Seacoast Online feature | Chris Hislop
On Wednesday, Oct. 19, Moroccan dub trance jazzists Club d’Elf (featuring guitarist David Tronzo!) will make a stop at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club on Congress Street for what will serve as the band’s record release celebration of “You Never Know.” The release party was originally scheduled in Portsmouth last April, but was cancelled due to illness.
Seacoastonline.com caught up with d’Elf ringleader, founder and frontman Mike Rivard to discuss the record, the lineage of the band, Mark Sandman (Morphine), and a whole lot more.
Seacoastonline: Let’s jump in. Tell us about the new record, “You Never Know.” What were the goals for this effort? What excites you about its existence?
Rivard: This album is a particularly personal one for me, as it was inspired by a long, dark period in my life, and my eventual emergence into the light. Sort of a Joseph Campbell “Heroes Journey,” I went through Chapel Perilous and lived to tell the tale. During the period of my depression, I was uncertain as to whether or not I had anything left to offer creatively and going into the studio represented a sort of “Hail Mary” on my part. I’m excited that it turned out as well as it did, and that I was able to assemble such an extraordinary crew of musicians to play with: John Medeski, Brahim Fribgane, Duke Levine, David Fiuczynski, Kevin Barry, Paul Schultheis, Dean Johnston, Mister Rourke, Thorleifur Gaukur Davidsson, Amit Kavthekar, Andrew Fogliano, and Phil Grenadier. Not a bad lineup.
Seacoastonline: What’s the writing process for a d’Elf composition? Are you the primary builder of blueprints who brings in the rest of musicians to color in the compositions, or is there a collaborative process in place at the outset?
Rivard: I write most of the original tunes we play, and my inspiration often comes from nature. I like to play outdoors where I can listen to the birds, the insects, the wind and all the sounds of the natural world, and I have written songs based on what I hear. The song “Now Open Your Eyes” for instance, came about after I was coming out of the shadows, and starting to feel some optimism creep back into my life. I was sitting on the porch listening to the sound of thrushes in the woods, and started playing the 7/4 rhythm riff, inspired by what I was hearing. We also play songs by other members, and on this tour will be playing tunes by Brahim, Dean, Medeski, and Fiuczynski.
Seacoastonline: Speaking of collaboration, the club of Club d’Elf has been in existence for nearly a quarter century, and you’re the only constant rock of this particular musical institution. Was that the idea when you launched into it all those years ago? Give us the history. How did Club d’Elf come to be? Why did Club d’Elf come to be?
Rivard: I started the band in 1997 with the encouragement of Mark Sandman. I was a busy freelance bassist at the time and was playing in Mark’s band Hypnosonics, and he got tired of me bugging him about gigs. His primary band was Morphine and the Hypnos had taken a back seat, so he suggested I start my own band. My friend Billy Beard was booking The Lizard (Lounge) and I pitched the idea to him of a bi-monthly night where I would assemble a core band and have a rotating cast of musicians flow in and out, with special guests drawn from my various friends and musical relationships that I had cultivated over the years. The music would be instrumental and groove-heavy, inspired by things that were happening in NYC at the time, such as the Illbient scene, the projects that Bill Laswell was doing, and live drum’n’bass, crossed with the world music stuff I was getting into. The first show basically consisted of members of Hypnosonics and Natraj, the Indo-jazz band that I was also playing with. The idea caught on, and sort of grew from there, taking on a life of its own.
Seacoastonline: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it?
Rivard: I like to create, and music as a medium has a way of tapping directly into the soul – especially instrumental music – and bypasses a lot of baggage in the process. I didn’t come from a musical family, and I wouldn’t say I was innately musical. I had to work really hard at it, and still do. What I do think I have a talent for is losing track of time and tapping into the spirit world – the Invisible Landscape, as Terence McKenna calls it. Music is the modality I like to use; especially trance music. The repetitive nature of trance music was one of the things that helped me during my dark times and gave me something positive to focus on during the pre-dawn hours when I had terrible insomnia and wasn’t sleeping.
Seacoastonline: Is the sentiment of “you never know” any sort of mantra you live by? Perhaps it’s a working piece of the band … What’s in the title of the new record?
