Born in Capetown, South Africa, Anton Fig moved to Boston at age 18 to enroll in the Boston Conservatory. While there, he began playing with local bands in various genres, including orchestral, big band, jazz, chamber, everything but rock ‘n’ roll. He was in the band that performed at the Smithsonian Institute in a concert in memory of Duke Ellington. After leaving school, Anton worked with such artists as Pat Martino, Robert Gordon and Link Wray, and the group Topaz. After moving to New York City, Anton joined with two friends from South Africa, and they formed a group called Siren. During this time, Anton did the drumming on the solo album by Kiss member Ace Frehley. Siren eventually changed its name to Spider, and they recorded two albums for Dreamland records. Recently, the group signed with Chrysalis records, changed their name to Shanghai, and released an album.
WM: What led you to become interested in drumming?
AF: I never really decided to play drums. I just found myself beating on tin waste-paper baskets at an early age. It was never a conscious decision to play drums.
WM: What was the music scene like in South Africa?
AF: Well, at the time I was living there you got quite a bit of rock music. British groups like Cream, Hendrix and the Who were pretty big, and there was quite a bit of jazz, but not as much as in the U.S. And also African music. It was a mixture, with classical music as well. But mainly British rock and some American rock.
WM: What type of African influences do you think you picked up while living there?
AF: I don’t know if they were conscious. It was mostly from the radio and coming in contact with black people from the area. There’s a terrible political situation there. I don’t want to get too much into that. I used to play and jam with black people at my house because that was the only place I was allowed. We weren’t allowed to do it publicly, except if we slipped into a club, because the politics are messed up. So I did get a chance to play with the people down there, but I really don’t know how it affected me. It was just that I grew up with it around me.
WM: Were black people allowed to play in the clubs there?
AF: Yeah. They had black clubs and white clubs. They wouldn’t allow the bands or the audience to be integrated. On some occasions a black band would be allowed to play in a white club. Our band went into a black club to play and we were the only white band to play the club. We had to get permits from the government. I haven’t been in South Africa for ten years now. I think the situation has probably gotten worse.
WM: Are you interested in different kinds of fusion music?
AF: I like Weather Report. I don’t think they’re that much fusion anymore. They seem to be going in a much more jazzy direction lately. I’ve always loved Miles Davis. He’s been my hero for years. When the jazz/rock groups first came out I really liked the early things by Chick Corea. Then all of the bands started playing that style and I really only stuck with Weather Report. I don’t seek out that kind of music now.
WM: Did you have formal instruction?
AF: I went to the New England Conservatory in Boston for four years and got a degree in percussion. I studied under Vic Firth, timpanist for the Boston Symphony. I was studying timpani, mallets—the whole range of classical instrumentation.
WM: So the bands you were listening to while you were developing musically were bands like Cream and Hendrix?
AF: Well, also my dad listened to jazz. He had a lot of Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson records that I’d listen to. I heard a lot of that kind of stuff. When I was a teenager I was totally into rock music. Then when I came to America I started listening to jazz again, which I studied and tried to play for about five years, all around Boston. At the end of this time I started playing with Pat Martino. I also played one concert at Carnegie Hall with Tony Williams. I used to play with George Russell in Boston and he wanted me to rehearse with his big band because Tony Williams couldn’t make it to rehearsal. After the rehearsal he said, “I’d like you both to play.” It sounded totally nuts to me because Tony Williams is the greatest. He is my favorite drummer. Anyway, I did the gig. I was totally overwhelmed and it was a really fortunate thing to do.
WM: How old were you?
AF: About 23.
WM: What do you remember about your early career playing with the rock band, Kammak, in South Africa?
AF: Two of the people in the band now were in Kammak. We got together because I had a friend who was into jazz. I said, “You get a few of your friends who are into jazz and I’ll get a few of my friends who are into rock and we’ll put a band together.” This was around the time of Blood, Sweat and Tears but our band was nothing like that. So we put this band together and really worked at it. At the time we were playing around just for fun. All of a sudden, from playing to no people, we went to this one gig and the place was packed. The thing I remember most about it was that I really don’t know what happened. The band just caught on, I don’t know why we caught on or what we did that was right. All of a sudden we were the band to go see.
WM: Do you still practice?
AF: I haven’t really practiced lately. When I was on the road I was playing every day. I’ve found being on the road is really good for building up my chops. The main problem was that I was playing the same songs every night. Now we’re rehearsing new stuff as well, so I’ve been concentrating on getting songs together, rather than practicing to become more technically proficient. I bought these pads to practice with when we’re on the road, usually an hour before we go on stage. I also had two pads for bass drums because I use two bass drums onstage. I would sit for about an hour and do rudiments and stuff.
WM: Do you do anything to stay in shape?
AF: I stopped smoking and drinking before I play. When I toured with Robert Gordon and Link Wray across Europe, I used to come offstage and feel totally exhausted because I played so hard. I gave up smoking during the tour and started to feel a lot better after we played. Another reason I played so hard was we didn’t have good monitors as the opening band. Sometimes I couldn’t even use my toms. I had to stick to the snare because it was the loudest drum. The snare and the cymbals.
WM: What kind of set-up are you presently using?
