King Crimson’s Jakko Jakszyk: No Lineup Compares to This One
King Crimson have never not been interesting. Since forming in 1969, Robert Fripp has led the band threw various incarnations. Musicians have come and gone from the lineup over the years, but with each edition, Fripp has made sure the band has retained a certain spirit that can be traced back to its roots.
King Crimson are now touring the U.S., digging deep into their extensive catalog. And Fripp has once again switched things up. The band's current lineup includes guitarist and singer Jakko Jakszyk, who blends familiarity with new twists to the band's classic sound. He's been a Crimson fan since childhood, and working alongside Fripp as his right-hand man is a dream come true, he tells Ultimate Classic Rock.
How did you first get involved with Robert Fripp?
In the '80s, I was working as a solo artist and also as a session musician, and I worked on an album that did very well worldwide. And I got asked to co-write some stuff, and that album did very well, and my publisher did what publishers do: they come up with lists of other people who have been successful with the kind of asinine idea that if you put one person that's been successful with another who's been successful, you'll both be successful, which is nonsense. So they gave me a list of potential songwriting collaborators, and I'm not really that kind of guy, and this was all kind of accidental, but the one name that stood out among this list was Pete Sinfiled, who had become, in spite of his kind of art-rock beginnings with Crimson and later with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, he'd become this very successful commercial lyricist and had written for Diana Ross, Celine Dion and numerous others. So I chose him, and I met him, and we got on very well, and I think we only ever wrote one song together. Basically it was an excuse to hang out with him. He was a great raconteur and bon viveur. So we'd go have meals and he'd have these endless stories. Then in 1997, he invited me to launch of an album called Epitaph, which was live recordings of the original [King Crimson] from '69. Robert had a suggestion of putting the original band together, but just for like a one-off short tour, and this was go for a short period, but then I think Greg Lake decided not to do it, then Ian McDonald said he didn't want to do it, but the idea of a band playing the older material, because the then-current version of Crimson really didn't touch on anything prior to 1980. So there was this idea of former Crimson members playing this stuff, and Peter said, "I know this guy, he plays guitar and sings, and he can play Robert's parts, and he's a big Crimson fan, so we formed this group called 21st Century Schizoid Band." And ironically enough, I was the only member in the band that hadn't been in King Crimson.
After the first period of rehearsals, my phone rang one afternoon, and it was Robert Fripp. And Robert Fripp had been a childhood hero of mine; he'd been the reason I had picked up a guitar in the first place. Crimson were my favorite group, and there he was on the phone. I'd never spoken to him, never met him, and he'd phoned to ask me how rehearsals were going, and I said, "Do you want and honest answer?" and he said, "Yes, please,' and I said, "It's been three of the most unpleasant weeks of my life." And he laughed and said, "I thought that might be the case." So we became kind of friendly, and he became kind of my personal Crimson counselor I could call and tell him about this thing. Then I kept bumping into him, and he invited me round to his house, and we chatted about stuff, and then he invited me down to the studio in Wiltshire and we improvised for a day. He was doing soundscapes and I improvised over it, and at the end of the day, he gave me a hard drive with the music we had created that day, and I said, "What do you want me to do with this?" and he said, "Oh, I'm sure you'll think of something." It was like a test, you know. So I went and created these pieces and songs on top of what we'd done, and that eventually became an album called Scarcity of Miracles. I said, "It'd be good to get a real drummer. Do you mind if we use my friend Gavin [Harrison]?" -- who had already been in a version of Crimson. Then he suggested using Tony [Levin], so that's kind of how it all started.
Is the current lineup the same lineup that was on the road last year?
No, last year we performed as a seven piece. Those seven are still there. That's Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey who plays drums but also plays keyboards very well, Mel Collins, Tony Levin, myself and Robert. Then earlier on this year, Bill Rieflin came back, but just as a kind of keyboard guy, but he's unable to do this leg of the tour, but we have a replacement, Chris Gibson. Robert liked the idea of some of the sonic stuff that provided.
I know you have been a lifelong fan of Crimson. Did you ever get to see them early on?
Yeah! It was July 1971, I went to see King Crimson, local show for me, at a place called Watford Town Hall, about 15-20 miles outside of London. I'd become a fan. A next-door neighbor of mine had played me "21st Century Schizoid Man," and it blew me away. I was 11. I went out and bought the only album of theirs they had in my local record shop, which was In the Wake of Poseidon, and then they toured the following year and I went to see them. I had that over romanticized teenage feeling when I left that show that somehow, my life had been changed. And actually, it turns out it really had.
