Singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Michael "Jakko" Jakszyk is about to embark on the European Fall leg of the ‘Uncertain Times’ tour with prog rock pioneers King Crimson. He has been the lead vocalist and guitarist with King Crimson since 2013.
Before joining Crimson, Jakko played in the ‘21st Century Schizoid Band’, made up of ex-King Crimson members, and was a member of Level 42. He has also played with Dave Stewart, Tom Robinson, Danny Thompson, Gavin Harrison and has many more performing, writing and producing credits to his name.

The King Crimson tour is picking up again at the end of this month - what have you been up to since the last show back in July?

I’ve been trying to take some time off! Last year was insane because in between the two touring periods of last year, I remixed a number of albums. I did some stuff for the ‘Heavy Horses’ album by Jethro Tull, I remixed Bill Bruford’s first two solo records in surround sound and stereo, and I did Chris Squire’s ‘Fish Out Of Water’.

Then at the beginning of the year, just before the first load of rehearsals, I did ‘In Search Of The Lost Chord’ by The Moody Blues. So I deliberately decided that it was all getting bit much, it was all a bit intense. I’ve not been doing much to be honest! In fact I’ve only just started practicing again ready for rehearsals in just over a week’s time.

You’re playing guitar in King Crimson and singing the lead vocals - that sounds like a pretty tough job!

Well... yeah! Someone’s got to do it!

You’d been playing King Crimson stuff before you joined the band. How long had you been playing those songs before you joined?

I was in this group in about 2002... There was an album launch in London at the Intercontinental Hotel for a box set of live recordings by the original band, and I got to know Peter Sinfield who was the original lyricist and named the band and co-produced the first four albums, and he invited me to this event. There was talk at that event of reforming the original group for maybe a one off tour or something, but that never happened.

But the idea of a band of ex-King Crimson members playing the early material (because the current Crimson at that point weren’t playing any of that older material), became this idea. Pete Sinfield recommended me as someone that loved the music and he foolishly though I could play Robert’s parts and sing the vocals! So I toured with that band (21st Century Schizoid Band). Ironically enough I was the only member of that band who hadn’t been in King Crimson!

What is it like playing guitar with Robert Fripp? Was it a bit nerve-wracking the first time you had to play for him?

One of the reasons it was nerve-wracking is that in the Eighties, Robert changed the way he tuned his guitar. He doesn’t tune the guitar in standard tuning, he uses something he calls ‘new standard tuning’. So, when he suggested we played a lot of the earlier material that hadn’t been played in decades (if at all), he said “Some of this stuff is difficult to play in this new tuning”, purely from an ergonomic point of view - the notes suddenly are far away. He said “You’re playing in standard tuning, so you can play these parts” - parts that are notoriously unique and difficult!

So, playing those parts was daunting enough - but playing those parts whilst standing next to the originator was indeed a daunting thing! But it’s like any kind of thing in adulthood - these things seem terribly daunting and then you end up doing them, and they just become part of what you do.

Is there any room for improvisation in your guitar parts?

Yeah! There are a number of pieces where we know how it starts and we know how it finishes, and what happens in the interim is whatever happens on the night. It’s a combination of stuff. Some of the more recent pieces are very tightly arranged, they are like jigsaw puzzles, and there is little room for improvisation within those. But there are other pieces that are deliberately structured so that there are large moments where the band can collectively improvise.

This current lineup plays material from every era of the group. Most of the albums are represented within the repertoire, along with brand new material we have written in the last few years.

What is it like playing with three drummers in King Crimson?

Well it did seem like a mad idea when Robert first mentioned it! The first year we got together in this lineup, we were rehearsing at Elstree Studios. we walked into this big soundstage, and all the gear was set up as it is set up on stage. Not only did it look extraordinary, but it turned the idea of a traditional rock band on it’s head. The lead singer wasn’t down the front, with everybody else looking like his backing band. It made it a much more egalitarian thing, a bit like a mini-orchestra.

