Mike Rivard of Club d'Elf, shown at the Jamaica Pond with his sintir.
Mike Rivard of Club d’Elf, shown at the Jamaica Pond with his sintir.MATTHEW J LEE/GLOBE STAFF

Club d’Elf is an ever-shifting phenomenon — a musical ensemble of rotating membership led by convener Mike Rivard. Onstage he’ll sometimes stand in a circle of musicians, anchoring an improvisation-heavy performance on his basses and sintir, a three-stringed Moroccan instrument.

Collaborators pass into the d’Elf orbit with varying frequency, adding doses of jazz, electronic music, funk, and avant-rock. Woven into the collective’s DNA is the influence of Brahim Fribgane, a Casablanca native who years ago schooled Rivard in some west and north African folk styles.

“You Never Know,” out Friday, is just Club d’Elf’s third studio album since Rivard conjured the project in 1998. It reflects his dark journey of recent years.

Rivard developed a pulmonary embolism in 2015 on a flight to Peru for a visit to the Amazon rain forest, where he then stayed for weeks at a retreat center. He experienced heart palpitations and trouble breathing but didn’t discover the root of these issues until he finally visited a doctor after returning home.

But he fell into a years-long depression. The soft-spoken, deeply thoughtful musician values his privacy, and told only a few people what was going on — though he occasionally had silent panic attacks onstage, mid-performance.

He dove deeply into Moroccan gnawa music, finding healing meditation playing sintir in the centuries-old style. (In more cheerful times, Rivard sometimes played sintir by Jamaica Pond.) “You Never Know” is not a declaration of victory over mental illness, but a deeply felt expression of endurance and tribute to musical forebears who influenced the group.

The members of Club d'Elf (clockwise from back row, center): Mister Rourke (wearing hat), Brahim Fribgane, Mike Rivard, Dean Johnston, John Medeski, and Duke Levine.
The members of Club d’Elf (clockwise from back row, center): Mister Rourke (wearing hat), Brahim Fribgane, Mike Rivard, Dean Johnston, John Medeski, and Duke Levine.  Photo: JOAN HATHAWAY 

Club d’Elf’s trans-millennial aesthetic blooms on new track “Lalla Aisha in Jhaptal.” It includes parts of a Gnawa tune Rivard learned from master player Hassan Hakmoun, which Rivard set to a 10-beat cycle borrowed from Hindustani classical music. As John Medeski funks out on clavinet, Mister Rourke scratches records, David Fiuczynski sprays the cosmos with fretless electric guitar, and drummer Dean Johnston gallops toward the sunrise, the result is anything but an academic exercise. It’s a banger.

Club d’Elf assembles for a short Northeast tour in April that includes stops in Northampton, Pembroke, Providence, and Portsmouth, N.H.

Q. What happened after you got past the pulmonary embolism?

A. I’ve always had a bit of the Irish sadness — there’s a melancholy that’s informed my music. But this was a whole other thing. Everything I enjoy just went away. I was off in the wilderness. I felt like I was an imposter and a charlatan.

Q. How did this affect your music?

A. During my depression I began focusing on getting deep into Gnawa music in a way that I hadn’t up til then. I’ve been playing the sintir for over 20 years now and Gnawa music has obviously always been a huge influence, as it’s the tradition in which the instrument originates. But as a white, Western male, I’ve been very cognizant of the cultural appropriation aspect of playing this music. So in the beginning I first started using the sintir for my own devices — coming up with my own riffs, composing my own music on it, imagining what (Mark) Sandman would do if he had the instrument – rather than trying to play songs from the tradition.

Chronic insomnia was part of my experience with depression. I couldn’t sleep, and learning to play note-for-note what people like Mustapha Baqbou played became a way of having something to focus on in those pre-dawn hours when all seemed dark and hopeless. Gnawa is all about trance, and repetition is an essential aspect of trance. That was really helpful to keep my brain from gnawing on itself. 

In the best moments when I’m playing music, I kind of go away and something else is coming through. Whether it’s the souls of those who have been in the tradition, I’m not really sure. I think there’s a soul in the instrument itself, too. It’s a way to just float into this eternal state of mind. It’s kind of hard to talk about without sounding really hippie-dippy.

