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|Years active||Since 1993|
|Past members||John Frenett
Laika is a British band founded in 1993 by the ex-members of Moonshake Margaret Fiedler and John Frenett, and producer and engineer Guy Fixsen. The band was named after the Russian dog Laika, the first animal to orbit the earth.
Musically, the band could be described as electronica with "dreamy" female vocals. However, it also relies on a more organic approach to songwriting with live drums and percussion, together with guitars and samples, creating a complex layered and polyrhythmic blend of beats and diverse analogue sounds that defies simple categorization.
Fiedler, born in Chicago, USA, (and previously an early member of Ultra Vivid Scene and a collaborator with Moby) moved from New York City to London in 1989 in search of music which better suited her interests. The first significant band she joined was Moonshake, in which she was one of two lead vocalists, a songwriter and a multi-instrumentalist predominantly playing guitar, keyboards and samplers. Moonshake's songwriting was split between Fiedler and the other singer, David Callahan, who had a very different style: Callahan favoured an art-punk storytelling approach with a dub/funk undercurrent while Fiedler preferred a more enveloping and abstract approach drawing on rhythmic Krautrock-esque loops and murmured vocals. The early Moonshake records (released on the Too Pure label) were engineered by the producer Guy Fixsen, who had also worked with bands including My Bloody Valentine and The Breeders.
The creative tensions in Moonshake ultimately became personal and the band broke up after a US tour in 1993. While Callahan kept the Moonshake name and continued the band (along with the drummer Mig Morland and various guest musicians), Fiedler and the bass guitarist John Frenett both left. Fiedler began working with Guy Fixsen as her writing and recording partner, as well as beginning a romantic relationship with him. The new partnership, with Frenett playing bass guitar, chose the name of Laika and continued to develop the approach Fiedler had taken with her songs in Moonshake.
In their first incarnation, the band was augmented by the flautist and saxophonist Louise Elliot and the drummer Lou Ciccotelli (God, Eardrum). On recordings and in live shows, Fiedler and Fixsen shared guitar, keyboards and sampling, with Fiedler doing most of the vocals. The group's first album was the acclaimed Silver Apples of the Moon, released on Too Pure in 1994. Shortly afterwards, Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey, Spleen) joined as an occasional second drummer and percussionist.
The band quickly became popular interviewees in the alternative and underground music press, its music praised for mingling intricacy, polish and accessibility with experimentation and originality. In 1995, Fiedler admitted that her band's music was "just like trip-hop, but much much faster" and declared her distaste for the then-current Britpop, citing a preference for jazz and dub. She later recalled that "Guy and I were interested in rhythm but couldn't get excited about 4/4. So, influenced by bands like The Young Gods, we wanted to take rock rhythms and turn them upside down. 7 is great!"
Laika's second album, Sounds Of The Satellites, was released in early 1997. Many of the previous album's more abrasive edges were smoothed away in favour of a sleeker, though not much less experimental, dance tone. The group continued to attract a lot of press attention, particularly when they supported Radiohead on tour, and continued to be an underground favourite, despite not having a hit. A third album, Good Looking Blues, was released in 2000, with a collection of singles, B-sides and rarities called Lost In Space being released in 2001.
Up until 2003, each Laika release had been a full band recording involving, at the very least, Elliot and Frenett as players. This changed in 2003 with Wherever I Am I Am What Is Missing, which was recorded by Fiedler and Fixsen alone but with Lou Ciccotelli remaining as the percussionist. The band was dismayed by this album's poor commercial reception, apparently selling less than any of its predecessors. Fiedler has subsequently blamed online filesharing for Laika's sudden dip in sales, commenting "We (had) sold steadily more and more until the last one which didn't do so well. And that coincided time-wise with everyone getting broadband. People were still coming to see the live shows, so go figure."
At around this time, Fixsen and Fiedler ended their romantic relationship. Although they maintained their musical partnership, the band's working life began to become strained. In 2009, Fiedler commented that "we were a couple both personally and professionally for a long time - over ten years - and the personal side of that is over and sometimes it's difficult to work together", citing the recently-defunct Stereolab as a similar example of a band driven by a central romantic partnership which suffered professionally once that relationship had ended.
Fixsen has also mentioned the strain put on latter-day Laika by their differing lifestyles as instrumentalist-for-hire (Fiedler) and studio-bound producer (Fixsen), which had also meant that Fixsen had written and created a much larger proportion of the music than he had on previous records. He has recalled that "a lot of the music was recorded at my place while Margaret was off gallivanting around the world with PJ Harvey and getting drunk, going around Australia and America and hanging around with Bono and shit, 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."
In 2005, Fiedler opted to devote most of her time to law school, something which she has cited as ensuring that "the band stopped being a going concern". Fixsen also took time out in order to travel the world. There were no formal announcements of a Laika break-up but the band has not released anything since Wherever I Am I Am What Is Missing. Laika is also no longer listed in the roster on the Too Pure homepage.
Fixsen continues to work as a sound engineer and producer, most recently[when?] with the musician Lonelady. Fiedler, now known by her married name of Mags McGinnis, currently[when?] divides her time between music, working in copyright law for the BBC, a side line in eco-friendly candlemaking (for which she runs workshops at The Make Lounge craft space in Barnsbury, North London) and possibly writing a cookbook. She has stated that "the decline of album sales due to illegal downloads made (my) recording and songwriting careers less financially viable".
Possible future activity
Fixsen has claimed that Laika is "taking a break" with about half of an album already recorded, and that he and Fiedler will reconvene and complete the tracks at a future date. While Fiedler has not entirely discounted this suggestion or stated that Laika has formally split up, she has cited the difficulties of working with a former romantic partner on any project, as well as the obstacle of her current work. She has, however, admitted that it would be "great to finish (the album)" as well as to play some shows and tour some of the places which Laika did not visit during the band's active lifetime.
Outside band activities
In 2000, Fiedler played in PJ Harvey's backing band on an extensive world tour promoting Harvey's Mercury Prize-winning Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea album. On this tour, she played guitar, cello and other instruments.
Singles / EPs
- Antenna EP (single 1994, Too Pure)
- Almost Sleeping EP (single 1997, Too Pure)
- Breather EP (single 1997, Too Pure)
- "Uneasy" (single 2000, Too Pure)
- "Black Cat Bone" (vinyl only 12" single 2000, Too Pure)
- "Badtimes" (single 2000, Too Pure)
- Silver Apples of the Moon (album 1995, Too Pure)
- Sounds of the Satellites (album 1997, Too Pure)
- Good Looking Blues (album 2000, Too Pure)
- Lost in Space - Volume 1 [1993-2002] (compilation 2003, Too Pure)
- Wherever I Am I Am What Is Missing (album 2003, Too Pure)
Tracks on various artists compilations
- "If You Miss (Laika Virgin mix)" (from Macro Dub Infection, 1995)
- "Lower Than Stars" (Various artists Volume 12, 1995)
- "German Shepherds" (from Whore - Various Artists Play Wire, 1996)
- "Looking For The Jackalope (236 remix)" (from Beat Experience, 1997)
- "Black Cat Bone" (Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Radio Sunnydale UK Version, 2003)
- "Laika biography of Musicianguide.com".
- Laika interview in Indie List Digest, Volume 4 No. 39, September 24, 1995
- "Laika, Moonshake And The Great Margaret Fiedler", The Dumbing of America webzine, October 26, 2009
- Info page on Mags McGinnis homepage, retrieved October 28, 2008
- Official website
- Discography from official Too Pure website
- Biography from official Too Pure website
- Concert photos by Laurent Orseau (Black Session)