Wellington-born singer Connan Mockasin (Connan Hosford) has achieved a remarkable level of success in the UK and Europe, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it given the paucity of media coverage back home. During a brief gap between appearances at at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris and Le Guess Who festival in the Netherlands he spoke to Gareth Shute, their conversation covering Connan’s far-from-overnight success and why his new record ‘Caramel’ moves his music away from psychedelia toward a tripped out RnB.
In describing Connan Mockasin’s success overseas, it’s hard to avoid dropping names of some of the major acts he’s worked with over the last few years. He has sung with Norman Cook (Fat Boy Slim) for his Brighton Port Authority album and remixed a track for The Horrors for their latest box-set release, as well as writing and recording a song for Charlotte Gainsbourg. Connan seems very relaxed about working with such high profile acts, even when it comes to supporting Radiohead throughout Australasia, which he did in 2012.
“It was really fun, they’re easy to get along with. I tend to not do support slots these days, but I couldn’t really say no to Radiohead. When you’re doing supports, you feel like everyone’s thinking, ‘Come on, get on with it.’ But their audience doesn’t seem too much like that. They’ve got a good, listening audience.
The other reason Connan doesn’t do support slots, of course, is that he no longer needs to. Having first settled in London in 2006, his career in the UK and Europe has now progressed to the stage where he can do months of playing in front of packed houses and return with a tidy profit. In fact, his French manager, Sofia Karchi, finds it shocking that one place his success hasn’t reached is his own home country.
“There’s a reason why Connan is playing support for Radiohead and being asked to work with Charlotte Gainsbourg,” she says ferventlly. “It’s because of seven years of hard work. He’s playing venues with a capacity of 2000 people throughout the UK and Europe, that doesn’t just happen by accident. When we go down to NZ, I look in the newspaper or magazines and they are writing about these bands that no one in Europe has ever heard of. It is bands like Connan and UMO that are really well known here, but when we go back to NZ, he just plays these small bars. It is very strange to me.”
Part of the disconnect is the peculiar workings of our small music industry. To achieve local airplay, it’s far easier if you sound like an established band from overseas. However, if you take this redundant sound over to the UK or the US, then nobody is very interested because there are already a million similar bands. The only way to get noticed is to create something special and unusual, which is exactly what Connan Mockasin does – combining surreal lyrics and psychedelic freak jams with catchy vocal hooks and some taut, bluesy guitar playing. His debut album had a slow-burning form of success, rather than relying on any particular big break. There was no YouTube hit or burst of viral momentum, just a slow accumulation of fans, show by show.
That can be a bit like a slow death and Connan admits at one point he considered giving up on music all together.
“When I first came to London and began getting some interest from labels I found they were all telling me, ‘If we sign you, this is the way you’ll have to do things. You’re going to have to make an album in this studio with this producer.’ So that’s why I came home in 2008 – thinking that I may as well do something else if that’s the way it was. Then mum started telling me that I should make an album anyway.
“Finally, I gave in to her and recorded it, though I didn’t really expect it to get heard. Originally it got picked up by the DJ and producer, Erol Alkan, who had just started his own label and the other labels followed.”
Connan originally called his album, ‘Please Turn Me Into A Snat’ when he released it in 2010. The cover art was rejected by some territories (his face painted brown struck some tender souls as racist), so he decided to re-release the album as ‘Forever Dolphin Love’ with one of his own paintings as the artwork. He toured relentlessly to promote the album and filled every spare moment with different musical projects.
He recorded and toured with Lawrence Arabia (playing bass on his 2011 album ‘The Sparrow’), then began working with actress-turned-singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. The latter association started with him being asked to write a track (Out Of Touch) for her album ‘Stage Whisper,’ as Connan recalls.
“She heard my record and someone got in touch with me for her and asked if I could write a song. So I got some of her music and had a listen, mostly to hear her voice really. I’d never met her and didn’t know what it would be like, so I was completely in the dark about it. I was back home in Te Awanga for a month and wrote it there. When I came back to Europe I went across to Paris for a couple of days and recorded it with her. We got on really well. She was funny and good to hang out with. Then we ended up touring with her, with my band as her backing band.”
