×
Home Music Music Features

King Crimson’s Singer on Joining His Favorite Band, Working With Robert Fripp

Ahead of the avant-rock icons’ 50th-anniversary tour, vocalist-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk talks honoring Crimson’s daunting legacy — and what their famously exacting bandleader is really like

Jakko Jakszyk performs with King Crimson in 2017.

Ahead of King Crimson's 50th anniversary tour, Jakko Jakszyk reflects going from Crimson "fanboy" to the group's lead singer.

Spike Mafford*

At a lengthy press event held at London’s October Gallery in April, King Crimson leader Robert Fripp kept coming back to a few interrelated themes: how happy he was with the band’s current lineup and how — maybe for the first time in Crimson’s 50-year history — outsize egos are entirely absent.

“No one has an agenda,” he said of the seven-member group that will play more than 50 shows this year starting June 10th. “Alternatively expressed, there are no prima donnas in this band.”

Speaking with Rolling Stone in the gallery’s elegant upstairs library after Fripp’s presentation, King Crimson’s current lead singer, Jakko Jakszyk, confirms that account.

“I think he’s right, there isn’t one of us that’s got this kind of ego,” Jakszyk says. “I’m part of this thing. I’m not down in the front saying ‘everybody look at me,’ as is the case in 99.9 percent of all traditional rock bands.”

Jakszyk, who has worked with a slew of pop, prog and art-rock groups during a career spanning more than 40 years, is right to point out that he’s not playing a traditional lead-singer role; by design, the current Crimson performs with its three drummers positioned in front of the rest of the band. But that doesn’t make Jakszyk’s job any less demanding — or impressive.

Unlike prior Crimson lineups, this one tackles pieces from the band’s entire repertoire every single night. That means that Jakszyk has to perform a half-century’s worth of material — originally sung by a series of very different vocalists, including Greg Lake on 1969’s iconic “21st Century Schizoid Man,” John Wetton on early-Seventies standouts like “Starless,” and Adrian Belew on Eighties gems like “Neurotica” — and somehow make it all hang together. He does just that, while also singing new pieces like “Meltdown” and pulling off highly demanding guitar parts, and makes it all look effortless.

It helps that he’s a self-described Crimson “fanboy” who got the call to join a new incarnation of the group after working with both the Fripp-approved 21st Century Schizoid Band — which featured other members of the group’s original lineup and played material from Crimson’s early era — and with Fripp himself on ambient instrumentals. Some of those latter collaborations fed into A Scarcity of Miracles, a 2011 album that Jakszyk and Fripp made with early-Seventies Crimson saxist Mel Collins, and two years later Jakszyk found himself fronting a new incarnation of King Crimson itself.

He talked to RS about what it’s been like to join the band that first made him want to play music, how he approaches the band’s legendary catalog and what’s next for the group.

Becoming King Crimson’s lead singer, especially this far into the band’s career, is a pretty daunting role to step into. When you first started this back in 2013, how did it feel?
I remember Robert said to me once, I think before he officially called me up — ’cause I’d met him and we’d done some work together, in fact, we’d made an album together. He played on my solo album, and then we did this album called A Scarcity of Miracles. And he said at one point, “Be careful what you wish for, ’cause it might come true.”

And I remember after he phoned up and said, “Would you [join the band]?” So I said, “Yeah.” I remember we sat in my studio, and we were talking about what tunes we might play, and he said, “I was thinking we could do [famously demanding 1973 instrumental] ‘Larks’ [Tongues in Aspic], Part One.'” As a fanboy, I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing. That’s not been played live since the Seventies.” And he said — because he plays in a different tuning now — “But you play in standard tuning, so you can play those parts.”

I said, “What, the fast cross-picking?” He said, “Yeah.” And I thought, “I can’t fucking play that — are you mad!” I didn’t say that, but that was my internal monologue. So, yeah, all of that was a challenge.

And, yeah, when we first got together, and I’m standing in a room, and I’ve got Robert to my left and Tony Levin [King Crimson’s bassist on and off since the early Eighties] to my right, and we’re doing those tunes, I thought… [Exhales for emphasis]

He won’t like this — I’ll tell you this and then I’ll tell you why he won’t like it. After rehearsal one day, he said, “Jakko, when you come in tomorrow, can you pay a bit more attention to what Tony and I are playing,” and I said, “Oh, God, am I really that un-together?” And he said, “No, no, we’re making infinitely more mistakes than you are,” which was a very nice thing to say.

And then, what I was going to tell you, the reason he won’t like that, is that I did an interview with Classic Rock magazine in England, and I got asked that question — I’m frequently asked about, you know: “Robert’s notoriously difficult. Is he difficult to work with? Is he cantankerous?” And I said, “Well, listen, you know, not to me, he hasn’t [been]. He’s been very nice.” And then the magazine got published the week we were starting to rehearse that particular tour, and he took me to one side and said, “I’ve just seen your interview with Classic Rock magazine.” And I said, “Yeah?” And he said, “Can you stop being so nice about me? It’s ruining my reputation.”

