In a popular magazine from many years ago, I read an article about a
well-known songwriter and pop artist who was asked about his unlikely
success and uncanny skill at crafting hit songs. His homey response
concerning his ability was, “Well… even a blind pig finds an acorn,
every once in a while…” I never forgot that expression, and I’ve often
thought it (not daring to say it!) as an answer when life throws an
incredible opportunity my way. I also understood something about the
deepened sense of maturity and true humility, mixed with a personal
sense of humor, in the artist’s words.
Such was the comment of my internal monologue when I was given an
opportunity to interview one of the most thorough influences on my
approach to supporting vocalists – in both the recorded and live
performance medium. The bassist in question was Mike Rivard. I was
introduced to ‘Micro’s’ playing through Jonatha Brooke & The Story,
one of my favorite singer/songwriter environments, over ten years ago.
It is his incredible playing on favored discs, “Grace In Gravity” and,
“Angel in the House” that still finds it’s notable influence in my own
Mike, is the bassist and leader of the critically acclaimed group Club
d’Elf, and he is well known on East Coast live music scenes, and
particularly in his adopted hometown of Boston, MA. Club d’Elf’s
latest disc, “As Above (Live at the Lizard Lounge)” boasts guests as
diverse as DJ Logic and Reeves Gabrels in its formidable revolving
roster of talent. After listening to this disc bring an exacting
definition to the ethereal phrase, “New World Music”, I have to go
with the review on the band’s website, “Here it is, baby: ‘Lather,
In short, Mike Rivard is one of those bassists with the sheer musical
ability to be called upon by the likes of Paula Cole, Jon Brion, and
Groovelily as well as the groups Morphine and Guster, amongst others.
I spoke with Micro just after his triumphant return from a tour with
Club d’Elf. We caught up again a few weeks later, after he returned
from visiting with his friend, Jonatha Brooke, during her sound check
– for her recent appearance in Boston.
As the conversation unfolded, I was once again reminded that I was in
the company of an incredible player with a unique gift of musical
ability and focus. Mike Rivard is truly amongst Boston’s best
exports, and is quickly becoming one of that city’s most prized
BAJ: I guess the first oddball question would be: How does a guy from
Minnesota go from studying with Dave Holland; to playing with Cab
Calloway; to playing a number of “East Coast New Folk” sessions; to
finding himself leading a group like Club d’Elf?
MR: I moved to Boston to study at Berklee, in 1981, and that’s how it
all began. During my years at school (1981–1985) I met Russ Gershon,
and wrote several transcriptions for him – for his Charles Mingus
Class. I also played in his 12-piece big band. I also played a
number of tours, and recorded with that band. I met John Medeski
then, and we stayed in touch after that band and later played together
again in Club d’Elf.
Cab (rest his soul) traveled with his drummer/music director, and Russ
got the contract when he came to Boston. Russ formed a group for
Cab’s East Coast shows, and hired me as bassist. Through that
connection, I ended up playing with Cab. At first, Cab was hardcore –
growling at the band – but by the end of rehearsals, he had warmed up
to the band. It’s pretty amazing how someone like Cab kept it all
together. I learned a lot through that experience.
I met Dave Holland through the BANFF Center of Fine Arts (a school in
Alberta, Canada) after I getting a scholarship there. It’s very
beautiful country up there, and I also met “Smitty” Smith, and John
Abercrombie there, amongst other great players. Later, Dave commuted
from his home in New York to Boston to teach at the New England
Conservatory. He stayed in my home while he was commuted, and would
stay an extra day to teach privately there. I later bought an
acoustic contra bass from him that he had used for one of his solo
records. That kicks my ass, when I think of that!
Later, I began playing with The Story, through meeting Ben Whittman –
who’s a great drummer – who introduced me to keyboardist/producer
Alain Mallet through. Ben, Alain, guitarist Duke Levine and myself
became the band that backed The Story (vocalists Jonatha Brooke, and
Jennifer Kimball) after playing sessions for them, produced by Alain.
Those records became very popular, and I began getting session calls.
BAJ:What drew you toward the bass, and when?
MR: I was about 12 years old, and I started playing electric bass –
after beginning on guitar. You know the deal…three guitarists and
drummer… Someone had to play the bass. The school I attended had an
old Gibson bass, and a Kustom amplifier, so I began taking it home on
the weekends. Little by little… I played bass more and more, and
began playing guitar less and less. We bassists know where it’s at!
I began playing acoustic bass in 1983, after going to Boston to attend
BAJ:Whom do you sight as influences?
