Johnny Thirkell is one of the most recorded trumpet players still working today. Through the 80s and 90s, as well as being a member of Level 42, Swing Out Sister and Jamiroquai, he has also worked with George Michael, Bruno Mars, Phil Collins, Pet Shop Boys, Kylie Minogue, Eric Clapton, Buddy Rich, The Who and Tina Turner. He has performed on over 6000 recordings including 23 No.1 records – most recently the Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson smash, “Uptown Funk”. The list goes on and on!!
For 10 years, John had a self-imposed break from the trumpet to concentrate on his various businesses in music and technology, but he is now back playing again and very graciously agreed to meet me in a my local pub to discuss his career…so far!
JH: What got you interested in the trumpet to start off with?
JT: Well an old friend of mine from school in the North-East of England made me want to start. Ken Brown, now 2nd trumpet with the Hallé Orchestra was a boy-wonder cornet player at school and I saw the kudos that this got him at school. This piqued my interest, and then when I found out that band practise was the same time as 2nd period maths, I thought “I’m in, where do I sign?”. I loved it immediately, and there was nothing that I wanted to do more from that point onwards.
JH: And apart from Ken, where there any other particular musical influences or inspirations?
JT: My father took me to see the Syd Lawrence Orchestra at the Billingham Forum. Freddy Staff stood up and played ‘Manhattan’ and this blew my mind. The next big damascene moment was hearing Tower of Power for the first time! “THAT is what I want to do!”. This is probably what guided me towards the pop music scene. And then, before long I came across the playing of Jerry Hey. He is an incredibly nice guy, but his trumpet playing was sublime, and his arrangements are incredible. This is the pinnacle of the craft! Jerry was very much the inspiration for the ‘Phantom Horns’. We could never dream of coming close, but you always want to try!
I have worked with Lisa Stansfield on and off for 25 years and on our most recent album and the previous one, Jerry did half of the horn section stuff in LA, and I did the other half in Rochdale! Trust me, when you listen to the album, you can tell who is who! For me that is such a thrill. This guy has been my idol all through my career. They say “never meet your heroes” but it was amazing having lessons with him.
JH: So, talking about horn sections, when you set up ‘Phantom Horns’ was there a particular identity or sound that you wanted?
JT: No. Really, we wanted to be able to adapt to whatever the artists and producers wanted. Flexibility and versatility were absolutely key. Our job as a horn section is to blend and provide what fits with the particular artist. I have recently been going through a load of old recording and video clips, and I was struck how we sounded incredibly different from project to project. I think that if a band booked the Tower of Power horns they would be wanting and expecting that particular sound. Our job was to fit in!
JH: I really like the incredible stat about your chart appearances. Can you tell me about that!?
JT: Yes, I was on at least one album in the UK charts without a break for 13 years and 4 months. This was with dozens of different acts through that period. At one stage there were 11 albums in the top-50 that I was playing on at the same time! I think that this is not symptomatic of being earth-shatteringly brilliant, more that I always had a business mind. I would approach my work as business, and on keeping good working relationships with people and always treating the artists and their music with respect. If a parent came up to you with their baby, you wouldn’t tell them that it was ugly! It is the same with musicians and their music. You have to treat people well and remember how important it is to them. You also have to remember that once your name is on an album, it is there forever! If I was not happy with the way that I had played on a particular take, I would sabotage it to make sure that nobody would ever hear it. It didn’t make me popular with other musicians on some occasions, but it is important that you take pride in everything that you do. If you don’t, it will come back to haunt you.
JH: Through busy patches and big tours, how do you keep on top of your playing and technique?
JT: I certainly have a strict-ish 20 minute warm-up routine that I do when I am busy. I will vary it though. I had this idea a few years ago, coming back to playing again, that it would be a great idea for a book to talk to all the great players about their practise routines. I sat with lots of great players – Craig Wild, Andy Greenwood, Simon Gardner, Wayne Bergeron, Malcolm McNab, Gary Grant, Jerry Hey… and discovered that hardly any of them seem to have one. There’s the book out of the window!
I love to be organised with my practise and use various apps to keep track of what I have been doing. I suspect that I am rather OCD with it all, but it works!
I had some lessons actually with Gary Grant, Jerry Hey and Malcolm McNab. I love to go and talk to these guys, you can learn so much from them. I have been a massive Jerry Hey fan since I was around 18. He is so gracious and we spent a whole day at his house just talking about the trumpet.
JH: Does that leave you with a feeling of worry or anxiety if you haven’t been able to do your daily routine, like if you have just got off a flight or something?
JT: Yes I think sometimes it does. I also have an emergency short routine too, that I can do in the car that mainly involves buzzing. Jerry Hey would always do lots of practise including long warm-up/set-up before work. I asked what he does if he is on in LA at 9am in the morning. He answered very matter-of-factly that he would just get up at 4am so that he has time to do it and then travel in to the city!
JH: So here is the geek question… Equipment?
I’ve played on the same trumpet throughout my entire career. It is a 1962 Doc Severinsen Getzen Eterna, and I find that it just does everything that I need it to. It started out silver plated, I painted it white for a while during the Phantom Horns period, and it has now been beautifully replated like new. I am also playing on the same Marcinciewicz mouthpiece that I have had for years. I also use a Getzen Eterna Flugelhorn which I bought from Giardinelli’s in 1979. I absolutely love it and everyone comments what a big warm sound it has. I would not swap it for anything!
