Review Date: September 13, 2015
Having spent the last 29 years as the house drummer on Late Night With David Letterman and its successor The Late Show With David Letterman, and even longer as one of New York’s most in-demand session drummers, Anton Fig is one of America’s most widely-heard musicians. The veteran player unveils an entirely new set of musical skills on Figments, his first-ever album under his own name.
In addition to tapping new dimensions of his percussive abilities, Figments showcases Anton Fig’s talents as a songwriter and producer, with 13 adventurous self-penned tunes that reveal his considerable melodic gifts and distinctive rhythmic sensibility. He’s joined by an impressive cast of musicians and vocalists that demonstrates the breadth of Fig’s musical vision as well as the esteem in which he’s held by his peers.
Figments’ stellar cast includes Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson, whose heavenly multi-tracked harmonies are featured on the hauntingly bittersweet “Hand on My Shoulder,” which also features a persuasive lead vocal by former Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin; Ivan Neville, who adds his soulful vocals and keyboards on the funky “Inside Out”; the late Richie Havens, whose one-of-a-kind voice drives the heartfelt “More Than Friends”; and KISS guitar hero Ace Frehley, longtime Frehley cohort Richie Scarlet and Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach, who lend their presence to the epic, soaring “Know Where You Go.”
Also on board are such notable figures as keyboard legend Al Kooper, Booker T and the MGs bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, English guitar icon Chris Spedding, veteran singer-songwriter Chip Taylor, acclaimed R&B vocalist Catherine Russell, noted jazz guitarist Oz Noy, renowned bassists Richard Bona, Tony Garnier and Bakhiti Kumalo, distinguished horn men Chris Botti, Randy Brecker, Ronnie Cuber and Lew Soloff, Fig’s longstanding Letterman bandmates Paul Shaffer, Felicia Collins, Will Lee and Sid McGinniss, and former late-night rival Jimmy Vivino on guitar.
Figments’ material was drawn from a healthy backlog of songs that Fig had written or co-written over the years. “At a certain point, I looked back and realized that I had accumulated all these songs,” he explains. “So I decided that it was time to realize them by matching each song with the right musicians and singers, with my drumming and production as the through-line.”
Originally issued in a limited-edition pressing in 2002, Figments came to life through a homespun birth cycle that was appropriate to the project’s personal nature, with most of the recording done in Fig’s digital home studio.
“About 80 per cent of the record,” he says, “was done in my apartment in Manhattan. People just came over and sang and played. It was beautiful to have Richie Havens singing in the bedroom. The danger of working that way is that it’s easy to fix everything and take the life out of the performances, so I worked hard to keep it sounding spontaneous and organic. I was interested in making it sound good, not making it sound perfect.”
For Anton, one of the project’s highlights was a field trip to California to record Brian Wilson’s vocals. “That was just incredible,” he says of the experience. “Brian asked me to sing the top line or him, and then he asked, ‘Do you want four-part harmony or five-part harmony?’ I didn’t want to be greedy, so I said four. He brought a whole wall of harmony from the top down, and gave the vocals that little twist so that it sounds just like him. He did this all in a very short time; the harmonies were there in his head, and he just laid them down.” An additional audio memento of Fig’s collaboration with Wilson is the additional section of his unaccompanied harmonies that’s included as an unlisted bonus at the end of the album.
In many ways, Figments is a summation of the myriad musical experiences that Anton Fig has amassed during his long and colorful career. Growing up in a musically inclined family in his native South Africa, he began drumming at the age of four. Early in life, he became acutely aware of the injustice of his homeland’s apartheid system of racial segregation.
“As a white person growing up in South Africa, you knew that something was very wrong,” he recalls. “The country felt very isolated, and the government purposefully cut people off because they didn’t want people to see how the rest of the world was living. So there was no television. But people would go overseas and bring back records, and we’d pick up the BBC on shortwave radio, so things would get through and give you a glimpse of what it was like in other places.
“Another thing was that it was illegal in South Africa for blacks and whites to play music together in public,” he adds. “But when I was very young, my parents would have lots of parties and have tons of musicians of color come and play, and they’d wake me up and I’d come down in my pajamas and I’d get to sit in with them.”
His early experiences inspired Anton to look to America as a beacon of musical freedom, and he jumped at the opportunity to attend the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music. After graduating with honors, he headed for New York, where he soon became one of the city’s busiest drummers, achieving some early notoriety playing with urban troubadour Garland Jeffreys and guitar pioneer Link Wray. He also recorded two albums and toured widely as a member (and frequent songwriter) of the early-’80s new-wave band Spider, which also launched the career of hit tunesmith Holly Knight, and which was managed by legendary KISS impresario Bill Aucoin.
His work with Spider led to Anton drumming on Ace Frehley’s first solo release and on KISS’ albums Dynasty and Unmasked, as well as serving a subsequent three-year stint as a member of Frehley’s post-KISS combo Frehley’s Comet. Over the next few years, he racked up an impressive session resume, playing on albums by the likes of Joan Armatrading, Rosanne Cash, Joe Cocker, Rodney Crowell, Bob Dylan, Robert Gordon, Mick Jagger, Cyndi Lauper and Ronnie Spector.
In 1986, Anton accepted an offer to join Late Night With David Letterman’s house band, a gig that would last for nearly three decades and approximately 5,400 shows, continuing when Letterman moved from NBC to CBS with The Late Show With David Letterman. In addition to being seen nightly by millions of viewers (and occasionally acting in comic sketches), the show also gave him the opportunity to back a wide array of musical icons, while allowing him time to continue his studio career.
During his Letterman years, Fig recorded and/or performed live with such legends as Tony Bennett, Booker T and the MGs, James Brown, Eric Clapton, Ray Davies, Miles Davis, Marianne Faithfull, Al Green, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Madonna, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Satriani, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Winwood, Stevie Wonder and Warren Zevon. He played in the house band for Bob Dylan’s historic 30th Anniversary concert celebration, and joined with his Letterman cohorts in the house band for multiple Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremonies, as well as the landmark Concert for New York City benefit. He also published In the Groove, his own instructional drum video/book set.
The diverse strands of Anton Fig’s stellar musical adventures come together memorably on Figments, whose reemergence in 2015 coincides with Letterman’s retirement and the swan song The Late Show, and the drummer’s return to touring for the first time in decades, playing with blues guitar phenom Joe Bonamassa, with whom he’s been recording since 2007.
“It’s gonna be different going out there again,” Anton says of his return to the road, adding, “David Garibaldi, the drummer from Tower of Power, recently told me, ‘Everything you’ve done in your life is just to prepare you for what you’re about to do next.’ So that’s how I’m approaching it. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m looking at it as an exciting adventure.”