Q. What sort of treatment did you seek out for your depression?

A. I did all the homeopathic and holistic stuff and lots of talk therapy. I volunteered for a study at Mass General Hospital using trans-LED therapy. The idea was using LED lights to excite parts of the brain. The thing that really turned things around for me was experimental ketamine infusion therapy. That was kind of a reboot for my brain chemistry.

Q. Were you still recovering when you recorded the album?

A. Going into the studio was kind of my Hail Mary to see if I still had anything in me. I had a lot of trepidation going into it, even though I was through the darkest part. This album was inspired by just kind of coming through all that and feeling like I still had something worth saying.

In the midst of the deepest parts of the depression there was just the sense that it’s eternal — that life is always going to be like this. By talking about my experience, my hope is that I can help someone who’s in that place, just by showing that there’s a place beyond it. Maybe I can offer a ray of hope.

Interview was edited and condensed. For details on upcoming shows, go to

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at

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Seacoast Online Interview


Christopher Hislop
Special to Seacoastonline

On Wednesday, Oct. 19, Moroccan dub trance jazzists Club d’Elf (featuring guitarist David Tronzo!) will make a stop at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club on Congress Street for what will serve as the band’s record release celebration of “You Never Know.” The release party was originally scheduled in Portsmouth last April, but was cancelled due to illness. caught up with d’Elf ringleader, founder and frontman Mike Rivard to discuss the record, the lineage of the band, Mark Sandman (Morphine), and a whole lot more. 

Club d'Elf will perform a show at Jimmy Jazz and Blues Club in Portsmouth on Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. 


Seacoastonline: Let’s jump in. Tell us about the new record, “You Never Know.” What were the goals for this effort? What excites you about its existence? 

Rivard: This album is a particularly personal one for me, as it was inspired by a long, dark period in my life, and my eventual emergence into the light. Sort of a Joseph Campbell “Heroes Journey,” I went through Chapel Perilous and lived to tell the tale. During the period of my depression, I was uncertain as to whether or not I had anything left to offer creatively and going into the studio represented a sort of “Hail Mary” on my part. I’m excited that it turned out as well as it did, and that I was able to assemble such an extraordinary crew of musicians to play with: John Medeski, Brahim Fribgane, Duke Levine, David Fiuczynski, Kevin Barry, Paul Schultheis, Dean Johnston, Mister Rourke, Thorleifur Gaukur Davidsson, Amit Kavthekar, Andrew Fogliano, and Phil Grenadier. Not a bad lineup.

Seacoastonline: What’s the writing process for a d’Elf composition? Are you the primary builder of blueprints who brings in the rest of musicians to color in the compositions, or is there a collaborative process in place at the outset? 

Rivard: I write most of the original tunes we play, and my inspiration often comes from nature. I like to play outdoors where I can listen to the birds, the insects, the wind and all the sounds of the natural world, and I have written songs based on what I hear. The song “Now Open Your Eyes” for instance, came about after I was coming out of the shadows, and starting to feel some optimism creep back into my life. I was sitting on the porch listening to the sound of thrushes in the woods, and started playing the 7/4 rhythm riff, inspired by what I was hearing. We also play songs by other members, and on this tour will be playing tunes by Brahim, Dean, Medeski, and Fiuczynski. 

Seacoastonline: Speaking of collaboration, the club of Club d’Elf has been in existence for nearly a quarter century, and you’re the only constant rock of this particular musical institution. Was that the idea when you launched into it all those years ago? Give us the history. How did Club d’Elf come to be? Why did Club d’Elf come to be? 

Rivard: I started the band in 1997 with the encouragement of Mark Sandman. I was a busy freelance bassist at the time and was playing in Mark’s band Hypnosonics, and he got tired of me bugging him about gigs. His primary band was Morphine and the Hypnos had taken a back seat, so he suggested I start my own band. My friend Billy Beard was booking The Lizard (Lounge) and I pitched the idea to him of a bi-monthly night where I would assemble a core band and have a rotating cast of musicians flow in and out, with special guests drawn from my various friends and musical relationships that I had cultivated over the years. The music would be instrumental and groove-heavy, inspired by things that were happening in NYC at the time, such as the Illbient scene, the projects that Bill Laswell was doing, and live drum’n’bass, crossed with the world music stuff I was getting into. The first show basically consisted of members of Hypnosonics and Natraj, the Indo-jazz band that I was also playing with. The idea caught on, and sort of grew from there, taking on a life of its own.

