Sunday, 11 December 2011

Connan Mockasin

Written for Kicking Against The Pricks.

You wouldn’t expect one of the year’s most exciting, forward-thinking and rewarding albums to have been made because the artist’s mum told them to make it. But that’s how Forever Dolphin Love, the debut long-player from New Zealander Connan Hosford, aka Connan Mockasin, came to exist.

Recorded at his Mother’s request in their tall, wooden beach house in Te Awanga, the album is a sprawling yet cohesive exercise in gentle but disconcerting psychedelia, with an irresistible spirit of weirdness running all the way through it. Doing away with traditional song structures, the album feels like an extended jam between bandmates, with exceptional nuggets of pop and blues rock appearing intermittingly.

Most distinctive are Connan’s vocals, which have an appealing brittleness to them; his Kiwi accent distorted to the point of eccentricity, a creepy style accentuated by his magical, otherworldly lyrical themes. Songs about unicorns, rat-snakes and other such jibberish highlight his childlike imagination which, coupled with his obvious musical talent, gives his debut a unique voice.

Talking over the phone, Connan’s voice suggests a childlike innocence, and he seems slightly uncomfortable with the whole interview process. He avoids talking about his music in terms of genre. This, I suspect, doesn’t stem from a diva-like refusal to talk about his art (in conversation he’s actually exceedingly polite), but more from the fact that talking about his strange music in a conventional way does it an injustice - unfairly bringing it down to the boring constraints of reality.

It’s hard to think of a word that sums him up. Calling his music ‘psychedelic’ seems clichéd, conjuring unwanted images of tie-dye t-shirts and tacky hallucinogenic visuals to mind. And comparisons to jazz, in reference to the breezy looseness that his compositions float around in, don’t fit for Connan - “one of the main things I’ve read about myself in the press is that I went to jazz school, which I didn’t.”

Nevertheless, it’s a credit to Connan that he remains so difficult to categorise. When major labels started showing interest in his previous project, blues-pop outfit Connan & The Mockasins, but tried to impose their own influence on the group, Connan was having none of it.

“I was very close to giving up at that point. Having no money and nowhere to live in London and sleeping in the park… and then getting label interest, which turned out to be a lot of rubbish. They wanted us to work with specific producers and were picking the songs to go on the album, which was a crap way of doing things,” he says pointedly.

“So I got quite stressed about it all, and was like, no, I’d rather work at a fish and chip shop. So that’s when I went home and my mum told me to make my own record.”

And how about New Zealand itself, how did that shape the album? “Well, first of all, not having to worry about what the labels wanted meant that making the album was easy and really good fun.”

“And being from a very relaxed little beach village really influenced it too. But I don’t play my music when I’m in New Zealand as such, because they don’t appreciate stuff there until it’s been proven overseas, unless it’s bad dub/reggae. They’re pretty narrow-minded over there.”

Releasing his music on Erol Alkan’s eclectic Phantasy label and returning to live in London, 2011 has also seen Connan tour Europe as well as complete various high-profile support slots. On stage, Connan again is a bit of a man-boy, shy but playful and revelling in the audience’s attention.

When I saw him as a support act for Warpaint, he giddily came on and off stage after his set time was up to play more songs, attracting pockets of dischord from some people in the audience who were perplexed as to why this Andy Warhol lookalike wouldn’t piss off. But the majority enjoyed seeing a genuinely interesting support act, one that clearly got off on the thrill of performing.

I ask him if he’s always been like that? “I’ve always loved and hated performing. I don’t always enjoy it, and sometimes when you’re not in the mood and it doesn’t go well, you just want to be in bed on your own. But that’s part of it - most of the time I really enjoy it.”

Connan’s overall aesthetic is pretty distinct too, as anyone who’s seen a few of his music videos, full of anthropomorphic dolphins and face-painted, cardboard-box-headed figures, would confirm. Is there any direct influence behind all these creations? “I don’t really get inspired by other stuff, as such. Things come to me when I’m just wandering around.” Are you a spiritual person? “I guess so. There’s definitely some weird stuff out there that we can’t explain - we don’t know everything. I’m open to lots of things.”

In an interview on BBC 6 Music last month, Connan told his interviewer, to their great shock, that he’d not heard much Syd Barrett or Pink Floyd. But he says he doesn’t feel any pressure to surround himself in the vast swaths of pop music’s heritage. “I’m really lazy at collecting music,” he states.

“Now, everyone copies each other just to sound popular, and I think that’s pretty boring. It brings the quality of the music down, and makes it less interesting. I don’t see it as me being in this strange world, I just see it as other people copying too much. They’ve lowered the game.”

Meanwhile, Connan is at the top of his. Forever Dolphin Love has seen various high-profile endorsements from the likes of Radiohead, Johnny Marr, and Guy Garvey of Elbow. Connan’s collaborated with Charlotte Gainsbourg on her next album, Stage Whisper (out 7th November on Because Music), and is set to release new material with Late of the Pier frontman Sam Eastgate next year.

How about his future as a solo artist? “I think the next [Connan Mockasin] record is going to be a lot better than the last one. It’s going to be quite a lot different. I’m just playing round with stuff to try to keep things interesting.”

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