It’s a swamp-hot summer day when I connect with Connan Mockasin via a particularly scratchy trans-regional phone line, but even absent in his physical form there’s an unmistakable peace to the oft-labelled ethereal multi-disciplinary artist’s mien. It probably shouldn’t be surprising—as someone whose craft seems to be in constant states of mutation, maybe his most consistent creative tendency is towards a sort of radical patience—but it feels worth noting just how tangibly calming his presence feels in the damp ambient chaos of an Auckland summer.
By even the strictest standard, Connan had a busy 2018. The year saw him release both an album and a companion film (Jassbusters and Bostyn ‘n Dobsyn, respectively), and embark on a US and European theatre tour of both, each show comprising a screening of the film, a set performed as the pseudonymous band behind the eponymous Jassbusters record, and finally a set performed as Connan Mockasin. On top of that, he and partner Hiromi relocated to Japan, and, together, welcomed their first child. Enjoying some well-earned down time before embarking on the Southern Hemisphere dates of Jassbusters presents: Bostyn ‘n Dobsyn, he shared with me a half-hour of that enormously valuable time for a wide-ranging chat, covering everything from parenthood and clairvoyance to the artistic and personal benefits of trying new things.
VICE: So you’re in the Hawke's Bay at the moment?
Connan Mockasin: I am, yeah.
And you’ve just come off the US and European tour for Jassbusters, right? How has it felt so far?
Oh, it’s been our most favourite tour by far. It’s been really… it’s given us those nerves and excitement again, and it’s just been its own thing completely for an evening.
Is that something you were looking to find by touring with such a different performance format?
Yeah. You know, every year I go to Marfa, Texas and do a residency of sorts, and I did a test of it there two years ago. I just made a preview of Bostyn ‘n Dobsyn and played that, then we came on as Jassbusters after the screen came up and everything. And it felt like… I started getting shaky, I had these excited, nervous feels that I hadn’t had in a long time. So I thought it was the right thing to do, because it had bored me, the whole format of putting a record out and touring it. Most agents would just book you at the same venues that are easiest for them so that they can make easy money without really doing anything. So I just cut all of that, and I thought that this was the right thing to do.
And this is the first time you’ve made the record with your touring band rather than just recording everything yourself, right?
That’s right, yes.
Did you find that that changed your process as well? Like the way that you wrote the songs, or arranged the songs?
Yeah it did, but I also left room for us to make things up together as a band; I wanted to hear how they interpreted some ideas that I had as well. I actually wanted to do the last record (Caramel) as a band recording; that was when I started getting interested in wanting to record live with my touring band. So it sort of made sense to ask if they wanted to be Jassbusters, and they all said yes, so that felt like the right thing to do.
Is this the first Connan Mockasin project where your writing process has been collaborative?
We had done some making up music together live, but I wanted it to be a separate-sounding record that I wouldn’t have made myself. It’s not really a Connan Mockasin record in a way, it’s more a Jassbusters record. But I mean, I am there.
You’ve been making music as Connan Mockasin or Connan and the Mockasins since high school, but you’ve pretty consistently shifted the way you operate within that form; there’s always been mutations, I guess, in the sound and the way it’s been recorded, but is this a format that you think you’ll come back to?
Yeah, I wouldn’t mind making another Jassbusters record straight away, because it was quick and easy.
So it just went so well the first time that now you want to do it again?
Yeah, it was really fast and effortless. We actually made a record with my father Ade in Marfa, Texas last year, and we also had John Carroll Kirby playing with us as well, and that was even more effortless – we put it all together and mixed it while we were there, so the whole thing was done in a matter of days. So, it’s getting faster. That was a fully improvised album. That’ll be coming out this year – we’re going to release that.
Was that – making a record with your dad – something you’ve wanted to do for a while?Yeah it was. My dad had a sudden cardiac arrest just before I was about to go on tour with Radiohead, some years ago now, and he was really lucky to survive that. And then I was in the South of France, and I saw a clairvoyant there just after. I’d been wanting to make a record with my dad and she said, “There’s a project that you want to do with your dad, and he’s just had a massive health scare. You need to make it your priority, otherwise you might regret it for the rest of your life.”
With the Jassbusters record, I know that all of the lyrics were improvised, but did you have lyrical themes or a narrative in mind?
No, not so much, just made it up on the spot because everything was recorded live. It was the first time I’ve recorded in a professional studio, but that studio was the one in Paris (Studio Ferber) – a friend of mine, Renaud Letang, who Charlotte Gainsbourg introduced me to, and we did some recordings with him in there that were never released. But I loved him and his engineer Thomas Moulin, and I loved the atmosphere in there. So I thought if I ever did a studio recording, which I swore I wouldn’t, it would have to be in that one.
What was the reason behind not wanting to do a studio recording? Was it a control thing?Too many buttons, and too intimidating. It just stiffens me up, I don’t feel comfortable. But in this case I wasn’t pushing any buttons, I was just playing live so I could leave that to… not me to think about.
The other thing I’d read is that you didn’t use any overdubs?
Yes. Oh hang on, actually, there was one overdub: James Blake.
That was actually what I was going to ask, because I’d read that everything was totally live, but obviously he’s on the album. How did that come about?
I was back in Los Angeles, and he had asked me to come into a studio to do some recordings with him. I came in and he had his head on the desk, and he wasn’t feeling it. He said, “Can you play me anything from your time in Paris?” and ‘Momo’s’ was the first track I put on, and he really loved it and got really excited, then he asked for a microphone and just started singing on top of it. And it was really beautiful. I couldn’t not use it, even if it didn’t fit the concept. But he’s very much like a high-school principal anyway.
So that’s his character in the piece?
Yeah. But it was just beautiful, it was so nice that I thought it’d be a shame not to – originally I had that as having no vocals on it. Although I did have a different idea for that track and it sounded a lot different; I was thinking Andre Benjamin, Andre 3000 on that, with a different melody. And then they ended up becoming friends and working together anyway, so that was close.
Does the set stay quite tight when you play as Jassbusters?
I mean we don’t play the record in order, but it’s most of the songs; we’ve had James join us to play ‘Momo’s’, and we play most of the music, but it’s not too long, we keep it short. But the format’s been really fun, I’m glad we’re doing it… we’re just a very traditional band, as Jassbusters.
With the way these shows are structured, has it changed the way you approach that Connan set?
You know the first thing we noticed about it was going on – so Jassbusters, they’re a support band, and we felt like a support band, we felt really nervous. That was really fun having that really confusing feeling, knowing that we’re all the same people going on to do the next set. And there’s an air of relaxedness when you have an intermission and have already been on the stage, and it’s been really comfortable, really enjoyable. They’re probably the most fluid concerts we’ve done. I guess “greased-up” is the word. We tend to relax a bit.
Connan Mockasin brings his Bostyn 'n' Dobsyn + Jassbusters tour to New Zealand this March playing Meow in Wellington on March 23 and Crystal Palace in Auckland on March 29. Tickets available from Ticketmaster