INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS BY MARKO SYRJALA
Anton Fig is a South African / American drummer who is best known for his work David Letterman’s house band, the CBS Orchestra. Fig has been the drummer on Letterman’s television shows since 1986. During this period, Fig played with such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Winwood, and Tony Bennett. The CBS Orchestra has also backed up a host of artists in other venues. They played in Hall of Fame ceremonies and with B.B. King at the closing ceremonies of the summer 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Fig is also a well-known session drummer. He has recorded with such names as Mick Jagger, Gary Moore, Madonna, Joe Satriani, Paul Putterfield, Sebastian Bach, and Michael Monroe. In 1978 he played on KISS guitarist Ace Frehley’s solo debut. He replaced Peter Criss on the KISS albums DYNASTY and UNMASKED, and later on, he appeared on several of Frehley’s albums, including FREHLEY’COMET, LIVE+1, TROUBLE WALKIN, and ANOMALY. In May 2015, David Letterman announced his retirement, and the last episode of the show aired on May 20. Fig soon joined in the ranks of Joe Bonamassa’s band, with whom he had now worked close to ten years. I met a good-humored Anton in Helsinki last October when the Joe Bonamassa band visited Helsinki. Here is the now fully assembled transcription for what the man had to say about the end of Letterman show, working with Joe Bonamassa, and of course, a bit about Ace Frehley, KISS stories, and a little more. Read on!
LIFE AFTER LETTERMAN
Well, first of all, welcome to Finland, Anton. As far as I know, this is your first time here?
Anton Fig: Thank you. This really is my first time in Finland.
Let’s start with the Letterman thing. You worked for nearly 30 years in David Letterman’s Late Show, whose last episode aired on May 20, 2015. I assume that your life certainly has changed a lot after that; everything is undoubtedly very different now??
Anton Fig: Yeah, 29 years. It’s different, very different. I was so used to going to the show every day. But luckily, very soon afterward, I started to play with Joe Bonamassa. So now my life is; this is what I’m doing. So the transition has been very easy. I would never have left the show, but once Dave decided to stop. Then I looked at it as like one door closing and then another one opening. I looked at it very positively, and let’s see what happens. I had an idea that I might be doing this, going towards this. I know the organization here really well, and Joe is a great player, and the band is really great. So it’s actually really fun. One thing I couldn’t do on the show, although it was a dream gig. Was that I couldn’t tour for more than two weeks at a time. So, although this is an adjustment for my family and me and everything, we’re trying to work it out, and we all working it out and going out and seeing what it’s like to… We’ve already done part of America; we’re doing the European tour now. We go back to America. So it’s a whole different rhythm.
When a person does the same job for as long as you did The Late Show, it becomes easy, just a routine, but it was not the case here?
Anton Fig: Yes, I know. The show could never be that routine because it was a different show every day. It sounded like you’re playing the same set. It’s a different show every day, and then I would do lots of other stuff in the nights and my weeks off and things like that. So it was very different. As for this, it’s now you kind of try and gets the show as good as you can, where else in New York I was doing more different things all the time.
In Letterman, you played with hundreds of different people. What are your best and worst experiences of that period?
Anton Fig: There was not like the best or the worst, because people came on the show. They have very little time. They just had a duet. It became more like what was the…
Anton Fig: Not even challenging, what meant the most to me. So like playing with Miles Davis or James Brown or like Steve Winwood. Or different people that meant a lot to me that I got to play with. That’s what counted on the Letterman show. When I did the Bob Dylan show, playing with Eric Clapton. Like the different people that I’ve played with. There are times that I have played with Dylan or played with some of The Stones or whatever. These experiences are what meant the most to me. In terms of bad, I don’t really remember any bad. We played with a band on the show that wasn’t any good; you just did it because that was part of your job. You still did the best job you could, and you still tried to make it as good as you possibly could. So I don’t really think I don’t have the worst experience and the best experience. There are a lot of fantastic experiences and the bad ones I don’t remember.
Yeah, overall, it was your job to make it work.
Anton Fig: Yeah.
One more question about the Letterman Show. It wasn’t a secret that Dave would retire, but what was the final nail for the coffin when it actually happened? Why did he decide to retire in May of 2015?