The focus changes throughout the evening depending on who is doing what, so it’s actually rather a clever ruse. It’s quite a theatrical thing to watch, it has a choreography to it, as well as the audio aspect of it.

Often in a band you follow the drummer - who do you follow in King Crimson?

It changes from piece to piece. There are some moments when I’m pretty exposed, so I guess people are following me. Most of the time, if you watch the band, the person who everybody watches more than everyone is Gavin (Harrison) who is the drummer on the right as you look at the stage. Gavin is amazing, and he has written a lot of the three drummer arrangements. He’s the guy who knows the music inside out. There isn’t really a musical director, but in moments of crisis he’s the one we all look to.

Can you remember what it felt like singing ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ for the first time with King Crimson?

Yeah! My next door neighbour when I was about eleven played that song to me and it completely blew me away. It was one of those significant moments in your life, and then we went to see them two years later. That in itself was another significant moment. Then to find myself all those years later actually on stage singing that very song, standing next to Robert Fripp was extraordinary.

The adult in you is getting on and doing a job, but there is a thirteen year old boy not that far from the surface, constantly amazed to find yourself in that position. There have been a number of moments. We did 2 nights at the ancient amphitheatre in Pompeii; playing Schizoid Man there was nuts, on lots of levels - it was amazing!

There have been several different vocalists over the years in King Crimson - do you ever try to replicate their voices in particular songs?

I was very young when I got into the group, and listened to all that music obsessively for years. As a consequence, it informed how I sing. I like to think that I just sing it as me, but all of those singers, certainly on the first four or five albums, they were such an influence on me and affected how I sing. I like to think that’s why it works - I’m singing as me, but my vocals in themselves have been informed by those very guys.

I’m not doing an impersonation. Certainly the later material that we do that Adrian Belew sang, I’m singing in a completely different way. Adrian is so unique, I can’t begin to imitate or do a facsimile of that, so I’ve tried a whole different approach.

Adrian Belew is quite a different singer to all the former singers, it would be strange to suddenly switch.

All the others are innately English, and by that same token, Adrian is very American.

Are you using a Line 6 Helix with King Crimson?

Yeah I am! Because there are three drummers downstage, you can’t use a hundred watt stack, because the first thing anything would hit is three lots of overheads - it would be a nightmare! So Tony, myself and Robert are using various modellers. I was using a thing called Kemper which is brilliant, but at the time Kemper didn’t have a floor controller so I was using a Pod as a controller.
One of them broke in Japan, and when I got back to England I tried to track them down and they had been bought by Yamaha. So I went up there and they said “We’d really like you to try this”.

One of the great things about the Helix is that on my guitar, as well as the standard pickup configuration, I have a piezo pickup in the bridge. So I’m using that on the numbers that have acoustic guitar on the original recordings. With the Kemper, that was going straight into a DI box, and I had an on/off switch or a volume pedal, and I was forever forgetting to either turn it on or turn it off. One of the great things about the Helix is that it’s got two separate inputs, and you can treat each input completely individually in terms of effects or whatever and then balance them and mix them together and then save them as a patch. so that was very appealing, so I’ve stuck with the Helix, it’s great.

What I love about it is that it makes life much simpler for me. Frankly, playing the notes is hard enough, without having effects pedal choreography tied in. I don’t need any more distractions! It’s really easy to program too. it’s very intuitive. It’s really simple to program and change stuff, in a way that the Kemper is quite difficult to do that.

What is the rest of your King Crimson rig?

Because there are no speakers, I can’t get any feedback so I’ve just bought an Electro Harmonix Frequency, which creates feedback on certain notes. Then on one tune I’m using the Electro Harmonix Mellotron pedal which I use for some Mellotron brass mixed in with the guitar. Other than that - that’s it.

A lot of people are excited about your custom PRS guitar with the ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ album artwork on it.

