The persistence of Club D’Elf
The Wire – Oct 18, 2006

 In Press

Eight years in the making, “Now I Understand” is surrealistic music for the macabre Club D'Elf's debut studio CD is the sound of a Dali painting. Turntables chirp under the surface of churning and hypnotic bass and drums. Electric guitars, horns, voices, acoustic instruments, synths, organs and who-knows-what weave into a beautiful, surrealistic mess. “The world is under attack!” warns an AM radio voice on the album's intro. “Creatures from space! Monsters from the depths of the Earth! And criminals operating right within our own cities!” the voice says. “They must be destroyed before they destroy the world!”

It's eclectic, funny, technically impressive and, well, just awesome.

Club D'Elf is a large band. Comprised of a rotating cast of more than 70 members—over the band's eight years, they've included John Medeski, Marc Ribot and Morphine's Mark Sandman, among others—the players cycle through the lineup under the leadership of bassist/ringmaster Mike Rivard. After years of patience and hard work, their first studio CD, “Now I Understand,” is out and available to the band's many fans. They'll be bringing it to The Stone Church this Saturday, Oct. 21. Tickets are $7 in advance and $10 at the door, and the madness starts at 9 p.m.

Rivard first booked the project almost ten years ago to hold down a regular night at The Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Mass., just to have some fun and make a little dough.

“I was playing a lot in a bunch of different bands in the area—The Hypnosonics with Mark Sandman (and Morphine's saxophonist Dana Colley), The Story (with Jonatha Brooke and Jennifer Kimball), and I was doing a lot of session work at the time,” says the soft-spoken Rivard of the band's beginnings.

“I think I was kind of bugging Mark. He was always busy with Morphine, and I'd always try to get him to book Hypnosonics gigs, and finally he said, 'Rivard, you've gotta put your own thing together man,” Rivard says, impersonating Sandman's legendary deadpan cool.

The Hypnosonics, a funk group with an avant garde and improvisational twist that predated Morphine, created the roots of concepts that Rivard would later bring to Club D'Elf—namely, using repetitive basslines and rhythms as the basis for compositional improvisation. Electric Miles and some of the stuff from that early era of fusion music, along with bands like Weather Report and Zappa's groups at the time, also factored into Rivard's vision for Club D'Elf.

“The idea was to draw upon electronic music and the DJ culture. Remixing. Where you start out with one set of musical scenes, and then you know, mix it up. Maybe it will have this element, maybe it won't. (We wanted) to at least have the underlying rhythmic foundation pretty solid and have different people come in and improvise over grooves we had worked out ahead of time.”

Rivard and longtime drummer Eric Kerr do indeed provide the perfect stage on which the other members shine on “Now I Understand.” John Medeski's Mellotron and Hammond swirl and mix with Kerr's electronica-influenced drumming and Rivard's repeating acoustic bass part on the moody instrumental “Bass Beat Box.” Craziness ensues. The distinctive sounds of David Tronzo's brilliant slide guitar work greet the listener on “Hungry Ghosts.” He and electric viola player Mat Maneri trade lines as turntablists DJ Logic and Mr. Rourke take turns connecting the breaks in Eric Kerr's easy hip-hop beat. An exotic collage of rhythms converges on Mr. Rourke's turntables on “Just Kiddin” as an amusing loop of a child's voice gives the track its title.

Rivard's repeating sintir (a Moroccan acoustic bass) and electric bass draw you in as guitarist Randy Roos dresses the song up like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Roos, Rourke and Tronzo join Rivard and drummer Dean Johnston for the Stone Church show.

Not to be forgotten amidst the dreamy and sometimes dark music is humor. Humor definitely lives in Club D'Elf. Like the name, for instance.

“Well, if you say it a particular way it sounds like 'clubbed elf,'” says Rivard, chuckling. “I think that appeals to a macabre sensibility that I and some in the group have.”

As for elves? None of the members seems particularly short, and no known photos exist of them making toys or wearing especially pointy shoes.

“At the time I was starting the band I was reading a lot of Terrence McKenna,” Rivard says. “He was talking about psychedelics and states of consciousness and he talked about these hyper-dimensional elf-like entities that one would come across in these particular states. That appealed to me, this other parallel universe going on out of sight and invisible to this one.”

“Also, E.L.F. stands for 'extreme low frequencies.' I ran (the band name ideas) by Sandman, and he just kind of listened with his quiet laconic nature, and he just smiled and nodded,” he finishes with a proud laugh.

Along the same lines, the album's title goes back to a long-time inside joke between Rivard and an old bandmate. “We would enjoy playing the most outside, weird, twisted stuff that we could find for each other,” Rivard says with an audible smile. “Then, one of us would get this far way look and say 'Now I understand, I need to kill my whole family.'”

Even if the jokes don't get you, the music will. It's unique and fun, and the chops are second to none.

“I think what we're really trying to do, as corny as it sounds, we're really trying to touch the heart,” says Rivard earnestly. “There's a desire to connect with that trance realm, to have a shared event between band and audience. Every show is an event between band and audience. We try and take as many risks as we can.”

The radio churns out the same old swill, but real music that pushes on the walls of genres does exist. It's on the fringes, a bit off the highway and maybe a little into the woods. You've just got to go and find it. Perhaps it lives mostly in other dimensions, but it will also be at The Stone Church on Saturday in the form of Club D'Elf.

– Written by Jon Nolan

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