An Interview with Jakko M Jakszyk

Jakko Jakszyk, Secrets & Lies promo image. August 2020. Photo by Tina Korhonen, 2020. All rights reserved

The latest interview for the Hugh Hopper biography brought me back in contact with Jakko M Jakszyk, someone who I was lucky to speak to twice in the Nineties for Facelift. On that first occasion he gave me an overview of his eventful career to that date, and on the second a track by track run through of his superb album ‘Mustard Gas and Roses’. At the time he was achieving some well-overdue limelight as guitarist with Level 42. Now of course he is the established lead singer (and guitarist) with King Crimson. But as on previous occasions, we convened (this time virtually) to talk about entirely different projects, firstly to touch on a brief collaboration with Hugh Hopper in 2000, but also his latest solo project ‘Secrets and Lies’. ‘Secrets and Lies’ once again showcases Jakko’s unique blend of talents: as a wonderfully clear, melodic voice in the true Canterbury/Crimso canon, a blisteringly fluid guitarist, an orchestrator of multiple instruments and voices, a proponent of both driving music and sweet ballads with just a hint of early Eighties rolled up sleeves and collars, and just as importantly a strikingly personal lyricist with more than most to draw on in terms of first hand experience.

The Hopper collaboration, which took place in 2000, was a reinterpretation of ‘As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still’ alongside Dave Stewart and Egg’s Clive Brooks. Dave Stewart had already given me a fascinating insight into for the book in a rare interview earlier this summer. More of his and Jakko’s thoughts on that topic when ‘Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening’ is published by Jazz in Britain in 2022.

‘As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still’ was originally commissioned, slightly oddly, for a Soft Machine retrospective compilation called ‘Man In A Deaf Corner’, I say oddly because all other tracks were original Soft Machine or earlier recordings from the halcyon days of the band up until 1970. It then subsequently appeared on a further compilation ‘Canterbury Tales’, as well as on CD2 of what until now had been Jakko’s last solo album, ‘The Bruised Romantic Glee Club’. In fact the recording of ‘Perfectly Still’ had triggered something of an avalanche of interpretations of experimental classics, starting with King Crimson’s ‘Pictures of a City”, as Jakko explains:

“There are moments in the day (in the studio) where you’ve got to copy loads of stuff, and you can’t really use the computer because all their power’s being used. So you sit here for 10 minutes while it’s shifting stuff. And I remember sitting in the studio. I’ve got a sitar guitar on the wall here. I remember the fast running lines for Robert Fripp’s ‘Pictures of a City’ and I thought this sounds brilliant on the sitar guitar. And then I got in touch with Pandit Dinesh (who had played with Jakko on the Dizrhythmia projects), who came down. Dinesh doesn’t know King Crimson or what prog rock is –  it’s all just music to him. So I got him to play along and he came up with this really groovy part. And then he started singing on it.  And then I got Gavin (Harrison) to play drums and I mentioned it to Pete Sinfield, who then rewrote the lyrics so that it was about Bombay instead of New York.

“So then suddenly I had these two covers and I thought, ‘oh maybe I should do some other covers’. I remember asking Gavin if he would play drums for a cover of ‘Nirvana for Mice’ (Henry Cow) and he said I’m not playing this  – it sounds so f***g complicated!” It’s one of those tunes where it’s much more complicated than you think, actually, when you see it written down.

And then I remember calling up Tim Hodgkinson, who I don’t know very well.

And I said, ‘Oh Tim’ it’s Jakko’.

He said, ‘yes’.

I said, ‘apparently Dave Stewart’s said you’ve got some sheet music for Nirvana for Mice’. 

He said, ‘yes’.

I said, ‘is there any chance of having a copy of that because I’m thinking of recording it?’.

He said, ‘yes’.

I said, ‘all right. Well can I give you my address?’,

He said, ‘yes’.

I gave my address and I said, ‘oh that’s great. Well thanks very much. Are you gonna say anything else during this conversation other than yes?’

And he said ‘no’!

And that was my conversation with Tim Hodgkinson!

“So we had these parts and Dave (Stewart) did like a whole MIDI thing. So we knew exactly what all the parts were and I just replaced them with guitars. And I remember in the middle section I said to Gavin, ‘look, on the original – it’s kinda freeform sax’. So I said, ‘look just play anything, play whatever you like’. So Gav played it basically like a drum solo and then I went through the drum solo and I thought, oh that grouping’s nice. So I followed some of it and put bass on it and guitars and then you end up with this arrangement which I’m just following sections of what he improvised. But once you start putting parts on, it sounds like this deliberate arrangement, you know.

