Art Rockers Arise (Again) with Eight-Piece Ensemble: Deep-Diving Summer Gigs Tee Up Fall Tour
by Chris Saboe
King Crimson has been pushing the boundaries of contemporary music, off and on, since 1968. The band, when “on,” has spent much of its time inventing and mining new forms of rock. Radical personnel changes that yielded major shifts in sound and style have dotted King Crimson’s timeline. Founder, guitarist, and conceptual channeler Robert Fripp is the only member who has experienced the entirety of the King Crimson arc, thus far.
When I think of King Crimson in 2017 – the “Eight-Headed Beast” – I’ve had a brief recurring mental image reminiscent of the opening credits in Reservoir Dogs, with the boys coolly strutting down the street, not doin’ nuthin’. Killers. In my little daydream, there’s eight guys, just like in the movie. Different guys, though. Wearing much nicer suits. Walking far more elegantly, yet no less menacingly. No toothpicks, but one of them – the new timps moodge – sports a bowler. They’re most certainly still killers, these famed virtuosos:
Jakko Jakszyk (guitar, lead vocals) has a vocal range and voice qualities uniquely suited to the King Crimson’s catalogue. His singing holds this current manifestation of the band together as a kind of nexus point of its past accomplishments and current prowess. The contrast as a guitarist between him and Robert Fripp (the other guitarist, as he is known to call himself) is less than that between RF and the sometimes-unchained former member Adrian Belew. Jakko’s abilities as a guitarist were advanced at a young age through a musical relationship with the innovative guitar master Allan Holdsworth (UK, Gong).
Robert Fripp (guitar, keyboards), a King Crimson founder, is one of the best-known prog rock and session guitarists and composers. As an occasional keyboard player, Fripp provides another crucial part to what makes this group’s live show such an impressive display.
Tony Levin (bass, Stick, vocals) provides the band’s bottom with everything – from a bowed NS Upright bass to a Chapman Stick to a Fender Precision – being slapped silly by his own invention, the appendage-extending Funk Fingers. Levin is the Raja of Rumble, who forges his own signature while masterfully manipulating lines previously defined by Greg Lake, Gordon Haskell, Boz Burrell, John Wetton, and Trey Gunn.
Mel Collins (saxes, flute) can steer King Crimson into areas of jazz and blues that they hadn’t been able to explore since his earlier departure from the group in 1972, despite the windless and tightly-tracked 1972-74 live band’s notorious run as an improvisational rock/jazz/blues juggernaut. Mel Collins brings the human breath back into the body of the music. King Crimson songs never before graced with woodwinds are unleashed further into the unknown and simultaneously woven tighter within the Crim canon.
Bill Rieflin (drums, keyboards) stepped away from King Crimson for part of 2015 and all of 2016, departing his role as central drummer. Upon his return in 2017, Rieflin became Crim’s first-ever full-time keyboardist. His presence is most crucial to Crim’s ability now to choose from the entirety of their canon. As with Mel Collins, new lines and layers emerge from songs that never before featured a keyboard.
Pat Mastelotto (drums, percussive exotica) has been present for several of King Crimson’s more recent iterations. Counterpart to both Bill Bruford (1994-1998) and Gavin Harrison (2007-present), Mastelotto was the lone drummer during the band’s Double Duo era of 2000-2004, skillfully deploying electronic loops and samples alongside the more traditional battery. For the current Crim, Mastellotto incorporates sculptural metals and augmentative sundries within his already abundant percussive array.
Jeremy Stacey (drums, keyboards, vocals) was welcomed into King Crimson to assume the drum center position left vacant by Bill Rieflin. As one of King Crimson’s now three drummers, three keyboardists, and three vocalists, Stacey is at work constantly.
Gavin Harrison (drums) is a drummer of the highest order. During performance, Harrison accomplishes this masterful drumming work while constantly paying attention and giving critical signaling and cues, and encouragement for shading – not only Mastelotto and Stacey, but to each member of the band.
David Singleton (producer, arranger, composer, manager) has helped King Crimson respond to a loyal audience and move ever forward. An accomplished musician well familiar with the challenges of the music industry, Singleton combines his knowledge, experience, and understanding with a long-standing enthusiasm for all King Crimson music, to provide the conditions that allow this band to perform and to progress.
This summer in Seattle, just prior to the first gig of King Crimson’s Summer 2017 tour, we interviewed lead vocalist and guitarist Jakko Jakksyk and “Ninth Man,” David Singleton (“Minister to the Greater Crim”), who is as important to King Crimson as any of its members who play onstage. We were all seated at a table in the Moore Theater’s green room, as well-known low-end string maestro Tony Levin also drifted into the Q&A festivities:
This fall, King Crimson embarks on its 2017 East Coast USA tour. So, to set some context, will the band include more of the Adrian Belew-era songs into the present day live Crim repertoire?
Jakko Jakszyk: His whole interview strategy is based on that one question! (laughs)
David Singleton: Respectfully and cautiously; we will, yes.
Jakko Jakszyk: I’m trying to find my version of those songs and treat them as such, rather than [as] somebody else’s songs. With “Indiscipline,” for instance, I don’t intend to do an impression of Adrian. That would be pointless and stupid. I have to sing, I have to do what I can do, as me. On that particular tune, I thought: well, why don’t I write a melody, because there’s music going on? I think we’ve given it a completely different spin. I guess that’s how I approach it.
David Singleton: Adrian’s songs are a core part of the Crimson canon. I think the question is actually whether they were right for this particular incarnation. Jakko is a different person. He has, probably, a more English sensibility than Adrian, obviously. The band doesn’t want to “cover” Adrian. They need to be from the heart, so you have to find the way that they’re right for Jakko and right for this band.
Jakko Jakszyk: As I say, my only consideration was making them work for me. It wouldn’t make sense for me to perform them in the same way. Especially when, as David says, there’s a specific kind of American sensibility, which would sound ersatz if I was doing it. So, I have to find a way that I feel comfortable doing them. They’re songs with harmony and melody, and if I feel comfortable singing the melody, then, that’s fine. Then there’s the more kind-of talking aspect of it [spoken vocals] that I feel less comfortable with. Yeah, it’s finding a way in.
Regarding “Indiscipline,” the vocals have developed into an almost woozily-structured story, featuring three-part harmony, rendering the song new and simultaneously familiar. How is the rearrangement of pre-existing segments of this music approached?
Jakko Jakszyk: Robert [Fripp] wanted to do that. I did feel kind of uncomfortable about how to do it. So, I toyed with writing new lyrics. I toyed with all sorts of ways of doing it. Trying to make it sound more English, and more like me. Then I thought – it’s what I said earlier – there’s music underneath. So, maybe I should write a melody and keep the original lyrics, which is what I did. The melody is driven by the rhythm of the words, rather than the other way around.
The new parts seemed to connect very well. The song seemed tightened-up a bit. When the vocal exclamations came in, they seemed to come in with an immediacy.
Jakko Jakszyk: Yeah. It sounds random … but, it’s not. It’s very tied-in, because it doesn’t repeat itself like a formulaic melodic structure.
Was “Radical Action III” debuted last night?
Jakko Jakszyk: Yeah!
David Singleton: Actually, if I’m right, isn’t that actually “IV”?
Jakko Jakszyk: Well it kind of is, except Robert’s calling it “III.”
David Singleton: So, it’s actually “III.” “III” the second time. Good.
Jakko Jakszyk: Yeah. Currently called “III.” Originally, it was a variation of the “Radical” harmonic thing, which started off in a dressing room in Tokyo. I recorded Robert playing this thing, and I created this track, using a thing that Gavin had done. Then I went back to it. Robert liked it, but he didn’t like what he played, and Gavin didn’t like what he played. So, suddenly, the stuff that I put on top was missing the stuff on which it was based, and so it became something else. It was a weird, convoluted way of writing something.
Well, the results were danceable and enjoyable. (laughs)
David Singleton: In fact, he’s right. It’s very danceable. It’s just very “up.”
Have any attempts to retell a piece from Crim’s back catalog been met with difficulties and resulted in failure?
Jakko Jakszyk: Ha! Well, we were going to do something early on that Robert abandoned before we even got to rehearsal.
David Singleton: What song? Old song?
Jakko Jakszyk: Yeah. Am I allowed to say? (David whispers affirmatively.) We were going to do “Moonchild” on the very first tour. We used to play it, Robert and I. Don’t know if Tony did it once, ‘round up at my house, can’t remember. Then Robert decided to abandon it. I was keen to do it because the actual song bit of it has got a real charm to it.
David Singleton: Suppose it would be fun to do that sort of song. If you did it with the thought of lifting off into an improv, it would be a fun thing to do.
Jakko Jakszyk: Well, yeah! The trouble is, there’s so much stuff. You have a go at something, and then you leave it. Sometimes, it does come back.
David Singleton: I don’t think it’s a “difficulty resulting in failure.” It’s simply that it hasn’t yet been done. It wasn’t dropped because the band couldn’t do it.
Jakko Jakszyk: Sometimes, stuff is brought up while we’re on tour. That’s pretty scary having do it when you haven’t spent time getting your head around it, then going to rehearsal. Suddenly you’re in the middle of a tour and you have to do it.
Do you have a personal aphorism to share, based upon your life’s unique Crim arc?
Jakko Jakszyk: There’s a Bill Bruford line I use all the time because it’s funny, but it’s also true. “King Crimson – the only band in which you can regularly play in 15/8 and still stay in nice hotels.” I like that one. It’s true, though. I guess, you have your classical musicians. They don’t necessarily stay in nice hotels, though.
David Singleton: They don’t perform in 15/8, actually. They don’t do either of those things.
Could you describe any exceptional joys, conundrums, foibles that you’ve experienced whilst stewarding and empowering a jazz-enriched progressive rock octet that sub-deploys from within a keyboard trio, a vocal trio, a drum corps, and on, on-demand, and on-a-dime?
Jakko Jakszyk: I’m glad you’re answering that one.
