Handing over the mic to artists/musicians who break down their new albums track by track/share the thought process behind the creation. Today we’ll hear from Mike Rivard of Club d’Elf who will break down the band’s debut “As Above” for us!
Ok, so this is an old album, and I gotta just say that at the outset. It is not “new music”, being recorded over 23 years ago – live, over a course of six shows that Club d’Elf performed at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA from September 1999 to February 2000. The band is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and as part of the celebration of this pretty amazing milestone, this album is getting its first release on Spotify and other digital streaming services (it was originally only available on CD when released in 2000). So…”new music” (for most), that isn’t really. I haven’t listened to it in years, and writing this piece was really like reliving it for me. The thing that strikes me most is loss. When you’ve been around for a quarter of a century, naturally there’s going to be loss, ie: folks tend to die. In the years since this was recorded, we’ve lost five of the people who made these sounds: Jere Faison, Joe Maneri, Ian Kennedy, Roberto Cassan and Graham Wiggins (aka Dr Didg). Listening to this music now is, for me, like visiting with ghosts. Another one we lost before these recordings were made, is Mark Sandman, who was a dear friend and inspiration for me in starting the band. Kind of a weird introduction to the music, and not to take away from the joy that is also present in this music, but I think it’s important to speak the names of the dead and give respect where it’s due.
And now, the music.
The title was inspired by an ongoing joke I had with my friend Carl Coletti. We enjoyed playing a game where we would try to blow the other’s mind with the current music, movie, art, cultural artifact – whatever – that we had recently discovered, and which gave us a buzz. When it was suitably mind-melting, Carl would get a far away, crazed look in his eyes, and murmur, “now I understand…I have to kill my WHOLE family!” Sick? Yes.
This was one of a couple of songs from the original days of the band where we would play to a click, and Erik Kerr (our original drummer) would play with phones. Poor Erik was the only one who had to listen to that dreadful click, and he had an uncanny ability to play free while still listening to and adhering to the click. What I so loved about his playing was his combination of the looseness of Sunny Murray and the hard groove of Clyde Stubblefield. You can hear him really cut loose after we have to abandon the click around 6:30 when DJ Logic drops a beat and we go with that. Erik unleashes a torrent of break beats as the band opens up, Tom Hall soloing on tenor, and Ian Kennedy dropping perfect zen koans of guitar. One of the songs co-written by myself, Jere Faison, Jerry Leake and Erik. It relied so heavily on Jere’s programming and samples that we rarely performed it after he left the band.
Two chord jam based around a bass ostinato that was inspired by my purchase of an EBS Octabass pedal. We had scheduled recording for several of our Lizard shows for the album, and Erik had to miss one due to his wife going into labor with their first child. Kenwood Dennard stepped in to sub for him, and it was such a great night we ended up using a bunch of the tracks on the album. Kenwood had recently recorded the ‘Life On Planet Groove’ album with Maceo Parker, and brought that deep pocket to the gig. Tom Hall and Curtis Hasselbring improvised horn lines until finally playing the melody at 3:35, with DJ Logic dropping turntable scratches and more of Ian’s spot-on Boomerang samples to punctuate the end of phrases. Alain Mallet bubbles on keys, and things build to a tenor solo by Tom.
A song I wrote with Jerry Leake on the veranda of the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, MA while we looked out over the Nashoba River Valley. A rare major key song, and one we haven’t played in many years. The band settles into a relaxed, chill groove and it’s kinda wonderful to hear how egoless everyone is playing, with all hands really focused on creating space for the different voices to speak. It ends with the emergence of a bass loop that takes us back to scary land, but it was a nice visit while it lasted.
A multi-sectioned funk jam, originally written with Erik. The original working title was “New JB”, as it was an homage to the rhythm sections of James Brown, especially Clyde & Bootsy. This comes from a night when Kenwood subbed for Erik, and was grooving his ass off, inspiring the rest of us to follow suit. Also featured are Alain and Duke Levine, two of the guys in the band with whom I had the longest association with, going back to when we all played in The Story in the early 90s. This song is probably the most requested by die-hard fans, and is another one we rarely play anymore. Certain tunes are linked to distinct personalities and associations, and if Alain and Duke wind up on a gig with the band, I’ll call it. Check out Duke’s lovely, otherworldly slide playing on Pt 3 when the vibe gets chill.
And now for something completely different. The first of the fully improvised tunes on the album, with a title I borrowed from a Captain Beefheart song. We did more of this sort of thing in the early days of the band, just completely improvising a whole song. Roberto Cassan can be heard on accordion – very distant, like he’s off on a mountaintop. We were recording a lot of this on the fly without a lot of prep. Roberto showed up at a gig and I invited him to play, but his instrument was so quiet that we couldn’t turn him up without it feeding back. Reeves Gabrels was playing guitar on this night, off from his then-regular gig playing with David Bowie. Poor Roberto didn’t stand a chance, but it’s sort of perfect having that gentle addition, like a song floating in on the breeze, contrasting with the avant-skronk-rock the rest of the band was creating. Erik rides on top of the groove laid down by DJ C’s beat, like a skiff rolling on rough seas, and I get one of my favorite bass tones – it reminds me of a grunting pig. One unexpected aspect of listening to this album again is revisiting my old pedal collection; when certain pedals break or for whatever reason move on, a particular tone (in this case, a combo of a Vari-drive into an old Electro-Harmonix BassBalls) gets lost in the process. Have to say, I miss the pig.