So what else did I do? I did ‘The Citizen King’ (also by Henry Cow) and then I did a cover of one of my own things (‘Soon After’) from when I was a kid. It wasn’t even a cover, it was a recording I had from when I was about 14 or 15 off a Revox and I cleaned it up and then I added other stuff too? So that’s kind of how it happened. It wasn’t deliberate.” The album also includes an interpretation of another King Crimson track, ‘Islands’.

Jakko’s stop/start conversation with Tim Hodgkinson belies a relationship with Henry Cow going back to his work as a collaborator with both John Greaves and Peter Blegvad in The Lodge. But in fact his association goes back even further from when he was first actively listening to progressive music.

“I was at a Youth Theatre in Watford and there was a guy there. He was quite politically active, he was on the school council. He was at Watford Boys Grammar.  I remember I was at a party and he said, ‘do you know about the Canterbury music’ (I said no). ‘So right, listen to these’ and he gave me a wad of albums, Soft Machine Two, Land of Grey and Pink and I think Matching Mole. I devoured them and thought, oh man… And I loved, I loved Robert’s singing. I was always drawn to people with an English accent. I really loved Soft Machine 2 – it had such a kind of atmosphere to it. He then said ‘I’ve booked a band to play at the Watford boys school, you’ve got to come’ And it was Henry Cow. I’d never heard of them and it was f****g brilliant. I thought, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’, and they in effect played one long number which was all these pieces kind of interspersed with the glue of free improvisation. And I became quite obsessed. “

Mike Barnes in his book ‘A New Day Yesterday’ quotes our interviewee telling a glorious story of how the band picked a young Jakko up walking home from one of their gigs and ended up at his parents’ house drinking tea post gig, something of a mind-blowing experience for the nascent fan. Jakko takes the story forward a few decades to the 2014 reunion performing Lindsay Cooper tunes: “they played the Barbican in London and I was in the front row. I went with Vic Reeves (the comedian) who’s a big Henry Cow fan. And so Vic Reeves was literally in the front row with me. And then they do two sets and at the end of the first set, John Greaves kind of waves at me. And mimes, ‘have you got passes?’ When we went backstage, John said to me said, ‘F*****g hell!’, he said, ‘it’s unbelievable.  Back in the day, we used to wave to this little 13/14 year old kid ’cause we thought, it’s that kid who comes on his own and sits on the front row. And we reform and f**k me I’m still waving to you!’  And I said,  ‘that’s exactly what I was thinking when you were waving to me!’

“The free improvisation thing was never really what dragged me in. Although you know some of it was intriguing and I love the juxtaposition. It was the writing, it was way beyond everybody really, it was way beyond Crimson. It’s way beyond Soft Machine. Really detailed. Like electronic chamber music, it’s still incredible. I still listen to the first album in particular. You know some of the pieces in that are just amazing. And again, it’s got this unique atmosphere. I know they were fans of kind of late 60s Zappa I guess. Kind of ‘Uncle Meat’. And you can kind of hear that, but they’re so English. It sounds very different, but I still think that’s one of the most extraordinary records.”

Back to the present and an obvious starting point for our conversation about Jakko’s latest solo album ‘Secrets and Lies’ was the wonderful tribute to Pip Pyle, ‘The Rotters Club is Closing Down’, which from its first spine tingling few bars of crystal clear vocals is destined to implant itself permanently into the Canterbury lexicon. I mentioned to Jakko that when I’d posted a few initial thoughts about this track on Facebook, the first two responses from posters who were hearing it for the first time was the apparent involvement of Dave Stewart on keyboards and Richard Sinclair on burbling backing vocals. Both are captivatingly illusory – in both cases down to Jakko himself (in fact, in the case of the latter, it’s a long standing impersonation which apparently goes right back to 64 Spoons days, Jakko’s wonderfully bonkers first band of note in the late Seventies).

“When I first did it, I sent a copy to Jonathan Coe (author of the best selling book, called, of course, ‘The Rotters Club’). That’s exactly what he said. “Oh that’s a great idea. Getting Richard to sing at the end”. I started writing the lyrics in in the car on the way home from Pip’s funeral, right? I had three people in the car, John Greaves. Peter Blegvad and Jonathan Coe. And so everyone was talking about anecdotes and Pip this and Pip that. So I started writing the thing in my head. So, it’s actually an oldish song.” ‘The Rotters Club Is Closing Down’ is an affectionate tribute to an apparently incorrigible rogue, about whom stories are legion, my own favourite being Mark Hewins’s tale of him joining a binmen’s collection round post-gig in Paris. The track not only contains subtle references to the double edged sword of being appropriated into Pip’s antics, but also wonderfully weaves the lines ‘Tadpoles keep screaming in my ears/The Rotters Club is closing down’ into its closing refrain.

