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.

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