Seacoastonline: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?

Rivard: I like to create, and music as a medium has a way of tapping directly into the soul – especially instrumental music – and bypasses a lot of baggage in the process. I didn’t come from a musical family, and I wouldn’t say I was innately musical. I had to work really hard at it, and still do. What I do think I have a talent for is losing track of time and tapping into the spirit world – the Invisible Landscape, as Terence McKenna calls it. Music is the modality I like to use; especially trance music. The repetitive nature of trance music was one of the things that helped me during my dark times and gave me something positive to focus on during the pre-dawn hours when I had terrible insomnia and wasn’t sleeping. 

Seacoastonline: Is the sentiment of “you never know” any sort of mantra you live by? Perhaps it’s a working piece of the band … What’s in the title of the new record? 

Rivard: It is a bit of a mantra and started as an inside joke that Medeski and I routinely use as a sort of “wtf” punctuation. Coming on the heels of my experience of having a pulmonary embolism while isolated in the Amazon jungle, and the depression that ensued, it took on an even deeper meaning. Add to that the pandemic years, and it just seemed a very apt title.

Seacoastonline: You’re doing a gig at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club on Oct. 19 here in Portsmouth. This is exciting. David Tronzo will be there, a legend who made his name in the downtown NYC jazz scene in the ’80s and ’90s, who has made New Hampshire his home since 2002. What’s your history with Tronzo? You guys go back a ways. What does he add to the Club? 

Rivard: I first met Tronzo in ’97 on a gig at The Knitting Factory in NYC, when his band Spanish Fly was on a bill with Hypnosonics, Mark Sandman’s “secret band”. It was the only time the Hypnos played outside of the Boston/Cambridge axis, and was an amazing night that also included a solo set by Marc Ribot. I had been hearing about Tronzo from Medeski, and seeing him play live was pretty mind-blowing. Fast forward to 2002 when he had left NYC post-9/11 and moved to New Hampshire to take care of his Mom, and landed a gig teaching at Berklee. A friend put us in touch and I invited him to come sit in at a Lizard gig – it was July 4th if memory serves. Adam Deitch was also on the gig, and it felt great, so natural, and for a number of very special years from 2002 to 2008 or so, he was a regular in the band. This was the era when Joe Maneri was playing with us a lot, and the combination of Tronzo with Joe and Mat Maneri created some of the more memorable gigs in the band’s history, in my personal estimation.

It’s a rare thing for a guitarist to have such an identifiable sound that you know within a few notes who you’re listening to, and he is definitely in that category. His vocabulary is so vast, and draws on everything from Duane Allman to Ornette to Derek Bailey, resulting in a sound that is uniquely his own. Suffice it to say, sparks fly when he is on the gig.

Seacoastonline: One of my “clutch” purchases while being in a state of solitude during the pandemic was the release of the two Hypnosonics’ records in the ol’ vinyl format that you helped put together. I’m loading up the cannon here, but what can you say about the time you spent with Mark Sandman? What does did/does his music and approach mean to you? How did he inspire your own approach to creating? 

Rivard: Mark was (and still is, even from beyond the grave) a huge musical catalyst, and I would put him up there with people like Harry Partch and Captain Beefheart in terms of being a maverick who created his own musical universe. When I started playing with him, I was pretty green, having recently graduated from Berklee, and Mark was my finishing school. He was about 10 years older than I, and worldly in a way that I really admired. Russ (Gershon) had been playing in the Hypnos and recommended me to him when he was looking for a bass player. That audition at his apartment quickly became a rehearsal, and I had to scramble to catch all the stuff he was throwing at me, all the while being lost in a totally wide-eyed intake of all the surroundings: his place was filled with records, books, tapes, and musical instruments and paraphernalia – just a hipster’s dream palace. I learned a lot of tough lessons under his tutelage, such as the importance of “no fills.” Keep it simple, keep it repetitive. That’s where the trance aspect enters, and that was a huge lesson for me – one that I’m still working on. Mark wrote from the bottom up, starting with the bassline, which was always the riff. Even now when I pick up the sintir, I think “What would Mark play?”, and often feel like he’s channeling through me. 

