"The Thunder from Down Under" revisits Ace Frehley's 1978 solo album and working on the album's demos, and offers insight regarding some of his favorite tracks such as "Rip It Out" and why "Ace Frehley" is not only an important part of the Spaceman's evolution, but one of the favorite albums he has ever played on.
By Tim McPhate
KissFAQ: Anton what was going on with your musical career in 1978?
Anton Fig: I was playing around New York in the rock scene. I had moved down from Boston where I had gone to music school and got a music degree. I studied classical percussion and jazz. So I was pretty much heavily into jazz all that time but when I moved down to New York I got back into rock, which is what I had grown up playing as a kid in South Africa. And I think around that time I had done a record with Link Wray called "Bull Shot." I was in a rock band called Topaz; some of the guys in the band had gone off to play with Bob Dylan. Through that I got to play with Robert Gordon and Link Wray. So I was kind of touring around and playing with Robert and Link and at the same time I had formed my own band with some fellow South Africans. At the time we were called Siren, but we became Spider. We were rehearsing and actually looking for musicians around that time. We had a loft downtown in New York.
Courtesy of WireImage.com
KF: I think that's where your connection to Ace comes in. I understand that you came to play with Ace through a bass player named Larry Russell, who was auditioning for Spider. How did Larry bring up the Ace opportunity?
AF: Well, he was auditioning for us and he said to me, "I've got a friend, Ace. He's doing a solo record and he's looking for a drummer. I think I can get you an audition." You know, I had heard of KISS. But to me, KISS was a band on the side of a bus basically. It was a lot of advertising and marketing but I didn't know the material that well. Anyway, I went up to play with Ace. He did four demos up at a small studio in Queens or [maybe it was] the Bronx. And we did "Rip It Out" and three other songs I don't remember. We barely spoke. I just kind of played with him. I mean, I asked him if he was the rhythm guitarist [in KISS]. I didn't even know. He asked me to come up and do another four songs with him. And then there was also another connection through Siren. Eddie Kramer was interested in our band and he was also going to produce Ace's record. I knew Eddie. I had never really worked with him but I knew him. After the two demo [sessions], Ace asked me to do the record. I was about to go on a five-week tour of Europe with Robert Gordon and Link, so I went off and did that. And when I got back, I think the next day I went up to the Colgate Mansion in Connecticut and we recorded most of the album there.
KF: If you think back to the demo sessions, did you feel an instant chemistry with Ace?
AF: I felt like I could play his music really well. When we did "Rip It Out," when it came time to record it for real, he played me the demo and said, "I want you to do exactly the same fills that you did on the demo." Those fills I just did off the top of my head. I didn't really give it any thought. I sort of copied myself from the demo so obviously something was working right from the get-go. But I felt like we could just play well together.
KF: Anton, do you remember thinking that Colgate Mansion was an odd locale to record the album?
AF: Not really. Led Zeppelin had done something like that beforehand. To experience the world of real rock stardom firsthand was new to me. Of course, I had seen it in magazines and all that, but to actually go to a big mansion and play, this was a whole new world for me. The way we did it, I was set up on a stairwell. There were these stairs and then a landing and then another staircase. So I was set up there. Ace sat right next to me and his amps were in the dining room or one of the big ballrooms. And we recorded a lot of the songs, maybe three-quarters of the record, just with rhythm guitar and drums. You know it was in the old days -- no Pro Tools, no clicks. There was a remote truck outside where the studio was. That's how we did most of the record.
KF: In terms of the final takes, was there one magical take or were some tracks comped together?
AF: They really didn't comp that much because you had to cut tape as opposed to what you can do in Pro Tools now. There was minimal comping compared to what people do these days. I think basically we had to get one good take. That's the old way of recording. I grew up recording like that so it was fun for me.
KF: I think that's one of the reasons why the album sounds so alive. Anton, would you recall what kit you played on the album?
AF: It was one of Ace's kits. It was different drums; I don't think it was all part of the same set. I don't actually remember, to be honest. It wasn't like a fancy kit or anything.
