26th Oct2009

History Lesson: Laika, Moonshake and the great Margaret Fiedler

by Todd


Actually it’s Margaret Fiedler McGinnis and actually this incredibly gifted artist also has PJ Harvey and Wire on her resume. Impressed much? When Moonshake first crossed my eardrums in 1991, it was clear that C86 was over and a great new sound was emerging. Their brand of dub-bass post-punk created atmospheres inside of brilliant melodies. Margaret alternated vocal duties with David Callahan, which created a fun debate amongst us as to who was the better vocalist. I stood firmly in the Fiedler camp and when she broke off to start Laika, I was rewarded with her efforts to take Moonshake’s sound into the stratosphere. A quick review of her wikipedia page will show you that this is one of the most multi-talented people to emerge from the 80′s alternative music scene. We were thrilled that she took a moment from her schedule to talk to us.

TDOA: What led you to move from the U.S. to England prior to forming Moonshake?

MF: I initially came to London in August 1989 just after finishing college. I just had my 20 year anniversary – how time flies! I had done my junior year in Dublin at Trinity reading pure philosophy and had met a boy there… well actually met him in Belfast as he had graduated from Trinity the year before. We had a mutual friend Karin, who last I heard had married an Italian count. Anyway, the boy came to NYC with me while I finished my senior year at Sarah Lawrence and then we both came to London so he could pursue a career more seriously. I liked the idea of moving to London as much of the music I liked came out of the UK and at the time in NYC (late 80s) there wasn’t much for me, outside what was basically a proto-riot grrl scene. Even though I was a guitarist I was into Public Enemy and wanted to buy a sampler!

TDOA: Can you talk about the decision Moonshake made to leave Creation in favor of Too Pure?

MF: We were managed by Paul Cox and Richard Roberts when we were on Creation. They had just started Too Pure but thought for some reason we wouldn’t consider being on their label! Moonshake were pretty much ignored on Creation, so when Ivo at 4AD and Beggars got involved with Too Pure it seemed like it was the place for us to be. I ended up doing 5 albums with Too Pure – the label doesn’t exist anymore but I am still on super friendly terms with all the Too Pure, Beggars and 4AD people.

TDOA: The differences between your songs and David’s songs seemed obvious very early on. Was it a source of conflict from the beginning? If not, can you talk us through how the differences in style eventually led to you going off to start Laika?

MF: I really liked Dave Callahan’s songs and his voice – obviously! That’s why I wanted to be in a band with him. But we were different people and wrote differently, but came from the same influences – Can, PIL, Kraftwerk, Eric B & Rakim and MBV to name a few bands. Moonshake was a collision – it was supposed to be a collision. But maybe after a while, the tension that was there in our writing and singing styles spilled over into real life. Things did get extremely tense on the last tour we did together in 1993 in North America.

TDOA: Was the split from Moonshake amicable and when was the last time you spoke with David?

MF: No it wasn’t amicable. In fact it took me years to get over it, which is kinda sad to admit. I haven’t spoken to Dave in years – I hear he’s happy and has twins and is a wonderful father.

TDOA: The polyrhythmic sounds of Laika were a departure from the “shoegaze” style that was popular at the time. What drew you to that sound and was it a conscious effort to move away from the shoegaze tag?

MF: Well, 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 and inside out. 7 is great! I’m not really sure anything other than the first Moonshake EP (imaginatively titled “First”) was labelled as shoegaze anyway. So there was nothing to move away from!

TDOA: How did Too Pure react to the split? It seems like they were more supportive of Laika, but perhaps that’s because your records were so well received by the media.

MF: At the time of the split Too Pure were brutally fair and equally supportive to both projects – they really didn’t want to take sides. I’m not really sure what happened but I think Moonshake (mk II) spent more money than Laika and were selling less records so that was that.

TDOA: You’ve performed with a who’s/who’s of some pretty great bands (Moonshake, Laika, PJ Harvey and Wire). With Moonshake and Laika you were writing songs, but my assumption is that you didn’t have that control with PJ or Wire. Did you prefer playing your own music or did you just enjoy the variety of the experiences?

MF: I am a musician and a songwriter – they are different things but sometimes get combined. I love just playing – it not being “my band” or my job to sell tickets, “put bums on seats” – just to go out there and play guitar. And I can’t really think of a lot of artists I would want to work with actually. But Polly and Wire are fucking up there with the best (if they are not the best, in fact I only really have two bands I love more, and that would be Led Zeppelin and Kraftwerk).

TDOA: I remember seeing Laika live and being overwhelmed by how good the sound was. Did you prefer playing live or recording in the studio? Did you really effort to make sure the sound was good live or did I just luck into a good venue?

MF: Laika sometimes had a really hard time with live sound because I am such a quiet singer. But when it was good it could be really good. Studio and live are different things. I like the perfection achieved on record but I crave the spontaneity live. And I love traveling the world and meeting crazy people – for example last week I was off on tour with Wire – you can’t get much further apart in Europe than Oslo and Cadiz unless you’re talking Tromso, or the Canaries! It was fun. Exhausting, stressful, crazy fun. Hey as you’re Detroit did you see the show with Tricky at St Andrews Hall in 1995? I seem to remember that was a good ‘un…..(ED. NOTE: Yes it was!)

TDOA: Is it true that the rise of illegal downloading contributed to your decision to stop recording as Laika? Do you see an avenue for musicians and labels to make creating music financially viable?

MF: Well the last Laika album sold less than all its predecessors. I don’t know why – maybe it was crap?! But we sold steadily more and more until the last one which didn’t do so well. And that coincided time-wise with everybody getting broadband. People were still coming to see the live shows, so go figure. The band also stopped being a going concern when I took the decision to go to law school in 2005. Guy decided to travel the world shortly thereafter.

TDOA: Guy Fixsen says there’s half an album that’s done and that Laika will reconvene to finish it. How accurate it that statement and do you think you will make music again?

MF: Well, both Guy and I say the same thing – yes there is half an album and yes it would be great to finish it. And it would be great to play some shows and visit countries like Japan which we never got to play in. But we were a couple both professionally and personally for a long time – over 10 years – and the personal side of that is over and sometimes it’s difficult to work together. Didn’t Stereolab just call it quits for similar reasons??? Guy’s really busy with production – the Lonelady debut is awesome. And Guy and Rob Ellis (PJH & Laika drummer) will be playing live with Lonelady from next month. I’m always busy – Wire, BBC, craft crap (making & teaching), plus I’m renovating a house that my husband and I just bought in deepest East London. It’s all good!

To purchase the music of Laika via iTunes:

2 Responses to “History Lesson: Laika, Moonshake and the great Margaret Fiedler”

  • Jimbo Jones

    Great interview. I frickin’ love Laika. Can’t quite remember how I got turned on to it. I’m a slut when it comes to poly-rhythms, good bass work and fantastic vocals, and Laika fits the bill. Was really interesting to hear that Margaret Fielder was into Eric B and Rakim. I’m a hip-hop head as well and to read that, well; just goes to show one should never make assumptions in this information age. The PJ Harvey connection is also interesting, although I like PJH for different reasons than (that?) I like Laika. The first PJH record is just brilliant. It’s just straight up, gut punching rock, which I like to. Could rant on and on about all this but I think I’ll leave it at a Laika quote from one of my favorite songs:

    Lower than the stars.
    There is nothing to
    stare at.

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