Michael Jakko Jakszyk, an English musician, record producer and actor, chats with Kevin Cooper about his love for progressive rock, working with Mark King and the late Mick Karn, how he came to join King Crimson and their forthcoming dates at The Royal Albert Hall.

Michael Jakko Jakszyk is an English musician, record producer and actor, and is the current lead vocalist with progressive rock band, King Crimson.

Before joining King Crimson he led bands for over thirty years including 64 Spoons, 21st Century Schizoid Band, Jakszyk Fripp Collins, and Rapid Eye Movement. He was also a member of Level 42, the Lodge and the Tangent and has collaborated with Tom Robinson, Danny Thompson, Gavin Harrison and Dave Stewart.

King Crimson were formed by Robert Fripp in 1968 but were formally disbanded in 1974. In 1981 the band got back together but following a tour in 1984, Fripp dissolved King Crimson for the second time. However, after a tour with David Sylvian in 1993, Fripp began to assemble a new version of the band. That incarnation lasted until 2004.

After Fripp publicly reassessed his desire to work with King Crimson and within the music industry generally, after a break, a new King Crimson formation was announced in 2007, but in 2010 Fripp again turned the King Crimson switch to off.

In 2013, Fripp suddenly and unexpectedly announced King Crimson’s return to activity with a very different reformation which included Jakko Jakszyk, who was confirmed as lead singer and second guitarist. He has remained with King Crimson until the present day as a key part of the band’s longest continual line-up.

In 2017 at the Progressive Music Awards, Jakszyk was awarded the Chris Squire Virtuoso Award, which was presented to him by his friend, comedian Ade Edmondson.

Whilst busy preparing for three dates at The Royal Albert Hall, Jakszyk took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Jakko good morning how are you?

I’m very well thank you Kevin and I have to say that you sound very positive and up so well done.

It is simply the case that you have to be (laughter).

You are so right (laughter).

Anyway before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No worries, it’s my pleasure.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

What can I say, life at the moment is absolutely brilliant (laughter).

In that case I really do suppose that we should talk about King Crimson’s forthcoming fiftieth anniversary celebrations should we?

Yes we should.

You are going to be performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Tuesday 18th, Wednesday 19th and Thursday 20th June. Are you looking forward to that?

Can you believe that, it is truly amazing and I am very much looking forward to it; I really can’t wait.

Do you get nervous at all when you think of all the greats that have stood on that stage before you; people such as Sir Elton John, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Sir Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and Mark Knopfler to name but a few?

No, not that much really. I am far too long in the tooth to get phased by things such as that. As a performer I think that you should always go out with the intention of bringing your ‘A’ game to the show no matter where you are performing. Having said that, I think that there is something about the Royal Albert Hall; I think that it has a certain magic about it, but in a more subtle way. I have played there once before, when I was in Level 42, and I thought back then that it was an amazing venue, not just because of the antecedents of who has played there previously, together with its history and the fact that it is such a beautiful building.

Because you are playing in the round it is one of those venues that hold a lot of people but it still feels intimate simply because it is not a long, straight hall. Everyone surrounds you and it really is amazing. I remember when I played there before I did think ‘I wonder if I will ever play here again’ and now it looks like I am going to get to play there another three times so it really is very exciting. We have been very fortunate in the fact that we have played some extraordinary places, and we will continue to do so this year. We are continually playing to different crowds, which mean that we receive different reactions in different environments.

Last year we played in an ancient amphitheatre in Pompeii which really was pretty extraordinary and then, for me personally, singing Epitaph on stage in Hiroshima, literally a small walk from the Peace Gardens really was a truly moving experience. So they really are all different.

Has the set list been confirmed yet for the three nights?

No not as yet and I will tell you why. We currently have somewhere in the region of fifty pieces in our repertoire and Robert (Fripp) changes the set list every day. He sends us an email around lunchtime so then we have a few hours to panic and think ‘blimey, we haven’t played that in ages, how does it go’ (laughter). Then we will run it at sound check. So I can quite honestly guarantee you a different set every day.

You joined King Crimson back in 2013 which makes you the youngster of the band. Having now toured and performed with them for the past six years what do you think makes them as popular today some fifty years on?

