-Shawn Dos Santos
An Interview with Mike Rivard
Pt 1 (see original text here):
PART 1 OF 3
Mike Rivard is the driving force behind some of the best music that you may have never heard of. He assembled his group Club d’Elf as a forum for live dub-trance-groove excursions, incorporating electronica, hip hop, funk, and free jazz as well as Moroccan and West African trance traditions.
If that description sounds tough to categorize, well maybe that’s because it is. But who needs boundaries anyways. Mike Rivard is carving out his own voice, something daring and innovative but warm enough to seem vaguely familiar.
I got a chance to sit down and have a couple slices of pizza with Mike at Crazy Dough’s on Boylston. We talked about his time in Boston, musical influences and old friends.
Hello Mike, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to share some pizza and to answer a few questions.
Sure, my pleasure. Mike Rivard at your service.
Q: Mike, could you please tell us a little about your history as a musician.
A: I first started playing guitar when I was about eleven or so. I found myself in a typical situation where you join a band and there are three guitar players and a drummer… no bass player. The school I was going to had an old Gibson SG bass and a Kustom amp, one of those roll top models. So I would take that home on the weekends and practice and started playing in stage band. And when ever there would be a concert band piece that would have electric bass, like a Christmas type thing or a Pink Panther medley, I’d get it out for that. I just started to play the bass more and the guitar less. I started focusing on that instrument more in the music that I was listening to and noticed that it was the bass that really kind of directed things. It was really the focus. It’s not always necessarily the most flashy thing but it really guides the music harmonically and rhythmically. I was attracted to players that were kind of adventurous on the instrument like, at that time I was listening to the Grateful Dead with Phil Lesh and Jack Cassady with Jefferson Airplane. So the bass seemed like a good instrument. I think that over all if you want to get gigs, it’s a better instrument to play then the guitar. I was playing the saxophone at that time too, but that kind of fell by the way side.
Then when I came out to Berklee, after a couple years here I started to play the double bass. Since then I have just continued playing both double bass and electric bass. I recently started playing the sintir, a Moroccan lute used in Gnawa music.
When I came out to Berklee I got involved in playing with Russ Gershon, the leader of the Either/Orchestra, he was in a class of mine. A survey of Mingus class, like the different periods of Mingus’ music. For my final project I transcribed some Mingus solos and brought my bass into class and played them. Russ had just started this band, they had done a gig or two but their bassist had just left town so he asked me to play with them. That is how I got started playing in the local scene, with Either/Orchestra. Mark Sandman, Russ Gershon and Tom Halter were also playing in a group called the Hypnosonics, which I later became a member of. John Medeski was in the Either/Orchestra at that time and a lot of other great musicians came through the band too. So that is really how I became involved in the local scene.
One of the other bands that I played with early on that kind of led to a lot of other situations was The Story. It was a folk duo with Jonatha Brooke and Jennifer Kimball. I was part of the backing band that they put together. They would normally tour as a duo, but we would play with them on record and do the occasional gig as well as the occasional tour with them. Through that band I met a bunch of people like Duke Levine and Alain Mallet, who was producing the records at that time. That band led to a lot of work in that scene, so I’ve done a lot of playing in the folk and folk-rock world. I think The Story was a really popular group for a lot of musicians. People are always talking about “Angel In The House” and different Story albums that they really like. I started getting calls to play with people like Patti Larkin, Dar Williams, Shawn Colvin and different folk. At the same time I was also playing with a group called Natraj that I am still a member of. Natraj does a lot of North Indian classical and West African music as well as jazz. And then the Hypnosonics, the group with Mark, I joined that band around ’87 or ’88 and played with them up until the time of his death. And I also played with Mighty Sam McClain’s group in the early ’90s. I was really fortunate to play in a lot of different situations. I didn’t pigeon hole myself. Although people in those scenes might only know me as the folk rock player or the Indian jazz bass player, the dub bass player or whatever. Playing the bass has afforded me the opportunity to check out many different types of music.
People are always looking for bass players. Even if you don’t know a particular style that well, you can still sometimes get the gig and get exposed to a different kind of music. So, on any given night I would be playing with a singer/song writer or doing something extremely avant garde… like I was in a band back around that time that Mat Maneri led called House of Brown. He was also playing in Natraj. House of Brown was really ahead of it’s time. He was working with a lot of samples and micro-tonal music, just a really dark ambient, kind of funk music.
Q: Around what time was that?
