INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJALA
Anton Fig (born Cape Town, South Africa) is a well-known session drummer and a longtime member of the CBS Orchestra, appearing nightly on Late Show with David Letterman. During this tenure, he has played with scores of great artists, including Miles Davis, James Brown, and Bruce Springsteen. The CBS Orchestra has backed up a host of artists in other venues such as Little Richard, Lauren Hill, and BB King at the summer Olympic Games’ closing ceremonies in Atlanta (1996). The CBS Orchestra is also the house band for the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. During the years, Anton has made countless recordings with such artists as Mick Jagger, Madonna, Joe Cocker, Gary Moore, Michael Monroe, Joan Armatrading, Blackmore’s Night, and Joe Bonamassa, among many others. In 1978 Anton was asked to play on KISS guitarist Ace Frehley’s solo album. That co-operation leads Anton to make recording sessions with KISS. Anton recorded albums DYNASTY (1979) and UNMASKED (1980). He was a member of Ace Frehley’s band Frehley’s Comet from 1984-1987, and later on, he has played on numerous Ace’s solo albums, including the latest release, ANOMALY (2009). Well, there’s been, and is still, so much going on with this man’s career, so it’s better to let the man himself tell what he’s up to, and of course, it’s interesting to learn something about the past and future as well.
THE LETTERMAN SHOW AND MORE
Besides the fact that you are always busy with the David Letterman show, you work with various other people, like Joe Bonamassa, all the time. Briefly, what all you’ve got in the works right now?
Anton Fig: Right, you know, I’ve been producing some stuff. I play around town a lot with different people like Oz Noy, who is a great kind of more jazzy sort of guitarist. I’ve been doing stuff with Joe, and I’ve been doing stuff with Joe and Beth Hart. We’ve been doing a lot of stuff together. I’ve been doing the Letterman show. I’m flying to Florida, sorry, Philadelphia on the weekend to do a thing, a concert for the veterans, people coming back with traumatic – PTSD, I think it’s called stress. I’m doing a concert for that. I’m playing around. I’m really busy all the time doing lots of different things. I just came back from LA. I did a record with a producer, Joe’s producer. I did a record on the weekend. I just produced a record of this guy, Joe Silver. He’s like a singer song-writer. Like country music, I do all different kinds of music. So it’s not like I’m running any one particular style, you know?
The David Letterman thing, you’ve been doing it for quite a long time?
Anton Fig: Since 1987.
So it’s been going on for 25 years. I just thought, do not you ever get tired of this work? I mean, 25 years is a long time to do one thing, even when it is an outstanding job?
Anton Fig: Not really because it’s a high-visibility gig. It’s a steady gig. You play in a great band. You play with a lot of great guest musicians. It’s steady; you know what I mean? And it’s great; you’re on TV every day. So, it’s great. The only thing that you can’t do is you can’t go on tour for months and months, but we have plenty of time off, so I can do many other projects, and I can go on tour a little bit. I’m doing a tour in the summer with Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa, and so we combined like a week, and I have off, plus a week of the show that I’ll miss and somehow get two and half weeks out of it. It’s actually going to be in Europe, but I’m not sure if we’re going through Scandinavia or not.
We’ll see how that goes later on, but it seems that Bonamassa is doing very well at the moment everywhere?
Anton Fig: Yeah, but he tours all the time and releases records all the time. I’ve done a bunch of records with him, five or six albums. He’s incredible, absolutely incredible, but he’s doing it really well. He works – he does it all the time. He’s got this project, that project. He’s got that other band. What are they called? Metal-Rules.com: Black Country Communion Anton Fig: Yeah, he and Beth Hart have made – he got like about four different things going, plus he tours all the time, a lot of dates a year.
When you are on tour with someone, then Letterman needs someone to fill in for you?
Anton Fig: Yes, there’s someone that fills in. I don’t really like to be away too much because this is my main job and I love it, but we’re allowed to take a few days off a year, and so like this summer is really special.
