Jonny Trunk :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

For the past 25 years Jonny Trunk has done things his own way. Never content to simply repackage an album for the nth time, Trunk has always dug way deeper than most when it comes to the reissues and discoveries he releases on his Trunk Records imprint. Starting with the first-ever commercially released compilation of library music (The Super Sounds of Bosworth) and the initial release of The Wicker Man’s glorious soundtrack, Trunk has continued to unassumingly and consistently influence certain subsections of modern music and the ever-churning reissue juggernaut.

Trunk Records contains multitudes: sublime library and film music, British jazz, enchanting children’s music (the Fuzzy-Felt Folk compilation remains a perennial favorite), weird folk and pastoral electronics (often on the same album), pornography, and oh so many oddballs (2019’s Taeha Types LP is literally “recordings of bespoke and customized mechanical keyboards”). But there’s more to Trunk than just records—there’s books (like the forthcoming Auto Erotica, “a sexy new book about sexy cars and the sexy graphic brochures that brought them to market”), BBC programs and appearances, a weekly radio show that’s the longest running film music show in the world, and limited runs of t-shirts, prints, and other groovy ephemera.

In quintessential Trunk fashion, the new 25th anniversary compilation, Do What You Love, is hardly a straight-ahead greatest hits of the label. Rather, it’s an odds and sods collection of 33 magical and beautiful tracks (adorned with a wonderful David Shrigley sleeve)—some old Trunk favorites, others released here for the very first time. There’s unreleased work from Delia Derbyshire, half-remembered British TV and film themes, strange music made by children, swinging advertising jingles, an excerpt from a “Car Boot Sex Tape,” the shortest track to ever hit the top 30 (Trunk & Wisbey’s ludicrous “The Ladies’ Bras”), and all sorts of fantastic and peculiar musical facets that make up the Trunk labyrinth. Both a perfectly bizarre entry point for new listeners and another essential release for the many Trunk devotees, Do What You Love is a wonderful and wonky victory lap for Jonny—even though he’s already long gone on to the next thing. 

Aquarium Drunkard recently sat down with Jonny discuss the label’s beginnings, his background in advertising, how he manages to stay inspired, the enigmatic Basil Kirchin, and more. | k evans

Aquarium Drunkard: For the uninitiated, how would you describe Trunk Records?

Jonny Trunk: It’s my record company and it’s all the things I want to issue. It’s a completely selfish project, a totally selfish project. It always has been. It’s just things that I want to do. It’s totally non-commercial, so it’s not done from “Ooh, I could sell loads of that.” It’s done because I want to make the things I make. 

AD: The beginnings were with The Wicker Man soundtrack and the Bosworth library compilations, right?

Jonny Trunk: Yeah, that was material that I wanted to own myself. They were done because they didn’t exist. So I thought the only way I’m going to make them exist, or the only way I’m going to have them is to make them exist myself. That was it, really. The Wicker Man is a great example where I was totally desperate for bits of that score to be on vinyl. I wanted to have that at home and to be able to play it and to be able to sit down and listen to it, not through video or when it was on the TV but when I wanted. So that’s the only way I could do it.

AD: Do you remember your first encounters with library music? Which I’d imagine predated the label by a decade or two?

Jonny Trunk: Yeah, definitely. But I didn’t know it was library music. Pretty much my entire childhood—I grew up in England in the seventies and eighties which is a classic period where all our terrestrial television was completely awash with library music. Whether it was the children’s TV programs, or the sort of late evening cop dramas—all classic library music. But we didn’t know that’s what it was. It’s a bit like people in America growing up with NFL highlights shows and realizing those themes were KPM records. You wouldn’t know that, but that’s what they were. 

AD: How much of that early stuff do you think is baked in nostalgia that paved the way for your taste in the decades that followed?

Jonny Trunk: I mean there is an element of nostalgia, but at the same time I genuinely adore the music. I’ve never really liked rock and pop, I like this funny noise. This strange instrumental music is what I like. I was always drawn to the music from the TV and so there is nostalgia because I do remember those shows with fondness, but the exploration of that musical field is not nostalgic at all. I’ve immersed myself in that music now for a long time and it’s not really nostalgic anymore, it’s just purely research and hunting for the next noise.

AD: Can I jump to the very beginning? Were you working on The Wicker Man release before you found that first Bosworth LP in a shop?

