“I don't know what genre we are in,” Laika's Margaret Fiedler says. “Sometimes, we are called electronic, but we have vocals, and we aren't as coffee-table as trip-hop. We have more of an edge. And we are less conceptual than a band like Portishead.”
No matter the label, Laika's use of touchy-feely Minimoog melodies, frenetic drumming and Fiedler's kitten-purr vocals produce a sound like no other. On the group's Too Pure releases, from 1995's Silver Apples of the Moon to 2000's Good Looking Blues, Laika spins an original sound with unerring accuracy. At times, the music hints at the seminal fusion of Bitches Brew — era Miles Davis. Other times, nurturing personal struggles with more softcore sounds seems the goal. Laika's fourth album, Wherever I Am I Am What Is Missing (Too Pure, 2003), leans toward the latter direction, the most nocturnal and ghostly album of the band's eight-year existence.
“Good Looking Blues was a collaborative effort between 10 musicians caught up in being an electronic band,” fellow Laika member Guy Fixsen says. “There was quite an artifice there. But the new one is more focused, quite stripped-down and our most empty record. It is also the most emotional.”
Composing the music while Fiedler toured the world as a guitarist with PJ Harvey, Fixsen's core gear (an Apple Power Mac G4/733MHz running Emagic Logic Audio, an Akai S3200 sampler, a Fender Rhodes Suitcase 88 electric piano, a 1974 Moog Minimoog synth and a Soundcraft Ghost LE 24:8:2 mixing desk) helped him streamline the Laika sound, sans Fiedler. Befitting the album's emotional nature, Fixsen explains his process in largely abstract terms.
“I am going for something that is essentially surreal,” he says. “On a cold production level, it can be a distant sound that gives the music a sense of depth. I get into that in terms of stereo. A lot of people use stereo like a synth pad that has a difference between left and right channels, but, essentially, it is one sound. I use mono sounds, which are then panned to the left and right. That is more of a '60s approach. You end up with more of a sense of space, as in there are several things inhabiting the [sound field] rather than one big thing.”
Combining his keyboards, bass and sampler effects for a total of 60 tracks, Fixsen then brought in drummer Lou Ciccotelli before Fiedler's return. Ciccotelli's prickly, organic drumming has the perfect feel of a loop, but in fact, most of the electronic drums loops didn't make it to the final recording.
“Everything is played live,” Fixsen says. “There are rarely programmed lines, no sequencers. It gives you more feeling. Even the drum tracks are live takes. Some of the more electronic sounds are loops, but the actual drum kit is entirely live.”
Live drumming is one element in Laika's tactile sonic personality. Its African nature is another. “I have been studying African Ewe drumming, and in some way, our sound is coming from that,” Fixsen explains. “One difference between Western and African music is that Westerners take tones and combine them with other tones; they like the harmony. But the essence of African music is, instead of it being a simultaneous coincidence of tones, it is an a-simultaneous thing with rhythms that conflict and create tension. Also, the phrases in Western music have the emphasis in the beginning, but African music has the emphasis after the beginning. Many things are completely reversed.
“Then, we go to the expense of recording the drums in a nice studio rather than sticking with loops so that, in a way, it sounds more like a loop than a loop,” Fixsen continues. “It has all the hypnotism of a loop but with this sense of tension that you only get by a human being trying to sound perfect.”