Fin Greenall, who is the voice and heart behind Fink, often gets mistaken for other people.
At the BMI Awards in the US, a ‘roomful of gangstas and playas’ were convinced the Cornwall-born, Bristol-raised Englishman was a lawyer, and not a songwrit..
Fin Greenall, who is the voice and heart behind Fink, often gets mistaken for other people.
At the BMI Awards in the US, a ‘roomful of gangstas and playas’ were convinced the Cornwall-born, Bristol-raised Englishman was a lawyer, and not a songwriter picking up an ‘American Urban’ gong – one of three BMIs he received for his work with John Legend on the soul singer’s Evolver album.
In Berlin, clubbing capital of the world, they think he helps run a small minimal techno label. In certain London circles he’s known as the hardworking insider whose past roles at DefJam, Sony Music, Talkin’ Loud, and Source saw him work with a range of artists longer than the horizon. At the BBC, they imagine Fink as perhaps the only musician who has played both the Electric Proms and the actual Proms (was that really the same guy leading a 120-piece orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in an ‘immense’ cover of Roy Ayers’ Everybody Loves The Sunshine?).
In record company circles, he’s the producer who worked on the first demos by Amy Winehouse and the writer who’s been crafting hooks for Professor Green. In big-room booths around the world, he’s the internationally-renowned DJ and Ninja Tune stalwart who finally hung up his Sennheisers with a valedictory set at London’s Fabric in 2003. ‘My skillset just seemed so old compared to these guys that could DJ for six hours without one high-hat out of place using Ableton or something,’ he notes admiringly.
Who is Fin Greenall? All of the above.
Yes, the now-Brighton-based musician acknowledges, he has done – does do – all of those things. ‘But none of that is as important as how I feel when I write songs like Fear is Like Fire and Perfect Darkness. The Fink thing is my main thing.’
Perfect Darkness is the new album by Fink. Recorded in Los Angeles in 20 super-creative days with producer Billy Bush, formerly engineer with Butch Vig (Nirvana, Garbage), it brims with one-take wonders and naturalistic, hand-on-heart, head-in-hands, head-in-the-clouds songs. It’s a ‘singer-songwriter’ album that manages to encompass DJ Shadow and Nick Drake; that is marinaded in blues, jazz and soul; that’s sung by Greenall in a voice that has a relaxed, textured, woody heft.
It is, in a way, the beautiful confluence of all Greenall’s experiences in music, not least growing up the son of a folk musician father and the making of his previous three Fink albums (whose songs have appeared in everything from EastEnders cafes, big ads, explosive season premieres such as CSI:NY, and Hollywood box office smashes such as Dear John) – albums that have made the band a big draw across mainland Europe and the US.
‘We really wanted to just go for it and make this record completely different,’ says this affably engaged and utterly committed skatekid-turned-street-culture-vulture (Greenall knows his turntablism and his trainer-spotterism). Previous albums have been recorded in England, lo-fi bordering on no-fi, in his loft or mates’ living-rooms. ‘We could have definitely made the same record again and been totally happy. But we really wanted to change everything.’
As a kid, the one thing of his dad’s that Fin Greenall wasn’t allowed to touch was the old Martin acoustic guitar. ‘It was his one possession where he said, “everything in this house is owned by everybody – apart from that.”’ But with age – and the burgeoning of his son’s skills as a player – came a relaxation of the exclusion zone: Greenall plays the Martin on the punchy, Jeff Buckley-covering-Radiohead-esque Fear Is Like Fire. It’s sure to become a live stand-out on Fink’s upcoming, 18-month-long world tour. ‘It’s all about trying to look at fear and be optimistic – you can be really negative or fucking embrace it and use it.
‘The great thing about growing up in a house where music is a big factor,’ he continues, ‘was the fact that music being part of your life was a perfectly natural thing.’
Music, it seems, became more than that: it was Greenall’s life. He hoovered up the sounds he heard on John Peel: ‘The Cure, The Smiths, The Orb, African music, Japanese hardcore’. He embraced skateboarding, the music and the fashion – ‘it was an awesome way to grow your own culture’. At university in Leeds, electronic and dance music became everything.
‘It was definitely about wanting to be part of a revolution that I could call my own,’ he recalls. ‘A couple of friends and I clubbed together our student loans and bought equipment to make ambient techno – we were really inspired by Aphex Twin and The Orb and Moby. We were amazed at how fucking easy it was to make ambient techno. It wasn’t easy to make good ambient techno,’ he laughs. ‘But it was easy enough to make techno good enough to get us signed after six months of mucking around at uni.’
The young techno warrior was messianic.
