Jakko M Jakszyk: The Progarchy Interview

When Jakko Jakszyk was 13 years old, he saw King Crimson play at Watford Town Hall — and it changed his life. Embarking on a globetrotting career that’s crossed paths with, among others, Level 42, The Kinks (he replaced Dave Davies for a week) and Steve Hackett, Jakszyk eventually found himself singing and playing guitar with founding members of Crimson in The 21st Century Schizoid Band. Which led in turn to The Scarcity of Miracles, a “King Crimson ProjeKct” with guitarist Robert Fripp and sax master Mel Collins — culminating in an invitation to join the current, career-spanning version of the band in 2013.

Since then, Jakszyk has been the voice of King Crimson in concert, tackling epics originally brought to life by Greg Lake, Boz Burrell, John Wetton and Adrian Belew with remarkable aplomb. And, if that wasn’t intimidating enough, simultaneously playing some of Fripp and Belew’s most challenging guitar parts. Oh, and co-writing knotty new Crimson pieces like “Suitable Grounds for the Blues,” “Meltdown” and “The Errors.” As a result, his undeniable melodic gifts, assured lyricism and instinct for the musical gut punch now have a bigger stage to play on than ever before.

All of this has beautifully set up Jakzsyk’s new solo album, Secrets and Lies. Released by Inside Out/Sony on October 23, it melds the yearning melancholy of 2007’s The Bruised Romantic Glee Club with the ferocious attack of present-day Crimson; fellow members Fripp, Collins, bass/Stick maestro Tony Levin and master drummer Gavin Harrison contribute along with Mark King (Level 42), Peter Hammill (Van Der Graaf Generator), John Giblin (Simple Minds, Brand X) and even Jakszyk’s daughter. It’s a poised, exhilarating album, a thoroughly compelling showcase for the man’s hard-won talents and thoughtful, well-honed viewpoint.

Having heard Jakko Jakszyk in concert three times with King Crimson (including the best rock concert I’ve ever attended), it was an undeniable thrill to speak with him about Secrets and Lies, his progress in the court of the Crimson King and more!

How the solo album took shape:

“I’d met Thomas Waber of Inside Out – I think it was at the launch of the album that Steve Hackett put out that I sang on [Genesis Revisited II; Jakszyk sings “Entangled”].  And then I kept bumping into him ’cause I did a number of gigs with Steve, and then there were some other events.  And whenever I saw him he said, ‘Look, if ever you decide to do a solo record, we’d be really interested in working with you.’   I wasn’t sure it was a good idea; it had been such a long time since I made another one.  So, it was partly down to him and his installing confidence into me, really.

“And then I made the decision – for the past seven years we’ve toured in biannual chunks; we do two months here and two months there throughout the year with Crimson.  There’s lots of stuff: rehearsals and getting stuff together, so it becomes a full-time job.  And then, this year was only one chunk of touring, in the middle of the year.  So I thought, ‘This is probably a good time to do it.’

“And I’d already written some songs.  I’ve written a load of stuff [for] Crimson, some that has been accepted as part of the repertoire.  But there was a handful of others that I’d written that when I took to Robert [Fripp] – we started to have this in-joke where I’d play him some stuff and he’d say [assumes a West Country accent as he quotes Fripp] ‘I love this!  It’s marvelous!!  Ideal track for your next solo record!!!’  Which is not too subtle code for, ‘We’re not playing this, mate!’  So, I had a basis of an album there, material-wise. So I started recording it, I think, last summer, as in 2019, in between the Crimson tours.  And writing lyrics and doing stuff while I was away.  And I started on it in real earnest in the autumn – almost about a year ago.”

Secrets and Lies’ takes on obsession and betrayal:

“The opening track, which is called ‘Before I Met You,’ is based on a book by Julian Barnes [Before She Met Me]. And in that book, it tells the tale of a middle-aged man, I think he’s a college lecturer.  And he meets this woman who’s a fair bit younger than him, and he leaves his wife and family for her.  But he starts to get really obsessed with her and starts to fetishize objects that she might have had earlier that morning – a pen that she was writing with, or a cup or something. 