A: It was in the early 90’s, around ’92. Yeah, around there. That band was only around for a couple of years. We only did a few gigs. We rehearsed a lot, but we didn’t really play out a lot. It was kind of a secret band, just like the Hypnosonics. Mark would often joke when we would play that nobody should ever say that they saw us because he wanted to keep it a secret band. A few of the songs predated Morphine but it was always the unrecorded group. He would often try out material that would later be recorded with Morphine. We played at the Knitting Factory once around 1997. That is how I met Dave Tronzo, who has recently started playing with Club d’Elf. He played for a group called Spanish Fly [a defunct trio which included Steven Bernstein and Marcus Rojas] that was playing the same bill. But other then that gig in New York the Hypnosonics were just a local phenomenon. We would do gigs here whenever everyone was around. It was entirely just a bunch of friends playing. That is how I got to know Mark.
Q: How do you think these experiences have influenced you as a musician and as a performer?
A: Playing with all those different bands gave me a really valuable experience in playing different styles of music and not limiting myself. I can do an R&B cover, I can do a rock thing, I can play in a funk band. I understand the musical tenants of those styles and can operate within those areas. I think it is really important as a musician to be broadly grounded like that. To have that kind of experience, especially when you play with a master musician; someone like Mighty Sam [McClain] – people who are at the top of their game. I paid close attention to what they were doing. Mark [Sandman] was a big influence on me. I would have to say that he is one of the 3 main influences on my playing. He was always giving me shit about filling too much or playing too busy. He was very into
minimalism. I mean obviously, he took the strings off of his bass. The guy played a two string bass. And I would kind of wrestle with that. “Well, Bootsy [Collins] did this and that.” And he was like, “No just play less, don’t fill”. I think that is the kind of wisdom that comes as you get older. When you are younger you have more to prove and you tend to play more. As the years have gone by I have realized the sageness of his advice. Rather then filling, when the music gets to a certain point where the tendency is to play more and fill, if everybody is doing that it gets very thick and cloudy and the groove suffers. If rather then filling, you remain silent you create a hole for another instrument. That’s a hipper route to take, or at least that’s what I’m attracted to. So, playing with Mark and the Hypnosonics was really good for me, as well as getting to work with Morphine in the studio playing double bass on some of their recordings.
Also, I learned a lot from Russ [Gershon] about leading a band and taking them on the road and working with the musicians and rehearsing. I think Russ was kind of a mentor to all of us back then. I respect him a lot.
Q: It seems like you received more practical experience from the road rather then from music school. Would that be a correct statement?
A: Yeah, well I think that is generally what happens. You learn a certain aspect of music in school but that is not the whole story. Certainly not the whole picture. You learn pretty quickly that there is much more to it. A lot of it is just about life and how you take the language you learn and how you develop stories and meaningful statements out of it. There is far more then running through scales or playing your favorite licks as fast as you can. There is nothing more pathetic then somebody who comes right out of school and is just running all over the instrument and not listening.
As far as school is concerned you’ve got to go through a picking and choosing period where you decide, “this is going to work for this type of situation, this is not going to work”. And just because there is a thought in your head or an idea, that doesn’t mean that it has to come out. The greatest musicians are so amazing because of the spaces that they leave. If you listen to Miles, he lets bars go by without even playing a note. Or guys like Wayne Shorter. That’s so important. It is a whole other color… that space you allow the other instruments. That rich sound palette that is going on behind your instrument. And learning to listen, because that is the other thing that touring and playing out teaches you. It’s you not focusing on your own instrument so much. When you are in school it is all about being in the woodshed and playing through all the material
for your instrument. But you don’t want to focus on all that, when you are playing in a band. You want to focus on the instruments around you.
Especially as a bass player, the traditional roll for that is support. It’s fundamental. That is one of the great things that playing with all of these people taught me, how to support a singer or how to support another instrument rather then being the focal point.
Pt 2 (see original text here):
Q: You are an experimental bassist, using alligator clips and different techniques when you play. Could you elaborate on these techniques and maybe point out their origins.
A: Well, I’m not the first person to do that kind of stuff. John Cage is probably the originator of what they call preparing an instrument. In the forties he wrote a series of pieces for prepared piano.
Q: It was coins wasn’t it?
A: Coins and pieces of metal and different objects. He was very specific in the materials that he used and where to put them. It turned the instrument into a completely different sounding beast. It was more along the lines of a percussion orchestra, or a gamelan orchestra. I remember listening to his records and thinking to myself that this is the coolest thing. There is a British free-jazz guitar player named Derek Bailey who was doing a lot of things like preparing the guitar using old strings and stuff. There is also a British bass player named Barry Guy, an upright player, who I saw play, and he was doing a lot of things with mallets and such. To me it just seemed like a natural thing. Here you have an instrument that has unlimited tonal capabilities. Why not use what ever is available to get new sounds out of it!
