Rob Laakso, a longtime guitarist and multi-instrumentalist in Kurt Vile and the Violators, died on Thursday, May 4. His wife Mamie-Claire Cornelius confirmed his death following a battle with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of bile duct cancer. Laakso was 44.
“I am lost without you but I promise I’ll find our way and I promise to make you proud,” Cornelius wrote on Instagram. “Thank you for giving me the most beautiful life, the most loving and beautiful children and for believing in me every day. 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.”
On Monday, May 8, Vile shared a lengthy tribute to Laakso on Instagram. “This one’s been hard to get out of the fog in my brain and into words for a long time now (and I mean for the last year or so, not just since rob’s passing),” Vile wrote. “Tributes are never easy but this one is just too close to the bone I guess. Thank you to everyone who reached out. It’s been beautiful seeing all the nice things written about Rob, because yeah he was quiet but there was so much to him. Musical genius. Recording whizz. Best husband and father.”
Vile shared an array of memories as well, including how they first met after Vile moved to Boston in the early 2000s. Vile remembered how he used to “follow Rob Around” because “I worshipped his first band, the Wicked Farleys.” He added, “Luckily he took me in and recorded me even tho I was awkward and shy (good thing so was he but just in different ways).”
Vile went on to share the story of Laakso’s “true initiation into the Violators”: It was the last day of sessions for Vile’s 2011 album Smoke Ring for My Halo, and Laakso came in and “made the final touches of ‘Baby’s Arms’ in about 1 hour… (it sounds like beautiful psychedelic raindrops singing along or something, you’ll know when you listen…).”
And Vile spoke about one of the last projects they did together, his 2022 album, Watch My Moves, which was recorded largely in isolation during the pandemic. “I’m so grateful we did get you in person for a few epic nights while we recorded ‘Say the Word,’” Vile remembered, adding: “Later you added those angelic backing vocals from home (‘Chaos coming…’ Mary Lattimore’s favorite!) …. strangely the only time you sang on a Violators recording but now I find that cosmic and fitting and magic.”
On a GoFundMe page created to support the family and Laakso’s cancer treatments, Cornelius also provided an update. “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,” she wrote.
She added: “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.”
Laakso officially joined Kurt Vile and the Violators in 2011, replacing the War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel, but Vile and Laakso had been collaborating in the years preceding that. Laakso performed multiple instruments and served as co-producer on a number of Vile’s solo and Violators records, including 2009’s God Is Saying This to You…, 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze, 2015’s B’lieve I’m Going Down…, and 2018’s Bottle It In, among others. His most recent album with Vile was 2022’s Watch My Moves.
Prior to collaborating with Vile, Laakso was a member of several other groups, notably Swirlies and Mice Parade, appearing on 2004’s Obrigado Saudade, 2007’s Mice Parade, and 2010’s What It Means to Be Left-Handed. In addition to his production work with Vile, he also served as an audio engineer on projects for Mice Parade, No Joy, and other artists.
This story was updated 5/8/23 @ 2:12 p.m. ET with a statement from Kurt Vile.