A Loving Look Back At The Best Musical Cameos In ‘Portlandia’
Remember when Josh Homme played Carrie's gay big brother?
Last week, the beloved indie sketch comedy series Portlandia drew to a close after eight years on the air.
The brainchild of former Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney shredder Carrie Brownstein, the duo created Portlandia in tribute to what’s often considered the hipster haven of the United States. They’ve entered into the cultural lexicon, made an appearance on The Simpsons, turned city landmarks into tourist attractions… and, with their collective rolodex of celebrity friends, turned the show into a trainspotters’ delight for cameos.
Here are just a few of the best musician and band cameos to make their way onto Portlandia — from goths on the beach to punks in the hospital and back again.
#1. James Mercer, Colin Meloy and Corin Tucker are Echo Echo
As part of their SXSW pisstake, Portlandia threw together this dream indie supergroup to make a scene in the hotel lobby. The Shins’ James Mercer is joined by The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy and Brownstein’s Sleater-Kinney bandmate, Corin Tucker.
All three have no doubt had to deal with a myriad of entitled arseholes over the years, as well as useless hotel staff. It’s Carrie and Fred, however, that take matters into their own hands. This leads to a bit part from the show’s editor Doug Loussenhop, AKA Tim & Eric’s DJ Douggpound — bonus points for a cameo within a cameo.
#2. Aimee Mann plays a house show
Folk-rocker Aimee Mann has been around the comedy world for years — she’s appeared on podcasts with Paul F. Tompkins and has had the likes of Tim Heidecker starring in her videos. A Portlandia appearance was a no-brainer — and it remains one of the show’s funniest moments.
Playing herself, Mann is so hard up for cash she’s ended up a cleaning lady at a couple’s house. When they realise it’s her, the couple just can’t let it go — leading to a house show at the house she’s cleaning. A brilliant commentary on both the starving artist and entitlement.
#3. Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock attempts to donate records
In this sketch, Carrie and Fred are parents at a meeting that are bringing up the topic of inappropriate music being available to a pre-school library. In a great swerve, however, it’s not to do with foul language — but musical elitism.
Although not the central focus, it’s a fun end-note to have one of the people trying to donate be none other than Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock. Bringing in the figurehead of an indie snob’s typical favourite band makes the world of sense — plus, it’s also funny to imagine Brock jamming the Back to the Future soundtrack.
#4. QOTSA’s Josh Homme brings his boyfriend home
Carrie’s recently-out big brother is coming to visit for the weekend, which leads her and Fred to start projecting gay stereotypes and dreaming of a renovated house.
What they get, however, is a total script-flip — the big brother is the mountainous Josh Homme, who brings a giant dog named Rambo, an Xbox and a slovenly boyfriend by the name of Nick (played by Nick Swardson). Theirs is a romance for the ages — “We met at an ESPN Zone,” says Nick. “We got into a bar fight, and then we just ended up making out.” True love right there.
#5. Johnny Marr wants his bike back
You’d think that Johnny Marr would be used to VIP treatment. As guitarist for The Smiths, Modest Mouse and The Cribs, Marr has toured the world over and played some of the biggest festivals and arenas around.
When it comes to a Portland bike valet, however, the employees just can’t seem to get it right. This comical back and forth sees an increasingly-frustrated Marr attempting to get the correct red bike from the lot, with both Carrie and Fred coming back time and time again with the wrong model. Needless to say, This Charming Man is not impressed at all.
#6. St. Vincent on stage, Annie on the catwalk
Annie Clark has made three different appearances on Portlandia. In one instance, she’s trying to fend off questions from Fred playing your typical intrusive gear nerd spying over set-ups at the end of the show. The kind of guy who comments that “it sounds like a tube amp,” when it is in fact a tube amp.
Elsewhere, Clark appears as a model for the new Portland Police uniform that Carrie and Fred are pitching to the Chief of Police for yet another one of their hair-brained city plans — as egged on by the Mayor himself, Kyle Maclachlan. Double points.
#7. No Doubt surprise Nina for her birthday
As a grand romantic gesture to longtime partner Nina, Lance has arranged for a horseback ride. “Just the two of us,” he promises. “And these horses… and No Doubt.” Oh yeah, all four members of No Doubt are there too, riding high in a hot air balloon above. All they do is smile and wave, unable to hear Nina at all.
It’s all of a minute’s work, but for a full arc of an episode it’s a very entertaining finale — particularly for the final seconds in which Nina is quizzing a clueless Gwen Stefani on her then-husband, Gavin Rossdale.
