You might not necessarily recognise John Thirkell if you crossed him in the street, however there's a pretty good chance that you have undoubtedly heard his extraordinary horn playing skills on one of the many hundreds of records he has played on over the past 30 years or so.
To those unfamiliar with Mr Thirkell, he is recognizably one of Britain's top trumpet and flugelhorn players. Since the 1980's, he has played on literally hundreds of pop, rock, and jazz recordings and has also appeared on 18 No.1 records. He was on at least one album in the UK charts continuously, without a break, for over 13 years and in 2009 he had two consecutive UK No.1 singles with Pixie Lott. John was the first person to be inducted into the Musician’s Union “Hall of Fame”. Some of his playing credits include Level 42, George Michael, Jamiroquai, Grace Jones, UB40, Cher, Tina Turner, Pet Shop Boys, Swing Out Sister and many more.
Having been fortunate enough to have met John on several occasions, one cannot help but notice his enchanting charisma. Not only is he a thoroughly entertaining performer on stage as he is off it, but someone who is incredibly down-to-earth, with a happy-go-lucky charm that just sweeps you up. He graciously invited me to join him and the rest of the band on their tour bus during the first leg of their European tour with Lisa. With not a sign of any pre-stage nerves one might expect before the start of a show, John seemed rather chilled and relaxed as we sat down and chatted away just as if we were old friends.
He begins by telling me how he had officially retired as a professional musician just over twelve years ago. Nevertheless, he still keeps himself busy as he is currently a co-owner and director of an online music-recording platform called PureSolo. Despite the fact of running his business, John is still very much in demand as a musician.
So being the inquisitive type, I wanted to know what still attracted him to continue playing the trumpet and touring with Lisa. And how does he find it being cooped up on a tour bus for a month?
John: You know what Bev, I really like it! I've always, done a lot of touring over the years. And as you may or may not know, I sort of retired from playing music about 12 or13 years ago. I stopped playing professionally and I only do the Lisa tour, coz I love her and she’s my friend. I love everybody in the band and it’s really, really good fun!
Bev: Since I also happen to love Lisa, do you think there's any chance that I might be able to get a job in the band, playing the "triangle" perhaps?
John: Oh most definitely! We need a good triangle player, Snowboy struggles with that at times… (both of us crack into laughter).
So for me, doing this is really about fun. I don’t play professionally any more as such, as I have a business to run. Anyway, back in the day, we didn't use to do the bus thing. We used to fly everywhere and I was a little bit worried about it I must admit. Especially as there are some pretty long journeys. But actually, I'm the person who likes it the most.
John: Yeah… it’s bizarre. You know what, at the end of the last European tour, I only found out a week before that it was gonna be bus all the way and I said to Walter, (the tour manager) “ I don’t know if I can do this Walt” and he said, “come on Johnny man, don’t be such a poof” so I said, “Ok I’ll do it, but I’m not driving all the way back from Milan. Book me a flight, i'll pay for it”. So he booked me a flight and I gave it away! By the time I got to the end, I was having so much fun, that I actually gave it away to one of the guys in the crew. Look, part of it’s a camaraderie thing, but we do get on each others nerves after a bit.
Bev: Who gets on who’s’ nerves the most?
John: Oh Micky, he gets on everyone’s nerves…hahaha! No I’m kidding you know Mick and I were schoolboys together. So there’s very little that goes unsaid between Micky and I. It’s all banter you know what I mean? It’s all good!
Bev: When did you first pick up a trumpet?
John: I was 14, I suppose. Seriously, you know what; I only started the trumpet to get out of games!
Bev: So it was Mick who was the sportsman out of the two of you then?
John: It’s not that I wasn't a sportsman; it’s just that I didn't like the cold. We played rugby at school; you know what I mean… In the winter rugby’s a horrible game to play, because the ground is hard, that was horrible. So my mate said to me, “Why don’t you join the school band?” So that’s what I did. Then after, I joined the local brass band.
Bev: So tell us where you grew up?
John: I'm from the North-east of England. In fact if you've ever seen the film Billy Elliot, that was actually filmed in the village where I grew up called Easington Village. And when I left school, I worked down that pit.
Bev: You worked down the coal mines?
John: Yeah I did that when I left school. That’s all there was to do at the time where I come from. But it doesn’t exist any more.
Bev: So you mentioned earlier that you were schoolboys with Mick (Donnelly)?
John: Sort of. Well up to a point. I went to a grammar school and he went to an “approved school” (John bursts into another fit of giggles).
