On drumming on TV for almost 30 years and being Letterman’s go-to guy
“I never got into music for any other reason except because of music. Some rock people get into it for fame or money or girls or whatever. I was always just really into the music”
Five thousand, four hundred. That’s roughly how many TV shows Anton Fig played on during his 29-year tenure in the house band for talk show host David Letterman. Backing up the show’s musical guests gave Fig the chance to play with the likes of Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and Buddy Guy, and away from the TV studio he’s worked with guitar heroes including Link Wray, Ace Frehley and Oz Noy.
“When I think about how lucky I am, I’ve played with some of the very, very best,” says Fig, who grew up in South Africa before moving to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory Of Music. He auditioned for the jazz department but was accepted into the classical programme. “I figured that if I go into a jazz club and say, ‘I’ve got a degree in jazz music’, I’m going to get beat up, so I took the classical degree and I moved to New York,” says Fig.
Despite having immersed himself in jazz while in Boston, in New York he found success as a rock drummer. He got a record deal with the band Spider and became a busy session player, recording with the likes of KISS , Cyndi Lauper and Joan Armatrading before auditioning for the Letterman gig in 1986. Since Letterman retired in 2015, Fig has stayed
busy touring with blues guitarist extraordinaire Joe Bonamassa, a fruitful partnership that began with 2007’s studio record SloeGin continuing with this year’s British Blues Explosion Live album.
Was your plan to be a professional jazz player after the Conservatory?
“Well, no. It was just to be a professional drummer. In
“He was a force of nature,” says Fig about playing with legendary guitarist Link Wray in the 1970s. “He played at 100 per cent all the time, full-on, and you had to play 100 per cent all the time to keep up. He was very encouraging to me. I got a lot of validation from him, we got on really well as friends and whenever I was around him I gave it my all.” a way when I started to get interested in jazz there was a little voice inside my head that said I was getting into jazz to make myself a better rock drummer. I felt like there was a whole other vocabulary and set of ideas and concepts. I came down to New York as a jazz drummer, but I noticed that there were a lot of jazz guys saying you’ve got to get back to your roots. They’re weren’t saying it to me, that was just the common wisdom around New York at the time, and I thought my roots were the British Invasion. That’s what I grew up on, The Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix Cream and Zeppelin, so I started to play rock again and immediately started working. But I had this jazz vocabulary and sensibility, so I wasn’t approaching rock necessarily as a straight-up rock drummer, much in the same way as Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker, they were also really interested in jazz and had unique approaches because they had outside influences.”
In the late 70s you started playing with Ace Frehley. How did you meet?
“While I was in New York I had a band with some people I’d been playing with in South Africa called Spider. We were looking for a bass player and a bass player came to the audition and said to me, ‘I’ve got a friend, Ace, and he’s looking for a drummer for his solo record.’ So I went up and played on some demos for him and to be honestI didn’t really know who he was, because in that time when KISS was big I was in my jazz phase. I played these demos with him and then he asked me to come up and play a few more and then he said, ‘I want you to do my record,’ so that formed a really long friendship. His record did incredibly well, it had ‘New York Groove’. That was my first introduction to super-rock stardom and all that stuff. I’ve always been into everything just for music’s sake, that’s been the most important thing for me. I never got into music for any other reason except because of music. Some rock people get into it for fame or money or girls or whatever. I was always just into the music.”
Did the Letterman show keep you tied to New York?
“I would occasionally go out of town, but I didn’t like to miss that many shows. I could do the Letterman show, walk home and be home by dinner time.”
Who stands out in your mind from the people you played with there?
“I got to play with Miles Davis, which was so important for me because I was a huge, huge fan. What also sticks out was that he was very complimentary to me. Having that affirmation from him meant so much. I can carry that as a building block, when I’m having trouble with someone, I’ve got that in the bank, that Miles approved of my feel on the drums. I can carry that as a confidence builder. I got to play with James Brown a few times, which was fantastic. I got to play with Stevie Winwood a few times, Tony Bennett, Buddy Guy, it was so varied. It’s almost embarrassing, people will drop names and I can go, ‘I played with him.’ It was a one-of-a-kind experience.”
Whose idea was it to do Drum Solo Week on the show?
“Dave had a comedian friend named Jeff Altman and he was a Buddy Rich freak and I think he got Dave into watching Buddy Rich videos on YouTube and looking at drummers. Dave came up with the idea,I got called into the booker’s office, they said, ‘Dave wants to do a Drum Solo Week and wants you to play on it and
they’re going to invite four other drummers’. I said, ‘I’ll do it, but I need to go first. I’m not going to sit there the whole week listening to everybody and then have to go. I need to go first.’ I had no input into the drummers, the show picked them, and then they did another week where the show picked them as well. That was great. It’s funny, one of the drummers, who is a huge, big name, said to me, ‘Man, it was crazy. I went out there, I had to do it, I almost froze. It was so bizarre to be out there by yourself on TV.’ Three minutes can feel like a long time. Actually, years and years ago when I first got the Letterman show, I walked in there that morning and they said, ‘Dave wants you to do a drum solo.’ So they played ‘Caravan’, which has a classic hokey drum setup, and then the band walked offstage and I’m playing and I see the cameras are showing a clock. The clock is ticking by, it felt like something from a TwilightZone episode. The hand is moving really slowly and within 30 seconds I’m getting rigor mortis. I’m playing for about two-and-a-half minutes, then the band comes back, the whole thing takes about three minutes, and so I got through it. I thought, ‘That’s great, done.’ I come to the show the next day and they go, ‘Dave wants you to do it again.’After that I had the gig on the Letterman show. I think that was my initiation. It was absolutely terrifying.”
Do you still take solos live when playing with Joe Bonamassa?
