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Anton Fig: Behind the Band Stand, Part 1


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He said to me 'You've got a good feel for them drums.' So, now whenever I’m having problems I think to myself, 'Well, if Miles said the feel was good then it’s fine.'
—Anton Fig
Part 1 | Part 2

It's around 3 o'clock in early January, that melancholy time of year where the day perpetually feels like 7 pm. We're standing on West 53rd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue around the corner from the entrance to The Ed Sullivan Theater. A light haze of snow is falling around the huddled masses waiting in line. Five or six paparazzo are standing behind a gate, cameras in hand. We knock on the door marked Backstage Entrance and are greeted by a perky twenty-something-year old intern dressed in black cords and a Letterman jacket. "So, who are you with?" she asks with a smile. Flustered, Ben barely audibly mumbles "Anton." She flashes another eager smile and replies, "Ok, I'll take you up to his dressing room." We begin to follow her as she says into her headset, "Let Ethan Hawke know they're here for the interview."

For one moment, I'm tempted to take advantage of her plucky misperception. Why not indulge a '90s fantasy of my own? However, Ben shatters my teenage dream and abruptly interjects, "No, we're here to see Anton Fig."

For nearly 30 years, Anton Fig has been TV's go-to drummer/percussionist. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Fig relocated to Boston to study both jazz and classical music at New England Conservatory. After graduating and moving to New York, he found work as a freelance musician backing up artists such as Ace Frehley, Link Wray, Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Mick Jagger, and Cyndi Lauper. In 1986, Fig joined with Paul Shaffer to form "The World's Most Dangerous Band" for NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman." In 1992, Letterman moved to CBS and the band became known as "The CBS Orchestra."

Not content to limit himself to his day gig, Fig has been an integral part of the Greenwich Village creative music scene for decades. Joe Bonamassa, Booker T., Wayne Krantz, Mike Stern, and Oz Noy all regularly call upon Fig's talents to help them realize their musical goals. We sat down with Anton in The Ed Sullivan Theater green room after taping one of the final episodes of "The Late Show" to discuss his upbringing, creative process, gear, and a memorable performance with Miles Davis.

All About Jazz: Watching you above the band stand, as opposed to the times I've see you perform on TV and in clubs, I was really knocked out by the ghost notes, your linear figures, and your overall subtlety. Do you work out of the Garibaldi book frequently?

Anton Fig: No, not really. Lately now, with YouTube and all that stuff, I've spent a lot of time looking up all these videos that focus on techniques. I tend to type in subjects and see where that leads me. On the show I sometimes just try stuff I've been practicing. I figure I have a 65 per cent chance of pulling it off (laughs). We get a chance to play a lot and we play pretty improvisationally. I mean, we stay in the style of the song, but we get a chance to really play during the commercial breaks.

AAJ: That really moved me—to see how much you guys jam. That does not come across on the broadcast.

AF: Yeah, we get to play a lot.

AAJ: After leaving South Africa, why did you chose to attend NEC as opposed to just moving to New York?

AF: Well, I was pretty young. Coming from South Africa, the world wasn't as small as it is now with the internet and flight travel. I mean, there were flights here and there but apartheid was in place and the country was really cut off. For example, David Oyelowo was on the show yesterday. He plays Martin Luther King in the movie Selma. He said "I'm English, and you come to America and think, 'well I speak English,' but it's a completely different country." I'm from South Africa and my first year here was insane. I'd watch TV and I wouldn't get any jokes. Jokes tend to reference something before them, so I would watch a sitcom and not understand anything because I had no reference to American culture.

But, I haven't answered your question—the reason I came here. I had a friend who went to NEC. I told my folks I wanted to come over and play and they said "ok, if you go to America you have to get a degree." So, I went to school at NEC because I knew someone who attended. I got a degree and then I moved to New York.

AAJ: I'm a huge fan of the work you've done with Oz Noy. Your playing on "Oz live" really inspired me, in part, to bring him out to Chicago last year to do some recording. Do you have plans to do any more recording or performing with him?