Bev: What happened after you left school?
John: So I went down the pits for 2 years. But that took me about five minutes to work it out that I wasn't gonna do that for the rest of my life. So I went to night school and got some A Levels and then I went to university.
Bev: When did you have your first musical break, so to speak?
John: Well I did music at Leeds University. Leeds is quite a progressive place. It was the first university in Britain to do a light music jazz, sort of popular music course. So I did that. I was just in a pub one day in Leeds, and a friend introduced me to this fella called Mike Potts who was also a trumpet player.
He said “Hey Mike, John’s here’s a trumpet player as well…and I said “what are you up to Mike? he said, “Oh I’m playing on the QE2 at the minute” and I said, ”that must be great fun” and he said” to be honest, I’ve had enough, I’m sick of it and I'm actually looking for someone else to take over from me”. So I said…Well I’ll take over from you if you want” and then he said, “Really? When can you start?” and I said, “When do you want me to start?” He said, “well can you go the day after tomorrow…?” and I said ”Yeah!” So I did and then off I went. The next day, I just walked out of university. I never finished my course. I went straight down to Southampton and jumped on the QE2. I did a year on the ship and then when I came back, I went straight down to London.
Bev: What was it about London that attracted you?
John: It’s the only place! If you wanna be a professional musician, it’s the only place to live.
Bev: How did you get yourself heard and what sort of things did you do to get noticed as a musician?
John: Well when I came back to London it’s the usual story, I started doing rubbish things, playing in bands, doing weddings, bar-mitzvahs. I was trying to make a name for myself. Well there was no magical transformation as such, but gradually, I slowly got the odd session here and there. But I’ll tell you that there was one big record for me. A band in the mid-80’s called “Swing-Out-Sister” they had a record called “Breakout” which I played on. That was really a pivotal thing for me because it was such a popular record at the time. It featured a lot of brass on there and I got a lot of studio work through that.
People were asking for that guy who did brass on “Breakout”.Then out of that I joined “Jamiroquai” that was the thing that drew me to Jay’s (Jay Kay) attention, this was before “Jamiroquai” were even famous. He rang me up, and at that time I was even more famous than him! He said ”listen you don’t know who I am and I’ve got no money, but will you come and play on my record?” and I said “OK whatever, if you can fit it around me then yeah, why not!" So I played on their first four albums and made a lot of money out of it. I did Jamiroquai for about 6 or 7 years.
Bev: Were you still doing session work in between working with Jamiroquai?
John: Yes, then I did 8 years or so in a band called Level 42, toured with them. Of course you’re not touring all year round, so I did other tours and other studio stuff. I worked with Bon Jovi, Tina Turner and lots of other artists.
Bev: What were you influenced by at that time?
John: MONEY!! Listen, if it’s not the music, it’s the money! Well that was part of it. But musically speaking most trumpet players are into Jazz aren't they, or supposed to be. I wasn't really; well I was a little bit. I just wasn't mad about Jazz technically speaking.
Bev: But don’t get me wrong, you just don’t find too many rock-bands as such, who have a horn section nowadays, do you?
John: Not really now…but you did in the 80’s though. Which is when I was sort of coming of age as it were? You know there were quite a lot of rock-bands with horn sections towards the end of the 80’s.
Bev: Are you still reaping in the rewards from those recordings back in the day?
John: Yeah I still get royalties, from those things oh yeah!
Bev: So when was the first time you got to work together with Lisa and how did that come about?
John: Well it was via Snake Davies. We've known each other for about thousand years! He also went to Leeds and he used to be Lisa’s sax player from the early days. But when he got into the band, there was no room for Johnny because of course Andy Morris was around in the beginning. But I was always around on the periphery because I knew Snake. We did all kinds of stuff together, The Brand New Heavies and all kind of bands.
So I was sort of around and I would come to the gigs and got to know Lisa and the band. Also Ian being a trombone player, so there’s a sort of a brass player’s affinity if you like. So I sort of knew them for a long time before. Then it all went a bit Chinese with Andy Morris and when he left the fold I just happened to be there. Snake said to Lisa and Ian, why don’t we get Johnny in? So off I went to Ireland, did a bit of rehearsal and then next thing I know I'm on tour with them.
Bev: Are we talking about 1993, around the “So Natural” era?
John: It might have been 93. I'm terrible with album names and timing.
Bev: So I imagine in between you were still working with other bands and artists?
