Since first taking to the international stage in the early 2000s, Te Awanga’s hometown hero Connan Mockasin has applied his helium-toned falsetto, velvety croon, unusual lyrics and footloose arrangements to lo-fi blues pop, celestial jazz rock and syrupy psychedelic soul on a yacht rock tilt. Along the way, over two solo albums Forever Dolphin Love and Caramel, collaborations with Sam Dust (LA Priest, formerly Late of the Pier) and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, and eclectic live performances, he’s cultivated himself a cult reputation worldwide.
Although he’s currently on holiday in New Zealand, on the 13th and 14th of January, Connan is taking a couple of days off relaxing to play two intimate live shows in Auckland at Rec in Britomart. Presale tickets are on sale from Monday 9th January at 10am from justtheticketnz.com. In light of these special appearances, we gave him a call. We chatted about his adventures in Los Angeles, working with Sam Dust, Dev Hynes, James Blake and Vince Staples, his approach to creating albums, what he does between musical projects, and his inspiring childhood.
By Martyn Pepperell
Sniffers: You’ve been living in Los Angeles for a couple of years, and you’ve got some great stories from there. One I just can’t get past is the time former X-Factor NZ judge Daniel Bedingfield joined you on stage.
Connan Mockasin: He came up on stage with us once. We played a cover of his [hit UK Garage] song ‘Gotta Get Thru This’. It was weird because he was sort of trying to pull away from it and get the band to play another song. But we kept going. It was this weird battle, and it was really funny. I originally met him when we played a show in Austin, Texas and he was upfront singing really loud with his shirt off. He hopped on stage, grabbed the mic and started ad-libbing. So, when we saw him in Los Angeles, we had to try to get him to do ‘Gotta Get Thru this.’
Sniffers: Los Angeles must be a great base of operations for someone like you. What else have you been getting up to over there?
Connan Mockasin: James Blake and I have been doing stuff together. We’ve also been working with some hip-hop artists. I’m not allowed to say who we’re working with, but we’ve done some stuff with Vince Staples. I’ve also been doing some stuff with Andrew VanWyngarden from MGMT. I wish I could say who we’ve been working with, but James would freak out. James and I want to do something together as well. We’re going to try and do some stuff this year.
Sniffers: How did you meet James Blake?
Connan Mockasin: We met at Glastonbury. We were on the same stage. He came and said hello after we played. I watched him, and we started hanging out. Now we live down the road from each other. He’s a really sweet guy. He’s extremely talented. We’re quite different in ways as well, which I find quite attractive. We love playing together. He’s an amazing pianist. He has a quality to his playing that I can’t quite understand. We work so differently but somehow it comes together.
Sniffers: Vince Staples must have been great to work with as well. He’s very sharp.
Connan Mockasin: He’s really funny and really smart. I’d like to do some more with him. I really enjoyed his company. He’s very quick. I was always two or more steps behind in trying to keep up with what he was talking about.
Connan Mockasin: Maybe not a bridge, but it was the next record I did after Forever Dolphin Love. We just didn’t release it until last year. Sam and I hadn’t really seen each other for about five years. We met early in 2007. We were playing a party together with a bunch of other acts at this 21st birthday party in a mansion in the south of England. It was us, Sam’s earlier band Late of The Pier, Adele before she became famous, Bad Company and a bunch of other groups. After that, we kept on bumping into each other at festival, airports, and places like that.
Maybe a year later I got asked to support Late of The Pier on some shows. I didn’t really have a band together, and Sam, and I didn’t talk much then. We were kind of shy of each other. So Sam started helping me out by playing keys and bass with me live and hiding behind the amplifiers. Then he invited me on the bus, and we started hanging out. I had almost finished Forever Dolphin Love at that point, but I hadn’t really played it to anyone because I was embarrassed by it. We were getting closer as friends, though, so I played it to him. He got excited, and that gave me some confidence.
After that, we started making music together as I was finishing Forever Dolphin Love, and that became the starting of Soft Hair. We didn’t necessarily want to make a record together at that point; we were planning a soundtrack for a film idea we had. After a year, that just ended up being an album, and we left it sitting there. It just needed mastering. We’d even done all the press photos and covers. We recorded some of it in the UK and some of it in New Zealand in my hometown Te Awanga.
