Q&A with legendary drummer Anton Fig, considered one of the most successful and prolific session musicians

"Western music is one of the few music’s that have been used for secular purposes. In most cultures it is religious. So, I think it’s important that it not only reflects the times but appeals to the human condition. That it offers hope and upliftment to the human spirit. It can be instrumental (for example Coltrane's music was deeply spiritual and uplifting), or with words. Music can be bleak and depressing, which also portrays a state of mind and lays it bare in the open. Music can also be a fantasy and take you to an unreal world that gets you out of your day to day."

Anton Fig: The Thunder from Down Under

Born in Cape Town, South Africa and currently residing in NYC, Anton Fig started drumming very young and progressed to a degree at the New England Conservatory in Boston. After moving to NYC he became part of the session scene. He recorded with Ace Frehley, Link Wray, Kiss, Cyndi Lauper, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Joan Armatrading, Paul Butterfield, Mick Jagger and many more. Anton formed the acclaimed band Spider, who originated the hit Better Be Good To Me – later covered to great success by Tina Turner. In 1986 he joined the Late Show with David Letterman – a position he held for 29 years until the show ended. During that run he played with the worlds’ greatest musicians including Miles Davis, James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Tony Bennet, Steve Winwood, Pete Townshend to name just a few.                      (Anton Fig / Photo © by Michael Weintrob)

During this time he composed and produced his solo album Figments, which has guests performances by Brian Wilson, Richie Havens, Ivan Neville, Blondie Chaplin, Chip Taylor among many others. Anton recorded an instruction video for Hudson Music – In the Groove Late/Night Drumming – and was voted #1 Best Rock Drummer in Modern Drummer’s Readers Poll 2010. He also played many memorable live concerts including Live Aid, The Concert for New York City (after 9/11), Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert, and countless Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards shows. Since Letterman Anton has been recording and touring with guitar star Joe Bonamassa, as well as playing on numerous albums and live projects.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Rock n' Roll Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Every generation has a different set of signposts that separates them from before. I don’t think mine is unique in that way, just different. In my youth, music was rebellion and reflected a life out of the mainstream.  And it set me off on a journey. I travelled to America because I wanted to hear the musicians over here firsthand, and I wanted to try and play with them. I had no idea what might happen to my life. But music has always just been about music to me and not the trappings of the world it represents. My main motivation was always the music as opposed to the lifestyle (I’m talking about rockstar trappings).

A lot of the music I listened to growing up were the British Invasion records, and that led me back to the Blues and where it all came from. Not just the music but the times and the plight of America, and also South Africa where I grew up. The Blues has a rich legacy of human suffering, incredible music and joy.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What do you think is key to a music life well lived?

I’ve always felt that the groove is the most important thing. So that has to be in place - and how you achieve that and then spice that up makes your individual style. Without the groove it means nothing, but after that there are so many different ways to embellish and do things to it. Lots of different approaches work, but it’s dictated by the music itself.

I really like to converse with people musically. I find it more interesting to play within musical conversations. And to give and take. This probably applies more to improvised music.

Some music requires the ‘spoke in the wheel’ approach where everyone contributes their part, and no part is more or less important than the other.

Other requires the ‘play’ approach, where you have your lines from the play and try and play them perfectly every night.

Ideally, I like to have some room for improvisation so that if something happens in the spur of the moment I can react to it.

I feel like I am always learning and trying to improve - so I think a key to a musical life well lived is to always feel like you are growing, improving and moving forward.

"There was a time when music seemed to be forging ahead and moving into new places. I’m talking about the progression of jazz and rock separately and then when they merged. Then it started to eat it’s own tail. I was able to recognize where it all came from. Perhaps it was a product of youth and being less experienced that it seemed more magical to me decades ago." (Anton Fig / Photo © by Michael Weintrob)

What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

It’s an accumulation of events. I don’t think one gig is going to make or break you either way - you have to do lots and build up a body of work overtime.