MR:I began listening to Tom Fowler, Phil Lesh, John Paul Jones, and
Jack Casady – You know, bassist who were playing well. A teacher
turned me onto the Bitches Brew record that same year. After that, I
began seeking out recordings by Charlie Haden, Charlie Mingus, and
then later more Free jazz players like Sirone, Barre Phillips, and
Later, I got into pop music and I started listening to Collin
Moulding, Tony Levin, Anthony Jackson, and other players.
These days, I listen to music in a more holistic fashion – as opposed
to listening to bass-oriented music. Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin &
Wood and Dave Holland continue to be influences. I like players who
present an over all musical aesthetic, like Marcus Miller – who plays
for the song, but just happens to have great chops. I also think
British bassist Collin Hodgkinson was way ahead of his time! The stuff
Back Door was doing is still ahead of its time! Though, I didn’t dig
the Beatles at first, I’ve since understood how musically intrinsic
Paul McCartney’s lines were. I was more of a snob in my earlier
listening. Many of the “pop” players simply play their asses off –
like Bootsy and Bill Laswell – and that effects me more deeply,
musically, and I look for that. It opens my ears, and allows me to
hear the other instruments.
Like… James Brown, the whole piece of music is interwoven, and the
parts produce an incredible accumulative rhythm. I hear Western
African music when the musicians play more of as “part of the whole”,
and that type of playing takes a player who’s willing to not be locked
into a part, and change when the time comes… when it’s necessary.
BAJ:Do you find session work at all rewarding?
MR:The session work started through The Story, as I mentioned. It’s
more a matter of hooking-up with the right Producer. I still work
with Alain Mallet, and I have since The Story days. It’s hard to be
in the presence of a genius, like Alain, or John Brion, and not be
effected. Everything they touch is great! If you play on a recording
that someone happens to like… you begin to get calls.
Certainly, my personal aesthetic tends toward hearing music that is
more extreme. I think that people who heard me in The Story would be
shocked and appalled if they heard other things, like Club d’Elf, that
BAJ:How do you approach supporting a vocalist, versus supporting a
MR:I guess the main thing is “what can I do for this person, so they
will continue to employ me?” (Laughter) With a vocalist, it’s
important to get an idea of what the vocalist is saying, lyrically.
Getting a copy of the lyrics is a great idea. Playing simply is a
good idea, and wait for places between phrases before playing a fill.
The important thing is to be as open as possible. Often times, I come
up with a part that I like, and I’ll play that. I’ve grown to
understand that it’s okay to do something different, if the part isn’t
working anymore – even if it’s hard to say goodbye to the part I
created. If it isn’t happening… It shouldn’t’ be there. The artists
who call me now are looking for something a little more creative and
responsive. Many times Producers will record a “meat & Potatoes”
part, and then make another more “creative” pass. From there, they
build a part for their project.
I like to think I can play something I hear that will be appropriate,
when backing a vocalist. So, it’s more a matter of listening. It
doesn’t advance anyone’s cause to be obstinate about a part! It’s all
about making people happy.
In d’Elf, I’m more interested in being true to my own musical
direction. I don’t look at this band as a soundboard for furthering
my own musical thing, necessarily – even though the bass is the
central voice. What I’m going for is to support the other
improvisations, by playing ostinato, and create a “resting place for
the other instrumentalists to come back to”. I keep the “home fires
burning”, as a place for the other instruments to return to, to
BAJ: Which artists’ have been your favorite to work with over the
years, and why?
MR:It’s hard to choose favorites – because people get angry if they’re
not on the list. But… I enjoyed working with Jonatha, The Story,
Mighty Sam McClain and Morphine the most – if I have to choose.
BAJ:Talk to us about Club d’Elf’s latest line-up, and the new tour.
MR:The line-up is ever changing, man. The core of the band is myself,
drummer Erik Kerr, and Brahim Fribgane – who plays oud and percussion.
The three of us rehears the material, and work out different rhythmic
structures to work into the compositions. Jerry Leake (tabla and
percussion), and Jere Faison (sampler) were very involved in the early
days of the group and still play with us frequently.
John Medeski and Mat Maneri (electric violin) joined Erik, Brahim and
myself on the most recent tour. DJ Logic, Joe Maneri, and Duke Levine
also joined as the touring ensemble. Also, saxophonist Tom Hall;
guitarist Randy Roos – who was playing a lot around Boston with Jeff
Berlin, in the 80’s; DJ Flack, DJC, and others often join us as we
played dates along the East Coast. It depends on players’ schedules,
how many people I can fit on a particular gig, and where we’re
playing. I call NY musicians (in addition to Erik and Brahim) when
d’Elf plays there, for instance.