AF: I use Zildjian cymbals. I was fortunate enough to get an endorsement from the Zildjian people. I’ve found that they’ve been the best cymbals because of their wide range of sounds. I also use Tama drums. They’ve worked out really well, especially for the road. I have a Ludwig set that I use in the studio and I keep them in town in case I need a set to jam on. It’s about an eleven-year-old Ludwig set that’s sort of a psychedelic mud orange. They’re the old thick Ludwig shells that give you that big, warm, powerful sound.
WM: How do you position your drums?
AF: As my chops get better I tend to change the position of the drums, especially on the road. When I was playing jazz I had my snare set up for army grip. For rock I had to get that power, so I switched back to matched grip and tilted the snare towards me. I suppose that every one just positions their drums for what suits them best.
WM: When you play different types of music do you tune your drums differently?
AF: For rock I tend to tune the heads a little looser than for jazz. In jazz you’re not playing quite as hard and you tend to need a little more speed. In rock, you try and lay down a heavier backbeat. I tend to make the heads a little looser to get a heavier and deeper sound. Basically I think it would depend on the overall sound of the ensemble.
WM: What’s your impression of the multiple drum setup?
AF: It all depends on the music you’re playing. I’m using a big setup right now, but I don’t feel that it’s essential to playing drums at all. If you have a snare, bass drum, tom , cymbal and a hi-hat—I think that’s plenty. You can really play anything with just that. If you want to get all those extra sounds, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that either. I don’t think someone should buy a big setup just for looks. If you can’t utilize all those drums, then what’s the point?
WM: A few years ago Ginger Baker did a few sessions with African drummers. Has there been anything else happening along those lines that you know of?
AF: Mick Fleetwood recently cut a record in Ghana. I haven’t heard anything from it yet but I’d like to. In new wave music there seems to be a lot of fusion with African rhythms. Basically these guys are just ripping off what’s happening down there and putting it into their music. The Talking Heads album, Remain in Light, has a lot of those rhythms. The band was basically an art/rock band and they got Busta Jones [bassist] and the funkers that just laid down this funk groove and then they added African rhythms and the art/rock thing on top of that.
WM: Are there any musicians or projects that you’d like to hook up with?
AF: I really like doing musical things where I can play all the instruments myself. Lately I’ve been doing the Moog synthesizer music for a black and white avant-garde film. Also, some quasi-disco music where I play all the guitar, bass and drums. I can play a little piano and guitar but I can’t really play a lot of riffs or anything like that. I have an understanding of chords and scales, enough to work out songs. In the case of this soundtrack, I had to slow the synthesizer down and work out the line note by note. Then I would just speed it up to the tempo I wanted.
WM: I would imagine having a little knowledge about other instruments would also help your drumming.
AF: It really does. If you can hear where the chord progression is going you’ll be able to know when to set up a section or to back off. The key to playing with anybody is listening.
WM: What direction did you and the other members of Shanghai have in mind when you first got together?
AF: We were into sort of a fusion thing. If you take heavy metal on the one extreme and pop on the other, we’re sort of in the middle, playing melodic catchy stuff with a lot of power. Not sacrificing melody or power, just making them meet at a certain point.
WM: What artist that you’ve played with gave you the most room to improvise?
AF: Link Wray. He’s incredible. I was looking for work and called up a friend of mine. He was about to go on tour with Dylan but he told me Robert Gordon and Link Wray [Rockabilly Rebels] were looking for a drummer. So I auditioned for them and went off to do a tour of Europe with them. Link really encouraged me to play out as much as I wanted, bearing in mind the restrictions of the tunes themselves.
Link was the first guy to turn his amp up really loud and play with feedback. He was the guy who influenced Pete Townsend to use feedback. Townsend credited Link with having made him pick up the guitar. Link really inspired the whole ’60s psychedelic thing, although his image was really the ’50s.
WM: Could you credit one drummer as being a main influence to you?
AF: Tony Williams. I used to listen to a lot of Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette too. Those are a few of my favorites. Lately I haven’t really listened to a lot of drummers. I’ve been concentrating more on performing songs and getting Shanghai together, than really technical drumming. Tony Williams sort of bridges both fields. You can listen to him from a jazz point of view or a rock point of view. There are a lot of brilliant drummers on the scene but I’d have to go with Tony.
WM: It’s funny hearing of a rock drummer who’s so influenced by jazz.
AF: I know! I wanted to become a better rock drummer so I listened and played a lot of jazz when I came to Boston. The record Infinite Search by Miroslav Vitous was the first album I bought when I came to America. I especially liked his arrangement of “Freedom Jazz Dance.” I swear I listened to it every single day on my roommate’s hifi. The minute he’d leave I’d just turn it up and blast it. I couldn’t really understand the music because it’s pretty avant-garde, but I just knew that it sounded really incredible. I learned a hell of a lot from that song. I was also learning by jamming with other people and listening to other music. When I’d put the record on again I’d hear more things than I’d heard before. The players on that album were the best. Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock. That was sort of my Bible. I’d refer all of my knowledge back to that cut and see how much more I could hear out of it.
WM: Do you feel you learn most by jamming or playing in a group?
AF: I really enjoy playing with lots of different people because you learn much more that way. However, there’s much to be said for playing with a band and really getting a song down so it sounds tight in the studio, so there’s no bullshit in the song and there’s nothing wasted. There’s something that can be said for that kind of discipline as well. I like to have a balance of both. I wouldn’t want to have just one without the other.