Anton Fig: I don’t know why, but he said that he was with his son, and his son was asking him who was on the show that day or something. He said; he couldn’t remember. But I don’t think that’s the reason, because I used to come over on the show and family used to ask me who was on the show that day; and I couldn’t remember either. I think it was a part of the show, and you did so many shows. You just don’t remember. It’s like when you’re touring. You can’t remember where you were the night before. So I don’t think that was the reason I can’t really say what his reason was. I just know that one day he called us into his dressing room, called the band. He said; I’m about to call CBS. I’ve decided to retire. I’m going to call CBS and tell them, and there wasn’t much more to say. Then he went on stage, and then he went on stage, and he told the whole world.
So it all happened really fast?
Anton Fig: Really fast, but not unexpected. Because like we were thinking, it’s this year, is this year. When it happened, it was like, that day has come now.
That day comes for everybody.
Anton Fig: Yeah, right.
WORKING WITH JOE BONAMASSA
When the Letterman thing was over, you probably had several options of how you continue your career. What made you choose to work with Joe Bonamassa?
Anton Fig: Yeah. But I’ve done a lot of the records with him, so I’m actually going out, and I’m playing my own drum parts. I’m not playing what someone else has done, like catching up on this stuff. I know the whole crew, and I know everybody. Then he changed the band a little bit. He’s got Michael Rhodes on bass. He’s good, unbelievable bass player from Nashville, and Reese Wynans, a keyboardist from Double Trouble. So it’s a really good band, and there is a place to play the songs, but there is also a place to improvise and jam a little bit. So it’s kind of a nice thing for me, and the tour is very nice. Joe travels on a really nice level. It’s all the reasons; seem to line up for me.
Right, and you have been working with him for a long time already, close to 10 years or whatever?
Anton Fig: I think I started in… I think eight years I have been on there.
Joe is a passionate musician, and he’s doing new music and tours all the time. There is always something going on.
Anton Fig: He works all the time. Last month we did a thing called The Three Kings, which is about B. B. King, Albert King, and Freddie King. We worked up the songs, and then we ended up at the Greek Theatre in L.A. and did a live DVD. So that will come on next year sometime. Then right before that, I did a record with them, which is going to come out next year as well. So that’s already two projects since I have been with them.
Joe’s way of working is very similar to how bands did work in the ’70s. New music is made continuously, and he is always on tour. Obviously, this way of working is suitable for you also?
Anton Fig: It’s good to work, it’s good. That’s different. It’s funny because on the show I felt like I was working. I did like I was working all the time, and even when we had a week off. Because I felt like we were working all the time now, I come out of my road. All-day in the studio, I work, and then I go home, and then I’m off. If I wanted to work more, I can, but otherwise, I can just take time off, and then I got back out, and then I’m working again. So it just feels a little different from being here, that kind of thing.
After this European tour, what you’re going to do next with Joe Bonamassa?
Anton Fig: Next year, I think we’re doing a Keeping the Blues Alive Cruise, and then we’re doing a German tour. It’s like a month in Germany.
Who are others performing on the Cruise?
Anton Fig: Kirk Fletcher, Eric Gibb, Beth Hart, and a bunch of other people. After the Cruise, we’re playing, and I think we’re going to do the Beth Hart shows. The set that we did in Amsterdam. So I’m playing three different shows with them on it. It will be the Beth Hart show, it will be in one of his shows and then a different show. You’re doing new stuff, and it’s not the same stuff all the time.
THE BLUES INFLUENCES
You are originally from South Africa, and I remember when we discussed this first time about your musical influences and stuff like that. You then mentioned that you did not know about bands like KISS, but how much you knew about Blues when you lived in South Africa?
Anton Fig: We kind of got the Blues, like almost in America through the British Invasion. The Zeppelin and Hendrix and with The Stones, and they kind of brought all these songs back to the American audiences. We kind of got in South Africa like that. Then afterward, after I got into it that way. Then I went back and researched it, and I’m playing with Joe now, I’ve researched it even more. I really got to some of them, really the roots of where it all comes from. I played with a lot of Blues guys; I played with Paul Butterfield and stuff like that.
And with B. B. King.
