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A Conversation with Jakko Jakszyk of King Crimson

It’s one of those stories that’s inspiring almost beyond belief. He saw one of his favourite bands, King Crimson live for the first time at the age of 13. Then 42 years later, Jakko Jakszyk joined the same group as lead singer and second guitarist. He now plays alongside Robert Fripp, King Crimson’s sole constant member throughout the decades, and saxophonist and flautist Mel Collins, who was also part of the 1971 line-up. 

This is an amazing anecdote about how even the wildest dreams can sometimes come true. Nevertheless, instead of making him recount these famous events for the 1000th time, I decided to ask him about his work outside King Crimson, the current state of the music industry, and his views on what differentiates progressive rock from other genres, among other things.

We spoke on the phone the day after the band arrived in Austin, Texas to start rehearsing for their upcoming US tour, beginning on 19th October. This year they have only performed in the Americas, but I learnt that in 2018 they are going to visit Europe, including the UK, as well as Japan.

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King Crimson in 2016, before Bill Rieflin’s return earlier this year

Are you going to be performing any material this Autumn other than what you played during the Summer leg of the tour?

Every time we go on tour, we add some extra stuff to our repertoire. So we’ve got a repertoire of over three hours’ worth of material now and Robert changes the set every day. We normally get a setlist at about 11 o’clock in the morning, telling us what we’re going to play that night. Even if we repeat some numbers, it will be in a different order than the previous show. We’re starting rehearsals tomorrow here in Austin for about five days, and we’re going to add three tunes, I think.

Does anyone else in the band have a say in what you’re playing?

At the beginning of this year, Robert sent me a long list of songs and asked if I could sing all of those. And I said, “yes, I can sing all of them; playing guitar and singing might be tough, but let’s give them a go”. And somebody else might suggest something. We’re actually going to try something that was on the list originally, back in 2013 or 2014, but we never made it to rehearsals, so I think what Robert likes about this version of the band is that nothing is off-limits: we can play any tune from any album.

Can we expect any European dates to be announced anytime soon?

Yes, we’ll be touring in Europe next year, but I don’t know when those dates will be announced.  The main bulk of it will be in the Summer, throughout various places in Europe.

Is that going to include the UK?

I think we’re going to do a short tour of the UK this time next year. We’re doing a similar run in 2018, so we’re going to play in the Summer, we’ll take August and September off, and then we’ll play in England. We’re doing a handful of shows in Paris and then we go to Japan.

That’s quite a long time from now. What are your plans until then?

I have a lot of work when I get back. I remix a lot of stuff from the original multi-track tapes – I did the first two Bruford albums earlier this year, which are just about to come out, and I just finished a Jethro Tull record of live stuff from the ‘Heavy Horses’ album. And when I get back, I’m doing a Chris Squire album from 1975, called ‘Fish out of Water’. And then my plan from then on is just to concentrate on Crimson and write more Crimson material. We’ve been doing that anyway; not all of it makes it to the live arena, but some of it does, and some we’re still working on. There’s also a lot of new stuff Robert’s been writing on his own.

Do you have time for any other musical ventures apart from King Crimson, or do you not want to do anything else at the moment?

Well, it’s difficult, because Crimson takes up a lot of time. You need to spend time learning and studying stuff that you’re going to play on the next tour. Gavin and I always do demos before a tour, so that the band has something to play along to. Then I take the drums off the tracks so the drummers have something to rehearse to. The drummers often do separate rehearsals before the full rehearsals with the whole band. It’s almost like a full-time job, so I find it difficult to do other stuff. I’d like to do another solo record at some point, but I don’t feel like I’ve got the time at the minute.

What about the group Dizrhythmia? You released an album last year. 

We did no promotion of that album whatsoever. I was talking to Gavin about it; I think we might re-release it or do a proper release and get some PR behind it. You know, we live in a different world, it can be difficult to make and release albums these days.

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Lenny Henry and Jakko Jakszyk (Photo: John McMurtrie)

You previously played in bands that weren’t necessarily progressive rock. Now that you’re in King Crimson, do you think that playing any other type of music just wouldn’t be a challenge at all, and therefore not so fulfilling?

Well, they’re all just different things, aren’t they? I’ve made a blues record with a good friend of mine, comedian Lenny Henry. We might do a couple of shows, just for the hell of it. I’ve also done a number of commissions for BBC Radio 3 over the years that were really interesting projects. I did two on my own, and I did one with Lenny about the unlikely but genuine friendship between T.S. Eliot and Groucho Marx. I wrote the score and played the part of T.S. Eliot in it, and it was a really fun and interesting thing to do, because there was a lot of research involved. It has to be stuff of interest that makes you think in a different way.

I recently read an article that quoted Jon Anderson (of Yes) as saying that prog rock was a “higher art form”. Do you agree that prog is in some ways superior to other genres of rock music?

Well, you know, when I was a kid, it wasn’t called prog. “Prog” is almost a kind of a label that’s been applied to it retrospectively. It was just rock music, and then it was called underground music. And the progressive aspect of it was simply about challenging the form; all that really meant was trying to do something that was different from the “verse – chorus – verse – chorus – middle eight – chorus” song structure. There were lots of guys with completely different musical influences coming together and creating this new kind of stuff that wasn’t limited in format and structure. I think the trouble with whatever we call modern prog is that it’s self-referential. A band like Gentle Giant, for instance, sounded like they sounded because of where those guys came from. You know, the keyboard player studied classical music at the Royal Academy. Whereas modern progressive rock groups are referencing the old bands, so they sound a lot like them, instead of creating music out of disparate influences.

What would you say to those critics who claim that the genre has no future, because virtuosity can be “an impediment to honest self-expression”?