BAJ: What’s happening in the coming year for Mike Rivard?
MR: For the past two and a half years I’ve been recording a studio
project with Club d’Elf that includes all the people I’ve mentioned,
and Mark Sandman. I played in Mark’s band called The Hypnosonics,
which predated Morphine. It was a “secret band” and we only got
together when our schedules allowed it. Mark was a big supporter, and
he influenced me as I formed Club d’Elf.
I’ve mixed five of the tracks from the project with Scotty Hard (Wu
Tang Clan) in November, and I’m shopping that around. That’s the next
phase – putting out the record. We’re planning to tour further and
further from Boston. I play as many sessions as I can to support Club
BAJ:We’ve known one another long enough for me to establish the
opinion that you have a very humble opinion of your musical approach.
It’s not, at all, a false humility in any way… But you seem almost
misunderstood by the world of listeners. This interests me! Please
elaborate on your general musical concept and the direction you find
yourself moving at this time in space.
MR:Well, to be misunderstood… means that I’m the topic of discussion,
somewhere! (Laughter) I try not to play for my own amusement, and I
try to play with a sense of egoless-ness. I have no agenda I need to
support, and I don’t need to prove myself, to myself. It’s a matter
of being inspired. If that means playing a whole note for an entire
tune… that’s fine. I think technique is important, but I don’t want
to play what’s in my head all of the time, as I, hopefully, mature…
What I work on more, is what I can leave out of my playing – creating
more space. If I create a line for a song, what I try to do (and
listening to a lot of dub and DJs inspires this) is imagining my part
being manipulated, and having parts dropping in and out as I play
them. I like to work in a process of subtraction in my lines. I’ll
visualize a four-bar phrase, for example, and then begin dropping out
on certain beats – Creating space. Right now, creating space is more
important to me than creating notes.
I’ve listening to a lot of electronica, and drum & bass groups. I’m
processing sounds and highlighting elements in a way similar to
casting a flashlight on something in a dark room – where you get a
more surrealistic view of an object, than if you were to turn on the
Beside the groups We, Squarepusher, WagonChrist (Luke Vibert – also of
Plug), and bassist/producer Bill Laswell I’ve been listening to Gnawa
and Berber Music of Morocco. Brahim is from Morocco, and through him
I’ve listened to a lot of music from Morocco through him. I’ve
recently purchased a sintir (a 3-stringed bass lute used in Gnawan
music) and I’ve begun practicing that instrument regularly. I’m
really enjoying that!
I’ve also been actively involved in re-imprinting myself rhythmically
to hear where the one is in these and other styles of Moroccan music.
No instrument plays the one in Moroccan music, and it’s entailed a
whole new way of listening and hearing music.
Most Moroccan music is in a slow 6/8 or 12/8 that’s easy to hear in 4.
The first part, the triplet, and the last part of the second triplet –
what the western ear hears as one – is actually the third eighth note
of the triplet. This study is what I’m listening to most recently,
and its changed the way I hear music almost entirely.
BAJ:What is you ideal playing environment?
MR: Playing with musicians that really inspire me, and who I love
playing with. Club d’Elf allows me to play with my friends and
players who inspire me in this way. I also like playing to audiences
who are receptive to the music – whether they dance or whatever…
BAJ:Give us a quick gear list, Micro.
MR: I’m playing a pair of Lakland (fretted and fretless) 5’s and a
Lakland hollowbody on most of my recent gigs with d’Elf. I have a
Lakland Joe Osborn, and I also have a mid-60’s Hofner solid-body
that’s incredible! I recorded most of The Story sessions with a ’61
Jazz bass, a 66 Precision, and a ’76 stingray. Finally, I have a very
cool Rossmeisle (built by Roger Rossmeisle) that’s a Beatle bass copy,
and a Danelectro Longhorn. My upright basses are a ¾ Rheinhold
Schmidt from 1900 that has a realist pickup (the Dave Holland bass),
and I also have a ¾ Juzek.
I enjoy effecting the bass, and I use a lot of looping with my Gibson
EPT Echoplex and also a JamMan. I play through an Ashley Power and a
Demeter pre-amp… and several SWR cabinets. I’ve been using alligator
clips on the strings, on both acoustic and electric basses, for the
past few years. The clips throw a great chaos factor into my playing –
like an organic ring modulator!
Well folks… There ya’ go! I had a great time talking to Micro! Check
out Club d’Elf’s, “As Above (Live at the Lizard Lounge)” as soon as
you can! It’s an incredible record that shows the absolute outside of
what the bass can do, when it’s connected to great musical vision.
You can read more about Mike Rivard and Club d’Elf at: