Meet Mike Rivard of CLUB D’ELF in Jamaica Plain
Today we’d like to introduce you to Mike Rivard.
Mike, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’m a bassist and composer by passion and profession, and am particularly interested in how music can facilitate trance states, where time seems to stop. The music that I’m more and more drawn to is that which comes from healing traditions such as Moroccan Gnawa, which puts you into a kind of non-ordinary reality. Also I really like to make people dance, which can basically be the same thing. In 1981 after I graduated high school I moved to Boston to go to Berklee. Moving here was about the best thing I could have done, and the scene was wide open at that time, opening my eyes in so many ways. While 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 what got me started gigging in Boston. One thing lead 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 his main band, Morphine, as well. We played together a lot up until his death in 1999.
Through those connections I hooked up with other musicians, and like a fractal it just kept spiraling. I began to get a name on the local scene, and since I play both electric and acoustic bass, more opportunities were available. As a bassist I’m focused on its role as a support instrument…I prefer a heavy rhythm section focus, with the bass thick and dub-like. People seemed to appreciate that approach, and I developed a chameleonic career where on the one hand I was playing with pop and folk artists like Jonatha Brooke, The Story, Paula Cole, Jen Trynin, the Walkers, R&B singer Mighty Sam McClain…stuff that was more or less kind of “inside”. But at the same time I was playing more “outside” stuff – Indian music with Natraj, West African music with a couple of groups, and improvised, microtonal music with Mat and Joe Maneri. I tried to keep an open mind and ear to it all, and decided not to limit myself in terms of arbitrary distinctions like “genre”. If it was grooving, and cool people were playing it, I wanted in.
I had been into West African music and Indian music since high school, and around 1992 or so I started really getting into North African music. Sandman turned me on to a CD by Hassan Hakmoun called “Gift Of The Gnawa” which introduced me to the sintir, also called guimbri. For me, that was one of those light bulb moments where it all just clicked and I realized, ‘I have to learn this instrument’. Something in it resonated with me like nothing else. It comes from Morocco and is used by the Gnawa people in their trance healing ceremonies. It’s got three strings made of gut and a camel skin top, and the sound is percussive and punchy, like a tuned drum. I’m drawn to its trance-inducing quality, as well as the healing tradition from which it comes. Hassan calls it the “1000 year old bass,” and it really is ancient. I take it very seriously and say a little prayer whenever I pick it up to play. My connection with Moroccan music grew exponentially when in 1999 I met Brahim Fribgane in New York on a gig at The Cooler, and soon after he moved to Boston.
At the urging of Sandman I had started my own band the year before that. Mark was busy with Morphine and got tired of my bugging him about booking gigs for the Hypnosonics, so I formed Club d’Elf as an excuse to play instrumental music with some of my favorite musicians in an open setting without singers getting in the way. Brahim joined the group, which pushed the band in a really strong North African vibe. Through his connection I acquired a sintir and threw myself into learning that and began incorporating it into the music. That was a really significant step, meeting Brahim and learning to play the sintir and adding that element to the sound. His friends Aziz and Abder had a store called Moroccan Bazaar in North Cambridge that was the hub of the Moroccan scene at that time, and I got invited to their afterhours sessions in the basement. It was basically a casual place where some of the Moroccan ex-pats in the area would gather and drink tea and play some music. That really began my education in getting inside Moroccan music, especially the rhythmic side of things. Learning where the “one” is became a rite of passage, and thanks to Brahim’s unique ability to explain the Moroccan concepts to Western musicians, I was able to get it. I was totally obsessed with all things Moroccan, but still had not actually traveled there. Finally, in 2009 while living in Somerville, I was chosen to be part of a cultural delegation led by the mayor to establish a sister-city partnership with Tiznit, Morocco. The idea was to take a cross section of the city and partner with people in Tiznit of the same profession. For me, it was really a transformative experience to go there and experience the culture and the people, and soak up the sights and sounds and smells. During that trip I befriended the late Maalem Mahmoud Guinia, one of the all-time great sintir players. He was like the B.B King of Gnawa – someone I had been listening to for 20 years, and revered beyond words. That such a master would recognize talent in me, an outsider to his culture, and choose to take me under his wing and teach me a song – wow, that had a great and lasting effect upon me. That trip was a turning point in my life, and inspired the Club d’Elf album “Electric Moroccoland”, which is our musical love letter to Morocco. Aside from Club d’Elf I’ve been playing with the Boston Pops Orchestra for about ten years now, which has given me the opportunity to back up artists such as James Taylor, Melissa Etheridge, Bernadette Peters and Susan Tedeschi. I’ve also played in the pit orchestra for national Broadway tours such as Wicked, The Lion King and The Color Purple amongst others.
