How to sum up King Crimson on the eve of their 50thanniversary tour? It’s a brevity defying challenge. While perhaps always defined in the mind of the casual observer by their 1969 debut album In The Court of the Crimson King, they are better appreciated as a shapeshifting masterclass in bold musical progression and random Darwinian leaps, a perpetually challenging (and rewarding) assemblage of rock styles orchestrated in the manner of a mischievous deity / cheerfully unhinged Masterchef winner by guitarist Robert Fripp. After innumerable splits, reformations, retirements and reinvigorations, the 2019 line-up features a precision-synchronised front line of three drummers, and musicians ranging back to the 1970 line-up (saxophonist Mel Collins) to experienced solo/session guitarist/vocalist Jakko Jakszyk, onboard since 2013. Following the resolution of Fripp’s long-standing publishing dispute with his record company, this line-up is finally able to draw on the band’s entire back catalogue, resurrecting songs unplayed for decades. The anniversary tour is now underway, with UK audiences being treated to three nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall (18 / 19 / 20 June).
On the eve of the tour Rob Haynes spoke to Jakszyk about King Crimson’s past, present and possible future.
It’s a big anniversary, with a big band playing a big set. What are the practicalities of rehearsing?
“We have to do a lot of work before we even get to rehearsal. We rehearse in fractals really. The drummers rehearse on their own for a bit, Gavin Harrison writes these extraordinary arrangements but they’re pretty involved and complicated so they have to spend time on their own getting stuff together. I was rehearsing with Robert, then we got together for full band rehearsal.”
You’re a relative new boy in the line-up. How did it all come about?
“I’ve been on the periphery. I got to know Robert, he called me when I was in the 21stCentury Schizoid Band (a collection of former Crimson musicians playing early songs) to ask me how it was going. I’d never spoken to him before, and he called me out of the blue. So that was kind of weird – he was an iconic figure and a childhood hero of mine. But then we developed a friendship as he guided me through the rehearsals for that band, like a personalised Samaritan trying to get me through it. Then I asked him to play on my solo record and we eventually began improvising, and that became an album called A Scarcity Of Miracles. Also on that record were Mel Collins, Tony Levin and Gavin (Harrison), so the cornerstone of the new KC was those five musicians. When (Fripp) eventually called we were surprised on one level because he’d already announced his retirement from music, but having decided to reform it wasn’t a surprise that he decided to use the people he’d just been working with. Listen, I was thrilled, they were my favourite band as a kid, it was an extraordinary thing to have happened.”
You’re playing songs from all the diverse eras now. How do you choose a setlist?
“During the rehearsal periods for each of the tours in the last six years we’ve been adding 3 or 4 songs to the repertoire and we now have over fifty songs we can play. On the day of the show Robert sends us the set list for the show that evening. So it’s a different set list every day, and occasionally you’ll look and think Oh blimey, we haven’t played that in months. But if you come to multiple shows you will see a different set every night.”
As a fan it’s amazing to hear these songs played for the first time in decades. Have you got over the thrill of being a fan?
“There are moments. There are always moments I think; it reconnects me with why I wanted to be a musician in the first place. I don’t get blasé about it, I’m very grateful and it’s an extraordinary thing. The fact that we do the whole of the Lizard Suite (unplayed since its release in 1970) – as a fan I never thought I’d see that live, so to be playing it is amazing. But it can be daunting. When we started, I sat here in my studio with Robert, talking about potential repertoire, and he said why don’t we do Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part One? And I thought man, that’s amazing, they’ve not played that since the 70s, so I got quite excited until the point he said ‘That’s quite difficult to play in the new tuning’ – because he plays in a new tuning now – ‘you’re playing standard tuning, so you can play my guitar parts’. And then it didn’t seem as good an idea as it had done in the previous few minutes. So that’s daunting, having to play Robert’s original part.”
King Crimson – Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part One (1972)
There have been various singers across Crimson history and you have to sing songs by each of them. How do you deal with that?
“It’s Greg (Lake) and John (Wetton) mostly – the thing is, when I first heard King Crimson I was about eleven, and I’d just turned thirteen when I saw them live, so I kind of grew up with them, and how those guys sang. Greg, Boz (Burrell) and John, informed and influenced how I sing, so when I sing these songs I sing them as me. But I’m sufficiently locked into how those guys’ voices that it hopefully works. I’m not trying to imitate them or anything. With the later stuff, with Adrian (Belew)’s songs I have to take a completely different approach. He’s American and there’s that kind of quasi-spoken beat poetry which doesn’t work as me. When we do ‘Indiscipline’ for instance, I decided that I would turn it into a melody rather than declaim it in that style. It would have sounded wrong doing it in an English accent. With this line-up it’s going to sound different anyway. I guess it’s split up between people who have been there before in various guises, people that weren’t but who know the material, and people like Gavin who didn’t know King Crimson at all. When he’s given a piece he hasn’t heard before he treats it like a new song. So I think a combination of all those things is what makes it work.”