Jakko confided that this track might easily already have appeared 7 years ago as a track on a projected Rapid Eye Movement album from the live archives which unfortunately has not materialised as yet. “The minute I got those multitracks I started working on them and they sounded great. You know, and I put guitars on that weren’t on there and I did some vocals. What was really good about it was that (unless they’ve heard those shitty live versions), is that there is stuff that that Dave wrote that no one’s ever heard and some of it is great. You know we did some of the songs that Pip wrote which ended up on his solo record”.

This of course included ‘Seven Sisters’, the superb opener from ‘Seven Year Itch’, an interesting version of which has just popped up on Youtube, which may or may not be related. “Well, I used to sing that live. I sang it before Richard (Sinclair, who delivers it so sonorously on ‘Seven Year Itch’), and it’s a really hard thing to sing. As I recall I have to sing the lowest note I’m capable of singing and the highest note I’m capable of singing without going into falsetto – within the melody – it’s all over the shop, because Pip was writing it on the keyboard. There’s a song called ‘the Hat of Truth’, a thing called ‘Let’s Get the Day Underway’. There’s ‘Cheap Theatrical Fantasies’. There’s a handful of tunes that we’ve only ever played live.”

So what were Rapid Eye Movement like then? I assumed given the era and and in particular the personnel that this would be short sharp, possibly punky material.

“It’s kind of Hatfieldish. ‘Cheap Theatrical Fantasies’ is kind of poppy. We used to do an XTC cover which then Dave subsequently did on an outing with Barbara (Gaskin) called ‘Roads Girdle the Globe’. We used to do a thing called ‘Mechanic Dancing’. And there’s some songs of mine, some of which ended up on my first solo record. There was an old 64 Spoons tune which was ‘Dear Clare’. But Dave’s version was really avant garde. You know, he kind of deconstructed it completely.”

But if progress on releasing this stalled some time ago, Jakko has forged ahead both with becoming an integral part of King Crimson, as well as working on his latest solo album. I put it to Jakko that some of the material on ‘Secrets and Lies’ contained hints of the trademark Crimson sound. I never know quite how to categorise Robert Fripp’s unique angular guitar themes (unless it is, as has been suggested, the genesis of math rock) but Jakko appeared to know what I was alluding to:

Jakko Jakszyk, Secrets & Lies promo image. August 2020. Photo by Tina Korhonen, 2020. All rights reserved

“I think there’s a kind of there’s a harmonic consistency to what Robert (Fripp) does. If you listen to all of King Crimson’s music, you can chop and change and it sounds like 4 different bands, but on another level it’s got the same ingredients. There’s a kind of modal thing that he does, and he’s very fond of flattened 5ths, so there’s always that kind of sense of dissonance. And you know, I was influenced by that before. But of course, once you’re in the group and you’re playing, your hands tend to hear that and it becomes a new part of your vocabulary because you because you’ve been absorbing it.”

Most obviously this is evident in the final track, the expansive ‘Separation’ which Jakko confesses was written for the band (Fripp is co-credited and a number of current Crimson members appear on it), as he has been wont to do since he joined them. “For a while Robert thought they were all great and we integrated them and they became part of the current King Crimson repertoire.

“But some of the later things that I did, we had this bit of an in joke where I would start to play him something. And he would go, ‘I love this, this is marvellous. It would be an ideal track for your next solo album’, which is code for ‘we’re not playing this mate’. So that’s three of those tunes.”

Another, I suspect is the superb opener “Before I Met You”, which manages to incorporate within a few short minutes a Frippian riff, a quite ridiculous Holdsworthesque solo, and Jakko’s searing vocal line, all underpinned by a memorable driving groove, devoid of slappage, from Level 42’s Mark King.

Another killer track is the haunting ballad “The Trouble with Angels”, embellished with an award winning video which has a story of its own, directed by Sam Chegini. “Sam lives in Tehran, right? And originally he wanted to come to England to film me. We had a conversation, I guess it must have been October last year and we agreed about budget and all that stuff. And then he just disappeared. And I kept writing emails anyway. And then the phone rang and it was a guy said, ‘oh I’m a friend of Sam’s. He apologises for not returning any of your emails but he said that Donald Trump pulled out of the Iranian nuclear agreement. And enforced more sanctions against the country and as a result, there’s been some demonstrations on the street, and as a consequence of that, the Iranian government have turned the Internet off’.’ So that’s why he wasn’t replying.

