Thrill Seeker: An Interview With Connan Mockasin
, January 21st, 2014 07:01
Ahead of his UK tour, which starts tomorrow, Connan Mockasin meets John Freeman to talk building rollercoasters and the making of his Tokyo-influenced second album, Caramel
It was the French goat's cheese that did it. I'd arrived at the Victorian-terraced Manchester home of Connan Mockasin, to be welcomed by a glass of fine red wine, a sumptuous cheese platter and a freshly-baked fruit flan. Mockasin, it turns out, is an extremely welcoming host. And he has further plans for the evening. After our interview he's heading to a city centre karaoke bar with his housemates. Apparently it's a regular occurrence. "It's my only night out when I'm at home," he admits, "I always sing 'Gangsta's Paradise' and also do a decent 'Tears In Heaven'."
I should have perhaps expected as much from Connan Mockasin, a gentle man who doesn't fit any of the music industry's smorgasbord of stereotypes. Born in New Zealand, Mockasin came over to the UK to kick-start a music career, instantly hated the dogmatic constraints of record labels, went back home and was persuaded to record a debut album – 2011's psychedelic pop mini-masterpiece Forever Dolphin Love - by his mother. Late last year Mockasin released a second album, Caramel, an endlessly fascinating listen which, while written and recorded in just a month in a Tokyo hotel room, managed to shoehorn hip hop, funk, prog rock and even opera into forty mind-bending minutes.
In the flesh Mockasin is slight of frame, quietly spoken and as interested in questioning me as I am him. It's clear that he is a man motivated by his level of enthusiasm – if a project excites Mockasin he becomes fully absorbed. "Being excited" is very important to him. After our chat, and before his karaoke outing, we discuss his favourite new music - a short list that includes Kirin J Callinan and Dev Hynes - and I eat my own body weight in cheese.
In comparison to many recent releases, Caramel is quite an unconventional album. Would you agree?
Connan Mockasin: If you say my album is not conventional, I take that as a compliment. The whole thing with iTunes now means that everything is about single songs. I'm almost surprised we still have the album format. There is no need for that any more. For me, if I'm going to make an album then it should be an album, not just a bunch of singles put together with a sensitive acoustic track about halfway along.
So, when you are creating music, you are only ever thinking in terms of an album format?
CM: Yes, I absolutely think in terms of 'an album'. I even designed the record for vinyl. If you flip it over, the second side definitely has a different mood and feel. I was tempted to put the whole thing out as one track. I kind of wish I had now, because you would get forced to listen to it as an album as opposed to buying the odd track. I really love albums – they are a whole piece of art as opposed to just making songs. I don't even like writing songs; I like making music and albums.
But even so, the album contains the 'It's Your Body' suite of songs, which almost feels like a mini-album within Caramel.
CM: The 'It's Your Body' thing was one whole part that I worked on and was probably due to the heavy Oriental influence at that point. I'd been in Tokyo for a little while and was beginning to feel the culture a little bit.
I assume that's what inspired 'Jimchicken', your recently released '100 per cent Oriental' mixtape?
CM: Yes, the 'Jimchicken' mix was just how much Tokyo got under my skin. I was using some of the music that I'd heard – stuff that I'd heard on the street and from other visitors that would come and stay at the hotel.
Why did you record Caramel in a Tokyo hotel room?
CM: I like hotel rooms and I hate recording studios, where there are too many options for a start. It excites me when I have a limited amount of equipment. In studios so many people have been through using the same stuff and the fact that 'such-and-such recorded here' doesn't excite me. It turns me off. You begin to feel it is someone else's project and you don't have a clue what's going on. Actually, I haven't made any of my records in studios – but I have only done two!
But why Tokyo? Did you go there to absorb Japanese culture in particular?
CM: No, I wasn't going there to get influenced. It was more the idea that I liked it there and I wanted to make a record called Caramel and I wanted it to sound like a record called Caramel. That was the idea. I don't have a house there, so it had to be a hotel and I like hotels. I didn't think about it too much.
