On drum­ming on TV for al­most 30 years and be­ing Let­ter­man’s go-to guy

Rhythm - - CONTENTS - Words: Alan Clayson photos: Olly Cur­tis

“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

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