AF: Well that's up to him. I'm on a song or two of every record he's done, and we used to play at The Bitter End every Monday for years, though he changes up his rhythm section all the time. We do have a gig out near Poughkeepsie in February and something else in Toronto in May for a weekend, but that's all so far. It tends to go through cycles. We also did a bunch of double drum gigs with Keith Carlock and myself, and that was... a learning experience. (laughs)

AAJ: Yeah, pretty intense. Keith graduated a few years before me at North Texas and he came back a couple of times. Great player

AF: Oh yeah, he's something else. You went to North Texas?

AAJ: Yeah, I graduated in 2005. So, when Paul's been absent, you've been called upon to lead the band. Can you lend some insight into that process? Some of the challenges you face?

AF: Well, you know there's a whole lot of show going on. We have in-ears and there's a whole culture going on in the control room. They're bringing you in and out of commercial and counting you down, etc. So, while I'm playing I have to listen to that as well. Paul listens to that chatter. The rest of the band doesn't have it in their ears, unless they're leading the band. We want to time the song so that we end it right when we come out of commercial. Hopefully at a dynamically intense spot.

So, they'll go, "Okay—15 seconds," and start counting it down. Then they'll go, "No, no, no, keep it going for another few minutes," so I to scream in a cue. It's a little harder from the drum set because I'm behind everyone. Scream in the cue and like, "go to the chorus" or "back to the top of the song," whatever. We've got to maneuver out of it.

One week they put me right in front of the band, and there was communication between me and Dave. Other times, they had Warren Zevon interact with him. He would talk to Dave and I would just lead the band. In these instances, I would get together with Warren before hand, and select the songs. I would rehearse the band, and basically conduct them during the show.

AAJ: Does Dave have any kind of musical chops? Like say, "come in at bar 8" or whatever?"

AF: He doesn't do that, but he often requests songs. And he really appreciates the band. You feel like you're playing for someone who's listening to you. He's always complimenting us, and sending requests. You know, the show's very off the cuff. Dave might go in a whole different direction and that might change what we're playing to suit the show. It's not like, "Well this is the show and this is what we're playing." It all just kind of comes together. We have a short band rehearsal before each taping. Did you hear any of the rehearsal?

AAJ: I heard you playing when we were outside.

AF: We just rehearse some bits and pieces, and none of the break songs. We just do it as we go. To keeps it fresh.

AAJ: The times that I've seen you perform live in clubs, you've used a standard 4 piece kit. However your day gig requires a pretty elaborate set up. Triggers, pads, multi percussion etc. Does this back and forth pose a challenge? What setup do you use for your daily practice routine?

AF: Well I don't have any daily practice routine. I play all the time. Funny you mention that though. We just had a couple of weeks off, so I decided to practice on the pad today before the show. I've been practicing the last few days just to get my hands feeling good, but usually I'm playing quite a bit so I feel somewhat in shape. I have a little practice set, up in the dressing room. So I'll warm up just before the show. That setup is pretty dead, the pads have no bounce at all, so I have to work really hard. Same with my feet. I work really hard to get something going, just to get a bounce with my feet or my hands.

You know I used to mash in with the pedal, now I'm trying to get it off the head a little. I also would try to get the sticks off the head a little bit. I think that using different set ups makes you play differently. I think it's a good thing to change your set up. Peter Gabriel did that whole "Shock The Monkey" period with Gerry Marotta he wouldn't let Rick use cymbals. That made him play drums differently (laughs). I did a gig with Joe Bonamassa at Red Rocks, and I used 2 toms, 3 cymbals, and a bass drum. That was plenty of drums for the gig.

For The Late Show, I have more drums because I never know what I'm going to play. For example, I might have a timbale set up and a sample ready to go even though they may cut the song at the last minute. A little snare, a primary snare, I've got to have it all covered. If I did some other gig on a permanent basis, I could tailor the set to the gig, rather than have the same set and make it work with whatever gig it was.