How is your regular day when you do the Letterman show?
Anton Fig: Well, you heard the rehearsal. That was the rehearsal for the show now, and so it’s a very short day. We have about 20 minutes, although I think today was about maybe 30 minutes of rehearsal, and then we do the show. Today we’re going to be doing two shows. So, right after the show, we’ll do another rehearsal. If we’re playing with a musical guest, then we’ll usually get the music beforehand and come in knowing the music. You’ve got to know not to be cold the first time you play. But I’ll be done in – the whole thing takes less than three hours with rehearsals and everything. So it’s actually very, very fast.
Sounds like that you have learned things quickly, then?
Anton Fig: Yeah, you’ve got to be – you’ve got to pay attention and get it done very quickly.
How about the future of David Letterman’s show? I remember having read that his current contract with CBS expires in the year 2014?
Anton Fig: No. Every time he signs, he just signs for a couple of years, and it’s been that way forever. It could, but it’s been like that since the very beginning of the show. So it’s every few years, every few years. So no, I don’t think so. The show, it’s still very relevant. When something happens, some political thing or some disaster, some very big event, he has a voice, and he has a comment, and he’s able to say something and talk to the people about it. So I think it makes it a very relevant place for him, and he usually has most, I think the wise perspective on an event that I believe the people – certainly when stuff happens, and they want to know what he has to say think across the country.
Because of the nature of the work you have with Letterman, you’ve not been able to do long tours or to join any bands permanently, but for sure you’ve got some interesting offers during the years?
Anton Fig: People don’t give me offers because…
Because they know the obligations with Letterman?
Anton Fig: They do know, but a way back when, way, way back when I first got the show, Stevie Winwood asked me if I wanted to tour with him, and I said to him, “I can’t believe I’m turning you down because I’m such a big fan of you, but I just got this TV show, and I’ve got to do it” That was like maybe 24 years ago or 25 years ago, and I saw him, and he said, “Yeah, I remember I asked you, and you couldn’t do it.” He said you made the right choice, but I still love it. I love his music.
THE SESSION WORK
Besides the fact that you have played for a long time in Letterman’s show, you are also well known for being a session musician on countless projects. When you first moved to New York as a young man in 1975, how did you manage to create contacts with the right people who helped you get ahead in your career?
Anton Fig: You know, I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t know. I moved down here, and when I grew up, I played a lot of rock stuff, so I’m basically a rock drummer, but then when I went to music school in Boston to New England Conservatory, I learned jazz. So I played a lot of jazz and studied it for a bunch of years and got into it. And when I moved to New York and I was still playing jazz, but then I suddenly started to do rock gigs again. As soon as I did that, I began to get tons of work, and one thing led to another. I got an audition for a band, and I played with them for a while, and then – what happened then? Their drummer went off to play with Dylan, so I got his job, but he also played with Robert Gordon, so I sometimes played with Robert Gordon, and then that producer produced Joan Armatrading. So he got me on the Joan Armatrading sessions, and then I met all the session guys while at the same time I had my own band, and we were auditioning bass players, and this guy came along. We didn’t get the gig, but he said, you know, I have a friend, Ace, and he’s looking for a drummer for his solo record, and so he got me in at an audition with Ace, and I was good enough to play with them and did that first solo record. So it’s like, just one thing – I really don’t even know how it happened. Just one thing led to another. I’m not sure that if I came to New York today, it wouldn’t happen the same way because it’s even harder now?
I went through a list of some of the artists with whom you’ve worked over the years. Could you briefly comment on some selected sessions?
Anton Fig: Sure!
Because I’m from Finland, the first name on my list is Michael Monroe.
Anton Fig: Oh, yeah, I played with him a long time ago. I haven’t seen him for years. I see he’s still playing around. Actually, where was I? I did a gig with Steve Stevens and Sebastian Bach recently, and I think we were talking about him at the gig. I was playing with them a few months ago, and his name came up. I guess from Steve, maybe. I don’t remember. His name came up recently in my life, but I haven’t seen him for a long time.
