MySecretBoston interview

My Secret Boston interview

April 21, 2011
Interview w/ Mike Rivard
By Matt Bartlett

Nobody stirs the senses of self exploration better than the Boston-based collective Club d’Elf. This trance-tinged groove syndicate combines the outer reaches of the celestial ether with the most instinctual yearnings of the inner psyche for a sonic incarnation of the cosmic id every time it takes the stage. Drawing from a broad frequency of musical influences—avant garde jazz, fusion, acid rock, hip hop, electronic, and a Moroccan dance vibe—the Club is defined not so much by its “on-the-bus/off-the-bus” exclusivity as its commitment to creating an open-ended venue for experimentation. It’s trance music in the traditional sense of the word, aimed to induce introspective examination within communal aspects of sound—a daunting task, for sure, but one that this amorphous coterie of expert musicians have been dedicated to for almost 13 years.

Fresh off the release of its new double CD, Electric MorroccoLand/So Below—a two-headed beast of North African dance trance and psychedelic jazz-fusion—I got a chance to sit down with bassist and Club d’Elf master of ceremonies Mike Rivard. Talking over a couple of Guinness drafts in Somerville’s Precinct, Rivard explained the many faces of d’Elf as well as the intricacies of trance music, the Moroccan vibe, and the role of bass in mapping out the depths of the internal universe.

“I like anything with good bottom, good low end,” says Rivard. His playing channels everything from the kalimba-driven junkyard funk of Konono #1 to the glitch whomp of SquarePusher and Aphex Twin.

Plugged in from an early age, Rivard explains that he “started seeking out stuff that didn’t sound like anything else … from Captain Beefheart to Sun-Ra.” He was soon studying music at Berklee alongside a vibrant community of jazz-afflicted youth. During his time there he began playing with Russ Gershon’s jazz ensemble, the Either/Orchestra, with a slew of local heavyweights that included keyboardist John Medeski. Gershon’s ensemble provided strategic networking resources, enabling Rivard to form many lasting relationships that he would later use to fill the rotational ranks of Club d’Elf. It was his friendship with Somerville’s Mark Sandman (RIP) of Morphine that exposed him to the tribal trance of Gnawan music—of which the three-stringed, bass-like sintir, often played by Rivard at Club d’Elf shows, is the featured instrument—fermenting tangled inclination into shimmering effervescence.

Rivard initially founded Club d’Elf in the late 1990s with a more traditionally established member lineup, but soon let the group evolve into more of an amorphous collective due to both pragmatic limitations and to avoid stylistic stagnation.

“It’s always changing, always shifting,” says Rivard, “like a cloud that you can’t achieve clear focus on…operating in the peripheral vision and disappearing in direct view.” With a core cast focused on the rhythmic backdrop (Dean Johnston on drums, Mister Rourke on turntables, Brahim Fribgane on oud) and a revolving crew of reoccurring characters that includes regulars like Dave Tronzo and Duke Levine in addition to guests ranging from John Medeski and Reeves Gabrels to Marco Benevento and Jennifer Hartswick, the music is in a constant flux of re-creation. But it’s Rivard who is the quintessential non-navigator of the vessel.

“It’s easier for a group to have one leader, which works for us and I feel comfortable doing it because it’s not ego-driven music. It’s not me promoting an agenda,” says Rivard, “but rather creating a canvas where other musicians can come and play as if the band was their own.” And this aspect of the groove commander that Rivard reluctantly personifies is made possible by his approach to the music he plays.

“I prefer bass as a rootsy and fundamentally rhythmic instrument. It has to do with the tonal sounds. Bass sound waves are long, so to achieve that rich low-end you have to allow the notes to breathe in order to fully develop.” It’s the visceral impact of Rivard’s slow, grinding bass lines, accompanied by the steady churn of his rhythm section, that fills the dance floor and promote the gang of accompanying musicians to sublimate to new levels of sonic transcendence.

“We don’t hold back,” he says with stoic certainty. “It’s a weird balance between having musicians come in and be respectful—to not have them just masturbate all over the place, but to also have the willingness to take charge and dig in … to play as though it’s always the last time.” Navigating the fine line between tasteful interplay and overbearing self-indulgence on the brink of Edge City is a bionic exercise in tension and release, inviting the listener to slip into the spell—a spell that has been flavored with a more African incantation in recent years.

Always seeking to “synthesize and distill different elements of the trance tradition,” Rivard and the others have added Fribgane to the core lineup, giving unrestricted access to the insights of North African Gnawan music and the centuries-old traditions of hypnotically spiritual tunes.

“I know Moroccan music now rather than just appreciate it,” Rivard says. “I’m now able to play from within the music. The beat can be very elusive,” he explains, and it lends itself to the perpetuation of a more languid flow particularly inducive to the trance aesthetic that so permeates that culture.

“But we’re talking about trance music as a trans-genre experience,” he says. “Trance music is in James Brown, it’s in Led Zeppelin, Sun-Ra, Moroccan music … it’s in electronic music. We approach trance music from the broader, older sense of the term.” Yet, to truly experience the psycho-spiritual power requires not only mind-bending concentration from the musicians, but unremittent focus from the audience as well.

“It’s all about time,” he says. “You got to be in it for the long haul.” It takes time to build the necessary momentum to achieve that sonically induced equilibrium where the self melts into something more elemental, rooted in the communal groove. It’s very challenging music due to its introspective nature and necessity.

“We try to make it social and comfortable,” Rivard says, but he admits that “it can at times be slightly distressing because when you repeat something over and over it becomes like staring somebody in the eyes … It can be a little confrontational. This type of connection with an inward field of energy, well, it’s not for everybody,” he says.

“It’s part of the human condition, the human drive to connect to something larger,” and their brand of trance surely manifests itself in dance in any setting. With a killer lineup for tonight’s Portland show at the Port City Music Hall, and a double-decker sold-out rendezvous at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge tomorrow (Friday, April 22; both shows feature Medeski on keys with Levine on guitar tonight and Tronzo on the axe tomorrow), it most likely won’t be your last chance to dance trance, but I’m sure they’ll make it a very fashionable End of the World Party (just in case).

Rivard is especially adamant about only one thing, really. “We just want to swing so hard it’s embarrassing,” he says. Well, no doubt. But what’s really embarrassing is that I was too faded to jump on the Lizard tix when I had the chance. Now I’m gonna hafta hike it up to Portland tonight just to catch a glimpse … I suggest you do the same.

Club d’Elf will celebrate the release of its new double CD Electric MorroccoLand/So Below with two shows tomorrow night (Friday) at the Lizard Lounge (8:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.). Although both shows are sold out online, there will be limited space for walkups.