Seacoastonline: What excites you about the upcoming gig here in town? What can folks expect? I’m assuming there will be copies of the new record there for purchase. I’ll likely be the first in line for that goodness…

Rivard: I’ve heard great things about Jimmy’s as a venue, and we’re really looking forward to playing that room. It’s a real treat to have a real baby grand piano, and I’m looking forward to what our piano player Paul Schultheis feels inspired to play on it. The Seacoast audience is so great, and has always been a favorite of ours. Plus it’s a local gig for Tronzo, and we don’t get to play with him nearly enough these days, so that’s a real treat. And yes, we will have vinyl and I have to say, for a vinyl freak such as I am, it’s awesome to finally have a Club d’Elf album on LP!

Check out and for more information about the show.. 

Relix Magazine feature | By Richard Gehr


Richard Gehr on May 23, 2022

Spotlight: Club d’Elf

photo credit: Joan Hathaway


In 2015, bassist Mike Rivard once again traveled to Peru’s Amazon region to participate in the sacred-plant ceremonies associated with the Shipibo people’s shamanic tradition. As founder of the Boston-based trance-improv collective Club d’Elf—whose name alludes to inner-space entities described by ethnobotanical seer Terence McKenna—Rivard already had a certain familiarity with the spiritual realm. But this time was different, and not in a good way. Several weeks later, after returning to the States, he was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. Clinical depression, accompanied by panic attacks and insomnia, would follow.

“I was born on Halloween,” Rivard says over the phone from his home in Waltham, Mass. “I’m a Scorpio, and I’ve always been attracted to the darker side of things. But this was about as deep an immersion in that modality as I could ever expect.”

To regain his musical footing, Rivard dove deeply into yet another healing spiritual tradition. Twenty years earlier, he had picked up the sintir—a four-stringed, bass-like lute covered in camel skin that is associated with the gnawa music of Morocco. He began transcribing gnawa legends such as Mahmoud Guinia and Mustapha Baqbou and, eventually, returned to the studio with Club d’Elf and a new batch of material. It included Moroccan songs associated with the chaabi folk tradition, jazzy originals and iconic covers—including Frank Zappa’s “King Kong” and Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way/ It’s About That Time”—that would be performed in large part over the famously beguiling chaabi rhythm.

“Frankly, for me, it was a Hail Mary pass,” Rivard says of the sessions that would become You Never Know, Club d’Elf’s third studio album.

And, apparently, the musical remedy worked. (Working on a goat farm helped, too.)

Rivard concocted Club d’Elf in 1998 at the urging of the late Mark Sandman, in whose pre-Morphine band Hypersonic he played. Club d’Elf convened biweekly at Boston’s Lizard Lounge and eventually coalesced into a core quartet—consisting of Rivard, Dean Johnston (drums), DJ Mister Rourke (turntables) and Brahim Fribgane (oud, vocals and percussion)—that frequently hosted guests.

Keyboardist John Medeski, who sat in at d’Elf’s third show and has joined them at many more gigs since then, has played a prominent role on all of the combo’s studio albums. “I’ve known Mike for 30 years,” Medeski says. “We’re like brothers. We’ve been in the jungles of Peru together. And we were both vegetarians on the road in the Midwest during the mid ‘80s,” as members of saxophonist Russ Gershon’s “small big band,” the Either/ Orchestra. Elf’s “dance-y, trance-y, Moroccan-inflected funk,” Medeski explains, fulfills his own dedication to “making music in the moment for the moment” by providing solid structures that can be created or deconstructed each evening depending on who’s playing. “And I get to be an accompanist, which I love to do but doesn’t happen so much with Medeski Martin & Wood since it’s a trio.