You did play on his NOT FAKIN’ IT back in 1989. Do you have any memories from those sessions?
Anton Fig: You know, I don’t remember that album, but I do remember playing with him, yeah. I really don’t go back and listen to the records that I played on. I listen to them once, and then that’s it usually. Do you know what I liked about Michael? He was so good at it, too, like everything that he did. You’d see him, and he’d be completely like, he could be going on stage or something that’s just how he was onstage or offstage, it was the same person.
Okay, the next on my list is the man in black, Ritchie Blackmore. A couple of years ago, you played on Blackmore’s Night THE VILLAGE LATERNE album.
Anton Fig: Oh yeah, well I, he was doing his kind of like English medieval music kind of stuff. Metal-Rules.com: Yeah, he’s been doing that life for years. Anton Fig: We went to his house, and we recorded. He’s got a studio at his house, and I just put on the drums with the producer. We may not have spoken, but it was cool playing that stuff because it’s Richie Blackmore, but I didn’t play any Deep Purple “laughs.”
What about another guitar hero Gary Moore, with whom you recorded the album AFTER HOURS in 1994?
Anton Fig: Gary Moore came and played on the show, and typically when people come and play on the show, they were pushing a record, so they don’t have any reason, and you don’t normally get to play with them because they’re just selling a new product, but he came on the show, and then he asked Will and me to go and record his new record with him. So we did that record, and he was amazing. Gary was incredible and just fantastic.
The next name on my list is Sebastian Bach.
Anton Fig: Oh, Sebastian. Yeah, now I got to him because I was playing with Ace and once he came by Ace’s place and he was playing as well, and I met him through that, and then he asked me to play on his record, and I went out on a few live dates with him, but with his band and his drummer, they use two drummers. So I just sort of joined the tour when I could around the show. He’s also very committed to what he does, really 100% focused on what he wants to do.
The last name on my list is Madonna. How on earth did you get her EROTICA album in the early 90s?
Anton Fig: Oh, Madonna? I don’t know how I got that call. Somebody called me after that. I went into the studio. It was her and the producer, and they just wanted to add drums to a little short track, and she was there, and she was pretty involved in directing how she wanted the drums, making suggestions, stuff like that, but I just came in and did my session. I did what they wanted as best as I could, and I ended up with a record, and that was it. I never saw her again.
WORKING WITH ACE AND KISS
I also have some questions about Ace Frehley and Kiss if it makes you feel comfortable?
Anton Fig: Yeah.
When you started working with Ace in 1978, I remember reading something that you didn’t know much about KISS before then?
Anton Fig: Yeah, I wasn’t a huge fan or anything. They were an advertisement on the side of the bus, so I wasn’t concerned, so I didn’t know their music, which is kind of good because I didn’t – I knew he was a big rock star. I could tell, you know what I mean? It was Kiss, and I knew that Kiss was huge, and I knew I wouldn’t know the music all that well.
How was Ace as a person when you first met him? Because, as you said, he was a big rock star, and he had seen just about everything at that point?
Anton Fig: You know he was great. It was like the first day. We didn’t talk all that much. We just played, and we played again. We did two rounds of demos with them, and then we did the record. We became really good friends.
It was Ace, you, and producer Eddie Kramer who made the entire album threesome?
Anton Fig: Right
But I’ve learned that Will Lee also played some bass on the album?
Anton Fig: He just basically, when we cut the whole record with Ace, Ace was on rhythm guitar. We were in like a mansion with a remote truck outside, and his amps were on a stairwell. So we cut it all and decided to put a bass on two songs. Once they got all the tracks to New York, he played bass on a couple of tracks, but he wasn’t involved in those ten days of tracking.
How much did you have the freedom to play the way you wanted and be creative when the album was recorded?
