Rob Laakso, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist with Kurt Vile and The Violators, dies aged 44

Rob Laakso performs with Kurt Vile and the Violators in Quebec, Canada, 2018
(Image credit: Scott Legato/Getty Images)

Rob Laakso, a long-standing collaborator of Kurt Vile’s who played in the indie-rock star’s backing band, The Violators, has died aged 44 following a battle with cancer. 

Laakso also played in Mice Parade, Swirlies, The Wicked Farleys and Diamond Nights and enjoyed a portfolio career as a recording engineer, composer, producer and solo artist. Depending on the occasion you might find him on electric guitar, acoustic, bass, synth, keys, or maybe programming drums. 

Kurt Vile was a fan of Laakso’s ever since his days with the Boston indie band The Wicked Farleys. They would soon form a formidable partnership, with Laakso and Vile sharing production duties. Laakso would feature on Vile’s God Is Saying This To You (2009) and Smoke Ring For My Halo (2011) before joining the Violators as a permanent member as the outgoing Adam Granduciel left and formed the War On Drugs

In a tribute on Instagram, Vile said Laakso joining The Violators and making his full-length debut on Wakin On A Pretty Daze marked “the shift to epic proportions” for his sound. He described Laakso as a “musical genius.”

“It’s been beautiful seeing all the nice things written about Rob, because yeah he was quiet but there was so much to him,” wrote Vile. “Musical genius. Recording whizz. Best husband and father.”

Laakso’s final recording with Kurt Vile and The Violators was 2022’s Watch My Moves, with much of it tracked remotely. But in his tribute, Vile recalled fondly being able to get together with Laakso at producer Rob Schnapf’s Mant Sounds studio, in Los Angeles, to record Say The Word – which remarkably was the only time Laakso ever sang on a Kurt Vile record. 

“I’m so grateful we did get you in person for a few epic nights while we recorded Say The Word at Mant with Schnapf in LA,” wrote Vile. “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.” 

Having been a prolific collaborator on other artist’s projects, it wasn’t until September 2022 that Laakso released his own solo material under the name Raw Bell. 

Speaking to WECB, the radio station of Boston’s Emersion College, where he graduated from its audio programme, Laakso said he hoped Raw Bell would be “cohesive and something people can respond to and not think too hard about”.

Looking back on his many collaborations, Laakso said that engineering a J Mascis guitar solo was a pinch me moment. “I was a huge fan of his when I was in high school – still am!” he said. “To find myself in the studio one day and guiding him through the takes of his solos, that was something that, at the moment, I had to pause and realise how thankful I was for that.”

Laakso’s death was announced by his wife, Mamie-Claire Cornelius, on a GoFundMe page that had been set up to support him and his family.

Jonathan Horsley

Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars and guitar culture since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to MusicRadar, Total Guitar and Guitar World. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.