Lead singer Jakko Jakszyk discusses his role in the legendary band, the upcoming tour and the Heroes EP.
King Crimson is widely considered one of the most influential and prolific bands in prog-rock history. Formed in 1968, the iconic group has gone through multiple iterations that have seen nearly 21 musicians playing under the direction of founding member and guitarist Robert Fripp. The most recent lineup of the band released an EP featuring David Bowie’s “Heroes” earlier this year, and now they’re preparing to launch their North American “Radical Action” tour, which includes a two-night stop at Lisner Auditorium Oct. 28 and 29.
Just before the tour kicked off, George Washington Today caught up with lead singer and guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, who has been with King Crimson since 2013. He shared what he’s looking forward to in the tour, what distinguishes the latest lineup and what it’s like playing with his favorite band.
Q: The band has a huge repertoire of music and a lineup that occasionally shifts. What does your rehearsal and preparation process look like before tours start?
A: Before we all get together, Robert [Fripp] will normally suggest additions to the set from the Crimson repertoire. Once we have those, normally Gavin [Harrison] and myself will put together demos so that the three drummers can rehearse on their own and, in effect, have a band to play along to. In the meantime, Robert might come here, and we might work on re-voicing some of the guitar parts, and then we rehearse collectively for three or so weeks.
During the first U.S. tour we did earlier this year, we spent about a week in Seattle just polishing up the material, and we’ll do the same on this leg. We're adding three—possibly four—additional pieces, so we've gone through the same process. Because some of the material requires quite a degree of concentration and application and learning, there's a lot of homework that goes into it.
Q: The band released an EP with a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” recorded last year in Berlin. Robert Fripp had played guitar on the original song. Why did you choose to recreate it?
A: Bowie died at the beginning of 2016, and obviously, Robert had played back on the original recording in '77, so it struck me as nice and understated to play the song on tour. I wrote to Robert, and he said, “I was thinking of doing the same thing." We played in September of last year in Berlin, and playing it live in that city had an additional kind of poignancy. There seemed to be something about that performance, so we used it as the basis for that recording.
Q: Did you feel any pressure recreating such an iconic song?
A: No—in fact, for context, we play at least two and a half hours of invariably demanding material. If we play "Heroes," at that juncture, it becomes a moment of freedom, because it's quite a simple song, and the crowd always responds vociferously. For me, it's the only moment in the entire set when I feel like a rock star. It's not a nerve-wracking moment; it's quite a joyous thing to do.
Q: You’ve talked about how you grew up listening to the band as a teenager and later had the opportunity to join the lineup. Do you still feel like a newcomer?
A: I'm not sure that feeling ever goes away completely. I think the 13-year-old boy still can't believe I'm doing this. This is the actual band that made me want to be a musician. I'm standing up there and standing next to Robert Fripp and Tony Levin, and it's extraordinary. Whilst repetition makes the experience more usual—not commonplace, because it's never commonplace—but whilst I start to feel more comfortable about my position, there is still part of me that thinks, “This is nuts.” It feels like I was uniquely qualified to do one job, but the likelihood of that job ever coming up was so remote. Yet here I am. You get to my age, and it's very easy to get burnt out and lose sight of what it was about music that made you want to do it in the first place. You don't get a more visual reminder of what it was than doing this very thing.
I did something recently that was even madder. The version of the band I first saw live was the “Islands” incarnation. The three albums that came out around that time, as a consequence, were my entry point into the music. We’re about to put out a box set called “Sailors’ Tale,” which is variations and odds and sods from that era, and one of the things I was asked was, "Why don’t you sing ‘Cadence and Cascade’ over the original multi-track, replacing the voice?" So that's nuts, and I got to do several songs—something from each of the first three Crimson albums I bought.
Q: How do you feel your role has evolved now that you’ve been with the band for four years?
A: There are some guys in the band like Gavin—he was never a Crimson fan, and whenever a number is brought up, he doesn't know it because he's never heard it before. And in a way that’s a good thing because he's coming at it completely new, and he doesn't copy any of the drum parts. Whereas when a number is brought up with me, of course, I know it. I've listened to it. My role is to do it as me and try to be true to the original, because as a fan, I've got a sense of what the history is and how important the legacy is. I like to think that I can bridge that gap between the two things.
Q: What’s it like collaborating with Robert Fripp, who is widely considered the visionary behind the band?
A: He's a rather benevolent dictator. Robert likes to assemble people who he thinks will be able to give life to the music, and he lets them do it. On the whole, he lets people get on with it. He trusts that you're going to play the music in the right spirit and imbue enough of yourself in this version of it. So, he's not very dictatorial and, don't print any of this, but he's actually a nice bloke.
Q: What are you most looking forward to in this tour?
A: I think Robert has chosen a group of musicians he feels are capable of bringing the music to life in a way that he would like to hear it. He's chosen a group who can access the entire catalog, and that hasn't happened until this particular lineup. We’ve got a band that can access, rearrange and play anything, almost.
It's a fantastic thing to hear the reaction to some of the stuff we play because I think people thought it would never be played again. To hear that almost audible gasp from the audience is an amazingly privileged thing. And then there are whole chunks of the set that are completely improvised, and playing improvised music in front of that many people in a large arena is another unique and incredibly fortunate place to find yourself.