So I would like it in print that he’s fucking horrible [laughs].

As Robert was discussing in the press event, one of the unique features of this lineup is that it encompasses the full Crimson repertoire. What’s it like tackling such a diverse body of work every night?
You’ve got to remember, my next door neighbor played me King Crimson when I was about 11, 10 or 11, and it blew the top of my head off and I thought, “Fucking hell…” Even at that age, I could tell this music was coming from a different place. In England at the time, there was like a blues-rock explosion that begat what was originally called “underground music,” and even then, you could tell this was coming not from that place; this was somewhere else. I went out and bought an album and was really taken with it and I saw them a year later; I was 13. The lineup I saw live was the Mel Collins, Boz [Burrell], Ian Wallace — the [1971] Islands lineup. So, you have to remember, I was 13 when I saw that.

Two things: One, [hearing King Crimson is] what convinced me that I had to become a professional musician, and two, that music and other English music from that era informed how I sang, so all these years later, when I sing that stuff, I’m singing it as me; I’m not deliberately trying to sing it like any of the previous singers, but it just so happens that, you know, when I was learning my craft, that was what inspired me. Do you know what I mean? So the way I sing is informed by those people anyway. So if it does work — hopefully it does — then that’s why.

I think there’s certain aspects of the music where, as a kind of fanboy, I’m mindful of bits that I think need to be treated with care and then there are other bits where I play as me. And I think the beauty of this lineup is that it’s got people with a different array of experience. Like [current drummer] Gavin [Harrison], Gavin doesn’t really know King Crimson at all, so when Robert says, “Can you play this track off of this album?” it’s the first time he’s heard it; he’s never heard it before, and he thinks, “Oh, I could do something a bit more interesting with the drums,” so it’s a combination of somebody like Gavin and somebody like me, who grew up with this music. So hopefully that’s what gives it its authenticity and any newness to it as well, along with a respect for the original stuff.

That’s interesting that it’s a mix of people who know the material cold and people who are coming to it fresh. That seems very much in keeping with Fripp’s idea of constantly reinventing the band.
Yeah, and of course Mel knows a lot of the early stuff ’cause he played on it and has no knowledge of Crimson after he left at all. And Tony [Levin], of course, doesn’t know anything before he joined and, indeed, after he left, he didn’t stay in touch with it or listen to it. So, yeah, you get that mixture of approaches, I think.

So in a way, Robert is not at all looking for a band made up of, as you say, fanboys?
No, no. And I think the other thing [is] … I had an idea about what he might be like, or what that situation might be like, and I guess I kind of envisioned a kind of Zappa-esque, really specific, forensic, detailed kind of [situation]. And actually it isn’t like that at all. He kind of expects you to learn the parts and know the parts and he kind of expects you to play it, and I guess he chooses the musicians in such a way that he feels are best to bring that music to life. So he’s not like a dictatorial bandleader, where he stops and goes, “What are you doing?” I mean, occasionally he’ll say, “What’s happening there?” But on the whole, he kind of expects it to… You know, you’ve been given this opportunity, and that’s kind of how it works.

He has spoken so highly of this lineup, calling it “best band I’ve been in, musically, personally, professionally.” What do you think about the chemistry makes it so pleasing to him?
I tell you one of the things. When we first started rehearsing, we were rehearsing in the round, and we were rehearsing at Elstree, which is a film studio, and we went into this big room, and the crew had set up the gear as it would appear live. So as we walked in, I remember thinking, “Fuck, that looks amazing.” ‘Cause we hadn’t seen it like that: the three [drum] kits. And I think this is very important, and it didn’t really dawn on any of us — I’m sure it dawned on Robert; I’m sure it’s part of the reason he envisaged this — but it turned the kind of standard structure of a rock band on its head. So the lead singer wasn’t down in the front, in effect being the main focal point. Suddenly, it’s all turned around, and we’re up on the back. So we’re like a mini orchestra, and consequently, it becomes kind of egalitarian, in that your eye is drawn to whoever is the focus at that moment.

And, you know, Robert notoriously over the years has been at times barely visible. In the [Nineties] Double Trio, he was in-between the two drums and he was the only person on the stage that wasn’t lit. On the 2008 tour, as I understand it, I didn’t see that, but he changed the side of the stage he’s been on historically so that his rack was in front of him, so you couldn’t really see him. But in this lineup, he’s as lit as everybody else and as visible as everybody else. And I think that speaks volumes. I think that’s a visual display of how he feels.

So I think that’s reflective, and that’s why he says that thing that he keeps quoting about [this being] “the only version of King Crimson where there isn’t someone in the band that resents him.” It’s kind of the opposite, actually. We all know we’re there because of him, and we wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for him. And yeah, as he made plain today — I mean, he’s denied that for years, so it was interestingly to hear him say quite clearly this afternoon: “Would there be a King Crimson without you?” “No. No, there isn’t.” Yeah, so I think that’s what it’s about. We’re all there to serve the music in effect.

