Thompson will play with them, and you can see him every Monday if you're ever in Minneapolis.

Wow. Yeah, that's something I would love to go see.

Yeah, and you can sit at Prince's table. He had his own little table, and they've got like purple Christmas lights around it now. It's really sweet.

Oh man.

Yeah.

I love Minneapolis's love of Prince, as it should be.

Oh yeah. We're obsessed.

Yeah.

Well, thank you so much for talking to me. I don't want to take up too much of your time but I really appreciate it.

Oh, this is like I could talk about him endlessly, and I'm really — I'm flattered that you'd ask me about it. But yeah, but that video and that song really had a huge effect on me.

External Link

Fred Armisen - official site

Prince - official site

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  • Fred Armisen on 'Late Night with Seth Meyers'
    LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Season: 3 -- Pictured: (l-r) Syd Butler, Marnie Stern, Fred Armisen, Seth Jabour, and Eli Janney of the 8G Band. (Lloyd Bishop/NBC)