Micro talks about Club d’Elf:
Why Club d’Elf? How did you come up with the name?
“I had a few names I was kicking around, with ‘Club d’Elf’ being a tribute to Terence McKenna. He spoke a lot about ‘self-transforming machine elves,’ so that aspect appealed to me. It also refers to ‘Extreme Low Frequencies,’ which is appropriate given the bass-heavy sound. Another reason is that if you say the name correctly it sounds like ‘clubbed elf,’ which I liked because it suggests something more sinister than some merry elves running around. But the deciding factor was Sandman. I ran the names I had by Mark, and he took a drag on his cigarette and held one of those long pauses he was famous for, tilted his head back, and finally pronounced, ‘Club d’Elf.’ With the Sandman seal of approval, that’s what I went with.”
Your floating cast of characters is pretty unusual for a regularly performing live band. Where did you get that idea and what did you hope to accomplish?
“My intention from the beginning was to incorporate all of the music I loved into one group, with all of the people I loved playing with. Obviously it had to be a loose structure, with a core band and then folks coming in and out as schedules allowed. I didn’t want it to just be like guests sitting in. When other musicians came in I wanted us to be like their band, I wanted them to feel comfortable enough to act like we were their rhythm section. Starting from the bass and drum axis, the idea was to establish a vocabulary of different groove concepts that we could flow in and out of – not in a chop-chop fashion, but something more organic.
When I was at Berklee I listened mostly to 20th Century classical and free jazz, and I wanted to hear that kind of energy over a groove. Eventually I came around to embracing trance music. Trance music in all its aspects has always been the underlying aesthetic of the band, that sense of losing time. Rather than for it to be jarring, it should be like a sand painting that’s continually transforming from one scene to another, disparate but connected.
Erik Kerr and Brahim Fribgane were key members in the beginning. How did they come into the picture?
“I met Erik Kerr through Mat Maneri in the mid 90s. Mat invited me to join his band House Of Brown, and Erik was the drummer. I was blown away by him for here was a guy who had the freeness of Sunny Murray as well as a backbeat like Clyde Stubblefield. When it was time to start Club d’Elf, I sought him out but it was pretty hilarious trying to get in touch with him – he was working as a counselor at a men’s half-way house in Dorchester and the only was to reach him was a public phone in the hallway. I’d call and get some dude who would shout down the hall for Erik, which was both frustrating and kind of appropriate in some weird way. When he decided to move back to Pittsburgh to take care of his parents, I was pretty freaked out. He was the one person I had worked longest and closest with, and the whole bass/drum connection was key to the sound, you know? Fortunately Dean (Johnston) came along, and he had been a big fan of the band and seen us a lot. He was a fan of Erik’s playing and it was a pretty seamless transition, as he came in knowing most of the tunes! I was just like…Ok, you’re the one.
“I met Brahim on a gig at The Cooler in NYC in early ’99, and we immediately had a connection. He moved to Boston soon after and after he joined the band we would rehearse at a church in Lexington. Erik had become a minister by this point, and we were able to play in the church where he worked, pretty much on the altar. The place had great acoustics, and it struck me how unusual it was that here we were in a Christian church, playing this Muslim prayer music. It all fit, though. It’s all about connecting to the spirit, and trance, and Brahim and Erik were always really respectful of each others’ traditions. I found it very inspiring and thought how cool it would be if the rest of the world could be so open.”
And later on came Mister Rourke?
“Yeah, he joined around 2002. Mister Rourke is our secret weapon. He gives the music a Dadaist slant – dropping in the most surreal shit, just something really unexpected, that has nothing to do with the rest of the music…it gives the musicians something thematic to build from – and most importantly, it cracks us up, which is good when we get too serious or too dark.”
As well as playing bass and fronting D’Elf, you are the conductor, cueing the musicians and so on. How does that work for you? What percentage of what you are trying to cue actually happens? If it’s less than 100%, how do you feel about the randomness of miscues?
“The control freak in me has a real hard time with miscues, but every show is an opportunity for me to change my relationship with what I think should happen. It’s a learning experience. Often the miscues are better than what I could have planned for myself. It’s about creating set of strategies that are meant to be subverted. It’s the subversions that are actually the interesting thing. It’s about reading the barometer as to where the spirits are taking us, and sometimes it will be very circuitous, it won’t have anything to do with what’s on the set list.
Supporting the players is not all about giving people only their comfort material. You can also thrust them out into the unknown. I think playing in this band gives some of the guys who also lead their own bands an opportunity to play in a way that they don’t necessarily get to do in other situations. They can take chances they ordinarily might not, and if it fails, hey – I’m the one who will take the blame! I’ve tried to create a feeling of family and of community, where the musicians feel comfortable knowing that whatever they bring in, there will be a place for it.”
