Rob Laakso, Kurt Vile and the Violators and Swirlies Guitarist, Dead at 44

The artist had been living with an aggressive form of cancer called cholangiocarcinoma

Photo: Tore Sætre

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished May 8, 2023

Rob Laakso — the American musician, record producer and engineer known best for playing with Kurt Vile's band the Violators and Boston shoegazers Swirlies — has died. Mamie-Claire Cornelius, Laakso's wife, confirmed the artist passed away last Thursday (May 4) of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of bile duct cancer. He was 44.

"After praying for a miracle every day since he was diagnosed my prayers recently changed to a peaceful home departure surrounded by love. I realize now every day we had together was a miracle," Cornelius wrote in an update on a GoFundMe campaign supporting Laakso. "Lately he pushed through the most insidious pain in efforts to be as present with his children as possible. Through it all he stayed stoic so I wouldn't panic even more, so the kids could keep on living in their sweet and joyful innocence and so his friends and family wouldn't worry."

Laakso was Vile's recording partner, becoming a full-time member of the Violators in 2011 following the departure of War on Drugs leader Adam Granduciel. Before that, the multi-instrumentalist contributed to Vile's second and fourth solo LPs: 2009's God Is Saying This to You and 2011's Smoke Ring for My Halo. 

In a tribute to his late friend and bandmate, Vile shared a moment during the recording of Smoke Ring that he identifies as Laakso's "true initiation into the Violators," making a key contribution to album opener "Baby's Arms."

"He showed up [on] the last day of sessions at the Magic Shop NYC while I was workin on Smoke Ring with John Agnello. I had an idea to trigger the fingerpicked acoustic on "Baby's Arms" with synths sorta like the drum machine does on "Freak Train" ... When Rob visited the studio ... he ran home and came back with an ARP 2600 and sequencer and other pedals and accoutrements under his arms and made the final touches of "Baby's Arms" in about 1 hour I'd say (it sounds like beautiful psychedelic raindrops singing along or something, You'll know when you listen...)."

Vile also recalled how Laakso's first album as a full-time was the celebrated Wakin on a Pretty Daze, which turned 10 last month, and how closely he worked with Vile on 2015's b'lieve I'm goin down... and 2018's Bottle It In: "(him coproducing many of the tracks alongside me, engineering often, playing many different instruments, slaying with ease.)"

"By (watch my moves) you were recording parts remotely from home but still nailed everything as usual... but I'm so grateful we did get you in person for a few epic nights while we recorded "say the word" at [Mant Sounds] with [Rob Schnapf] in LA: you in the control room playing bass next to me while I sung and played acoustic... the rest of the Violators in the other room playing, the whole thing captured live. Later you added those angelic backing vocals from home ("chaos comin..." Mary Lattimore's favourite!) ...strangely the only time you sang on a Violators recording but now I find that cosmic and fitting and magic."

As a member of Swirlies, Laakso contributed guitar to three albums: 2000's Damon, Andy, Rob, Ron: The Yes Girls, 2003's Cats of the Wild Volume 2, and 2005's Swirlies' Magic Strop: Winsome Zamula's Hammer of Contumely. He also contributed to a trio of full-lengths from New York indie outfit Mice Parade: 2004's Obrigado Saudade, 2007's self-titled LP, and 2010's What It Means to Be Left-Handed.

Last September, Laakso made his debut as Raw Bell, releasing a six-track EP on on which he handled all instruments, songwriting, and engineering. This past January, he shared new three-song single "Standard Haircuts."

Find Vile's complete tribute to Laakso below.

A post shared by Kurt Vile (@kurtvile)

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