KF: And one bass drum?
AF: Yeah, one bass drum.
KF: Your drums are incredible on the album. Were you happy with the drum sound that was ultimately captured?
AF: Yeah, I thought it sounded really good. You know, you listen to it now and it doesn't sound as big as what you can do these days, but it's got a lot of personality. It still sounds strong. I think that we captured the vitality in the actual playing. I'm quite happy with the sound.
KF: Did you have freedom in terms of crafting your drum parts? Or did Ace or Eddie interject any specific ideas?
AF: You know, I don't remember specifically. But I do remember thinking I could do whatever I wanted to do. I'm sure they had suggestions along the way. But it was never a restrictive environment. I just played however I heard it. And that seemed to work.
KF: I'd say so. Eddie Kramer has said that you all stayed at the mansion and that, while there was work to be done, there was also a fair share of good fun. What do you recall about the atmosphere?
AF: Well, we got everything done we had to do. I remember there were nights of having big meals and laughing a lot. It was totally fun. It wasn't like just work and work and work. It was a pretty relaxed pace. I can't remember exactly how may songs we did a day, two songs a day or something like that. We had a certain number of days to get them done, but it certainly didn't feel that pressurized.
KF: Overdub sessions for the album took place in New York at Plaza Sound, which was located above Radio City Music Hall. I understand you've said hat some basic tracks may have been recut there, specifically for "New York Groove," "Rip It Out" and another song -- what's your memory of what was accomplished at Plaza Sound?
AF: I think "Rip It Out" was recorded there. I know "Rip It Out," on the drum solo, I double-tracked it. And I definitely remember double-tracking the drums there. I doubt that we would have just gone and done that because Eddie would have wanted to have exactly the same sound. So I'm pretty sure that "Rip It Out" was recorded there. And "New York Groove," I'm pretty sure that was recorded there as well. It's funny, I don't remember playing "Rip It Out." I do remember double-tracking the drum solo there though. I just don't think they would have taken the drums and just double-tracked the solo and not have done the whole song at the same time.
Anton Fig and Ace Frehley circa 1996
Courtesy of WireImage.com
KF: Speaking of which, the album gets off to a raucous start with "Rip It Out." There's some heavy power-chord riffing and a classic, in the pocket Ace solo. But I think what also grabs the listener is your energetic drumming. You just mentioned that the solo part was improvised. What do you think inspired you to come up with that on the spot?
AF: I don't know, it just seemed appropriate. It seemed to fit the song. It's aggressive and (pauses) I didn't think about it. I just played it. It was good fortune.
KF: So here's a prime example of an instance when inspiration took over in the heat of the creative process.
AF: I'm glad about it. I'm very happy with it. It holds up today so that's cool.
KF: And you doubled the solo part. What was the thinking in doubling that?
AF: Well, that was Eddie's idea. It was just to give it a slightly different sound. It's doubled pretty tight. It was just to make it jump out a little bit more, not to fix anything. One thing that you can tell, on the last fill I go around the toms. When I did it the first time, I went from the high tom down to the low tom, from left to right. When I doubled it, I went the other way around. I went from right to left. And the other fills, including the snare drum leading up to the fills, I think that's all doubled exactly the same.
You know, a lot of the songs I don't actually remember cutting. I sort of have a picture of myself sitting on the stairwell playing with Ace. With "Snow Blind," I think I came up with playing the cowbell. One thing I do remember was on "Wiped-Out," Ace was playing this riff and I started to play drums to it. The time doesn't really change, it's just the way the drums change that make it sound like it's in a different time. It implies that he's playing it a different way. We were jamming on it. It's cool -- we sort of made it into a form where one way was the verse and one way was the chorus. It just changed on the chorus. The two different drum patterns changed over the guitar he was playing. We got a version down and he said to me, "Why don't you go and write some words and I'll give you a writing credit? Because you helped make the riff sound different." Then I went home and wrote the words and he gave me a writing credit on the song.
KF: So you definitely wrote all the lyrics?