Indeed. You seem to be very spontaneous and not bogged down in detailed pre-planning. Is that a fair assessment?
CM: Yes, even the idea to make a record was just that I suddenly felt like making a record. It wasn't to do with having to make one for my record contract or anything like that. No one was pushing me to do one – it just felt like a good time to make one. So, within two weeks of deciding I wanted to make a record, I was in Tokyo and the record took about a month.
That's very impulsive – is that indicative of a personal philosophy?
CM: Maybe, I'm not sure. Now I have been doing this for a few years, you almost start doing the opposite of what people say you are supposed to do. That might not be a good trait all the time. I don't know. Of course you have to work at things, and there can be moments where it is hard, but I've always found that if it is too hard then I am going down the wrong track.
But didn't your mother almost force you to release your debut album?
CM: My mum has always been good like that - to force me to do things that she knows I should do more than I know. I had been brainwashed into thinking you needed to have a producer and a proper studio with engineers, and that you had to have certain types of songs or they wouldn't get released. My mum thought differently. We had a few tape machines lying around at home and I got really excited about the idea of doing something without anyone telling me how to make it. Also, I was excited by the idea that no one needed to hear it - it would never be heard by anyone apart from by my parents.
You've recently been collaborating with Charlotte Gainsbourg. How was the experience?
CM: I did one song with Charlotte two years ago. I'd been asked to write her a song – which I did. I then met her and that's when we became friends and we started doing shows together and then began writing together. She was writing in French - and I don't understand French - and I would write the music and see how we could fit it together. It was really cool, even if it took us a while to get comfortable together.
I believe you will release a record with Sam Eastgate [from Late Of The Pier] – what was it about the collaboration with Sam that worked so well?
CM: Sam was the only other person I've written with, and it feels like working with a double in a way. We are completely on the same wavelength. He does stuff and it pushes me. It feels like a competition and that's nice.
Can you tell me about your album with him, or is it a trade secret?
CM: It's not a secret – I'm just bad at describing stuff. It doesn't sound like Late Of The Pier but you can hear elements of it, and it doesn't sound like either of my records but you will also hear bits. It's a record I am really proud of and we should have released it a long time ago. It's coming out on Domino this year.
I'm intrigued by a quote I saw attributed to you that suggested you don't see your music career as necessarily being long term, and could stop making new music at any point. Is that really the case?
CM: Yes. I will only continue if I am excited by something and it's something I want to do, as opposed to just being a musician who makes records and then tours. I would stop even if it means that I would be broke, but I'm used to being broke anyway. It's a good thing that my 'career' has been a gradual thing, from having absolutely nothing and sleeping in parks. I'd hate to have sudden success and gotten used to a certain lifestyle.
You recently toured with Radiohead. What was it like to get a glimpse into the world of such a hugely successful band?
CM: I actually had really mixed feelings. I was watching them each night and I didn't think I would want that, just seeing how huge it all was. You'd miss the closeness with the audience. Once it gets to stadium size, it is mental and quite scary. I think anyone would find it weird.
Finally, and most importantly, I read that you used to make rollercoaster rides when you were a child. Is this really true or has the story become embellished over the years?
CM: It's true. It became an obsession. At school I was always drawing designs and stuff. We lived with farms and vineyards around us, so there was a lot of steel scrap yards, which would have huge pipes and stuff. We were friends with the farmers so we could take whatever we wanted. I got a welder as a gift when I was quite young, and I was obsessed with carnival rides, especially the ones that folded up onto trains. I still am. I'd love to get the chance to take the time out to build some more.
Could people actually ride on your creations?
CM: People could ride on some of them. It's not as hard as you might think to make a simple rollercoaster. Ultimately, I'd really like to combine an amusement ride with my music.
The album Caramel is out now.
Connan Mockasin plays the following UK dates this week:
22nd - Glasgow, King Tuts
23rd - Birmingham, Hare and Hounds
24th - Manchester, Soup Kitchen
25th - Brighton, The Haunt
28th - London, Shepherds Bush Empire