On a tour stop in the bay area Anton Fig of Late Show With David Letterman fame talks about life in the band and his new CD.
By BILLY NORRIS
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 2, 2002
Bands on television talk shows usually don't share the spotlight with the show's host or guests. Individual members of the band usually share even less.
Things are a little different on the Late Show With David Letterman. From guessing expiration dates on refrigerated foods to showcasing his debut solo album, drummer Anton Fig has been part of the action.
On his days off from the show, Fig tours the country to promote his CD, Figments. His tour brought him to Tampa, where we talked and jammed together at Mars Music in Tampa.
Fig's labor of love took 31/2 years. If you are expecting a CD full of drumming, you will be surprised to find an extremely diverse range of musical styles, incorporating dozens of illustrious musicians.
"My approach to music has always been that all different styles relate to each other, and you don't have to play one kind of music," Fig said. "Professionally, on the Letterman show, that's what I do all the time. So, it seemed natural to me to kind of have a record that reflected that. It's kind of hard because most records are made in one style, but I just felt like why limit yourself to just one genre? I wrote the songs with lots of different people and the songs came out in all different styles and different ways."
Fig's South African heritage shines through in a few tracks with members of one of his regular gigs, The South African All-Stars. His CBS Orchestra bandmates are also present -- Will Lee, Paul Shaffer, Felicia Collins and Sid McGinnis. Add to this cast Ace Frehley of KISS, The Neville Brothers' Ivan Neville and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, and you have a lot of musical expertise.
"I try to make certain musical connections," Fig said. "For example, Blondie Chaplin, who's now singing on the Rolling Stones tour, sang Sail on Sailor with the Beach Boys, so on his song I got Brian Wilson to do the background vocals because it seemed like there was a great connection there."
Fig's first-class drumming connects to make Figments a masterpiece.
He grew up with music in his family. His father played trumpet and his mother played piano, but he was always drawn to the drums. At 4 he began to play, starting a lifelong passion -- he always jumped at the chance to observe or listen to other drummers.
In his late teens, he moved to the States in the hope of playing in successful bands. After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, where he studied under percussion legend Vic Firth, he moved to New York to try to establish himself as a professional.
He began to make a name for himself in the New York City jazz community, but his interests were leaning toward rock. Fig had played with Letterman bandleader Shaffer and bassist Lee on a few records, so when they needed a sub for the show one night, Fig got the call. Within weeks, he had landed himself a permanent spot in the band, where he has been for 15 years.
Among many noteworthy experiences on the Late Show, Fig said, one stands out: playing drums with his idol, Miles Davis.
"The time I had the opportunity to play with Miles Davis was incredible for me because I consider him one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. I got there that night, and they actually had a drum machine on a velvet table -- you know it was like the esteemed drum machine (laughs). They had me play with the drum machine, then they put it away, and then they had me play with sticks, then brushes, and by then I thought 'okay, I'm down to virtually nothing, I'm gone.' But, I ended up sticking with the brushes, and it was quite a memorable experience being that close to such a musical genius."
To be prepared for Letterman's spontaneity, the CBS Orchestra has a play list of almost 300 songs. Talk about making connections: When a guest walks onstage, the band tries to make each song that's played relevant to the guest.
"For example, when you walked onstage we played You're Still a Young Man by Tower of Power," Fig said, in reference to my appearance in April to talk about my job as a teen film critic for the St. Petersburg Times.
Sometimes even 300 songs is not enough. Each member of the band wears an earpiece so Shaffer can communicate with them.
"Say there was a guest who said something that suggested a song that we'd never played before, Paul would say something like, 'Okay, we're going to play this song -- it's got this drum fill, this bass line, these are the chords,' and he'll just talk us through it. We'll just kind of launch into a song we've never played before."
At the end of our conversation, I had the opportunity to jam with Fig. I plugged my Fender jazz bass into an amplifier and the awesome South African drummer, in his trademark black beret, sat down behind the drum kit.
Off the top of my head I chose Run for Cover by Marcus Miller -- a funky jazz tune. He told me to count it off, so I fed him the tempo with a few quick finger snaps and we were off! The beat was driving and pumping, and for the next 5 minutes I was flying high and having an absolute ball.
It started to sink in later: I just laid down a groove with a musical heavyweight and a genuine nice guy.
-- Billy Norris, 14, is in the ninth grade at Seminole High School and a former member of the Times X-Team.