Club d’Elf is an ever-shifting phenomenon — a musical ensemble of rotating membership led by convener Mike Rivard. Onstage he’ll sometimes stand in a circle of musicians, anchoring an improvisation-heavy performance on his basses and sintir, a three-stringed Moroccan instrument.
Collaborators pass into the d’Elf orbit with varying frequency, adding doses of jazz, electronic music, funk, and avant-rock. Woven into the collective’s DNA is the influence of Brahim Fribgane, a Casablanca native who years ago schooled Rivard in some west and north African folk styles.
“You Never Know,” out Friday, is just Club d’Elf’s third studio album since Rivard conjured the project in 1998. It reflects his dark journey of recent years.
But he fell into a years-long depression. The soft-spoken, deeply thoughtful musician values his privacy, and told only a few people what was going on — though he occasionally had silent panic attacks onstage, mid-performance.
He dove deeply into Moroccan gnawa music, finding healing meditation playing sintir in the centuries-old style. (In more cheerful times, Rivard sometimes played sintir by Jamaica Pond.) “You Never Know” is not a declaration of victory over mental illness, but a deeply felt expression of endurance and tribute to musical forebears who influenced the group.
Club d’Elf’s trans-millennial aesthetic blooms on new track “Lalla Aisha in Jhaptal.” It includes parts of a Gnawa tune Rivard learned from master player Hassan Hakmoun, which Rivard set to a 10-beat cycle borrowed from Hindustani classical music. As John Medeski funks out on clavinet, Mister Rourke scratches records, David Fiuczynski sprays the cosmos with fretless electric guitar, and drummer Dean Johnston gallops toward the sunrise, the result is anything but an academic exercise. It’s a banger.
Q. What happened after you got past the pulmonary embolism?
A. I’ve always had a bit of the Irish sadness — there’s a melancholy that’s informed my music. But this was a whole other thing. Everything I enjoy just went away. I was off in the wilderness. I felt like I was an imposter and a charlatan.
Q. How did this affect your music?
A. During my depression I began focusing on getting deep into Gnawa music in a way that I hadn’t up til then. I’ve been playing the sintir for over 20 years now and Gnawa music has obviously always been a huge influence, as it’s the tradition in which the instrument originates. But as a white, Western male, I’ve been very cognizant of the cultural appropriation aspect of playing this music. So in the beginning I first started using the sintir for my own devices — coming up with my own riffs, composing my own music on it, imagining what (Mark) Sandman would do if he had the instrument – rather than trying to play songs from the tradition.
Chronic insomnia was part of my experience with depression. I couldn’t sleep, and learning to play note-for-note what people like Mustapha Baqbou played became a way of having something to focus on in those pre-dawn hours when all seemed dark and hopeless. Gnawa is all about trance, and repetition is an essential aspect of trance. That was really helpful to keep my brain from gnawing on itself.
Q. What sort of treatment did you seek out for your depression?
A. I did all the homeopathic and holistic stuff and lots of talk therapy. I volunteered for a study at Mass General Hospital using trans-LED therapy. The idea was using LED lights to excite parts of the brain. The thing that really turned things around for me was experimental ketamine infusion therapy. That was kind of a reboot for my brain chemistry.
Q. Were you still recovering when you recorded the album?
A. Going into the studio was kind of my Hail Mary to see if I still had anything in me. I had a lot of trepidation going into it, even though I was through the darkest part. This album was inspired by just kind of coming through all that and feeling like I still had something worth saying.
In the midst of the deepest parts of the depression there was just the sense that it’s eternal — that life is always going to be like this. By talking about my experience, my hope is that I can help someone who’s in that place, just by showing that there’s a place beyond it. Maybe I can offer a ray of hope.
Interview was edited and condensed. For details on upcoming shows, go to clubdelf.com/shows.
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.