Then I heard Bill Laswell playing with alligator clips on his strings. You know, I just think that it is part of the vocabulary by now. And it’s cheap! It’s cheaper then buying an effects pedal. You can just go to Radio Shack and spend a couple bucks and buy a bag of alligator clipsâ€¦ and it’s like a ring modulator. It changes the whole pitch relationship of the strings. You get different resulting pitches based on where you put your finger. Where you put your fingers on the finger board is not necessarily the pitch that you are going to get.
I really love that chaos factor. I’ve done it long enough that I have a certain idea of what it is going to sound like, where I put it. But there is still a lot of spontaneity involved. I am just very attracted to that chaos. Sometimes the music needs to go in another area and putting the clips on can be a catalyst. I like to take it to a realm where it is not so key-center-oriented. Sometimes my bass lines can become very repetitive in a key center, but it is not necessarily where I want everyone else to go. I like the harmonic aspect but sometimes if everyone is crowded around the same key center putting the alligator clips is a good way to scatter that. So that is where that came from.
There is a song that we play called â€œBass BeatBoxâ€ that started from putting a stick in the strings of the acoustic bass in such a way that I could get this E major 7 chord. And then I slap the bass at the same time. Sometimes the effect suggests a musical phrase or a song or something. I try to incorporate this into my loop style of bass playing. I want to be able to use it in a rhythmic moving fashion rather then having it as a sound effect. I incorporate it into my playing as if I were using a pick or whatever. It is just another technique that is available.
Q: Well I have noticed that your ability to introduce these ideas not only causes your bandmates to have to refocus and pay closer attention. It would seem that your audience would have to do the same.
A: Right. Just playing the double bass in a situation like that requires people to keep it to a certain level in order to hear the instrument. It is hard to amplify the instrument to a degree that it cuts through everything else. Especially if you are using extended techniques with the strings and doing things like slapping the bass.
Yeah, that is not the focal point for why I do it, to get everyone to focus on the instrument. It is really just a texture. It’s a sound that is in the instrument. And whatever it takes to get it out, whether it is putting an electric drill on it or whatever, I’m willing to do it. I just think that at this point in music everything is game. Everything is permitted. Why not use whatever is available?
Q: As a progressive musician, I’m sure that you are aware that many of the voices of the future are steeped in the past. What are some of your biggest influences?
A: Well, when I first started playing I was a total white-trash rock kid living in Minnesota. You know, Led Zeppelin was pretty much it for me. Foghat, Black Sabbath, Grand Funkâ€¦ stuff like that. But I was always attracted to musicians who it seemed were just going for it. They were just balls-to-the-wall NYAAARRRGGGHH! Just going for it.
I grew up in a small town where there was not a lot of progressive music exposure but I had an art teacher who turned me onto Miles [Davis] â€œBitches Brewâ€. And through him I started checking out more artists of the day. There was a college radio station that came out of Northfield, Minnesota where I first heard [John] Coltrane, Fela [Kuti], Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell.
From this, I started to realize that there is other stuff out there. It was not easy to find, but it was out there. At the time the internet didn’t exist and it was all about mail ordered record catalogues. There was a place called Wayside Music in Maryland that specialized in improvised and avante garde music and I started ordering a bunch of different stuff from them. From there, I just started digging in, getting into bands like The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra, Capt. Beefheart & His Magic Band, Steve Reich & King Crimson. And I was also able to see some of these bands when they came through Minnesota. I saw Sun Ra and the Art Ensembleâ€¦ and it was extremely influential on me to see this kind of music. I just tried to be a sponge and absorb it, not really thinking about excluding different styles. I think some times people get into a rut where they only listen to one style of music. And I guess I never really saw any contradictions in listening to Frank Zappa one minute, Pink Floyd the next and then Art Ensemble another dayâ€¦ and even Grand Funk. It’s all music.
As far as that having influenced me as a bass player, and having absorbed all this different musicâ€¦ it’s like speaking different languages. It’s like speaking French one minute then Spanish then English. I can play a [Black] Sabbath tune and then go into whatever. It is just part of the music.