“And he starts doing this very weird thing where – when she first left school, she became an actress, and she made a handful of mediocre movies.  And although that was way in her past, he becomes so obsessed with her that he finds them.  He finds little cinemas around London which are showing these old films.  And he sits in the dark watching these, getting really wound up – because there’s his new love filming these love scenes.  Which of course are not real, anyway; and anyway, they were before he even knew she existed!  So, it’s a tale of a guy being so obsessed with someone that he ends up destroying the very thing that he loves.

“In terms of betrayal, there’s a song called ‘It Would All Make Sense.’  And it’s autobiographical, a song that happened to me, but something that happened to me a long time ago.  So, totally with the benefit of hindsight and distance, you can write about it!

“But I guess it’s something that’s – unfortunately, many of us have been through.  Which is the suspicion and the clues that someone you’re living with is having an affair.  And the clues get more and more blatant, and more and more real, but you’re less likely to believe them, ‘cause you don’t want to.  And you confront them and they deny it, and then you’re placated by that, because you don’t wanna believe it.  And then other people say, ‘No, no, this is really happening.’  So hence the chorus of that tune.  ‘It would all make sense; all of that makes sense much more than the stuff you’re telling me.'”

Songs on “the shifting grounds of contemporary politics:”

“[‘Uncertain Times’] was, again, was something that happened to me.  The Brexit debate in England became incredibly divisive, and it split up families and friends.  You get to a point where problems, be they political or personal, are invariably nuanced and complicated.  And the trouble is that you reduce an issue to black and white like this, right or wrong.  And it becomes a divisive concept, I think.

“On the day of the results, when it was announced that the Leave campaign had won, there was a place in Hammersmith in West London called the Polish Center, where I used to take my adoptive father when he was in his 80s.  And it was a place that I have a great nostalgia for, ‘cause it’s a cultural center, and it’s got a café and a restaurant.  And the night of the result it was covered in racist graffiti, which was discovered in the morning.  This is a place that had been there for 56 years, partly in tribute to the contribution of the Poles during the Second World War.

“So, it was pretty upsetting, and I uncharacteristically posted something about it on Facebook.  And everybody was very nice and very sympathetic, but after a while it started to get shared.  And then people that weren’t my ‘friends’ in inverted commas started to read it, and for a couple of weeks I got really abusive emails, all along much the same lines.  Which were ‘We won.  You lost.  Why don’t you eff off home?’ 

“Well, I’m the son of an Irish woman, born in London, so I’m not sure where they want me to go; but it seemed that I was getting abused because of the incorrect letters in my surname!  And of course, it’s divisive, simplistic populist politics [which is] popping up all over the world, not least in Britain and America of course. And you have leaders that are just pumping out half-truths, untruths, downright lies.  And appealing to this kind of populist notion of very simplistic answers to complicated questions.  So, the song’s kind of about that.

“The other political song on the record is the thing that I wrote with Peter Hammill [‘Fool’s Mandate’].  And Pete Hammill actually was also partly responsible for me making a solo record.  ‘Cause I kept bumping into him, and he kept saying, ‘Have you made your solo record yet?’ And I said, ‘No.’  ‘Well, have you even started?’ ‘Well, no, not really.’ ‘Look, you ought to; this is your moment!  You must do it!’  So in the end, the last time he said it to me, I said, ‘Listen, Peter, I will make a solo album on condition you contribute; you’re on it.’  And he said, ‘Of course!’

“So, I sent him this track.  He said, ‘Have you got any unfinished tracks?’  And I had a series of instrumental things that I was using as a kind of base to play guitar over on these videos that I do for PRS Guitars or some of the events that I play at.  ‘Cause when I’d seen other guitar players do it, they were either kind of  straight ahead rock things or fusion things.  So I always tried to do something a little different.

“So, I had a collection of different ethnic-based pieces; this is based on traditional Middle Eastern music.  And I sent that to Peter, and he sent back multi-tracked voices, bits of guitar, and a lyric that was kind of ambiguous.  It could have meant anything, I guess.  And it was about an individual, and what he might regret and what he might not regret.