I must be any music shop’s worst customer! I think that given a bit of time, you end up sounding like yourself on any instrument setup. Some will obviously make it easier, but I have always felt comfortable on what I have so have had no reason to change.
JH: Would you say that the music industry has changed a lot over the years?
JT: Certainly. Some avenues for work have changed and dried up but there are also huge opportunities that have been created by the internet. Even I am able to build my own website, and I’m an idiot when it comes to that! If I can do it, there is hope for us all. I may have run a software company, but I got clever people to do all of that! I think that young people coming into the industry need to be exploring those avenues for promoting yourself and generating additional income streams. We have to be much more self-starting, the world has become much more democratised. In music there are all these outlets, and the long-term winners are the ones that really take advantage of this. Blockchain technology in the distribution of music is also going to keep changing the way that we all work, allowing us to track every digital file that we create.
Some younger UK players are really building a great reputation for themselves. Louis Dowdeswell for example – loads of the top guys in the US like Wayne Bergeron are talking about him. I love the idea of young people just making it happen. What’s really interesting is when I was a young player, all the ‘old-school’ trumpeters would tell us that they would hate to be starting out on a career then as there wasn’t enough work around. It didn’t deter us, and here I am, still playing the trumpet all these years later! So that is the lesson that I would pass on to these younger players. Forget what those ‘old farts’ said! The nature of the beast changes – there was a period of around 10 years where I was surviving entirely on studio work, but then you get a show or whatever, but it has started to get a little more fragmented now. The ‘playing’ industry is certainly different to how it was, but I do not think that it is necessarily worse. The smart ones are the ones that get with the program and make a career for themselves. What these young guys like Louis and Tom Walsh are doing is fantastic. They are really making use of all of their talents.
The key is to embrace a portfolio of careers, whether it be playing, teaching, writing, producing, and to put your heart and soul into it and make it the best that it can be. Embracing the changes and the new technology is key and makes for a much more interesting way to earn a living.
JH: There is a big emphasis on ‘identity’ isn’t there? And I think that if you embrace the fact that being a trumpet player today is so much more than just being a trumpet player, you are going to be a lot happier! And a lot of these younger guys are really going for it.
JT: Absolutely, and in my day, we were very much compartmentalised to an even greater extent. You were either a studio player, or a show player, or a function band player or whatever. That started to break down as there became less studio work and less work generally. I never forget hearing for the first time that a guy like Derek Watkins would take on a show – we were amazed that he would do that. We never thought of him as a ‘show player’ but looking back, that was ridiculous. Why on earth wouldn’t he? It is great work, and he was a great player.
Things are certainly more fragmented now in the music industry, but as I said the key is to embrace it instead of bemoaning it. It is like when the drum machines were first introduced. It showed up that there were 2 kinds of drummer – those that complained that the drum machine was taking some of their work, and those that went out and bought one! Who better to programme a drum machine than a drummer? And for me, that sums up the differences.
JH: So we have talked about compartmentalising and pigeon-holing players. What ‘slot’ would you have put yourself in 20 years ago?
JT: Pop. Almost exclusively pop music studio work. I would tour sometimes. There were 3 bands over the years that I had a spell in: Swing Out Sister, I did about 4 or 5 years. I was with Level 42 for 8 years, then after that, Jamiroquai. Now those bands only toured for part of the year so a lot of the rest of the time was studio work. Myself and sax-player Gary Barnacle set up a horn section called ‘Phantom Horns’ which we branded and treated like a business. For 15 years, I would say that I was exclusively pop music.
JH: And if you had to give yourself a job title now, and ‘pigeon-hole’ yourself, what would you say? I am guessing that it is probably a little more complicated!
JT: My wife describes me as a retired business man, but I am not so sure that I like that particular moniker! I am enjoying being a trumpet player again and feel that I am playing better than ever. For the first time ever, I have TIME to practise, and I am loving it! I had many years as a full-on professional musician, then 10 years as a full-on business person building up and running a number of businesses – throughout all of that though, inside I still feel like a trumpet player, and dress like one too!
I like to be stimulated and love being on the board for various things like the Music City Foundation in Sheffield, and also being involved with numerous projects involving music, education and technology. It keeps me busy and interested. Underneath it all though, there is no hiding from the fact that I am a ‘trumpet player’!
JH: So, here’s a strange thing: Reading your discography I see that you are listed as playing flute on a Kylie Minogue track. Surely that is a mistake?
JT: That is not a typo! Steve Anderson was the producer on that track and booked me on trumpet. We were at Olympic studios in London, I was the last instrument to go on and they needed rough mixes by that night. Steve was struggling to find good flute samples in a hurry so I said, “If it is not too difficult, I’ve got my daughter’s flute in the car!”. I went and got it and played one bar of flute, for no extra money I might add!
JH: Any other projects on the go at the moment?
JT: I am starting the next Lisa Stansfield tour in April 2018 for a couple of months, I then will be working with Marti Pellow for a month after that. I have also just finished doing some arrangements for a great new young artist. Hopefully I can say more soon!
JH: What advice would you give to a young JT?!
JT: Treat your career like a business and don’t worry about what other people think!
Please visit Johnny’s awesome website at johnnythirkell.com
Be sure to also check out the great videos and audio clips on there!