Fred Armisen’s Alter Ego Talks About His Fake Band’s Real Album
Everyone has their own memory of the first time they heard the iconic yacht-rock band Blue Jean Committee. “I remember, as a young journalist, seeing [them live] and going ‘holy shit,’” says Cameron Crowe. “’Hold onto this moment; this is magic.’” As Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates puts it, “A band like Blue Jean Committee? That only comes once in a lifetime.”
The name BJC not ringing any bells? Then maybe it’s time for you to hear Fred Armisen’s poetic lyrics of Bill Hader’s sweet falsetto for the very first time.
That’s right: The comedic genuises behind the IFC series Documentary Now! have taken their parody “Gentle & Soft: The Story of Blue Jean Committee,” which acted as the season finale, and turned the parody up to 11. Today, their personae—blue-collar Chicago sausage loyalist Gene Allen (Armisen) and enterprising, aging rock star Clark Honus (Hader)—are releasing Catalina Breeze, a seven-song EP they call the “quintessential California record.”
To mark the occasion, WIRED caught up with Gene Allen about achieving his childhood dream (singing to people dressed up as animals), the surprising secret to his songwriting process, and Blue Jean Committee’s enduring legacy in the venerable genre of Chicago sausage music.
WIRED: Gene, growing up in Chicago, how did you first get into music?
ALLEN: Well, early on, I listened to a lot of Chicago blues—blues for kids in kindergarten, and then more and more advanced blues. Some of my favorite songs were about the differences between shapes: between triangles and squares, squares and rectangles, ovals and circles, circles and rectangles, rectangles and triangles… The list doesn’t go on. That’s really all of them.
Then when I started getting into folk, anything having to do with proper names was really good. You know, names like Thomas, or Mary-Anne, or Mary. John was good. Names like that were really important to me.
WIRED: You’re known for such poetic lyrics. Do you think those early influences informed your songwriting?
ALLEN: I consider myself a brilliant lyricist. Brilliant. A real wordsmith, a real sentence structure king. A lot of imagery, a lot of words put together to evoke, a lot of verbal painting. My early lyrics would be about the freeway, and trees, hair, driving, sunsets, sunrises, the midday sun, the sun behind a tree, the sun behind the waves, pictures of the sun, polaroids of the sun, depictions of the sun, the sun at a great distance, the sun close up, the sun on a t-shirt, the sun painted on the side of a car or a van, that kind of thing. I put the emphasis on lyrics, more than really anything else. It’s something I love to explore. Another thing I like to talk about is people who think they’re classy and high class, and they’re really not.
WIRED: What was the moment when you first realized that you wanted to be a musician?
ALLEN: I saw a tapestry—a sort of quilt—of a person playing guitar and singing to animals. All the animals were coming out of the forest, and I thought, wow, I’d like to fall into that. I’d like to eventually be someone who sings to people who are dressed up as animals.
WIRED: St. Mellivora Sausage Academy in Chicago was a pivotal place for both you and Clark Honus. Did you learn how to play the guitar through the school band, or was it self-taught?
ALLEN: My father first showed me some chords. He was a veteran of many wars, so he yearned to be a musician. He taught me a lot of chords on his acoustic guitar. It was a beat-up old thing.
WIRED: The history of Chicago sausage-making has had a huge influence on your music. Do you have any personal heroes from that history that have influenced your choices as an artist?
ALLEN: That’s a very internal journey. It’s hard to put into words how much that has inspired me as an artist. It’s almost like I would consider myself a visual tape recorder. Please put that in bold headlines for the article.
WIRED: We’ll see what we can do. Do you see sausage making as an art?
ALLEN: I absolutely do. It was one of the original three arts. In ancient times, there was gold-making, painting, and the making of sausages.
WIRED: How do you envision Blue Jean Committee’s role in highlighting that art? Are you alone in bringing it into the popular consciousness?
ALLEN: Well, it isn’t just us. There are many meat bands from Chicago who have brought that history into the light: Sausage Men, Meat Guys, Meaty and the Meats, The Meatball Twins…
WIRED: The name “Blue Jean Committee” has had such legendary influence. How did you get that name?
ALLEN: That’s the way we dressed at the time. There was a studio engineer who jokingly called us that, and it just kind of stuck. Some people say the expression, “to see through rose-colored glasses.” We see everything through blue jean-colored glasses. It’s almost like you took a pair of blue jeans, cut two circles out of them, and glued them over the front of a pair of glasses. That’s what we see.
WIRED: Your band manager, Alvin Izoff, notoriously overhauled your image—going from a Chicago blues band to your signature California style. Who would you describe as your style icons, both in terms of your fashion and your signature hairdos?
ALLEN: Well, you have to understand that our influences weren’t fashion, or necessarily musical. As little kids, I’d turn on the TV, and see images of cowboys. It’s sort of a mix of southwestern cowboys, and maybe a little bit of California surfers.
WIRED: Many a thinkpiece has been written about how your sound is reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel.
ALLEN: We’ll take that as a compliment. They were definitely inspirations, in the softness in which they sang.
WIRED: You mentioned some other groups on the sausage music scene in Chicago. What are some other artists your songs were in conversation with?
ALLEN: The Meatball Twins, Sausagey Sausagers, the Meatmakers, Meat and the Meat Guys, the Burger Brothers, a little bit of Meat Thoughts. They were great, too.
WIRED: Your music continues to endure in popular culture. How do you see your legacy?
ALLEN: I see a bit of us in Fleet Foxes, and Joanna Newsom. I think that we live on.
WIRED: Thanks so much for your time, Gene.
ALLEN: Thank you. Have a funny day.