“On this tour right now, I’m not. When Joe asks me to do it, then I do it and quite honestly, it’s fine either way. I’ve always been more of the kind of drummer that enjoys playing with people rather than, ‘Here I am on my instrument.’ I like the conversation that happens when you’re playing with people, but I liked doing it because it was a challenge for me. Playing with Joe every night, I settled into a theme of whatI wanted to do and then worked on it every night, so it wasn’t exactly the same but it was the same areas. I felt like I got much better at it towards the end of the tour than at the beginning.”
When Letterman announced his retirement, did you ever consider retiring yourself?
“No, I always wanted to keep playing. I remember he invited us down to his dressing room right before we went onstage for a show and he said, ‘I’m about to call it a day. I’m about to call CBS and tell them thatI’m going to stop and I’m about to announce it onstage. I just wanted you guys to know that there is about another year left and then we’re going to stop.’ I never would have left the show because I absolutely loved it but once the decision was made for me, I figured well, that’s the way it goes, it’s been a great run, I can’t complain. For the last seven or eight years I’d done all of Joe’s albums from SloeGin on, I’ve done a lot of his projects, so when it seemed like a possibility to play with him live, okay, this is the next thing to do. There was never a thought of not playing.”
How did you end up playing with Joe?
“Joe’s producer Kevin Shirley and I had done lots of work together. He asked me to come out to California to do SloeGin and we all hit it off really well and then every record after that he would call me. I’d actually played with Joe once before on a thing called Studio Jams where they fling different people together and film them working at a song. He came in and did ‘Stratus’, by Billy Cobham, but I had no idea that years later I would be playing with him on a more regular basis.”
Is it important to build good relationships with producers like Kevin Shirley?
“Producers can really keep you working. You just throw everything against the wall all the time and you never know what’s going to stick. I would do any gig that I could because I didn’t know who I would meet and what that would lead to. So that kept me working a lot of the time and even to this day, I still want to do everything but the reality of time is that you can’t do everything. However, I still try to keep myself as relevant as I can.”
Does playing with Oz Noy let you bring your jazz and rock sides together?
“Oh yeah. Oz plays with a lot of drummers. He says every guy brings his own thing to it. I bring my groove and my more rock take on it. He’ll play with another drummer who will slice and dice it up in a completely different way. He basically wants a drummer for what they do. He’ll give a little direction if it’s not in the way that he wants it, but he’ll let the drummer do what they do. We’ve done some gigs where Keith Carlock and myself played double drums. Keith is a fantastic drummer and we’re very different, so on some of the gig, Oz wanted me to play the verse and Keith to play the chorus, then Keith to play part of the solo and me to play part of the solo. He wanted the music to keep shifting around with the drummers changing.”
“The clock is ticking by, it felt like something from a TwilightZone episode. The hand is moving around really slowly and within 30 seconds I’m getting rigor mortis”
You’ve done pop records too, working with Cyndi Lauper?
“With that record, ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’, I sat in the studio with just a snare drum and a bass drum. That drum machine sound was much newer at that time and so I just pretty much hammered out snare drum and bass drum and that was what they wanted. Basically, that’s what I did on every song, except there’s one song where it’s like a band and it’s regular drumming and everybody played, but otherwise we did the drums by themselves or drums and bass together. I just hammered it out and it sounds like a drum machine. I did half of her next record, True
Colours, and I think that was just regular drums.”
You’re credited on two KISS records, Unmasked and
Dynasty. At the time, were those sessions done under conditions of anonymity?
“I’d done Ace’s record, and then that bandSpider ended up being signed by Bill Aucoin who was KISS ’s manager. Going into the studio to do Dynasty, I think Peter [Criss] had broken his arm or something, he couldn’t play. They said, ‘Look, you can’t tell anyone, but we’d like you to play on the record.’ I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ Somehow, in those days people could keep secrets, because I never told anybody, they never told anybody, and nobody found out. Then they asked me to play again on the Unmasked record, so I did that as well. Nobody knew about it, I never said anything until in Gene’s book he said I’d played on Unmasked and then I saw a record in the store, Dynasty had been remastered and they credited me with the drums, so at that point I figured, ‘Well, they’re talking about it, so now I can talk about it.’ ‘I Was Made For Lovin’ You’ went to Number 5 in the charts, so that was nice. It was a big record for them.”
You put out an instructional DVD a few years ago, LateNightDrumming. Have clinics been important to your career?
“Soon after I got Letterman, my clinics were really well attended because there was a lot of interest in the Letterman show and the new drummer, because I took over after Steve Jordan. I did about a 100 clinics,I did the clinic tape, but I can pretty much say in a couple of sentences what drumming is about and what you have to do. I still feel like a student of the drums andI would far rather go and hear someone else do a clinic and learn from them than for me to be out there saying what I have to say. Also, because I grew up in South Africa, until the New England Conservatory I didn’t really have lessons at all, soI don’t have a whole system to teach somebody andI don’t feel like I have über-chops or anything like that. I don’t feel like I’m the best guy to go out there and explain to people how you should do stuff. The most important thing is the groove and playing time and whatever you have to do to create that. There doesn’t seem to be much more to the whole thing than that. I would love to be able to play all the technical stuff, that’s still what I want to learn. Today, the drumming technique is at such a ridiculously high level, drumming is always a bit like a gunslinger mentality, you’ve got to be the fastest guy in the west. That’s never been my kind of drumming. I was never able to do it, so that’s why I feel like I don’t have to be out there talking about it. I feel like I’d rather learn than teach.”
Fig: got into jazz to make himself a better rock drummer
Rumbling With Link Wray
Bonamassa’s rhythm section: Michael Rhodes and Anton Fig