Fortunately Connan has a solid group of musicians around him, which means he could slip into the role of backing band without much difficulty. His key ally is drummer, Matt Eccles, whose career started with Betchadupa. These days Eccles is the drummer for Das Pop, one of the most successful indie bands in Belgium. Another worthy collaborator is Sam Eastgate (aka Sam Dust), formerly the lead singer of popular UK dance-punk group, Late of the Pier. He is a great creative foil for Connan, though he did cause some headaches prior to the Radiohead shows – he failed to turn up for the band’s flight to Australia and had to be replaced at the last minute by former Phoenix Foundation-er Will Ricketts.
Alongside these stalwarts, Connan also has a couple of adaptable younger musicians, Nick Harsent on bass and Rory McCarthy who plays guitar and keys. Connan’s manager, Sofia has also been known to join the band onstage to fill out any gaps in the band’s sound.
With this line-up it’s not surprising that Connan had initially planned to record his new album with the band.
“I really wanted to get everyone together for it, but everyone was so spread around. With a band, you get more of a sense of whether the songs will work live or not. It was something I was really aiming for with this record. With ‘Forever Dolphin Love’ I didn’t really expect it to be heard by anyone, so I was just playing around. This one I knew I was going to be playing live and was conscious of that. I also wanted some lyrics that wouldn’t be too hard to remember, since I’m not always so good at remembering lyrics!
At the end of 2012, Connan’s progress was interrupted when his father fell ill. Shows had to be cancelled and he returned to NZ. Once the crisis passed he tried to re-group, setting himself the challenge of releasing an album before the end of this year. At this point, he says, he only had one notion in his head.
“I liked the name ‘Caramel’ and I wanted to make an album which would suit that name. It would be a little bit flirty and be as slick as I could make it with the equipment I had… A lot of it is DI’d. I had a bass guitar and electric guitar, then just made the drums quiet with a duvet. It’s lucky everyone’s really polite in Japan and even if they were upset with the noise, they probably wouldn’t have said!”
To inspire the songwriting process he decided to book out a hotel room in Tokyo for a month and begin recording whatever ideas came. He eventually set up a drum kit in his room and Matt Eccles flew over to record with him. Will Rickett also appears on the album.
Recording in a hotel room obviously necessitated a stripped down approach. The resulting album sound has a liquid feel to it – the heavily-chorused guitar rings out over warped layers of reverb, phaser and flanger. Another peculiarity of Connan’s approach is that he often applies to the same effect to every instrument that he’s recording in order to get a consistency.
“I just like the sound of it. If I put one instrument through a certain set-up, then I like to do that with all the instruments. It gives the overall sound a certain feel and makes it sit comfortably. So the vocals, the drums and everything else goes through the same equipment. If I’m using a mic, then I try to use the same mic for every instrument. Though, for this I tried to DI as much as possible.’
Rather than sounding like a bizarre sound experiment, this hotel room set-up actually gives the album something of the smooth feel of ’80s R’n’B, reminiscent of some of Prince’s slower early tracks. Connan’s voice even breaks from his usual falsetto to dip down to lower depths on Do I Make You Feel Shy?, leading some commentators to ask if he pitch-shifted it electronically. He swears this isn’t the case.
At the same time, there is a hallucinatory quality to some sections of the album, which Connan puts down to the album being separated in his head into a Side A and a Side B.
“The part where it starts going more silent, that’s more for the record change and the second half and the change in feel. I made it as a record, not necessarily just song-after-song put in order. I like records and I feel that if you’re going to call it a record then you may as well make an effort to make it like a record.
The album comes to an end with the laughing and chanting of a set of Japanese girls, who are also shown in some of the promo shots accompanying the release. It was all just part of the atmosphere of the recording for Connan, so he quickly jumped to capture the moment.
“My friend Hedgehog lives in Tokyo and I met them through her. They were playing around in the room, so I just hit ‘record’.”
Early signs are that ‘Caramel’ will further extend Connan’s European reputation with Uncut magazine in UK giving it 4.5 stars and calling him, ‘An unusual taste that’s well worth acquiring’. The Guardian (4 stars), said the album is ‘… such a surreal mix of pixie enchantment and pimped-out creepiness that it’s impossible not to be seduced’.
Prior to our interview, Connan had just returned from a week on a French island with Charlotte Gainsbourg, writing a new set of songs for her next album and he’s also collaborated with bandmate Eastgate on a project called Soft Hair. The pair are releasing an album in early 2014.
Whether many back in NZ will notice that Connan is achieving all of this or not remains to be seen, though his career will no doubt continue its ascent either way. Still, it would be nice to think that the ripples will reach these shores and he’ll finally move from being quietly famous to being acknowledged as another true overseas success story.