“So, the combination of the stylistic nature of the music and that kind of vague lyric – I ended up writing it about an English politician called [Arthur James] Balfour, who at the turn of the last century was desperate to get the Arab nations onside, ‘cause the English were trying to defeat the Ottoman Empire.  But at the same time, he was a Zionist, so he was negotiating behind their backs! 

“And I was kind of intrigued by the number of unpleasant political and violent hotspots in the world, and how if you trace their origins, invariably there’s an Englishman [chuckles] at the bottom of it!  So I ended up writing about that.”

Exploring “the tangled threads of family history:”

“You know, my background story is an ongoing thing, and I’ve discovered a lot more.  in fact, exactly in the past twelve months, there’s been an extraordinary amount of discovery.  I think it’s part of the reason I called the albums Secrets and Lies, because I discovered a lot more of both of those things.

“Actually on the album, there’s a thing called ‘The Borders We Traded,’ which is about my mother and myself, and how my mother abandoned me and went to another country – hence utilizing the geographical location as an additional metaphor for that separation. 

“And I talk about two places really in that; one is where she ended up.  My mother was quite a famous singer in Ireland in the ‘50s, and she came to England for her career.  But she ended up getting married to an American serviceman; and I’m sure she had an idea about what America was like from many of the movies she must have seen at the time.  But she ended up in a place called Bearden, Arkansas.  And no disrespect to that location, but I’m not sure that’s what she was expecting.

“And so, I remember standing in Bearden, Arksansas when I first went there, to meet her for the very first time.  And it was a very weird experience, where you’re standing in this place.  And it’s quite a culture shock for someone that grew up just outside London, and had a reasonably cultured upbringing, and went to the theatre and worked in the arts.  So, there was that really weird moment of thinking, ‘If she hadn’t had me adopted, I’d have been brought up here.’  And how much of who I am is innately who I am, and how much of it is subject to location.  It’s that whole nurture/nature thing, I guess.

“So that song really was about that.  And then there’s an instrumental that my daughter wrote, which I’ve kind of stuck them together, just because it felt like she kind of wrote it out of nowhere.  And it’s this kind of connection to Ireland; it’s this very Celtic, Irish piece that she’s somehow channeling out of some kind of DNA or something, I don’t know!”

[The tale of Jakko M Jakszyk’s long and winding road to King Crimson follows the jump!]

The path to King Crimson:

“In the mid-80s, I was working on people’s records and doing sessions and stuff.  And there was one album I worked on that sold quite a lot of records, and I’d co-written a few songs on there.  My publisher did what lots of publishers do, which is try to capitalize on any success that any of their writers have.

“And so, they came to me to try and co-write with people, which I wasn’t overly keen on.  And they gave me a list of potential collaborators.  And two names stuck out; one of those names was [founding Crimson lyricist] Peter Sinfield.  And Peter had become a very successful lyricist in a commercial sense, and had written stuff for Diana Ross, Celine Dion and numerous people.  So I selected him!  Not ‘cause I was overly keen on writing popular songs with him, but because I thought it’d be good to hang out with him, and we could talk about Crimson!  And he was lovely and great fun and a great bon vivant, and exceedingly good company and happy to talk about Crimson.

“And then he invited me to the launch of a box set of live recordings by the original line-up called Epitaph.  And that took place at the Intercontinental Hotel in London, and I went along as his guest.  And he told me at the time that Robert was considering putting the original line-up together, maybe doing a one-off tour, filming it, doing a DVD or whatever.  That soon fell to the ground, due to various individuals’ management and demands.

“But the idea of ex-Crimson members playing that original material kind of survived, because at the time the then-King Crimson weren’t playing anything earlier than 1980, I think — apart from maybe ‘The Talking Drum’ and ‘Larks’ [Tongues in Aspic Part] Two.’  So Peter said, ‘well, I know a guy who can play Robert’s parts,’ and he recommended me.  And I remember originally, we were gonna do a rehearsal with John Wetton, but then that didn’t happen.  So then I became the singer!