Jonny Trunk: Yeah. I’d been into film music through the eighties through the jazz world. I was quite into jazz, but I was finding the jazz I really liked happened to be a bit like Jimmy Smith. Jimmy Smith’s album The Cat is a classic. It’s Jimmy Smith with Lalo Schfrin and they do the theme from The Carpetbaggers, which also happened to be used for a television theme tune in Britain in the eighties. I was going, “Oh, so there’s a jazz record but it’s also film music and TV music.” So I started exploring that whole area and started getting really into film music. I’d just buy any film music record just to get into it.

Throughout the early nineties when I was living and working in London, I was out every single day, sometimes twice a day. If I was working on a Monday I’d be in the shops at lunchtime and the shops in the evening, just buying and finding out more about film music and television music. And then I realized by the mid-nineties that there were certain records that were never issued. Certain soundtracks that were never issued. Like Get Carter [points at a framed poster behind him]. It had an issue in Japan but you’d never see that. I thought this was music that warranted being pressed on vinyl. The Wicker Man‘s another one. There’s several more, but The Wicker Man was a big one, especially in my circle of friends. We’d watched it in the eighties quite a lot and it became quite an obsession with us. And musically I just thought it had to be put onto vinyl because there was a sort of a burgeoning folk scene, there was interest in film music, and it hadn’t been done. And I wanted it! Those four were very potent. And that was the motivation, really.

AD: And then you got sidetracked and found that Bosworth LP?

Jonny Trunk: Well, it was quicker! I mean, some of the stuff I issue takes ten years. You know, it’s not a phone call and, “Oh yeah can I do this?”“Yeah, sure, here’s the tape.” These take years. And for every ten projects I start, nine will probably fall by the waste side—they just don’t get made. Nothing happens, you can’t find the tapes, you can’t find the rights holders, the tapes were destroyed, no one’s interested. I just wanted to make records back then and it just so happened that the Bosworth one was sorted out in 24 hours. Once I’d seen the people at Bosworth they went, “Yeah, go for it! Here’s the music, off you go.” Whereas with The Wicker Man, you couldn’t find anybody who knew anything. It was quite weird.

AD: You had a couple partners at the very beginning of Trunk Records, right?

Jonny Trunk: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AD: And you were an advertising copywriter before that?

Jonny Trunk: Yeah. I trained as an art director and then when I got a job I teamed up with another art director and one of us had to do the writing, so I became the copywriter. I was a copywriter for five years and then I decided in about 1995 that I just wasn’t interested in it. It wasn’t as creative as I hoped it would be. I thought it was gonna be an amazing job with crazy shoots and international travel and really clever brands. And it just isn’t like that. It was pretty mundane, and within that business, people are very rarely prepared to be creative. Not the people in the business, but like marketing directors who’ve got to sell Corn Flakes. They come to you and go, “Hi, we want you to sell our Corn Flakes.” And you go, “Brilliant!” And they go, “But we don’t want to do anything risky, we just want you to say they’re really nice Corn Flakes.” And then if you throw any element of risk in there, they go, “Oh not sure, that’s a bit too risky. Can you just tone it down a bit?” And you go,“It’s pointless me being a creative because there’s nothing creative going on here.” I felt a bit hamstrung by the whole situation, really.

AD: That must have paved the way and made you realize how much you wanted to do things for yourself?

Jonny Trunk: Totally. The more I did it, the more I really wanted to do it. And because we sold the first record, I went, “Right, let’s do it again.” And I was off. Like, “Right, boof [makes rocket sound], let’s go do stuff. The other people had jobs and I didn’t. So I was going, “Look, something’s got to give here because I’m doing all the work and then this money’s coming in and I’m giving the money to you when I’ve done everything.” It was sort of an impossible situation. And also, I’m a bit of a control freak. So, you know, I’m in charge. 

AD: Was there ever a more specific vision for Trunk than just putting out stuff that you wanted or did you have any more elaborate plans? Or was it just one thing to the next?

Jonny Trunk: One thing to the next and as it’s gone along I’ve gone, “Oh, I can do this. Well maybe I can make t-shirts. Or maybe I can do a book because I’m really into this stuff and I’ll just do a book about it.” So now, you have the Trunk Records things but it allows me to sell things I do through it. Whether it’s prints, books, t-shirts, bags, shows, whatever. Whatever I do, I can put through Trunk. People sort of trust it a bit now and go, “Okay, Jonny’s just done this. Are you interested in coming along or buying it or paying for it in advance?”So now it’s whatever I want it to be, really. I mean it is a record company, but I do books, I do prints, I do whatever I fancy doing really. Yeah, people go with it.