Sniffers: In 2015 you released another collaborative project, your EP with Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes. Could you relate the story behind that?
Connan Mockasin: We’ve known each other for a while, probably as long as I’ve known Sam. We made that EP as part of an artist residency at Mexican Summer and Ballroom Mafia’s Marfa Myths festival in Marfa, Texas. I’ve done something at that festival every year since it started. This will be my fourth year coming up this March. It was just a suggestion from Mexican Summer, you both know each other, why don’t you do this? We’ve never made music together, and we just had a few days to do it. That was all really. Dev’s joined in on stage with me a few times, and we bump into each other every so often.
Sniffers: You’re always quite busy, but compared to some musicians, you can take quite large breaks between records.
Connan Mockasin: I find the traditional record cycle, of making an album, touring it, and promoting it pretty boring. I’ve always done things on my own terms with music, and I can’t imagine having it any other way. It just seems normal to me, which comes with a price as well, because it’s not easy, but it makes it more rewarding and worthwhile. I’ve done a lot of touring, enough touring that I don’t feel the need to do it at the moment. That’s given me time to do and think about other things I’d like to do and think back about things I wanted to do when I was younger but couldn’t do at the time. I’ve been doing some very casual stand-up comedy. It’s not a proper thing; it’s just a way to keep myself entertained. I also recently worked on the soundtrack for the film adaption of Eleanor Catton’s book The Rehearsal. I didn’t know Eleanor or the director Alison Maclean beforehand. Alison contacted me. That was neat, and I’d love to do more.
Sniffers: Another thing you’ve mentioned is how you need these periods of time between records to conceptualise them as albums fully. Could you elaborate on how this works for you?
Connan Mockasin: I won’t really start a record until I have the atmosphere and I can hear how the whole thing goes in my head. I have to understand the whole feel and sound of it, and everything else. So, it might appear like I don’t do anything for years, but actually every day I’m doing things and thinking about things. Then, when I can finally get the whole thing as a record, I tend to be able to make it quite fast.
Sniffers: I guess as part of this, you have to have basically experience life and let inspiration hit you where it can?
Connan Mockasin: I don’t deliberately travel around looking for life experiences or ideas. That stuff just happens along the way. It’s a really strange thing; there is a magic about music that you can’t quite explain. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s mysterious. There is no particular formula or anything. Well, there is a formula to certain stuff, but not what I’m interested in doing. I have to wait for something surprising and exciting because that’s what attracts me. I’m more into albums than song-by-song recording structure. That never really interested me. I’ve always liked albums because they had an atmosphere.
Sniffers: There is a big project you’re working towards as well at the moment isn’t there?
Connan Mockasin: I’m working on a drama series. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for twenty years. It’s been a big project. It’s not going to be released until early next year. I’ve had my childhood next door neighbour from Te Awanga staying with me so we can work on it together.
Sniffers: This is a great example of how you’ve taken the time to reach back towards the sort of things you wanted to do as a child and brought them into your present. Can you tell us a bit about what was so inspiring about your childhood?
Connan Mockasin: I had different obsessions as a child, and some of them stuck with me. One of them was these fairs that would come to Hawkes Bay once a year. My mother would take me to them. The day beforehand all these trucks would arrive with these fair rides all folded up. The next day they would be setting them up. Then the next day the rides would be in action. Every day she would drive me there to take photos of them. I loved the atmosphere of the fair and the rides. I loved how they folded up, how they looked, even the type of spray-paint artwork on them, and the sounds and the atmosphere. We lived next to loads of farmland and had access to lots of leftover steel. I had a welding torch when I was younger, and I used to make my own rides, ghost trains, and haunted houses. It’s like what I was saying before about hearing the whole album in my head before I record it. I just love all the little details and touches.
Connan Mockasin and band will play two intimate live shows at Rec in Auckland on Friday the 13th and Saturday the 14th of January with support from Pablo Vasquez. Presale tickets are on sale from Monday 9th January at 10am from justtheticketnz.com.