“And then Sam phoned me and said, ‘look? You know, can you write to me ’cause I need an official letter to get a visa to come to England?’ So I wrote to him and I had to, you know post it by snail mail. Nothing and then Christmas Day he wrote an email saying they’d turned the Internet back on but they wouldn’t let him fly to England or the States. He said ‘I can do this in the Netherlands, because I can get a visa but if you’re prepared to travel, we could do it in Turkey because I don’t need a visa’. So I said OK and I found a studio in Istanbul. And I booked it and a hotel and I booked flights. Literally 24 hours after I did that Donald Trump sanctioned the assassination of General Soleimani. And the British government at the Foreign Office suggested you might want to avoid flying anywhere in that area, including Turkey.  The Iranians retaliated and they bombed an air base but they also blew a passenger jet out of the sky by accident. And so the day after that, Sam got in touch and said, ‘they cancelled all flights coming out Tehran’, which is why you see us doing that in Acton. And why Toby’s got his blue Bluetooth headphones on and my iPhone is on Skype and clamped to the monitor on the camera so that he can see what’s going on.

“There is another video that he did which we did in the same way which isn’t in the package because and it’s the video for ‘Uncertain Times’. ‘Uncertain times’ was actually Robert’s title. In fact we called one of the (King Crimson) tours ‘Uncertain Times, and I wrote the song based on that title. And the song is about is about the Brexit thing. I posted a thing up about the Polish centre (which Jakko used to visit with his adoptive father, who was Polish), and then I got all this abuse, like ‘why don’t you f**k off home’ – this as an adopted kid who lives in London…”

The song is one of Jakko’s starker moments, with bleak, deadened vocals, more angular dissonance from guitar and in the video, a montage of far right politicians interweaving with Union Jacks and tickertape, overlayed with graffiti effects and all lapped up by a gleeful onlooking character played by Al Murray. “It’s really good. In fact, I think it’s better than the other one, I’m an animated Banksy in effect!”

Al Murray also appears as the drummer on ‘The Rotters Club Is Closing Down’, and will be much better known to UK readers as a comedian, particularly his alter ego as The Pub Landlord, ironic given the track he plays on. “It was much more pragmatic than that. I wanted to put real drums on it and Gavin (Harrison) had played on everything and he was busy doing other stuff. Al takes drumming very seriously. In fact, he’s got a drum company, which has done incredibly well, called the British Drum Company. When we played in Manchester,  I think the factory’s near Stockport, he took us around the factory and it’s really impressive there.  It’s not just a vanity project –  it’s a serious going concern. And I knew more than anything that he loved the idea that he would be the only other drummer other than Gavin Harrison!”

And so on to the Peter Hammill connection. We are both huge fans and as I knew, but we’d not discussed previously, Jakko has a loose connection with Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator musicians going right back to the early Eighties. “I was making my first album. I’m a kid in a candy shop. I’ve got a budget. I’ve got a studio. And I can employ any musician I want virtually. I said to the record label, can you get hold of Dave Jackson (VdGG’s saxophonist) and he came and played on a load of stuff. He was a very nice man and I got to know his family and his kids who were tiny. I used to go and have Sunday lunch and then we would meet Peter because they were pals back then. So I got to meet Peter socially. We always got on very well and then more recently whenever I saw him he’d say, ‘have you started that solo album yet’. And I’d say ‘no’ and he’d say, ‘you’re mad, you must make it’. So the last time he said that I said, ‘I tell you what Peter, I’ll make this album if you if you agree to be on it on some capacity’. He said, ‘of course’, so that’s how that happened, really.

Peter Hammill’s contribution to collaborate directly in providing an ummistakeable, intro, parallel vocal line and coda to ‘Fools Mandate’ (Hammill fans will recognise the play on words in the song’s title) as well as further lines on ‘Separation’. I put it to Jakko, that, on first hearing about Hammill’s involvement, I’d listened to the album right through and falsely identified him as having provided the bass vocal line on the intensely personal story of romantic betrayal ‘It Would All Make Sense’, another of the album’s highpoints. I put it to Jakko that there were some parallels in their mutual tendency towards intense baring of the soul, which for Hammill himself peaked on the stripped-to-the-wire post-relationship album ‘Over’: “The accusation frequently launched at what is loosely called progressive rock is that the lyrics are always about …. whatever … and of course actually Peter Hammill’s lyrics are unbelievably personal, gut wrenching. I mean like a bit too much at times. So you know my approach to that is definitely influenced by him. You might as well express something within those songs and you might as well try and do them articulately. I place a lot of store on the lyrics. They’re the hardest thing I have to do I think. And you know the fact that musically we’re in some other area, surely that’s irrelevant. You know this is all about emotion and telling a tale and connecting on some level, but hopefully doing it in an original way.