Another freely-composed song, this one coming from the minds of Erik and Mat Maneri. I met Erik originally when we both played in Mat’s band House of Brown, so I owe Mat big time. Mat is a true original, who in one note you know it’s undeniably him. Mat’s father Joe can be heard for the first time on the album. Joe was a huge influence on all of us, and his gigs with the band rank among my most revered memories. More about him in a bit.
A downtempo, misterioso vibe, filled with Ian’s trancelike arpeggios, Alain’s tinkling piano, and long tones from Tom. Like most of the band’s songs, written around an ostinato bassline. Erik plays deep in the pocket, while adding little flurries of skittering snare drum, and DJ Logic plays mad scientist, creating with his turntables and Kaoss pad the aural equivalent of a shaken up snow globe. Soundtrack to the crumbling landscape of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
I was reading a lot of Terence McKenna and attempting some of his more heroic experiments leading up to when I formed the band, and this song is one of the clearest examples of that influence. The title itself is an insider reference to those who know. The grunting pig bass tone makes a reappearance, as Reeves goes into infinite-sustain mode, sounding like Cthulhu himself. A sharp edit takes us into a cowbell-driven, dancing Afro-Caribbean groove, with me putting alligator clips on the bass strings to create a gamelan-like effect, inspiring shredding by Reeves. Roberto offers comments from the distant mountain village, and Tom has a few things to say before we fade out. Another fully-formed spontaneous improvisation / composition. It still boggles my mind that we came up with this.
9. So Below
This song was Jere’s finest moment, in my estimation. Another one where Erik would wear phones and listen to a click, and Jere would send midi-clock to my Lexicon JamMan looper, so we could create synced loops. Erik plays a groove that would fool many, with “the one” being in a different place than expected. Reeves calls forth the prog gods, as the band hunkers down for a long haul of hard trance. Another of the songs co-composed by Jere, Jerry, myself and Erik that were the focus of the early shows, remixed by the various guests we would invite to come down. This was about as electronic as D’Elf got. Alain comes in strong on the bridge, which if you’ve been hearing “the one” in the wrong place, seems to skip a beat and come out of nowhere. Reeves pulls out some Jimmy Nolen licks, and Alain steps out. We were mostly recording onto an 8 track ADAT and didn’t have enough tracks for room mics, so the only audience sound you hear is bleed through the drum mics. As the band performs a live fade out and the circus leaves town, the faint audience applause at the end seems to come from another universe. One of my favorite songs on the album, and another one we stopped performing when Jere left.
Begins with a tabla-driven groove led by Jerry, with bass, guitar and keys conversing freely. Jere drops a beat and everything else comes to a halt, leading to Kenwood’s drum entrance. Alain & Duke get their groove on, moving between two sections that are a half step apart. This song was my attempt to write something in the style of The Meters, but you know – with tabla. Medeski Martin & Wood turned me onto Professor Julius Sumner Miller (he’s the source of the title for their album “Combustication”) and this is our tribute to him. After a break down where we give the dumbek player some (go Brahim!), and then Kenwood gets some too, the band takes a left turn and segues into a decidedly darker vibe that features more of the alligator-clip driven, bass kalimba sound. Shit gets weird, and we’re not in Nola anymore, Toto. But then Brahim takes us out, and maybe there’s hope after all?
Opens up with an acoustic bass loop with Joe getting Pentecostal on top, while Erik and Brahim (on Moroccan qaraqab) provide a subtle, free underpinning. When Joe was present, so were the spirits, and he was in constant conversation with them – whether he had a horn in his mouth or was just sitting there, eyes closed, not playing, hands in the air and swaying, in full communion. Sometimes chanting in his self-created language, as he does here, he coaxed us to find the deep places. There’s a sharp edit into a different take from a different night, with Kenwood showing his drum’n’bass prowess. A tune I wrote around a repeated bass figure created by inserting a drum stick into the strings of the bass, and alternating between hitting the stick (creating a major 7th chord) and beating a rhythm on the top of the bass. The first appearance of Brahim on oud, which I wish was louder in the mix. It took awhile for us to get that dialed in for live playing. The combination of Duke and Alain together always makes me smile. A half time beat is introduced while Jerry keeps the double time going, and we fade out.
Another spontaneous song that emerged fully formed out of an improvisation, beginning with the horn line Tom and Curtis made up, and a bhangra beat dropped by Jere. I add about a half a teacup of gator bass, and DJ Logic, a little pinch of Kaoss madness. This comes from the same show as Shadow’s Shift and you’ll notice that Ian begins with the sample from that tune, before he develops one that sounds like a backwards Asian flute. Alain enters with a wurly line that harkens of Beck, but we won’t tell anybody. Fun fact: this song was licensed by VW to play in a kiosk at a local trade show in Boston.