AAJ: So obviously this set is tailored to this (The Late Show) gig.

AF: Yeah, so when I started the show at NBC, I had a 3 tom kit. Then it evolved. I got an extra tom or an extra this or extra that, and it slowly grew. I went to the Tonight Show and saw Ed Shaughnessy's kit and it looked like it had been nailed to the floor. With an ashtray. I mean this was the 80's and it looked like this kit had just been grown out of the set (laughs).

AAJ: Smoking in a TV studio! That's great. So, any more recordings, performances, etc.?

AF: Yeah, I'm going to be doing a few records in the near future. And I'm going to be playing on a little tour with Eric Johnson and Mike Stern to promote the Eclectic record. I'm going out to Texas this weekend to rehearse for a few days. Then the following week the show's off for a week and then I'm going to miss a week of shows, and do a little 2 week tour with them.

AAJ: Who's subbing for you?

AF: Shawn Pelton.

AAJ: Cool

AF: So I'll get out on the road and play with those guys.

AAJ: Does Shawn bring his own kit in here?

AF: No, he plays on mine. Then it takes me like weeks to reset it. You know how you like it to be perfect, but I mean, he's got to be comfortable and set it like he likes it, and it's fine but it takes me weeks to get it back. He plays on a 3 piece kit for the Saturday Night Live Band.

AAJ: You're gonna take the Black Beauty you used today for the show, I presume. You're not going to let Shawn play on that?

AF: (laughs) I may not. You know that Yamaha drum, that's the only other drum I really use. My signature drum is really a great drum, I've used it on the show for a long, long time. I managed to get ahold of this drum (an all-original 1928 Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum), and I don't want it to sit in a glass case. I want to play the thing. It was made about a hundred years ago.

AAJ: Made in my home town.

AF: Chicago?

AAJ: Chicago, yes. So, Miles was on this show and you got to work with him. To wrap this up, give me a Miles Davis story.

AF: Well when I got there—this was at NBC—Paul says to us "we're going to play with Miles tomorrow night. We don't know what's going to happen." So I get there, and there's this big drum machine, I don't know which brand it was. It was this big drum machine on a pedestal with a velvet cloth. I thought, "oh that's it, I'm not going to be playing." The band tried to play with the drum machine, then they took the drum machine away. I guess it wasn't working out. Someone suggested that I play, and use brushes. So I thought, "oh well, I hope this works because if the brushes don't work out, then I'm out of luck." The line up was the Letterman band, (the four of us), Marcus Miller on bass, David Sanborn on sax and Miles. Anyway, that seemed to work. There was a song in the movie "Scrooge." Miles, David, and Marcus played street musicians in the movie. We played the song, "We Three Kings," and it was in ¾. Then, in the middle of the song, Miles goes like this (chops down hand) and we go into a funk, solo-y thing, and he goes like this again (chops down hand) and we're back into the 3/4. (laughs). If ever there was a time to be nervous, this would have been it. I said to myself, "I worked so hard, this is not the time to be nervous." I felt really calm, like right in the middle of a hurricane. In the center of a storm. It was a very controlled kind of a song, really nice.

Before we began, I had asked Miles "what should I play"? He came up to me and said (Anton demonstrates) "vrmm, vrmm, vrmm" and I knew just what he meant. Afterwards I said to Marcus, "I didn't really meet Miles, and I'd like to meet him." So I waited to meet him in his dressing room and he asked me where I was from. When I told him, he said "it's a good thing you got out of South Africa." This was all pre Mandela, it was really bad then. It's a different country now. Then he said to me, "you've got a good feel for them drums." Then I said "ok—good bye!" I mean, I didn't want to hear a "but" or "except" (laughs). I didn't want to hear any more to that sentence. So now whenever I'm having problems I think to myself, "well if Miles said the feel was good then it's fine." I can rest easy with that. It was great, because I was such a huge Miles fan, as we all are. I had listened to all the great drummers he used and it was wonderful to get that affirmation.

Introduction by Virginia Rowland.




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