That’s interesting isn’t it and this version of the band is particularly popular as is apparent by the size of the venues that we are playing worldwide. I have to say that over the six years that I have been in the band those audiences have got bigger and bigger. I think that the internet, despite its many faults, which as a musician there are many, but actually one of the positive things is there is a democratisation of music currently going on. I have a son who is almost seventeen and he is not remotely tribal about his musical tastes in a way that I think we and other generations were. He is a musician too; he is currently studying at Music College, so it is all music to him, he loves it all.

It doesn’t matter whether it was made fifty years ago or last week. He said to me in the car recently that his two favourite bands in the world were Everything Everything who are a very interesting young band from Manchester, and The Beatles (laughter). So I think that it has got something to do with that. When we played in Italy last year the demographic of the crowd was really surprising. There was a really wide age range, which included a lot of women who were there on their own, which meant that they weren’t being dragged to the shows by their boyfriends or husbands and they knew the stuff. You could see them lip-synching the lyrics; they knew the lyrics better than me in some cases (laughter).

I personally think that because this version of the band is encompassing every aspect of King Crimson, we play something off of every album with the exception of one, we go all the way back and right up to the modern day. There is also around forty-five minutes of new material in there as well so we really do cover a gambit of the whole thing. Perhaps that is partly bringing some people back maybe who haven’t seen the band in a while.

So just how did you find yourself in the position of being asked if you would like to join the band?

(Laughter) well there is a long version of this but I will try my best to give you the shorter version. There is a band called the 21st Century Schizoid Band and back in 2000 everybody in the band, apart from me ironically enough, had at some time been a member of King Crimson. The idea behind the band was to play the older King Crimson material which the then current King Crimson was not playing. One of the guys in the band said to the members of King Crimson “I know this guy, he is a big fan of Roberts and the band, he can play Roberts guitar parts and he can also sing” and one day whilst we were rehearsing, I got a phone call from Robert Fripp who had been this childhood hero and icon of mine and was one of the reasons why I wanted to be a musician at all.

So for me to get a phone call from him completely out of the blue really did freak me out. His question to me was “how are rehearsals going” and I replied “it’s pretty uncomfortable” (laughter). Robert then replied “well yes, I thought it might be” and that opened up this dialogue between us because in effect I was his surrogate in that line-up. From there Robert played on my solo records. We had also co-written something, and then Robert and I made an album together in 2011 called A Scarcity Of Miracles together with Mel Collins. Also on the album were Tony Levin playing bass and Gavin Harrison on the drums. So there were five members on that album who are now current members of King Crimson.

One of the other things that I have been doing is re-mixing a lot of albums from that era. I have done Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull and stuff like that so I did a King Crimson album too. So I guess that I was already in that kind of circle. However, after the album we all thought that it was the end because Robert retired from music. Then we were all amazed to get a phone call in 2013 informing us that he was going to reform the band and did I want to be the lead singer.

Just how long did it take you to say yes?

(Laughter), not long really, not long at all.

Taking you back to your youth, what was it that drew you to Progressive Rock?

When I was a kid it wasn’t even called Progressive Rock back then, it was simply the music of the time (laughter). It was at that time called Underground Music I guess. I was quite young, I would be about eleven I think and I had a next door neighbour who was a few years older than me and of course at that age that is a fairly significant gap isn’t it. He used to play me music from that era, which I otherwise would never have heard, and I really did like a lot of it. And then one day he played me 21st Century Schizoid Man from the first King Crimson album, In The Court Of The Crimson King and it quite simply blew me away.

Even at that tender age I could tell that this wasn’t coming from the same place; a lot of that music in the late 1960s emerged from the British Blues Boom and even at that age I could tell that this group came from another world. There was something intriguing and mysterious about it, and I went out and bought an album and the cover art was really interesting, beautiful and mysterious and the music transported you to another world. I didn’t know what was going on musically, I was a kid, I was just drawn to it and I loved it.

Being a massive King Crimson fan and also being totally in awe of the man who invited you to join the band, how did it feel the very first time that you performed live with them?

I have to be totally honest and say that was a very emotional experience for me. It was a show that we played at a place called The Egg in upstate New York in a town called Albany. And yes I have to say that I really was quite emotional, having sung 21st Century Schizoid Man as the last number, I think that there were tears, there were most definitely tears somewhere near to my eyes, that’s for sure. You have to remember, that is where I came in. That is the song that my friend played to me when I was an eleven year old boy. And then there I was up there doing it, it really was absolutely extraordinary.

