ANTON FIG has been the drummer for the CBS Orchestra on The Late Show with David Letterman since the band’s inception and before that the drummer on Late Night with David Letterman’s World Most Dangerous Band. In 2002, Anton Fig released his debut album “Figments.” He was kind enough to give us this great interview.
A big thank and welcome to Mr. Anton Fig for being our special guest today.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Mr. Fig, one of the things that someone would first notice when they listen to your album, Figments, is just the variety of the music – so many different styles on one album – and I was wondering especially about the world music influence. I know you grew up in South Africa and I was wondering if your growing up there had an influence on your songwriting?
Yeah, well for sure. When I was growing up in South Africa, I mean it was quite a while ago, and our link to the outside world was via shortwave radio. We used to tune into Lourenço Marques, which is Mozambique now, and we would hear stuff that was coming from overseas – from Europe basically – via that radio. And that’s where I kind of got my rock education but there was also the African music that was, you know, indigenous to South Africa. That music is much like what you hear on the Graceland record, by Paul Simon, if you take away the vocals and just listen to the instrumentals. So I heard a lot of that kind of music growing up. And then my mom played classical piano and my dad was, like, really into jazz, so I got, like, a pretty wide variety of influences. You know, growing up for a bit in South Africa, you know, you’ve got a completely different flavor to, say, growing up, you know, somewhere in America, music-wise and culturally.
One of the songs I really, really liked and I was wondering about the influence behind it, was 3:4 Folk.
It’s sort of inspired by, like a, like a kind of West African style rhythms where the song – it’s like, it was like a folk song but the song could be heard in, like, either in 3:4 time or 4:4time. And a lot of that music, you know, you have instruments playing in the two different times at the same time. And just depending on how you listen to it, you can hear it both ways. So I was trying to kind of create that aspect. And also, when I came to America I was very into Weather Report, and one of the ways that they used to write songs was, it wasn’t necessarily like ‘verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus’ like a typical pop song. They would write songs in a linear fashion so there may be like an A section, you know, a B section, and then it would go on to a C section. And it would, kind of, the form wouldn’t really repeat, it would just move in, in sort of one direction. And so that song kind of does that as well. It just kind of, I think I do repeat the verse and the chorus but after that it just kind of moves into new sections. So, the form of the song was inspired by that but the rhythms definitely came from sort of an African style or device of hearing 3 and 4 at the same time.
The album has a lot of great musicians on it – some of them from The Late Night Show – but also people like Brian Wilson, Ivan Neville, Ace Frehley. I was wondering if you thought if anyone in particular really shines on the album?
Well, I think they all do. I’ve been lucky enough in that I’ve played with lots of different people and in lots of different circumstances so I mostly called on my friends and people that I’ve played with to kind of help me out on the record. And I try to sort of place combinations of people. It wasn’t just, like, let’s see who we can get. I try to kind of get the right combinations for the right band. So, for example, the song with Ace I got Richie Scarlet – we used to play in Frehley’s Comet together – and Sebastian Bach from Skid Row. I thought, like, that would be a good combination for that particular song. Now, the Brian Wilson song that Brian’s on, I have Blondie Chaplin singing vocals. And Blondie’s an old friend of mine from South Africa and I’ve played with him a lot. And he’s currently singing with the Stones – he’s been with the Stones for the last 10 years. But he sang Sail On Sailor with the Beach Boys – he used to be in the Beach Boys. So I had Blondie singing and Brian doing the background vocal, so it kind of made sense from that point of view. Actually, you know there’s a really great moment if you go past all the songs and let the record just play a little bit, the CD, there’s a little hidden track, and I took Brian’s vocal harmonies and took the music away so you just hear the vocals by themselves. That’s an incredible moment.
A lot of people on the album are from the CBS Late Night orchestra and I was just wondering, how you started with the show?
