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

Rob Laakso

Rob Laakso with Kurt Vile & the Violators in 2018, photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images

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

The longtime musician was diagnosed with Cholangiocarcinoma, an aggressive form of cancer

Rob Laakso, a longtime guitarist and multi-instrumentalist in Kurt Vile & the Violators and Swirlies, died this past Thursday (May 4), his wife Mamie-Claire Cornelius confirmed in an Instagram post. Laakso was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of bile duct cancer. “You are the light of my life and the only slightest sliver of peace I have is that you are no longer in pain. We’ll be dreaming of you every night until we see you again,” wrote Cornelius. 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 GoFundMe to cover costs of Laakso’s cancer treatment. “I’m also trying to remember for myself and as an example to carry out to our children how much Rob loved life, he was always busy with a new project to better himself, writing a new song, ready for an adventure, eager to try a new restaurant, go for a hike, take a sauna – so please go live life and try something new for him when you feel an ache creeping in. Go make the most of it; he pushed through so much just to sit and bask in the joy of our children running through bubbles in the backyard… that was absolute living to him in our most recent days. It doesn’t have to be grand, just enjoy the present deeply.”

Kurt Vile considered Laakso to be his recording partner, playing multiple instruments with both the Violators and on his solo material. After first contributing to 2009’s God Is Saying This to You, Laakso went on to perform on his albums Smoke Ring for My Halo, Wakin on a Pretty Daze, B’lieve I’m Goin Down…, and Bottle It In. His last studio record with Vile was 2022’s Watch My Moves. Laakso was also a staple of the Violators lineup on the road as well, performing with Vile during his album tours, festival sets, and his NPR “Tiny Desk Concert.” 

Before crossing paths with Vile, Laakso played guitar in the shoegaze band Swirlies, appearing on their 2000 album 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. Laakso was a member of indie rock group Mice Parade for several years, too, for their albums Obrigado Saudade in 2004, Mice Parade in 2007, and What It Means to Be Left-Handed in 2010. He also performed in several other bands as well, including Amazing Baby, Diamond Nights, and the Wicked Farleys.

Born in Massachusetts in 1979, Laakso was drawn to music at a young age and eventually attended Emerson College to study audio production. He graduated in 2001. Although he’s best known as a musician, Laakso was also an audio engineer who worked on records by No Joy, Modest Mouse, and Vile, among other bands. Additionally, he juggled duties as a producer and composer who frequently contributed to video and television projects, creating work for Cartoon Network, Google, Adidas, and Apple.

After two decades of performing in other bands, Laakso started his first-ever solo project, Raw Bell, in 2022 and released a self-titled EP. During an interview with WECB three months ago, Laakso explained that he decided to pursue a solo career so he could create music that “people respond to” without thinking so hard. “I’ve always meant to do it,” he said. “I just finally had the time and I also moved back to the East Coast. It was hard between all my touring and other things to even get songs together or book shows. It wasn’t able to actually come together until I was here [in Boston].” He hoped to record a full-length LP under the Raw Bell moniker and play more concerts to share his songs.

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