“We rehearsed for like three weeks, and it was at the end of rehearsals my phone rang one day, and it was Robert Fripp, who I’d never spoken to!  He’s a big childhood hero, the main reason I wanted to become a musician really.  So, I was completely freaked out!  And the reason he called, he said, ‘I understand you’ve been rehearsing with the Schizoid Band.  What’s it been like working with those characters?’  And I said, ‘Well, to be honest, it’s been three of the most unpleasant weeks of my life as a musician!’  Which he thought was very amusing; he said, ‘Yes, I thought that might be the case!’

“So he became a kind of personalized Samaritan, so I could phone him and say, ‘You’re not gonna believe what’s happened now!’  So that’s how I got to know Robert.

“And [the Schizoid Band] toured, and then Mike Giles left.  And then Ian Wallace joined — and Ian was lovely, and a pro!  Ian hadn’t stopped working, and the atmosphere changed completely.  But sadly, Ian got ill and died.  And in the meantime, I’d made The Bruised Romantic Glee Club, and I asked Robert to play on it.  In fact, we co-wrote a tune on that album as well.

“And then, when Ian died, I sang “Islands” at the memorial do in London, with Mel Collins [on saxophone].  Robert came up to me afterwards and was very complimentary, and said, ‘That’s a very difficult gig to do, playing someone’s funeral.’ 

“And he invited me to his house, and I spent a day at Robert’s house.  I did wonder whether he was sounding me out!  The other thing was that he was talking a lot about Gavin [Harrison] – and of course, I’ve known Gavin for years.  And I remember driving home from that lunch, and I called Gavin up and said, ‘I think Robert’s gonna ask you to join King Crimson.’  And I kind of had a sense that he might ask me, too.  But he didn’t ask me, but he did ask Gavin!   And then he went on the road one more time – 2008, but that ended quite badly, I think.

“And then, the next thing was he phoned me up and said, did I want to go down to his studio down in Wiltshire to just improvise and record what happened?  So I went down there, and we spent a day with Robert and his whole rig in the corner. And we just improvised these pieces.  And at the end of the day when I left, he handed me this hard drive.  And I said, ‘What’s that?’  He said, ‘That’s what we recorded today.’  I said, ‘OK.  What do you want me to do with it?’  And he said, ‘I’m sure you’ll think of something!’ [Laughs] And that’s what became A Scarcity of Miracles; those original improvisations, I just improvised stuff over the top of them.  So we made the album that way, and then we got Gavin involved and Tony [Levin] involved, and Mel, of course.  So, that kind of became the basis of this most recent line-up.

“But then the following year, I think, Robert announced his retirement from the music industry!   And I’d been doing other bits for them too; I’d been mixing THRAK in surround.  So I guess on the one level, it wasn’t a surprise, but on another level it was, because we thought he’d retired.  So it was a shock when in 2013, he called up and said, ‘I’m thinking of reforming King Crimson; would you like to be the lead singer and the second guitarist?’ [Laughs] I said, ‘Yes!  Yes!’  ‘Cause it was the culmination of this mad childhood dream; I saw them in 1971, when I was 13.  It was mad!

“A mate of mine called Nick Beggs [bass and Stick for Steve Hackett, Steve Wilson, etc.], he was one of the first people I told after Robert called me.  And he said, ‘That’s the longest audition in rock history!’  And I think I said in response, ‘I found myself being uniquely qualified to do one job – and bizarrely, that one job came up!'”

Integrating into the current Crimson incarnation:

“I think the challenges for me have been being in a position where, in doing some of the older material, the guitar parts are ergonomically not suited to someone playing a completely different tuning [Fripp uses his own New Standard Tuning from his Guitar Craft seminars].  It results in me having to play Robert’s parts.  Now some of those have been: a) particularly challenging anyway, because they are notoriously not the easiest things to play for anyone; b) having to play them while standing next to the bloke who wrote them is also rather challenging!  And some of the things I have to play and sing at the same time!  That’s also been an enormous challenge and a learning curve.

“I remember when we were writing ‘Meltdown,’ because Robert had come up with this double guitar part.  He would come to the studio, he’d play me new stuff, we’d record it, we’d put it together.  And then when he went, I would then kind of rearrange it and move it around and write the vocals and the lyrics.  And I remember being aware that I was gonna have to play and sing this, so I changed the guitar parts to make them a bit easier.  And I remember playing this version to him, and he said, ‘I really like this, but I do prefer the original guitar part!’  And I remember saying to him, giving a slightly exasperated sigh and saying, ‘You do know I have to sing and play this at the same time?’  And he said, [West Country accent] ‘I know; it’s marvelous!  I don’t know how you do it!’  ‘I can’t do it!  That’s the whole point!’  Somehow you find a way of doing it.  So that’s been a challenge.