And here you are still enjoying it?

Yes of course. Listen I have been a professional musician since I was seventeen and you find yourself going through numerous peaks and troughs and you find yourself doing all manner of different things in an attempt to survive and keep going. During those spells it is very easy to become cynical and jaded about stuff particularly about the music industry. So for me to find myself in a job which reflects the very reason why I wanted to become a musician in the first place is a very heartening and rejuvenating thing. It is a real privilege and I am certainly aware of that fact. I never take it for granted in the slightest. It has been six years and being honest with you, who knows just how long it will go on. You simply have to savour each and every moment because they really are incredible.

Is the music industry here in the UK currently in a good place?

Well here’s the thing, if I didn’t have a sixteen year old son and a fourteen year old daughter I would have said “no, it is in a terrible place. It is full of generic records that literally all sound the same because they are all using the same technology, together with the same sounds”. If you listen to the music that is being played on the radio it is all processed stuff that is invariably written by the same bunch of people. However, by having younger kids that makes it all different. My son frequently says “hey dad, have you heard of this band” and it’s some band that I have never heard of (laughter). However, he will play a few tracks for me and inevitably it is extraordinary.

So I have to say that beyond the commercial stuff that is thrust upon us, there is some really amazing stuff being played and made out there. So I have to say that if it wasn’t for my son, I don’t think that I would ever have heard half of the stuff that is out there. It is really heartening hearing some of those guys, they really are incredible, really interesting, they are taking musical risks and are clearly pushing the boundaries. That is what still excites me.

I have to ask you, in your opinion what makes Robert Fripp so special?

Well from my personal point of view and opinion I think that Robert has a unique vision, he is never compromised, and I think that if you ask anyone who has worked within any record label who has suggested that he might do something simply because it might benefit him commercially, then believe me he has gone in the totally opposite direction (laughter). The thing is that he is still standing, he has built this world. He plays the guitar in a completely different way to every other electric rock guitarist that you are ever likely to meet. Robert Fripp is unique; he is instantly recognisable and that is a high compliment to pay to any musician I think.

If almost the minute that you hear a note you can say ”I know who that is” that is an incredible thing and he has an extraordinary approach, regimen and discipline and it quite obviously works for him.

Didn’t he once tell you off for almost bursting the bubble regarding his persona?

(Laughter) who have you been talking to? Right I will tell you what happened. A few years ago now I did an interview with Classic Rock magazine and as ever I was asked a similar question along the lines of ‘is Robert really difficult to work with’ and I said “no he really is a good laugh” (laughter). The magazine came out just as we were rehearsing and Robert took me to one side and said “I have just seen the interview that you did with Classic Rock magazine, can you stop saying such nice things about me, as you are ruining my reputation” (laughter). So in answer to your question, yes, Robert Fripp is truly horrible to work with and if it wasn’t for the money then I wouldn’t be doing it (laughter).

Do you have a favourite King Crimson track that you perform live?

That changes every night. It can change depending upon where you are, how the audience are responding, all manner of things can affect just how you feel about a song. Having said that I am currently really enjoying singing Islands which as you will no doubt know is the title track off the 1971 fourth King Crimson album Islands and it’s a ballad. That track really is great to perform live because we cover the gambit I think dynamically. There are seven of us making a hell of a racket at times and then to do something like that which is very stripped back, where there is just voice and piano in a large hall, then you really can do some subtle detail stuff in the approach. That really is great. I love doing that so I would have to say that Islands is currently a particular favourite of mine.

You are now a member of the longest continual line-up of King Crimson in the bands history.

(Laughter) I know, who would have thought it, which really is amazing. The band has normally self imploded by now so fingers crossed.

After six years with the band do you still feel like an outsider or have the rest of the band finally accepted you with open arms?

The first tour that I did after becoming a member of the band really was a baptism of fire. On the next tour I was slowly finding my feet and then finally by the third tour I had been involved to the point where Robert and I had co-written a lot of the new material. At that point I remember walking into rehearsals thinking quite naturally ‘this is my job’. That is not to derogate or make any comment to whoever went before, this is a totally different line-up and no, I most certainly do not feel like that outsider anymore.

Taking you back to September 2017 I understand that a very good friend of yours presented you with the Chris Squire Virtuoso Award at the Progressive Music Awards in London. How did that feel?