‘I thought the song was dead, the chorus was dead, playing drums and guitar and bass was so old-school and outdated and why would you want to do that? Dylan did that 50 years ago! We should be part of this new revolution, instrumentalism, acid house, rave culture, techno – this stuff is a brave new avant-garde frontier and you should be involved.’
His ardour and his skills saw Greenall become part of the Ninja Tune family – first signed on the back of a cassette-tape demo - as artist, DJ, writer, producer, and remixer.
‘Brilliant times,’ he sighs nostalgically. ‘Sometimes you’d just have to pinch yourself. Then, other times, you wake up in Bratislava on a Tuesday morning and you’re reminded that there is hard work to all of this.’ All that crate-digging wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be either: ‘You can’t be shit!’ Greenall grins. ‘And because of the community that Ninja has worldwide, if you are shit everybody knows about it the next day. Eight years of DJing have given me an obscenely huge record collection. I just cleared out the breaks section – four crates of twelves that were total pony!’
So the wheels of steel started to fall off.
‘It wasn’t until I’d run that right the way through to its natural conclusion – I’m an international DJ on the biggest DJ label in the world – that I thought: I’m kinda over it. And it was actually working with a young artist straight out of school called Amy Winehouse that inspired me to go, “wow, songs are great! Now I get how difficult it is, and how much talent there is involved in this. It’s more of a challenge than clubbing.”’
Greenall melted down his turntables and recast them as a guitar and a stool. Metaphorically speaking. His parents were pleased. ‘My career only made sense to them when I picked up a guitar and started to sing,’ he says. ‘All of a sudden I was doing music, I wasn’t just mucking around. But in my rave days, DJing techno and breaks, they didn’t get that at all. That’s probably why I did it in the first place.
‘But I realised: if your music had songs in it, it had a much greater reach. Not in business terms, but if a singer of, say, Amy’s calibre sings over this beat, it becomes so much bigger than just a beat. I can’t get rid of my clubbing past, not that I’d want to. But the linear nature of some of my music is definitely because of all those years spent clubbing and DJing, when a very simple idea can make the best club record. And it’s the same with songs – I’m after a really simple riff or really simple lyric or melody. And it’s about keeping that beautiful moment going for as long as you can.’
Perfect Darkness is full of those moments. Greenall and his regular band – Guy Whittaker (bass) and Tim Thornton (drums)– wrote and demoed pretty much the whole album in the UK before heading to the US. Only two tracks were written in LA: the intense, Chicago-bluesy Wheels (‘I got the riff in a hotel room; the version on the album is the first time I ever played it’) – which singlehandedly converted jazz legend Ramsey Lewis into a fan - and Warm Shadow, which was inspired by The Emperor Machine and their ‘waltzy disco techno thing’. The others, notably solid ballad Save It For Somebody Else – written in two hours – just flowed out of the empathetic, intuitive playing of Greenall and his musical compadres.
The song Perfect Darkness is also the longest track and the opening track. Why make that the title of the album?
‘The name just seemed to fit the whole vibe of the album. And as soon as we recorded it we all just felt it would make a wicked first track. It starts off with a pulse-y kind of wave of a noise, and the beat’s really heavy. I was really proud of the melodies and the vocal work, and the big, deep chorus. And we put strings on it, which we’ve always begrudged doing – a cello on the chorus fed into our biggest fear of turning into some sort of folk nightmare! But it just worked.’
Bookending the album at the close is Berlin Sunrise. Greenall wrote it on a hotel balcony one morning in the German capital. (It had been a big night on the dancefloor; he may have hung up his headphones but his dancing shoes still get a good work-out.)
‘It’s a really optimistic vibe, even though as I wrote it I was lying there, seriously trying to cope with the next day… It’s written for a friend of mine who I’ve known since university who’s now a massive minimal techno DJ. I was thinking, it is beautiful to be in a club when the sun rises in Berlin. But there is a downside to all this. The song is definitely me telling him: it is awesome dude, but there is a comedown.’
Greenall knows of what he speaks. His world of experiences – high and low, electronic and acoustic, musical and cultural and chemical, behind the decks and on the dancefloor and at the mic – have fed into his new album. Perfect Darkness is an album of perfect lightness, and perfect balance too.
‘Singer-songwriters always get criticised – fairly – for sometimes sounding like a scratched record: moaning about this, moaning about that, girlfriend’s left you, blah blah. With Fink we do sing about relationships and love and emotions – but we also sing about other stuff: embracing fear, Berlin dawns, looking forward. Perfect Darkness was written about another friend of mine who’s just signed a massive record deal and it’s all about to kick off. And I’m saying, “just roll with it man. It’s gonna get dark but you’ll survived and you’ll come out the other side.”’ And if he’s really lucky – and very talented – he’ll come out the other side with an album as glorious as Perfect Darkness.