Over the years the bands and musicians that have stayed with me have been people like Miles [Davis], [Frank] Zappa, [John] Coltrane. As far as bass players, Dave Holland has been a big influence on me and Bootsy [Collins], you can’t get any funkier then his stuff with James Brown. I listen to a lot of pop music like XTC, Colin Moulding, the bass player in that band is just phenomenal and has been a big influence on my melodic playing.
I have been fortunate to play with some of my influences, like John [Medeski]. I think MMW is a great band. Lately, I have really gotten into Moroccan music. That is predominantly what I listen to. Brahim [Fribgane], who has played with us over the last few years, has been another great influence on me. I have always been interested in North African music. Mark Sandman turned me onto a record called â€œGift of the Ganawaâ€ by Hassan Hakmoun. I was really attracted to that music, but I really didn’t understand it. Through meeting and playing with Brahim, who is a great teacher and has enormous patience, that really opened up my eyes and my ears in more ways then I have ever dreamed of. Since then I have been sincerely trying to focus on different Gnawan musicians and Berber music from Morocco. That is really my latest passion. I also really enjoy people like Squarepusher- Tom Jenkinson is just brilliant, Amon Tobin, Wagonchrist, Plug, Mouse On Mars, Sum & Liminal & We- all the stuff Danny Blume does. A lot of so called electronica music.
Q: Well, I think that the broad range of your influences are truly reflected within your music. It is interesting as an audience member to hear these new ideas develop. You stand up there and orchestrate an ensemble with very minimal guidance. In a very similar way to Miles [Davis]. I believe there is something to be said for that.
A: Well, thank you. I wouldn’t really compare myself to Miles, but I think that all the experiences that I’ve had with bands and focusing on the bass’ role in different music has made me really aware of grounding and support. Creating a bed for other instruments and other musicians to play over.
In Club d’Elf, I consider myself more of a tour guide or a conductor. “Here we are in this areaâ€¦” we’ll explore this place for a while and when it seems like we’ve gotten what we can out of thatâ€¦ I’ll point out another sign on the highway and say “why don’t we check this out”. I keep my ears open and listen to the other musicians. And if something they are playing suggests an interesting detour then we will take it. We’ll get out of the bus and walk around a little bit. Kick some dirt and then we’ll get back in the bus and drive a little ways. It’s really just touring through different musical terrains. I really don’t feel like I have an objective of my own. I don’t want the band to be a vehicle for my soloing. I don’t really solo that much with the band. I prefer to lead things along and let the musicians explore the grooves and feel free to express any ideas or to tell any stories that they have. The whole idea of playing is communicating through an instrument and hopefully they feel free enough to communicate as much as they can. It’s really an ongoing conversation among people who dig each other.
Since the music that we play is very influenced by DJ culture, having the bass drop out is not unheard of. And I really enjoy doing that, finding spaces where I can just drop out and stop playing. Which allows different instruments to come forward. It also allows me the opportunity to direct things and make small gestures and cues.
Q: What are some of the modern artists that you enjoy. In terms of your approach to music, what modern artist do you think you most closely resemble or relate to?
A: Well, as far a what I am listening to know, I am listening to people like Squarepusher, whom I mentioned and different DJs like DJ Shadow, DJ Spooky, DJ Olive, DJ Logic and Mr. Rourke and all the guys who play with us. Who I resembleâ€¦ I don’t know. I guess, someone like Bill Laswell who is a bass player and producer. He has a lot of interest in North African music and works with different ethnic musicians. I don’t think I play like him, but musically and aesthetically we are not that far apart.
I think the model for Club d’Elf comes not from the musical world, but more so from comedy, especially Mr. Show. I’m really attracted to that sort of thing. It is all about leading one’s perception or expectations down a certain path and then twisting them. Coming from left field and taking a surprise turn. What we do in Club d’Elf is we travel spaces where things like Gnawa, trance, jazz, drum and bass and hip hop overlap. Rythmically you can put all these things together. So we can be traveling down one category or style and then switch. Almost like a punch line, we leave you saying ‘What?’. It’s a great joke. Musically, that is what really influences me. I grew up with Monty Python and the Firesign Theater. Mr. Show is really the closest thing that we emulate as a band. Obviously it is not a musical idea, they do it on a different playing field but it is the same idea. Taking a preconscieved notion and turning it on it’s head, but not in such a way that is unpleasant. It is for that momentâ€¦ that “a ha” moment. We don’t have any interest in pissing people off. It is quite the opposite. We try to bring a positive experience through music. Although the music we play can tend to be on the dark side, I would like to believe that there is a certain optimism to it. A certain beauty or hope.