Well, you know, there’s not a lot, there’s some. I mean, there are about 40 people on the record and, you know, the Letterman – I maybe used four people from the band or five, you know. But, uh, what happened was I was playing around New York City and, uh, I had done a record – I had played with Will and Paul and Hiram on a few different projects – and towards, in the mid ‘80s I actually did a record of Paul Butterfield’s, a blues player from Chicago, and Paul was on the record. Steve Jordan was the regular drummer on the show and, you know, when he couldn’t make it they would have various substitute drummers and one day they called me. I mean, it took a while but I guess everyone was out of town and eventually they called me and I substituted for a few weeks. Then Steve came back and then he had to leave again. You know, about a month later Paul called me up and said ‘It looks like Steve is leaving the show.’ And, you know, I don’t know what happened there – there was whatever mutual reasons – and, um, he said, uh, ‘We liked the way you substituted and you can have the gig if you want it.’ I thought about it for about a split second (laughs) and, uh, I said ‘fine.’
I saw the episode where there was a performance from Figment. I thought it was interesting. Do you think, overall, that Dave Letterman is supportive of, like the Will Lee solo effort, various solo projects from the members of the orchestra?
Yeah, well he likes the band, he likes the music, very supportive of the music. You know, he’s always commenting on how great the band sounds. And I gave him a copy of the record and, you know, one night they called and said ‘Dave really loves this. You know, he’d like to book you on the show, which I thought was really very, very supportive of him and really, really great. You know just, basically, we picked a song and it was Ivan Neville on Inside Out. I got Blondie to sing background on it and Randy Brecker, the jazz trumpet player, you know, plays a solo on the record so I got him to play the solo. It was very generous of Dave and it was a fantastic experience to play the song on the show.
Is there anyone in the, uh, orchestra that you feel exceptionally close to? I know you probably get along with everyone, of course.
Yeah, well you know I feel very close to everyone there because, I mean I’m, like, I’m very thankful to Paul for hiring me. You know, he’s the leader. Will is a fantastic musician, Felicia, Sid and – they all are fantastic musicians. I mean I see the guys every day and I feel close to all of them. I can’t single anyone out, it’s just great to be with that whole combination.
Do you envision a second Anton Fig album?
Yeah, I’d like to do that. And at the moment I’ve been, uh, doing some film music and I’ve been playing on records, and also have been doing, like, recording drum files and sending it to people across the country. And I do foresee another record but I don’t know when that’ll be because I’ve sort of – it’s a lot of work. It took me a long time to do. When you do a project yourself, you know, if you don’t feel like working that day the whole project stops. It’s a lot to take on. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the right material in place. And then, you know, once you’ve done the record – which is the really fun part – you’ve got to try and get it out there which is, you know, the difficulty. The way the business is now, even thought there’s the internet – and that helps a lot – it’s prohibitive to get it into the advertising and on the radio. It’s so expensive. So, you know, those are all things to consider before embarking on a huge project but I definitely will be doing something, you know? Whether it’s a second record or maybe a smaller thing, an EP of some kind, or – there definitely will be more stuff coming from me.
I saw, uh, Jordan Zevon a couple of weeks ago on The Late Show. I know Warren Zevon had such a relationship with the show. I was looking at one of my absolute favorite Warren Zevon songs and I noticed that you played on Genius. I was wondering what it was like working with Warren Zevon.
Well, it was great. You know, I worked with him a lot on the show because when Paul couldn’t make the show, they got Warren as the keyboard player and then they made me the band leader. So I was sort of behind conducting the band and kind of doing the cues for the day, and figuring out what to play, and then we did, you know, Warren’s songs, obviously. I conducted the band and then Warren, you know, played keyboards and spoke to Dave now and then. And, you know, he’s very funny and an incredible songwriter. It was fantastic, like, learning all his material. And then he called me up and said ‘You know, would you like to play? I’m doing an album. My ride’s here, would you like to play on the record?’ So of course, I jumped at the chance. And we went into a little studio – he flew to New York – and basically, it was just me and him in the studio. He had some stuff already down on, on pro, on tape – you know, ProTools – and so I, just over the course of a weekend or two, just put all my drum tracks down and percussion overdubs. It was a great experience and, basically, it was just me and him and an engineer in the studio. And then he went back to L.A. and he just, I think he put a little bass on them and just finished it.