I was co-founder of the world-folk band Grand Fatilla, which sadly ended a couple of years ago with the death of Roberto Cassan. Fabio Pirozzolo and I knew that Fatilla couldn’t continue without Roberto, so we formed a new band called Sawaari with Amit Kavthekar on tabla and Jussi Reijonen on oud. I’m really having fun with this band exploring the nexus of Indian taals, Arabic maqams, and trance music from North Africa and Italy. I’ve also been active in the local, organic farming community and have worked at Lindentree CSA in Lincoln for over twenty years. I see connections between it all: sustainable practices, eating well, care for the environment, and playing music. One thing feeds the other. Most recently I’ve been helping out at some goat farms and learning about these amazing creatures. I played some sintir for them, and it seemed to really put them into trance, so I guess that aspect cuts across species lines. I’m sure that being around them will influence my music.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
As far as Club d’Elf goes, people don’t always know what to make of it. The players revolve from show to show, and the music can sound dramatically different night to night, as well. One of the really attractive things about this set up is that it’s always changing and evolving. There’s a continual flow of new energy and new material in the group, which really helps to keep it fresh. It doesn’t get stagnant, because it’s more like a river than a pool. But this can also be confusing for some folks, as you never really know what to expect.
One night there will be some Gnawa musicians in traditional garb, and the music is on that tip, and mostly acoustic. The next show we could have one of David Bowie’s guitar players and it’s a rock vibe, very electric. For those who get it, this aspect is something that’s really attractive. But it’s not easy for people to get a fix on what the band is, as it’s like a cloud that you can’t get clear focus on. It also poses challenges as far as getting promoters to take a chance on us, especially in the current atmosphere where most want to play it safe and not take any risks. We’ve also run into a problem where no one knows what the hell to call the music! We don’t fit succinctly into any one genre, and with something like iTunes you basically have to fit into one category.
As far as personal struggles go, my biggest challenge so far came in September 2015 when I developed a pulmonary embolism while in the Peruvian Amazon. I had been taking yearly trips to the jungle to work with indigenous healers, and that modality had become a huge part of my life. I was in a totally remote place, without any idea why my body was in crisis, and the experience was extremely traumatic. But I was very lucky, as a lot of people die from such a thing. Coming face to face with one’s mortality is pretty heavy, and has taught me a lot. Death isn’t something we’re very comfortable as a society in talking about, yet it’s one of life’s only certainties. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and this experience has really deepened my commitment to music as a healing art. My “jungle experience” has helped solidify what I want to do in this life, and helped me to focus on what is essential and not get so distracted.
I was definitely guilty of taking it for granted that I had more time than I really do, so I’ve tried to cut out distractions and focus on what I was put here for. I feel very strongly that part of my mission in life is to explore other cultures and forge relationships with kindred minds, and I’m fortunate to have been embraced especially by the Moroccan musicians I play with. In this current climate of intolerance and anti-Islamic sentiment, I believe there is a need to show an alternative to the narrative that Muslim culture is something to be feared and kept from our borders.
Please tell us about CLUB D’ELF.
