What the unique New Zealand musician learnt when making his new album, 'Caramel'.
I’m sat with Connan Mockasin in a room at the top floor of the King’s Head, a member’s club in Dalston. It’s a very peculiar space. Every spare inch of the room seems to house some sort of exotic taxidermy – zebra heads, polar bears, elephant’s feet, tigers, lions, leopards. Connan was here recently for a photo shoot with Loud and Quiet magazine, but tonight he’s going to be playing a very intimate show in the venue’s 50-capacity basement. The bulk of the show’s material will be made up of songs from his extraordinary, captivating second album, ‘Caramel’, released through Phantasy Sound last week (November 4th). It’s the first time he’s played such a large amount of new material live, and he’s a little nervous as to how well it’ll work out.
‘Caramel’ was recorded within a few weeks in a hotel room in Tokyo earlier this year. Tokyo’s not the only place that Connan’s been recently – the past 12 months or so have taken him to Manchester (he’s currently living in Whalley Range, having moved there from London earlier in the year), France (where he recorded with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and played onstage with Beck), and New York (where he played his first US show as part of Mexican Summer’s fifth anniversary showcase). He also returned to his native New Zealand for an extended stay, albeit for more solemn reason – his father suffered a heart attack.
Couple the story behind ‘Caramel’ with his otherworldly music and it’s easy to paint a portrait of Connan as an eccentric, free-spirited nomad. In person, he’s far more grounded, an incredibly polite and gently spoken man that lives in the same world as the rest of us. He’s quiet, but this isn’t methodical mystique or deliberate image-making – more than anything, he seems genuinely shy, somebody that finds it difficult to express his thoughts with strangers. He often leaves long gaps in his sentences as he considers his next word, but there’s a warmth to everything he says, and a sincere interest in what others are saying to him.
Here, Connan talks about what he’s learned about himself – personally, musically, technically, professionally, and spiritually – from recording ‘Caramel’.
You’ve moved around a lot recently. London, Paris, Tokyo, Whalley Range, going back to New Zealand… Have you had a chance to take time off?
Connan Mockasin: “I had a bit of time off in New Zealand, actually. I don’t know if it was the most relaxing time – my dad was really unwell. He nearly died. So he was in hospital for a couple of months. That was my longest time in one place, [and] the longest I’ve been back for seven or eight years, since the first time I left.
"Every time I go back to New Zealand it takes a good week or two to get used to the slowness. Once I’m used to it, it’s lovely, really lovely. Very relaxing. I’m from a quiet part of the country, so you definitely feel isolated from everything, which is really nice. But then, the same thing happens when I come back to these big cities – it takes me a little bit of time to get used to the pace again.”
Was there a major motivation in moving from London to Manchester?
Connan Mockasin: “No, no, it was just that my manager moved up there and had a room for me. It’s nice and quiet. We’re not there that often, so when I am there we usually just stay inside. We’re all friends, we just relax and do cooking and normal stuff. We’ve been out twice for karaoke.”
"I struggle, relationship-wise, and I analyse things too much; I can’t just let it happen. That’s one part of my life I wish I could change. But for [the album], I feel really comfortable letting it happen.” - Connan Mockasin
What do you feel you’ve learnt about yourself between the two records?
Connan Mockasin: “With the first record, I had no idea that it’d ever be released by a label or ever heard by anyone. I never thought I’d have to play it live. It was really difficult to work it out, to be honest – to figure out how to play it live was quite a challenge. And I was aware that the second one would be released, and that I would be touring it. So I wanted it to be more simple to play. I was doing it mostly on my own. I wanted to make it with the band, but they were spread everywhere. That’s the easiest way to know that it’d work live, but I didn’t have that luxury. So that was in my head, to make something simple, but once I got started, it just… [shrugs] It’s gonna be another tricky one to work out live, but I’m excited by the challenge of it. So I thought I’d grown – but it hasn’t ended up that way.”
How do you feel you’ve adjusted to the difference of making a record that you thought nobody would hear, to making a record that you knew a lot of people would hear?
Connan Mockasin: “It feels that it’s happened naturally. I just let it happen, I really don’t think about it. I struggle, relationship-wise, and I analyse things too much – I struggle with that more; I can’t just let it happen. That’s one part of my life I wish I could change. But for this [the music], I feel really comfortable letting it happen.”
Did you feel pressure between records?
Connan Mockasin: “Not really. I’ve had a lot of negative feedback [in the past]. I’ve had a lot of people say how bad I’ve been. Some people will say really nasty stuff. Of course, I’ve had the opposite as well. So I don’t mind if people don’t like it, I’m just enjoying it. I feel comfortable with that.”
Do you feel more confident about being able to express yourself?
Connan Mockasin: “Yeah, I think so. I think I’m getting more and more comfortable and confident, and that feels good. Some nights I feel really uncomfortable – I just don’t feel like being around people, and I’ve got to do a show and I’m really nervous and just want to be on my own. So not every night I feel like being in front of people. You have your ups and downs. I think the only regret is that I need to look after my body a bit more. I don’t think I can keep up.”
"A lot of the industry is businessmen making money off people that want to be famous. Everything’s refined, and so processed, so self-conscious. There’s no mystery, which is the part I like – when it feels like it’s coming from somewhere else." - Connan Mockasin
Is that for the frequency you’re moving and travelling?
Connan Mockasin: “Um, no… More the alcohol, because I get so nervous. My mum said it to me earlier on this year. ‘You should be careful.’”
Are you using it to overcome stage fright?
Connan Mockasin: “Yeah, and just talking to strangers in general. If you’re doing stuff every night, and not getting much sleep, and drinking, touring is not a healthy lifestyle. I think that’s one thing that I’m trying to improve.”
When you first came to the UK you had quite a lot of trouble with the music industry itself, with people trying to dictate what to do.
Connan Mockasin: “Oh, yeah, I couldn’t stand it. That was the side I saw, I’m sure it wasn’t all like that. I understand why people wouldn’t trust me – you’ve got no background. I understand where they’re coming from. But a lot of the industry is businessmen making money off people that want to be famous, and it’s been dumbing down music for a while. Everything’s refined, and refined, and refined. So processed, so self-conscious. There’s no mystery, which is the part I like – when it feels like it’s coming from somewhere else. That’s the most attractive [thing] for me, and I think a lot of other people as well. I feel we’ve been through the worst. There’s not as much money now, which is great, in a way, because it means a lot of people are doing it for the right reasons.”
I’ve seen you a lot over the years and you’ve always had a different band…
Connan Mockasin: “Yeah, it was [a different line-up] every night for a long time. It was really hard. Some nights were quite fun, but always rough.”
"I find it hard to explain to people what’s going on in my head, which stresses me out." - Connan Mockasin
Have you settled into a regular band now?
Connan Mockasin: “Yeah, I have. I have a really nice group of people, a whole team. I know everyone involved really well and I love the people. I enjoy playing with them.”
Does having a more regular band help the way that you’re writing?
Connan Mockasin: “Like I said, I wanted to do this record with the band, and that would’ve changed things quite a lot. The plan was to write some stuff, loosely, and see how they interpret it. Maybe if I make another record we’ll do that. There’s pros and cons to working with a band. Sometimes I find it hard to explain what I want, and when I’m on my own, I don’t have to. I’m not the best communicator with people, I don’t think – sometimes I feel like I’m wasting people’s time; I change my mind a lot as well. I find it hard to explain to people what’s going on in my head, which stresses me out. And I know they’re not like that at all, they’re the most patient people, which I have to keep reminding myself. But I really want to do something with the band. I look up to all of them a lot.”
You said you had a basic recording set-up for the album.
Connan Mockasin: “Yeah, just an echo tape machine. Sometimes I work with Cool Edit Pro – it’s a program for Windows which I got from high school. [It was] mostly D.I.’d [direct input] because of noise restrictions in the hotel.”
"I like having restrictions. I go into a recording studio and I’m like, it's too many options. It makes me a bit anxious." - Connan Mockasin
What were the logistics of recording in a hotel?
Connan Mockasin: “With the last record, ‘Forever Dolphin Love’, I made the whole thing with an SM57 [microphone], and this one I made all D.I.’d – except I bought a new mic, an SM7, so it’s a little better. I wanted it to be as slick as possible, but it’s not that slick. It’s slick-er. I like that, though. I like having restrictions. I go into a recording studio and I’m like… It’s too many options. It makes me a bit anxious.
Would you ever want to go into a recording studio?
Connan Mockasin: “It doesn’t really excite me, to be honest. I like going into places that have a nice feeling, to go to a room that gets me excited. With recording studios, so many people have been in and out. It doesn’t feel special. I mean, it’s easy – it’s all set up, and you’ve got someone to record you.
"There’s one recording studio I felt good in, but I haven’t recorded anything there. It’s in Paris. I don’t even know the name of it [Studio Ferber – research ed], but it’s a beautiful studio. Actually, I was recently in New York, at Mexican Summer’s office [Mexican Summer are releasing ‘Caramel’ in North America], and they’ve got a nice studio there. It’s in the basement of their office.”
And you said this was a faster recording process. Was that because you were only staying in the hotel for a little bit, an imposed deadline?
Connan Mockasin: “A little bit of that. But I also wanted to release a record this year, and I like doing things at a reasonably fast pace. I hear tunes in my head all the time, but I never get around to putting them down. I need to be excited, and Japan excites me. I have worked out that I write better when I’m excited – or if I’m really down, but I don’t get down that often. Extreme emotions is when I come up with more ideas; I’m sure it’s the same with most people.”
Phantasy Sound/Mexican Summer released 'Caramel' on the November 4th 2013.