“I don’t know about the actual singing (having parallels). His singing is so extraordinary – I can see how it splits the room but I think it’s brilliant. The first album I heard was ‘Pawn Hearts’ and then I worked my way back and then you know there’s a handful of solo records that were the soundtrack to my teenage years. “

Jakko’s solo projects are peppered with heart-on-the-sleeve manifestations of betrayal, either personal or portrayed (“Before I Met You” is actually based on a Julian Barnes novel), with him confessing that his next solo album, already in the pipeline is likely to contain “a high element of divorce songs”, as that’s what he’s currently in the thick of. Projects such as ‘The Road to Ballina’, an extraordinary spoken word/music piece which was originally aired on Radio 3 as part of the ‘Between The Ears’ series, and subsequently tweaked for release on Rsesurgence in 1997, is a slightly tangential example of this. (see the interview in Facelift issue 9) and was due to resurrect itself last summer. “I was going to work on a one man show that I was going to do in Edinburgh at the festival, which was based on a thing I did for the BBC. And I started working on that because I’ve got to re record everything. I was doing it with a guy called Richard Turner who does all the visuals for Roger Waters and other really big acts and it was being directed by Michael Attenborough. So we were going to try and bring this kind of audiovisual thing and re- recording all the music“. Hopefully this will still happen for next summer’s festival.

I suspect even tracks on ‘Scarcity of Miracles’ (Jakko’s trio album with Robert Fripp and Mel Collins) contained elements of these personal outpourings (witness lyrics such as “I spent a decade on the run, I escaped from nothing and no-one’ from ‘Secrets’). We talked briefly about how that particular project came about too: “the original thing was just me and him (Fripp) improvising in a room and at the end of that day as I was leaving, he gave me this box and I said ‘what’s this?’ He said ‘it’s a hard drive –  this is what we we played today’. I said ‘what do you want me to do that?’ He said, ‘I’m sure you’ll think of something.’ Robert does that. It’s a bit like the TV series on in the 70s called Kung Fu. There’s kind of Grand Master Kung Fu bloke who says all these enigmatic things and  you have to discover what it is that he said. So there’s an element of that going on.

“So I took it home and I thought, well. The obvious thing to do is to go through sections and say that sounds like a section and chop it up and edit it together. So I decided not to do that. And I just started to try and follow wherever it went. So I started improvising vocals, improvising guitars and then I started doing it in chunks like consequences. And then eventually days later just playing it from the beginning and hearing it unfold. And then we got Mel in and part of what Mel played I would then double and then get Mel back into double and do harmonies. So again you’ve got this arrangement which actually comes purely out of improvisation. You end up in this kind of organic way of writing that you would never have written normally.”

I asked Jakko about the compositional process more generally for his solo work, and whether the drivers for his songs tended to be the topic of their lyrical content. “It varies actually, you know sometimes I’ve got a piece of music and I write the melody in the lyrics over the top. Sometimes the lyrics come first and they in themselves suggest some kind of harmonic or melodic approach or mood. Sometimes they kind of happen symbiotically, Sometimes you play games. There’s nothing worse than a blank sheet of paper, you know. I’ve written songs where I’ve kind of  set myself a little puzzle. How can I move this beat around so it sounds unusual and unsettles people you know. And then the mood of that suggests what it might be able to support lyrically, I’m not sawing blocks of wood up and making cabinets in the same way every time.

“Quite often you’ll hear a phrase and that triggers off something else. Or you will have a subject that you would like to write about. You just need to find a way in. “

So concluded an extremely entertaining hour of conversation, with lots left untouched, most notably Jakko’s appearance at the Phil Miller memorial gig at the start of last year, the plans for King Crimson (lockdown has meant the cancellation of a large scale tour in 2020) plus more talk about the specifics of ‘Secrets and Lies’ (in particular the wonderful reflective piece ‘Under Lock and Key’, the reworking of ‘The Borders We Traded’ and the involvement in various guises of both Jakko’s teenage musician children). But given the huge amount of goodwill from Jakko towards the biography, Facelift and the Canterbury scene in general, I am sure it won’t be another few decades before we speak again!     

Jakko Jakszyk, Secrets & Lies promo image. August 2020. Photo by Tina Korhonen, 2020. All rights reserved

To order ‘Secrets and Lies’ and keep up to date with Jakko’s activities visit https://jakko.com/

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