King Crimson – Indiscipline (live 2017)
I can’t be the only fan of the band to have found Robert Fripp a slightly forbidding figure in the past, but these days he seems actively happy.
“I think there’s two things going on there. One, when he phoned us up, he had this vision of this band with three drummers. I’m pretty sure all of us thought that’s a mad idea, but I remember we started rehearsing and we were in the round, looking at each other, then the next set of rehearsals were at Elstree, the film studio, and we walked in and we had this big sound stage that was set up as though we were going to be live. That was the first time we’d physicially seen what it looked like and it looked really cool. We watched the drummers do one of their drum pieces and it was rather theatrical, and it struck us that it was turning the whole basic concept of a rock band on its head really. There isn’t the lead singer down the front who’s being supported by the others. The fact that you have a front row of drummers and the rest of us are on risers behind is kind of an egalitarian thing. Your attention is drawn to whoever is performing at any given moment rather than one guy being the focus, and I think Robert liked that. It’s like a mini-orchestra really. As a consequence, we’re all lit the same. Robert has also gone in print as saying that this is the only version of King Crimson that didn’t have at least one member who resents him. So he feels that this is an equal thing where there are no egos. We’re all there to support the music, and as a result he’s as happy to be as visible as any of us. You even see him smiling or winking.”
King Crimson – three drummers (2014)
You’ve had a long and varied career prior to joining Crimson – Level 42 were very successful when you joined. Did you learn anything from that about joining a big band operation?
“We’d been on Top of the Pops a few times and the first headline show I did with them in England was Crystal Palace Bowl to 20, 000 people, so I think you learn a few things. You learn that you’ve got to be yourself, that you’ve got to not give yourself a hard time. I know that suddenly being on a stage in front of that many people is a scary thing, and I remember that show in particular was being recorded live for broadcast on Radio One on Christmas day (laughs). I had guitar solos on nearly every song, and I remember playing a bit of a mistake in the first solo I did, and I spent the rest of the show trying to forgive myself for it. I was really low and phoned the BBC saying can I please have access to the recording because I made a terrible mistake, and the guy said I don’t know what you’re talking about mate. And he sent me a rough mix and of course I couldn’t hear this bad note that I thought I’d played.
Something happened early on in rehearsals with King Crimson – it was daunting because here was this band that I loved since childhood, I’m playing Robert’s stuff and I’m standing between Robert Fripp and (legendary bassist) Tony Levin, and after a couple of days’ rehearsal Robert came over, took me one side and said, “Tomorrow when you come in Jakko, can you pay a bit more attention to what Tony and I are playing?”, and I apologised profusely and thought Oh god, am I really being that untogether? And he said no, no, we’re making infinitely more mistakes than you are, and that was lovely, telling me it was all going to be fine, and it was.”
How do you feel about playing three nights at the Royal Albert Hall?
“I love it, it’s a magical piece of architecture. The first time I played there was with Level 42. But for a venue that has that capacity – 5,000 or so – it feels very intimate despite its size. There’s a brand new sound system in there, and in the past the sound in there could be notoriously difficult, but now it should be fantastic.”
Will it be a significantly different set to last year’s tour?
“We’ve added four new tunes to the repertoire. They’re historical pieces, but I can’t tell you what they are. (laughs) Although of course one gig in and it’s all over the internet.”
You’ve been playing new material for a while now. Will there be a new album?
“Here’s the standard response that our manager always gives when asked that question – there are no plans to do a new studio album, but then there no plans not to (laughs) What I would say is that we’re living in a different world now. Historically we played live to promote a new record, and now everything has turned upside down. There’s more than enough material for a new record. We’ve got about 45 minutes’ worth of new material, but if a new studio album were to be made I’m not sure how we’d record it, with a line-up like this. We record every show on multitrack anyway, and Crimson have done that before, where they’ve used live basic tracks and overdubbed onto that (eg 1974’s classic Starless and Bible Black). That might be how we do it.”
King Crimson – Fracture (1974)
Historically, Crimson line-ups tend not to last more than a few years. Any indication as to the life span of this one?
“No. The changes in this line up have been pragmatic, they’ve not been anything to do with creative decisions, so in essence I think this is the longest lasting line-up of all of them. We’re into year six, and we’ve already been given a period of touring for next year. Beyond that, I guess what will finish this band will be the age of the players and their health or their desire to continue touring the world. I mean, Robert and Tony are 73 this year. So, you know, I’m a youngster of sixty. What a novelty that is!”
These are melancholy times we’re living in, our heroes declining by the year.
“It’s genuinely the end of an era. I suspect…this isn’t an official thing, just a sense, but I suspect these might be the last English shows we do. The band is bigger elsewhere in the world…but who knows.”
King Crimson play the Royal Albert Hall on 18, 19, 20 June
For full details of the world tour see https://www.dgmlive.com/tours?liveshow=on