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Fred Armisen: “Can We Steal The Concept Of ‘The Hipster With Thick Glasses’?”

A lively conversation with the co-creator of the cult series “Portlandia”

If you still haven’t seen “Portlandia”, one of your friends has probably recommended it to you. You might say that it’s the perfect television show about hipsters, made by hipsters. It is doing really well in the United States, more so if we keep in mind that this is a very specific audience and that there are endless cultural references that many people might miss. In part, it serves a purpose similar to that of our column Down With Hipsters: it dissects different aspects of the indie universe - from music to vintage clothing - with an amazing sense of humour and plenty of self-criticism. Fred Armisen, a usual on “Saturday Night Live”, and Carrie Brownstein, Wild Flag vocalist and guitarist (former member of Sleater-Kinney), are the creators of this adventure - where they don’t miss the slightest opportunity to laugh at themselves.

Although a few weeks ago we gave you five reasons to love “Portlandia” (when they started to show it in Spain, on Canal +), we wanted to speak with the writers so that they could tell us a little more about how they came up with the idea. Since Carrie is off touring with Wild Flag right now, Fred Armisen was kind enough to speak to us. The comic is responsible for a lot of our belly laughs while watching the program’s sketches. He plays multiple roles including a run-down hippie, a radical feminist book shop owner - whom we tried unsuccessfully to speak to - the demure girlfriend of a very macho Brownstein, and a diligent father who is trying to get his child’s nursery to play only Kraftwerk music. So we thought it would be a good idea to ask him about some of them, as well as about music and the series that he likes now, the concept of the “hipster with the thick glasses”, whether he broke Joanna Newsom’s harp, and whether he would prefer to live in the 90s. So if you have yet to immerse yourself in his world, it’s about time you did so.

Here in Europe we may have a certain idea about how Portland is watching the series. But could you please tell us what you find so interesting about this city?

The way it looks. Dark green. Brown and grey. It looks sturdy. Lots of bridges. And the people are lovely.

How do you come up with the sketches? Are the people or situations we see in “Portlandia” something that has happened to you?

Some of them are. Some of them are obviously made-up. The housekeeper one with Aimee Mann… something similar to that happened to Carrie.

There is one particular sketch in the second season that I find absolutely fantastic: the guy doing a performance in a canoe. Please tell us more about it—it’s quite confusing.

It's from a real video we saw! We couldn't believe it. It's a real thing. This guy in a tuxedo canoe-dancing to "Lady In Red". A crowd was applauding.

What character in “Portlandia” is similar to the real Fred Armisen?

They are all a bit like me.

Who would you go out with one night?

Spyke, the bicycle rights guy.

Imagine yourself trapped in an elevator for hours with Toni of Women And Women First. What would happen?

She would ignore me and keep reading her book.

Ok, let me ask a question to Toni. Now that the girl who looks so much like Aubrey Plaza is out of the store, what would you tell her parents? How freaked-out are you about those teenage girls taking pole-dancing classes?

I imagine Toni would ignore them and keep reading her book.

Toni, please tell us what you think about high heels, make-up, bikini waxing, manicures and all that stuff.

Toni! Ignore the question! They are trying to make you angry!

How did you achieve this really nice connection with Carrie? Have you known her for long?

I've known her like 9 years. I can't describe how. It's just a lucky thing in my life.

How does the process for picking guest stars work? Do you guys ask them directly? Have some people approached you?

Both. Sometimes through agents. Many times it is friends of ours.

Season three has been just announced. Any ideas how will this season go?

Some idea, but not totally.

Who would you like for season three? And who could never appear in “Portlandia”?

I would like Captain Sensible. As far as never: never say never.

You played with Les Savy Fav. I was quite shocked when I saw that Tim Harringtom would not guest star in “Portlandia”. It could have been hilarious. Why didn’t this happen? Is he shy after all?

He might!

Why did you choose the Washed Out tune, “Feel It All Around”, for the opening credits?

I loved the song. Played it for Jon [ed. note: Jonathan Kriesel], our director and he agreed that we should have something similar to that. We kept trying to make a similar song but it didn't work. So the temporary Washed Out song became the permanent one.

You’ve done some musician impressions on “SNL”. Could “Portlandia” have those some day? Where do you feel more comfortable?

I want both! Portlandia doesn't have impressions, I think.

I know Wild Flag is a girl band. But let’s say Carrie asked you to play drums with them. Would you accept? What female character you play in the show would be most suitable for this kind of job?

I would do anything Carrie asked me to do! And... there aren’t many to choose from. I guess Nina?

You’ve been on tour and you’ll play in some music festivals. How’s your act?

Very nice.

What are your favourite groups right now?

Real Estate and Youth Lagoon. I also like the new Nick Lowe album.

Would you ask your son’s teacher to play Kraftwerk at school? Do you think the children would grow up more cultured?

It should be a requirement. 12345678 [ed. note: regarding Kraftwerk’s concerts at MOMA]

There’s a concept in Spain they call “ gafapasta”, which could be translated to “hipster with thick glasses”. These people are not necessarily into, say, Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear, like a common hipster, they are plain intellectuals, or at least they think so. Who would be they correspond to in “Portlandia”?

I don't know but that is a name we NEED. Can we steal that?

There’s a great sketch about Battlestar Galactica. Could you please tell me other shows you enjoy watching?

“Downton Abbey” and “Game Of Thrones”.

Addendum: more silly questions:

What would you pickle?

Chocolate.

What object would you put a bird on?

CDs.

Could you live in SoCal?

Maybe.

What female musician’s face would you want to have a tattoo of?

Claire Grogan.

Would you rather live right now or in the 90s?

Now.

Was Joanna Newsom’s harp finally destroyed?

It was a stunt harp.

Did Annie Clark (St. Vincent) like her police outfit? If so, did she ask to keep it?

I believe she liked it. And I'll ask her!

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