They are doing a signature model of that! I was playing PRS, and they are so nice. They said “Is there something special we could do?”. I thought “I’d love one with a custom finish”, but then thought “They’ll never do that, it must be an enormously complicated pain in the arse!”. But, they said “We’ll do it!”. So we got the artwork together!

On the original, it’s a gatefold, which means you fold it out to the left, so all the additional imagery goes to the left. Of course on the guitar you want the main part of the face to the left, so my friend rather cleverly Photoshopped the stuff that was on the left to the right, to make this new artwork. The finish on mine is amazing, it looks like porcelain - it’s absolutely beautiful. The man with his hand up from the inside of the original gatefold sleeve is on the back, but nobody sees that as it’s against my stomach - but it’s a lovely touch. It’s a beautiful thing, I’m really chuffed with that.

So have you only got one of those?

I have. I got the exact same model of guitar, a kind of replica, as a spare. There is another guitar I might use on one or two tunes on the next tour. We had one day off in Amsterdam on the last tour. I walked past a guitar shop, and they had some amazing guitars behind glass, one of which was a guitar which I’d never seen in real life; a Gibson 150HD, which looks like a 335, but it’s a big deep bodied jazz guitar. It’s as deep as a 175. It’s got this amazing neck. I couldn’t resist it, so I bought that. Other than that, I’m just playing the PRS.

You were in Level 42 for 5 years. They are touring at the moment - did you get a call for that too?

No, I was with the band up until their farewell gig at the Albert Hall in ’94. then Mark King did a solo thing and I toured in that band too. His brother is playing guitar now. I was very fortunate when I joined Level 42 - it had kind of become a guitar featured group. First it was Al Murphy, who was a great guitarist, but Al tragically died. They had already booked fifteen nights at Hammersmith Odeon, and they got Allan Holdsworth to do it. So when I joined the band, it had become a real feature for the band. I got to solo all evening, it was fantastic. It’s less guitar-centric now.

I still see Mark, in fact last year I presented an award to him, and we had a boozy reunion lunch just before Christmas.

You compose music as well - have you found any time to write any new music since you started playing with King Crimson?

There are 45 pieces in the current repertoire, and we change the set every night. Within that, there are three or four songs that I co-wrote with Robert, and there is some instrumental stuff that Robert has written. There are lots more demos of things that I’ve written with him for Crimson that have yet to make it to the rehearsal room. I’m also starting to work on a new solo record, which I’m hoping will emerge next year.

Will that be an instrumental record, or song based?

I think it will be a bit of both.

There is a world music influence on some of the music I’ve heard you playing - has it got that sort of vibe to it?

It might have. The world music thing is partly because I have this quasi-Asian group with Gavin (Harrison), who is also in Crimson, and Danny Thompson the legendary double bassist, and Pandit Dinesh, the Indian percussionist. We made two albums, and then when I was doing some of these video demos for PRS, I had a a look online. All of those videos are kind of similar; people do a fusion thing or a rock thing. So I deliberately did something different, things from different parts of the world. There is this Middle Eastern thing I did, and there is a new one which is yet to come out, which is a Chinese based thing. It’s just putting the instrument in a different context and in a different harmonic environment, so that it doesn’t sound like all the others.

Is there another King Crimson studio album in the pipeline? It sounds like you’ve got some new stuff.

There is about 40 minutes of stuff that we play live that’s new, and there is quite a lot of other stuff, so there is more than enough material. There are no plans specifically to make another studio record, but by that token there are no plans not to either.

We live in a different world. Historically, touring was there to promote the latest record. Of course that’s all changed, and now you tour for the sake of touring. Sometimes bands put a new album out, and it’s almost like it’s a souvenir of the tour rather than the other way around. The world and the industry has changed, and it’s all back to front from the industry that I grew up in.

It’s all down to Robert - he would have to desperately want to do it.

King Crimson, will be performing 10 UK dates, starting 29th October.

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