“And I think the other area was: vocally, I sing the stuff as me.  And if it works, I think that’s down to the fact that I was a 13-year old kid, and listening to that music informed how I sing.  If it works at all, I think that’s why.  ‘Cause I’m not trying to be any of those guys, but I’m so influenced by them anyway that if I naturally just sing it as me, hopefully it works.  And if it does work, I think that’s why.

“What was a challenge vocally, of course, was when Robert started to want to integrate the ‘80s stuff.  Because I’m poles apart from what Adrian [Belew] does; it’s very American.  When Robert suggested that we do ‘Indiscipline,’ I thought, ‘Well, I can’t get away with this!  This is Adrian in Talking Heads mode, declaiming beat poetry.’  I didn’t know to do that; I didn’t know how that would work.  And Robert suggested that I rewrite the lyrics, instead of being so American-sounding, that I make them English colloquial.  Even suggested, ‘Why don’t you write about the first time you saw Crimson when you were 13?’   And I tried that; I just could not find a way in.  And I just thought, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ 

“And then it just dawned on me.  I thought, ‘You know what?  There’s music going on here, and we’ve got a lyric.  So why don’t I just write a melody that works with the lyric?’  Because of the nature of the lyric, it’s not written in a standard meter; so, the melody kind of moves.  So I was working on that, and I remember writing the melody to work the lyric, and I remember recording a guitar, so I could then learn the tune that I’d written; ‘cause it’s not obvious.  And I think I must have by accident left the guitar in when I played it back to Robert.  And of course, he said, ‘Oh, I like that!  That’s kind of like a scat thing over the top.’ 

“So that’s been the tricky thing, kind of – integrating that stuff.  ‘Cause I don’t want to sing it in any other way than as me.  I think it doesn’t do me or any of us any favors.  But I’m happy doing that stuff; it’s become a thing of itself.   But I would say those are the challenging issues.”

“Ideal track for your solo record!!!” How Crimson ideas became Jakko songs:

“I would say that ‘Separation’ — because it was like a Crimson tune, that’s why I got Gavin, Tony and Mel to play on it.  And lots of Robert – I’d already recorded Robert’s parts, so he’s already on there; there was some soloing I took from somewhere else.  So when I presented that to him, that’s pretty much as it is; I think I got Peter Hammill to do some backing vocals, and I may have tweaked it a little.

“’Uncertain Times’ was Robert’s title.  And I took the title, and then wrote it about the incident I mentioned before.  And Gavin came up with a whole rhythmic thing for the end.  But when I presented that to [Fripp], it would have been considerably more stripped down than it is now.  I think the version I played him is one of those things where at first he really liked it, and we were gonna do it; then he started changing things, and he liked it less when he changed things.  And then, it kind of got abandoned.  So I think that the way it’s ended up sounding like is definitely my version of it, ‘cause I’ve added all of these backing vocals and other parts.   I’ve taken it down my own kind of track, really.

“The third tune is a thing called ‘Under Lock and Key,’ which is actually based on – being in Crimson I have access to everything, including these amazing archives of unreleased stuff.  So I took some unreleased Frippertronics recordings from the ‘70s, and that song is based on that.  And again, I got Tony to play on it.  And once you get people like Tony and Gavin to come up with stuff, it gives it a whole new flavor, anyway.” 

“Trading Borders,” the album’s big surprise:

“In February I took [my daughter] out to London, a kind of father-daughter trip to town.  We went to this funny café in London called the Cat Café, which – there’s just loads of cats in there, and they all wander around.  So I took her there; she’s just 15.  When we got to Euston station, on the concourse is an upright piano.  Which I’ve started to see that all over the place; I saw it in America too — in bigger spaces and shopping malls and stuff, where people are encouraged to sit down and play.

