Mike Rivard: Entranced By The Music
By PAUL NASER, Published: September 4, 2014
As globalization blends cultures and markets more and more everyday, it is only natural that artistic traditions and the artists that study them do the same. Mike Rivard is a leader in this regard, pioneering some of the most unique blends of musical styles and sounds today. Talking to him about his band Club d’Elf and his new project, Grand Fatilla, revealed a number of diverse influences that shed some light on the roots of the one of a kind voice he and his many collaborators have been developing.
All About Jazz: Where did you go to school?
Mike Rivard: I went to high school in Minnesota, and came out to Boston to go to Berklee after that. While I was at Berklee I took Ken Pullig’s class on the music of Charles Mingus, and there met Russ Gershon who was forming a band called the Either/Orchestra. He asked me to play bass in the group and that’s kind of what got me started gigging in Boston. One thing usually leads to another, and through that association I met and began long relationships with John Medeski and Mark Sandman. Mark had a group called Hypnosonics that he asked me to join, and I ended up doing some recording with Morphine, too. Through those connections I hooked up with other musicians, and like a fractal it just kept spiraling.
I drew on all of those relationships when I eventually formed Club d’Elf, starting with just getting my friends involved, as an excuse to play instrumental music with some of my favorite musicians in an open setting without any singers to get in the way! It grew from there; people would recommend other people, and I would met other cats and invite them in. In the 16 years the band has been around I think there’s been upwards of 100 people who have come in and out, with about 20 of whom are frequent offenders.
It’s a rotating cast, with the constants being myself and the drummer. Dean Johnston has been the drummer for the last eight years, and Erik Kerr was the drummer for eight years before that. Other drummers have come in and out, including Kenwood Dennard, Adam Deitch & Eric Kalb, but for the most part its been Dean and Erik.
AAJ: From the way you describe it, it sounds like Club d’Elf is just you and a bunch of your friends playing, but the band has a very recognizable sound.
MR: I guess the people I hang out with tend to wear a lot of different hats stylistically. As with most bands, the sound comes about through all of the influences we absorb, and there have been many along the way. While at Berklee I got involved in West African music through Joe Galeota, who was teaching Ghanaian drumming while I was there, and that was really influential. I met Jere Faison and Jerry Leake through that connection, who became part of the early D’Elf. Through Jerry I ended up joining another band called Natraj, led by Phil Scarff. That band was mixing North Indian classical music with West African Dagomba and Ewe music in a jazz style. Through them I got to work with Ghanaian master drummers Godwin Agbele and Dolsi-naa Abubakari Lunna. Eventually Dolsi-naa did some recording with Club d’Elf. He’s on a couple of tracks on Electirc Moroccoland/So Below: Trance Meeting and As Above, playing the talking drum. He was a heavy cat and it was a great honor having him play with us, even if he called it “Nonsense Music”!
So I had been into West African music and Indian music and then I started gravitating more towards North African music, through listening to records Bill Laswell was putting out like Night Spirit Masters, which was Gnawa, and Apocalypse Across the Sky, which was the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Mark Sandman turned me on to a CD by Hassan Hakmoun called Gift Of The Gnawa which really piqued my interest in the sintir and I became determined to get one and learn to play it. I had met a Moroccan musician named Brahim Fribgane in New York on a gig at The Cooler in ’99, and he eventually moved to Boston and joined Club d’Elf. That pushed the band in a really strong North African direction, and through Brahim’s connection I got a sintir and threw myself into learning that and incorporating it into the band. That was a really significant step, meeting Brahim and learning to play the sintir and adding that element to the sound.
AAJ: What exactly is a Sintir?
MR: It’s also called a guimbri, and its from Morocco. It’s a three string bass lute with a camel skin top. It’s kind of a drum and a bass all in one instrument—in fact it sounds like a tuned drum. Hassan calls it the “1000 year old bass,” and it really is ancient. It has a sound unlike anything else, and when I first heard it it spoke to me in a way that was really powerful, like few things in my life. It’s very percussive, very rhythmic sounding, which isn’t surprising given that its part drum. Besides Hassan I was listening to people like Maâlem Mustapha Baqbou, Mahmoud Guinia, Hamida Boussou, Abderrahim Paco from Nass El Ghiwane, and tried to emulate what I heard them do. You couldn’t find videos of them playing like you can now on Youtube, so I was left to my own devices and the tips that Brahim and Hassan gave me along the way.
