Club dElfs Moroccan-dosed Trance Funk
Club d’Elf is one of the best-kept underground secrets of the music scene. Most likely, you’ve never seen them under that moniker, but chances are you’ve heard the work of their members. John Medeski, Roger Miller, Marc Ribot, Adam Deitch, Mark Sandman, all past co-conspirators within this cabal of musical elites. Over the course of eight live albums and one studio album, more than one hundred musicians have lent their unique sounds to the d’Elf stone soup. But who’s the ringleader of this whole operation? The bass player, naturally.
Mike Rivard has lead the rotating cast of musical vigilantes and curiosities through every show, sending seismic grooves throughout the East Coast music scene. The jams themselves are cosmic, well informed by both Moroccan traditions as well as by electrified sounds beamed back to us from the next century. Michael Caine’s character in Children of Men probably bumps this stuff through his compound nightly.
Though the tradition of improvisational groove music extends back decades, Club d’Elf is only just this year celebrating its tenth anniversary and to cull a decade of experience as well as cultivate a future decade of piloting through the sonic void, Mike Rivard is producing two new studio albums back to back for release in the next couple months. I was fortunate enough to share some words with the d’Elf grand wizard as he imparted to me the history of d’Elf, the challenges of transmuting a live experience into a studio album.
Luke Dennis- How did you envision the music of Club d’Elf when you started the group ten years ago, and how has your vision evolved to today?
Mike Rivard- The idea at the beginning was to fill a night at a local club the Lizard Lounge – and it just kind of exploded from there. The vibe was good, people enjoyed the music, and it was fun for the musicians. Originally the idea was to have a core group with special guests, and that idea has carried through, but over the years I've become the only remaining core person, for better or worse! There is more or less a "core" of repeat offenders, but it has shifted over the years. Originally it was Erik [Kerr] and now Dean [Johnston] on drums and Brahim [Fribgane] is around when he can be, as well as [turntablist] Mister Rourke.
I think the idea of the core is still there, but now it's just a little more amorphous, yet the philosophy behind the music has remained, and that is having the players think like a rhythm section, thinking about the groove first and foremost. We start from there and travel that fine line between listening and leaving space, and then tearing faces off when the moment is right. I really like guests to feel like the band is their backing band so that they feel free to really go for it. The musicians who play with the group are all great improvisers and great listeners, but you don't want somebody to come in and be too polite. You want somebody who's definitely going to listen and lay back when it's appropriate, but also take charge and trust the band will be there behind them and back them up to let them do their thing and tell their story as much as possible.
So, how much has changed? A lot and not that much. I think the sound has definitely changed a lot over the years, and with Brahim's involvement, the North African especially the Moroccan influences – have become more pronounced, and I'm playing the sintir [guimbri, hejhouj] more. I feel like we have created this vocabulary that has absorbed all these other elements like Gnawa, drum 'n' bass, funk, etc. But hopefully we have created something that is uniquely d'Elf-like with all those disparate elements. I think in its initial days it was perhaps jammier and not as interesting, whereas now there is more of a rich complexity that comes when these flavors have had a chance to mingle within the band.
LD- How would you describe your sound now to the uninitiated?
MR- It's really hard to say and that's one of the things that's made it very difficult to promote the band. Music has become so regimented into very strict boundaries. Even within the boundaries there are subgenres and subgenres of those. We've called it "Moroccan-dosed trance funk" dub-jazz is another label that's been used. I think it's open music that starts from the groove. It's really dependent upon whoever is playing with the band that night. The sound can change pretty dramatically from show to show depending on if someone like Brahim is there or Reeves Gabrels or Mat Maneri, or [Dave] Tronzo, or whoever. Basically, it's Trance Music, but not in the strict electronica sense, like Paul Oakenfold. I'd like to think its good music, you know, like Duke Ellington said, there's good music and bad music and I hope we're in the former category.
LD- Are there any main influences that you started with or that you’re now trying to steer the band towards?
MR- The stuff that Miles Davis was doing from '68 on has always been a pretty strong reference point. Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, The Cellar Door and all that. That started as an influence, and that remains. Talking Heads, the stuff they did with Brian Eno, Remain in Light, that sort of African-influenced minimalist funk. Steve Reich has always been an influence, especially his interest in, and assimilation of African music. James Brown of course, especially the In The Jungle Groove era. Gnawa music, people like Hassan Hakmoun and Mahmoud Ghania. Those are big influences for me, especially with playing the sintir. I'd have to mention Led Zeppelin, DJ Shadow, Squarepusher, Sun Ra & Frank Zappa as other big reference points. Also Dave Holland has been a huge influence, not only as a bass player but as a writer as well, with the way he incorporates odd meters and different world influences with jazz. The rhythm section of Charles Mingus and Dannie Richmond has always been an inspiration for the way that I interact with the d'Elf drummers and how we try and create different groove environments to put behind the other musicians.
Non-musical influences include sci-fi from people like Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. We love comedy, stuff like Mr. Show, Firesign Theater, George Meyer's Army Man that kind of psychedelic humor. Directors like David Lynch and the Bros Quay, and old Fleischer Bros cartoons from the 30s. And of course people like Terence McKenna, Alexander Shulgin & Robert Anton Wilson. I don't knowI could go on for days.
LD- You released your first studio album, Now I Understand, in 2006 eight years after d’Elf got started. And now you already have two albums cooking up just two years later. Why the quick turnaround?
MR- It's like (Terence)McKenna said: time appears to be speeding up as the incursion of novelty increases and all that. NIU took so long partly because the technology wasn't really as in place as it is now. We started out old-school recording on 2" analog and then moved on to DA-88s and ADATs, you know, the first generation of digital tape machines, and that just takes so much longer than what you can do now. Tom Dube recorded a lot of the older stuff and he was a wizard with the DA-88, but still once ProTools came out, the whole paradigm shifted with the way you could see the wave form. You could actually see what the music looked like, and that changed everything. It makes things a lot easier because our studio process involves a lot of editing and "splicing" shit together. To do that in the old days, all you had were ABS numbers on the tape machine to go by, and you couldn't see what you were doing, whereas now with ProTools, Logic, and Digital Performer and all the other recording programs you can see the music. I think it's safe to say that that has been a pretty radical change to happen in recording , you know?
Also, the way that Club d'Elf interprets the concept of time, its not really a linear thing as much as the cyclical thing that the Mayans describe and McKenna speaks of, with time moving in different directions. One track may have started eight, nine years ago, and then something is added to it a few years later. Some of the stuff on the next couple CDs was done around the time of Now I Understand, and some is more recent, but it all still sounds cohesive, I think, like there's some common thread that links all the music. There is so much stuff in the can that I just try and find stuff that works together thematically and has a particularly cohesive vibe, and then focus on and add stuff to those tracks.
I'm really excited about a couple of the newer tracks that we've done. We recently did a version of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love", with a Moroccan cha'abi groove, and Hassan Hakmoun sings the song in Moroccan Arabic. It's going to be huge in Morocco! Some of the other ones are more like audio chain letters: we'll start a basic track and then put it to bed for a while, and then someone will come up with an idea and it gets pulled out, or someone becomes available to play and does something on it, and it becomes a whole new thing and may go in an entirely new direction.
I guess you could say most of the studio tracks are a combination of old and new material, but like I said, time is different for us. That figures into our mode of rehearsal as well. The way the band works is mostly we don't get to rehearse as a group, but I do get together with the drummer to work on the grooves so that that element is tight. The rehearsal aspect happens over time, where people play a particular tune on a gig and then maybe a year or so later that tune might come up again and there's sort of a distant memory of it in the players mind. Dreams! It's like dreams, where memory gets a littlefunny. It's kind of that way with the studio recording, too. I don't think there's more than a handful of tracks that have ever all happened at once in a short period of time. They've all taken a long time to grow and expand upon. Good or bad? Dunno. It's just the way the studio stuff unfolds.
LD- How different is the d’Elf experience in the studio from a live setting?
MR- Very. In the studio there's not an audience that you can draw energy from. You're not responding to a crowd, it's just the musicians and the engineer. But I think we do draw upon the live experience in playing whatever song we're working on and incorporate some of the ideas that worked live and create a sort of meta-version of the song. The songs change and mutate in live performance, and when you're in the studio it's a process of setting down an imprint of one version that doesn't change once it's worked its way through the abattoir. Before that happens though, each studio track has gone through a lot of different metamorphoses, so there are many, many different versions of each track. We could put out a whole CD that just contains multiple versions of one track as it happened over time in the studio, but maybe that will have to wait until we are huge and can entertain such ideas!
Generally in the studio, the way I like to start is with as many people playing together as possible. I think the most we were ever able to manage at one time was seven. Lately it’s been three, maybe four. Sometimes it's just me and the drummer laying a basic track, and from there I'll edit together bits from different versions and have other people add parts. Generally that process is having the overdubbing musician play many different tracks on one song, then I'll go through and sift and edit, combine different things that they did and try to find where the magic happens. It's really interesting when there are these synchronistic moments where someone will play something that will totally match what someone else has played on the track even though they haven't heard what that other person's part is. It's like the quantum physics theorem about two molecules continuing to influence each other even though they've traveled to opposite sides of the universe. I guess its consciousness or some sort of innate energy that we don't quite yet understand that's at work. The elves, maybe?
LD- When you write for the band, are you thinking ahead to how it might sound with certain members or instruments?
MR- Sometimes, yeah. I think about the players that are involved and sometimes I'll write with someone in mind. A song like "Softly" was written with Duke Levine in mind, for example. Generally we only play that song if Duke is on the gig. There are tunes like that that I just associate with certain players because it brings out something in their playing that really enhances the song. And then there are tunes that don't have any one person in mind. So the answer is, "yes and no." Like most things that you can say about Club d'Elf, the opposite is also true.
LD- Are there musicians out there you’d like to bring into the mix in the future?
MR- Well, we're going to play with G. Calvin Weston on our upcoming tour, which is great. He's a drummer that I'd seen play with James Blood Ulmer back in the day and later met through Medeski and Billy Martin. Jack DeJohnnette's another drummer that I would love to play with. Other folks who I think would fit really well with d'Elf are people like Bjork, Brian Eno, Debashish Battacharya, Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Bernie Worrell. I've talked to Jamie Saft and hopefully we'll be able to hook something up. There are so many the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Konono No. 1, Nels Cline, Thom Yorke I'd also love to work with some other producers like Bill Laswell or Jon Brion, or someone like Luke Vibert or Tom Jenkinson.
LD- Can you describe the balance between how whatever lineup you might be playing with influences the direction of the music and how the music influences the lineup you bring to a given gig?
MR- I think it goes both ways. It's definitely a dynamic situation. When I'm putting together a lineup I try to think about people who play well together and enhance each other. There are certain musical relationships that have formed that I like to take advantage of but then there are also situations where you put together seemingly really weird combinations that on paper look pretty unlikely. An example is Reeves Gabrels with Joe and Mat Maneri. I think that actually worked out amazingly well. I'll have an idea of what tunes would work for a given lineup, but I'm often surprised. What I try to do is act like a tour guide and pull the bus over at interesting places and just let everybody roll out and take their time and experience the musical environment as they see fit, while I get out of the way.
I think it helps to have one person conducting and facilitating things, but I really don't want it to be all about me. I certainly don't take a lot of bass solos and I don't want to sit there and wank off in front of the band. I've been a bass player for long enough that I realize the function of the instrument is first and foremost one of support, and I try to direct the music from the bottom without getting in the way too much. There are a lot of great players that take the bass to the front, and I think there's definitely a time and a place for that, but for the most part I'm really comfortable with my role in the rhythm section, as someone who's backing up the other musicians.
I just like to lead the music to a certain place and then get out of the way and see what happens, and let the other players respond. My favorite moments are the ones I don't plan at all, the ones that just grow and transform out of the music, those moments when the band is firing on all cylinders and really playing together and listening and creating something that's never been played before.
LD- Any moments like that in all the gigs you’ve played in the past decade that really stand out?
MR- The first time we played in Japan. That was pretty amazing, especially because we had some immigration problems with Brahim. He wasn't able to travel with us, and he didn't show up until an hour before the show. I wasn't even sure if he was going to make it at all and when he did, his arrival was just such an ecstatic moment, and it made that performance really joyous for me. Not to mention just being in Japan for the first time and playing to an entirely new audience that was really receptive. Another favorite moment is one that was on our first live CD, As Above (Live Archive, 2000) with Joe and Mat Maneri and Reeves. The last track on there is "Divine Invasion." That ending piece was an improvisation that Joe started. It was kind of like a requiem, this beautiful energy that just flowed from him while the rest of the band picked it upit rose for a minute or so, and then dissolved into silence, and then he laughed, just this perfect child-like laugh that summed it all up. It's kind of a perfect moment for me, and I think one of the defining Club d'Elf moments.
LD- What was the intention behind dividing the new studio tracks into two separate albums?
MR- Originally it was going to be one CD, a follow up to Now I Understand with some of the more Moroccan tracks mixed in with the more electronic tracks. But after a while it seemed as if it was too all over the map and I wanted to retain a particular vibe or thematic sound, so it split into two: the Moroccan disc which features Brahim and has some songs of his as well as arrangements of traditional Moroccan music and some compositions of mine that are inspired by Moroccan rhythms; whereas the other disc represents the more electronic and funky side of the band, including some d’Elf-ified versions of old Alan Lomax-recorded blues and spirituals. It has a couple of tracks with Mark Sandman [bassist and singer from Morphine] recorded a few months before he passed away, so I’m excited about getting those out. I think it’s a side of Mark that not too many people have heard, with him playing with an African chief of the Dagbon tribe of Ghana, and DJ Logic as well. He plays guitar on one track and tritar and two string slide bass on the other. I guess the second disc is closer in sound and conception to Now I Understand, with some of the music dating from that era. It's got a lot of the same people: (John) Medeski, Mat (Maneri), Duke (Levine), Gerry Leonard, Alain Mallet, Tom Hall, Jerry Leake, Jere Faisona whole lot of folks.
We don't really discuss this stuff, but one aspect of the band that is really interesting to me at least, is the fact that so many religious faiths are represented and embraced. Brahim is a Muslim, Erik is a Christian minister, Jeff (Mister Rourke) is Jewish, and I guess I represent the Eleusinian Mystery cult contingent, so there's a whole lot of tolerance going on, and that's just the core folks. It's especially interesting to me that we come together in the common aim of trance, of losing ourselves in ecstatic expression of the ineffable. Every faith has a link to some trance-based ceremonial practices, and our shows have been described as "non-denominational revival meetings." It's nothing formal, or even as I say spoken about, but I think it's something that both band member and audience are aware of. The new CDs especially the Moroccan one highlight this aspect more than anything we've done.
I learn so much from these guys and am so inspired that someone like Erik, who has a deep Christian faith, can play with Brahim and deal with the fact that he is singing about Allah in the songs that he sings, and accept and celebrate it. And vice versa with Brahim. It doesn't seem to me to take a whole lot of insight to realize that one of the greatest threats facing the world today is religious intolerance – especially fundamentalism of all kinds – and I guess this is our humble little offering towards a global effort at cooperation and respect of other cultures. It's hard to speak of these things without sounding terribly pretentious, and this is just my view, but there it is.
One of the things that I hope comes out of the release of the new CDs is d'Elf going to Morocco to play, for that would just be the coolest thing ever. We played at the Festival du Monde de Arabe in Montreal last fall and I see that sort of thing cultural festivals and events as a natural place for us. We are a unique organism and haven't made much of a big noise up til now, so most people don't know about us, but we are going to see what we can do to change that. Stay tuned.