AD: With all that, I’m really curious how do you handle inspiration and creativity just on a day-to-day level? You seem very disciplined and hardworking but you also seem completely open to chance discoveries and things that fall into your lap.

Jonny Trunk: That’s totally it. I think the advertising training helps. You know, there’s a certain element of lateral thinking every now and again. There’s a sort of way of approaching a problem or an idea—that sometimes works quite well. So far, after 25 years, I haven’t run out of ideas and there’s no shortage of music or ideas or inspiration. Or people or collaborations or anything. There is definitely a discipline because I think the hardest thing to do is to stick with a project till the end. Let’s go back to The Wicker Man—very few people would have spent three years pre-internet trying to find information out about it. I don’t know people who could be arsed with that, they’d give up after a few days. And I just kept going and kept following leads and kept phoning up people and kept sending faxes and kept writing letters. I think you have to be motivated and the hardest thing is to finish something. That’s the hard bit. It’s really hard to do that and I think I’m quite determined and a bit dogged and I don’t give up. And I think that’s what it is, that’s all. But the inspiration—I never run out of ideas. I think it’s something I’m possibly blessed with, I don’t know. I’ve just got an enthusiasm for stuff I like. And of course if I don’t do any work, I don’t get paid! If I stopped doing stuff, then there’d be nothing being sold. I have to keep going in order to pay myself.

AD: I’d like to ask you about Basil Kirchin. He’s maybe not as well known outside of Britain, so could you tell us a bit about him and the role you played in his rediscovery?

Jonny Trunk: Basil had a very interesting musical life, sort of post-war and up until the very early seventies, where he’d been quite an inspired musician. He’d worked for his dad’s big band. He was an amazing drummer and composer. He’d gone to India in the early sixties and hung out with the Maharishi, got quite involved with marijuana, and came back with the idea of doing imaginary film music. He ended up doing library music and then experimenting with tape and slowing down field recordings with improvised jazz. It was all quite ahead of its time, really. Making these very interesting, weird, slow recordings and quite extraordinary film music and interesting library music. And then I think he felt a bit spat out by the music industry because it didn’t treat him very well, so he ran off to Hull where he slowly became sort of a recluse. I was into British jazz and film music and of course he fits both those. So I just tried to find him, that’s all. I managed to track him down in Hull and he just sort of went, “Oh quick, you’re exactly the person I’ve been waiting for! Can you just help me? Here’s my music, what can we do?”And that was it really. Out it went. And there’s still tons of stuff to come. 

He’s a very unique sound. He had a set number of collaborators—I think they all fell out eventually, but they were a very potent mix of musicians and arrangers that made really great music. It’s very distinctive and very influential. Without a doubt, it’s been very influential on certain people. I won’t say who, but it has been very influential. There’s a lot of sound that now comes out that sounds just like his pastoral English oddness. Once you’ve heard him, you sort of go, Oh, okay, right. I know what you’re saying there. And also his first album for Island Records in about 1973 has got Brian Eno writing on the back saying, “This is the man who is responsible for ambient music. He’s the one who first came up with this ambient sound.” So you could add that to his CV if you wanted, but he’d probably disagree with that. 

AD: And there’s also the Derek Bailey, free improvisation connection there too.

Jonny Trunk: Derek Bailey played live, improvised jazz to these tapes loop and this mad noise that Basil was working on. So he’d slowed down field recordings of lions, or baboons, or wolves, or trams in Zurich, or tunnels, or all sorts of things. And he’d slow it down and then record that. Then he’d slow it down again and record that. He was obsessed by what he called the “little boulders of sounds” that were revealed once you’d slowed something down so much. Then he got Derek Bailey and Evan Parker to both improvise over the top, which is what eventually became Worlds Within Worlds, yeah.

AD: I’m curious within the world of reissues and new discoveries from the past, how do you navigate the personalities behind them? I’d imagine some of these people probably have pretty complicated feelings with their work that might not have exactly been successful in its day. 

