Interview with Anton Fig
By Chris Allen

Anton Fig a native of South Africa, Anton began playing drums at age four. He played in numerous successful local rock bands before moving to Boston to further pursue his musical interests. His formal education included studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, studying both jazz and classical disciplines and graduating with Honors in 1975. In 1976 he moved to New York where he established a successful career as a freelance musician. Currently he's the drummer of the "CBS Orchestra" appearing nightly on 'Late Show with David Letterman' - a position he has held since 1986. He recently released a self-produced album called Figments, which featured Brian Wilson, among many others.

Question: How did you get from South Africa to New York?

Anton Fig: I grew up in South Africa as a kid and I played in a lot of bands down there and at some point, you know it was really limited when I was growing up, not many artists came down there. So I wanted to kind of come over to America and see the artists first hand and also get a chance to listen to them and maybe get to play with some of the people. So, my parents said I could come over if I got a degree, and I went to the New England Conservatory in Boston, got a music degree, and then I moved down to New York and Started freelancing in the city. I got a lot of rock gigs and ended up on a lot of high profile rock gigs and albums. I formed my own band and eventually got to the Letterman show. And then finally decided I wanted to do my own record. I mean thatıs a sort of very abbreviated version - 30 years or something.

Question: When did you start your record and had you been writing before that?

Anton Fig: Yeah, I'd been writing all along. When I had my own band we were signed to Chrysalis and they always encouraged us to write. And they gave us PortaStudios and so I've been writing songs since the band was formed in about Œ79 or so. Some of those songs ended up on the record and that sort of also gave me the idea of having my own studio because I really enjoyed working on the PortaStudio and then I got another studio after that and eventually moved up to a bigger studio. But the record itself I worked on for about three and a half years. As I say I had a lot of the stuff written already and some of the stuff kind of evolved as we were doing the record. But a lot of it was written and I wanted to make my own definitive version of the songs. I had little mini versions of them and I did most of them at home in a tiny little 10 by 10 room. But I went into the studio to do the drums and I tried to get the right people on each song. It wasn't just a matter of getting any name I could get, I actually tried to tailor each song specifically. In the case of the one with Brian Wilson, I have Blondie Chaplin singing the lead vocals on that song. Blondie was in the Beach Boys and was the lead voice on "Sail On Sailor." So I was sort of lucky enough to be able to swing it so that I got Brian on that song. I mean, I know Blondie from South Africa. We grew up - we were in bands together in South Africa. Well no, we were in rival - not rival - we were in different bands in South Africa and we've played a lot in the States. I've been playing with him for years in the States and then to get Brian singing backgrounds for the song, it was a great connection because they had done the Holland record together.

Question: His vocals are really nice on your album.

Anton Fig: Fantastic!

Question: Blondie's as well.

Anton Fig: Right. I don't know if you heard it, at the very end of the record I've got the stuff of Brian by himself.

Question: Yeah, how did the session work out? Was it quick?

Anton Fig: Yeah, I flew out to California and we did it at Mark Linnettıs studio. Thatıs where they remastered or remixed Pet Sounds for stereo, I think. Actually, before Brian got there Mark was showing me the 8-track tapes of "God Only Knows" and stuff like that - it was amazing. David Leaf brought Brian down and there was no real "Hi, how are you - what's been going on" kind of stuff. He just said hello to me, walked straight into the studio and started working. And I had the song all ready to go before he got there. I had some very specific parts I wanted him to sing. There's an interlude section of a couple of contrapuntal voices - not the chorus stuff - it's right before the final choruses. So I started to focus in on that and get him to sing the lines I'd written for him. And we did those which he double tracked or triple tracked. Once that was done I wanted to try to do ahhs in the chorus and he asked me to sing him the top note - which I did and I was saying to myself "I cannot believe that I'm singing the top note for Brian Wilson!" And then he said to me "Do you want four or five part harmony underneath it?" And I didn't want to be greedy so I said four. And then he built the harmonies down underneath the top note. In the lines he kind of twisted them very slightly and it went very very fast. I think the whole thing was done in about two hours. And itıs just amazing because it just sounds like Brian Wilson. Incredible - it sounds exactly like him. It's sort of funny to say, but you spend your life - I was one of these people - I've still got my vinyl copy of Pet Sounds! Y'know we had that record in South Africa and we used to play it at 45 speed on the turntable because youıd hear the harmonies come out and you'd hear the bass come out. And I really listened to that record a lot, and you donıt imagine that you're going to be one day in the studio with the guy and heıs going to be singing on your stuff. And it just came out great, and I got a tape of it and I went over to Blondie's place and we just played it over and over and over again. And it was fabulous!

