Perspective. It’s everything. When I was young, occasionally people would ask me what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” I would tell them I wanted to be a session drummer. In my mind, being in a Rock band was out of reach, but a session musician, that was sensible. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, I had an awesome six-piece Pearl drum set with Zildjian symbols. Does it get any better? Probably. But in my adolescent mind, it didn’t. I’d head down to my parent’s basement, and tune out the world. I’d play along to KISS Alive!, The Eagles Hotel California, and various albums by the Who. For a few brief hours, I was Peter Criss, Don Henley, and Keith Moon. It was a nice escape.
Around that time, through my obsessive research of all things KISS I came to find out that a drummer named Anton Fig played on Dynasty, Unmasked as well as Ace Frehley‘s self-titled album, Ace Frehley. I also came to find that Anton had played on the bulk of Ace’s solo output. His style of drumming was entirely different than my previous idols. I know today that Anton’s love of Jazz was heavily incorporated into his Rock/Fusion style, but at the time, I had no real grasp of what I was hearing. All I knew was that I loved it and that I was completely unable to play along with it.
Time wore on and we moved out of that house and into a small apartment. The drums were stacked in the corner with the promise that “one day” I’d be able to play them again. That day never came. Eventually, they were moved into storage and when I was around 24 years old, unable to watch them rust any longer, I sold them on Craigslist. I have no idea for how much, but I do recall the buyer sending me a photo of them fully assembled just before his band’s gig. It did my heart good to see them going to use again after so many years out of service. No regrets.
These days, I don’t get to play often, but one day I will again. When I do get the chance to sit behind a kit, I find that I haven’t lost it, which is cool. At some point, people stopped asking me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I suppose that means I have. While I didn’t end up becoming a session musician, I do get to write about music and interview some of the artists I grew up loving. No regrets. Today, I’ve got Anton Fig “in the house” and I couldn’t be happier to share this one with you all. If you’re interested in learning more about Anton Fig and his music, head over to his website here. Anton is a great guy, a legendary drummer and his taste in music is fantastic. Be sure to dig into his picks below. Enjoy!
Anton, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. Tell us about your back story. How did you begin playing music? What was your musical gateway so to speak?
I always loved the sound of drums and was always attracted to them. I don’t remember ever deciding to play drums, it was something that I just did. I know I was banging on pots and pans around age 4.
My mom played piano and my dad had a large Jazz and Classical record collection but I believe I just gravitated to the drums on my own.
You were born in Cape Town, South Africa. What was the music scene like there? Who were early influences? What shaped your unique, heavy-hitting style?
We heard the Black South African music quite a bit (similar to the tracks on Paul Simon’s Graceland album). Country and Western were also big in SA. I was into my dad’s Jazz and Classical collection. The bands I originally played in were like the Shadows (an English Ventures style group). Then I started listening to Lloyd Price (Personality), Elvis, James Brown, Ray Charles, and many random songs that made their way down there. Later people went overseas and brought back albums of what was happening like the Beatles, Cream, Zeppelin, Otis Redding, Howlin’ Wolf. Bands did not tour SA because of the political situation and because it was at the other end of the earth so we had to rely on records. There was no TV, video, internet, etc. I thought that people were playing harder than they were because the sound was so powerful on records, so that contributed to my heavier style. I was really surprised to subsequently find that Ginger Baker played quite lightly. Eventually, I started getting interested in Jazz as Jazz and Rock began intersecting. Bitches Brew – though incomprehensible at the time for me was a portal to go through. I figured Jazz would make me a better Rock drummer!
You famously were the ghost drummer on the KISS albums, Dynasty and Unmasked. What was that experience like? Did Paul and Gene ever entertain the idea of you joining the band officially?
I knew very little about KISS then. To me, they were a band that I saw advertised on the side of a bus in NYC. I had been so into Jazz at that period of my life that I was not following a lot on the Rock side. Through a mutual friend I was connected with Ace and I did his record. The record came out great and I was asked to do Dynasty. At the time Peter had broken his arm and they needed to get the record out on schedule. I was not star-struck but I knew it was a big-time Rock band so that was exciting, and I was confident enough in my playing to just play the songs as I heard them. They never asked me to play like Peter and pretty much let me do whatever I wanted to do. After both albums, Ace did ask me if I wanted to join. I had a band called Spider that had a song in the top forty and wanted to pursue that. So I agonized for a bit but knew I could not do it. Later Gene and Paul said they thought that Ace and I might be too much of a team and so not an ideal situation for them.
You’ve also been a long-time collaborator with Ace Frehley and are an original member of Frehley’s Comet. What’s it been like working with Ace over the years? Will we see you work with him again?