Jonny Trunk: It depends. I think I’m very enthusiastic about it and I think that’s what helps enormously. For instance, I’ve just found some stuff John Surmon wrote. He did it in 1964/65 and it wasn’t issued—he’d made a private pressing of about ten copies of it. And I emailed him, “Look, can you send me this recording because I think it might be quite interesting.” And he said, “You don’t want that, it’s rubbish. It’s just nonsense.” And I said, “I’ll tell you what, if you send it to me, I’ll pay the postage or the courier and I’ll dub it and listen to it and tell you what I think.” And he went, “Okay, fair enough.” And I listened to it and said, “Look, I think this is a very valid bit of music. I think it’s played well. I think it sounds really interesting. It’s a bit blowy [makes blowy saxophone noises]. But I think we could do something really lovely with it that would put it out there. I think people would love to hear what you were doing in 1965 and it sounds great. So we’ll do an art release with it.”

And I pay them a license fee, which always helps. Because then they realize you are being serious. You’re not messing around and you’re going, “This is what I want to do with this music that I really respect.” I think I’ve only had one person who was a bit—she was the wife of a composer who was dead and I think she was just a bit sniffy about his music coming out, but I don’t know. It’s normally not a problem. I think because I’m enthusiastic about the music, they respond to that. And they can see what I’ve done and they can see it’s all very genuine and it’s all quite obscure. And ultimately they’re quite thrilled to have it out there again.

AD: Do you think there’s one particular Trunk release that perfectly sums the label up with a combination of its music, background context, and your discovery of it?

Jonny Trunk: That’s really difficult, because they’re all a bit weird. They’re all a bit all over the place. That’s why the new compilation is quite good, because it’s all sorts of different points of that—whether it’s rare released stuff or rare unreleased stuff and that sort of sums it up quite well. But there’s loads of releases that have all got a different personality. Like, I really like Kes, I think that’s a beautiful record. 

AD: That’s one of my favorites. 

Jonny Trunk: I love that. I still love it as well. Every time I hear the theme it just makes me blub. And I really like the new Bartelby LP because I think it’s just a brilliant unreleased and undiscovered great bit of British bluesy, weird, soundtrack jazz. And it’s sort of like a hip hop record. But I really also like things like Galactic Nightmare, which is this guy who spent six years in his bedroom composing a space opera. It’s just joyous. And it makes me laugh. I don’t know, it’s very difficult for me to sum up what is exactly—they all have a bit of my DNA in there.

AD: What about with your own music? I’ve definitely heard moments across your records and singles that seem to be inspired by stuff you’ve put out.

Jonny Trunk: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally. It’s all retro-y, future-y, mucked about. Oh, totally. I haven’t really had time to sit down—or actually, it’s more the motivation. Because I’m always distracted by other things I’ve got to do. I’ve got to make some more music, but at the moment I haven’t really got time. I should do it, but I’m just really distracted by more music, more books, more stuff. It’s very difficult to sit down—I have to have a reason to do it, and I haven’t worked out what the reason is yet. You know what I mean?

AD: That’d be great if you did. I was just listening to the Refined Lard sampler…

Jonny Trunk: That’s all right, that one. That’s quite good fun.

AD: I had that playing in the background the other night and got hung up on a song and it turned out to be your “Kenwood 2.”

Jonny Trunk: Oh yes! I did that for a film about Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. I really like making loops. I really like loops. I think I’ve got an ear for a good loop and I really like finding loops and then another loop that goes with that loop that makes a third thing. That’s what I really like doing. If the loop’s good I can listen to it for hours and just get lost in the loop. That’s probably my problem—I just get lost in two bars repeating themselves all the time. One day, who knows? When I’ve got a bit more time.

AD: Lastly, what’s in the store for the future? You’ve obviously got such a penchant for diversification with your books and merch and projects, so I think you’re well suited for the digital age and hopefully you can manage with these manufacturing delays.

Jonny Trunk: They’re not very good at all, the manufacturing delays. Everyone thought they were going to get slightly better but in actual fact they got slightly worse. I sent some records to get made in February that are still not back. I don’t know, I’m okay. What I feel sorry for is if you’re a new label and you licensed something or just put your money into something and it’s gonna be a year before you get the money back. Whereas it used to be like a three month period where you’d send off your masters and your artwork. Four to six weeks later, you’d get the record back and you’d immediately start selling it so you could get some of your money back. Now that’s over a year’s period. It’s just not as much fun selling stuff digitally. It’s just not very fun, it’s just a bit crap. But it’s alright, I think I can survive. You just have to realize that everything is longer—the lead times are longer, so you just have to keep your customers happy with other things. Or give away stuff, I don’t know. Books are being delayed as well. Everything’s being delayed, everything’s gone nuts. But I’ve got lots in store. I’ve got lots more music. At least three more books. There’ll be more prints, there’ll be more everything. I just keep going. Until someone tells me to stop.

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