Question: Did Blondie put his vocal on after that or before?

Anton Fig: It was before. Y'know on some of the stuff with ProTools, I actually moved things around. Like in the first chorus I took out part of Brian's vocals and just left the upper voices so that the chorus has got the harmonies but not quite as heavy as later on in the song. With a computer you can move stuff around. But the sound is there and it just sounds vintage. It sounds like, it's funny, Brian said to me "This sounds a little bit reminiscent of something I've done before." Because to me the song was very much in the style of how he does stuff anyway. And it seemed perfect to get him on that song. To have him do it, to me, was like a dream come true.

Question: The song with Richie Havens sounds like something he's done as well. He sounds so great on the record.

Anton Fig: I wrote the song with Nick Holmes and Nick sang the demo and when I heard it I just went "Richie Havens has to do this song!" And I played with Richie - most of the people on the record I'd played with before. And I had played with Brian before on the Letterman show. Some of these guys I've played with on their records, on live gigs and Richie was one of them. And it just sounded so much like him and I sent him a tape and asked if he would sing it for me. And it was the same thing. He actually came to my apartment, I put a microphone in the bedroom - y'know I've got a little New York apartment and he arrived, the doorbell rang and there was Richie Havens with his Guitar and robes and jewelry. And he started singing and he sounded just like Richie Havens. It was great - he just did a bunch of takes. And I just sort of picked the best parts and put them all together. He sings with such authority and maturity and itıs just fabulous.

Question: I saw him sing in 1969 and heıs just unbelievable - how long he's lasted, actually all those guys, Brian...

Anton Fig: Well, it's great. He's still alive and kicking and doing great work.

Question: How about Al Kooper? How did that all come about?

Anton Fig: Well I played with Al Kooper for years in his band - the Rekooperators. I played his big 50th birthday party bash where we did Blood, Sweat and Tears and Rekooperators stuff. He plays with a guy Jimmy Vivino whoıs the guitarist on the Conan show, and I did one of Jimmyıs records, so we just played together an awful lot and I really wanted to get him on. I did a remake of the song "Anyway That You Want Me". I know Chip Taylor really well, he wrote that song, and he wrote "Wild Thing". And I wanted to get Al on the song and called him up and said "When youıre in New York please come play on this." And he was fine. A no-brainer really because weıve been playing together - we still play together. So that was just a matter of asking him to do it. And he also did a really great job - I mean he put all of his distinctive kind of Bob Dylan kind of Al Kooper lines in there, in the song, so thereıs no mistaking that it's him playing the organ. So that was cool.

Question: I heard him talking about how he sort of invented that style by just getting on the organ, having never played it before. It was a kind of funny story, he didn't even know how to turn it on. Then you've also played with Bob Dylan.

Anton Fig: Yeah. I did the big Dylan 30th Anniversary show where we backed up everyone for him at the Garden. I also played - I was doing some sessions with Ronnie Wood and one day the phone rang and I answered the phone and he said "It's Bobby" and said he was coming down. A half an hour later, Dylan appeared, and he played with us. Just jammed in the studio with us. And then about 10 days later he hired the whole band to come and do a session for him. Which was Ronnie and myself and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty, and I think John Paris on Bass and Charlie Sextons. And we recorded about 5 or 6 songs in the studio which, one of them, "Clean Cut Kid" ended up on Empire Burlesque, and another one, "Drifting Too Far From Home" ended up on Knocked Out Loaded.

