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Published: 2006/11/21
by Mike Greenhaus

Defining Club d’Elf

Club d’Elf may technically refer to collective of likeminded musicians, but, when boiled down to its essentials, the group is in actuality a personification of Mike Rivard. Since organizing Club d’Elf for a series of gigs at Boston’s Lizard Lounge in the 1990s, the bassist has played with a striking number of noted musicians, including John Medeski, DJ Logic, Billy Martin, Reeves Gabrels, Mat Maneri, Duke Levine, Gerry Leonard, Alain Mallet, Adam Deitch, Aron Magner, Mister Rourke, Tom Hall, Jerry Leake, Jere Faison, and Erik Kerr, among others. Along the way, Rivard has also brought a number of his collaborators into the studio, the results of which are documented on Club d’Elf’s first studio album, Now I Understand. Below Rivard clues onto Club d’Elf’s evolution, his longstanding friendship with John Medeski, and the reason he thinks lyrics are sometimes distracting.

MG- After so many years of recording why release this album in 2006?

MR- I came to the realization last April that if I was going to release this album I should do it soon. CD stores are going out of business—-Tower just closed—-and even the concept of the CD going away. Everything is going to mp3 and iTunes. I love albums, the tactile feel of them. I loved dropping a needle onto a record and hearing that sound. Some of that experience transferred over to the CD. iPods are great, but there is an exchange that’s missing. There is something to be said about listing to one album, so I was tried to tie-up these loose ends and master Bill Laswell’s contributions and MMW’s material. But, even when it was mastered at the end of last year, we were still in the studio. Recording is an ongoing thing for us and will continue to be. So, I have these collected tracks and now I am trying to get them out.

MG- The material on Now I Understand was recorded over an eight year period. What was the process of sifting through these songs sketches and, ultimately, finalizing the album like?

MR- Well, this is actually the first of three different studio albums we plan to release, so the first thing we did was sort of organize each disc by genre. This disc has a lot of improvisational songs, some dub, trance, and these dark textures. The next disc spotlights [oud player] Brahim Fribgane and has much more of the Moroccan sound which has permeated our music over the last few years. Brahim brought in some songs he has written and we also did some traditional Moroccan music. He also introduced me to this band called Nass el Ghiwane. They were kind of like the Moroccan Beatles. Not that they played pop music, but that they were as popular as the Beatles. They were kind of the first Moroccan band to use indigenous instruments and play folk music from around the country. Their music is really politically charged. The third disc is not that dissimilar from Now I Understand, but there is a master drummer from Ghana on it and we added some more pop elements. Some of the trance elements are there too since it was recorded around the same time as Now I Understand. It also still has Medeski on it and some of the other guests from Now I Understand. If I had to describe it, I’d say it is a little lighter than Now I Understand, which is kind of like the dark side. We thought we’d hit them over the head with the dark and then, ah, give them the light.

MG- How permanent is Club d’elf’s current touring lineup?

MR- It’s always kind of every changing, but whenever possible it features
Erik Kerr (drums), Brahim Fribgane (oud), Mister Rourke, and, occasionally,
Adam Deitch or Eric Kalb. I am really the only who one is guaranteed, for better for worse [laughs].

MG- John Medeski is one of the group’s best known satellite members. How did you two first connect?

MR- I met him in ’87 when he was studying at the New England Conservatory and I was at Berklee. We were both in saxophonist Russ Gershon’s Either/Orchestra and toured around the country, bonding on various trips and have been friends ever since.

MG- As you mentioned earlier, your bass is the one consistent element to Club d’elf’s sound. What role does your instrument fulfill onstage?

MR- I started out playing rock-and-roll and was inspired by bassists like John Paul Jones, Jack Bruce, Jack Cassidy, and Phil Lesh. Then I started getting into jazz and stated listening to various people who had played with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and, over time, I started listening to Tony Levin, King Crimson, and more avant-garde material. Bill Laswell has been a more recent influence. I have always been attracted to bassists who are really part of the song’s foundation and really play the groove. I mean I love to hear players who push the limits and play more solos, but what I connect with is more foundational. In our music the bass is almost like a constant loop throughout a song.

MG- One of the most noted engineers on the album is Scotty Hard. Can you talk a bit about your sessions together?

MR- He mixed a bunch of different sessions, some dating back to these sessions we did at Q Division Studios in ’98. We went into the studio and recorded live with up to seven different people including DJ Logic and John Medeski. They’ve been mixed in with so many different tracks it’s kind of like an architect digging through ruins, piecing together what is from each session [laughs]. He kind of came in at the end and mixed a few tracks, including “Bass Beatbox,” “Quilty,” and “Vishnu Dub.” We’ve worked together in the past where he has been a little more involved on the ground level, but, on these tracks, he worked his magic on the material after it was already committed to tape.

MG- Describe the process of melding these tracks together?

MR- Well, part of what took so long was piecing these tracks together. I could probably release a whole CD of different mixes of each of these tracks because, when you have as much information or as many people as are featured on this disc, I could make a different mix of a single song highlighting Medeski’s organ or Brahim’s oud. So, I really explored a lot of these different possibilities. I spent a lot of time listening to each track, combining different tracks, and finding a thread of continuity. If something needed to be changed, I’d raise the level of one instrument, so it was kind of like building with Legos—-seeing what fit, what didn’t, and trying out different possibilities. The end result is what’s committed to the disc.

Some of the album’s tracks were also part of the live show already. “Bass Beatbox,” for instance, we had been doing for a number of years. That and “Now I Understand” we put out on a live CD a few years back. But a track like “What Would Cthulhu Do?,” on the other hand, came out of a improvisational studio session. In between takes we’d kind of fool around. Brahim was playing around with his oud and we improvised around that. We went down to Brooklyn to record with Medeski at his Shacklyn space. I said, “play whatever you want,” and he put down a mellotron track and then Mister Rourke added some scratches to it. So, it was almost like a musical chain letter, with this rhythmic core idea which people added to. Then I took the tapes and sifted through this material until I came up with the final product.

MG- One of the albums’ best tracks, “A Toy For A Boy,” is also one of the few lyrical numbers in Club d’Elf’s repertoire. Do you generally prefer instrumental music over lyrical songs?

MR- Don’t get me wrong, I love singers and good lyrics, but with this group words are almost a distraction. So, usually, I don’t want to incorporate words into our songs, unless they really stand out to me. “A Toy For A Boy” is actually an old tune from the Ray Charles Singers, which I heard it on a mix tape many years ago. When I first heard it, I thought it
was written for me. There is disconnect between the music and lyrics and it immediately resonated with me. On the next record there are some old Moroccan and spiritual songs. If I can understand what a lyric is it’s a let down. That’s what I loved about Led Zeppelin’s lyrics. They were more about the lyrical sound, which allows you to imagine what a song is about. I think [Robert] Hunter is also a great lyricist, who evokes some great imagery, but Club is more abstract.

_Mike Greenhaus stores his typos, nocturnal reflections, and digital neurosis at

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