(Laughter) it was a thrill and it was exciting. I felt totally unworthy of the award, but I thought that I would have it anyway (laughter). I have to say that it was a great evening. Yes you are correct in saying that I was presented the award by an old friend of mine. It was Ade Edmondson who I have known for a while who actually presented me with the award. As the evening progressed I kept saying “what are you actually going to be saying about me Ade” to which he replied “don’t worry, just think of it as if this is your wedding and I’m your best man” (laughter). So it really was an amazing evening.

You have worked with two people who I personally think were the best bass players around, Mark King and the late Mick Karn. What were they like to work with?

Well they were both very different characters that’s for sure. I have been very fortunate in the fact that I have been in a position to work with some of the very best musicians in the world really and I would say that Mark is the most naturally gifted in so far as he doesn’t seem to have to work at it. You throw something difficult at him and he seems to be able to play it almost instantly. I remember when I first joined Level 42 I went over to the Isle Of Wight to work with him and he hadn’t even touched a bass in over seven months. He hadn’t even picked it up let alone practiced. The rest of us have to practice every single day in order to maintain that level of ability and chops, but he just picked it up and off he went.

I can remember being on stage and there was one particular number that we used to do, To Be With You Again which has a quite complicated bass part which I had to double it up with the guitar one octave up. The lead vocalist would swap between him and Mike (Lindup). Whenever Mike was singing Mark would often come over to me for a chat but I had to tell him,”I can’t play this and have a chat at the same time” (laughter). But I do have to say that Mark really is phenomenal at that level. Mick Karn however, was a completely different character. He was a lovely bloke, really charming, away with the fairies a bit, a bit disconnected from reality but in a nice way. He had no idea what he was doing. He didn’t really know what the notes were called nor did he have any kind of formal musical knowledge, which may be part of the reason why he managed to come up with these mad bass parts.

He had a weird technique which I saw whenever I would watch Mick playing up close. I worked a lot with Mick; in fact I played on the very last album that he made, while he was very ill. In fact he was so ill that the whole thing ended up being an EP. It went under the name of Dalis Car which was Mick with Peter Murphy of Bauhaus fame. I played the guitar on that and also did some string arrangements I seem to recall. It was recorded the year that Mick died and the EP was released posthumously.

Whenever I think of Mick Karn I always think of After A Fashion which he recorded with Midge Ure back in 1987. They shot the video for the song at the pyramids in Giza, Egypt.

(Laughter) well you certainly know what you are talking about. That’s right Midge and Mick were pretty close for a while. Midge took Mick under his wing and actually got him to play at one of the Prince’s Trust gigs.

On the subject of the Prince’s Trust when I recently interviewed Mark I asked him what it was like. He listed a whole load of names ranging from Eric Clapton to Phil Collins and finished by saying “oh and some bloke that nobody knew at the back playing the bass” (laughter).

(Laughter) right I will tell you a very funny story about one of the very first gigs that Mark did with the Prince’s Trust. He couldn’t believe that he was actually onstage with these guys; there was Eric Clapton on guitar, Phil Collins on drums and George Harrison on bass. Mark said that he saw George walk onto the stage and thought ‘oh my god, I am actually onstage with one of The Beatles’. He was desperate to impress George so he plugged his bass in and started doing all of the slapping stuff and sure enough George Harrison wandered over towards him and said “do you have to play so bloody loud” (laughter). Mark is a good lad, I saw him a couple of weeks ago and we went out and had a boozy lunch. It was great fun.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

Oh blimey, that is really difficult because there have been so many. Playing at some iconic venues, for example, when we played The Greek in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, that really was brilliant. Playing in Hiroshima last year was very moving. So to be honest with you there have been so many that I couldn’t really pick just one.

What was the first record that you bought?

The very first record that I bought with my own money was Voodoo Chile by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Who did you first seeing performing live?

That was a double bill and it was Juicy Lucy and Stone The Crows.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Okay, I will tell you what that was; it was a song from a musical called Waitress which was written by a singer-songwriter called Sara Bareilles. My daughter who is fourteen and I recorded a cover version of it and I have to say that she really does have the most extraordinary voice. So that really did make me cry.

On that note Jakko let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been fantastic. You take care and have a great time at the Albert Hall.

Not at all Kevin, it’s a pleasure. Thanks a lot and I hope to see you at the Albert Hall.