It’s always great working with Ace and we have made some great records together. There was a period of time when I saw him and worked with him a lot. When I got to the Letterman show it precluded me from going on tour for long stretches, so after a bunch of albums, we haven’t seen each other as much. However, very recently we emailed and decided to do some new recordings in the near future.
In addition to your session work, you were the long-time drummer for the house band on David Letterman’s various late-night shows. How did that come to be?
I played on Joan Armatrading’s album Me Myself I back in the early eighties. Paul, Will, and Hiram were all on that record. Then much later I did Paul Butterfield’s final album and Paul was on that. I used to see him around town and ask him if I could sub when Steve Jordan could not do it. Paul and Will eventually showed up at a gig I was doing with Robert Gordon and I think they were checking me out. Paul finally asked me to sub on the show for a couple of weeks and very soon after that Steve left the show. Paul called and said he really liked the way I had subbed and that the gig was mine if I wanted it. I accepted readily and worked for 29 years until the show ended.
In 2002 we saw you release your first solo album, Figments. Great album. Will we see any more solo work from you anytime soon?
Maybe. The hardest part in all of it is getting the material together. Also, when you do your own record it all stops unless you work on it. There is no band or producer to do stuff while you take a break. My record was a lot of work but I loved doing it and still stand by it. It’s a record I am really proud of!
I recently got to compose for a short film and I have ideas and am slowly compiling stuff, but have not formally decided to do another album as yet.
What’s it been like as a freelance musician? Do you prefer it to being in a band?
The thing about freelance and even being on the Letterman show (which was a band), is that you are constantly playing a variety of styles and music. I find that very energizing because I like all kinds of music. In a band, it’s a whole different discipline as you are basically playing in one vein all the time. On the show, things were constantly changing and you had to be on guard because cues could come out of nowhere. Playing long live sets with Joe Bonamassa you get to feel the whole arc of the set, how it ebbs and flows, and you get deep inside the music, trying to make all the transitions and pieces smooth, and flow into one another. They are different ways of playing and both have their own unique advantages.
Do you collect vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?
I have a bunch of records from the old days. A lot of my records were stolen but I still have some original albums from the 60s which I have been recently listening to. Also a lot of Jazz records from back then. Lately, though, I have been streaming. It’s just amazing that you can access any song at any time. But I do miss the album covers and liner notes, and having a record on one side and then turning it over. Sometimes, I used to just get to know half the record for a while before tackling the flipside. 20 min per side seems like a plenty good statement. I’m just amazed how much crackle and pops come with the turntable. Never used to notice it so much back then.
I know in the past you were famous for using Tama drums. Are you still playing a Tama kit? What’s your set look like these days?
I bought a Tama kit in the early days of Spider but most of the time when I was doing sessions in NY I did not have drums, just used kits in the studio. When I got to the Letterman show I was renting a Yamaha kit. That led to me getting sponsorship and I have used them ever since. I am not a drum collector but I do have a few sets I have amassed over the years including a Mod Orange Ludwig kit in ‘66 that came over on the boat to South Africa, and I eventually got it shipped back to NY. The Tama kit was impounded when our manager did not pay his storage bills and I never saw it again. I am using my Yamaha Phoenix kit on the road with Joe B that I had on Letterman for a while. It’s a fantastic kit and I could not bear to let it sit in storage. I like to use the drums I have.
What are some albums that mean the most to you?
In no particular order, these are records that have been special to me over time.
There are many more……
Pet Sounds — The Beach Boys
Empty Glass — Pete Townshend
Bitches Brew — Miles Davis
Live Evil — Miles Davis
Infinite Search — Miroslav Vitous
The Real McCoy — McCoy Tyner
All James Brown
All Ray Charles
Electric Ladyland & Axis Bold As Love — Jimi Hendrix
John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton
Disraeli Gears — Cream
Figments — Anton Fig
Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor
Led Zeppelin I
Last question. Has today’s musical landscape changed for better or worse? What advice do you have for young musicians trying to get their start?
Recordings and writing don’t have the same reach that they used to. In the past, you needed the record company to pay for the studio. Nowadays, anyone can make a record, but getting it out there is a challenge. In the past the album was the ‘thing’, now a lot of the income comes from live and merch. Also, I think that music was the ‘voice’ (instrumental or vocal) that people listened to and it is maybe less so now (Rap excluded), because there are many more avenues for expression. That being said, there is creative music being made, and the new guys are phenomenal.
It’s all so different from when I broke in that I would not know what to say to someone starting out. I guess follow your passion and see where it leads, and take a leak before you go onstage.
Interested in checking out some sweet Anton Fig drum fills? Check out the link below:
Be sure to check out the full archives of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vwmusicrocks.com/interview