#8. Jello Biafra takes on the yuppie scum
The Dead Kennedys have had a few different singers in the 17 years since they reunited without Jello Biafra. Despite their former frontman’s continued activity and work, he’s often still asked if he’s with the band or what he’s doing now.
Season four of Portlandia saw Biafra play a punk waking up from the coma he’s been in since 1986 — the year the Dead Kennedys broke up. He walks out into the great wide world, only to find… yuppies. Yuppie scum everywhere. Even Kim Gordon. Except for the two bucket drummer punks. Welcome to the 21st century, Jello.
#9. Jack White appears in a vision
Fred Armisen really loves his hugely-specific musical jokes – especially at the expense of know-it-all old hands. Here, Fred portrays a pretentious veteran that is eager to show off his brand-new recording studio. It’s full of vintage gear — apparently, most of it was used on Pet Sounds.
There’s a lot of fart-arsing about, but no-one to actually record in there apart from Fred and his buddy. Who should materialise out of nowhere, then, but Jack White himself. White doesn’t speak in this role, but his aura gives off everything you might need. A welcome return after Coffee & Cigarettes.
#10. The B-52s box-set
Everyone loves an extravagant box-set. So what if you more than likely won’t look at any of the trinkets more than once? It’s all about the packaging and making it a real collector’s item.
Armisen, a noted music nerd, knows this better than anyone — here, he and director Lance Bangs play old music geeks working their way through the $120 B-52s boxset. They arrive at the bottom with a mini-Love Shack replica, and the surviving members of the band emerge from it much to Fred’s surprise.
A killer niche sketch with a killer niche payoff. Definitely worth the price.
#11. Run the Jewels launch an album… sort of
RTJ3 arrived out of nowhere on Christmas Day 2016, delighting fans and infuriating list-makers. So what next, for a potential RTJ4?
That’s where Fred and Carrie’s record label execs come in. They’ve put together a mix of curious, unconventional and — in some cases — very dangerous ideas. Perhaps either El-P or Killer Mike fake their death? Maybe fans will willingly swallow an oversized pill and fish a USB out of their shit?
The potential is endless — and Run the Jewels, full credit to them, handle the campaign like absolute professionals. Keep an eye out for this imminent classic.
#12. Joanna Newsom tries to get her harp home
The harp is one of the most beautiful instruments ever. That, however, is majorly offset by its size and inaccessibility. Perhaps its most famous modern player, Joanna Newsom, knows this all too well — and so it goes her appearance on the show is a send-up of this major musical inconvenience.
After a hippy-dippy party out in the woods (with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Fleet Foxes’ Robin Peckold), Newsom needs to get her and her harp back to her place. Cringe away as the well-meaning hippies attempt to get it in the boot of the car with extremely limited success.
#13. Jeff Tweedy writes a modern folk song
Only Fred and Carrie could get away with the hubris of trying to tell Jeff Tweedy how to write a song. The Wilco frontman finds himself in the studio cutting a solo track when he’s interrupted by two label types searching for some authenticity in his music. They cut off every line, dismissing the metaphors and wanting to get to the core of his own personal anguish.
This leads to ‘The Smoke Alarm Song’, which could have easily become an instant classic on the level of ‘Jesus etc.’ were it to score a proper release. All together now: “BEEP! BEEP!”
#14. Glenn Danzig at the beach
These days, Glenn Danzig’s better known for being a grumpy arsehole neighbour than for his music — even with will-they-won’t-they Misfits reunions. Getting one of the most notorious curmudgeons in rock history to make an appearance on a comedy show was a big enough coup.
To join goths Vince and Jacqueline on the beach, however, stepped the game up entirely. Meet Radu the Romanian, who insists Vince drop his layered goth outfit for something that pops. He imparts some of the greatest wisdom in Portlandia history: “If you want to have fun, sometimes you have to look a little lame.”
#15. Eddie Vedder, in tattoo form and in real life
The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland — and there wasn’t a much bigger dream in the ’90s than getting to meet rock icon Eddie Vedder.
In season two, Carrie dates a dude that turns out to have a particularly heinous tattoo of Vedder — a crude cartoon in which he’s inexplicably playing two tambourines. Fred defends her new beau, saying there’s nothing wrong with Vedder — so Carrie ends up dating the man himself.
As someone who has no doubt seen his fair share of shit Pearl Jam tattoos, Vedder handles this one like an absolute champion.
David James Young is a freelance writer, podcaster and the Mayor of Portland. He tweets at @DJYwrites.