Do What You Love: 25 years of Trunk Records
I first heard Jonny Trunk’s name in 2012. My Dad sent me an interview he’d recorded with him as part of Jonny’s long-running radio show on Resonance FM, ‘The OST Show’.
Despite the fact that this was long before my personal interest and involvement in radio had reared its head, there was something about his enthusiasm and offbeat delivery that made me stop and pay attention.
Then there was the music. My Dad had shown me a lot of music in the past that, as a pessimistic, sulky teenager, I’d been quick to cast aside as rubbish, but this time I actually listened.
Being under the impression in my late teens that I was a mod, composers like Alan Hawkshaw and Jean Claude Pierric were a huge part of my musical orbit. This fusion of groove, library music, jazz and soundtrack teetered on the brink of cheese but it transported me to another time; a time that, during this period of my life, I felt I belonged in more than the present day.
I imagined this notion was true for Jonny too. If the music wasn’t enough of a giveaway, his thick black spectacles and woollen vest and tie combo reminded me of my own penchant for shift dresses and buckled loafers.
After investing time in his radio shows, I came to learn that the type of sounds that had been so formative for me as a teenager also formed the backbone of his label: Trunk Records.
Founded in the mid-90s, the imprint has long since cemented its reputation as a purveyor of weird and wonderful sounds. Not averse to taking risks or putting in the hours to track releases down, Trunk’s catalogue boasts archival material that spans, but isn’t limited to, early TV and film music, experimental electronics, sample-worthy cool jazz and Radiophonic music from Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and my Dad — hence Jonny extending the Resonance FM invitation to him.
After my Dad’s passing, I felt even more impelled to find out where Jonny’s interest in these off-kilter sounds stemmed from. As fate would have it, nearly a decade after he reissued my Dad’s LP, I was handed the opportunity to sit on the other side of the interview table with him as his label turned the ripe old age of 25.
Surrounded by his extensive record collection, I was greeted with that same quirky charisma I’d previously only heard over the airwaves. Within minutes of talking, it was clear that after all this time his passion for doing this hadn’t dwindled. That said, only someone who truly lived for sharing these musical oddities could have reached this milestone. But back in 1996 when he launched the label, making it this far hadn’t even entered Jonny’s mind.
“That wasn’t really the intention, it was just a thing I wanted to do. I just wanted to make a record because I was really into records,” he explains. “I wanted to make available things that I was listening to that you couldn’t get — that’s what it was all about at the start.”
At the time library music and soundtrack wasn’t really for sale in shops; rather, as Jonny puts it, these kinds of records ‘would be on the floor or under something’, slipping under the radar and being ignored by most.
“It wasn’t what people were interested in,” he tells me. “But there were a few of us who were definitely really on it and thought it was worthy of people’s attention.”
“I just sort of knew that if I put something out it would work.”
Soon after, one of his fellow library music compatriots released a sound gallery of groovy, easy listening music which Jonny remembers people going nuts for. This coincided with a shift in people’s listening habits which he attributes to ‘bands like Stereolab, who were bringing weird references into the pop arena’.
“I just sort of knew that if I put something out it would work, because there were enough people going to record shops at the time who were getting slightly more attuned to this other stuff that wasn’t really being noticed at all.”
So the stage was set for Trunk Records to embark on release number one: “The Super Sounds Of Bosworth”. Spanning jazz, electronics, fusion and improvised compositions, the record collated music from the Bosworth Music Archive, all of which had never been commercially released before.
“It had all these mad names for bands like The Men Of Vision and The Jazz Architects. Everyone thought it was made up,” Jonny remarks with a snicker. “They thought it was someone going ‘Oh I know that people want to hear this kind of thing, let’s make it up’, but it wasn’t, it was actually real and eventually people started going ‘Ah it’s this thing called Library music’”.
While the Bosworth releases were ongoing, Jonny was also on the hunt for what would arguably become Trunk Records’ most acclaimed release.
“At the same time I was into the music from this film” – he gestures to The Wicker Man poster mounted on the wall behind him – “which I was trying to find because I was a soundtrack collector. I’d realised that this wasn’t available, it had never been made available, and I thought the music was brilliant. So I was chasing that, making various enquiries using the telephone and fax machine, writing letters and knocking on doors and stuff like that.”
To date Trunk Records have pressed 3000 copies of the record and sold them all. But the path to releasing this kind of music isn’t always a straightforward one. It’s comparable to detective work; following leads, tracing old numbers and tracking down relatives.
“You’re dealing with a lot of death. A lot of people aren’t alive anymore, a lot of tapes have gone. There’s masses and masses of film music and TV music, and a lot of the stuff that I’m into, where you will never find the tape. You probably won’t find the owner or the composer. I send out missives all the time, just out into the Internet darkness with addresses or emails I find, just to say ‘Hello, are you the relation of this person? Do you know anything about this? If so, please email me back’. You just keep going.”
