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Rocking with Anton Fig
By Manuel Pila
Contributing Writer

[first published in South Florida Entertainment News & Views, September 2002]

An Anton Fig reality check goes something like this:
“I remember a long time ago I played on Mick Jagger’s solo record, and we were all in the room at the same time recording,” Fig recalls. “Jagger was singing, Nile Rogers was playing guitar, Bernard Edwards was playing bass, and I was playing with them, and I’m looking around the room going like, I can’t believe that I’m playing with these guys. The same thing happened when I played with Miles Davis on the Letterman show. You know, I can’t believe that I’m playing with Miles Davis!”

South African-born drummer Anton Fig has had more pinch-me moments than most mortals experience in a lifetime. During his 17-year stint providing the backbeat for the World’s Most Dangerous Band and its stellar guests on Late Night with David Letterman and as the time-keeper of choice for such high-profile gigs as the post-9/11 Concert for New York City, the Atlanta Olympics closing ceremonies and the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert, Fig has played with practically every major figure in contemporary popular music: Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Al Green, B.B. King, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett, Little Richard and James Brown. And that’s the short list.

“It’s the greatest day job in the world, really,” Fig admits. Now Anton Fig has added another meaningful accomplishment to his resume. After more than 25 years of backing up heavyweights, Fig has taken all of the experiences of an extraordinary career and applied them to his own labor of love. Figments, an eclectic 13-song album of original songs written or co-written by Fig, boasts a supporting cast that includes Brian Wilson, Ivan Neville, Randy Brecker, Richie Havens, Blondie Chaplin, Al Kooper, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Late Night cohorts Paul Shaffer and Will Lee. The result is a hybrid of Fig’s South African roots, his classical training, and his real-world influences culled from decades of working with the top musical talents in pop, rock, R&B, jazz and country. It’s a testament to Fig’s artistry that the genre-defying Figments works so well as a cohesive collection of songs. And needless to say, the drums sound great.

“I worked on it for three-plus years, trying to get it done in between my Letterman gig and all the other stuff I was doing. I got the equipment and did most of it at home. I got a lot of my friends to play on it, and I ended up with a big collection of songs with incredible guests,” says Fig, who recently made a promotional appearance at MARS Music in Fort Lauderdale in support of his new release. “I really like the songs on this record, the twists and turns they take. It took me a long time, but it is very rewarding to get it out.”

Figments draws from Fig’s South African heritage, with Graceland guitarist Vincent Nguini, bassist Bakithi Kumalo and vocalist Tony Cedras adding the flavor of the townships to many songs, such as the raucous carnival piece “Jan/Feb/Mar”. On the intriguing Fig composition “3:4 Folk,” Indian vocalist Amit Chaterjee duets with African singer Richard Bona to create a haunting meeting point between both worlds. Such stellar cross-cultural adventures offer a glimpse of Fig’s scope as a composer, a talent that has only been hinted at in his long and storied drumming career.

“The record is varied in style,” Fig says. “I got into each song as it came up and tried to make it as good as I could. Sometimes you buy a record, and the first few songs are really good, and then the rest of the songs are just like another version of those first few good songs. I wanted this record to be like a book, where every chapter is a new part of the story.”

One fascinating chapter focuses on the involvement of Brian Wilson, who provided vocal harmonies on “Hand On My Shoulder.” Fig, who lists the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as one of his all-time favorite albums, still seems awed at the sparkling four-part harmonies Wilson recorded on his composition.
“I just can’t believe that I actually got Brian Wilson on a song! He came in, there wasn’t too much social chit chat, he just got to work right away. I had some specific ideas of what I wanted him to sing, and he did those for me. Then for the choruses going out, he said, ‘Just sing for me the top line of the harmony that you want.’ So I sang that for him, which he triple-tracked. Then he said, ‘Would you like four-part harmony or five-part harmony?’ I didn’t want to be greedy, so I said four-part harmony. Once he had the top line, he built the other harmonies down from there. I think his part was done in like two hours. Of course, I went out and thanked him profusely afterwards.”

Fig’s approach to global fusion comes from a deep-rooted belief that music defies the arbitrary boundaries imposed by the music industry. It’s all about the groove.

“My job on Letterman is to play with different people all the time, and I believe that all music is related,” Fig says. “I don’t think that you have to be a purist and say only this music is good or only that music is good. It’s all the same thing. I just go for the groove.”

Fig’s ability to go for the groove has placed him in many remarkable situations, providing too many highlights to mention. But a couple of gigs stand out in his mind. “There’s been so many times! It happened during the Concert for 9/11 at Madison Square Garden when I played with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards together. I couldn’t believe it. When I played at the Dylan 30th Anniversary celebration, we backed up everybody. I’ve played with Bruce Springsteen and James Brown, and you can’t believe what’s coming out of them, because it sounds just like them. As a drummer, you just follow their body language and you can’t go wrong, because they are conducting with everything that they’re doing. I’ve been very lucky, it’s happened to me a bunch of times.”

But the moment of truth that keeps coming back to him as the ultimate highlight is playing with Miles Davis live and unrehearsed before a TV audience of millions. "I asked him what he wanted me to play,” Fig recalls. “And he sang some guttural thing, like, ruff ruff. And this was his musical direction. But I sort of got a vibe about what he wanted. And I did the performance with Marcus Miller, Sanborn, Miles, and Will Lee and Paul Shaffer. Then in the dressing room he was talking to me, and he said, ‘Well, you’ve got a good feel for those drums.’ To me, Miles Davis telling me that I had a good feel…”

Fig tapers off. “I carry that phrase with me all the time. If I’m in a session and I’m having a tough time, I can say, well, it’s not working, but when I played for Miles, it was good enough for him. It was an incredible boost of confidence for me to carry for the rest of my life.” Despite his amazement at his own good fortune, Fig puts such moments into perspective by focusing on the music.

“I say to myself, I’ve worked all my life to do something like this. Now’s not the time to feel the pressure. Now is the time to play. I try to just relate to them completely on the musical level and not think about anything else. I just react to the music and try to play in a way that will be true to the style of music that they are doing, and at the same time put my own individual voice into it. So when you play with these guys, you just focus on the music, and then afterwards you can go, ‘Wow, that was great.’”

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