Question: Who are some drummers who influenced you?

Anton Fig: When I grew up I listened to the English invasion guys like Ringo and Mitch Mitchell and Keith Moon and Charlie Watts and John Bonham and Ginger Baker. And when I came to America I started to listen to guys like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones and Jack Dejonnette, I think - like those kind of guys, the jazzy - like Tony Williams I always thought was absolutely fantastic. There are so many outrageously great guys out there, even up and coming. Some of the younger guys. The Foo Fighter guy, the guy who plays with Dave Matthews, a lot of great guys out there.

Question: How about some of the old studio guys like Hal Blaine.

Anton Fig: Yeah, well y'know, he's on Pet Sounds. Steve Gad I really love - heıs just a little younger than Hal Blaine. But Hal Blaine has probably played on more hits - him and Earl Palmer - those guys have probably played on more huge records than anybody. Also Benny Benjamin, and Al Jackson - the more Motowny and Stax kind of stuff. Yıknow the thing is, I used to listen to all that stuff in South Africa and when I came over to America, I played with Booker T and The MGs for a long time. And I got to play with Eddie Floyd and Wilson Pickett and it turned out - I forgot it, but when I started to play with them, I knew all of their songs! Because I'd listened to them all and I just forgot that I knew them and I got heavily into jazz for awhile. And then I got back into rock and then I got back into the R and B kind of stuff.

What we called R and B in the 60's. I just knew all that stuff (Because I listened to it like crazy. Thatıs why I got Duck Dunn on the record, because I played with Booker for years - went to Japan and then played all over America with him.

Question: Did you like any of the reggae drummers, like Carlton Barrett?

Anton Fig: Yeah sure. Carlton and then his brother on bass - what was his brother's name?

Question: Family Man.

Anton Fig: Yeah. Him and also Sly and Robbie. But I think that Carlton Barrett - that rhythm section with Bob Marley is the absolutely defining kind of reggae rhythm section. And - I mean any Bob Marley record is just incredible to me. Any one of them. And those drummers - they play with such taste, and grace, and good timing and subtlety. It's absolutely masterful what they did.

Question: I agree. I guess you must have known Ricky Fataar.

Anton Fig: Yeah, well you know Blondie was in a band with Ricky called The Flames in South Africa, and Ricky now plays with Bonnie Raitt, and I see him when he comes - usually they'll play on the Letterman show and then I'll come and hang out with Ricky for awhile. When we were both 12 - 13 years old in South Africa, his band was from Durban with Blondie, and my band was from Cape Town, and we'd actually go and check them out when they came into town. Heıs a really good drummer. He plays the same as heıs always played, no wasted energy - good groove - understated - and really really great.

Question: Doing the Letterman show must give you an opportunity to play with a lot of interesting people.

Anton Fig: It's fantastic. Itıs a great gig for a musician because first of all it's a 15 minute walk from where I live, itıs a steady paycheck, itıs short hours, it's high visibility, and you get to play with - from time to time - with incredible people. One of my dream people was Miles Davis. I played with him on the show. I think Miles is one of the most important musicians of the 20th Century. But I also got to play with Springsteen on the show, I got to play with Stevie Winwood, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Tony Bennett, James Brown - just an incredibly wide array of people. Y'know? From Youssou N'Dour to some country act, or Chuck Berry. I can't really think of anyone that I haven't played with. I never got to play with Elvis. But it's just afforded me an incredible opportunity. My attitude towards music, and it's something that I kind of reflect in my record, is that there's all different styles of music and they all kind of relate to each other. I think it's limiting if youıre just kind of a specialist in one style. Although perhaps an argument could be made that you could never play the style to the ultimate degree unless you are - but I just feel like, on the Letterman show I have to blend in and play with all these different kinds of acts, from country to world to rock to whatever, and I really enjoy it and get into each song as much as the next one. So it's a perfect job for me, and my record does that as well - thereıs world sounding stuff, thereıs rock sounding stuff, thereıs all different kinds of music and to me it all kinda hangs together.