I’d just say “listen to something else then”. I don’t really care. I personally don’t set out to write something that’s within a genre. It’s not a self-conscious thing.

But it’s always going to be classed as something, because people have to put everything into boxes.

They can do whatever they want, I don’t care. They can call it what they want – whether they call it prog or not, I’m not really bothered.

But do you think that it’s possible to get to a point where the importance of technique supersedes self-expression, especially when younger musicians try desperately to sound different?

Yes, there’s music that relies a great deal on technique that I have no interest in whatsoever, because I just don’t like it as a piece of music, as a composition. I think you can get hung up on the idea that technical ability is the be-all and the end-all – but it’s not. It just facilitates variation, rather than being a thing of itself. There are a number of bands where that’s the main focus, and I don’t have much interest in that music. I think the technique is just a means to an end. It’s like a vocabulary; if you’ve got a bigger vocabulary, you can write a more interesting book. But if you’ve got a book with just lots and lots of complicated words in it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an interesting book. And I think that’s also true of music. Frank Zappa’s music is interesting because the compositions are interesting; the fact that they’re really complicated and difficult to play is not the point, that’s not what makes it interesting.

There are some rock critics who seem to shame musicians who come from a background with formal musical education. They say that everyone should be allowed to pick up an instrument, even if they don’t know how to play.

It was a bit like that when punk started. But within punk, there would be the odd record I’d hear and I’d think: “Wow, that’s really wacky. That’s interesting.” And that’s a bunch of guys who don’t really know what they’re doing and they end up creating this very odd harmony. But I don’t really care whether they came up with something interesting because they came at it from an academic point of view or whether they were a bunch of kids who didn’t know what they were doing and accidentally did it. Either way, I find it interesting and that’s all I’m bothered about. However you achieve it, to me that’s not the point.

When you listen to music just for enjoyment, what is it that you’re looking for? When you say something is “interesting”, does that have to do with how it makes you feel? 

Yeah, I think it’s about how you respond. The music I liked as a kid, I liked instinctively. I didn’t know it was complicated or any of those things – I didn’t know what those things meant. But I was drawn to it because of the way that it sounded and the way it made me feel. So I think I look for music that doesn’t sound like other music.

How much of that do you hear these days?

Well, there’s a handful of bands… There’s a band from Manchester, young guys, called Everything Everything. They’re really good. I don’t know what they’ve been listening to because their music is mad, in a really interesting way. There are some great ideas, some great harmonic ideas, really good bass parts – I think they’re fantastic. But you wouldn’t class them as a progressive group; I don’t know what you could class them as, but it’s some very unusually sounding music. A great deal of the music I hear these days is very limited harmonically and lyrically and rhythmically, and it all utilizes the same sound and the same production techniques. But a band like this are doing all of the opposite things.

So are you quite optimistic about the present and future of music then?

I’m not optimistic on a business level because the nature of the business means that the stuff that gets the most airplay and attention is the blandest of it all. You’re less likely to hear something unusual now than you would’ve done 20-30 years ago. That’s what I find disheartening. And the future for young live bands is very difficult, too. My son is a very good bass player; he’s only 15, and I don’t know how easy that’s going to be, if he wants to continue doing it as a profession.

Is he considering doing that?

Yes, of course, he is.

Are you supportive?

He’s of an age when I’m happy to encourage him to do that, because it means that while he’s practicing with his band, he’s not smoking cigarettes and things like that. But at some point later on, I guess I’ll have to tell him what the blunt reality is. But if he’s so desperate to do it, he’s going to do it regardless of what I think, because that’s what I did.

Do you sometimes jam together?

We talk about music all the time and we play a little bit together. There was a local festival near me in September, and I kind of had my arm twisted. They asked if I’d appear as a guest, and I said I’d do it on the condition that my son can come up and play on a number. That was the first time we played together live. I also have a daughter; she’s nearly 13 and she’s also interested in music.

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Credit: PRSGuitars.com

What do you think about music streaming services like Spotify that hardly pay the artists?

I think it’s a nightmare. I have a particular problem with Spotify because of how they carry out their business. I didn’t know much about Spotify until my godson told me that a number of my records were available on there. And I wrote to Spotify to say: “Can you take these down, because I own them and I’m not giving you permission.” And nobody wrote back to me. Somebody eventually gave me a direct number, and I spoke to somebody at Spotify. And they told me I had to fill in a complicated form. I asked why, and they said “to prove that you own it”. I said, “pardon me, why am I having to prove that I own an album that you just put up for streaming?” I never received a royalty statement or anything; I never had any communication with them whatsoever. And they still didn’t take it down. Then I became part of the whole kind of Crimson organization, and I mentioned this to them, and they got their legal people to take it down. And Crimson told me that they’d done the same to them: they just uploaded all of the Crimson albums. And Crimson had to take legal action for them to take them down, because they were doing it illegally, they had no permission. And 18 months after Crimson did that, all the albums went back up again and they had to do it again.

There was a court case recently, which was settled out of court. It was started by David Lowery, the frontman of Camper Van Beethoven. I wrote to him and told him about my experience, and he asked me to talk to his lawyer, because my evidence kind of proved the way that they operate. And a friend of mine, who’s a record producer, just got a statement from them. It was for a record he’d produced, and it had nearly 15 million streams, and I think he got a cheque for less than £1,000.

I had a look recently, and it seems that the only King Crimson album available on Spotify at the moment is ‘Radical Action’. 

Yeah, that was a decision made by the management. They said “let’s put one album up there and see what happens.” I think they wanted to see if it had any benefit or influence, and that remains to be seen.


Visit DGMLive.com for the upcoming King Crimson tour dates.

 

 

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