I was very lucky that during my time on Letterman I got to play with many incredible people. Just playing with some of these greats and watching them perform taught me a lot. Like playing with James Brown - you just had to watch him while you were playing - it was like his whole body was conducting the music. Or Stevie Wonder - I had his keyboard loud in my mix and it was like playing to a human rhythm machine. Just oozing time and perfect.

I am a huge Miles Davis fan and got to play with him on Letterman. It was a thrilling experience and afterwards I spoke to him, and he said ‘You got a good feel for them drums’. Coming from him was such a confidence booster. So, when there is a time when I am struggling musically I go back to that. If Miles heard that in me then it’s good enough for me.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

There was a time when music seemed to be forging ahead and moving into new places. I’m talking about the progression of jazz and rock separately and then when they merged. Then it started to eat it’s own tail. I was able to recognize where it all came from. Perhaps it was a product of youth and being less experienced that it seemed more magical to me decades ago.

But lately there seems to be a new influx of music that is exciting. The level of musicianship is off the charts right now and the musical language is different, which is great because it’s not just a rehash of old ideas but a new interpretation   .

That being said, it is with the acknowledgement that nothing comes out of a vacuum and is always related to something that comes before it. Some of the drummers I have been listening to now are just speaking a totally different language from what I grew up with. It’s astounding how the instrument is evolving. So, my fears are when I can identify something that has been done before too often, and my hopes are that it will continue to develop. As it is when the machines that came into drumming first replaced the drummers and then made the drummers take what they do and move them into a different direction. For example, live drum and bass music, and also the fact that peoples’ idea of time is just so much more accurate now after being accustomed to the machines. But when you think about it, a machine is perfect and sometimes can feel ‘dead’, whereas the live drummer can make it feel really good while still maintaining a very steady pulse. That difference is in the inaccuracy of the human playing. So, the human imperfection is actually a good thing.

"I’ve always felt that the groove is the most important thing. So that has to be in place - and how you achieve that and then spice that up makes your individual style. Without the groove it means nothing, but after that there are so many different ways to embellish and do things to it. Lots of different approaches work, but it’s dictated by the music itself." (Photos: South Africa born and NYC-based successful and prolific drummer Anton Fig with the late greats Earl Palmer & Charlie Watts)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

There was a time in the 60’s when music was the voice of the people. It was the message, and reflected the zeitgeist of the generation. At some point, (perhaps when music became more of a free commodity), it started to recede into the background. There were so many other sources people were getting their information and leadership from. The one exception was Rap which continued to express the voice of a generation. The songs really reflected a culture both as a snapshot and as a hope for things to come.

Western music is one of the few music’s that have been used for secular purposes. In most cultures it is religious. So, I think it’s important that it not only reflects the times but appeals to the human condition. That it offers hope and upliftment to the human spirit. It can be instrumental (for example Coltrane's music was deeply spiritual and uplifting), or with words. Music can be bleak and depressing, which also portrays a state of mind and lays it bare in the open. Music can also be a fantasy and take you to an unreal world that gets you out of your day to day.

For me I like it when it’s truthful and connects. However, what is truthful to one person does not apply to another, so what might be banal to me might be deeply touching to someone else - and vice versa.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

That there is no such thing as the best. Music is not an athletic competition - though technical ability on the instrument is often treated that way. Ideally technique is a way of expressing what you have to say so that it can immediately flow through you without anything getting in the way.

The best people seemed to create their own language and sound on the instrument.

Ultimately there is only one of you - so if you play yourself, you cannot be wrong.

Still, we tend to compare ourselves to others and it can be daunting when we see someone who is really evolved spiritually and technically.

I guess the lesson is the acceptance of self and trying to be the best you can be. 

Of course, it’s always good to learn and be pushed by things you can’t do - so it’s a fine line between motivation for improvement and self-destruction.

Anton Fig - Home

(Anton Fig / Photo © by Michael Weintrob)

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