Club d’Elf is an ever-shifting phenomenon — a musical ensemble of rotating membership led by convener Mike Rivard. Onstage he’ll sometimes stand in a circle of musicians, anchoring an improvisation-heavy performance on his basses and sintir, a three-stringed Moroccan instrument.
Collaborators pass into the d’Elf orbit with varying frequency, adding doses of jazz, electronic music, funk, and avant-rock. Woven into the collective’s DNA is the influence of Brahim Fribgane, a Casablanca native who years ago schooled Rivard in some west and north African folk styles.
“You Never Know,” out Friday, is just Club d’Elf’s third studio album since Rivard conjured the project in 1998. It reflects his dark journey of recent years.
Rivard developed a pulmonary embolism in 2015 on a flight to Peru for a visit to the Amazon rain forest, where he then stayed for weeks at a retreat center. He experienced heart palpitations and trouble breathing but didn’t discover the root of these issues until he finally visited a doctor after returning home.
“A lot of people find out they have a pulmonary embolism by dying,” Rivard, 59, says in a Zoom interview from his home in Waltham. “I didn’t die.”
But he fell into a years-long depression. The soft-spoken, deeply thoughtful musician values his privacy, and told only a few people what was going on — though he occasionally had silent panic attacks onstage, mid-performance.
He dove deeply into Moroccan gnawa music, finding healing meditation playing sintir in the centuries-old style. (In more cheerful times, Rivard sometimes played sintir by Jamaica Pond.) “You Never Know” is not a declaration of victory over mental illness, but a deeply felt expression of endurance and tribute to musical forebears who influenced the group.
Club d’Elf’s trans-millennial aesthetic blooms on new track “Lalla Aisha in Jhaptal.” It includes parts of a gnawa tune Rivard learned from master player Hassan Hakmoun, which Rivard set to a 10-beat cycle borrowed from Hindustani classical music. As John Medeski funks out on clavinet, Mister Rourke scratches records, David Fiuczynski sprays the cosmos with fretless electric guitar, and drummer Dean Johnston gallops toward the sunrise, the result is anything but an academic exercise. It’s a banger.
Club d’Elf assembles for a short Northeast tour in April that includes stops in Northampton, Pembroke, Providence, and Portsmouth, N.H.
Q. What happened after you got past the pulmonary embolism?
A. I’ve always had a bit of the Irish sadness — there’s a melancholy that’s informed my music. But this was a whole other thing. Everything I enjoy just went away. I was off in the wilderness. I felt like I was an imposter and a charlatan.
Q. How did this affect your music?
A. All through the depression I was really focusing on getting deep into gnawa music in a way that I hadn’t before. I’ve been playing the sintir for 20 years now and gnawa music has been a huge influence. But as a white, Western male, I’ve been very cognizant of the cultural appropriation aspect. So I was very careful about not using the instrument in a way that was outside the tradition.
But when I couldn’t sleep and I was clinically depressed, it became a way of having something to focus on. Gnawa music comes from the trance tradition, and it’s repetitive. That was really helpful, just to keep my brain from gnawing on itself. It gave me something to do in the wee hours when everything seemed hopeless. I started using the sintir for my own devices — coming up with my own riffs, composing my own music on it, imagining what Mark Sandman would do if he had the instrument.
In the best moments when I’m playing music, I kind of go away and something else is coming through. Whether it’s the souls of those who have been in the tradition, I’m not really sure. I think there’s a soul in the instrument itself, too. It’s a way to just float into this eternal state of mind.
It’s kind of hard to talk about without sounding really hippie-dippy.
Q. What sort of treatment did you seek out for your depression?
A. I did all the homeopathic and holistic stuff and lots of talk therapy. I volunteered for a study at Mass General Hospital using transcranial laser therapy. The idea was using LED lights to excite parts of the brain. The thing that really turned things around for me was experimental ketamine infusion therapy. That was kind of a reboot for my brain chemistry.
Q. Were you still recovering when you recorded the album?
A. Going into the studio was kind of my Hail Mary to see if I still had anything in me. I had a lot of trepidation going into it, even though I was through the darkest part.
This album was inspired by just kind of coming through all that and feeling like I still had something worth saying.
In the midst of the deepest parts of the depression there was just the sense that it’s eternal — that there’s no afterwards. By talking about this, maybe I can help someone who’s in that place, just by showing that there’s a place beyond it. Maybe I can offer a ray of hope.
Interview was edited and condensed. For details on upcoming shows, go to clubdelf.com/shows.
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com.