The sintir is a pretty special instrument, and it’s used by the Gnawa people in healing ceremonies. That’s another thing that has attracted to me to it, this connection with healing and spirits. I frequently go into trance when I play it, and have come to find an energy flowing through it when I play that is not about me, you know? I take it very seriously and say a little prayer when I pick it up, because its serious business. In Gnawa music it’s the only featured instrument, usually with just singing and these metallic castanets called karakab. From a bass point of view it’s pretty easy to get hooked into that music, because it’s a bass instrument that dominates the sound. The sound of that instrument and the setting in which its used really spoke to me, and that’s been my passion for the last 15 years or so: learning that instrument and incorporating it into the band’s sound.
You asked previously what our influences are, and if you had to limit it to say seven albums you could pretty much come up with the basis for what we do by listening to these: Panthalassa, which is the Bill Laswell remix of electric Miles Davis; Gift Of The Gnawa; Hallucination Engine by Material; DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing; Square Root of -1 by We��; Liminal Lounge’s Pre-Set; and Incursions In Illbient. The electric bands that Miles had in the late 60’s/early 70’s was certainly a really strong framework for what we do, where there’s a lot of improvisation coming back to and starting from set themes. Also I was listening to a lot of Squarepusher. Combining that with the Gnawa music, Moroccan Berber music and different other influences like Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Weather Report, the usual stuff. For me as a bassist, I would say Dave Holland, Michael Henderson—the Miles connection; Willie Weeks, Tony Levin, John Wetton, James Jamerson, Mick Karn, and the Gnawa guys.
AAJ: One of the things that struck me about the band, in addition to incorporating traditional rhythms and songs, is the varied textures. Is the orchestration a really conscious decision? Do you keep that in mind while putting together a formation of Club d’Elf, or does it sort of just happen when you guys get together?
MR: I think there are various strategies. One of the really attractive things about this set up is that it’s always changing, it’s always shifting. There’s kind of a continual flow of new energy and new material in the group, which really helps to keep it fresh. It doesn’t really get stagnant, because its more like a river than say a pool. As far as orchestration or putting the bands together, it depends on people’s schedules: who’s around and who hasn’t played in a while. I try to keep the rotation moving around so we have different people come in and out. That’s how it is for the live thing anyway. In the studio is another thing, and the music really dictates what the orchestration is, and also what my current affiliations are. So we may have turntables if I’m doing a lot of work with a DJ like Mister Rourke, or French horn or oud or whatever. It all depends. We certainly have played a lot of this music with some wildly differing orchestrations, and it all seems to work.
As far as the players themselves, there are certain combinations that tend to work well together. Some musicians have a pretty deep simpatico and I like to draw upon that, so if someone is going to be in the band for a gig I start thinking about who plays well with that person. The music is tailored around the personalities that are going to be playing—I mean, it’d be foolish of me not to take that into consideration. The “book” that we have, the repertoire, is pretty large and I pick the tunes that we’ll do for any particular show depending on who’s playing. There are certain tunes that have been written with different people in mind, and those cats tend to put their personality on those tunes, so the repertoire depends on who’s going to be playing.
But then the idea is that the compositions are just different places to visit along the way. We don’t play the tunes the same way every time, and nothing is written in stone. The compositions are more just kind of reference points to come back to, like the kind of stuff Miles was doing in the 70’s. There’d be a lot of really open improvisational stuff and then a theme would emerge and the band would all coalesce into that point of reference, and then goes off from there. For example the song called “Salvia,” it’s on So Below—it’s got a lot of different sections, and sometimes we skip some. We’ll just do a couple of sections and then move onto something different. If Duke Levine is playing with us, we’ll do this long section where he solos like Ernie Isley, but if he’s not on the gig we usually skip that part.