Rivard: It is a bit of a mantra and started as an inside joke that Medeski and I routinely use as a sort of “wtf” punctuation. Coming on the heels of my experience of having a pulmonary embolism while isolated in the Amazon jungle, and the depression that ensued, it took on an even deeper meaning. Add to that the pandemic years, and it just seemed a very apt title.
Seacoastonline: You’re doing a gig at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club on Oct. 19 here in Portsmouth. This is exciting. David Tronzo will be there, a legend who made his name in the downtown NYC jazz scene in the ’80s and ’90s, who has made New Hampshire his home since 2002. What’s your history with Tronzo? You guys go back a ways. What does he add to the Club?
Rivard: I first met Tronzo in ’97 on a gig at The Knitting Factory in NYC, when his band Spanish Fly was on a bill with Hypnosonics, Mark Sandman’s “secret band”. It was the only time the Hypnos played outside of the Boston/Cambridge axis, and was an amazing night that also included a solo set by Marc Ribot. I had been hearing about Tronzo from Medeski, and seeing him play live was pretty mind-blowing. Fast forward to 2002 when he had left NYC post-9/11 and moved to New Hampshire to take care of his Mom, and landed a gig teaching at Berklee. A friend put us in touch and I invited him to come sit in at a Lizard gig – it was July 4th if memory serves. Adam Deitch was also on the gig, and it felt great, so natural, and for a number of very special years from 2002 to 2008 or so, he was a regular in the band. This was the era when Joe Maneri was playing with us a lot, and the combination of Tronzo with Joe and Mat Maneri created some of the more memorable gigs in the band’s history, in my personal estimation.
It’s a rare thing for a guitarist to have such an identifiable sound that you know within a few notes who you’re listening to, and he is definitely in that category. His vocabulary is so vast, and draws on everything from Duane Allman to Ornette to Derek Bailey, resulting in a sound that is uniquely his own. Suffice it to say, sparks fly when he is on the gig.
Seacoastonline: One of my “clutch” purchases while being in a state of solitude during the pandemic was the release of the two Hypnosonics’ records in the ol’ vinyl format that you helped put together. I’m loading up the cannon here, but what can you say about the time you spent with Mark Sandman? What does did/does his music and approach mean to you? How did he inspire your own approach to creating?
Rivard: Mark was (and still is, even from beyond the grave) a huge musical catalyst, and I would put him up there with people like Harry Partch and Captain Beefheart in terms of being a maverick who created his own musical universe. When I started playing with him, I was pretty green, having recently graduated from Berklee, and Mark was my finishing school. He was about 10 years older than I, and worldly in a way that I really admired. Russ (Gershon) had been playing in the Hypnos and recommended me to him when he was looking for a bass player. That audition at his apartment quickly became a rehearsal, and I had to scramble to catch all the stuff he was throwing at me, all the while being lost in a totally wide-eyed intake of all the surroundings: his place was filled with records, books, tapes, and musical instruments and paraphernalia – just a hipster’s dream palace. I learned a lot of tough lessons under his tutelage, such as the importance of “no fills.” Keep it simple, keep it repetitive. That’s where the trance aspect enters, and that was a huge lesson for me – one that I’m still working on. Mark wrote from the bottom up, starting with the bassline, which was always the riff. Even now when I pick up the sintir, I think “What would Mark play?”, and often feel like he’s channeling through me.
Seacoastonline: What excites you about the upcoming gig here in town? What can folks expect? I’m assuming there will be copies of the new record there for purchase. I’ll likely be the first in line for that goodness…
Rivard: I’ve heard great things about Jimmy’s as a venue, and we’re really looking forward to playing that room. It’s a real treat to have a real baby grand piano, and I’m looking forward to what our piano player Paul Schultheis feels inspired to play on it. The Seacoast audience is so great, and has always been a favorite of ours. Plus it’s a local gig for Tronzo, and we don’t get to play with him nearly enough these days, so that’s a real treat. And yes, we will have vinyl and I have to say, for a vinyl freak such as I am, it’s awesome to finally have a Club d’Elf album on LP!