As co-creator of the award-winning comedy series Portlandia, and credited on too many TV shows, films, and projects to count, Armisen’s knack for creating era-defining characters that form much of our popular culture is second to none.
Artist Beatie Wolfe sat down with Armisen, an LA resident since 2015, to talk about the best (and weirdest) things about life in LA.
What made you move out here?
I’m originally from New York but ever since I was a kid my parents would bring me out here and we’d go to Universal Studios. And I just fell in love with it. I loved seeing LA in the movies. I saw Valley Girl when I was in high school and thought, wow, everyone’s outside, everyone’s happy, and it’s both new wave and punk rock at the same time and also kind of rockabilly-ish. And it’s this place where you can choose your occupation and that’s who you are. You want to be a stunt coordinator or a sound person and all of a sudden, that’s what you’re doing. When I worked on Saturday Night Live I was living in New York, but every summer I’d come back to LA. So as soon as I left SNL, it was an easy decision. I’ve been a permanent resident here for about five years now.
What are you currently working on?
I’m getting ready to do a show in Vancouver. And I’ve been working for Late Night with Seth Meyers. I just finished a Google commercial. And we were in the middle of shooting this show Los Espookys in Chile right before everything went down so we’re now waiting to see when we can go back to finish it. And we’re getting ready to promote a show called Moonbase 8 on Showtime.
How have you been surviving lockdown?
I’ve happily stayed in LA because I’m happy not to get on planes. And for the past four years, I’ve been complaining about never being home long enough to work on my house. All these things that I openly complained about I now have a chance to do. So I’ve been working on my house and making it better and scarier. I’ve always wanted to have a Dracula kind of house and it’s really getting there. And then I’ve been playing lots of music and buying all kinds of dumb equipment that I don’t need. And it’s sort of this passive-aggressive thing, like out of resentment of not being able to do anything else, I’ve been buying instruments and indulging in all of the things that I love.
Work in a locked-down LA?
Like everybody it’s been a million Zoom meetings. I’m not complaining, but it just seems like now it’s easier to schedule with no one saying I’m too busy to go to a certain part of town.
And how do you feel about the state of the U.S. right now?
I believe in human beings and I believe in positivity, no matter how hard things get, I still have hope. And if I lose hope well that’s just not a good place to be. I’d rather at least think maybe something good can happen. That’s what I hang on to. As hippie-ish, as it sounds, I want to be a hippy. I want to still have hope and belief in people. And I’m glad I exist in America and I’m not someplace else looking in, saying, “Oh, they’re all going crazy!” I like being in it. I prefer it that way.
Something that you’ve done here that you couldn’t have done anywhere else?
I think that all of my thinking (my mental space) happens in my car. Coming up with ideas always seems to happen when I’m driving around, especially if it’s morning. Also, I know that everyone has methods of recording music, but I feel like I’ve been able to set up my drums and really play loud in my house and in my studio. I’ve been able to play without thinking and with my whole kit setup. But it’s really the “thinking” part of it. The driving around that, that I couldn’t do anywhere else.
How has living in this city changed you?
I’m an optimistic person and I think it’s reinforced that optimism. It’s shown me that if there’s a way that you would like your life to be then Los Angeles can make everything feel a little bit like a nice sort of closing credits. So it’s a very reassuring place for me. I think it’s also, in a good way, made me feel small because it’s so big and vast and there are neighborhoods that don’t have anything to do with the business. So it makes me feel like I’m a citizen of the world.
Has there been a person, or multiple people, who’ve made a tangible here for you?
Mark Mothersbaugh because he really reinvented himself without having to leave. He really turned his visual and musical creativity into something new, but he’s still himself. And someone else, in a different way, is Glenn Danzig from The Misfits because I also like the scary version of LA, that sort of haunted Universal Studios version, and I like that punk rock version of it too. And Danzig lives here and he just really seems to enjoy it. He’s one of those people who shows you how you can have a very particular kind of taste and turn it into your whole life as opposed to it being just a hobby or wallpaper. People here really live it.
What do you most love about this city?
There’s this club, this venue, called Largo and when I started doing comedy here, that’s where I’d perform. It’s a music and comedy venue that to me is everything I love about LA because when I go there it’s all the people I love, my friends are there, and everyone’s playing music and doing comedy. So that to me is where my heart really beats because it’s what I came here for. And that’s where I feel the most alive and part of that is physically being a part of LA.
The weirdest thing that you’ve experienced here?
The Museum of Jurassic Technology, but weird in a really positive way. It’s in Culver City and I can’t give away the secret of it, but it fooled me, and the reason I think it’s weird is because it’s so well curated as opposed to folk art or outsider art, which has its own weirdness to it. They put some real dedication into making that place. It’s one of the greatest places on earth that I’ve been to and definitely the weirdest in LA.
Do you have a favorite sign?
There’s a weird bridge in Atwater. It’s not even a bridge. You make a left onto a street that loops around that isn’t quite a street. It’s almost, I’m going to describe it as a half a bridge. I don’t even know why it exists but then there’s a sign that says “envelop,” but not spelled the regular way, it’s missing a vowel. And there’s an insignia, it’s like an upside-down U. So it’s telling the driver, “Hey, this isn’t okay. You can’t go through. This isn’t a cul-de-sac. It’s an envelop.” I love that sign so much. I feel like I’m in Europe. It is nowhere else.