“You’re dealing with a lot of death. A lot of people aren’t alive anymore, a lot of tapes have gone.”
Of course, more recently the Internet has made this process a lot easier but, unsurprisingly, it’s also meant a huge increase in competition.
“More people can do what I do now. Before that you have to be pretty dogeared [to do what I do] because you have to send letters off, chase phone numbers, whereas now, chances are you can just put it in and you’ll find it. Some people even have websites.”
But while accessibility may have blasted the gates wide open, sometimes it’s still the simple, old school methods of communication that yield the most exciting results.
On a recommendation from friend and comedian Stewart Lee, Jonny was introduced to “Galactic Nightmare” – a one man Space Opera, recorded over a five year period, which had previously only been available on mail-order cassette through a computer magazine in 1986.
“You had to send in 50p and then he’d dub it off for you. He just made them to order.” Jonny explains. “I eventually tracked him down by finding the original magazine and then writing to the address in the advert. A week later I got this email saying ‘Hi, it’s me. I’m still here!’ It was just absolutely magic. I just loved the fact that the guy was still at the same house. It was almost like the most obvious thing. You could do Google searches but it was just sending a letter to the address on an advert that was 30 years old.”
Jonny says he’s met with a lot of surprise during these encounters; that many of the composers and musicians had dismissed their old material as ‘worthless junk’. Then low and behold Jonny comes along decades later and manages to make them a bit of money for it — call it one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
This was literally the case for British post-punk band The Jellies and their first and only record “Jive Baby On A Saturday Night”. After not having much luck selling the pressing – which now fetches over £500 on Discogs – to shops back in 1981, the duo ended up throwing them away. Luckily Jonny managed to get his hands on a copy, reissuing it in 2010 and locking them in a sync deal in the process.
“They’d made 300 or something but they ended up just putting them in a kitbag and chucking them out. Then 30 years on, I got it on some Smart Metre advert for them and they got about £10,000 each or something. Sometimes these remarkable things happen.”
But while Jonny regails plenty of success stories, there’s also a whole bunch of records that have slipped through his fingers. Not that he minds much, he’s no longer precious about ticking off everything on his wantlist, as he rightly points out there’s ‘so much unreleased weird music out there’ that’s still yet to be discovered.
“You can’t find everything. You could spend a week intensively looking for something and then think ‘God really? Is anyone going to want to hear it apart from me anyway?’ You could spend 10 years looking for something and then only sell 200 copies — it’s great that that’s happened but time to numbers sold equation…”
“You have to realise that the stuff I do, you hardly sell anything. It’s enough to get your money back and have a drink at the end of the week, but it’s not done to make vast sums of money, at all. It’s done because you can’t help it.”
“You can’t find everything. You could spend a week intensively looking for something and then think ‘God really? Is anyone going to want to hear it apart from me anyway?’”
This is truly the essence of why Trunk is still going today and why he has no plans to stop anytime soon. Because he quite literally can’t.
His anniversary release encompasses this lifelong obsession. In name and content, it’s the embodiment of Jonny’s 25 year label journey thus far. An anthology of Trunk classics and unreleased finds, encased in an original David Shrigley artwork, “Do What You Love” compiles 33 tracks of everything from weirdo electronics, British jazz and Drama Workshop recordings to BBC holding music, TV themes and spooky children singing.
“That pretty much sums up what I do,” Jonny chirps as he traces his finger down the tracklist. “This is all the areas I’m into. It’s all the music that in about 1990 was seen as being total crap. And I think it isn’t.”
Jonny’s the first to admit Trunk Records is, and has always been, a selfish project. It’s perhaps why he’s never upscaled and why, artwork and mastering aside, he still does everything himself.
“I’m too much of a control freak and I’m not sure I’d want anybody working for me. It’s just all me. I don’t see the point in expanding, then it wouldn’t be Trunk Records anymore. It would be some weird record company and I can’t do that.”
Just like our shared hankering for the ’60s, I found Jonny’s integrity and his view on putting your passion before monetary gain chimed with my own. Having left the corporate world a few years ago to work in independent music, this subject was something I’d had to grapple with on several occasions, but these existential crises always reached the same conclusion: do what you love.
Trunk Records is proof that doing just that can sustain you, not just creatively but physically too. It doesn’t matter how unique or unusual your interests and exploits may be, Jonny believes there’s room for everyone to succeed without compromise.
“If I can make a life in music, anyone bloody well can. I’m in such a weird area, it’s such a funny area of music, and it’s possible to survive in a tiny niche. It’s a tiny niche and it’s not getting any bigger, but it’s still there.”