A bassline I also wrote that auspicious evening at Fruitlands. Originally titled Koko Goddess (named for an entity that visited me during one of those McKenna-inspired dreamscapes) it features the didgeridoo playing of Dr Didg, with Reeves on Fela-inspired guitar. Erik trances on a cowbell-enhanced 12/8 groove, and the distant accordion of Roberto can barely be discerned. A nice example of the meditative vibe the band could create, where no one solos, but everyone solos in a sort of alternate universe dixieland.
14. As Above
Jere and Jerry were both active in the Agbekor Drum Society, where we fell under the spell of Dolsinna Abubakari Lunna. He introduced us to Dagomba drumming from Ghana, and that groove became the inspiration for this tune. Alligator-clip driven bass meets gungon (played by Jerry) and talking drum (played by Jere). The studio version of this song came out on our 2011 album Electric Moroccoland, and features Abu playing with the band. That was a huge treat, even though he referred to what we played as “nonsense music”. Um, is that a compliment? With Kenwood on drums, Brahim on dumbek, and Duke & Alain onboard, the band takes it to almost a King Sunny Ade sort of place.
Free improvisation time. A rolling bassline and syncopated march beat ℅ of Erik and Brahim’s dumbek gives way to a half time Purdie shuffle – alligator clip bass-driven woozy groove. Joe solos on tenor, with commentary by Mat. Erik gets slippery, and Reeves goes into Coltrane shred mode. Eric Hipp delivers a multiphonic-drenched solo, while Brahim busts out the qaraqab, because…why not? This was a good night.
This was before I had acquired a sintir, and listening to this makes it clear that I was always trying to sound like one on the bass. This free improv begins with upright bass played with alligator clips (the album could have been called “Got Clips?”) and a pick, that then becomes a loop as things shift to arco. Tom gently expounds over Reeves’s ambient atmospherics. Might be a good soundtrack for a David Lynch movie.
The title comes from an ancient Roman sacrifice ritual. This performance comes from that same night of the Maneri’s meet Gabrels, and this might be the craziest thing on here. Which isn’t a bad thing. Moroccan avant dixieland? I’m going to go on record and just say I love when Brahim plays oud, and this was the beginning of what became the band’s Moroccan immersion, when Brahim’s oud became a dominant voice. Here: almost, but not quite yet. And damn – Mat Maneri, ya’ll! Speaking of sounds that have disappeared, Mat doesn’t have this particular 5 string electric violin/viola any more, and I miss the sound of him playing through a wah wah, like Miles on violin. And then Joe comes in over Brahim’s oud…holy shit. That was a sound! A few years after this the band played for a wedding (my sister’s), and an old Armenian guy came up to me, talking about how the music reminded him of Villa-Lobos. “That Old Soul music”, he murmured, “that comes rolling in over the desert”.
18. Trance Meeting
One of the other linchpin (Lynch pin?) tunes from early D’Elf gigs. Our most overt tribute to Mr. McKenna, with his estate giving us the blessing to use his samples. Featuring Erik’s unique take on the Purdie shuffle, with more of – you guessed it – alligator clip bass. Yet another song that we haven’t performed in many years, relying as it does so heavily on Jere’s samples and textures. Reeves shines on this track, and hearing it now makes me happy/sad. We also recorded a studio version of this one with Abu on Dagomba drums that was on Electric Moroccoland. It’s interesting to revisit this music all these years later and hear how we transitioned from West Africa to North Africa, thanks to Brahim. It’s all about the 12/8.
19. Last Business
Another version of this song, with a very different arrangement. Coming from the Maneri’s meet Gabrels night, it’s another example of that alternate world dixieland, and maybe that’s as fitting a genre for the band as there is. The thing that has always excited me about the band is putting very different musical sensibilities together – like, INSANELY disparate – and seeing what happens, and Joe and Reeves are maybe the best example of that: two cats who couldn’t come from more different musical worlds, but meet in a place of mutual respect and commitment to the spirit, where deep listening is key.
20. Divine Invasion
Could also have been called Joe’s Requiem. It reminded me at the time of the last track on King Crimson’s Beat album: Requiem. The video of this performance is on YouTube; the camera is focused on Joe as he plays clarinet, and the moment at the end when it all ends suddenly and he laughs, may be my favorite moment of all time. I miss you, Joe. Thank you.
Mike Rivard (electric and acoustic basses), Erik Kerr (drums), Jere Faison (sampler and dagomba drumming), Jerry Leake (tablas & percussion, dagomba drumming), Tom Hall (tenor sax), Brahim Fribgane (oud, doumbek and qaraqab), Kenwood Dennard (drums), Reeves Gabrels (guitar), Duke Levine (guitar), Ian Kennedy (guitar), Alain Mallet (keyboards), DJ Logic (turntables), Mat Maneri (electric violin), Joe Maneri (tenor sax, clarinet), DJ C (turntables), Eric Hipp (tenor sax), Tom Halter (trumpet), Dr. Didg (didgeridoo), Roberto Cassan (accordion), and Curtis Hasselbring (trombone).mysterioso