What is your method of communicating to new players ‘the D’Elf way?’ What do you expect of them?
“We take the newbies out in the woods before the show…dark hoods, secret elixir, bury them in the earth.”
What would you like your listeners to get from listening to D’Elf? How do you respond when fans tell you what they get out of the music? Do people go into trance at your shows?
“I’d have to say I want their heart to be moved, as well as their body. You have to be ready for all the ramifications involved with moving people’s hearts, because people are in wildly varying levels of ability to handle the world. I appreciate that the music has helped some people to navigate through these troubled times. But I can’t focus on that, or take responsibility for it – it’s the music, it’s not about me. Everybody, the musicians and audience, have their own experience. For example, we were doing a show a few years back with Hassan Hakmoun, a performance for Mimouna, and this woman went into trance during our set. The cops came over, and thought she was on something. She fell on the ground, and fortunately there was a Moroccan doctor who told the cops that she was fine, that she was just in trance.”
“You have to be really responsible about the energies you invoke and call forth in working with trance. I’ve tried to keep that in mind with D’Elf. There’s a balance about going to the timeless realms in a club that closes at 1:30, you know? You want folks to go deep but then it’s time to leave, people!”
How is your bass playing different from 20 years ago? Your composing?
“When you see how bass affects people, how it affects dancers, you get the whole story – the audience provides the missing link. It shows the impact that those frequencies can have. You can’t argue with twenty years of moving booty around. When I first started, I tried to be clever and played way too much, but after twenty years I realize it’s better to be phat and stupid – that’s what gets people moving. That’s the secret of this band: the bass gets them in the sex parts which allows the music to invade their head parts.”
“My writing has gotten more Moroccan-oriented, definitely. I keep writing in five, which has an energy almost like an alien consciousness. It’s an irrational number, and I like to elongate it into a longer phrase which doesn’t hit you over the head that it’s an odd meter. I think about specific configurations and of certain players, and tend to program which tunes we play depending on who’s in the band that night. It’s great to challenge the players but I’ve realized its best for them to be comfortable, to be themselves, in order to get the best results. At the end of the day I want the musicians and the audience to have a good time. It’s not about what I need. Another thing that has changed is my sense of what service am I providing with the music? It’s not a Barton Fink kind of tortured artist thing…I want to help people along, give them a good experience, give them a chance to feel connected to the people around them and to a timeless realm, beyond this physical realm all around us, which right now, is a total bummer. It’s almost like going back to an older time, with the idea of us being court musicians – psychedelic court musicians – providing music for specific occasions. “
How has your relationship to playing music changed since you began?
“As I’ve gotten older, I have gotten more interested in the idea of creating village music, music for the people around you, providing a soundtrack for what people do as part of their everyday life. As a young musician you have that urge to change the world, and your vision can’t be corrupted by the demands of the marketplace or the demands of the audience. There’s definitely a balance, and I love that there are mavericks who’ve done crazy shit, people like Harry Partch who just create their own universe, the rest of the world be damned. I don’t necessarily want to do that. I don’t want to pander, but I do want to provide joy and beauty to the extent I can.”
Not to make you play favorites, but pick one musician who has played with D’Elf that stands out.
“Joe Maneri had a certain quality in a way that nobody else I’ve ever played with had. He wouldn’t even be holding the horn but would already be deep inside the music. He was clearly communing with the spirits – you can’t not be affected by that. He’d be speaking in tongues, and just taking it way out there! Without even playing a note he was affecting the way the rest of us would play. That was really revelatory to me, and so inspiring – I mean, I want to be like that! I want to get lost in the music that way. The whole thing is to be there in the moment, to be immersed in it. With Joe, the music started even before the gig started – it’s arbitrary that the audience is even there, it was just a state of being for him. To have the experience of having him there in the music – that was a high point.”
If you could play with any living musician (not for the money, but for the experience), who would it be? How about a dead one, assuming they are miraculously revived?
“I’ve always been fascinated by Brian Eno. He’s not a musician’s musicians, not a chops guy, but he finds strategies that bring out really amazing results in a wide range of players. He seems to have such a curiosity about the world and seems to reinvent himself and not get locked into any strict patterns. He would be a really cool person to produce a record for Club d’Elf…My Life in the Bush of Ghosts has always been so influential for me.”
“Sun Ra, definitely. I would love to play with him! I’ve always had a deep connection with dreams, dreaming about people and going to other dimensions in my dreams. I’ve had dreams about Sun Ra, and I feel like there was something he was passing on, something he was communicating to me. I have a connection to people in my dreams that is pretty intense, that goes beyond the material world. When people who are close to me die, I’ve been fortunate to be visited by them in dreams. After Sandman died, he came to me in a dream that was one of the more profound dreams I’ve ever had. But I digress. So Sun Ra would be one of my first choices. And Coltrane – that would be like touching god.”