Anton Fig is a man that needs no introduction. As long time sticksman of the “CBS Orchestra” appearing nightly on ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ he has played with scores of great artists including Miles Davis, James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Winwood, Bonnie Raitt and Tony Bennett. In this Interview Anton talks about his early days of drumming and the evolution of his career:
What inspired you to start playing the drums?
I don’t think I ever just decided to play – I always found myself playing. I was always drawn to the sound of the drums and felt like the drums chose me as opposed to me choosing the drums. When I was three or four I was playing lots of pots and pans around the house and some friends of my parents brought me a toy set when I was five – that was a result of me having a pretty keen interest in the drums.
What were your main goals as a kid learning his craft?
When I started out, I loved to play, so that’s all I wanted to do. When I was a teenager I just wanted to get as good as I could become. Then, when I was eighteen I wanted to travel to see and hear the drummers overseas. We were sort of cut off in South Africa from the rest of the world at that time because of the apartheid era. My parents said that I could go overseas as long as I got a degree so I went to the New England Conservatory of Music and did a degree. I would say by then I was pretty serious about what I wanted to do as a career and I just wanted to be the best musician I could be.
How did you approach your own development?
When I was young I just played, I didn’t really think much about it at all. I heard drummers who could play much more than I could technically and tried to emulate them. In South Africa we didn’t really see other drummers play – we could only hear them on records. We sort of had to find our own way. I used to go to local teachers and ask “how do you hold the sticks?” and “what are the rudiments?” It’s not like it is today where you can buy DVD’s and get instruction from the best people or call someone up – I don’t think the video machine was even invented back then! We had to pretty much find our own way.
When I came to America I studied classical percussion under Vic Firth. I took a few lessons one summer with Alan Dawson and some lessons with different people but I never really had a drumset teacher that I studied with for three or four years that had a whole system of teaching. A teacher can really give you short cuts and systems to develop yourself – I never really had that so I feel like I’m lacking some of the basics and the building blocks that some of the other guys have. As a result I’m still kind of feeling a deficiency, technically speaking – especially when I hear what’s going on today! On the plus side though I was able to develop in my own way – we had to find out on our own and I kind of developed my own version of what I was hearing.
Once I finished school I moved down to New York – school had been really good, I did a classical degree and a jazz degree simultaneously so I got to play in orchestra and big band, small jazz combos and lots of different groups. Growing up in South Africa I was more of a rock drummer but studying enabled me to immerse myself in classical music and jazz music for five to six years. When I came to New York it was an exciting time – there was that whole kind of mixture between rock and jazz – that really appealed to me and I kind of came at it from a rock point of view trying to play a bit of jazz. I was inspired by the likes of Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker who took rock drumming and stretched it a little and then I listened to the jazz greats Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Jack Dejohnette and of course all of Miles Davis.
Do you still set goals for yourself today?
Basically I want to become a better player. I was always interested in the drums just for the drums sake. That’s why I got into music because I just loved the drums. I’m always trying to become a better musician whether that means playing more notes or less notes and I’d like to think if I approach the same song a year from now I’m going to play it better a year from now.
What was the turning point in your career?
There were a few. The first one was when I played on Ace Frehley’s (KISS guitarist) solo album. That got a lot of attention for me and I subsequently did a lot of big rock albums. The second big break for me was when Paul Shaffer asked me to do the Letterman show. I’m happy to say things have been good for a long time for me now.
What was the toughest point in your career?
There hasn’t really been anything tough. I guess when I got The Letterman Show I was nervous about losing the gig – that could be viewed as a tough point. I thought “Why me, why do I have this job when there are so many fantastic drummers out there?” I had to do a lot of shows before I looked around and realized I’m still here. I must be doing a good job because If I wasn’t they would have gotten rid of me a long time ago. It was a self-imposed pressure and you know I just didn’t see myself in the right light. When I realized that I was still there and doing a great job everything kind of eased off.
How do you prepare mentally for a big performance?
Usually what I do is walk – I’ll pace around and try to get into my own shell. I try to centre myself and quiet my thoughts. Sometimes you think about how big the gig is and that can be a little unnerving so I try and just calm myself so when I walk on stage I’ve got a little bit of insulation around myself.
How do you stay motivated and inspired?
You’ve just got to look around you and see the fabulous talent of musicians that are around and how good they are. Not that music is a sport but the technicality has gone to an amazing level. When you consider the incredible technique of some guys 30 years ago there are people that can do that and a lot more now, just like sports technical boundaries will advance. However music is not a sport and you can play something without using ‘technique’ at all by applying musical knowledge and experience – you can make a strong statement by playing two quarter notes as opposed to a million 32nd notes. It’s sort of a balance between knowing what to play and when to play and at the same time trying to develop your expertise on your instrument. It’s impossible to become complacent because there are always other people pushing you. I have so much still to learn on the drums and in music so it’s not really hard to stay motivated.
Have you picked up any tools over the years that have really helped you perform better?
I think relaxation is the key. If you are relaxed you can do anything. I think it helps to do some physical ex- ercise – I’m not a physical nut or anything like that but I go for a swim and have a steam or something like that. When I do that I feel much better and I’m ready to handle the job at hand. The Letterman Show has become pretty much second nature to me after 4,000 shows, and it doesn’t require that much preparation each day, but if I find myself in a pressure situation – on or off the show – I’ll try to have a swim and a steam that morning.
Then there’s breathing. A lot of the nerves come when you don’t breathe right – that kind of gets the mind going in the wrong direction, so anything like breathing and relaxing definitely help.
What do you think makes a great musician?
Listening – I think listening to other musicians. There are two kinds of playing, solo and ensemble. I’ve always been more interested in ensemble playing. Ensemble playing can mean getting inside the music where it’s a good thing that you are not noticed. It can also mean having a lively conversation, so that you are all talking very animatedly but not neces- sarily shouting at each other. That’s the kind of playing that I really like. I really admire great soloing and that is a whole different art but the part that I’m more interested in is conversing with other people while you are playing.
Do you have any good advice for young musicians who are trying to make it?
Take a leak before you go on stage!
Interview taken from The Psychology Of Drumming.
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