The 2019 sessions for You Never Know—named after Rivard and Medeski’s longtime motto—took place in February and December. Two different versions of the band played live, with horns and DJ Mister Rourke’s “secret sauce”— including McKenna samples—added afterward. The earlier session was augmented by keyboardist Paul Schultheis, guitarist Duke Levine and lap-steel guitarist Dave Berry; Medeski and guitarist David Fiuczynski sat in later. A vintage Studer two-inch tape machine captured the magic with cozy analog fidelity. “When you have musicians like this,” Rivard says, “turn ‘em loose and just make sure the tape is rolling because the music just pours out.”

You Never Knows opens with “Boney Oscar Stomp,” a swampy gutbucket groove evoking the spirit of Richard Zukowski, the Massachusetts body worker and poet to whom the album is dedicated. Debilitating tendonitis being a frequent hazard of the music trade, Rivard says Zukowski— who occasionally performed as Boney Oscar—“made it so a lot of us could continue playing.”

In person, as their many excellent live albums demonstrate, a Club d’Elf show unspools over extended grooves in a manner not unlike a night-long gnawa ceremony. Rivard’s approach to groove has evolved over the years. “Sandman was my drill sergeant in the school of groove,” Rivard says. “Coming out of Berklee [College of Music], I had a lot to prove. I thought I was Bootsy Collins, but Mark would keep turning around and saying, ‘No fills!’ If you’re into trance music, that’s something you have to overcome.”

Rivard calls the 6/8 chaabi groove, with its devilish wobbly subdivisions, “the Bo Diddley beat of Morocco.” The album brings the Morocco connection home with a cover of political folk stars Nass El Ghiwane’s “Allah Ya Moulana” (Allah Is With Us), the chaabi-Indian mashup “Aisha Kandisha” and the secular gnawa tune “Zeed Al Maal,” which means, roughly, “help a brother out.” For Rivard, “the beauty of Morocco is that there’s so much music—everything from gnawa to the Berber music in the Atlas Mountains to Andalusian classical music.”

The Zappa and Davis covers, particularly excellent gateways to the chaabi sound, join earlier d’Elf tributes to Cream (“Sunshine of Your Love”) and Morphine (“Level Up Your Soul”). But the album’s emotional center is likely located in the originals “Now Open Your Eyes” and “Golden Hour,” lovely and languid reflections of whatever Rivard discovered at the other end of his spiritual crisis. “I tend to learn the most from the most difficult experiences,” he says, “and I wish it were different. I wish I had the ecstatic experiences others seem to get but, for me, it tends to be a rougher road.”

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Boston Herald Interview

Club d'Elf. (Photo by Mark Wilson)
Club d’Elf. (Photo by Mark Wilson)

You never know.

Those words can be a pandemic or post-pandemic mantra. Or a grand philosophical principle. Or a mission statement for making art. They can be all those things, and the name of the Boston-based, Moroccan-inspired collective Club d’Elf’s third studio album.

“It’s kind of an inside joke between (keyboardist John) Medeski and me,” Club d’Elf leader Mike Rivard told the Herald. “‘You never know’ is a phrase that sums up everything, a mantra-like punctuation of, ‘Can you believe it? Just when you thought things were weird enough it gets even weirder.’”

Weird stuff getting weirder, that could be another Club d’Elf mission statement. For two decades, Rivard — a bassist and sintir player (the three-stringed bass used in Gnawa music)  has thrived on making music that defies definition. Does the band make Miles Davis-inspired fusion or North African-derived groove jams or freak-out tunes Frank Zappa would smile at? Yes, yes and yes!

But around 2015, Rivard’s work and life crash-landed. Rivard developed a pulmonary embolism on a flight to Peru and his illness led to a hard-fought battle with depression and anxiety. Keeping his struggles close to the vest, he quietly endured panic attacks on stage.

“I tumbled down a rabbit hole,” he said ahead of an April 15 show at Pembroke’s Soundcheck Studios. “But I kept it inside. I didn’t share it with many people. But, from the journey I went through to where I am now, the title of ‘You Never Know’ only seemed more appropriate.”

Rivard says that depression sucked the enjoyment out of everything. And yet, music helped him cope and transform. Gnawa music has a trance-like aspect to it and something in those endless rhythmic repetitions provided some relief. Long a student of this music, Rivard dug in deep. You can hear that on “You Never Know,” out now.