Question: I like the Indian vocals on "3:4 Folk".

Anton Fig: Yeah, that song, that's Amit Chaterjee doing the Indian stuff and the African stuff is Richard Bona. And those two guys both played with Joe Zawinal. And that particular song reminded me of a Zawinal composition only in the fact that it's a linear composition. Most pop songs go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus, say. Just for arguments sake. When you listen to Weather Report and stuff, it will just go A section - B section - C section - D section, y'know what I mean? And this song was kind of the same way. There was a verse, a chorus, and then another section and another section. It just kind of went in one direction without ever repeating itself again. Iım not saying itıs like a Zawinal composition, but it was just that kind of linear device. And these guys played with him so it sort of made sense that they were the right guys for the record. And they never sang together, I kind of did that all in the studio. Nothing in the record was done at the same time. Every single thing was done separately. But I tried to make it sound like everyone was playing together and interacting together all the time.

Question: Do you feel like there's something lost maybe, when people don't actually play together?

Anton Fig: Well, to do my record, this is the way I needed to do it. I'm also fine for just getting in a room and just playing, and getting everybody right at the same time. I'm also fine with records that are made to a click so that thereıs perfect timing and all that stuff. I'm also fine if you're just sitting in a room and playing totally organically - old school style. I think it can be all different ways. Since I didnıt have a tracking studio it would have been prohibitive, and I have a little apartment and I could only do it soundwise like this. I think that I accomplished it fine and I don't think the music suffered at all. You get a different sounding kind of record.

Question: Well it sounds great.

Anton Fig: The fact is of course, that it's an indie project and I did it totally myself and I'm discovering that nowdays - before you had to rely upon a record company to go in the studio because it was so expensive. Now, with a modest outlay, you can have great equipment at home. You can make the record you want to make, but it's virtually impossible to get the record out there. The radio won't play you unless you pay them. You can't get advertising - it's very very difficult. And the record companies have it worked out that even when they do do it for you, youıre paying them back at an exhorbitant rate. It's like, really a ridiculous kind of business. So I'm doing all my own selling at my website, and there's a limit to who I can reach except through people like you and magazines like yours and various radio stations and they're few and far between, because most of the radio stations are owned by 4 big conglomerates. But I think this is the way to go. I think it's healthy for music, because the music business has become more of a business than it has got to do with music and thereıs a lot of musicians out there that have plenty to say, so I sort of feel this is not only as a personal statement for me but also a way to circumvent the whole big machinery, if I can.

Question: I know a lot of musicians are doing the same thing. The Wondermints were doing it because they didn't want somebody else to own their masters.

Anton Fig: That's a great band. Really, really great, and they do Brian justice.

Question: Yeah, they're good musicians.

Anton Fig: Excellent, we played with them on the show. Brian came and I guess they did all the break songs with us. Not too long ago.

Question: Another thing on your record that I love is the flamenco guitar guy.

Anton Fig: He was a guy who was recommended to me through a friend. I was looking for a flamenco guitarist, and this guy said "Oh this guy was my guitar teacher." And I just kind of called him up out of the blue. I didn't really know him. And he came in - he lives in Spain and he happened to be in New York, and he came in and he played on the song. And he sounds incredible I think.

Question: Well it must have been a really interesting experience.

Anton Fig: It was. It was long, it was hard, it was incredibly rewarding. But when you do a project yourself, you don't have a producer there to do backing vocals when you - y'know you can't do something else - if I wasnıt there, the project would've just stopped dead in it's tracks. I had to be there pushing away all the time. But it's great, I'm very pleased with the results. When people listen to it they seem to really like it, so I just am trying to spread the word for people to get a chance to buy it and listen to the record.

The above article is from OPEN SKY issue #5, used with kind permission by the editor Chris Allen. To find out more about this fab magazine and to get a copy of the whole issue, visit

Click here to visit the official Anton Fig website