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Laika

Laika

Ambient rock group

While it's hard to pin down Laika's music to one specific genre, their nebulous style is undoubtedly one that has influenced numerous bands and will continue to do so. Incorporating jazz, blues, ambient, trip-hop, and psychedelia, multi-instrumentalist Margaret Fiedler and celebrated producer-programmer Guy Fixsen craft songs in a class of their own. "There isn't a genre for us," Fiedler told Billboard 's Jonathan Cohen. "If we were as big as Björk, people would just say, 'Oh, it's another Laika record.'"

In her childhood, Fiedler, the band's vocalist, attended grade school with fellow rocker Liz Phair in Winnetka, Illinois. Fiedler developed a taste for music early, and took up the cello at a young age. During high school, her family moved to Connecticut, and it was there that she befriended a young Richard Melville Halllater known as Moby. Together they formed the band Child's Play, a post-punk-styled group that had a fondness for the Smiths and Joy Division.

After tiring of the East Coast music and the predominance of pre-riot grrrl punk, Fiedler went to London in 1989, where she quickly immersed herself in the indie rock community. She joined Moonshake in the early 1990s and, through the band's studio, met Fixsen, an established producer-engineer who had worked with shoegaze artists like Chapterhouse and My Bloody Valentine.

When Fiedler was dumped from Moonshake in 1993 she took bassist John Frenett with her. They teamed up with Fixsen and drummer Lou Ciccotelli for Laika's first release, 1995's Silver Apples of the Moon, a direct homage to the epic Morton Subotnick album of the same name. Around the same time, Fiedler and Fixsen became romantically involved.

Fielder found the name Laika (Russian for "barker") in an encyclopedia of historical events, where she learned that in the late 1950s Russia sent a dog named Laika into outer space. Fiedler, an animal rights supporter, told Cross Radio, "That image of this little dog was so hopeful but at the same time tragic because they [knew] how to put her up but not to get her back and she died, and it just sort of touched on a lot of things we felt and still feel strong about."

Laika's sound reflected its members' sonic influences: swirly guitars and heavy ambient textures, but reveled in its newfound taste for groovier flavors. "When we started out," Fixsen explained to Mike Wolf of Time Out New York, "there were plenty of bands, like My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, pushing the guitar into new areas. We felt we had to find something with more potential, which meant getting into samplers and non-rock music. With a sampler, if you can conceive of a sound, you can make it."

Coming at a time when London's Britpop scene had nearly reached its peak and just about any band from the city was put on a pedestal, Silver Apples of the Moon garnered a nice share of critical praise. Mojo magazine, quoted on the BBC 1 website, called the album "the missing link between the avant funk of Can and the ambient jungle heard on London's pirate [radio stations]." It also made Spin magazine's "10 Best Albums You Didn't Hear" list in 1995.

After a successful support slot on Tricky's North American tour, Laika found themselves in New York City recording their follow-up, 1997's Sounds of the Satellites, further embracing their fixation with spacey subjects. Jason Ankeny in All Music Guide called Satellites "a simultaneous expansion of the band's sonic palette and a brilliant refinement of their past innovations." Josh Klein of Salon praised the album as "another subtle masterpiece that smoothly refines the chaotic blast of creativity that formed Laika's first album." The album earned Laika some new high-profile fans, Radiohead, who asked Laika to tour with them as well. It was a mutually satisfying venture, and Radiohead's Thom Yorke later admitted to cribbing some of their style from Laika's hushed electro-tinged soundscapes.

Good-Looking Blues, the band's third major studio effort, was released in 2000, also to much acclaim. Explaining the record's genesis, Fixsen told Billboard 's Jonathan Cohen, "At first, we made the album in a similar electronic form [as Sounds ], although it was more programmed. At that point, we felt it wasn't enough of a move forward. So we decided to make it more 'live.'"

Fiedler had her take on the record as well, as she told the Onion :"...for a band that incorporates more electronic stuff, it tends to be that you make a very electronic album and then figure out how to do it live. ...We've never done that.... So this album was a very roundabout record in that we made it at home, a little bit more programmed, but then we went out, played it live, and sort of re-recorded everything more like the way we do it live."

The record also featured the talents of PJ Harvey drummer Rob Ellis and Spleen's Matt Barge, who came along on the supporting toura second with Radiohead. Good-Looking Blues was a breakthrough recording for Laika, earning them more press and attention than any of their previous albums. Lydia Vanderloo, writing in CMJ New Music Monthly, dubbed the record a collection of "Grimm's fairytales for the Palm Pilot generation." That year also saw Fiedler branch out musically as she took a short hiatus from Laika and went on the road to play guitar with PJ Harvey for her Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea tour.

In 2003 Laika released their fourth LP, Wherever I Am, I Am What is Missing. While forgoing any obvious celestial motifs, the band retained their signature lunar-obsessed sonic sensibility. However, the album was not the full-on collaborative effort that past records had been, perhaps because the relationship that Fiedler and Fixsen once nurtured had gone its course.

"There were two bursts of activity and a lot of empty spaces in between actually," Fixsen said in the band's press materials on the Too Pure website. "A lot of the music was recorded at my place while Margaret was off galavanting [sic] around the world with PJ Harvey and getting drunk, going around Australia and America and hanging around with Bono and s**t, while I was stuck in my little room ... I sort of set myself a task to stop myself from going mad in my little room: 'Today I'm going to write a song from beginning to end and then I'm just going to forget about it,' whereas in the past I would've worked on it over a period of weeks. There is a lot of spontaneity for a record that took three and a half years to make." Despite Fiedler and Fixsen's breakup, the Toronto Star 's Ben Rayner praised the album as "Laika making some of the finest music no one ever seems to hear."

For the Record . . .

Members include Lou Diccotelli , percussion; Louise Elliott , saxophone, flute; Margaret Fiedler , vocals, programming; Guy Fixsen , producer; John Frenett , bass.

Fiedler and Fixsen formed Laika in London, 1993; signed to Too Pure record label; released Silver Apples of the Moon, 1995; Sounds of the Satellites, 1997; Good-Looking Blues, 2000; Wherever I Am, I Am What is Missing, 2003.

Addresses: Record company Too Pure, 3A Highbury Crescent, London N5 1RN, England, website: http://www.toopure.com. Website Laika Official Website: http://www.laika.org. E-mail [email protected]

Selected discography

Silver Apples of the Moon, Too Pure, 1995.

Sounds of the Satellites, Too Pure, 1997.

Good-Looking Blues, Too Pure, 2000.

Lost in Space, Vol. 1 (19922002), Too Pure, 2003.

Wherever I Am, I Am What is Missing, Too Pure, 2003.

Sources

Periodicals

Billboard, August 5, 2000.

CMJ New Music Monthly, September 2000.

Time Out New York, August 2431, 2000.

Toronto Star, December 18, 2003.

Online

"Focus: Laika," a.v. club, Onion, http://www.theavclub.com/avclub3701/bonusfeature1_3701.html (February 18, 2004).

"Interview: Margaret FiedlerLaika, Cross Radio, http://www.crossradio.org/web/12_03/laika_e.htm (December 19, 2003.)

"Sounds of the Satellites" All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 18, 2004).

"Sounds of the Satellites: LaikaToo Pure," Sharps and Flats, Salon, http://archive.salon.com/may97/sharps/sharps970523.html (February 18, 2004).

Ken Taylor

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