Having done the Schizoid Band with his blessing, did you ever have a sense of how happy he was with that project? Did he come to those shows?
No, he didn’t. I think he was going to but he never made it. I think he heard recordings ’cause we did a live [album] — it was just off the back of the [soundboard] when we played in New York. And I think he heard that and was kind of impressed, but it was a comment I made earlier about how, it’s interesting how you end up in a room with these people you were a fan of, and you hear them talking, and you think, “Fuck, they don’t really understand what it is that we liked about it.” You know, they were just doing what they were doing, and as a result of doing what they were doing, they created this thing. Then outside of that, in a different context, they’ve left some of that behind. And their kind of lack of self-awareness about what it was about Crimson that everybody liked, seemed mad at first.

I had some weird arguments with [original King Crimson saxist-keyboardist] Ian McDonald about certain timbres and sounds and stuff because the things that as a listener and someone that loved it at the time, certain kind of dissonances, certain sounds, Mellotrons or whatever, that’s all part of this mix. But in Ian’s mind, well, he used Mellotron because there wasn’t anything else. But now there are these new [keyboards] … let’s use these! And you’re thinking, “But it doesn’t sound the same!” “Well, this sounds better.” And you’re thinking, “Well, no, it’s lost that character.” ‘Cause he’s in the middle of it and that’s where his brain’s at.

It’s a general thing, having worked with other musicians that I admired as a kid, I’ve often found that sometimes they don’t really [understand what appealed to people in the first place]. … And in a way, why should they? They’re doing what they’re doing at the time they’re doing it, and then with the benefit of hindsight or retrospect, they don’t really get what it is that the rest of us as an audience got from it, ’cause they were just one of the cogs in that machine.

Just zeroing in a little, “21st Century Schizoid Man” is a song with such a history and such a weight to it. As a singer, what is it like to perform a song that has so much baggage attached?
As best as you can, I think you have to ignore that. I remember at the time, when I did the Schizoid Band, I remember thinking, actually, if I was just the guitarist in this band, that would be really difficult, because I’d be, “He’s the bloke that’s not Robert Fripp.” But because I was singing at the same time — this kind of sounds counter-intuitive but it felt easier. It wasn’t easier, obviously; it was harder. But it felt easier because I thought, “Well, look, I’m doing both things, so I can’t be directly compared to [him].”

I understand the question, and the weight of expectation and the fullness of all that, but I think if you zone in on that, you wouldn’t be able to play a note, really. I think you have to just … You learn the parts, you learn the notes, and then you have to be you, and hopefully, enough of my upbringing has meant that some of the DNA has rubbed off. And hopefully it will sound authentic on two levels.

And what’s so cool is that you’ve got a piece that iconic and then so much of this repertoire, especially from, say, the early-Seventies period, is relatively obscure. Hearing you sing pieces like “The Letters” and “Pictures of a City” live in 2014 really helped me get into records like Islands and In the Wake of Poseidon, so thank you for that.
That’s great. That’s a great thing to say.

You said that the Islands band was actually the first lineup you saw, so do you feel like you’re helping to shine a light on this period?
Well, yeah, possibly. I do think Boz, for instance, as a singer is much maligned, ’cause I thought he was fantastic. And yeah, I have a real soft spot for those things, and they are great things to sing. “The Letters” is an amazing thing to sing — that whole bit at the end where it’s completely a cappella, and everything’s resting on you — that’s a very dramatic thing for me to do and experience as much as it is to listen to, I think. Yeah, in the end, you just have to put enough of yourself in it to make it [work]. As I said, it’s that thing about authenticity in both ways, you know: Does it sounds authentically Crimson? Does it sound like an authentic representation of that? But does it also sound authentic as in, I’m really being me, at the same time, rather than it being a pastiche or an impression.

One more thing: Robert suggested earlier that this lineup would most likely not make a new studio album. So with that question sort of up in the air, and all these shows coming up, what are your greatest hopes for this version of the band?
Well, the studio thing is: A) we have a repertoire, currently, with the numbers we’re gonna add in the coming weeks for this tour, of about 48 pieces, and a good 45 minutes, possibly more, is new stuff that’s not appeared on any albums, so there is material there. But as Robert alluded to, we live in a different world, and historically, the tour was to promote the album and now it’s kind of the other way around, almost to the point where the album is almost like a souvenir of the performance. It’s kind of completely reversed. Yeah, I mean, I don’t know. I’m happy to keep doing it; I’m happy to keep writing, and if it never ends up as [a studio album] …

Listen, this has been, already it’s like the longest surviving King Crimson lineup. This is the sixth year. I don’t think any Crimson has managed six years back to back.

That’s a feat in and of itself.
Well, you’d think, but again, that’s a reflection of how Robert feels comfortable about it.

Newswire

Powered by