What was it like working with Ace Frehley?
Yeah, well you know I worked with Ace since he did the, um, solo record – his solo record which had New York Groove and Rip It Out on it – and some of the records that he did with his band. When he came and played on my record he was actually in the middle of a tour. He just ran up to my apartment, put a few solos on and then we just kind of, you know, edited it around. If you’re interested in checking out the record you can get it on Amazon, CDBaby, iTunes, and AntonFig.com. You know, he’s always been a good friend. He’s a great player. We’ve always had a good vibe and a good friendship and it’s really fun to work with him. He’s great, you know, what can I say? He means a lot to a lot of people and he means a lot to me, too.
Was there anything on the album that you found, in particular, was a favorite of yours?
Not really. I mean, I, you know, I listen to the songs and, you know, certain things sort of resonate more with me at a certain time than others but I really kind of, you know, like the whole record. There was one thing, if I had a regret – at the end of January / February / March I had a drum solo which I decided to leave off the final version of the song on the record and, you know, I was maybe sorry that I did that. Beyond that, I mean I like all of it. They’re all very different songs. They sort of keep your interest going. I tried to make it so that if you decided to follow any instrument right through the song it would, like, kind of be interesting and take your ear, or you could just listen to the song as a whole. So, I really kind of worked hard to make each song like a little journey that you could kind of work your way through. Even though it was completed a year or two ago, it still sounds pretty current to me. It’s not – I didn’t use any, like, fancy tricks or fads or anything like that, so it feels like a good, solid record that should hold up for a while.
I was wondering, in your course of time with The Late Show you certainly played with, uh, just a lot of amazing artists and I know it would be hard to pinpoint just a couple. Were there any in particular that were – it was especially memorable for you?
You know, playing with Miles Davis was really memorable because I’ve been a huge Miles Davis fan and to get a chance to play under him was great. You know, to play with James Brown was unbelievable. Springsteen was unbelievable. Stevie Winwood, Willie Nelson. I think, you know, just to have the chance to play with my favorites was pretty profound for me. And we actually got to play with James Brown a few times. You know, when you play with a really, really great guy, you know, you’re sort of playing away there and you’re thinking ‘Man, these guys sound exactly like the real guys.’ And, youknow, and of course it is them. You’re not playing in, like, a cover band, you’re playing with the actual guys themselves. That really raises the energy level up. It makes you really concentrate and play harder and I’m very thankful for having the opportunity to have the experience.
When someone listens to your music, is there anything in particular that you hope they got out of it?
I hope that it takes them somewhere, takes them on some kind of a journey. Maybe some of the words resonate with them but it’s, you know, the music kind of takes them to a place. I’ve gotten a lot of people that have written back to me and told me that they’ve really gotten a lot out of my CD. I didn’t try and do anything. I just sort of did it the way that I heard it and when I’d kind of heard everything, the music was done kind of thing. Like, for some of us it’s hard to know just when to stop but it’s, like – I don’t know how to describe it. I just did it to the best of my ability. I don’t know, you know, how that’ll hit people but I hope that it hits them, you know, in a positive and fulfilling way.
My last question. Given that this program goes out all over the world, I was wondering what Anton Fig would like to say to the world.
We could always use a bit of peace. I don’t understand why there’s all this fighting going on. I know humans have been fighting ever since we’ve been on the world, in the world. You know, I know there’s lots of differences between people. Everyone’s entitled to their differences but it’s not worth killing someone over. Hopefully, we can all get along a little better.
Well Mr. Fig, I do thank you for your time.
Well, thank you for having me and I really enjoyed talking to you.
TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA