Global Bass Online
June 2001
Mike Rivard ~ Boston’s Best

 In Press

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 is 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 playing.

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, Rinse, Repeat.'”

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 musical possessions!

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 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 commuting, 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. 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 began listening to Tom Fowler, Phil Lesh, John Paul Jones, and Jack Casady—you know, bassists 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 Barry Guy.

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 overall 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 that I’ve done, like Club d'Elf.

BAJ: How do you approach supporting a vocalist, versus supporting a lead instrument?

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 refocus.

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 rehearse 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 d'Elf.

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 been 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 light.

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 your 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.

-Brent-Anthony Johnson

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