It really is an amazing line to draw, from that concert to now actually being in that band.
I know! It's insane! And while the familiarity of the role, and it becomes what you do, I'm still in touch with my 13-year-old self who can't quite believe it. You know, there are moments where I think, "I cannot believe I'm doing this!"
What are some of your other early influences?
The early '70s was a rich tapestry of stuff, especially where I lived in and around London. There was a little club in Watford that held like 250 people, and I used to go and see Genesis there. They hadn't yet released Nursery Cryme and Steve Hackett had only just joined. Another band I saw, probably the band I saw most frequently, was Henry Cow. I thought they were astonishing. I was a big fan of Gentle Giant; it was just an exciting time. There was lots of new interesting music. I'm a teenager and I'm discovering this stuff on a daily basis almost. Most of it was English, because that's who we were physically able to go and see.
Are you changing up the set lists during the tour?
We change it every day. We started this current project in 2013, with the first tour in 2014, every tour we add two or three pieces -- sometimes they're brand new compositions, something Robert's written, something I've written with Robert, but also we go into the back catalog. So we've now amassed four hours’ worth of repertoire that we've got under our belt. Some stuff comes and goes, some stuff we rehearsed and played last year and we're not currently playing it, but it might just turn up. Robert's quite fond of dropping things in when you least expect it. We've added four tunes to the set for this particular tour, and we'd already added a substantial amount of stuff for the first part of the U.S. tour which started in June. So compared to last year, I think there's about eight or nine additional pieces that we didn't play last year.
Have there been any songs that have surprised you that he's pulled out?
Yeah, I'll tell you what he did to me. That sounds like an accusation, and in a way, I guess it is. When we were playing in Canada in 2015, he suddenly said, "Jakko, do you know 'Peace'? I thought we might look at that. We might reappraise it, and do it in a different way." I said okay, and so the next soundcheck, we kind of messed around doing it with keyboards, and he said, 'I'm not sure, let's forget about it, but then he called me the next day and said, "You know, I think it sounds better simple, just guitar and vocal," and I said, "Right, can you play the guitar part?" and he said, "No, not in the new tuning." So I’m going to have play the guitar part? He said yeah. So in effect, it's just me then. So, I learned the guitar part but I kind of stumbled at soundcheck, and he said, "Don’t worry, we've got a few more shows in Canada, then a week off in Japan. We'll do it in Japan." I got to the next gig, and it was on the set list, and I had to do it, and it’s just me. He does have a tendency to do stuff like that.
I would imagine that's exciting for the band, changing things up like that.
Yeah, well, I mean there's a benefit to both really. It definitely keeps you on your toes, and there are some tunes you look forward to with a degree of dread. [Laughs] There's a lot of tunes where there's big improvised sections, and then there's others that are so tightly composed and we're all playing in different time signatures and its all kind of like a jigsaw where there's no allowance for screwing up. Whether you like it or loathe it, I can honestly say there isn't another group like this on the planet. I don't think there's anything comparable to this particular lineup.
Are there plans for this lineup to make an album of new material?
The truth is I'm kind of writing with, and without, Robert all the time, and Robert is coming up with stuff, and there's various pieces in different stages, some demos are quite finished and some that aren't. We have more than enough for an album. If or when, or exactly how that happens, I don't know because we live in a different world. I mean, historically, you toured to promote and album, we don't live in that world anymore. The world of streaming and whatever has changed that beyond recognition.
I know a few years ago Robert stated he was done with the music business and touring and so forth, but he obviously changed his mind. Was it a surprise when Fripp decided to resurrect King Crimson again?
He had a very, very long ongoing spat with Universal and it would drain him really, and take up so much of his time. I remember one instance when we were working together at the studio in my house and he came 'round one morning and said he had a threatening letter from the solicitors representing the label because he had publicly claimed that they were selling the album digitally and they never had the rights. He was told this was defamatory and he had to stop. He said, "You know what I also got in the mail that morning along with the letter from the solicitor? I got a royalty statement from the record label for the digital sales. Brilliant, isn't it?" I think so much of that took up so much time in his brain.
There was [also] that weird interim thing that we seldom talk about, but manager David Singleton had been to Japan and he happened to be there the same time that Steve Hackett was playing and promoting the Genesis Revisited. David was telling Robert about it and said there should be a band doing this for Crimson, so Robert decided to put a band together that he wasn't in. So he called us up and we all went down to the office and had a meeting and we planned doing some shows, Robert named the band Crimson DNA and the lineup was Gavin on drums, Mel Collins on sax, me on guitar and John Wetton. I think he thought, "Hey, I'd like to be in a band like that." This is just speculation on my part, but the timing of it suggests that. And literally a week or so later, I got the phone call saying he'd reformed Crimson and did I want to be lead singer and guitarist.