AF: I was responsible for making the riff "weird" and I wrote the lyrics, yeah. He may have changed a sentence here or there, but I basically wrote it.
KF: You've described that you were "turning around" the beat in "Wiped-Out." It's really cool how the drum feel changes underneath the guitar.
AF: Yeah, well it's like he's playing the same riff over and over again. But the way that the drums are, it makes it sound like its one way and then it makes it sound like another way.
KF: Of course, "New York Groove" is the big hit from the album. The song is such a wonderful example of musical ensemble playing -- everything seems to fit together like a glove.
AF: I think that song was recorded more like you would approach a single. The drum part was really defined. I wasn't just jamming and playing. It was a little more worked out and deliberate and I was kind of playing the same thing over and over again, so the drums just kind of disappear into the song. I took a different approach to the song. I remember we overdubbed handclaps and we had a sound effect box. There was gravel in it and you could stomp your feet in the thing to get that crunchy kind of sound on all the beats. I remember the background vocal session, overdubbing the vocals. It was a layered approach and there was a lot more care taken, as opposed to when it was me and Ace playing. This was a more crafted approach definitely.
KF: Indeed. Did you sense anything special about the track after it was finished?
AF: We were thinking how perfect it was for Ace. We thought it was a great song. I had no knowledge of what the other guys were doing with their solo records. I had absolutely no idea. I just remember thinking, "This is sounding really cool." I don't know if I knew that it was definitely going to be a hit. But I remember thinking it sounded great and really rounded out the whole record.
KF: Are there any other standout tracks for you, Anton?
AF: You know, I love the whole record. It opened the doors for quite a few other things for me. It was a very exciting time in my life, just being young and in New York. It's one of my absolute favorite records that I've played on. I just have a really good feeling of the whole thing. I'm so happy to be a part of it.
KF: Rightfully so. Interestingly, there is one track you did not play drums on and that's the final song, the instrumental "Fractured Mirror." A drummer named Carl Tallarico played on that track. Do you recall why you didn't play on this tune?
AF: He was a friend of Ace's. When I got to the Colgate Mansion, that song had already been recorded. I'm not sure why. I don't think there was any reason, maybe Ace wanted to have him on the record. Or maybe it just came out great and there was no point in redoing it.
KF: Will Lee ended up playing bass on three tracks -- "Ozone, "Wiped-Out" and "I'm In Need Of Love." Do you remember being around at Plaza Sound when Will tracked?
AF: Yeah, just about the whole record is Ace playing everything and me on drums. And there are some songs where there are some background vocalists, like "New York Groove." And then there were a couple of songs I remember that Will played on. That was an overdub situation. I remember coming into Plaza Sound one day and Will was doing his bass overdubs. I sort of met him; I didn't really know him in those days. I think soon after we did Joan Armatrading's record together.
KF: One outtake exists from the Ace' 78 sessions in fan circles: "All Or Nothing." Does that tune ring a bell as something you played on?
AF: I don't remember that. It's quite possible that I played on it, but I don't know.
KF: Eddie Kramer has intimated that Ace's 1978 solo album contains his best work. Anton, what's your take?
AF: Well, I think there's other records that he did, the Frehley's Comet records, that really have some great songs on them. But you know, the thing was it was so unexpected. I don't think the other members of KISS expected Ace to have the breakout album. It was a huge leap for Ace. I don't think he'd done much singing and certainly not that much writing. It was a very important record in his evolution. It certainly contains his best stuff. I'm not saying that he didn't write to the same heights with some of his other work. But it was absolutely a fantastic record.
KF: You hit on a great point. I don't think Paul and Gene, and perhaps Peter, expected Ace to come up with such a strong album. Do you remember Ace saying, "I'm going to show them..."?
AF: I don't remember if there were discussions like that. I think at some point, we all said, "This is a great record. It's going to be competitive." I'm not sure that anybody knew what anyone else was doing. I certainly didn't know what anyone else was doing but that doesn't mean that Ace didn't. You know, he must have wanted to do really well and prove something. I don't know what the feeling was when he started but certainly I do feel that somewhere through the process, it was like, "Wow, I think we've really got something here."