Quirkiest characteristic of Angelenos?
How people describe how they got from point A to point B. There’s a common language that people use here to say that they took the 5 to the 101 to whatever. It’s a language that’s very specific to the city and I’ve never heard it anywhere else.
Unique characteristics of LA hipsters?
Recording gear. You will always get to that part of the conversation where it’s like, “Well, I have this microphone or that interface, or I’ve been recording vocals like this.” It just ends up there. You always end up at home recording equipment talk.
Is there a place here that always inspires you?
Mark Mothersbaugh’s studio. Even the color of it is inspiring. It’s like his signature on a building. It personifies him. And it’s not just an office building, it’s this factory of making music that is really inspiring to me.
How do you like to switch off at the end of the day?
I like getting really bored with instructional videos. There’ll be some drummer or bass player showing you the baselines of a song and I’ll be excited for a second, but then when they start talking I feel myself checking out, and by the time they play the baseline that’s it. I’m sleepy. It’s just so instructional that I feel like I’m in school but it’s weird because I like it.
A place that you love that people might not know about?
The mariachi Mexican area near downtown. It feels like people don’t really go there or really know about it. I never hear people say I’m taking my parents to this area. Maybe they do, but it never feels crowded enough to me. I feel like whenever I go there, I’m like, Man, where am I? This is a really different part of LA.
Something that only happens here?
General meetings. Where you go to a studio just to meet and say, “Hi, this is what we’re working on, what are you guys working on?” That’s a strange thing and it seems very LA to me that it’s this general meeting and it’s on the books, it’s official, and there’s really no big goal. And I think it’s kind of good that there isn’t a specific goal all the time. It’s oddly friendly.
What do you think the biggest misconception about the city is?
I think that people don’t see it as a historic place, and I think its history is so long and deep and complex and international.
Biggest difference between LA, Portland and New York?
It’s almost like when you meet someone and you have a lot in common right away and you just know it. The optimism of LA was something that I identified with because even as a little kid, I remember thinking, I love this city. So to me, it was a match. And it’s not particularly proud of itself either. You don’t hear of LA power or do it the LA way, there’s none of that. And there’s something not tough about it that I really like. I like that it’s a little bit self-conscious.
First impression of LA as a kid?
The Jaws ride. There’s a ride where you go through the back lot and the shark comes up out of the water and you see all the mechanics of it. And it felt like the message was, “Hey, you know that film that you love, that you went to the movies to see, here’s how we did it. We’re inviting you in to see the rest of it.” So this thing that you love, you can be a part of. It’s not a million miles away. And there is something strangely welcoming about that idea of, “Hey we just gave all the secrets away, but we don’t care. We want you to know about how we do these things.”
The beach. Although I’m biased because I hate the beach.
The Metro system. It’s clean and a really good alternative to trying to find parking especially in the Hollywood Blvd area. They also seem to be working on more lines, which I’m looking forward to.
One word you hear too much, and one word you say too much?
I hear “revisit” too much. Like, “yeah, then we can revisit it later or we could revisit that next week,” and I understand it’s a useful word, but I think it’s being used a lot. And I think I’ve been saying “the best” too much. “Oh, it’s the best. They’re the best. I was the best. The best.”
LA in three words?
SST Records. I guess that’s three letters. But I grew up in New York and I when I thought of LA I was like, wow, SST is out there with Minutemen and Meat Puppets and all these bands that I loved. So I’d think that’s what it’s like out West.
Favorite neighborhood or intersection?
Highland Park and York, I’m a sucker for that stuff. I can’t help it. That part of York where there are all of these cool shops. I just gravitate towards areas like that.
Relationship between England and LA?
The relationship between England and LA is very specific. If you’ve ever talked to Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, he is both so British and so LA at the same time. He has the thickest accent that I’ve ever heard. And I think there’s something about this place that matches Britain. Something about Morrissey living in LA makes total sense.
An event that you went to (or were a part of) that felt like a landmark moment?
The Women’s March here in downtown LA. It was very positive and I liked the energy of LA that day. And I remember when people here first started cheering for the medical workers during lockdown every night at 8 p.m. That made me love LA a lot. And then I performed at something called Desert Daze and The Flaming Lips, Devo, Stereolab played. And it’s one of my favorite shows ever that I’ve ever gotten to do.
It would be a timbale with a drawn hand facing downward with lightning bolts coming out of the fingers, almost like the hand is making the timbale play by magic. Or maybe that weird envelop sign would make a cool one.
If you were a juice what juice would you be and why?
I’d be an iced coffee drink with almond milk. I like running errands and working so much. I’m not a person of leisure and fruity drinks always remind me of leisure. So the only serious drink I can think of is an almond milk coffee drink because I want to accomplish things. All my projects, I try to approach, as a task.
Beatie Wolfe is an artist and innovator who has beamed her music into space, been appointed a UN Women role model for innovation and held a solo exhibition of her album designs at the V&A Museum. Wolfe is currently working on a collective art project with Mark Mothersbaugh out of LA called Postcards for Democracy. Learn more about how you can participate in this project at: postartfordemocracy.com. See more of Wolfe’s work at: beatiewolfe.com and on Instagram.