John: Well that’s really the life of a musician. You kind of squash stuff around. For example, I may be going out and doing some stuff with Hugh Laurie later this year. But it will be dependent upon whether I’m available or can fit it around what’s happening with Lisa in September. See you know what, I’m not even a proper musician anymore and this is like a holiday for me.
Bev: Do you treat touring as a bit of fun nowadays?
John: Yeah, yeah…I look at it like this. We have a schedule, we tour on the bus overnight somewhere and then we’re in a place during the day. So I can also run my business on the road. I even spoke to the office this morning via Skype several times. I make sure everyone knows what they’re doing and what’s to be doing etc. You know its fine, I can handle it. I can run my business from anywhere.
Bev: I suppose then for you, the internet is must.
John: Yeah it is. It’s amazing. But it really makes no difference at all, I could be anywhere. In fact sometimes it works better for me being away, because when I’m in the office people keep coming up and asking me stuff. When I’m not there, 300 or 500 miles away, they can’t ask me any stuff. They can send me an email, but I can just not answer it. So in some ways its better, I’m probably more productive when I’m away. Certainly I have a very good team of people in the office and they just crack on.
Bev: Obviously you have to plan out your agenda throughout the year. How do you fit it all in around your business?
John: Actually we got an email this morning to see If I’m free on these particular set of dates. If everybody’s free and it all stacks up, then you know we will do it. It’s an expensive proposition taking all these musicians and team of people on the road
Bev: Will there be further dates between now and the British tour in September?
John: Not as far as I’m aware. Lisa does some things on her own or with a smaller band or set up. Its expensive to take the whole band.
Bev: That’s the thing isn't it, that many don’t get it when you’re an independent artist that the expenses are down to you.
John: It’s expensive! It’s very very expensive. We’re all sitting here with the meter running. You know there are 10 of us in the band, then there’s the crew, the boss, the hotels, and there’s this and there’s that, it is expensive.
Bev: The bigger record labels generally take care of the touring costs, don’t they?
John: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t; The music industry is really in trouble at the moment. But you know what? The most amazing thing is that Lisa and Ian, on their own have achieved what they've achieved. They've made their own record and put it out under their own steam without any financial assistance from anybody else. It’s a very brave move in this day-and- age as people are just not buying records any more.
Bev: Last summer you were at Gracielands recording your parts on Lisa’s album Seven. How many tracks were you part of?
John: It was five or maybe six tracks. I’m not even sure now. Some of the tracks were recorded in LA.
Bev: Did you go over to record in L.A as well?
John: No I didn't, but there are plenty of decent musicians over in L.A and Ian and Lisa have a very long standing relationship with Jerry Hey. And just in case if anybody’s in any doubt, Jerry Hey is possibly the most decorated trumpet player on the face of the earth!
He’s played on everything from Earth Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, all the Thriller album that’s all Jerry Hey, all the brass arrangements all the orchestrations, everything, that’s Jerry Hey! All the Quincy Jones records all those amazing records that came out in that highly productive 90’s period is all Jerry Hey and I'm very proud to call him a friend. He is just amazing! He was my hero when I was a boy. If you asked me who I wanted to be, I would have said to you “Jerry Hey”!
Bev: Jerry did the orchestration and arrangements on “The Rain” which is an incredible song. Did you feel any pressure after hearing that and knowing that you were probably going to reproduce that sound live?
John: That’s an amazing orchestration on that song yeah. Look, there’s an element of reality that we have to face. So when they did “The Rain”, we’re just talking about the brass parts here, there’s four of them and they’re double tracking, so they record one set and then record another set over the top. So that’s eight brass voices on there, all of which belong to possibly the four best horn players in the world. So two people no matter how good you are, or bad in our case, just cannot recreate eight people. So it’s a different thing.
It's not only the brass parts; also the track had a huge orchestra on it. When you make a record like that, you have the luxury of being able to keep adding things, adding this and adding strings in there and some more strings on later. So you have that luxury when you’re making a record because you've got time. But live, you just don’t have that luxury because you can’t afford to hump all those musicians around Europe. So you have to necessarily change the arrangements somehow.
Actually to be fair, “The Rain” sounds pretty good live, it sounds alright! It doesn't sound like the original, but it isn't, it’s not going to. Forget the fact that those guys are much, much better players than Micky and I, but there are just more of them than us two.
Bev: But they’re not as good dancers as you two though, are they?
John: For sure, thats for sure…but who is Bev? Let’s be realistic! Our feet are a blur once we get going. (Uncontrollable laughter)
Bev: What's your favourite Lisa track that you enjoy playing live?