Filled with local and national players with chops of the highest order — Medeski, guitarists Duke Levine and David Fiuczynski, DJ Mister Rourke, singer, oud player and Casablanca-native Brahim Fribgane and many more — Club d’Elf embraces centuries-old Moroccan styles.

“We do some very traditional and overt attempts to respect this music,” he said. “There’s ‘Zeed Al Maal,’ which is a Gnawa song taught to me by Maalem Mahmoud Gania when I was in Morocco in 2009 … that’s a very specific nod to the Gnawa repertoire.”

But for every moment that Club d’Elf embraces the old, the group charges forward into the new. On Rivard’s “Dark Fish,” Rourke’s turntables seem like a transmission in from another galaxy, Fiuczynski’s guitar feels beamed in from the next millennium. The whole song is a wonderful cosmic mess, locked in a groove yet always on the brink of free jazz.

“The album goes all over the map and, while that isn’t something that I planned ahead of time, it really captures what the band is about,” Rivard said. “On one hand, we are deeply respectful of and desiring to play authentically, especially with the Moroccan rhythms. We want to play it deep enough that people within the tradition will go, ‘Wow, these guys know what they are doing.”

“But we also want to take it to other places, bringing all of our influence and experiences in to create something new,” he added.

Rivard has accomplished his mission. And it’s great to have him in a place where he can do that with the local music institution that is Club d’Elf.

For tickets and music, go to

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The JamBase Podcast Episode 13: Bruce Hornsby & Mike Rivard

The JamBase Podcast Episode 13: Bruce Hornsby & Mike Rivard
By Team JamBase
May 31, 2018

While the number 13 is said to be unlucky, the axiom doesn’t hold true for The JamBase Podcast. Andy Kahn and Scott Bernstein serve as hosts for “The Rundown.” Club d’Elf leader Mike Rivard chats about his “Musical Mentors.”

The episode concludes with Mike “Micro” Rivard discussing his “Musical Mentors” backstage at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rivard’s Club d’Elf project recently celebrated their 20th anniversary and Micro takes us through the origins of the collective, which features a rotating cast of collaborators. One of the musical mentors Rivard talks about is the late Mark Sandman, who was a big brother of sorts to Micro. Rivard also recounts his first meeting with longtime collaborator Brahim Fribgane and how Brahim helped teach Mike about Moroccan music. Additionally, he gives love to Hassan Hakmoun for his sintir tutelage. Finally, Rivard reveals what the future holds for Club d’Elf.

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The Ear – review of Club d’Elf “Live at Club Helsinki”

The Ear
Reuben Klein
Jan 10, 2017

This conclusion to this review goes as follows: This is likely to be the most impressive release of 2017. Get it now. Live at Club Helsinki is as immense as it is intense. A double album that in uncompressed WAV form requires 1.2Gb of space on the hard drive, with a set of 12 tracks offering over two hours of music. It features one famous musician by the name of John Medeski, but don’t let that fool you, he is not at the forefront, he is in the same league as the other musicians in this Boston based band.

Medeski (employing an arsenal of analogue keyboard instruments including a vintage Mellotron and grand piano), is mostly supporting and not leading the Club D’Elf crew. The band consists of Brahim Fribgane (oud, cajon, vocals), Duke Levine (guitar), Mister Rourke (DJ), Mike Rivard (bass) and Dean Johnston (drums). I don’t know how often these guys jam together but the session is live and the synergy is incredible, in places their precision evokes starling formations, so incredibly unified is the musical ebb and flow. 

Club D’Elf’s music is a constant stream of almost any funk groove that one can imagine and enjoy with a tinge of north African influence. It is not a challenging album, but music lovers who are looking to find relief from the soft and mostly clichéd soundtrack of mainstream music will discover an endless source of inspiration, energy and talent of a calibre that one rarely encounters.

The sound is brittle, open and bright, the recording does not keep up with the musical brilliance, but even this doesn’t diminish the enjoyment that so much talent, verve and sheer depth of exuberance exhibited by all the musicians. As per the start of the review, Live at Club Helsinki is an extremely highly recommended musical jam without which 2017 will be paler for those who miss it.

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