Anton Fig: B.B. King, yeah. Now with Joe, it’s kind of cool because I’ve gone back and researched a lot of that stuff and looked at tapes and listened to music. So it has been pretty cool. But my first exposure in South Africa was through the British Invasion.
Speaking about Blues players, could you name three of your favorites?
Anton Fig: I love Paul Butterfield. I love the way that he played. I love Buddy Guy. The way that he played, I love. Like the way Joe plays is great. I got to play with B. B. King on the show a bunch of times. Any time I have ever played on the show with like the real thing, just incredible with the B. B. King, like James Brown, which is not strictly blues but like rhythm and blues or something. You play with these great people. You realize just how great they are and why they’re so great because they still sound just like they sounded, and they’re still fantastic players.
How do you like European Blues guys like Gary Moore?
Anton Fig: I’ve played with him too, and he was fantastic, he was amazing. If you name a few people, I’ll forget about who they are. There is a whole lot of great people.
SOME ACE TALK
Of course, we have to talk a bit about KISS and Ace Frehley as well. Let’s starts with Ace’s latest album, SPACE INVADER. Many fans were a little disappointed when you didn’t play on that album, although you were supposed to do that, or how did that story actually go?
Anton Fig: No, he just did the record. He was in L.A., and he lives in L.A. now.
Or actually in San Diego?
Anton Fig: Yeah. He lives on the West Coast, should I say. He was touring, and he had his band and the people he played with. We had done the ANOMALY record. I think he was trying to do something like the first one. So we sort of did that, and then he just did another album, and he just said; you just started, there are guys that I’m using here, and it’s just easier for me. They would have to get me over there and do our big thing. I just think nothing happened at all. I saw him a few months ago; he played at B.B. Kings in New York. There was nothing that happened, and it was fine. I sort of feel like I did the first record, which is the best, and then I did all those Frehley’s Comet albums and TROUBLE WALKIN’. Then I did the ANOMALY, which kind of… That was the arch. I’m happy with that; I didn’t feel weird about it at all.
Last summer, I spoke with Scott Coogan, who now plays the drums for Ace, and he said that the drums on the album are not that great, in his opinion. Something is missing. Do you agree with that?
Anton Fig: I don’t know the record well enough to really be able to comment on that. “Laughs”
Right. But overall, I think it’s great that Ace is back, and he’s doing great nowadays.
Anton Fig: Me too. I think it’s great. He’s out there playing, and he’s very committed. He’s working really hard, and it’s great. Scott is playing with them now, and I saw them in B.B King.
It’s also great that Ritchie Scarlet is back in the band.
Anton Fig: Ritchie was there, and Ritchie is fantastic. So it was all fun, fun and good.
Two years ago, we had Ritchie here in Finland as a special guest at our KISS Expo. Then he played with our Ace cover band called Frehley’s Vomit. Maybe we can also arrange something when you come here next time? “Laughs”
Anton Fig: Next time, “Laughs.”
SOME KISS TALK
It is no longer a big secret that you played the drums on KISS’s DYNASTY and UNMASKED albums. This subject was silent for a long time, and you never said anything about it for a long time. Why did it happen like that?
Anton Fig: They told me that they wanted me to do it, but I couldn’t say anything. They said; we will pay you well.
You were 100% loyal to them for almost 30 years.
Anton Fig: Yeah, yeah. There was a deal. You play, will pay you. They paid me nicely. They said; don’t talk about it. We don’t want you to talk about it. So I didn’t. I only spoke about it when Gene put in his book that I played on UNMASKED. When the re-mastered version of DYNASTY came out, my name was there. I’m thinking; if they’re talking about it, then I can talk about it. But up until that point, I never said a word. Even so, I still sort of thinking twice about it because I’m so used to like I can’t talk about that. That is the deal. Now it seems like in this world with the information; nowadays you can’t keep a secret at all.
Everything is on the web.
Anton Fig: Yeah. I just wanted to keep my deal, and that was it.
But all in all, the fact is that you played on two KISS albums, and you are involved in one of the biggest hits of their career, “I Was Made For Loving You.” Do you feel that you’re part of KISS’s history and what does that mean to you now as an afterthought?