Anton Fig: It was pretty much whatever I wanted to do. When we were recording “Rip It Out” in the drum solo on the demo when I recorded with Ace, the first time I met him, I just played that solo off the top of my head on the demos. When it came time for the record, he said: “I already like what you played on the demos.” They played it for me, and I liked it and played the same thing again. But that was just something spur of the moment. They let me play whatever I wanted.
Tell something about the song “Wiped Out,” which you did co-write with Ace?
Anton Fig: Ace was playing this riff, so I started playing the drums to it, and then I changed the beat around. I played the beat in different ways, so it made his riff sound like he was doing something different. And then he really liked that, so we kind of worked on it, and basically, it was just me turning the riff around. When he wrote another part, he said, ‘why don’t you go work on it, and I’ll give you writing?’ So I went back, and I wrote the words. And then he did it on the record. It was cool. And he gave me credit– well, I did write it with him.
Once the album came out, it was a great success. Did you ever have plans to make some solo shows with Ace back then?
Anton Fig: Yeah, we used to talk about it, but it never came even close. Well, I don’t know what happened. When did he leave? He didn’t leave until much later. Was he still on there, you know?
As you said, you became really good friends with Ace, and that maybe was the key as to why KISS chose you to replace Peter Criss on DYNASTY?
Anton Fig: Yes, sure, and it was recorded really well, and I’m sure he, Ace, put in a good word for me. So they asked me to play on it, and they asked me not to say anything, so I said nothing for 30 or 35 years. It was only when they did the remastered version of the album. It was written on the album cover that I played, and in Gene’s book, he said I played on it. It was only after they said it that I decided talked about it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have said anything.
You were not the first “ghost player” who KISS had used in the studio. How strict were the rules they made for you that you do not talk to outsiders?
Anton Fig: They were not strict, but they paid really well said; you mustn’t tell anybody. They just said that once. Their manager and mine were the same as my band called Spider. So they just said we would pay you well and don’t say anything. That was fine. Ace is my friend, and I wasn’t going to say or do anything to them. There were no other players in the room except those guys. I think maybe once someone was in. I think Gene didn’t come in one day, and they had someone play bass, but Gene just came in and replaced the bass afterward. It was always them and nobody else there.
It was Vini Poncia who produced the two albums that you did with KISS. Many fans criticized that Poncia was too much of a “pop” producer for KISS. From your point of view, what was it like working with him?
Anton Fig: You know, he was more of an R&B kind of guy than a hard rock guy. But they had a big record with DYNASTY. The world was changing, and it was going more into disco. So it was sort of different. Maybe it wasn’t a botched album, but maybe the hardcore people didn’t like it, I don’t know. As far as I wasn’t concerned, I was just happy to be there to contribute to the record.
Did KISS ever ask you to join the band as a full-time member? I mean, did you have a serious discussion on the subject ever?
Anton Fig: Well… Ace took me out for dinner one night and asked me if I wanted into it. At the time, I had this band with the Aucoin Management (Spider). We had a song in the top 40. So I thought about it for a little bit, and then I said I feel like I should stay with my band because it looked like it would break it too, you know…maybe not as big as Kiss but that it could break. Then what I heard was that Gene and Paul didn’t like the idea of Ace and me being like a group together, so they kind of took away the offer if you know what I mean. But as far as I’m concerned, they did ask me, and I did say no.
The first Frehley’s Comet album was released in ’87. How do you like that album now, in retrospect?
Anton Fig: You know, I never listened to it.
There is a lot of fantastic playing of yours on the album?
Anton Fig: Yeah, I remember some of it. Was “Breakout” on that record?
Yeah, and “Rock Soldiers” and…
Anton Fig: Yeah, I remember cutting some of the tracks. We did some of it – was “Into the Night” on there? Okay, I remember cutting “Into the Night” in New York. I need to listen to all that stuff again and hear what it sounds like “laughs.”