You were signed to Stiff as a solo act at one point, correct? How did that come about?
I was signed as a solo artist to many labels, Stiff was indeed one of them.
Did you release anything more than a single?
As a kid, I used to think the hard bit was getting a record deal. Turns out, that was the easy bit. In 1980, I signed to a label called Chiswick Records and I made an album. There's some interesting people on that album, Dave Jackson from Van Der Graaf Generator and Dave Stewart from Hatfield and the North, and we made this album, a single came out and didn't do as well as everybody hoped. And then the label got into trouble financially and ceased to exist, so the album never came out. I then signed to Stiff Records, where, again, I did a single, which Dave Stewart produced, which got a lot of attention, but wasn't a hit, and I made an album, a very expensive album, and then Stiff went under and that album never came out, and then I signed to a subsidiary of Virgin. I made an album for Virgin, and that never came out either. I thought, I'm nearly 30 and I'm still waiting for my career to start. Unbelievably frustrating. So when that last solo record didn't come out, I just decided to do music that I loved again, because I kind of got sidetracked down into a pop area. I had it in my head I was going to smuggle in some musicality when somebody wasn't looking, put in some odd harmonic and chordal choices.
What was the story on the Kings of Oblivion? I actually used to have that record!
Did you really? You're the first, and doubtless last, person to ever mention the Kings of Oblivion! [Laughs]
I used to buy a lot of stuff on Bam Caruso because they did all these really cool '60s psych reissues.
Bam Caruso was the brainchild of one of my best friends, a guy called Phil Smee. One of the things he was doing was licensing pretty obscure music from the '60s and putting them out on his label, and doing it with Phil's customary care and attention, with beautiful sleeves and such. I was chatting to him about this one day, and he'd got the rights to a '60s band from L.A. called the Accents. Gavin and myself are big Frank Zappa fans, as was Phil, and I said we'd love to do a Frank Zappa pastiche record, and he said, "Well, why don't we do something and record it so it sounds as if it was made back then? Create some fake history about this group, and release it as if it were one of these kind of reissued obscurities from the '60s? So that's what we did. This was in that period after trying to go the commercial route and not getting anything out. It was the most fun I'd ever had in a recording studio. We laughed our heads off, and we would write these ridiculous and record them. We spent a day improvising dialogue, all this kind of quasi 'Suzy Creamcheese' stuff. The liner notes said that Phil had accidentally found the tapes of this legendary album that was never released because all the material got lost in a fire.
Do you think progressive rock, or prog, has finally shed its stigma given to it after punk happened?
Yeah, I think it has been readdressed and it has sort of come out of the closet. I think the trouble with it was it became a caricature of it, which was kind of unfair. It was based on aspects of one or two bands, then everybody got labeled with it. At the time, it wasn't even called progressive, it was just underground or art rock. The progressive epithet came some years later, I think. I guess the bands that the punks kind of had anger with were the likes of Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, where it had appeared to have become incredibly overblown, playing stadiums, and they got this light show, pianos turning upside down. But the trouble with anything like that, you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And unlike any other categorization of music, you do know what you're gonna get. There is a certain kind of harmonic progression, a certain kind of lyrical attitude, certain kind of phrases -- you know what you're getting. But in what is referred to as progressive rock, you could play tracks off half a dozen albums that certainly don't sound like the same band or in the same genre, because you're listening to Gentle Giant where the keyboard player studied Elizabethan music at the Royal Academy. But that doesn't sound anything like the banshee howl of Peter Hammill, which doesn't sound like ... you know what I'm saying. One of the things about the kind of modern prog, or neo-prog or whatever they call it, is that the music at the time was from people from incredibly diverse musical backgrounds, just messing with the form and trying to stretch it and see where it would go. Which is how you ended up with such disparity of styles and approaches, whereas the kind of neo-prog thing is kind of self-referential.
The difference with bands like Genesis, Crimson, Van Der Graaf and so on was that at the root of it all were good songs, not just musical gymnastics.
Absolutely, yeah! I think that's very true of Zappa as well. He always had this reputation for having incredibly difficult music to deal with, but in the middle of it all is this extraordinary composition. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant tunes. And there's a lot of groups that are technically brilliant, but I can't hear any music, any songs.