San Francisco - Up Close and Personal With Dr. Fink

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GRAMMY Pro Administrator

By: Sarah Jones
On Monday, July 10, the San Francisco chapter hosted a storytelling session and informal synth jam with Revolution keyboardist “Doctor” Matt Fink and a handful of the Bay Area’s top music makers, at the Waveformless synthesizer shop in Oakland. For the lucky artists and producers in the room, it was a rare opportunity to connect with a musical hero in an intimate setting, as they were treated to personal stories about his days with Prince and got a chance to geek out on some extraordinary vintage instruments.

The afternoon kicked off with a casual Q&A. The first thing everyone wanted to know: Who were Fink’s musical influences? Not surprisingly, he spent his formative years listening to all of the iconic keyboardists of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, from prog rockers Emerson, Lake and Palmer to jazz greats Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, George Duke and Joe Zawinul. “In high school, we were playing songs from some of these groups,” Fink told the group. “I played a ton of Steely Dan, and Stevie, and all that stuff. But before getting into R&B and pop, starting at the age of 12, we were doing just pop rock, all the way up until I was in high school. That's when I got into more of the fusion jazz.”

It didn’t take long for the questions to turn toward Prince. “To understand the Prince connection, you need to go back to the mid-1960s,” Fink said, explaining that he and Revolution drummer Bobby Z met as children, as their parents were close friends. Bobby Z’s brother was producer David “Z” Rivkin, who would end up forging a decades-long creative partnership with Prince, in addition to producing artists like Fine Young Cannibals, Jody Watley and Buddy Guy.

One night in 1977, Bobby Z took Fink to his car to play him a mysterious demo tape. “I hear it, and I go, ‘Wow, this is really good. Who's the band?’ said Fink. “He says, ‘it's not a band. It's a one-man band.’” It turned out Prince was recording in Minneapolis’ MoonSound Studios and had caught the attention of Rivkin and manager Owen Husney, who set out to put together a band for him in an effort to land a record deal. The next year, Fink got a chance to audition.

In October of 1978, Fink explained, he met up with Prince at the home of his mentor, Pepé Willie. The evening started out with an hour or two of jamming—then Prince asked Fink to play his new track “Soft and Wet,” which contained a tricky clavinet part that was difficult to pick out of the mix. Prince told Fink he was playing the line wrong: “He says, ‘Nobody that's auditioned for the band has played that right yet,’” said Fink. “And I said, ‘Well, tell you what: The way it’s in the mix, it’s hard to really discern what's going on. Do you think you could show me the part and play it for me? And I think if you do that, I'll be able to get it." Prince showed him, and he nailed it right away, impressing the artist. “He said, ‘You're the first guy that asked me to show that to him.’” Three weeks later, Fink was in the band—but not before Prince considered eight other players, including Yanni (!), who was playing in a local rock band called Chameleon at the time.

Fink and Prince were largely self-taught musicians, and influenced each other in the studio. “We really showed each other a lot,” he said. “I was the guy who was always researching the latest gear and bringing it to him, because he was just into writing and recording all the time. He was twenty-four seven, the most prolific songwriter you'll ever know, of all time.”

Fink introduced Prince to the cutting-edge music technologies of the time, like MIDI. “He didn't totally keep up on all that,” Fink explained. “He wasn't a huge programmer, but he tweaked a lot and created his own sounds.” They were some of the earliest adopters of the Kurzweil K250 synth, the Linn LM-1 electronic drum, and many of the first Oberheim synths. “Everything I worked on with Prince continues to influence me all of the time,” Fink said. “In particular, his attention to detail and perfectionism working with other artists, in the studio or in live settings.”

The conversation turned to the movie Purple Rain and its soundtrack album, which was recorded mostly live at Minneapolis’ First Avenue club, with strings and other overdubs added in post production. Fink was asked if the band knew back then that Prince was making history with the record and the movie. “He was pumping us up all the time, trying to get us to be excited, and we were,” he said. “At the end of the 1999 tour, he took me aside one morning and just announced to me that we were going to do a movie. Of course, I was dumbfounded to hear that…I just went, ‘Wow, that's pretty heavy stuff. Really? You want to pull a Bowie here, or a Mystery Tour?"

The Prince camp was hoping the movie project would take off, but at the time, it felt like a big risk, Fink said. “Of course, Warner Brothers, the film division, looked at him and thought he was nuts.” In those days, even after the double-Platinum success of 1999, the label wasn’t entirely confident that Prince was “big enough” to make a movie, and they were reluctant to invest. His management team ended up fronting most of the funds to make the movie. “They were able to make it happen on, really, not a very big budget in those days; about seven million dollars,” Fink explained. “They made it happen, and it took off, fortunately for us and him.”

After about an hour of discussion, it was time to jam and talk tech; Waveform owner Jason Sole had carefully arranged an impressive array of vintage analog instruments for Fink to explore with the group. “I tried to have a broad representation of synthesizers represented for Matt to interface with,” says Sole. “Certain synths, like the EMS VCS3, I was very curious to see how Matt would like them, or if he had played them much in the past; and others, like the Prophet 5 and the Minimoog, were more classic pieces that I knew were on several Prince records. Variety was the name of the game.”

As Fink put the synths through their paces, the group peppered him with questions about his favorite instruments. He offered a chronology of his rigs, starting from childhood—beginning with the Farfisa he played at neighborhood par mitzvahs when he was 12. “It was like, you know, can we play 'In-A-Gadda Da Vida?' Can we play 'Light My Fire?' It was all that tone.” Later, Fink said, he picked up a Farfisa VIP 345. “And it had this effect called 'slalom'—it had a little picture of a skier, with a little drawbar, and you could tweak it,” he explained, demonstrating the feature on Waveformless’ vintage instrument.

Fink’s later rigs included a Fender Rhodes 73, Elka and Freeman string machines and ultimately, his first Minimoog. “I was in heaven when I had that,” he said. “I had always wanted one, but I hadn't saved the money. My parents helped a little bit.”

In The Revolution, Fink’s rig tended to center around an Oberheim OB-8, Minimoog, Clavinet, Rhodes, an ARP Solina String Ensemble and an ARP Omni 2, which was used to create the famously bombastic opener to “1999”—though these days, he re-creates those iconic sounds on a Korg Kronos.

Reflecting on the event, Fink says he always enjoys connecting with musicians around the world, and the Bay Area is no exception. “In fact, the Bay Area is one of my favorite places to visit in the U.S. and I have developed great friendships with many people in the region. The gathering at Waveformless with Jason was a wonderful time to connect and network with new people, which is something I always enjoy.”

San Francisco chapter ED Michael Winger adds that he was honored to be able to provide an opportunity to connect Fink to the Bay Area music community. “He’s such an important hero to so many of us who grew up listening to synths and keyboards as they began to integrate with nearly every genre of popular music,” he says. “I have been listening to Purple Rain since I was in middle school, so it was really fun to hear stories of how some of my favorite music came into existence.”

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