Everything is pretty much non-stop, like a continuous DJ set, so the ways of connecting the tunes are usually some of the more interesting stuff that we do. There are these open, free improv sections where no one is really sure where it’s going to go, and that has created some pretty cool moments.
AAJ: How do you cue that?
MR: I’ve got a few different cues. It’s mostly just visual stuff, or I’ll whisper in somebody’s ear if we’re going to be changing key or going to a different section. The latest cue is I shout “Gojira!” and that cues a conducted, free-improv. I have charts for some of the players, or not, depending on the strengths of the musician. The arrangements are all spontaneous and come together in the moment, all part of the “crazy-make-em-ups” aspect of the music. Basically it’s all a conversation amongst the musicians. I may have an idea about where it’s going to go, but it’s all open to change depending on what’s happening and I try to follow those energies when they occur. If one of the players does something that’s really interesting I may cue a little side trip so we can explore that for a while. And there are a lot of wild cards, like one of the guys will show up to a gig with a musician friend, and if it feels right we’ll have them come up and that may lead everything in a different direction.
As a bassist I’m focused on the role of the bass as a support instrument, but then again the melodies are mostly the bass line, so the bass is foremost, but it’s not a soloistic approach. I prefer a heavy rhythm section focus, with the bass low and dub-like. Whoever’s guesting with us, I like them to feel free and relaxed, like we’re their backing band, rather than they’re just sitting in. Striking a balance between taking the lead and stepping back and letting someone else lead is an important skill. You could draw comparisons to sports, or combat maybe.
AAJ: Are you the composer?
MR: Most of the tunes are mine, but I encourage the other guys to bring in tunes as well; so for example when we play with Brahim, we play a lot of his music. Dave Tronzo has brought stuff in, as has Randy Roos. We do some covers too, like traditional Moroccan folk music, a Duke Ellington or Miles Davis or Sun Ra tune here and there. Pink Floyd, Cream, you know… stuff we like.
AAJ: How do you come up with the titles?
MR: The hardest thing about writing instrumental music is finding titles! (laughs). You can only have so many songs called “New Song #3,” you know? You need titles, just so when you call something out the band knows what you’re talking about, and then of course when you release something on a CD or whatever. I’m always searching around for titles, and find most of them from books that I’m reading. Certain lines or phrases jump out and catch my eye. I’ve always got my eye open for interesting title choices, and they reflect various interests of mine—things like science fiction, Philip K. Dick, George Saunders, Terence McKenna, psychedelic culture. I’ve been traveling to Peru for the last few years and working with indigenous musicians there, so some of the titles reflect my experiences in that world.
AAJ: You’ve got a new project. How different is it from Club d’Elf?
MR: Grand Fatilla has a pretty different sound from Club d’Elf. I play only double bass (with a little sintir as well) in Grand Fatilla, whereas in D’Elf it’s mostly electric bass and sintir, with some upright. Fatilla’s repertoire is folk music from around the world, with some originals inspired by some of these sources. Two of the guys are Italian so we do a lot of traditional Italian music like Tarantellas. The Tarantella is pretty cool because it’s another form of trance music, which I think is the element that really attracts me in music: trance. You find the same kind of energy and modalities in different parts of the world. Tarantism is not that far off from some of the traditions of Morocco like Gnawa, and Voodoo in Haiti. That stuff is fascinating to me.
We also do Bulgarian music, and a lot of music of Hermeto Pascoal and Astor Piazzolla. It’s a lot more structured than Club d’Elf, and we actually adhere to song forms. There’s a lot more harmonic variety in that band, with more chord changes, whereas Club d’Elf is more modal, one chord-oriented, more trance like.
AAJ: Where are you playing next?
MR: Club d’Elf has had a residency at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge twice a month for many years, and we get out and tour now and again when I can get the guys to do it. I have some new stuff planned for the near future like a couple of new live recordings and separate re-releases of Electric Moroccoland and So Below with a bunch of additional tracks. We used to go to Japan frequently until everything changed there after the tsunami, but hope to again. Playing in Morocco has always been my dream for the group, so that’d be cool for that to happen. Grand Fatilla is having a CD release party at the Regattabar in Cambridge. After that I disappear into the Amazon jungle in Peru for awhile and then who knows?