At the same time, you began to work with David Letterman. Was that the reason why you decided to stay away from Ace’s band at that time?
Anton Fig: By then, I was doing the show quite a bit, and I think he wanted to find someone else that could be there more because I was there, and then I was gone and there and gone. So I think that’s what happened. But I could have just as easily done that too. I always liked playing with Ace. I mean, whenever he wanted to play, he’d call me up. I used to go up to his house a lot and do tons of demos, and then I did all the records with him, but one of them, the SECOND SIGHTING record. I would go up all the time because he had a studio at his house, and I’d go up there all the time and play. With Ace, I knew him so well. We did rehearse a little bit, but we didn’t have to rehearse that much because – you know, I would come to his house, and we would work the songs out. Sometimes we just kind of do the songs right there. For the first record, I did the demos. That was like eight songs, like two days, eight songs, and then we went in, and we just did them. You know, the ’78 record to me is just amazing. That one I have listened to recently. I like TROUBLE WALKIN’ as well, but my favorite is the very first that first record we did.
How do you like ANOMALY, the most recent Ace album?
Anton Fig: Yeah, it’s pretty cool, too. That was sort of like the original one. I played on maybe six or seven songs on it. You know, it took a long time to get that album finished.
Do you remember which songs you played on the record?
Anton Fig: If you can give me the titles, I can tell you.
Anton Fig: I played on that.
Anton Fig: I played on that one as well. You know, I did sit on with Ace a few months ago. He came through with his band and Ritchie, and I even sat in, and we played one song. It was just a jam, but it was cool.
Yeah, you did a Jimi Hendrix song together.
Anton Fig: Yeah, “Foxy Lady.” It was fun. It’s always good to see Ace.
FIGMENTS AND OTHER STUFF
In 2002, you released a solo album called FIGMENTS. Do you have plans to make more albums like that in the future?
Anton Fig: Right, well, it’s great to make music, but it’s really hard to get it out there. On FIGMENTS, I had so many different people on it that it was impossible to sort of get a band together to support the record. They were just a bunch of songs, but I still love that album. I still listen to it from time to time. That’s one I do listen to.
The album is a combination of all kinds of musical styles.
Anton Fig: Yeah, well, it’s because I’ve always liked all different kinds of music and I play all different types of music, so I figured why does it have to be one particular kind of thing? Just like a reflector of what I do. One of the reasons I’m on the show is that you have to play all kinds of stuff. If anyone wants to listen to it, it’s still good. I think there’s some really good stuff on there, but what I did on that was a start to produce a few people like Joe Silver, and there’s another group I’m working on because it’s – then you really don’t have people writing on the songs. They just cut the songs, and it takes a lot to get a complication of really good songs together.
You have written most of the material FIGMENTS by yourself, and if I remember correctly, you’ve also previously written songs with different people like with Ace. Have you been still writing songs either to yourself or others?
Anton Fig: I used to write a lot of songs but no more. I did a song – I wrote a song with Desmond Child with a band called Animotion. I wrote a bunch of songs with Ace like “One + One,” I co-wrote that one. But, as I said earlier, I’ve done a lot of production work and less songwriting lately.
Okay, our time is running out soon, so it’s the time of the very last question. We’ve touched on the conclusion of current and past, but how is the future. The fact is that as a musician, you’ve reached almost everything: you’ve played on hundreds of albums. You have played with nearly everybody. You have played in the Olympics, you have played in Live Aid, you have played in the Hall of Fame ceremonies, and the list goes on and on. Is there anything, in particular, you would like to achieve in your career yet, or is there still someone with whom you would like to play in the future?
Anton Fig: A lot of the people that I wanted to play with are in the grave already, but I think I just want to keep going, and I want to keep getting better and keep playing with people and keep myself as current as possible. I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t often look back. I like to keep going forward. I may go back and listen to all that stuff, but in the meantime, I’m going to keep going forward.
Thanks for your time Anton!
Anton Fig: Thank you, Marko.