Having grown up in Minnesota, Mike Rivard moved to Boston in 1981 to attend The Berklee College of Music, where he studied both electric and acoustic basses as well as composition. During this time he also studied privately with the renowned jazz improv teacher Charlie Banacos. Rivard cites amongst his main influences Dave Holland, Bootsy Collins, James Jamerson, Colin Moulding, Charlie Haden, Michael Henderson, Charles Mingus, Mick Karn, Gnawa Music, Tony Levin and John Wetton. A scholarship in 1986 led to his studying with Dave Holland at the Banff Center for Fine Arts, and subsequently purchasing one of Holland's acoustic basses. Russ Gershon, whom Rivard had met in a Berklee class devoted to the music of Charles Mingus, was impressed with his playing of several Mingus solo transcriptions and invited the bassist to join his 11-piece jazz ensemble, the Either/Orchestra, in 1986. During his three-year tenure the band recorded three albums and toured throughout the east and midwest, during which time he began a long friendship with then-E/O keyboardist John Medeski. Through his association with the E/O he also met Mark Sandman and joined his band, Hypnosonics, as well as guesting on several Morphine CDs.
In 1989 he joined the Walkers, who signed with Atlantic Records after a fierce bidding war. Alas, no album was ever released and the band broke up, and important lessons about the industry were learned. By this time he had become well-known in the Boston/NYC area and had begun a long association with the Indo-jazz group Natraj, touring India and Africa and recording several CDs with the band. Through his association with Natraj he played with Ghanian master drummers Godwin Agbele and Dolsi-Naa Abubakari Lunna (studying with them as well), South Indian chitraveena player Ravikiran, bansuri player Steve Gorn, and others.