David Singleton: Yeah, it would seem that madness was obviously a core requirement. This many people in a band is a conundrum. My involvement is double. Really, most of it is band management, which is a new role for me. It’s not a musical role. It’s a psychoanalysis-cum-accountancy role. Fiscal role. It’s 50/50 between those two, and both are tough with this band. You have eight people in this band, you therefore have a large crew. I think we’re about twenty, on tour. And twenty people on tour costs a lot of money. (laughs) It’s a wonderful management conundrum – how do you actually keep this band on tour? Musically, it’s wonderful. Musically, I’ve enjoyed this band ever since it started. The core of this current band… I remember, Robert sat me down and kept on saying, “David, I’ve formed a new King Crimson and there are seven people in it.” I realized that the requirement within this game was to ask, “Well, who are they?” So, I didn’t. The following day, he came back, again. “David, now there’s a new King Crimson and there are seven people in it.” (pauses and laughs) I think the third time, he said, “Aren’t you going to ask me who’s in the band?” I said “No, because I can tell you who’s in the band.” And I was one-hundred per cent right.
Jakko Jakszyk: You got all of us right?
David Singleton: I got all seven of you correctly. At the time when he said it and announced the idea that it was going to readdress the core catalogue, I told Robert that, with one condition, this would be the most popular King Crimson ever. The one condition was that the band had to keep going. Because King Crimson has a habit of performing, and just when everyone about realizes that it’s quite a good band, it stops again. I still stick with my original assumption, even though it is now an eight-piece. Even better, isn’t it? This band’s been going longer than most of its versions already, hasn’t it?
Jakko Jakszyk: Yeah. This is the fourth year.
Is the openness in the current Crim something that it requires of its audience too?
David Singleton: I think it’s astonishing the way the audience has met the band halfway, and perhaps more than halfway. Robert certainly stopped touring, partly it was a frustration against photography in the audience and the fact that he didn’t feel that performance in the way he understood it was possible anymore. That was the one doubt I had when he said he was going back to doing it again. Has that changed? Apparently to some degree, at least, it has. So you’re right, maybe the audience has realized. For a while, King Crimson were a lone voice arguing this. [Now] a lot of large artists have announced that they would like you to stop taking photographs, and don’t take your phones to the concert.
Jakko Jakszyk: Kate Bush. Adele.
David Singleton: Yeah, there’s lots of people, so actually it’s possibly helped people to realize that this isn’t simply some “pissy bands.” Had the audience not moved halfway this band would probably not still be going.
Is collective joy now a requirement for Crim to exist?
Jakko Jakszyk: Do you require collective joy, Tony?
Tony Levin: Oh, jeez. I’m just the bass player.
David Singleton: He’s just the bass player. Yes. I think that this isn’t a band that anybody here particularly wants to suffer in terribly. So, in that sense, it’s a requirement that this is a reasonably enjoyable, repeatable experience. We try to make it so that this is sustainable. Which means, actually, there has to be a level of comfort and enjoyment to the experience. Young people may be willing to suffer conditions to take their music into the world, but I think there comes a point at which you’re not willing to do that anymore.
Has this King Crimson brought together the “fraKctals” or separate working units of the band previously established by Robert Fripp?
David Singleton: I think this band is quite knowingly pulling together all the strands of the history of King Crimson.
Jakko Jakszyk: Yeah. There’s the desire that Robert started to have, about seeing some of the older material preformed, not necessarily even with him in it. There was briefly another band. John Wetton, Gavin, and Mel and myself, which Robert helped mastermind. Then, he thought, “Actually I’d quite like to be in this group myself.” Those things helped formulate what it became. It was a combination of those guys that worked together, and we’ve created this thing, this idea. Then it’s addressing the older material that hasn’t been played in decades, and in some cases, never.
David Singleton: There have been a lot of “nevers” on stage so far.
Such as last night’s performance of “Fallen Angel” and “Islands.”
David Singleton: “Islands” was just spectacular. It was absolutely spectacular.
The performances have also included Crimson’s new live single cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Fripp, who of course played the signature guitar part for Bowie on that original track, says that the band is offering up this sparkling Crimson redux rendition, with Jakko’s vocal performance, “as a celebration, a remembrance and an homage” to this recently departed hero.
This interviewer politely urges the reader to consider attending an upcoming King Crimson 2017 USA Fall Tour gig, as the band surveys its vast and varied catalogue and continues to explore musically. Tour begins on 19 October in Austin, Texas, and is completed on 26 November in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with most shows in-between being held along the East Coast. From their last visit to the area in 2014 to now, King Crimson has grown and acquired confidence and even more power and brilliance. King Crimson is constantly traversing unique musical pathways.
Visit www.dgmlive.com for all things King Crimson, including free downloads of selections from each stop on King Crimson’s two previous tours, along with full live performances available for sampling and purchase. The site provides ticket links as well.
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 16, 2017.
Photos 1-3 © 2017. Courtesy of Glass Onyon PR. All rights reserved.
Photos 4-6 © 2017 Chris Saboe.