KF: Musically speaking, it seems all signs point to Ace being extremely focused on this project.
AF: Yeah, the songs were really good. Everything just sort of gelled.
KF: One quote from you that has stood out to me is that you once said that what makes Ace such a great musician is that "his will comes through in his playing." Can you elaborate on this thought?
AF: I just feel that he's got a really strong mindset. And sometimes when he plays it's almost like you can hear that mental determination and grit where he'll just force his will through. I'm talking the mental coming through the music kind of thing. It's just an inner strength I feel that he has.
Anton Fig circa 1986
Courtesy of WireImage.com
KF: Anton, I would like to ask a couple questions about "Dynasty" and "Unmasked," if I may. Of course, it wasn't known for quite some time that you played on either of these albums. You have recounted that KISS asked you not to tell anyone and that's exactly what you did.
AF: Yeah, they asked me not to say anything and I didn't. To be honest with you, I was fine with that because that was the deal. To this day, I still feel funny talking about. It came out in Gene's book and it came out on the remastered versions. So once they talked about it, I could. After I did Ace's thing, I was introduced to Bill Aucoin, their manager. Bill ended up managing Spider, so we were all kind of connected. It really wouldn't have been cool, especially because they asked me not to say anything. And they had a reason for preserving that. Even when they took off the makeup, it still was part of the folklore. I wasn't going to be the one to say anything. I'm just not that kind of a person. It seems weird in this day and age where no one can keep a secret. But it was part of the deal and I was fine with it.
KF: We just spoke about how you had free reign for Ace's album, but for "Dynasty" and "Unmasked" were there any general instructions to play any parts "like Peter" would have?
AF: I had free rein on the KISS records too.
KF: In hindsight, it obviously sounds nothing like what Peter would play. I was just curious if there were any discussions along those lines.
AF: They never said anything to me. I just played it how I wanted to. Take "Hard Times," we did the demo up at North Lake Sound. I played it and the drum part was pretty well done on the demo. When it came time to do it live in the studio for real, I played what I had come up with. But I don't remember them ever telling me, "You've got it to do it like this because otherwise it's not going to sound right." They let me play however I wanted. It was actually great from that point of view.
KF: Your drumming is stellar on those albums, which leads me into my next question. I understand that you and Ace had a discussion about you possibly joining KISS. But you weren't interested?
AF: Spider had a song in the Top 40 at that stage ...
Spider, "New Romance (It's A Mystery)"
KF: "New Romance (It's A Mystery)."
AF: Yeah. So it seemed, "Well, it would be great but I've got my own band and who knows what's going to happen there." (pauses) It was a really difficult thought process for me but I kind of felt like I should stay with my band. Then after that, I heard that Gene and Paul said that they weren't sure if they wanted me and Ace to be a unit, you know what I mean?
KF: I think I do.
AF: So that was it. When I look back on it, I'm happy with the way my musical life has gone. And I'm really happy for the time that I participated with Ace and KISS. I got kind of the best of both worlds.
KF: You've been with the David Letterman band since 1987. How fortunate do you feel to have such a cool gig?
AF: It's great. It's a life changer because it's a steady gig, you're in town and you're playing in a great band and playing with great guest musicians. And it doesn't take up that much time that you can't do other things as well.
Anton Fig gives supermodel Chrissy Teigen a drum lesson.
KF: Apparently, there are some nice fringe benefits as well. I saw you recently gave supermodel Chrissy Teigen a drum lesson.
AF: Oh yeah (laughs).
KF: Anton, who do you cite as your drum influences?
AF: Well, I initially liked Earl Palmer, the English invasion -- Ringo, Charlie, Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and John Bonham. And then the jazz guys like Tony Williams, Jack de Jonnette, Elvin Jones, and on and on. There are so many great guys around now.
KF: Your resume is incredible. In terms of guitarists, you've played with talented musicians such as Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, Link Wray, Joe Bonamassa, Oz Noy, and the late Gary Moore. Who are some of the favorite guitarists you have played with?