Anton Fig: I just see, like that one little piece and time. I was very friendly with Ace, and I was like a part of his old thing, a much bigger part of his old thing. Between that, it was like that little time of KISS and the band that I had at that time Spider, and Bill Aucoin managed us. So I just see it as a moment in time, a little piece in my life. One of the many pieces of my life. Like it’s not bigger than any other piece.
Do you have any memories of when you were in the studio recording “I Was Made For Loving You”?
Anton Fig: Yeah. I remember that they wanted that kind of just… There was like that whole just kind of thing and The Rolling Stones song “And I Miss You.” So they wanted that sort of like thing, and I remember that the sound in the… when it breaks down, and then it goes like “boom.” I took like a whole bunch of sticks and hit them together, and then I took a harmonizer and pitched it way down and put a tone on it. I remember doing that and playing with that, and I sort of got some image of playing the song. When did we do it? I think it was at the River Plate. Or was it Electric Lady? I don’t actually remember where we did it.
I remember when the song first came out. It was a big shock for a young KISS fan to hear that his heroes are going to play disco! “Laughs”
Anton Fig: Yeah, yeah.
How does it feel when you now hear that song in a bar or on the radio? Everybody knows it’s KISS, but only a very few know that you play on it?
Anton Fig: It’s fun. The people that know they know. It’s fine, and if they don’t know, they find out, and they are all surprised. That’s fine too. I went to a baseball game the other day, and they played “New York Groove” in the stadium. I said to myself, that’s me playing. Then he said to his mother, that’s dad playing.
THE OTHER STUFF
You’re now working full time with Joe, but you probably have other projects going on as well, or do you?
Anton Fig: I’m producing and… I don’t know if you have heard my record?
Do you mean FIGMENTS? I have it.
Anton Fig: I kind of really listed, and now that I’ve sort of came out again. Because if people heard it the first time since I was coming back out into the world again after the show. So I’m putting that out again, and that’s got like a song with Ace and Sebastian Bach. I don’t think it has any Blues stuff on it “laughs.”
Are you still playing those club nights in New York with Oz Noy and the other guys?
Anton Fig: We’ve done a little less because I have been… When you go on the road, then you’re kind of out of town. Like I’ve gotten plenty of calls for it like they go; are you around now? We’re going to be here. So that’s also different. I used always to be around. But I’m good. I’m doing this and will see how everything goes and see what happens in the future.
This is a bit futuristic, but have you ever been thinking about how long you’ll continue to be a professional musician and tour the world?
Anton Fig: I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I mean, I feel like I’m playing fine now. Until I feel like I can’t do my best. Like you don’t have to play the song the same way, you kind of find other ways around the song to make it really good. You can get like nine different drummers’ styles, and they can play the same song, and they’d all be good, but that will be varying in different ways of playing it. As you mature, you may not do the same things you were doing when you were younger. So when the day comes, and I feel like I just couldn’t, I guess that would be the time. It’s going to need to do with chronological age. I don’t think.
Speaking about long line drummers, guys like Ian Paice are still as great as they used to be back in the day.
Anton Fig: Paice, I just met him; I met him in a bar. Where he just happened to be singing at the same hotel as us when we were in Nashville. So I sat down, and I spoke to him for a while. He’s incredible. But that’s what I was saying when you play on the show with these guys, and they’re still absolutely great, and you know why they were great, and they’re still great. That’s such a good feeling, and I played with a lot of them, and they were like 60, 70, and they were still fantastic. That’s what I think you should hope for; it is like that you can just be as good as you can be, getting better and better all the time.
This is another futuristic question, where is Anton Fig 10 years from now?
Anton Fig: 10 years from now? Impossible to say. I’m just letting the next step lead me to the next level; lead me to the next step. Then I’ll just see what happens. I just hope I would like to be better. Playing better.
Do you still want to grow as a musician?
Anton Fig: Better, yeah. I just want to be better. Whatever that means, I don’t know. As a person, as a musician. If something leads me somewhere, then I can try and do it. You can also take all the stuff you’ve learned and make it into your style. So at this point, it would just be if something new happened, it would just be putting a new flavor into what I’m doing. It wouldn’t be me going in a radically different direction. But I would just like to get better and better at what I’m doing.
That’s all for now. Thanks again for your time Anton!
Anton Fig: Thank you!