“And she sat down and played this piano and played this piece!  And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s rather nice.’  And I said to her, ‘Is that a traditional Irish thing that you’ve learned?’ And she said, ‘No, I wrote it. I said, “You wrote that?”  And she said, “Yeah.”  And I said, ‘Play it again,’ and I got my iPhone out.  And I put it into record, and I held it up. 

“So I then had this idea of ‘Actually, it’d be nice if there was something Irish-sounding there,” [after ‘The Borders We Traded’] because of my genuine roots.  So I booked a recording studio and had to force her to come with me, ‘cause she didn’t wanna come!  And then we got there, she didn’t wanna play the piano! [Laughs] So I forced her to play the piano.  And then, when I got the track back home, I added all these Irish whistles and acoustic guitars and bits and pieces.  And then, I suddenly thought, ‘Oh!  I wonder if that thing’ll fit at the end?’  So as it fades out, I bring in the original recording off my iPhone, and you can hear all these people milling around.  But that’s my daughter playing the same piece on this upright piano on the concourse at Euston station in London.”

What the Crims — and others — brought to the table:

“Listen, Gavin is — yes, he’s the drummer in King Crimson; I also happen to think he’s probably the finest drummer in the world.  But he’s also been my best pal since about 1983. He’s amazing!  But because he’s my pal, I asked ‘Do you fancy playing on my stuff?’  

“And of course, Tony originally was just [on] the Crimson stuff.  But then I’d written that other ballad [‘The Trouble with Angels’], which I never saw as a Crimson thing; I asked Tony to play on that.  Tony’s brilliant!  Tony’s really, really musical.  I don’t know if you’ve seen – there’s a series of English-made TV programs called Classic Albums, these little documentaries about certain records.  And there’s one about Peter Gabriel’s So.  There’s a great clip on there talking about ‘Don’t Give Up,’ the duet he does with Kate Bush.  And they play the track as it started.  And of course, it’s missing the bass!  And Tony’s bass part on that is so iconic, and a hook in itself, you know.  And that’s what Tony brings, I think.

“So when I sent him that track, he sent me three versions back.  And the last one, he was very dismissive of and said, ‘Ah, that’s just me kind of pissing all over the thing.’  ‘Cause he’s playing all these lines, and I used all of them.  And he couldn’t believe it; he said, ‘No one ever does that!’  I said, ‘They’re stunning, they’re absolutely stunning!’ And I moved the track to make room for it. There was a guitar solo in it that’s not there anymore, because I thought the bass playing was so great, I just got rid of it, ‘cause I’d rather have that!

“Mark King, I was in Level 42 for four or five years, and I worked with him afterwards after Level 42 split; he did some tours as just Mark King.  I did that with Gary Husband.  And so, again, I’m still pally with Mark; we normally see each other at least a couple of times a year.  And again, I thought he brings a real energy to a track.  I thought that’d be an appropriate one for him to play on, and he was happy to do it.

“And John Giblin, I’m a big fan of John Giblin’s bass playing.  Listen, I’m very fortunate I can phone these people up!   I’m not somebody they’ve never heard who’s nervously approaching them and hoping that they might play.”

Plans in the offing:

“There’s a fair amount of touring with Crimson next year, potentially, if the virus allows.  I had an incredibly busy year planned this year. I was gonna do a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival; which was kind of a multimedia thing, directed by Michael Attenborough, Sir Richard Attenborough’s son.  Who himself was artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  I never got to do that, so I would like to do that.  That’s a piece based on one of the three commissions I did for Radio 3.  Which in England, BBC Radio 3 is a classical station, but it also it does new and experimental pieces.  And I’ve done three pieces for them, and this was the first one, which was using speech as part of the composition.  This thing called The Road to Ballina.  So I’d like to do that next year, if next year happens, but again, who knows?

“I was certainly planning on playing some live shows to support the solo record, starting in February, but of course, that all depends.  So the answer is yes, yes, yes and who the hell knows?  Not me!”

Jakko M Jakszyk’s Secrets and Lies is available for pre-order on CD/DVD or LP from Burning Shed. For even more on the incredible twists and turns of his career, read Anil Prasad’s in-depth interview at Innerviews.

— Rick Krueger


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