John: You know what, one of the songs that just about everyone in the bands loves is “So Be It”. The brass arrangements are pretty good on that one too…hahahaha!
Bev: Awesome horn arrangements John, chapeau! Do you ever feel under pressure or get nervous before going onstage?
John: Well it gets a bit boring waiting around for sound checks or just waiting to go on stage. So I tend to eat too much. That’s my problem, so when I get bored I tend to graze all day as we’re constantly surrounded by food. Other than that, I don’t feel remotely nervous at all.
Bev: What about the build-up before the show?
John: The band will do a sound check, generally speaking Lisa doesn't normally need to be at the sound check and do you know what, we have a fantastic crew, they really are brilliant. Walter is one of the sound engineers, front of house and the tour manager. He is really a top-notch guy. Meado the monitor guy, he’s the one who gives us the monitor mixes, he knows exactly what we need, so we rarely need to ask him for anything, because the sound is just right. It’s the same with Cuzzy and Paddy they are all just right on their game, so it’s really easy for us. There is nothing difficult about this job at all, which is why I do it.
Bev: Are there any times that you can remember, when on stage that things have gone wrong?
John: Oh that happens all the time, we just cover it up! Most things you can cope with. If the monitor goes, all that means is that you can’t hear yourself very well, but you just bat on. We’re not paid to stand around moaning, we’re paid to stand and entertain people, so that’s what we do. If stuff goes wrong, we just get on with it. But you know, Lisa is the least divaesque person that I've ever worked with and I've worked with them all, trust me!
Bev: Whitney Houston?
John: Oh my, Whitney Houston…well I could tell you some amazing stories, about her!
But Lisa is the least divaesque person that I know! She’s just cracks on with it, she’s a proper pro’, she’s brilliant. She sings like a bird, there are never any complaints. I've known her for twenty five years and I don’t think I've ever once heard her shout at anyone in the crew or the band. She doesn't get upset or frustrated. I've never ever come across her flouncing off; she doesn't get the arse-ache with anyone.
Bev: I read a post in your very entertaining tour blog about the recent rehearsals and the changes made here and there. Are you all going to be playing with the same playlist tonight?
John: Yeah, I've been going on about it in the blog. Rehearsals were a little bit chaotic, but it’ll be fine it always is. From a rehearsal perspective it’s more or less about the running order and how we get from one tune into another, those are the only danger points. We may even change stuff after the first or second show. Sometimes you put the running order together and you get out there on stage and it might be that that something just didn't work. So we might switch from say “Change” or “Live Together” for example. Tomorrow night might be different to tonight’s show. But one things for sure, the dancing from us will be SUPERB! (bursts into laughter)
Bev: Do you have any say about the running order of the songs?
John: Do you know what Bev, seriously I think that too many people have too much say, yeah I do. Personally I would rather have it that someone would just make the decisions. "80’s Dave" is brilliant; he’s a very fair and democratic MD (Musical director).
Bev: Nevertheless, Ian and Lisa are going to have the final say I suppose!
John: Kind of! Look, a lot of thought goes into it and "80's Dave" puts a lot of thought in there, so we made some changes to the running order before Lisa and Ian came in and some of the changes they liked and some they didn't. I think sometimes it’s a bit too democratic, so occasionally at rehearsals it can be a little bit like, “Why don’t we try this, and why don’t we try that?”
In terms of the running order which was your original question, we all try putting that together or Dave extensively does, in an order which will be good for a great show and good for Lisa. Then she may come in and have some feedback and if she doesn't like this or doesn't feel comfortable, for example; one of the key changes of one piece was a bit funny compared to that of another one. But ultimately, even though she’s not necessarily involved on the decision process all the way along, it’s ultimately about what she wants and we understand that as we go along.
Bev: So effectively, the whole process is all about keeping Lisa in mind.
John: Obviously, Lisa is the most important and has to be. The whole thing is about her, it’s not about us or anybody else, it’s all about her. Everybody who comes to see the shows comes to see Lisa, they don’t come to see us. Our job is to make it as good for Lisa and make it sound exactly how she wants it and for us to make her life as easy as possible, that’s why we’re here. So ultimately, it’s all about Lisa. By nature, we are very protective of her and we do what we think is best out there and hopefully everyone’s happy at the end of the day! And you know what, it’s the easiest job in the world, especially because we all love her!
John Thirkell was interviewed by - © Bev Nathan for www.lisastansfield.net on the European Tour of Seven.
Photos courtesy of John Thirkell and video clip courtesy of Jamiroquai - Check out John's tour blog and follow him here on Twitter