AF: All those guys that you mentioned, everyone has something different to offer. They're all fantastic in their own way. And they're all individual in their own way. Sometimes when I put mental pictures together of some of these fantastic guitar players I've played with, it feels mind-boggling. I feel super lucky to have been able to have played with them.
KF: Are you still active in terms of gigging?
AF: I am. I recently did two weeks at the Blue Note with Mike Stern and Eric Johnson. I just came back from a tour with Joe Bonamassa and the singer Beth Hart. That's going to be a DVD. A few months ago, I did another DVD with Joe, a power trio thing in London. There's a lot of stuff going on. I'm doing a bit of producing. I do drum tracks for people from my home studio. A few years ago, I released a solo record called "Figments." Ace is playing a solo on there, Oz is on it, Richie Havens is on it, Brian Wilson ... a lot of different people are on it.
Anton Fig plays live with Joe Bonamassa in London on March 26, 2013
Courtesy of WireImage.com
KF: Any plans for another solo album at some point?
AF: Maybe. Not at the moment. I'm enjoying doing lots of different things.
KF: Recently, some pictures surfaced of Ace in the recording studio. Apparently, he is at work on new music. When was the last time you spoke with Ace? And would you be open to collaborating with him again?
AF: I would always play with Ace. He's got a road band now and he may want to record with the same band that he can take on the road. The "Anomaly" record was done to try and get close to the original Ace [solo] record. If he called me and wanted me to play, I definitely would. He was in town recently and he texted me and we were going to get together for dinner but it just didn't work out. We're still in touch and we're still friends. We've been very close for many years.
(KissFAQ thanks Anton Fig for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)
About Anton Fig:
Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Anton Fig -- "The Thunder from Down Under" -- began playing drums at age 4. After moving to Boston to further pursue his musical interests, Fig attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, studying both jazz and classical disciplines and graduating with honors in 1975. In 1976 he moved to New York where he began to establish a career as a freelance musician. In 1978 Fig was recruited to play drums on Ace Frehley's solo album, adding a key element that helped shape the album's hard-edged soundscape. Fig was subsequently brought into the KISS fold to play "ghost" drums on 1979's "Dynasty" and 1980's "Unmasked," though his participation was kept a secret for many years. Fig is also credited as the co-writer of "Dark Light" on 1981's "Music From 'The Elder.'" Around this time, Fig was a member of the New York-based pop-rock outfit Spider, which featured songwriter Holly Knight (who would later collaborate with Paul Stanley). The group recorded two studio albums, scoring a Top 40 hit with "New Romance (It's A Mystery)." He later hooked up with Frehley, taking the drum stool in Frehley's Comet from 1984-1987. Since 1986, Fig has been the drummer in the CBS Orchestra, the house band for "Late Show With David Letterman." During this tenure he has played with scores of great artists, including Miles Davis, James Brown, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Winwood, Bonnie Raitt, and Tony Bennett, among others. The CBS Orchestra is also the house band for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, playing with some of music's most influential personalities.
Fig's discography as a studio musician is both extensive and impressive, including work with artists such as Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Gary Moore, Joan Armatrading, Rosanne Cash, Joe Cocker, John Phillips, Warren Zevon, Sebastian Bach, and Paul Butterfield. In 1996 Fig released a drum instructional video and book titled "In The Groove" and "Late Night Drumming," respectively. In 2002 Fig released his debut solo album, "Figments." Produced and co-written by Fig, the album represents three years of work and features collaborations with, among others, Richie Havens, Brian Wilson, Ivan Neville, Sebastian Bach, Ace Frehley, Al Kooper, Chris Spedding, Donald 'Duck' Dunn, Blondie Chaplin, Paul Shaffer, Chris Botti, Randy Brecker, and Richard Bona. More recently, Fig played drums on albums by guitarists Oz Noy and Joe Bonamassa. He also played on Frehley's 2009 solo album, "Anomaly." Today, Fig continues to be an in-demand studio and live musician and is currently recording and composing for numerous projects. Learn more about Fig at his official website.