Club d’Elf is an ever-changing coterie of like-minded musical shape-shifters that drapes elements of dub, funk, electronica, jazz, rock and hip-hop over a foundation of Moroccan trance. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary, and during this time we’ve maintained an every-other-Friday residency at Cambridge’s Lizard Lounge, as well as the occasional international tour and regional run-outs. We’re big in Japan.
The arrangements are all spontaneous and come together in the moment, all part of the “crazy-make-em-ups” aspect of the music. In performance I may have an idea about where it’s going to go, but it’s all open to change depending on what’s happening in the moment, 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. The melodies, the songs, are signposts along the way where everybody gets their bearing and we coalesce, and then the goal is to go places that we’ve never gone before. Each show is a process of deconstructing and reconstructing these components, so we’ll rarely do a song the same way.
The constants are myself and drummer Dean Johnston, and DJ Mister Rourke is usually in the mix. Everything else is subject to change. We often have guests’ musicians, and my goal as leader is to create a canvas where other musicians can come and play as if the band was their own. I try to make guests feel like they can do anything, go anywhere, and that we’re going to be there to follow them through whatever far-off and far-out land they lead us to.
There’s a tacit agreement between the musicians and the audience that we’re creating an energy together. Our sets are played pretty much non-stop, like a continuous DJ set, so the ways we connect the tunes can be some of the more interesting stuff that we do. We’ve put out ten live albums, the most recent being Live at Club Helsinki (2017). Since the music is largely improvisational, most of our output has been live records, but we’ve also put out three studio albums, and for our 20th anniversary we re-released two of them – Electric Moroccoland and So Below – with a bunch of new tracks. There probably aren’t many bands that can go from playing Nass El Ghiwane tunes to a mostly Arabic audience at the Festival du Monde Arabe in Montreal, to some glitchy electronica ala Squarepusher at a late night rave.
What were you like growing up?
Being born on Halloween set me up for a lifelong love of monsters and the macabre. I grew up on Creature Double Features, Dark Shadows, the Twilight Zone…I was obsessed with Rod Serling. I was also very into nature, and was lucky to grow up at a time when there was more of it and less development. I grew up in the 70s and back then parents would basically send their kids out of the house and not expect you back till evening, and I thrived on that sort of independence.
My mother’s side of the family is Irish and from a young age she instilled in me a love of the weird and supernatural, like I was convinced I was in communication with the wee folk, the leprechauns. While none of my family played an instrument, there was always music around the house, and through her I was listening to Debussy, Sly and the Family Stone and Pavarotti from an early age. My dad was a pilot in the Marines and my earliest years were spent on various bases in North Carolina and Virginia. When I was eight the family moved to what was then a small town in rural Minnesota, and by the time I was eleven I had started playing guitar. Soon after that, sex, drugs and rock and roll entered the picture, and I formed a band with my friends: three guitar players and a drummer.
The high school had an old Gibson bass and Kustom bass amp, and I was asked to play in the stage band. Since I had access to the bass, I became the de facto bassist in our band. I soon realized how the bass was in fact the coolest instrument, and the guitar fell by the wayside. My record collection was mostly Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa at the time, but through Russ Korte, who was my high school art teacher, I got turned onto Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew”. That pretty much blew my mind, and soon after I was mostly listening to John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Harry Partch and stuff you’d have to say was pretty avant garde.
At lunch I’d be the strange kid in the band room, with the lights out, listening to 20th century classical music at high volume. I was always a little unusual I guess – more into dreams and the spirit world than sports, though I did love to play hockey. If you’ve ever seen “Donnie Darko”, that was pretty much me in my late teens. Photography and visual arts were about equal to music as far as my interests ran, but eventually music won out. Like Zappa said, ‘Music is the best.’ It cuts through all of the baggage and obfuscation that comes with culture and different nationalities like a laser-beam and connects to that which is intrinsically human, in a way that nothing else does.